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Jill Kirby: Martin Narey - Dangerous anti-family ideologue or inspired reformer?

KirbyJill By Jill Kirby

Martin Narey, the Government’s new "Adoption Czar", wants more children taken away from their parents and put into care. He thinks that local authorities are too willing to place neglected children with members of their extended family, rather than having them adopted by strangers. And he wants courts and social workers to be told that care is a good option for a neglected child, not a last resort.

So is he a dangerous ideologue who wants to break up families, or an inspired choice to shake up our sluggish adoption system and give vulnerable children a better chance in life?

Martin Narey and I have clashed in the past, on the subject of Sure Start (I don’t share his enthusiasm for it) as well as his approach to child poverty. But I find much to agree with in his adoption report for yesterday’s Times (£) and I believe that Michael Gove and Tim Loughton are right to give the former Barnardo’s chief the opportunity to put his recommendations into practice. Too many previous initiatives to speed up adoption have run into the sand. I think we need to look much more closely at the practices which allow damaged children to go back and forth between parents and temporary carers until their prospects of successful adoption have vanished. Narey’s report shows that he is prepared to overturn current assumptions and make some radical changes.

It shouldn’t be necessary to remind local authorities and social workers that child protection is meant to be child-centred but this is Narey’s first recommendation. Why? He explains that current practice pays far too much attention to the needs of adults, however inadequate their parenting. He cites some worrying examples from practitioners, charities and academics showing the extent to which social work has been captured by an adult-centred approach: regarding adoption as last resort, giving drug-addicted mothers endless second chances, making children shuttle between foster parents and birth mothers for so long that they are either too old for adoption or too damaged to settle. his report also contains some interesting overalps with the recent Munro report on child protection, urging more common sense and less form filling and target-chasing.

In his plea for adoption to be seen in a much more positive light, Narey challenges the attitudes which have become fashionable over the last twenty years or so and which have dominated social work training – including the apparent priority given to the biological link despite evidence of neglect, and the way social workers seem to think that parents, rather than children, are their “clients.” (Which of course is part of a much bigger confusion that designates offenders as “clients” of the probation service.) He’s worried that experienced, older, but sometimes non-graduate social workers have been replaced by poorly-trained young university-leavers who lack practical knowledge (and common sense).

Narey reiterates Michael Gove’s call for local authorities to stop prioritising ethnic matches (although he doesn’t find much evidence that this call is yet being heeded). But Narey also goes much wider in probing the cultural and social reasons why adoption rates have dwindled: asking why women with unwanted pregnancies are discouraged from considering adoption; why teenage mothers are told that they will be great mothers even where there’s strong evidence to the contrary; why social workers fail to carry out basic child protection checks for fear of offending parents.

He comes up with a possible solution to the lack of financial incentives for local authorities to promote adoption. Local authorities are reluctant to use independent voluntary adoption agencies, despite their excellent track record, because of the upfront cost. Yet they will spend far more over years in which a child remains in foster care. Narey suggests that the voluntary agencies could meet the cost and arrange to be paid back over time; or that Social Impact Bonds could be used to cover the payment. Given the success rates of permanent adoption, especially when independent agencies are involved, payback will not take long.

Wary of using legislative tools to change poor adoption practice, however, Narey suggests that league tables showing the huge disparity in local authority adoption rates would be a good way to shame poorly performing councils into action. But he also thinks this should be backed up by a threat: that if all else fails, the responsibility for adoption should be taken away from local councils and given to a central agency. Such centralism doesn’t seem to sit well with the Government’s localist agenda – until you remember that most of Michael Gove’s school reforms entail bypassing local authorities altogether.

Narey’s report is dominated by his insistence that care should be seen as a positive option for children, rather than as a last resort. What I think he fails to acknowledge is the circularity of this problem. Until we increase public confidence in the care system - in the ability of social workers to make the right diagnosis, in the ability of the courts to function with both speed and transparency, and in the competence and accountability of local authorities - then there will always remain the underlying fear that a child will be taken into care for the wrong reasons.

Interestingly, there is another aspect of the care system which doesn’t receive much attention in his report: the use of children’s homes as a source of longer term placements which might enable children to go to a familiar “place of safety” rather than being pitched out of one foster family and into another. Such homes – now run on a much smaller scale than the orphanages for which Barnardos once was famous -  can offer vulnerable children a reliable structure and continuity of care. Perhaps one of Narey’s objectives in redeeming the image of the care system might be to promote the use of such homes?

So, for all Martin Narey’s experience, it’s clear that turning round our adoption system won’t be an easy task. But I think he’s heading in the right direction. I hope that this appointment will be more than just another listening exercise, and that real change will result.


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