Parents wanted: Why adoption agencies are going to greater lengths to find homes for children

An adoption agency's decision to advertise young siblings in newspaper ads went too far – but it reflects the crisis in finding families for vulnerable children, says Kate Hilpern

I can still remember, back in the 1980s, when I first saw a copy of the "family-finding "magazine, Be My Parent. Row upon row of children's faces stared out from the pages, with the list of their individual needs underneath each picture only making their quest for an adoptive family seem all the more tragic.

While the monthly magazine was (and still is) only available to people going through the adoption process, looking at it did not make for a comfortable feeling – and it seems to be a similar feeling that's been triggered on a wider scale by the decision of AdoptionPlus, the independent adoption agency, to place full-page advertisements in three newspapers in Cambridgeshire, using pictures of real siblings, aged four and three, who are looking for a new home.

There were three problems, as I saw it all those years ago. First, it felt like the children were literally being advertised (some say like an unwanted animal or second-hand sofa). Second, as an adopted person myself, I was concerned what it might feel like when you're grown up to know that you were put out "to market". And, third, what about the safeguarding of these children who probably come with a history of abuse or neglect?

I quickly came round to the idea of Be My Parent, however, when I sat on an adoption panel for 10 years and experienced what the "adoption crisis" really means. There are 4,000 children who are at risk of never having the kinds of families that most of us take for granted, and the consequences make for far more uncomfortable reading than Be My Parent, with studies that those brought up in care are educationally, socially and economically disadvantaged.

Almost one-third of children in care leave school with no GCSEs or vocational tests and only 13.2 per cent of children in care obtain five good GCSEs, compared with 57.9 per cent of all children. Only 6 per cent of care-leavers go to university, compared with 38 per cent of all young people, and 40 per cent of all young people in young offender institutions have been in care for more than two years before ending up in prison, while 25 per cent of the adult prison population have been in care as children.

No wonder Be My Parent was welcomed among those working in adoption. Hundreds of youngsters were adopted who might otherwise not have been. This wasn't just because of the wider, national, readership but because prospective adopters often saw something in the glint of a child's eye – a child that they might never have considered if they'd only read a written profile. Thirty-three years since its launch, Be My Parent isn't just a newspaper, but a website with photos and videos. Meanwhile, other creative ways of "family-finding" have taken off, including adoption activity days, whereby prospective parents get to meet children who are awaiting adoption in a party-like atmosphere.

To hell with what these children will think when they grew up, thought the social workers. It's better than the alternative of them turning round and saying, "Can you honestly say you did all you could to find me a family?" With an estimated 40 per cent of neglected or abused children who are formally approved for adoption never being placed with a permanent family and instead remaining in less secure foster care, that's potentially a lot of people asking the question.

Couple this with an ever diminishing number of people coming forward to adopt and you can see why social workers put a toe in the water by featuring children in the local press and, later, the national press. Now, profiling children in the media is nothing new. The British Association for Adoption and Fostering has been doing it for years in partnership with This Morning and The Sun as part of National Adoption Week, and there have been many successful adoptions as a result. Even if these particular children aren't adopted, it gets a lot of people thinking about adopting who otherwise might not have even thought about it. Nobody thinks it's ideal, but many think it's necessary.

As Joanne Alper, a service director at AdoptionPlus said of the agency's newspaper campaign: "There is a lot of pressure on [authorities] to try and be a bit more creative. This advert is a new thing. It is us trying something different and it is unusual. It is very easy when you just switch on the news and they say 'blah blah blah' but this kind of thing makes it seem more real."

The problem with AdoptionPlus is that it crossed a line. It's a thin line but it was crossed because the style and wording was desperate and promotional, and because these children should not have been made as easily identifiable as they were. AdoptionPlus didn't mean to overstep the mark – indeed, the children are not local and their names were changed to try to protect their identities, and the wording was well-meaning – but overstep it the adoption agency did.

Of course, the easiest thing would be to blame social workers (yet again), but let's do better than that and look at the real problem here: the shortage of funding for better family-finding. As it is, these budgets are set annually and hang like a dark cloud for many agencies. Of course, the Government doesn't have a bottomless pit of money. But, by taking a short-term perspective and failing to put proper investment into finding families, it was only ever a matter of time before something like this was going to happen. µ

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