It is forgivable that the long election campaign went by without the issue of adoption being raised. It is not a suitable subject for a party political knockabout – but it is, nonetheless, one of the most important functions of a civilised state to remove young children from environments where their health and mental well-being are at risk and place them where they will be safe and well cared for. And it has to be done quickly. It does not take long for a very young child to be permanently damaged by the absence of a loving home.
The former Education Secretary Michael Gove, who was raised by adoptive parents, is credited with speeding up a system that left thousands of children languishing in care homes for too long. In 2011, 3,100 children were adopted. In the year ending March 2014, the equivalent figure was 5,050. When the figure was published, Mr Gove’s successor Nicky Morgan declared: “We promised to remove delay and frustration from the process for both children and adopters. Today’s figures show that we are delivering on that promise.”
But this apparent cause for celebration did not last. A few individual cases that came before family courts suggested that too much haste had wrought bad decisions. The President of the Family Division of the High Court, Sir James Munby, ruled that a judge had been too quick to take three children away from their mother, who had alcohol and drug problems, without giving her time to argue her case. Northamptonshire County Council was roundly criticised for placing a baby in care when the child’s maternal grandparents in Latvia were able to provide a suitable home.
The impact of these judgments showed up when statistics covering the summer months of 2014 were published. They recorded 780 adoptions, compared with 1,550 in the same period of 2013, a drop of almost 50 per cent. We do not yet know what story the figures for the last quarter of 2014 will tell, because publication has been held up by the election, but it appears that they too will show a sharp fall. It seems that to avoid being accused of going too fast, the authorities have slammed on the brakes.
It is understandable that a council’s social services department does not want a judge accusing it of “egregious failures” – the words used against Northamptonshire council – by sending a child out for adoption too soon. It is obviously safer, from its point of view, to keep the child in care that bit longer, while it makes sure it is covered from every angle.
But while delay protects the authorities, it can permanently harm the child. As John Simmonds, of the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, said: “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.”
This is an area of government responsibility that can ruin young lives, or rescue them from the ruin. One of the first priorities of the newly reappointed Education Secretary, Ms Morgan, and the children’s minister, Edward Timpson, must be to publish the updated figures and – if they are as bad as is feared – to say what they intend to do. Social services departments need to be told again – as they were six months ago – that a few adverse court judgments do not imply a fundamental change of policy. Of course the circumstances of a child’s natural parents and extended family must be taken into account before a decision is made to allow the child to be adopted – but it must be done without unnecessary delay.Reuse content