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English councils confirm they set targets for number of children to be adopted

Transparency Project calls for more research into exercise of adoption policy

In response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOI) request made by The Transparency Project to 172 councils, 12 English councils have confirmed, sent or published documents showing that they use numerical targets for adoption. Some councils provided an actual number of children in care they aimed to have had adopted annually, and some provided a percentage figure.

Although the government 'benchmarks' councils on the speed of achieving adoptions for those children who are approved for this type of placement (through Adoption Scorecards), this is the first time that councils are thought to have admitted operating to numerical targets for adoption, since targets brought in by the Blair government in 2000 were abolished in 2008.

The Transparency Project, which is a charity whose aim is to bring clarity to family law, undertook the comprehensive FOI exercise in response to persistent but un-evidenced criticism that targets were driving the removal of 'adoptable' children, particularly babies.

The Transparency Project takes the view that there is a risk that 'targets' and 'key performance indicators' could come to drive or contaminate decision making which becomes divorced from the needs of the individual child. Even if this is not happening in practice, it is still important that families are not given the impression that it could be happening. The perception is potentially as harmful as the reality.

Lucy Reed, Chair of The Transparency Project, said:

"In law, the decision that a child should be placed for adoption must be solely based on the needs of that individual child. The setting of targets to encourage faster placement of those children for whom adoption has been identified as the right outcome are unobjectionable, but targets to increase the absolute number or proportion of looked after children who are approved for adoption are in tension with the very clear law in this area that ensures that each child and family is treated as unique. The law recognizes that adoption is neither necessary nor appropriate for every child that cannot remain with its birth family. It also recognizes that for many (though not all) babies and young children for whom return home or to relatives is not in their interests, adoption may offer the most secure alternative permanent option.

"We had anticipated that the answers to our information requests would lay to rest some of the anxiety that decisions about non-consensual adoption were being driven by targets rather than individual needs. Unfortunately our enquiries suggest the picture is more complicated. More work is needed because the picture remains unclear.

"Whilst we have found no evidence that individual social workers are performance managed by reference to targets, and some councils specifically denied this, it is clear that some councils operate their own internal targets for broader management and performance purposes. Campaigners have highlighted the risk that targets of this sort could potentially have an indirect effect on decisions about whether or not an individual child should be placed for adoption, but our study did not produce evidence that helps to answer this question.

"We did find evidence of one council's adoption reform strategy extending to employing community nursery nurses in children's centres to target permanency planning work with vulnerable babies and young children, which runs the risk of being perceived as an effort to seek out adoptable babies."

The study was carried out by Alice Twaite, of the Transparency Project who is a non-practising freelance solicitor who advises families at the Family Rights Group. It was completed over a period of a year and took the form of Freedom of Information Act requests to each council in England & Wales. The Transparency Project recognizes the limitations of this study and urges those with the appropriate resources to carry out further, more in depth work in this area in order to ensure policy objectives are being met and to ensure that public trust and confidence in the adoption and family court system is promoted. Given the proposed reform of the adoption system announced by Government earlier this year, this seems like a timely moment for such issues to be addressed.

A blog post giving more detail will appear on The Transparency Project blog shortly.

Response from Association of Directors of Children's Services
Charlotte Ramsden, Chair of the ADCS Health, Care & Additional Needs Policy Committee, commented:

"To say that these findings show that some councils are setting targets for the number of children who should be adopted from care and that this may in some way be a concern is an over-simplification of a much more nuanced and complex issue.

"Local authorities were challenged to increase the effectiveness of their adoption processes several years ago including increasing the number of adoptions as children were perceived to be waiting too long for adoptive parents or ending up missing the opportunity for adoption due to lengthy care proceedings. This led to individual authority responses based on their areas of strength and weakness, linked to the use of the adoption scorecard and Ofsted inspection of adoption within the SIF. Recent adoption reforms particularly those around reducing the time it takes for children to be adopted from care have meant that councils have a smaller timeframe within which to recruit, assess and approve adopters, plus a shorter time to match children once a plan for adoption is agreed. Greater expectations about achieving shorter timescales for care proceedings and clear plans for permanence for children have led to active planning around a range of possible outcomes for a child. Local authorities analyse the needs of children coming into care and track permanence planning outcomes including predictions of planned or potential adoptions. Based on plans either actual or twin track, some may well use target numbers as a good way of ensuring children do not drift. Some are likely to have set targets to increase adoptions if they have been challenged for the low number of adoption outcomes achieved.

"Irrespective of any targets in place the welfare of the child remains the paramount consideration during care proceedings and where adoption is not in the best interest of the child it will not be pursued. The ultimate safeguard is the court which will not agree to the removal of a child into care unless this can be evidenced to be right for the child and will not agree to adoption as a plan unless that is also believed to be right for the child."

In November 2015 the government pledged further adoption reform, ostensibly to increase the speed of adoptions for those children who would benefit from it. In a speech at that time David Cameron went further however and said:

"I'm a huge fan of adoption...we've had some good successes. The number of children adopted is up 72%... ... at the moment LAs haven't got enough choice of children to be adopted...I'm a great fan of adoption and this government has big ambitions to help make sure we adopt more children."

The resulting Children and Social Work Bill is currently going through Parliament. One of its aims is to Increase the number of children being adopted from care to a permanent home when it is in their best interests.

The Transparency Project
The Transparency Project is an educational charity set up in 2015, which aims to explain and discuss family law and family courts in England and Wales, and signpost to useful resources to help people understand the system and the law better. The project carries out work aimed at improving the quality, range and accessibility of information available to the public both in the press and elsewhere.

[The ADCS response to the report was added to this item on 18/11/16]