Only 60 babies were adopted in England last year – startling evidence of how Britain's system for adopting children is grinding to a halt despite record numbers being taken into care.
Thousands of children are being held in limbo in care homes, secure units and temporary fostering because so few adoptions are being signed off by social workers. Their guidance has been to try to keep families together, which has also led to some children being left with negligent or abusive birth parents for too long.
The number of adoptions of babies under the age of one has fallen from 150 in 2007 – and around 4,000 in 1976. Prospects for adopted babies are considered strong, as they have fewer difficulties bonding with new parents.
The slowing of the adoption system is causing many vulnerable children to spend much longer in government or foster care. There are currently 65,520 under-16s in care – the highest number since 1987, and 10 per cent up on 2008 – with 3,660 of them less than a year old.
Children are waiting two years and seven months before being adopted, on average, with the process taking longer than three years in a quarter of cases, according to the Department of Education statistics. The average age at adoption now stands at three years and 10 months. The total number of adoptions has fallen significantly since 2007, down 8.4 per cent to 3,050.
Part of this can be attributed to fewer babies being put up for adoption, due to higher numbers of terminated pregnancies, but there is despair at the mass of bureaucracy, despite government promises of reform. Anne Marie Carrie, chief executive of the children's charity Barnardo's, called the figures "deeply worrying". She said: "Everyone involved in the care system needs to be braver and should act fast to place children with a new permanent family when it is clear that, even with support, the child's birth family is not going to change and cannot cope.
"It is imperative that decision-making is sped up at every stage of the adoption process, as we know that by the time a child is four they have a far lesser chance of being adopted than a baby."
The Children's Minister, Tim Loughton, said the figures were "disappointing, but not surprising".
"There is no excuse for children in care who should be put up for adoption languishing for one day more than they should do. We need to speed up the process so the whole thing is done much quicker," he told The Independent.
Mr Loughton called for babies put up for adoption to be fast-tracked through the system, to prevent lengthy periods in care. The number of children from ethnic minorities finding new families remained low, representing only 4 per cent of the total. There is anecdotal evidence that social workers are urged to delay adoption placings in the hope of finding a racial match.
Three-quarters of the children in care, or about 48,000, were placed with a foster family. Twelve per cent, almost 8,000, were cared for in residential accommodation. A third of young adults who left care were not in education, employment or training last year.
The Fostering Network called for investment to make more homes available for children in care. Robert Tapsfield, its chief executive, said: "Fostering services and carers are under real pressure to deal with the continuing rise in numbers coming into care, and thousands more foster carers are needed."
Case study: Bernadette Biscette, 49, accountant
I adopted a little girl 18 months ago. It's a complicated process and it takes time, you have to do the interview and the forms, tell your life story. You are thoroughly checked and asked so many questions. I think that puts a lot of people off, but it is absolutely worth it. You've got to understand the process, and not be afraid of it. You just have to go for it.
I'm concerned that people don't know they can do it – it's not advertised enough, that there are children out there who need a family. If it was advertised there would be more uptake. More people will say – yes, this is something I want to do.
I adopted my daughter through the charity The Adolescent and Children's Trust, when she was four. When I met her, I thought – "Yes, that is the child for me." We had similar personalities, both bubbly and outgoing. There are thousands of children in the system, but for adoption, because it's a long life connection, it needs to be right.