Straw to act over crisis on adoption

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The Independent Online
MINISTERS ARE to take a tough line over obstructive social workers who are blocking the chances for adoption of thousands of children in council-run homes. Although 55,000 children are in local authority care, the number of adoptions has slumped from 21,000 in the Seventies to just 2,000 a year.

Children growing up in council-run homes are much more likely than other young people to obtain no educational qualifications, become jobless, sleep rough or end up in prison. One in four teenage girls in care becomes pregnant, and surveys suggest their babies are 66 times more likely to end up in care than other children.

There is also a growing body of evidence that adopted children enjoy better life prospects, with 80 per cent of adoptions judged a success.

Now ministers want to end the anti-adoption culture. They blame social workers for being "anti-adoption" and using it as "an option of last resort".

Local authority leaders admit that the education of children in their charge has been neglected. One in four does not attend school regularly and the same percentage leave care with no qualifications in some areas. A recent survey suggested that four out of 10 authorities have no information about performance of pupils in care; two-thirds had no idea how they did in national tests.

The Independent has learnt that growing concern in the Government has persuaded the cabinet committee on the family, chaired by Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, to launch a full-scale review of adoption. In the short term, ministers will order councils to regard adoption as "a positive option". They will be forced to publish figures on the number of young people in care and the number of adoptions, allowing the Government to issue "league tables" of councils reluctant to help children to find a new family.

In the long term, the cabinet committee will consider drastic action against authorities which continue to shun adoptions without good reason. Privately, ministers say these could include handing control of adoption to a neighbouring authority, voluntary agency, or even a private company.

Mr Straw's group will consider the need for a new Adoption Act aimed at ending the delays in the current system.

As well as improving the life chances of problem children, ministers believe that more adoption would save money. It costs more than pounds 1,100 a week to keep a child in care.

The Government is under pressure to act from an all-party group of MPs who have accused councils of being more concerned with "preserving their own empires" than the welfare of children. Julian Brazier, Tory MP for Canterbury and organiser of the group, said: "The figures are shocking. Children leaving care are 50 times more likely than their peers to go to prison, four times more likely to be unemployed, 60 times more likely to be homeless and 88 times more likely to be drug abusers. The provision of a loving home would reduce these problems considerably."

Frank Field, the former social security minister, said: "Adoption would mean a better life for most of these children. Local voters should ask councils why they need to keep such a large number of children in care."

John Ransford, head of social services at the Local Government Association, denied the charge of "empire building". He said: "The key issue is what is best for the child. In adoptions, you must make sure that you get the match right, or it can go disastrously wrong for the child and the family."

Mr Ransford conceded that councils had not given enough priority to the education of children in care. "Not enough effort has been put into improving their life chances," he said.