Leading article: The shame in our adoption failures

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This is National Adoption Week, and it provides a test for David Cameron's slogan "the Big Society". As we report today, hundreds of children are stuck in temporary foster care because short-term financial pressures on local councils discourage them from paying voluntary agencies to arrange adoptions.

This is not just a shame for the thousands of children waiting to be adopted, and for the thousands of parents waiting to adopt; it is a loss to society as a whole, which has to pay the price, emotional and financial, of the poorer life chances afforded by being brought up in care.

There are 32 voluntary adoption agencies in the UK, often specialising in children who are harder to place, but they complain that a system of perverse financial incentives discourages local councils from using them, a situation they fear will be made worse by cuts in public spending over the next four years.

The agencies' argument is supported by research at Bristol University which suggests that the costs of adoption are the same, whether it is managed directly by a council or through an agency. Other research by the think-tank Demos also shows that the long-term costs to the public purse of children who are not adopted are far greater.

This is a classic case of a situation where dividing up public spending by department makes a rational cost-benefit analysis difficult. The immediate costs of adoption – recruiting and assessing parents; paying social workers to monitor children; legal fees – are heavily loaded upfront and come out of a local council's annual budget. Thus, in the short term, it is always going to be cheaper to keep children in foster care than to pay these large one-off costs. The long-term costs of not adopting, on the other hand, come out of the benefits, police, criminal justice and health service budgets over the lifetime of today's children.

These are the real political questions about adoption today, rather than the right-wing press's obsessions with race, sexuality and political correctness. Most social work departments take a pragmatic and child-centred approach to the issue, but are held back by poor morale, inefficient working practices and perverse incentives.

Tim Loughton, the children's minister, says he wants to see more children adopted with less delay, but it requires a real sense of drive from him and his department to change the incentive structure under which local councils operate. It would, of course, be difficult to put a money value on the long-term savings of adoption and to feed this back to councils, but there must be ways of turning the rhetoric of the Big Society into support for the voluntary agencies that can bridge the gap between short-term costs and long-term savings. The Independent on Sunday is sympathetic to the idea of the Big Society provided it does not simply mean that unpaid volunteers are expected to fill the gaps left by public-spending cuts.

Mr Loughton should also look at how to encourage innovation in social work. In February this year, the previous government launched a programme called Step Up to Social Work, designed to attract able people into the profession with a £15,000 golden hello and a shorter training period. We hope this will continue. Mr Loughton should also take up the idea put forward by Josh MacAlister of the think-tank Progress for a Teach First programme for social work. Teach First, placing top graduates in challenging schools, has successfully raised the calibre and esteem of the teaching profession. Anything should be tried in the drive to raise standards not only of social workers but of social work management, so that a sense of urgency can be transmitted to the front line of arranging adoptions. Every day that a child spends in temporary and insecure foster or institutional care adds to the costs of an atomised society. Somehow, the decline in the number of children adopted, which has fallen for the past four years, must be reversed.

As Elizabeth Webb at Tact, The Adolescent and Children's Trust, says: "The longer a child spends in care, the more difficult they are to place with a family, and the harder it is to break the cycle of bad outcomes. Adoption is not just good for the children; it is also good for society."

That would be a way of making the Big Society mean something. We look forward to Mr Cameron and Mr Loughton putting their imaginations where their mouths are.

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