Adoption rates in freefall after court ruling leaves children languishing in unsuitable homes

Exclusive: Authorities are frightened of removing children from birth families

The number of children being put forward for adoption has plummeted over the past year following a series of court rulings that have left local authorities frightened of removing them from birth families.

Child welfare experts are worried the decline will mean more children suffering in unsuitable and unsafe homes. It also means agonising delays for parents approved for adoption who now find no children are available.

The number of children signed off for adoption fell from 1,550 in the summer quarter of 2013 to 780 in the same period last year, down almost 50 per cent.  

Latest figures for the three months to December have not yet been released due to pre-election purdah, but sources told The Independent there had been a further worrying fall in the numbers of children paired with new families. Adoption experts believe the trend is continuing.

Hugh Thornberry, chief executive of Adoption UK, said: “We’re very concerned that there’s been such a marked drop-off in the number of children being considered for adoption. That leads us to believe that children aren’t being considered for adoption who should be.”

He added: “Approved adopters are now waiting longer for a child to be matched with them because of the reduced flow of children coming through the adoption system.”

Adoptions reached a peak following Coalition reforms, with more than 5,000 children placed in England in the tax year 2013-14.

But in November 2013 the President of the Family Court, Sir James Munby, made a ruling that left many local authorities convinced they must try every extended family member before putting a child up for adoption. The judge said that six-month targets for adoptions should not be allowed to break up families unnecessarily and that grandparents and other extended family members should be considered before placing children for adoption.

It had been hoped that a second ruling last December from the same judge, clarifying he had not changed the law in the original judgment, would curb the freefall in adoption numbers. But instead further rulings from Sir James and other judges have exacerbated the problem.

In January Sir James granted an appeal in a case in Liverpool where three children were taken away from a mother with a history of drug and alcohol abuse who was given no opportunity to prepare a case.

The President of the Family Court ruled that the “ruthlessly truncated process” employed by the earlier judge in the case – who had admitted he was motivated by a desire to embrace family justice reforms designed to encourage adoption – was “unprincipled and unfair”.

Another case decided in January is understood to have had a similar chilling effect on local authorities’ desire to expedite adoption cases. Mr Justice Keehan ruled that Northamptonshire County Council had made “egregious failures” in its handling of the case of a baby taken into care without proper assessments of the mother or the maternal grandparents in Latvia. The baby was eventually placed with his maternal grandparents.

John Simmonds, director of policy, research and development for the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, said: “The impact of [these rulings] on the future of this highly vulnerable group of children is deeply worrying. We know from decades of research that all children need the security of a loving family and all that means from day one. If there is delay by six, 12, or 18 months you’re piling risk upon risk.

“There is such clear evidence that the earlier the child is placed the better. If you look at outcomes for adoption there are much more significant risks for children adopted over the age of four because their brains and bodies will have adapted to the adversities that have been heaped upon them in the early years.”

Mr Simmonds believes the new Conservative government must find solutions urgently. “There need to be very early discussions with the new government about making sure these issues are addressed and a solution is found.”

The National Adoption Leadership Board, the independent watchdog set up by the Coalition, releases adoption figures every quarter. But the latest set of statistics was held back because the election campaign began.

A source from the board meetings said the new figures show adoption numbers are “still falling”. He added: “If you look at it on a graph it rises to a peak and then just crashes.”

Speaking about the frustration of the election campaign stalling action on the issue, he said: “The last Adoption Leadership Board started outside of purdah and ended in purdah. The beginning part of the meeting was ‘We need to recognise the significance of this and we need to sort it’, and then purdah descended and we didn’t discuss it any more.”

A Conservative Party spokesman said: “We are determined that every child should grow up in a loving and stable home on our watch. We inherited systemic problems in the way that the Government recruited adopters, with no real incentive for local authorities to recruit over and above what they need within their local boundaries.

“Our adoption reforms are simplifying the adoption system to encourage more people to adopt and make sure children are placed swiftly with a family where this is in their best interests.”

Alison O’Sullivan, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said: “The recent reduction in applications to the courts should not deflect from the substantial increase we have seen in adoption over the last three years.

“There is no one-size-fits-all approach to adoption. In the same period there has been an increase in the use of special guardianship orders, which allow a child to live legally with a person they know, such as a family member or another carer they have lived with for some time already.

“ADCS is confident that local authorities always keep the long-term interests of children as their paramount concern.”

Case study: ‘The judge’s decision has put a lot of people’s lives on hold’

Tom, 40, and his wife Sarah, 40, from the Home Counties, are still waiting to adopt

It’s a year now since we started the whole process. We were under the impression when we started that once we finished the assessment the matching wouldn’t take that long. We thought it would be June or July this year but there’s no way it can happen that quickly now.

In January we went to panel and were successful and started looking for a child. You’re looking on websites and you can see the number of adopters going up and the number of children staying the same. It’s really frustrating. We’re looking for a child aged 0-3 because we have a six-year-old birth child. But only one or two have come up and they can’t be placed with another child.

It was a real eye-opener discovering about the court case. I can’t believe one person’s decision has had that much of an impact so quickly. In a year we’ve gone from thinking we’d have a child placed with us around now to thinking it could go on for months or years now.

I understand children need to be with birth parents but if it’s not working they’re going to be back in the system. Is there going to be a point five years on where we get a whole new cohort of five, six, seven-year-olds who need to be in care and are potentially too old to be adopted? It’s quite frightening really. That judge’s decision has put a lot of people’s lives on hold.

We felt pretty pressured to tell our daughter really early on. She’s excited about having a new brother or sister but now she’s asking ‘will it be this year or next year?’ As time goes on it’s going to be harder and harder to explain why it’s not happening.”

The names have been changed at the individuals’ request