Leading Article: Whenever possible, get children out of care

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ADOPTION HAS been given a bad name by the ideologues of the Christian right. Their message was that lone mothers, especially young, poor ones, should give up their babies for adoption rather than bring them up in the morally corrupting environment of a fatherless family. It was a harsh, impractical and morally wrong message and was quietly buried by compassionate Conservatives in the last Government. But the Tories produced no positive policy on adoption.

Jack Straw deserves praise for at least attempting to rethink policy from first principles, and the first principle in this case must be the interests of children. Once the debate is freed from the unhelpful stigmatising of lone parents, it can focus on the real problem with adoption, which is that there is not enough of it. This is not to say that children should be taken away from lone parents, but that they should be taken away from council care homes, which are generally by far the worst environment in which to bring up children.

It does not need a welter of statistics to prove that children in care tend to perform worst at school, are more likely to get involved in crime and are more likely to end up unemployed. The gap between the likely outcomes of a childhood spent in care and one spent in a family motivated enough to adopt is so enormous that the obstacles placed in the way of adopting are baffling.

So-called political correctness is part of the explanation, and it is disappointing that relaxing the restrictions on cross-racial adoption seems to have had so little effect in practice. Other excuses for ruling out adopters, on the grounds that they smoke, or are too old, too fat or too middle-class, are also supposed to have been swept away. But political correctness cuts both ways - there is no reason why gay couples should not adopt, for example. The real problem is the hostile and defensive culture of too many social services departments. They tend to regard adoption as a last resort, and use the aim of restoring children to their natural families as an excuse for inaction. Fostering is a useful middle way, but policy should be to move towards adoption rather than revert to institutional care.

If the Home Secretary concludes that he cannot change the culture of social services departments quickly enough, he would be justified in taking the business of adoption placement away from councils and giving it to non-profit agencies. The welfare of children is too important for institutional inertia to decide their fate.