No to making adoption slower, but yes to giving it long-term support

A two-and-a-half year average wait for a child to be placed in care is too long

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The Independent Online

It is with a heavy heart that I turn my attention to one of my pet subjects: adoption. Anything I say on this subject is seen through the prism of my own experience as an adoptive mother, but this is not about me, or my children. We are 10 years into life as a family and have had the extraordinary support of a wide circle of friends, family and – when needed – professionals. But an important news story that has been almost disregarded in the Chavez melee is the call by Baroness Butler-Sloss and a Lords legislative committee for changes to the adoption system to be slowed down. So, here goes…

The main thrust of the committee’s criticism is that in speeding up the process, the long-term needs of both the children and the parents are not properly considered. “Support is often variable and sometimes inadequate,” as chairman Lady Butler-Sloss put it. It is true that it’s often years later that support is needed, and without it being a legal requirement it can be impossible to find. Here’s why.

At the moment, it takes around two years to be assessed and matched with a child. In that time, anyone’s appetite for meetings, workshops, assessments, background checks, supporting statements, biographical profiles, F4s and F5 forms, diminishes dramatically. Box files full of adoption agreements and contact arrangements and so on, and on, can reach the ceiling. When the new mum and dad, and their child(ren) shut the door and start the complex process of becoming a family, the last thing any of them wants is more involvement (for which read interference) from “social services”.

It’s only much later, when the emotional and behavioural needs of a child come into sharp focus, that adoptive parents might look for someone – anyone – to steer them. The boxes are dusted off and trawled through. There must be an expert to talk to, isn’t there? But by then all the social workers assigned have retired, or been promoted out of the field, or left. The idea of explaining the situation from scratch is profoundly dispiriting.

Then those old documents reveal what might have been disguised at the time. Adjectives used to describe children, such as “lively” or “reserved”, are seen in a new light. Anxiety turns to anger, and the anger is impotent because the person who wrote them is not there to help. The paper trail stops at the freshly minted birth certificates with the new family name on them.

However, I cannot agree with the committee that emphasis should not be put on speeding up the process, because a two-and-a-half-year average wait for a child in care to be placed is too long. It should not be beyond the capability of a reformed system to offer a streamlined journey through the placement process and a potential support structure for later. At the moment, local authorities will be allowed, under the Children and Families Bill, to give an optional budget for parents to use – but, as with a similar wheeze for parents of children with special needs, it’s not fair to put the emphasis on them. They’re already doing a difficult, emotionally complex job and saving the Government money. Provide and pay for expert help, please. It’s time for the Lords, and Lady B-S, to take the long view.