Waiting to be parents: adopters experiences of being recruited

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1 Waiting to be parents: adopters experiences of being recruited Introduction, Results and Commentary Adoption UK is a national membership organisation for prospective adopters and adoptive parents, providing information, advice, support and training. With a membership of 5,000 families, it also represents the interests and concerns of adoptive families across the UK, being both child-focused and parent-led. In its 40-year history, the charity has played an important role in the development of policy and practice in the field of the adoption of children from the looked after system. As part of the continuation of this work, in 2010 the charity carried out a survey of its membership to understand their experiences of being recruited as adopters and of the assessment and preparation process. The questionnaire was carried out between October and December 2010, via an online survey. In total, 179 responses were received. Of those who responded, 82percent had been through the adoption process since the beginning of 2000, the year in which the former Prime Minister Tony Blair published his White Paper that led to the fundamental reform of the policy and practice of adopting children from the care system. In England and Wales, the Adoption and Children Act was passed in 2002 and came into force in December 2005 (nearly half (44percent) of the survey s respondents began their adoption journey after this date). In Scotland, the Adoption and Children (Scotland) Act 2007 came into force in September 2009, while the Northern Ireland Assembly has yet to introduce reforming legislation, although it intends to do so. Among the aims of the new legislation have been initiatives to improve the process of adoption, to recruit more adoptive parents for children in care and to increase adoption support services for adoptive families. This is in acknowledgement of the emotional, behavioural and developmental difficulties likely to be experienced by adopted children due to their early traumatising experiences of abuse/neglect within the birth family. As such, Adoption UK s survey provides a timely opportunity 10 years on from the beginning of the drive to change modern adoption to consider how the recruitment, assessment and preparation of adoptive parents for some of the most damaged children in the care system has progressed.

2 Approaching an adoption agency By law, every local authority with responsibility for social care is required to have an adoption agency. In addition, there are a number of voluntary adoption agencies and an even smaller number of not-for-profit/social enterprise adoption agencies. To be approved as adoptive parents, someone interested in adoption must first make contact with an adoption agency and have their application to be considered as suitable to adopt accepted and then approved by that local authority. When asked how many adoption agencies they had contacted about being interested in becoming an adopter, 73percent of respondents said that they had only approached either one or two adoption agencies. However, 17percent had approached three or more agencies before their interest in adoption was accepted, 3.5percent had to contact between six and ten agencies. Although the recruitment of adopters is said to be a national priority, local authorities are able to exercise local discretion in relation to recruiting and assessing those interested in adoption, based upon the needs of the children in care in their area. The responses suggest that up to one-quarter of those interested in adopting from care have to show significant tenacity to be considered as an adopter. While the majority of prospective adopters appear to be well served by the adoption system, the responses demonstrate some concern about how open the doors of the adoption service are. The table below summarises the responses. How many adoption agencies did you contact about being interested in becoming an adopter before you interest/application was accepted? One Two Three Four Five Between 6 and percent 23.1percent 12.1percent 7.5percent 4.0percent 3.5percent Over a quarter of respondents (27percent) said they were actively turned away from applying from the agencies they approached, with similar numbers (29percent) saying there were turned away from three or more agencies. When asked about the reasons for this, 17percent said that they were told that the agency was not currently recruiting adopters, 11percent were told that their personal profile did not fit that of the children in the agency s care, while 13percent were told that their ethnicity did not match that of the children in the agency s care. More worryingly, 11percent received no response at all further to their enquiries. 2

3 This last response suggests the potential interest in finding parents for children in care is being squandered through indifference, inefficiency or some other reason. Some of the respondents who were turned away made the following comments: not recruiting within our own city council, only looking for people outside of our county. too young, didn t look married, didn t look as if we are in a committed relationship and didn t live in the area. We are a lesbian couple and one authority was not interested in accepting us due to our sexuality. The authority said we were out of their area even though it was xxx County Council and we live in [the same] county. We are not married. I walked away from the local authority as it was made clear that couples who applied were priority over singles. Adoption legislation and guidance makes it clear that there are no blanket bans on who may apply to be considered suitable to adopt, yet some of the responses call into question some agencies observance of that. The tables below summarise the responses. Were you turned down or turned away from applying from any of these agencies? Yes No 27.3percent 72.7percent If yes, how many? One Two Three Four Five Between 6 and percent 25.5percent 11.8percent 3.9percent 2.0percent 3.9percent 3

4 Don t know/don t remember 7.8percent What reasons were given for your interest being turned down or turned away from any of these agencies? (please tick all that apply) Not currently recruiting adopters Personal profile didn t fit the profile of the children in the agency s care Too old As we were initially only interested in adopting a baby, the agency said they would not be able to place a child with us Ethnicity did not match the ethnicity of the children in the agency s care Health issues - whether physical or mental. (please specify) Past criminal record (please specify) Disability (please specify) Inappropriate housing/accommodation (please specify) Financial/monetary reasons (please specify) No response/follow up from agency (please specify) Other reason(s)(please specify) 16.7percent 11.1percent 3.7percent 5.6percent 13.0percent 7.4percent 0.0percent 1.9percent 3.7percent 5.6percent 11.1percent 61.1percent The table below summarises the responses from adoption agencies about interest in becoming an adopter. After first contacting the agency that approved you about becoming an adopter, what was the response? Written information was sent to me about adoption I was invited to meet with a social worker about becoming an adopter I was invited to an adoption information meeting I was told to look at the website Other 35.7percent 28.0percent 24.8percent 0.0percent 11.5percent Under statutory timescales in England and Wales, adoption agencies are required to send out written information within five working days to those who express an interest in becoming an adopter. Over one-third (37percent) of respondents said that they received information within those timescales. Sixty-four per cent said that they received information within ten working days (i.e., two weeks). However, about one-third (36percent) said that they had to wait over two weeks, while onefifth (20percent) did not receive any written information whatsoever. While the response show that the majority of adoption agencies are doing a good or reasonable job in responding to interest in adoption, a significant minority are failing to meet the basic requirements of converting interest in adoption into the 4

5 reality of recruiting adopters for children in their care. The table below summarises the full responses. Where written information about the adoption process was sent to you, how long did it take from first contacting the agency for this information to be sent to you? Within five working days (i.e., one full week) Between six and ten working days (i.e., between one and two full weeks) Between 11 and 20 working days (i.e., between two weeks and approximately a month) Between one month and three months Between three to six months Between six months to a year Longer than a year n/a - Did not receive written information 37.2percent 26.3percent 6.6percent 7.3percent 1.5percent 0.7percent 0.7percent 19.7percent About one-half (49percent) of those expressing an interest in adoption were invited to an adoption information within two months (the statutory requirement), while are a further 20percent were invited within three months. However, nearly onethird (31percent) had to wait three months or more, with 10percent having to wait six months or more. The need to recruit adopters is highlighted every year during National Adoption Week and local campaigns run throughout the year across the country. Yet, despite this desire to recruit more adoptive parents, the reality is that for far too many children, their futures are compromised by the inability to convert interest into approved parents for children in care. How long after your initial inquiry were you invited to an adoption information meeting? less than 2 months 49.3percent 2 to 3 months 19.7percent 3 to 4 months 16.2percent Between 4 and 6 months 4.2percent Longer than 6 months 10.6percent After initial contact with an adoption agency, the first big step for prospective adopters is to get their application formally accepted. Again, the responses show that nearly one-half (45percent) had their application accepted within a good or reasonable timescale (i.e., within one to three months of first contacting the adoption agency). A further 20percent had their application accepted within three to six months, but over one-third (35percent) had to wait more than six months, 5

6 with 12percent having to wait longer than one year. While many adopters receive a good and efficient service in relation to the processing of their application, far too many are treated with a lack of urgency. This is a disservice to children in care, who may have experienced significant abuse and/or neglect over a number of years, while the interest of those who want to give them a permanent and loving home is treated with scant interest or taken for granted. How long after first contacting your agency did it take for your adoption application to be formally accepted? Within one week With two weeks to one month Within one month to three months Within three months to six months Within six months to one year Within one to two years More than two years (please specify) 3.4percent 12.9percent 27.2percent 19.7percent 25.2percent 7.5percent 4.1percent Legislation in England in Wales is very clear that police and health checks should be carried out after the application to adopt is formally accepted. However, the responses show that this is only observed in approximately three-quarters of adoption applications. The significance of this lies in the fact that some prospective adopters are denied the opportunity of having their interest in adoption being properly considered, as they have no recourse to independent review of their application unless their application has been formally accepted. When were your police and health checks carried out? Before our application was formally accepted After our application was formally accepted 25.7percent 74.3percent Once an adoption application had been accepted by the local authority, for over one-half (53percent) of respondents, their preparation/home study began within three months. For another 24percent, this part of the process began within three to six months. However, for nearly one-quarter (23percent), the wait was longer than six months another indication that urgency is lacking in progressing the interest of prospective adopters. 6

7 How long after your application was accepted did it take for your adoption preparation/home study to start? Within one week With two weeks to one month Within one month to three months Within three months to six months Within six months to one year Within one to two years More than two years (please specify) 5.4percent 10.8percent 37.8percent 23.6percent 15.5percent 4.7percent 2.0percent In England and Wales, statutory timescales require adoption applications to be submitted to an adoption panel within eight months of the application being formally received. The responses show that this was the case in 50percent of cases, and that another 27percent were submitted to the panel within eight months to one year. Therefore, the vast majority of adoption applications are processed within either the statutory timescales or what might be judged to be reasonable timescales (given the wide variation of circumstances and situations that may be encountered within the process). However, this means that nearly one-quarter (23percent) take more than one year to have their adoption application considered by an adoption panel (on top of the time that may have elapsed in getting applications formally accepted). From the perspective of children in care, it would appear that for many prospective adopters, not enough urgency is given to the approval process so that they are then available to the children who need adoptive homes. Furthermore, when one considers that the majority of those interested in adopting are likely to have undergone years of fertility issues and treatment before electing to pursue the parenting option of adoption, it adds an additional burden to those who have much to offer to children in care. After your application was accepted by the agency, how long did it take for your completed application to be considered by the agency s adoption panel? Less than six months Six to eight months Eight months to one year One to two years More than two years Application was never submitted to panel 24.8percent 25.5percent 26.8percent 18.1percent 4.0percent 0.7percent In England and Wales, statutory timescales require that adoption agencies inform prospective parents orally of their recommended approval as adopters within a 7

8 week of the adoption panel. Reassuringly, the responses show that this was the case in the vast majority of cases (85.6percent). Similarly, written confirmation of the decision was received within two weeks by over four-fifths of respondents (81percent). How soon after the panel meeting and the panel s recommendation were you informed orally of the agency s decision in relation to your application to be approved as an adopter? 1 week or less 85.6percent 1 to 2 weeks 10.3percent 2 to 3 weeks 2.7percent 4 weeks to six months 1.4percent Six months or longer 0.0percent How soon after the panel meeting and the panel s recommendation were you informed in writing of the agency s decision in relation to your application to be approved as an adopter? 1 week or less 33.6percent 1 to 2 weeks 46.9percent 2 to 3 weeks 14.0percent 4 weeks to six months 4.9percent Six months or longer 0.7percent Once approved as suitable to adopt, nearly one-third (32percent) of respondents said that a child or children were placed with them within six months. Another onethird (34percent) waited between six months and one year, while another one-third (34percent) waited more than a year. Worryingly, however, 17percent of approved adopters waited more than 18 months. If this reflects the national picture, then it suggests that either children needing adopting are waiting far too long, that prospective adopters being recruited and approved do not meet the needs of children in care who need adopting, or that there is a lack of national coordination to match adopters with children in care. How long after approval did it take for a child(ren) to be placed? Less than 6 months 31.9percent 6 months to one year 34.1percent 8

9 One year to 18 months 17.4percent 18 months to 2 years 10.1percent More than 2 years 6.5percent Conclusions and recommendations Lessons from the survey Overall, the survey provides a useful snapshot of adoptive parents experiences of the recruitment and assessment/preparation processes for adopting children from the care system. The survey highlights a great deal of good practice among local authority and voluntary adoption agencies and this should be properly acknowledged. In general terms, around two-thirds, and in some instances up to three-quarters, of adoption agencies are providing a good or reasonable service to prospective adopters. However, the survey also highlights cause for concern in about one-quarter or up to one-third of cases, particularly in relation to encouraging or welcoming people to consider adoption as a parenting option. One must consider that adopted children are generally some of the most damaged children in society, the vast majority of whom will have experienced early abuse and neglect within their birth families and are unable to return to those families. It behoves us, then, to provide a high quality adoption service that leaves no stone unturned in finding them suitable adoptive homes. Through finding permanent, loving, stable adoptive homes, adopted children can be helped and parented to overcome the long-term effects of trauma on their development. At a time when the government is attempting to renew the focus on recruiting and supporting more people to adopt children from care we can ill-afford to lose or delay the potential interest of approximately one-quarter of those who want to adopt. If the responses from this survey are reflected nationally, then of 3,700 adoptions across the UK each year, we run the risk of causing further harm through delay to about 1,000 of those children each year. We also run the risk of deterring people from adopting, with the result that some children will inevitably stay in care when they could benefit from a stable and permanent adoptive home. Adoptive parenting is challenging enough already and to be successful requires high quality and timely adoption support services, often including intensive child and family therapeutic and mental health services, which in themselves can be hard for adoptive families to access. Delaying the placement of adopted children through mismanaging the recruitment of adopters will only intensify the need for those services, the cost of them and the chances of their success. 9

10 Of particular concern, is the evidence that a significant number of potential adopters are unable to get their interest properly assessed or valued. While it should be acknowledged that not everyone who is interested in adopting will be suitable to be an adopter, and that rightly there is no right to become an adopter (merely an entitlement to make an application to be assessed), we should not be putting additional obstacles in the way of potential parents who may have a lot to offer to children in care. It should also be recognised that adoption agencies have finite resources and need to manage those resources well and effectively. This will sometimes mean that they will not be able to access all the interest that they receive. However, it is important that local considerations do not outweigh the national priority that adoption must possess if we are to better serve the children in care who are seeking adoptive families. Consequences of need, improving the recruitment of adopters and the timely placement of children The number of adoptions per year is higher than in 2000 when there was a concerted effort to prioritise the needs of children for adoption. However, in the last few years numbers have decreased again. There are still thousands of children awaiting adoption each year (see Adoption UK s Children Who Wait magazine as an example of this). This impacts in many ways: Children are increasingly damaged the longer they wait in the care system (e.g., through multiple moves from carer to carer). If hard-to-place children are eventually adopted, it is the adoptive parents who will have to cope with the effects of this extra damage. The longer children stay in care, the higher the costs to the state in caring for them. (The average cost per looked after child per week in 2007/08 across all placements was for 774; for foster care placements this was 489 per week; for residential care 2,428 per week. 1 ) The long-term outcomes for children who stay in the care system, or who return home, are far worse than for children who are adopted. 2 Supporting successful adoptions is far more cost-effective than leaving children in care (see further below). 1 House of Commons Children, Schools and Families Committee, Looked After Children (Third Report of Session ), Vol I (9 March 2009), p21, para 13, citing NHS Information Centre, Personal Social Services Expenditure and Costs England , February Costs and outcomes of non-infant adoptions (Selwyn, et al, 2006). 10

11 Obstacles to implementing change Localised and short-term approach to a national issue, due to constraints on professionals time and resources. No long-term national recruitment strategy for adopters. Individual or agency value judgements on what constitutes a good family, whether from the social worker who takes the first call, or from management decision-making processes or culture or from adoption panel recommendations. A disproportionate focus on procedures and checks at the expense of effective preparation and long-term support. Failure to make strong links between long-term support and recruiting adopters. Lack of financial resources to deliver effective support. Recommendations Adoption UK makes the following recommendations in relation to the future of recruiting and assessing adoptive parents: Positively and continuously promote adoption as a positive option. Train social work, education and health professionals on the importance of planning and delivering adoption support. Ensure adoptions are fully, properly and adequately supported. Make recruiting adopters a national priority that is implemented nationally, rather than implemented locally, e.g., consider the possibility of a central recruitment agency for potential adopters who are unable to have their interest in adoption considered due to their local agencies exercising local discretion because they are only looking for adopters who can meet the needs of local children Encourage and ensure better-coordinated recruitment strategies and plans among individual agencies and the consortia in which they work. Ends 11

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