Martin Narey: Adoption has to come back into fashion

We must overcome our misguided reluctance to remove children from abusive families, and transform their lives

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When Tony Blair became prime minister he made increasing adoptions one of his priorities. His father, Leo, was adopted in the 1920s when his unmarried travelling entertainer parents gave him up to a Clydesdale shipworker, James Blair. The way his father had found stability and love in a new family made an impression on the Labour leader: "I know how much difference a loving and caring family made to me. No matter how good a care home is, it isn't as good as having a loving family," he told the Commons.

Adoptions began to increase in number. But as the Prime Minister's, and therefore No 10's, attention moved away so did local authorities', and numbers soon began to slide. As last week's figures from the Office for National Statistics show, adoptions last year fell to their lowest number since 1997 and the brief recovery in the past decade now looks like a blip in what has been a remorseless decline from around 25,000 a year in the mid-Seventies to about four-and-a-half thousand now. (It is often assumed that nearly all those 1970s adoptions were the result of young unmarried girls being forced to give up their babies. But in fact half of those adopted children were born within marriage.)

Most of those 4,500 adoptions are adoptions from care: that is of children who have been removed from birth parents because the courts have concluded that either they cannot or will not care for their children effectively. Those numbers have also fallen after the brief Blair recovery. In 1999, there were about 2,200 adoptions from care in England and this number then rose, reaching about 3,500 by 2002. But numbers have since fallen back to about 3,200. Adoption, it seems, has drifted out of fashion.

When The Times commissioned me to investigate what had happened to adoption and how numbers might be recovered, I found antipathy to adoption closely linked to a reluctance toward taking children into care. I discovered three reasons for this. First, misconceptions about what is known as attachment theory – a belief that the bond with the birth mother must not be broken – often dissuade social workers from seeking to remove children until neglect is prolonged or has deteriorated into abuse. In fact, attachment theory tells us that if a neglected child is removed reasonably promptly from neglect, then that child will be able to develop a close attachment to another carer.

Second, the child protection system is riddled with the entirely inaccurate belief that what is best for the child – which in law is unequivocally the only consideration – has to be balanced with consideration of the parents' human rights. And third, both social work practitioners, including many senior managers, and the courts, often believe that, however neglectful a home is, that taking a child into care will make things worse. That, in the words of Barry Sheerman, the long-standing chair of the House of Commons Education and Skills Select Committee, "care is a catastrophe".

This final view will be the hardest to shift but the evidence is compelling. Care may not be perfect but it is much better than allowing a child to continue to live in neglect. That is, I'm afraid, what we do. Despite the increase in care applications in the wake of the death of Baby Peter, the number of children in care in England has fallen from about 92,000 in the Eighties to about 65,000 now. Yet I know of nobody who believes that parenting capacity has improved over that period. Instead, children live in neglect for too long and care, when it comes, is often only after the child has been damaged.

I am not suggesting that we cannot help inadequate parents to become competent. We can and should. But we have to be realistic. Frontline social workers to whom I have spoken in large numbers over the past month tell me that, way beyond the point where they know the natural parents cannot succeed, children continue to languish in often abject neglect. More worryingly, and as the research proves, we sometimes return children to homes where neglect and abuse soon begin again.

We need to move more quickly to take such children into care and then for those where there is not a birth relative who can safely take over, we need to find them adoptive homes.

Those who don't like adoption, and there are many of them, will cite figures for adoption breakdown which are entirely fictional. Suggestions that a quarter or a third of all adoptions are ended have no foundation. For older and very challenging children I concluded that the failure rate might be about 23 per cent. But the figure for those adopted between the ages of one and five is nearer to 10 per cent and for those adopted under 12 months, around 3 per cent. These figures reinforce the truth that adoption, compared to almost any other sort of social work intervention, is dramatically successful. Even for those adopted after five, success is achieved in nearly 80 per cent of cases. For younger children and babies, the chances of an adoption being "disrupted" are minimal.

But even when adoption is agreed to, local authority and legal processes mean that the adoptions of babies are a rarity. Last year only 70 babies, 12 months and younger, were adopted. The reality is that were a child to be born tomorrow, in circumstances where the mother agreed that adoption was best for her child, the process is unlikely to be completed before her baby's first birthday.

Michael Gove's new drive on adoption – supported by No 10 – is to be welcomed and I am determined to do all I can to ensure that we succeed more often, and more quickly, in giving neglected and abused children the love and stability they deserve. In doing so, we shall transform their lives for the better.

Martin Narey is the ministerial adviser on adoption; adoptionadvisor@yahoo.co.uk

John Rentoul is away

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