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Written Statement - The Establishment of a National Adoption Service – ‘case for change’

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Gwenda Thomas AM, Deputy Minister for Children and Social Services

In February 2011, Sustainable Social Services: A Framework for Action was published. This made clear that some services could be more effectively delivered nationally and we wanted to pioneer this approach in exploring with stakeholders the remit and functions of a National Adoption Service. I want local authorities to act sooner to find permanency for those children for whom a return home is not in their interests; to enhance promotion of adoptions and increase the pool of adopters; and to ensure good quality post adoption support is available for those who need it.

Last month the Children and Young People Committee published their recommendations following an in-depth inquiry into adoption in Wales, a report I have studied with great interest. Their recommendations called for radical action, a view I entirely agree with.

The Committee’s report supports my view for a major shift in the way adoption services are organised and delivered, re-invigorating the momentum and the aims of the 2002 Adoption Act and our strategies for placement choice and stability.

To achieve, this we need a step change in the way adoption services are delivered, through the establishment of a National Service, which has the power to deliver services across Wales. The Committee recognises and accepts that some services are best delivered  regionally. I support this statement, as the key to change is not the location of the service, but rather the delivery of a national framework for the recruitment, training and approval of prospective adopters. The focus of the National Adoption Service will be on promoting excellence and driving continued improvements.  

The key problem I am determined to address is delay in the adoption system and the impact that has on the welfare of children. I too, recognise that there has to be radical changes to service delivery. The findings from the Family Justice Review tell us that the current system does not always work in the child’s best interest. As of 31st March 2012, approximately 2,500 children have been in care for 3 years or more; during the year to 31st March 2012 there were 246 adoptions, representing 4.3% of the total looked after children population – which is a statistic that does not provide an encouraging picture.

Over the last 5 years, children aged 1-4 years made up the greatest proportion of adopted children. The number of children waiting 2-3 years before being adopted has risen by 62% (from 65 in 2006 to 105 in 2012).

There have been some improvements, for example in 2012, the average time between entry into care and adoption is now 828 days (just over 2 years) compared to 905 days (2 years 3 months) in 2011.  But this still isn’t good enough; We recognise and are still concerned with delays in the adoption system and the potential lasting harm this can have on children, robbing them of their best chance of the love and stability of a new family.

For many looked after children, permanence is achieved through a successful return to their birth family, where it has been possible to address the factors which led to the child becoming looked after.  

We must all acknowledge that the care population is transient, with a third of children returning home within the first six months.  Where this is not possible, family and friends care will often provide an important alternative route to permanence for the child, particularly where this can be supported by a residence order or a special guardianship order.  Of the total looked after children population ( 5,726), some 1,406 children and young people are accommodated by their own family, relatives or friends, but are still regarded in law as ‘looked after children’.  These children and young people will be subject to the same systems as children cared for by foster carers or in residential care arrangements, even though they are accommodated by their own family, relatives or friends.

Over three quarters of looked after children are in foster placements, For some, this is a temporary arrangement, but for many children, particularly older children with a link to their birth parents, long term foster care is the best permanent care option. Special Guardianship was introduced in 2005 as a way of giving foster carers, a relative or a family friend, parental responsibility for a child without severing ties with their birth parents. Teenagers account for a high number of these children (37%), many of whom have higher needs, requiring specialist care. For these young people, a residential setting may be most suited as they are able to be cared for by professionals who have the skills and experiences to encourage them to reach their optimum potential.

For those children and young people for whom adoption has been identified as in their best interest, the current picture is not encouraging. There has been a reduction in the numbers of approved adopters in the last 2 years; with Adoption Agencies and the Adoption Register having identified the urgent need to recruit, assess and approve potential adopters - a process which can take between 6-8 months to complete. The lack of potential adopters obviously has a huge impact on the availability of suitable matches to meet the varied needs of children waiting to be adopted.  BAAF estimate that 1 in 4 children available for adoption will not be placed primarily, due to the lack of an adoptive parent resource.

Many prospective adopters are satisfied with the service they receive, but there are those who are not.  While some prospective adopters receive welcoming reassurance and support during their initial enquiries into becoming an adoptive parent, others find that adoption agencies respond slowly to initial enquiries. Evidence suggests that prospective adopters in different parts of the country find that they are rejected, or make slow progress in the assessment process because they do not meet the particular, immediate needs of the agency to which they have applied; demonstrating an overall lack of co-ordination of supply and demand.

This has to be addressed urgently, as does the evidence suggesting the matching process currently used by some agencies can be ineffectual. When looking at the barriers to matching, the primary problems identified by a number of sources result from the attitudes of the child’s social worker, who keep looking for the ‘ideal family’; lack of communication between the child’s social worker and the prospective adopters’ social worker has also resulted in social workers ‘blocking’ potential matches.

I have made clear that the new service will be delivered through a local government and voluntary sector that values and maximises the benefits through delivery of quality services and effective partnership working to maximise collective action.

My proposals for the National Adoption Service include the need for there to be a senior person appointed to head up the service, who has the autonomy to make decisions. This would include taking decisions on the delivery of the National Service’s functions, ensuring that opportunities for collaboration are maximised, whilst maintaining the necessary local links and knowledge, which are crucial aspects of adoption services. The new service will address current concerns, without losing the undeniable strengths of the existing system – achieving change without detriment. I expect this new system to work towards:  

  • eradicating children drifting in care;
  • eliminating waiting lists for training and assessment; 
  • improving the matching process;
  • allaying adoption breakdown by providing  comprehensive adoption support services;
  • streamlining the process and ensuring better linking and understanding between social workers; 
  • providing the widest choice of placements through the increased use of voluntary adoption agencies; and
  • most importantly ensuring consistent delivery across Wales.

I believe that a National Adoption Service will reap greater benefits; enabling the concentration of specialised skilled persons which will enhance the efficiency and quality of the assessment process; providing equity in the arrangements for adoption; and encouraging the pooling of prospective adopters; and more efficient and effective delivery through greater collaboration and co-operation across boundaries, to harness the specialist nature of the adoption service.

I am pleased to be able to inform Members that good progress is being made, with the Welsh Local Government Association and the Association of Directors of Social Services currently working jointly on the development of an operational model for a National Adoption Service.

New governance arrangements will be key to the successful delivery of the National Adoption Service, and these will need to be determined by local government with input from Welsh Government.  We will, therefore, discuss these proposals further, through a strategic group, with the expectation that agreement can be secured quickly.

I look forward to receiving an update on Local Government’s proposals in the new year and am expecting to be assured that they will achieve the step-change we have identified. As you know, it is my intention to direct local authorities to achieve this change, using new powers I am seeking in the Social Services and Well-Being (Wales) Bill that will enable Welsh Ministers to direct local authorities (adoption agencies) to come together to form a National Adoption Service.

I am pleased to be able to announce that it is also my intention that the law will be underpinned by a National Standardised Performance Framework that will allow the National Adoption Service management team to identify, review, and highlight key performance measures; such as how swiftly local authorities place children in need of adoption and how swiftly they deal with prospective adopters. The framework will set performance thresholds and make clear the Welsh Government’s minimum expectations for timeliness in the adoption system, for both the child and the prospective adopter. It will allow local authority adoption agencies and others to monitor their own performance and compare it with that of others.

The National Standardised Performance Framework will be supported by a Looked after Children Outcomes Framework, as part of my National Outcomes Framework for Social services. Together they will form a key tool in enabling the National Adoption Service to provide national leadership and an overview of adoption services, in driving continued improvements for children and families.

I refuse to accept that children can be left to drift in the care system and I expect to see an upward trend over the next few  years as the National Adoption Service drives up standards and performance. It isn’t going to be easy, and it will require the commitment of all those who have an influence or specific roles to play in our adoption services. We have excellence within areas of the adoption service; let’s build on those and radically reform the environment to achieve excellence across the whole of Wales.