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Tim Loughton MP: Relaxing adoption guidelines will offer more vulnerable the children the chance of a loving, stable family home

Tim Loughton 2010 Tim Loughton MP is Minister for Children and Families at the Department for Education.

Our announcement this week that we are overhauling Government guidance on adoption and stepping up a gear to reverse the trend of falling adoption numbers has been universally welcomed.

Our overriding message has been that adoption works for many children in care for whom there is no safe way back to their birth parents; that we need more people to come forward to offer vulnerable children a permanent and loving home and that this should trump all other considerations around ethnic matching, age and social background; and that we need to remove the obstacles, bureaucracy and political correctness that prevent more children being adopted quicker and sooner.

Parents who make the huge step of knocking on the door of the local authority adoption services department should be welcomed with open arms under a big flashing neon (metaphorical) sign saying ‘Adopters welcome here.’ Is not offering a loving and long term home to an unknown vulnerable child one of the strongest manifestations of the Big Society after all?

I have met many parents, officials and children involved in adoption in recent months. At our launch event we heard from one adoptive parent who had tried to adopt a half British, quarter Iranian, quarter Swedish child only to be told there was no chance as they wanted to find a half British, quarter Iranian, quarter Swedish adoptive parent. Does such a person exist? I have heard from parents who were told they were not suitable to adopt a Mexican boy in local authority care locally but were then helped by the same council to go abroad and adopt a Guatemalan boy to bring back to London. Meanwhile there are over 4,000 children in care approved for adoption left waiting. They are disproportionately from BME backgrounds and the longer they wait and older they get the lower their chances over ever coming out of care during their childhood.

Jill Kirby is right that voluntary adoption agencies have a good track record in finding good quality permanent placements often that last longer, and part of the new guidance exhorts local authorities to do more to use their expertise wherever possible. Why should a local authority have a monopoly over care for looked after children? Strong research evidence from Bristol University has shown that the cost of an adoption placement is roughly equal whether it is through a local authority or through a voluntary agency yet many councils use distorted relative cost figures as an excuse for keeping the service in-house.

One authority which has blazed a trail is Harrow which some years ago effectively handed over management of its whole adoption service to the charity Coram from whose headquarters we launched the guidance this week. The results are startling. The number of BME children adopted has risen from 3% of those in care to 10%. No child identified for adoption waits longer than 6 months. Adoption rates have risen and breakdowns are rare, and to cap it all Coram are achieving savings of over £440,000 a year with fewer children staying in expensive and often turbulent care.

With such clear social and financial advantages I want to know why more local authorities are not beating a path to Coram and Harrow. That is the question I will be asking of those local authorities where adoption rates are not improving. They have a strong mandate from a Government which places a far greater priority on getting it right for children in care than any for a long time They have clear unambiguous set of guidance with which to interpret the law. And they have a clear financial incentive at a time of tight pressures on local authority spending.

Adoption is just one of the many areas where the Department of Education has done much in our first nine months to do much better for the many children in care or on the age of care that we have been failing for too long. We need to do more to keep families together and out of care in the first place, but at the same time we need to overhaul a system where bureaucratic processes are preventing social workers from taking the right decision early enough about whether children need to be rescued from danger.

At the same time we need to do better to combat the scandal that is the poor achievement by children in the care system with around half leaving school with no qualifications at all. That is why I will shortly be launching a ‘Foster Carer’s Charter’ and an online ‘hotline’ for children in care to raise problems with me direct.

It should be noted that there are a few voices of dissent representing a curious alliance between the dinosaurs on the left who still pine for ethnically perfect matches and lone voices on the right who strive to give the impression that all adoptions are tantamount to child snatching and I am ‘Child Snatcher in Chief.’

Predictably there are some adoptions which go wrong and where birth parents have been appallingly treated by inadequate court judgements or incompetent social workers. That is why it will be so important to learn from the reviews currently being undertaken by David Norgrove on family law and Professor Eileen Munro on child safeguarding when they report later this spring. In the meantime I have held extensive discussions with the President of the Family Law Division and other judges and I am looking at possible solutions around a better appeal or ombudsman system. But we have important work to get on with, and whilst there are thousands of children waiting in care for whom adoption would be the best route forward, we need to inject a renewed urgency.

Having a pop at me to help sensationalise journalists’ column is immaterial but what is deeply damaging is the demoralising effect this is having on those professionals working tirelessly to rescue vulnerable children from harm, and potentially in deterring those prospective adopters coming forward who may be scared off for fear of being complicit with ‘child snatching.’

And that is why I am determined to do better for more children for whom adoption offers a good second chance at a stable, safe and loving family upbringing that many of us take for granted – particularly those most disadvantaged kids whose age, disability or ethnic background make such a dream just that, a distant dream. We have heard a lot of warm words in past years about the nature of the problem and I am in no doubt that it is not just regulations but stubborn mindsets which need changing.  Michael Gove and I are determined to see it through because it is both the right thing to do and the Conservative thing to do.


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