Children's best interest must be at the centre of decision making - not Ministerial opinion

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Last week the Children’s Minister in England wrote to all English local authorities asking them to prioritise adoption as the best long-term option for looked after children. This blog from our chief executive, Kevin Williams, explains why we came out so firmly against the letter.

The request from the Children's Minister to local authorities had the effect of galvanising a significant part of the children’s care sector - in the words of one sector website the call was ‘lambasted by sector heads.’ These sector heads included the Local Government Association, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, Children England, social work professors and me on behalf of The Fostering Network.

Here’s an extract from a letter I sent to the Guardian the following day:

For the majority of children in care, foster care remains an excellent option to provide them with a sense of belonging and to maintain the important relationships they have with their birth family. While adoption may be the best route to stability for a small number of children, the majority of children in care do not need adopting and all forms of permanence should be properly supported and considered for each child. The Government’s continued view of adoption as the gold standard in a pre-ordained hierarchy of care, and their assertion that children in care are "waiting for a permanent, loving home" is offensive to the 55,000 foster families across the UK and stigmatising of the tens of thousands of children and young people living with those families, not to mention children living with their wider family. 

The numbers tell a story

To be clear, as an organisation - and myself as an individual - we are not anti-adoption. Indeed, we believe that adoption can be, and is, the best long-term option for some children. What has caused me – and others in the sector – such concern is the call to prioritise adoption over other long-term permanence options without taking into account the needs and circumstances of individual children. In this blog I want to expand a little on why we believe that this prioritisation is not appropriate. Let’s start with the numbers:

In England about 32,000 children come into care every year. Of these, almost half are over the age of 10 and only a third are under five. Three-quarters of children in care live with foster families. Of the 3,570 children who were adopted during 2018/19 only one per cent was aged 10 or over and 81 per cent were under five. In other words, for the vast majority of children coming into care adoption is extremely unlikely because of their age. It is not, however, just a case of encouraging more people to come forward to adopt older children – the reality is that most children in care do not need, or do not want, to be adopted. Adoption can offer the security and assurance of not being moved that many children (and carers) want, but the long-term fostering reforms in England can achieve that as well. However, as long as the ‘adoption is best’ message persists, other forms of permanence don’t really stand a chance. Strengthening all forms of permanence so that children can experience a stable, loving family whatever the legal order is key.

The importance of maintaining relationships

Very importantly, for the majority of children coming into care it is likely that adoption is not the most suitable permanence option because of the way that adoption brings down a guillotine on the legal relationship between adopted children and their birth families. Most children in care have meaningful family relationships that do not need to be severed – indeed, to do so can have a significant impact on the wellbeing of these children (not to mention their birth families) and have a long-term impact on adoptive families and the success of adoptions. Other permanence options such as long-term foster care, special guardianship or kinship care can bring the stability and security that children need without the breaking of the important relationships they already have. As chief executive of a fostering charity, I know that one of the things that makes foster care unique and successful is that foster carers are supported to help maintain children’s significant relationships with their birth family and others. This can be difficult at times, it can be costly emotionally, but it is such an essential part of children’s identity and is something to be protected and encouraged.

As most of those who have expressed their dismay at the Government's letter have pointed out, the absolute non-negotiable about which long-term option for permanence is best for a child ought to be what is in the best interest of that child. And that decision should take into account a range of factors about each child and it must listen to the wishes of the children themselves. It should also allow for the professional, expert views of social workers, family courts, foster carers and others. What it does not need is a pre-conceived hierarchy of care imposed on their decision making from a distance.

Peculiar timing

It is difficult to know what lies behind the Government's view that adoption is the gold standard of care, especially when three quarters of children in care are currently living with foster carers. It could be ideological - a view of what 'family' is; it could be financial - adoption certainly costs the state less money than fostering. Either way, it is undermining and offensive to other forms of permanence and it was a strange decision by the Minister to choose to write to local authorities about this issue now. In my letter to the Guardian I wrote: 

It is particularly disappointing that this letter should be sent to local authorities at this time when the Government has committed to commissioning a review of the care system in England. 

The Fostering Network is one of the signatories of a recent letter to the Department for Education calling for the promised care review to be genuinely independent and non-partisan. It is hard to see how that can be the case after such a letter. I would urge the Government not to pre-empt the findings of the review and instead to ensure that children’s needs really are at the centre of decision making about their care.  

If anything is going to be prioritised it should be meeting the needs of each individual child, deciding on a case by case basis what is the best way to give them long-term stability, taking into account their particular needs, their relationship with their birth family and a whole range of other factors. A prioritisation of adoption – whether driven by ideology or finances – does not allow for this child-centred decision making to take place.