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Leading article: Slow progress on speeding up adoption

Nobody could really want to see "young lives wasted", so David Cameron was on safe ground yesterday when he called for the adoption process to be speeded up, particularly with regard to mixed-race and black children.

Those involved in the system, however, could be forgiven for waiting for the warm words to turn into clear action before celebrating. After all, the rhetoric rehearsed by Mr Cameron has been heard before – and the arguments in such a complex area are more nuanced than a simple must-do-better.

The Prime Minister is right that every effort should be made to end the glacially slow progress of the average adoption, and to abolish the practice of making children wait for their racial backgrounds to be matched. The stark fact that white children are three times more likely to leave care through adoption than their counterparts of other ethnicities tells the tale. And pity the social worker who is expected to find a willing couple of, say, mixed Armenian and Nigerian descent.

Modern society has, moreover, shown itself to be largely willing to accommodate difference. The difficult days of one black child in an otherwise white rural primary school are almost completely behind us. While it would be naive to suggest that racial harmony reigns supreme, prospective adopters in most British towns and cities will be introducing a child into an integrated, mixed community.

More important, racial difference can be overcome far more easily than other difficulties, such as the after-effects of sustained neglect or abuse. It is these hidden traumas that are behind many of the one in five broken adoptions, and they increase exponentially the longer the child is left with the damaging birth family.

To remedy the current situation, the burden of proof must shift away from prospective adopters proving they are the perfect match. Instead, feckless birth parents must prove that they can and will improve before being allowed to remain in charge of their children.

The latest government measures are to be applauded, insofar as they focus on an issue too long neglected. But they are, by themselves, unlikely to be enough. And attention must be sure to remain on the ultimate goal – fewer children waiting – rather than on adding yet more paperwork to a system already mired in complications.