There has been a lot in the press recently about the inordinate and unconscionable delays in the making of adoption orders, the decline in number of orders and their general underuse. Many of the comments are politically motivated and based upon general misconceptions and a lack of understanding of process. My purpose in writing this is to put forward alternative explanations and views. I am not anti adoption, I am legal adviser to an adoption panel and believe that in the majority of cases of neglect and abuse of a young child, where alternative care is necessary, adoption is the best option for that child. I also believe that if a child is to be adopted placement should occur at as early an age as possible.

The trouble is adoption is not always the ‘happy ending’. There has been a tendency over the years to regard adoption as such and not support placements beyond the first year or so. I have seen numerous cases in my practice of adoption breakdowns occurring many years after placement. The reasons are numerous; a child so damaged by early life experiences that their adolescent behaviour is uncontrollable; the adopter’s expectations being unrealistic, for example the child’s intellect not matching theirs; the adopters’ own relationships failing and the child becoming a casualty of that; siblings with vastly different needs placed together putting too much pressure on placement and so on.

Each breakdown is a tragedy for all. I recall one case where it was the adoptive parents who were blamed for the child’s behaviour and vilified by social workers when it was clear that the genesis of the breakdown was the abuse suffered as a baby. It is a truism that the older the child at placement the greater the risk of breakdown but I would also argue the less time taken to assess prospective adopters and to properly match will also enhance breakdown. The rush to adoption may create a ticking time bomb. Children are complex beings with complex needs. Those entrusted with caring for them need to be properly assessed and matched. The only way this process can be speeded up (as it needs to be) is by making sure sufficient resources are made available.

The press have had a field day dragging out statistics demonstrating the decline in adoption and using these to beat their bête noirs – fat cat lawyers, interfering courts, incompetent politically correct social workers etc. The comparisons from year-to-year are false because the climate has changed radically. The introduction of the pill and availability of abortions has meant that from the late 1960s onwards less children were relinquished at birth. It is extremely unusual these days to have relinquished babies.

When I first started my childcare career, stepparent adoptions were common but these days they are again quite rare. A newish order is now available, called a Special Guardianship Order, which vetoes a parent’s parental responsibility without extinguishing it, and this is frequently used in place of adoption. Experience has also shown that in some cases alternative long term placements (even, say it softly) long term fostering provide better outcomes for children particularly where contact with a natural family remains in place. Lest it also be forgotten not all children in care are suitable for adoption nor are they all incapable of living within their families.

The issues are complex, please if we are to have a debate, let it be more informed and not used for political capital.

Author: Ian Robertson

Ian is a solicitor advocate with 30 years’ experience of the law relating to children and childcare proceedings. He was founder and first chair of the Association of Lawyers for Children. Ian is a part time judge on the Care Standards and Special Education and Disability tribunals.

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