Adoption: messages from inspections of adoption agencies. November A report by the Commission for Social Care Inspection

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1 Adoption: messages from inspections of adoption agencies November 2006 A report by the Commission for Social Care Inspection

2 Vision and Values The Commission for Social Care Inspection aims to: put the people who use social care first; improve services and stamp out bad practice; be an expert voice on social care; and practise what we preach in our own organisation. Document purpose Author Information for learning and improvement. Commission for Social Care Inspection (CSCI). Publication date November Target audience Copyright Online at Free copies from Order code Social services directors, children s services directors, chief executives and lead councillors of local councils with social care responsibilities in England. Health care professionals, academics and social care stakeholders. This publication is copyright CSCI and may be reproduced (excluding the CSCI logo) free of charge in any format or medium. Any material used must be acknowledged, and the title of the publication specified. Admail 3804 Newcastle NE99 1DY Order line Fax Minicom CSCI-179

3 Adoption messages from inspections of adoption agencies Commission for Social Care Inspection November 2006

4 Commission for Social Care Inspection First published November 2006 Enquiries about this report should be addressed to: CSCI VFM and Service Inspection Division 33 Greycoat Street London SW1P 2QF

5 Contents 1 Introduction 1 2 Summary 3 3 Checklist for improving services 6 4 Changes in adoption 9 5 Preparing children for adoption 14 6 The birth families contribution 19 7 Finding and preparing the right adopters 24 8 How decisions are made 30 9 Supporting children in their new families Managing a quality adoption service 36 Annexes 1 Percentage of local council adoption agencies inspected between April 2003 and March 2006 meeting national minimum standards 41 2 Percentage of voluntary adoption agencies inspected between April 2003 and March 2006 meeting national minimum standards 42

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7 1 Introduction 1.1 The 2002 Adoption and Children Act requires adoption agencies to ensure that children s needs are paramount in the adoption process. In 2005 adoption agencies placed 3,100 children for adoption. Their average age was 4 years and 2 months. Nine per cent of these children were given up for adoption by their parents and the others were all looked after children. As the profile of children requiring adoption changes, agencies need to find a wider range of adopters. And for adoptions to succeed, they need to help children understand why they are being adopted and prepare them to move into their new families; support birth parents to contribute to their child s adoption and provide adoptive families with appropriate services whenever they may be required. 1.2 This report describes the work of adoption agencies. It does not cover the role of the courts in the adoption process, or arrangements for stepchildren to be adopted. Between April 2003 and March 2006 all 150 local council and 33 voluntary adoption agencies in England were inspected by the Commission. Almost all of these inspections were completed before the full implementation of the 2002 Adoption and Children Act in December The arrangements for these inspections, and the action taken to address any areas of poor performance that are identified, are covered in paragraphs 4.16 to In preparing this report we have analysed: the scores that all adoption agencies achieved against the national minimum standards (NMS) from April 2003 to March 2006 and changes during the period. These are based on inspections of 150 local council and 59 voluntary adoption agencies because separate inspections are undertaken of each branch of the larger voluntary adoption agencies; reports of 45 local council and 14 voluntary adoption agencies inspected in and letters sent to 34 agencies following visits to check progress since earlier inspections; Performance Assessment Framework (PAF) indicators for 2005 and Department for Education and Skills (DfES) statistics published in March 2006; questionnaires completed by adoption inspectors and their contributions to a workshop on current adoption services; and the responses of a group of stakeholders to these findings. 1

8 1 1.4 This report describes the work of adoption agencies prior to the full implementation of the 2002 Act but is written in the context of the new requirements. It includes: a summary of the main findings from the inspections; a checklist for managers to use to review their agencies progress at this critical time; a chapter on changes in adoption policy, the children who are adopted and inspection arrangements; six chapters covering the key stages of the work of adoption agencies. These summarise what is required; how well agencies met the relevant range of national minimum standards over the three-year period from April 2003 to March 2006; details of what inspectors found and examples of best practice; and annexes showing the percentage of local council adoption agencies and voluntary adoption agencies inspected between April 2003 and March 2006 that met each of the national minimum standards. 1.5 The report describes the position in all adoption agencies except where it is specifically stated that comments refer to local councils or voluntary adoption agencies. Where numbers are linked to qualitative comments about adoption agencies, they relate to adoption agencies inspected in A report produced by the Children s Rights Director called About Adoption is being published at the same time as this report and provides an important complementary view of adoption services. Copies of both reports can be obtained from Further information about adoption policy and the national minimum standards is available on the DfES website at adoption or by telephone on

9 2 Summary 2.1 The profile of adoption services in local councils has risen significantly following the Prime Minister s adoption review in The numbers of looked after children who were adopted rose between 2000 and 2005 by 38% against a target of 40%. Improved information and new models of working have helped children to understand adoption and be better prepared for moving into new families. More timely, accessible and independent support for birth parents has increased their contribution to the success of their child s adoption. A more diverse range of adopters has been recruited to match children s needs and more ongoing support is available to adoptive families. 2.2 But very skilled and consistent work with children, birth families and adopters is required to maximise the success of every adoption placement. Overall, the quality of adoption practice is still very variable across and within local councils, with some aspects of practice falling below the required standard in most places. Voluntary adoption agencies, that have a more specific remit, generally meet or exceed the required standards. 2.3 Agencies have generally made good use of inspections to improve their services. Follow-up visits show that most agencies have made considerable efforts to implement inspection requirements and recommendations. Several agencies that initially provided poor or inconsistent services now provide a satisfactory or good service. Preparing children for adoption 2.4 Assessments of children were variable in quality. The best offered a holistic view of the child and birth family and explained the reasons for the adoption plan in a way that would be helpful to the child in the future. It is of concern that the poorest assessments lacked balance, were inaccurate and out of date. Inspectors undertake follow-up checks to ensure that agencies address all areas of poor performance effectively. 2.5 Most children were prepared for placement and had completed life story work. But in a fifth of the agencies children s social workers struggled to prioritise this essential work, leaving some children in a very vulnerable situation. 3

10 2 2.6 Children are moving through the adoption process more quickly. Those under a year are placed on average within five months of a formal decision being made and older children on average within nine months. However one third of agencies did not specify in their safeguarding policy the action to be taken if concerns arose relating to children placed for adoption. The contribution of birth families 2.7 Because many birth parents oppose the adoption plan, it can be difficult to engage them in providing information about their child during the adoption process. Inspectors saw evidence that birth parents had been involved in two out of three agencies. Staff who understood the adoption process and the need to capture detailed information as early as possible, involved birth families most effectively. Frequent changes of social worker hampered this work in one in five councils. 2.8 All agencies involved birth families in ongoing contact arrangements to promote and maintain the child s identity. For birth parents, this contact was usually through periodic exchanges of letters and photos. Grandparents or siblings in other adoption placements were most often supported to have direct contact. 2.9 Most councils offered support to birth families but many found it difficult to get right. It usually works best when it is independent and there is a choice about when and how it can be accessed. Voluntary adoption agencies are good at providing these services. Finding and preparing adopters 2.10 Seven out of ten local councils and nine out of ten voluntary adoption agencies have developed strategies to recruit adoptive parents to meet the needs of children who are waiting. These were implemented most successfully when agencies employed staff with marketing skills. The best agencies had developed innovative strategies to recruit, prepare and assess applicants from a wide range of minority ethnic communities and religious groups, single adopters and same sex couples Timescales for completing adoption assessments have improved overall but in some agencies there are delays in allocating social workers or offering training. Assessment reports on prospective adopters were usually detailed but not always well analysed and evidenced Prospective adopters are generally very positive about their training. However it is not always available to meet the needs of inter-country or second time 4

11 adopters. Comprehensive checks are completed by nine out of ten agencies on prospective adopters, but the other one in ten did not always understand the importance of these checks or undertake them comprehensively. 2 Decision making 2.13 The independent role of adoption panels is well established in most agencies though some services struggle to recruit members to represent all the interested parties in the adoption process. At their best, adoption panels offer a wide range of experience and expertise and provide quality assurance. However, some panels struggle to complete their business in a timely way and a few make recommendations when they are inquorate or have incomplete information. Agency decisions are generally made within timescales but a fifth of agency decision makers reach the formal decision on behalf of the agency without accessing the full range of information available to the panel. Supporting children in their new families 2.14 All agencies have increased the support that they provide to children and their adoptive families and five out of six have a strategy for developing these services. The services that are hardest to secure are Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services and education. Some excellent dedicated services have been developed to provide a timely and focused response. Service management 2.15 Adoption managers are key to the quality of the adoption service. Where they are knowledgeable and actively champion the service, adoption is more likely to be seen as a mainstream option for children and to be resourced to deliver a good service Recruiting sufficient skilled and experienced social workers continues to be a problem for almost half of the adoption agencies. High turnover rates and the use of employment agency social workers in children and family teams can significantly affect the timing and quality of adoption plans. Effective workforce strategies relating to all the groups of staff who work with children who may be adopted are essential for delivering good quality services. Managers in the best agencies oversee adoption activity through regular auditing of written material, whilst the poorest have yet to establish these arrangements. 5

12 3 Checklist for improving services 3.1 This checklist is designed to help adoption agencies review their practice and improve outcomes for users of the service. It draws on good practice identified in the inspections. It also reflects the way that inspectors will make judgements in the future about how effectively adoption services meet outcomes for children within the Commission s new inspection methodology. 3.2 What makes an adoption service good for children? Information for children about adoption is well presented and in formats that children of all ages can understand. This includes information for birth siblings and siblings created by adoption. Life story work is given priority, undertaken by skilled staff and adopters are supported in helping children understand their heritage. Children s permanence reports are clearly written, balanced and provide comprehensive information in a way that will be helpful to children in later life. Children are listened to. Their views and experiences are taken seriously, are central to the operation of the agency and influence service development. Staff are clear about their role and responsibilities in safeguarding children and have received comprehensive training in safeguarding children placed for adoption. 3.3 What makes an adoption service good for birth parents? Taking account of the child s best interests, birth parents and families should be involved as far as possible in planning, sharing information, matching and placing children. A careful record is kept of their involvement. Birth parents are provided with independent support. These services are monitored and evaluated regularly to ensure they continue to meet the needs of families. Contact with birth parents is actively discussed at every stage of the adoption process. Contact arrangements are organised to meet the assessed needs of each individual child and take account of the views of birth parents. Letterbox contact is managed by someone who has knowledge about the importance of contact and has the skills and time to support this process. 6

13 3 3.4 What makes the adoption service good for prospective and approved adopters? The agency uses innovative ways to attract and recruit adopters from as wide a section of the community as possible to maximise the availability of appropriate families to match the needs of children waiting for adoption. Comprehensive vetting procedures cover all prospective adopters, adult members of their households and extended family and friends who will have unsupervised contact with the children. Vetting activity is recorded and monitored to ensure that the procedures are undertaken consistently and effectively. Prospective adopters are involved in a comprehensive, competency-based preparation, assessment and approval process that is undertaken without prejudice. Assessment reports on prospective adopters are analytical and evidence based, address equality and diversity issues, and completed within timescales. 3.5 What makes for good decision making? The child s permanence report and prospective adopters reports are analytical and evidence based, and completed within timescales. The agency has clear written policies and procedures about the purpose and function of the panel and panel members have been involved in developing these. Panel minutes are clear and informative and show how panel members have reached their recommendations. Agency decisions are made in a timely way. 3.6 What makes a good support service for children and their adoptive families? The agency ensures that all those who use adoption services are aware that they are entitled to an assessment for support services to meet their needs. Service users are consulted about the type and level of support they need. The agency sees support to adopters, birth families and children as integral to achieving positive outcomes for adopted children and can demonstrate how they are implementing a strategy to achieve this. Placements are visited and reviewed regularly. Placement disruptions are reviewed to learn lessons to improve agency practice. 3.7 What makes for most effective management of adoption services? The adoption agency manager has extensive knowledge and experience of adoption, leads the development and delivery of the adoption plan, champions adoption and is supported by the wider organisation. Adoption agency staff, including social workers for children, are well qualified and experienced. They are able to give appropriate priority to adoption work and organised so that children and birth families do not experience unnecessary changes of worker. 7

14 3 Team managers responsible for children with a plan for adoption can harness the knowledge and experience of adoption specialists to ensure that appropriate work is undertaken with children and birth families. Staff recruitment checks are comprehensive and the outcomes of checks are appropriately recorded. The agency seeks and is responsive to feedback and can demonstrate improvements in their service as a result. There are effective processes in place to address, challenge and monitor the quality of practice. 8

15 4 Changes in adoption Policy context 4.1 At the end of 2005 the adoption system faced the biggest changes in 30 years when the Adoption and Children Act 2002 replaced the Adoption Act It will take time for the 2002 Act to bed down but there is no doubt that adoption law needed reform. 4.2 The 1976 Act traced its roots back to the 1960s. It was a time when unmarried mothers faced stigmatisation and isolation. As a result, many felt obliged to relinquish their babies and infants for adoption. Very few children were adopted from local authority care. The numbers of adoption orders reached a high of 25,000 in The 1976 Act brought together arrangements for adoption and the care and protection of children waiting to be adopted. It focused on the needs of children likely to be adopted at that time. There was no specific provision for the needs of older children, the lifelong impact of adoption or the welfare of children adopted from abroad. 4.3 Even as the 1976 Act was passed by Parliament, earlier changes were starting to have an effect. Fewer children were given up for adoption as the contraceptive pill and other measures reduced the number of unplanned pregnancies. Society s values were becoming more inclusive and single parents started to receive more support. Meanwhile the number of childless couples seeking children remained more or less stable. Some started looking at adopting children from outside the UK. In the late 1970s, increasing numbers of older children, disabled children and sibling groups were taken into care. 4.4 Through the 1980s and 1990s the number of adoption orders continued to fall, while the numbers of children in care continued to climb. The Children Act 1989 introduced major reforms for children, including the welfare checklist, the concept of parental responsibility and requirements on local councils to provide services for children in need. It made the welfare of the child the paramount consideration. 4.5 In the early 1990s the Government published a series of proposals to reform adoption legislation and introduce a more child centred approach. A draft Adoption Bill was published for consultation in

16 4 4.6 In 1996 the Social Services Inspectorate (SSI) published a national report on inspections of local council adoption services entitled For Children s Sake. It highlighted that whilst adoption work had become increasingly complex because of significant changes in the children being placed, it had a low profile in most local councils and was not always well managed. This influenced the Local Authority Circular(98)20: Adoption achieving the right balance which required councils to promote the benefits of adoption; ensure that issues of race, culture, religion and language were properly addressed; avoid delay; assess people seeking to adopt children from overseas and improve the effectiveness and efficiency of adoption services. In 2000 a further SSI report Adopting Changes reviewed how local councils were implementing the circular. It highlighted: significant delays in progressing some adoption plans for children and in completing some assessments of prospective adopters; that adoption was not considered as a means of achieving permanence for all children; and continued weaknesses in policies and procedures, management arrangements and reporting to councillors. 4.7 The need for a new legislative framework for adoption became a focus for the Prime Minister s adoption review in Later that year a White Paper set out plans to consolidate existing adoption legislation and to modernise the adoption system. Parliament passed the Adoption and Children Act in It completely reformed the law and system for domestic and inter-country adoption in England and Wales. 4.8 The 2002 Act: put the needs of the child at the centre of the adoption process by: aligning adoption law with the Children Act 1989 to make the child s welfare the paramount consideration in all decisions to do with adoption; requiring the court or the adoption agency to have regard to a welfare checklist ; set a clear duty on local authorities to provide an adoption support service and a new right for people affected by adoption to request and receive an assessment of their needs for adoption support services; and enabled unmarried couples to apply to adopt jointly, thereby widening the pool of potential adoptive parents. 10

17 4.9 Through the final months of 2005, adoption agencies prepared for the 2002 Act s implementation. As well as participating in training about the Act, the new adoption regulations and their statutory guidance, adoption agencies and their staff had to continue to manage ongoing transitional cases that had begun under the old legislation. 4 Changes in practice 4.10 In April 2000 a target was introduced to increase adoptions of looked after children by 40% in the five-year period to the end of March The baseline was the 2,700 adoptions made during the year ending March Over the five years up to the year ending March 2005 there was an increase of 38%, with 4,200 more looked after children adopted than would have been the case if adoptions had remained constant Of the 3,100 children placed for adoption in 2005, 7% were under 1 year old, 55% between 1 and 4, 32% between 5 and 9 and 6% over 10 years. The children who are adopted are slightly more likely to be boys and the average age at adoption dropped by 3 months to 4 years 2 months in In addition, there were 367 inter-country adoptions in 2005 with half of these children being adopted from China. Between 2000 and 2005 there were 1,962 inter-country adoptions The National Adoption Standards for England introduced an expectation that, other than in exceptional circumstances, children will be matched with adopters within six months of the confirmed decision that they should be placed for adoption. In practice, on average all children were matched with prospective adopters within seven months of the formal decision being made. It took five months for children under one year to be matched and an average of nine months for older children Over the three years from 2003 to 2005 the use of court orders to free children for adoption increased by 15% and almost half of all children adopted in 2005 were subject to freeing orders. The number of children voluntarily relinquished for adoption decreased to 9% in Changes in inspection arrangements 4.15 All voluntary adoption agencies have had to be registered to operate since the Adoption of Children (Regulation) Act 1939 was introduced in Although the Adoption Act 1958 gave local councils explicit powers to arrange adoption for those children not in their care (as well as those who were), it was not until 1988 that all local councils were required to have adoption services. 11

18 4 These services did not need to be registered and were not subject to a regular inspection programme. Some services were inspected as part of the Social Services Inspectorate s thematic inspections programme (see paragraph 4.6.) 4.16 The Care Standards Act 2000 introduced for the first time the same inspection arrangements for local council adoption services as voluntary adoption agencies. A combined three-year inspection programme started in April Inspections include: an assessment of the service by the agency manager; questionnaires to approved adopters, adoption applicants, birth families, social workers, other agencies who had placed a child for adoption and professional advisors; interviews with key managers and staff and (where relevant) local councillors; visits to adoptive families; inspection of case files for adopters and children; human resources records; service premises and archive facilities; reading policies and procedures; and observation of the adoption panel For the first two years inspectors reported against each of national minimum standards (NMS) for adoption agencies. From April 2005 the NMS were mapped against the Every Child Matters outcomes and inspectors reported against these outcomes and the arrangements for managing the service Following inspections, all agencies are asked to develop action plans to implement requirements and recommendations. Inspectors monitor their progress including undertaking some further inspection visits. If a voluntary adoption agency failed to make required improvements then ultimately their registration as an adoption agency could be withdrawn. If a local council failed to improve its adoption services, the Secretary of State would be informed, with a recommendation on what special measures should be taken. No voluntary adoption agencies were deregistered or local councils referred to the Secretary of State in the period covered by this report. 12

19 4.20 From April 2006, local council adoption inspections will usually be undertaken at the same time as fostering inspections and contribute to the overall assessment of the performance of local councils children s services. This should further increase the impact of these inspections Further information about the national minimum standards is available on the Department for Education and Skills website at uk/adoption 4 13

20 5 Preparing children for adoption 5.1 If adoption is being considered for a child they need to have information to help them understand what this means and how it will affect them. They need to understand the story of their life and why adoption is the plan for them. 5.2 Detailed and comprehensive assessments of children s needs are the basis of good decisions about their future. Matching each child with the most appropriate family who can meet their needs is a complex process and it should take place within specific timescales. 5.3 Of the national minimum standards most relevant to preparing children for adoption, more than half of all agencies met or exceeded them between 2003 and Adoption agencies are good at: producing good information for children on adoption and about their adoptive family; developing imaginative initiatives to improve the placement prospects of more difficult to place children; and tracking timescales relating to the implementation of the adoption plan 5.5 They are less good at: Information producing consistently good, comprehensive and up to date assessments of children s needs which are appropriate for everyone to use; preparing all children adequately for adoption; and including children placed for adoption within safeguarding procedures 5.6 Half of all agencies have produced information for children to take account of their age and level of understanding. Some of these agencies have also produced information for the child s birth siblings and new siblings by adoption. But the information provided by other agencies does not adequately meet children s needs. 14

21 Preparation 5.7 Councils recognise the need for children to be prepared for adoption and four out of five agencies seek to ensure that preparation is both adequate and timely. They recognise that direct work with children is ongoing and that the production of life storybooks is just one part of the process to ensure that children understand their past and how it relates to the future plan for them. The best agencies also recognise that preparing books to accompany children into their new family is a very skilled task. 5.8 Children in the remaining one in five councils are not benefiting from good enough direct work before moving into their adoptive placement with all the inherent risk associated with this for their future and the success of the placement. Children s social workers in these agencies report that they do not have the skills to work directly with children or cannot prioritise work with them or complete life storybooks because of competing pressures. 5 Good Practice Norfolk has recruited workers who have both the skills and time to work directly with children. They have developed an interactive guide that can be used during preparation for adoption to take the child backwards and forwards in their life story work. This results in a life storybook that allows work to be done with children and their siblings when they need it by the person best able to do it. 5.9 The child s social worker determines when the child has been appropriately prepared and is ready to move into their new family. There is a balance to be drawn between meeting the timescales for implementing the plan for adoption and ensuring that sufficient priority and expertise has been given to the preparation of the child. Good agencies have managed to balance this by appointing specific staff who have the responsibility to ensure this work is done. Children s permanence reports 5.10 Detailed and comprehensive assessments of children s needs are the basis of good decisions about their future. Good quality and up to date assessments on children for whom adoption is the plan are essential for matching purposes. Where these are produced by social workers who know the child well they are likely to reflect more fully a holistic picture of the child. 15

22 The quality of assessment reports on children for whom adoption is the plan is described as poor or not of a consistently good quality in over half of all agencies. Some are produced by cutting and pasting care proceedings information and do not focus sufficiently on the needs of the child. It is of concern that one in six agencies do not get basic factual information correct Assessment reports need to provide a balanced view that will be helpful not only for the matching process but for the child in the future. Some social workers do not know the child well enough to provide a sufficiently detailed and accurate presentation of them. This often occurs where responsibility for the child passes between teams at the point at which the report needs to be prepared Five in six agencies have addressed these problems by providing a rolling programme of comprehensive training to staff and managers. Others have developed mentoring and quality assurance schemes to improve practice An increasing number of agencies have developed the use of Life Appreciation Days for all children with a plan for adoption to bring together a range of people from all periods of the child s life to contribute to a full picture of the child and her or his development. This is invaluable for the matching process and for adopters and it ensures that a detailed and balanced picture is there for the child. Matching 5.15 Children s social workers and adoption workers generally work effectively together to match children to adopters who can meet their needs. This includes keeping siblings together wherever possible and, where it is not possible, making arrangements that will enable ongoing contact. Care is also taken to address cultural and religious issues. Most agencies also have good arrangements to support the matching process. They are, however, often compromised by out of date or incomplete reports on children. The assessment we read had very little relation to the child placed with us. This was down to the delay in our child being matched with us... they had changed so much. Adopter 16

23 6 Good Practice Life Foundation Days in South Tyneside take place after all available information on the child has been collected and all those involved in the plan for adoption have been interviewed. Birth family members and the adopters meet together with the support workers assigned to them to: improve adopters understanding of a child s background; create a positive relationship between the adopters and birth family members to enhance the quality of future contact; and provide the child with tangible evidence of birth family support in their wooden memory box containing contributions from birth family members. This has improved direct and indirect contact arrangements The matching process for children who are deemed harder to place has been developed by many agencies with an increasing use of initiatives which engage prospective adopters early in their assessment to consider if they might be able to meet the needs of specific children Children who have been matched to a prospective adopter/s need to be able to have good information about the family, given in a way they understand and can ask questions about. Not all adoptive families are equally skilled in putting together photographs and information about themselves for the children they have not yet met. Good agencies offered help to these families to prepare imaginative and appropriate portrayals of their family life for use with the children before placement. Good Practice All applicants approved by Families Are Best, Catholic Children s Society prepare a family book which includes photographs and a written commentary tailored to the age of children likely to be placed with them. After matching, this is revised to take account of the known needs of the child and to address any areas the child has identified during their preparation. Prospective adopters are also linked to a mentor family who share their experience of integrating children into their family and preparing information for them. 17

24 5 Timescales for placing children with adoptive families 5.18 Once a plan for adoption has been made for a child, planning should proceed to minimise the time that children have to wait for a family. In one in six agencies inspectors report that the time that children have to wait for a new family has reduced. In good agencies managers and adoption panels monitor timescales. Any reasons for delay are questioned and explanations sought Concurrent planning is used by some agencies to reduce delays for children involved in care proceedings. This is still not widespread and some very young children are experiencing significant delays and additional changes of carer. It is of concern that inspectors have seen examples of relinquished infants who were not placed with adopters in a timely way. Good Practice Concurrent planning is undertaken by Coram Family, Manchester Adoption Society, Brighton and Hove, and Kent to reduce delays and the number of placement moves for children. The child is placed with foster carers who are also approved adopters whilst a time limited assessment takes place and the birth family is provided with intensive support to maximise the chances of rehabilitation and contact with their child. At the conclusion of care proceedings the child is either returned to their parent(s) or remains with the carers who apply to adopt. The child s needs are the priority and it is the adults who face the risks. Because the birth family and the carers meet throughout the process, excellent information can be gathered for the child and good foundations laid for meaningful post adoption contact. Some birth parents, having had the opportunity to work towards rehabilitation and failed, have agreed to their child being adopted by the carers they have come to know. Safeguarding children placed for adoption 5.20 Two thirds of agencies have appropriate safeguarding policies and procedures but in almost a third they do not adequately address the position of children placed for adoption but not yet adopted. This means that when a safeguarding concern arises about a child in an adoption placement staff may be unsure of the action to take. Inspectors monitor that agencies are addressing this as part of their inspection follow-up Good agencies specifically included in their procedures a section relating to children who have or are being adopted. They also ensure that staff have the appropriate training in what to do if concern is raised about one of these children. 18

25 6 The birth families contribution 6.1 Local councils have to make a permanence plan for all looked after children after four months. All of the options should be explored with the child s parents and their views should be sought and recorded. Where one of the options being considered is adoption, the implications and procedures should be explained. 6.2 Birth parents should be offered advice and counselling. They should be asked what kind of upbringing they want for their child and what future contact they would hope to have. 6.3 The child s social worker writes a detailed report about each child where the plan is for adoption. It contains information on all aspects of their needs and the history of their birth family. It sets out why the child should be placed for adoption and how and why the birth parents are unable to care for them. Parents should have the opportunity to see and comment on the report and complete their own section of it. 6.4 More than half of all agencies inspected between 2003 and 2006 met or exceeded the national minimum standards relating to supporting birth parents and enabling them to participate fully in planning for their child and in any ongoing contact arrangements. By the third year all voluntary adoption agencies met or exceeded all of these standards. 6.5 Agencies are good at: providing or commissioning independent support services for birth parents; making plans for ongoing contact between birth parents and their children; and ensuring adopters understand the importance of contact with the birth family. 6.6 They are less good at: monitoring the quality and take up of commissioned services; minimising the impact on birth parents of passing through a series of specialist teams; 19

26 6 ensuring the engagement of birth parents and collecting information about them from the earliest possible opportunity; making sure birth parents views are recorded; and engaging with birth fathers. Involvement in planning 6.7 Birth parents can find it difficult to understand about the information that their child will need in the early stages of the adoption process before a court decision has been made and when they disagree with the court s decision. Good agencies ensure that birth parents have the support they need from the outset. They do this by providing dedicated birth parent workers distanced from the workers involved in the court proceedings and by ensuring that contact issues have been resolved. Some local councils worked in partnership with voluntary adoption agencies to provide this service to birth parents. Services are overwhelmingly developed for birth mothers with only three agencies reported as offering services to birth fathers. 6.8 The first contact that birth parents have with social workers is often long before there is a plan for their child to be adopted. In one fifth of councils birth parents had experienced five or six changes of social worker as the case was transferred through the structure of specialist teams. This means that new workers have to absorb the material already gathered and birth parents have to establish new relationships. These changes are exacerbated where there is a high turnover in front line social work staff. 6.9 Good agencies use workers with adoption expertise to record information from and about the birth family at the earliest opportunity. In a quarter of local councils a lack of adoption expertise resulted in a poor understanding of permanence planning and lost opportunities to obtain important information for the child in the future. 20

27 6 Good Practice Sunderland and Newcastle City Council have appointed a dedicated birth family worker to support birth families to: understand social services adoption plans; help them gain some insight into their current situation; understand the importance of maintaining agreed contact; and assist families who wish to write letters. The worker is independent of the care proceedings, so is seen as less threatening. The birth families control how much involvement they have and the offer of support is open ended Inspectors reported that in two in three councils birth parents had been involved in providing information about their wishes and feelings about the child and the plan for adoption. The lack of evidence of involvement in other agencies may be explained by parents refusing to sign the report because they disagree with the content or plan for adoption or because staff had not shown them the report expecting them to disagree and refuse to sign. Good agencies require social workers to report the reasons why birth parents choose not to complete any information or sign the report. Contact between birth family members 6.11 Involving birth parents, wherever possible, in ongoing contact arrangements to promote and maintain their child s identity and heritage is now established practice across all agencies. Supported direct contact is occasionally arranged with birth parents, but more often with grandparents and other relatives and siblings in different adoptive placements. The contact with birth parents is usually indirect and through letterbox arrangements. This usually involves a two way, annual exchange of letters and photographs between birth parents and adopters. There is a risk in taking a one size fits all approach and some agencies offer a range of forms of indirect contact tailored to the needs of birth families. I am happy to see my children are safe and happy, the adopters made me feel part of the family. Birth parent Not all birth parents lose interest in their children. Keep parents properly informed with written information at every step. Give regular updates on the children s progress and development. Birth parent 21

28 Some agencies have developed imaginative and sensitive support arrangements to enable birth parents to provide something meaningful for both themselves and their child. This may involve helping them to write a letter or prepare an audio or videotape. Good Practice South Tyneside has expanded the role of the adoption post box co-ordinator to offer support and ensure that agreed contact arrangements remain viable. Regular communication with adopters and birth parents means that: the contact plan is kept under regular review; birth parents are encouraged to remain engaged and can receive direct practical support to provide their contribution; and regular contact with adopters reduces the incidence of adopters reneging on agreed arrangements and picks up on any indication of a need for an assessment of support needs. This has led to a higher success rate in maintaining two-way communication, enhanced the relationship between the recipients and improved the quality of the information shared. It has also made it easier to engage birth families in the child s life story work Adopters are asked for their agreement to informing their agency should the child placed with them die in childhood so that birth parents can be informed. Almost all agencies get agreement to this but one in five do not make it part of written contact arrangements. Services to support birth parents 6.14 Support services for birth parents are being developed in most agencies though overall it is one of the areas of work local councils found most difficult to get right and 13 councils were judged overall to be poor. While much of the support comes from the social worker responsible for the child, almost all agencies have ensured that birth parents can access some support that is independent of the team making the plan for adoption of the child or of the agency. This is usually a service commissioned from another adoption agency though there are examples of this being provided by the adoption team. The whole family were left to get on with life as if nothing had happened. Birth parent 22

29 6.15 Voluntary adoption agencies all offer good or excellent birth parent support services. Some local councils commission these services from them. However they do not always monitor the quality of the service being provided or the take up of the service by birth parents and therefore do not know to what extent support is actually being provided on their behalf The point at which birth parents are given information about the support available to them and the range of support on offer is crucial. The best provision consists of a menu of services from which birth parents can select, as this is more likely to be experienced by them as empowering. Birth parents also need to be able to access support services in later years. I cannot access the service until the adoption order is through, then I will be given six sessions. Birth parent The development of a range of support services to birth parents should be underpinned by a strategy. One in four agencies had no strategy either to provide independent support services for birth parents or to develop them further. Agencies with a well developed strategy are more likely to enable birth parents to contribute their views and wishes about their child s upbringing in a timely and considered way and to say what future contact they hope could be arranged. This is seen at its best in concurrent planning where birth parents are treated as equal partners in planning for the future of the child. This has allowed some birth parents to agree to the adoption of their child, provide the information that the child might need and move forward more positively in their lives. 23

30 7 Finding and preparing the right adopters 7.1 Local councils have a legal duty to provide an adoption service, including a service to prospective inter-country adopters. They must identify which of their children need adoptive families. Both councils and voluntary adoption agencies can recruit, prepare and assess prospective adopters. This process must be undertaken thoroughly to ensure that adopters can meet the needs of children who are to be adopted. 7.2 Applicants are prepared to become adopters by being offered information, opportunities to talk with others in the same situation and to hear from people who are already bringing up adopted children and through individual counselling to explore their concerns in more detail and answer their questions. 7.3 Those who wish to proceed further need to know what this will entail and how long it will take. Preparation training has to ensure that prospective adopters have fully explored all aspects of the task they wish to take on and understand and agree to the range of checks that take place to ensure that children are safeguarded. 7.4 Information about the needs of children who have recently been placed or who are waiting for adoptive families should inform a comprehensive recruitment strategy in each agency. 7.5 The national minimum standards relating to the recruitment, preparation and assessment of adopters were met or exceeded by about two thirds of all agencies between 2003 and Practice in relation to recruiting adopters, planning and matching improved in the agencies inspected in the second and third year. Performance in relation to preparation and assessment of adopters was consistent in the agencies inspected over the three years. 7.6 Adoption agencies were good at: responding to enquirers and making information available; and providing preparation training opportunities which met the needs of applicants. 24

31 7 7.7 They were less good at: having recruitment strategies which targeted and prioritised resources on those likely to meet the needs of the children waiting; ensuring that a proactive strategy for using adopters accompanies a more inclusive approach to their recruitment; and evidencing the assessments they made of prospective adopters. Recruiting the right adopters 7.8 Each adoption agency should have a recruitment strategy that identifies which children are waiting for adoptive families and which children may need a family in the future. The strategy should identify how it will actively recruit adoptive parents to meet the needs of these children. 7.9 Seven out of 10 local councils and nine out of 10 voluntary adoption agencies have strategies in place to recruit adopters to meet the needs of the children. In agencies without strategies, recruitment activity tends to be more ad hoc, the different stages in the recruitment process are less likely to be well coordinated and prospective adopters are likely to experience greater delays. It is therefore of concern that 10 agencies have no recruitment plans The agencies that have been most successful in recruiting adopters have employed staff with specific skills in marketing and advertising. Their attention to the detail of each stage of the recruitment process has made it more efficient and timely. They can also target activity to meet identified needs. Good Practice Ealing established a Black Families Adoption Consultation project to find out why so few African & African Caribbean people came forward to adopt. The reasons emerged as: housing / space concerns; financial concerns; fear of being judged and not respected / failure to understand black families / reported negative experiences; fear of the assessment process; motivation / cultural issues around discussing infertility; the extent to which the UK was seen as the permanent home; and lack of awareness. This clarified the barriers that needed to be overcome to successfully recruit black families. 25

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