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Good grief, Charlie Brown. Can I make sense of adoption statistics?

Lots of news about the adoption statistics – for example

http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/oct/01/fall-in-adoptions-of-vulnerable-kids-sparks-charity-warning

 

Well actually, adoption numbers are broadly rising, though they might dip a bit in 2015 (it is more that everyone expects them to drop considerably in 2016/2017 because less Placement Orders are being made – or are they?)

Adoption orders made

2011  4709

2012 5260

2013 6078

2014 6750

2015 (half year’s figures 3242, so we can guess that the full year will be about 6,500 ish)

 

I’m not really going to get into the political debate about whether adoption numbers going up is automatically a “good thing” or whether it represents something of a failure, or indeed whether adoption should be as politicised a topic as it has become.

What I wanted to work out was whether Placement Orders  (which is the order that a Court makes at the end of care proceedings deciding that adoption is going to be the plan for the child) have gone up or down, and whether the landmark case of Re B-S has had any impact on this.

 

I’ve been holding off on writing about the adoption statistics, because I was searching for a particular answer that would make sense of it.  I’m very grateful to staff in the MoJ statistics department for helping me find it (hello Wincen!)

 

Right, the Family Court Quarterly stats are here  https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/family-court-statistics-quarterly-april-to-june-2015  but what I needed was the raw information from the Family Court tables.

You’d need the Excel spreadsheet programme to look at it, but I’ll do my best to summarise.

 

The questions that have been in my mind are

 

“Are less Placement Orders are being made since Re B-S came out? And if so, how many less?”

and if so

“Is that because the applications are being made less often? or because they are being made but turned down? Or both?”

 

 

Re B-S came out in Sept 2013, so you’d expect if it was significant to see some sort of dip in 2014, it wouldn’t really affect the 2013 figures.

 

So, the first question.

Placement Orders made

 

2011 – 5116

2012 – 6471

2013 – 6242

2014  – 4286

2015 – 2035  (but that is only the figures for Q1 and Q2 – so let’s guess at a yearly figure of twice that, 4070)

 

Looking at that, then, in the year after Re B-S came out, the number of Placement Orders MADE by the Court dropped by nearly two thousand (1956), or about a THIRD. And that number hasn’t recovered in 2015, it is about the same.

So it would be fair to say that Re B-S has had an impact on the number of Placement Orders being made by the Courts. A decrease of a third is more than a statistical anomaly, there’s something real happening there.

 

What I haven’t known to this point is whether that is because the Courts have been refusing the applications, or whether the applications were just being made less often. But now I have the raw numbers to share with you all.

 

 

Placement Order applications. 

2011 – 5821

2012 – 7085

2013 – 7182   (Re B-S came out in sept 2013, so would affect the fourth quarter only)

2014 – 4942

2015   – 2445  (but that is only the figures for Q1 and Q2 – so lets guess at a yearly figure of twice that 4,890)

 

So again, we can look at the figures and see that in the year after Re B-S,  the number of applications made dropped by 2,240, just over a third. And they have remained at that level since.

There seems then quite a strong correlation between the Placement order applications decreasing and the number of orders then decreasing.

Let’s imagine that you are a teenager going out Trick or Treating on Halloween. If you kept count of the number of doors you knocked on each year and how much candy you get each year, and in 2014 and 2015 you knocked on a third less doors and got a third less candy, you’d reach a pretty obvious conclusion.

 

"I got a rock"

“I got a rock”

 

But does that mean that if you just knocked on a third more doors, you’d get a third more candy?  Or had those houses you din’t knock at put up signes saying “no Trick or Treaters”, so you didn’t botherknock at a door if it was clear you’d be wasting your time?

 

[I’m reminded of a particular Judge who once said to me “Mr Pack, if you keep knocking at an open door, eventually you’ll fall through and break your neck”. And that certainly stopped me knocking at that particular door]

Or in our case, if the number of applications went back up, would the “problem” of declining Placement Orders, which is going to lead in turn to a “problem” decline in adoption numbers  go away?

 

IF there had been six thousand Placement Order applications last year, would  the Courts would have made roughly six thousand in line with previous years , or whether they would have made roughly four thousand ? (i.e were there a third less orders only because LA’s lost their nerve, or were LA’s correctly judging that the applications would be refused and presenting alternatives?)

Really hard to say. I guess what might give us some form of clue is looking at the proportion of successful applications. These aren’t exactly like for like, because of course a Placement Order application made in December 2013 might get decided in 2014’s stats, but it probably roughly balances itself out over a year.

 

So what proportion of Placement Order applications were turned down each year?

Gap between applications and orders

In 2011  – 705  about 12%

In 2012 – 614 about 9%

In 2013 – 940 about 13%

In 2014 – 656  about 13%

In 2015 – 820  about 17%  [the 2015 stats are least reliable, since they don’t have the full year to even out the flow and balance out that 2015’s final decisions include some 2014 applications]

 

It doesn’t look like the Courts are turning down a higher proportion of applications, so initially, you think that the LA’s have just lost their nerve.

But hold on.

And if  you can’t hold on.

Hold on.

 

[By the way, isn’t Brandon Flowers the worst person to ask for advice ? Brandon, my problem is that I can’t hold on. Okay, well you should hold on. But Brandon, I can’t hold on. Ah, well you should hold on then. Thanks Brandon]

Remember that the number of applications MADE went down by a third, but the rate of applications that were refused  stayed about the same. Now surely the one third of applications that would have been made that the LA didn’t instead issue are their weakest cases – they should have been winnowing out the weak cases that were likely to be turned down and only presenting the strongest ones.

But even having done the exercise of trying to throw out the weakest cases and only make Placement  Order applications when they felt confident or semi-confident about persuading a Court that “nothing else will do”, the Court was turning down about 13% of the applications – about the same as when the applications were a mixed bag of weak cases, middling cases and strong cases.

That suggests, but I can’t be sure because the numbers only tell you so much , that IF the LA’s had made six thousand applications in 2014 and were going to make six thousand applications in 2015, that the number of Placement Orders wouldn’t necessarily return to 2013 levels – we might well have just had more marked results in the proportion of unsuccessful applications.

We can only really find out if the number of applications go up and we see whether we return to 2013 levels of Placement Orders, or whether the rate of unsuccessful applications go up.  (I seem to have argued myself into supporting Sir Martin Narey’s original suggestion that LA’s should just hold their nerve and go back to making the same level of applications  – which I so fervently disagreed with at the time. I still think that what would happen is that the rate of refused applications would go up, but I really can’t be sure either way)

 

Or maybe I’m just a blockhead.

 

 

 

 

 

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Local Authority lawyers should grow a pair

This post contains 95 per cent of your Recommended Daily Allowance of Sarcasm and 119% of your Recommended Daily Allowance of Dopiness

 

Well, it isn’t quite put like that, but it isn’t far off.   I appreciate that for a substantial amount of my compatriots, it isn’t even biologically possible.

 

You see, it turns out that the adoption statistics are our fault.  We all knew that there was about to be a blame game  (heaven forbid that anyone should even consider whether the direction of travel might be a good thing, or a bad thing or a neutral thing before embarking on the blame exercise), but it turns out that the finger points at Local Authority lawyers, who, as I say, are going to be told to ‘grow a pair’

[Even though I speculated today that the next judicial edict would be that the LA final evidence must be written in iambic pentameter and rather than being typed, the social worker would have to sew it using cross-stitch, this rather surprised me.  “It turns out that the Bayeux Tapestry was really just contact notes”… I fully anticipate that Dallas PD will be questioning all Local Authority lawyers about JFK shortly]

 

Martin Narey, Adoption Czar  (or is it Tsar? I can never remember, but it always does remind me that the career trajectory of Czars and Tsars, both in historical leader sense and in political oversight sense hasn’t been that stellar) has given a speech at the Association of Directors of Children’s Services.

 

He is thus talking to the uber-bosses of all social workers, the capo del tutti capi of social workers.

Whilst I’m not the largest flag-waving champion of Mr Narey, and I’m unlikely to ever make his Christmas card list, I will give credit where it is due. He has put that speech up online, so that people can read it. He didn’t HAVE to do that, so good on him for doing it.

Flag is going back in the cupboard now.

 

It isn’t really surprising that he opens with a discussion about the adoption statistics. To be fair (oh, flag coming back out), if you’re the Adoption Czar and there’s a big political drive to get adoption numbers up, then when they absolutely tank, you’re BOUND to want to do something about that. If you don’t, then you’re sort of redundant. Probably literally as well as figuratively.

 

Mr Narey refers to the drop being a result of two major Court decisions, Re B and Re B-S, and reminds us all that he helped to produce a Myth-Busting document that picked up a lance and slew the dragon of misconception, so these adoption figures should recover, thanks to his intervention.

 

He talks about the number of ADM decisions for Placement Orders to be sought going down 52% last year, and he says this    (If I’m crabby here, it is only PARTLY because I can’t cut and paste from his slides and have had to type the whole thing out. Only PARTLY)

 

“But these are not as a result of the Courts rejecting Placement Order applications in vast numbers. The drop is overwhelmingly explained by a drop in Local Authority Placement Order applications. They have dropped from 1,830 to 910, a decrease of almost exactly half.

 

Unless you believe that all those adoption decisions you made last year were not in the interests of those children, I urge you to ensure that your social workers and lawyers have not lost their nerve, and the President’s exhortation that you must follow adoption when that is in the child’s best interests is followed. If current figures do not recover, then over time, we shall see adoption numbers drop back very substantially indeed.

 

I don’t think adoption can ever be suitable for other than a minority of children in care. But I think that minority is probably more than 5,000 or just 7% of the care population”

 

Well, where to start?

As an argument “Unless you believe that all those adoption decisions you made last year were not in the interests of those children”  so get out and make some more – ideally 50% more , leaves a lot to be desired. Firstly, it is an emotive appeal. Secondly, saying ‘If you think all those cases where you recommended adoption, you were right’ inexorably leads to   ‘a lot of the ones where you didn’t, you must be wrong’ is some strange use of logic that I’m not familiar with.  Of course ADMs who make a decision that adoption is the right plan for a child do so believing that this is in the best interests of the child. But why on earth should that mean that they were wrong with those that they rejected?

That’s like saying  “remember all those times you bet on Red in the casino and you won? Well, forget about the times that you bet on Red and lost, or you bet on Black and won, clearly betting on Red is the right approach. Go heavily into Red. “

Next, if you think that Local Authority lawyers have lost their nerve, then you need to get out in the trenches with us. There has NEVER been a harder time to be a Local Authority lawyer.  I don’t say this to garner sympathy (I know that many of my readers think that lawyers, and LA lawyers in particular, are the devil incarnate – they are wrong, it is just me), but it is the truth.  It is breathtakingly offensive to say that we have lost our nerve.

Nor have social workers.

 

Perhaps the Adoption Tsar doesn’t know that actually, a lawyers’ job is to give advice but take instructions. We don’t EVER say to a social worker that they can’t put forward a plan of adoption or ask the Agency Decision Maker to approve that plan. We tell them whether or not such a plan is likely to succeed in Court, and we tell them what the strong and weak points of their case is, and we give them advice on what they can do to improve the weak points and how to present their evidence in the way that the Courts now require.

What we do not do, is advise the ADM  “you should approve adoption here”  or “this isn’t an adoption case”.  Even back in the days of Adoption Panel, where a lawyer sat in the same room as the Panel when they made the decision about whether it was an adoption case or not, we didn’t get to make any representations about it or to vote.  Our role was, and still is, limited to giving advice on any legal issues that arise, not to advise the ADM on the merits or otherwise of the case.

 

Mr Narey’s argument here is presumably, theat if Local Authorities had asked the Court to make 1,830 Placement Orders after Re B-S, the Court would have made them.   (And perhaps if we’d asked for 4,000, the Court would have made them too).

 

The reason the adoption statistics dropped was because we were stupid and didn’t understand Myth-Busting !  (TM)  or because we were too timid to ask the question – social workers and Local Authority lawyers have been metaphorically teenagers who want to ask someone out but end up not being able to get a word out when we are near the subject of our affections. What Mr Narey is saying to us is “Hey, that person you like is TOTALLY into you, and they would TOTALLY say yes if you asked them to go to the pictures with you”

It is of course telling that with that 52% drop in applications for Placement Orders, I have not heard of a SINGLE case where a Judge seized of all of the facts and evidence, said to the Local Authority “I cannot believe that you are putting forward a plan that doesn’t involve adoption here, I really think that you should reconsider”  , or given judgments that say “none of the options put forward for this child are sufficient to safeguard their well-being, and I adjourn the final hearing so that matters can be reconsidered”

 

 

I think that it is interesting that whilst this speech makes great play of the President’s decision in Re R, and even quotes from it approvingly, it misses out two really major elements of Re R.

 

The first is this one:-

 

in the final analysis, adoption is only to be ordered if the circumstances meet the demanding requirements identified by Baroness Hale in Re B, paras 198, 215.’

 

[And to save you flipping back to Re B, that, precisely, is THIS

 

para 198: “the test for severing the relationship between parent and child is very strict: only in exceptional circumstances and where motivated by overriding requirements pertaining to the child’s welfare, in short, where nothing else will do.” 

para [215]:

“We all agree that an order compulsorily severing the ties between a child and her parents can only be made if “justified by an overriding requirement pertaining to the child’s best interests”. In other words, the test is one of necessity. Nothing else will do.” ]

 

If a Judge makes a Placement Order without engaging with that test, the judgment will be deficient. If a Local Authority present their case without striving to meet that test, their evidence will be deficient.

The Court of Appeal in Re R also made it plain that all of the stipulations laid down in Re B-S about the quality of the evidence, the need for robust and rigorous child-specific analysis of all of the realistic options and the Court not proceeding in a linear manner still stand.

 

The second omission is of course,

On 11 November 2014 the National Adoption Leadership Board published Impact of Court Judgments on Adoption: What the judgments do and do not say, popularly referred to as the Re B-S myth-buster. This document appears to be directed primarily at social workers and, appropriately, not to the judges. It has been the subject of some discussion in family justice circles. I need to make clear that its content has not been endorsed by the judiciary.

 

I have set out before, here, what the Court do and do not say in Re R     http://www.familylaw.co.uk/news_and_comment/view-from-the-foot-of-the-tower-two-steps-forward-two-steps-back

 

As I said in that piece, the ‘myths and misconceptions’ that the Court of Appeal were slaying were the ones that nobody actually believed were right – even the lawyers advancing those claims that “Re B-S means that if the positives and negatives aren’t set out in tabular form, adoption must be rejected” didn’t actually believe what they were saying.  (It’s one of the advantages of being a lawyer, you don’t have to believe what you are saying in order to say it…)

 

Mr Narey is quite right that the Court of Appeal are clear that where the only option that will meet a child’s needs is adoption, that’s the order that should be sought, and the Court will adjudicate on it. If the social worker thinks that of all of the realistic options, adoption is the only one that can meet the child’s needs, then they can and should go to the ADM to seek approval of that plan. And likewise, if the ADM thinks that, then they can and should approve the plan. And likewise, if the Court conclude that, they can and should make the adoption order.

 

That is encapsulated by this passage

‘[44] … Where adoption is in the child’s best interests, local authorities must not shy away from seeking, nor courts from making, care orders with a plan for adoption, placement orders and adoption orders. The fact is that there are occasions when nothing but adoption will do, and it is essential in such cases that a child’s welfare should not be compromised by keeping them within their family at all costs.’

 

If a social worker, or an ADM think that this test is made out, then there’s no reason at all why they shouldn’t put forward a plan of adoption. It might be that when the evidence that lead them to think that is tested in the burning crucible of cross-examination, it is found wanting, but that’s how litigation works.

 

I can’t help but note that Mr Narey in his speech quotes a section of the President’s judgment from Re R  [what he doesn’t do is quote all of the bits in italics are a key part, which rather change the meaning if you ENTIRELY miss them out]

 

It is apparent, and not merely from what Miss James and Miss Johnson have told us, that there is widespread uncertainty, misunderstanding and confusion, which we urgently need to address.

[41] There appears to be an impression in some quarters that an adoption application now has to surmount ‘a much higher hurdle’, or even that ‘adoption is over’, that ‘adoption is a thing of the past.’ There is a feeling that ‘adoption is a last resort’ and ‘nothing else will do’ have become slogans too often taken to extremes, so that there is now “a shying away from permanency if at all possible” and a ‘bending over backwards’ to keep the child in the family if at all possible. There is concern that the fact that ours is one of the few countries in Europe which permits adoption notwithstanding parental objection is adding to the uncertainty as to whether adoption can still be put forward as the right and best outcome for a child.

[42] There is concern that Re B-S is being used as an opportunity to criticise local authorities and social workers inappropriately – there is a feeling that “arguments have become somewhat pedantic over ‘B-S compliance’” – and as an argument in favour of ordering additional and unnecessary evidence and assessments. It is suggested that the number of assessments directed in accordance with section 38(6) of the Children Act 1989 is on the increase. It is said that when social worker assessments of possible family carers are negative, further assessments are increasingly being directed: “To discount a kinship carer, it seems that two negative assessments are required.” There is a sense that the threshold for consideration of family and friends as possible carers has been downgraded and is now “worryingly low”. Mention is made of a case where the child’s solicitor complained that the Re B-S analysis, although set out in the evidence, was not presented in a tabular format.

[43] We are in no position to evaluate either the prevalence or the validity of such concerns in terms of actual practice ‘on the ground’, but they plainly need to be addressed, for they are all founded on myths and misconceptions which need to be run to ground and laid to rest.

[44] I wish to emphasise, with as much force as possible, that Re B-S was not intended to change and has not changed the law. Where adoption is in the child’s best interests, local authorities must not shy away from seeking, nor courts from making, care orders with a plan for adoption, placement orders and adoption orders. The fact is that there are occasions when nothing but adoption will do, and it is essential in such cases that a child’s welfare should not be compromised by keeping them within their family at all costs.

 

I appreciate, space is at a premium and when you’re giving a speech you don’t necessarily want to quote great chunks of a judgment, but when you quote as selectively as this, you are turning a passage in a judgment that is saying that where really ridiculous arguments about Re B-S are being used, those are fallacies into something which suggests that Re B-S says nothing of any consequence at all.  It is just plain misleading.

 

Ignore for a moment the “nothing else will do” formulation (although, as outlined above, it is still good law, just not in the ludicrously over-literal way that the Court of Appeal were initially using it).  These are the other changes in child protection law and adoption law since Re B.

 

1. The test for an appeal Court is now whether the Judge was  “wrong” and not whether the Judge was “plainly wrong”.  That is a substantial change, and makes the risk of being appealed in a judgment notably higher.

2. The Court can no longer proceed on a linear analysis.  They MUST look at the pros and cons of each option. This is not a small thing. Prior to this decision, the process was always “look at parent, if no, then look at family member, if no then adoption is all that is left, ergo the ‘last resort’ element is satisfied, it is the last resort because there isn’t anything left”.   If a Local Authority are making a case for adoption, they have to not only show the flaws in the other options, but that the benefits of adoption outweigh the FLAWS in adoption. That requires social workers to fully engage and grapple with the benefits AND flaws of adoption both in general and for a particular child.  If the Adoption Leadership Board want to tackle a single issue, rather than Jedi-hand-waving that ‘this law hasn’t changed, you may go about your business’, training that better equips social workers to do this and proper impartial and evidence-based research about those benefits and flaws would be a damn good start.

3. The rigorous analysis and evidence required as a result in Re B-S is still required.

Let’s look specifically at the example of social work analysis on why adoption was right for a child that the Court of Appeal tore to bits in Re B-S

“a permanent placement where her on-going needs will be met in a safe, stable and nurturing environment. [S]’s permanent carers will need to demonstrate that they are committed to [S], her safety, welfare and wellbeing and that they ensure that she receives a high standard of care until she reaches adulthood

Adoption will give [S] the security and permanency that she requires. The identified carers are experienced carers and have good knowledge about children and the specific needs of children that have been removed from their families …”

 

Prior to 2013, that wasn’t only the sort of thing that you’d see in a social work statement explaining why adoption was the right outcome for a child, it was actually one of the better ones. Prior to 2013, I’d have put that in the top 10% of attempts in a social work statement to explain the benefits of adoption.  This was an A minus attempt.

Let’s look at what the Court of Appeal said

With respect to the social worker … that without more is not a sufficient rationale for a step as significant as permanent removal from the birth family for adoption. The reasoning was in the form of a conclusion that needed to be supported by evidence relating to the facts of the case and a social worker’s expert analysis of the benefits and detriments of the placement options available. Fairness dictates that whatever the local authority’s final position, their evidence should address the negatives and the positives relating to each of the options available. Good practice would have been to have heard evidence about the benefits and detriments of each of the permanent placement options that were available for S within and outside the family.

 

. Most experienced family judges will unhappily have had too much exposure to material as anodyne and inadequate as that described here by Ryder LJ.

40. This sloppy practice must stop. It is simply unacceptable in a forensic context where the issues are so grave and the stakes, for both child and parent, so high.

 

I’ll say it again, because this is important. A formulation that I would have put in the top 10% of analysis that I’d been seeing pre 2013 was DESTROYED by the Court of Appeal as being completely inadequate.  An A minus attempt was given an E.   Whether or not Re B-S changed any legal tests, it certainly raised the bar massively for the standard of evidence and analysis required.

 

4. The test for leave to oppose adoption was dramatically reduced.  Prior to Re B-S, such applications were rare and also very easy to shut down. All you needed was to quote Thorpe LJ in Re W  “However, it cannot be too strongly emphasised that that is an absolute last ditch opportunity and it will only be in exceptionally rare circumstances that permission will be granted after the making of the care order, the making of the placement order, the placement of the child, and the issue of the adoption order application.”  and draw the Court’s attention to the facts of Re P, where parents who had gone on to have another child and keep that child, with no statutory order, hadn’t been sufficient to get them leave to oppose.   Now, the test is substantially reduced.   In particular, these two elements from Re B-S.

 

iii) Once he or she has got to the point of concluding that there has been a change of circumstances and that the parent has solid grounds for seeking leave, the judge must consider very carefully indeed whether the child’s welfare really does necessitate the refusal of leave. The judge must keep at the forefront of his mind the teaching of Re B, in particular that adoption is the “last resort” and only permissible if “nothing else will do” and that, as Lord Neuberger emphasised, the child’s interests include being brought up by the parents or wider family unless the overriding requirements of the child’s welfare make that not possible. That said, the child’s welfare is paramount.

 

and

vi) As a general proposition, the greater the change in circumstances (assuming, of course, that the change is positive) and the more solid the parent’s grounds for seeking leave to oppose, the more cogent and compelling the arguments based on the child’s welfare must be if leave to oppose is to be refused.

 

5.  As we have seen, more leave to oppose applications are being made, and more have been granted.  We also see that the Courts have given judgments in cases where adoption applications have been successfully opposed. To date, the reported cases are where a parent has been able to show that another family member could care for the child instead of prospective adopters who have had the child for 13-18 months.  Such a decision would have been unthinkable in 2012, but they are happening now.  What that means is that if a Court is being invited to make a Placement Order, and the LA are inviting the Court to do so, they have to have good, cogent evidence as to why family members are not suitable instead.  If they don’t get that exercise right first time round, then the child will pay the price when at an adoption hearing 15 months later, the Court may be removing the child from adopters and placing with those family members.

 

 

All of those things, and Lady Hale’s formulation are real things.  It does nobody any favours to ‘jedi-hand-wave’ them out of existence, particularly by chopping up a quote from a judgment so that a person reading it would think that the Court of Appeal had said:-

There appears to be an impression in some quarters that an adoption application now has to surmount ‘a much higher hurdle’, or even that ‘adoption is over’… those impressions are based on myths and misconceptions  

 

when those three little dots are missing out all of the actual substance.

 

Parliament has created a statutory power of adoption. The tests have been laid down in the Act. The Courts have interpreted how those tests are to be delivered in practice.  The Lady Hale formulation in Re B is the test that the Courts will be working towards. To pretend otherwise is misleading.

It does remain the case that where a Local Authority can show that none of the other options before the Court can meet the child’s needs, adoption is an option that they can legitimately pursue.

 

It’s disengenous to pretend that people didn’t understand that.  If social workers and lawyers and ADMs hadn’t grasped that, then there would have been NO applications for Placement Orders.  The numbers went down because the difficulty in obtaining a Placement Order from the Court went up.

 

 

If the social workers, lawyers and ADMs had ‘held their nerve’ in 2013 and made the same number of Placement Order applications, then the Court would have rejected them in huge numbers.  Maybe they all should have done, and let it become the Court’s problem.

Two years later, the same might not still be the case.  Firstly, the over-literal over-prescriptive appeals seem to have died down a bit. Secondly, social workers have got more used to the rigorous standards that are required in terms of their evidence and are better equipped to present their evidence to those standards.

 

 

 

 

 

The Adoption statistics

The Government have published their statistics (there’s a time delay, so these are the stats up to Autumn 2014)

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/436613/ALB_Business_Intelligence_Quarter_3_2014_to_2015.pdf

 

I suspect that the headline one  (which prompted all of those press releases in late April) is going to be this:-

 

 

Quarterly data suggests that the number of new decisions has continued to fall from 1,830 in quarter 2 2013-14 to 910 in quarter 3 2014-15, a decrease of 50%. The number of new placement orders have also continued to fall from 1,550 in quarter 2 2013-14 to 740 in quarter 3 2014-15, a decrease of 52%.

 

 

What they don’t have, is a measure of how many cases LA’s put before an Agency Decision Maker, so we can’t tell whether

 

  • Social workers were asking ADM’s for adoption approval less often, so less cases were approved
  • ADM’s were refusing a higher proportion of requests than previously, so less cases were approved
  • A combination of those factors  (which if so, would lead to even more of a drop – if social workers were only giving their ‘best’ cases for adoption to the ADM, but they were being knocked back, then you’d expect less and less cases to go to the ADM)

 

[And of course, what underpins all of that is whether social workers / ADMs were being overly cautious about the case law and not asking for adoption in cases where the Court would actually have made Placement Orders, or whether they were being realistic and knowing that if they asked for adoption they wouldn’t be capable of satisfying their Court that the tests were met]

 

 

What really fits is the increase stats on Special Guardianship Orders  – I haven’t seen the raw data, but the BBC claim this has tripled since 2012 (BS cough cough)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-32840224

 

When you look at the graph showing Agency Decision Maker decisions that adoption should be the plan for the child over time, you can see the numbers drop off a cliff at the time of the Supreme Court decision in Re B (nothing else will do).

 

You can argue (and it is a legitimate argument, where Re B and Re B-S were a new test, or a nudge in the ribs to apply the existing tests with proper rigour, and whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing) but you can’t really argue as the current official narrative has it, that this isn’t even a thing. The graphs make it really obvious.

The quarter BEFORE Re B-S, 1830 decisions by ADMs that adoption was the right plan for the child. Re B-S hit in September 2013, so it would be the third quarter of 2013 when ADM’s would have known about it. Those numbers, 1290.  It is the sharpest drop of the entire graph.  It has continued to slope downwards since then, but the bit in the graph that looks like abseiling down the Eiger is Re B-S. You absolutely can’t dispute it.

The Myth-Buster document was published in December 2014, so we can’t see from the stats and graph whether that has led to a reversal of the pattern in the graph. We’ll see that in about six months, I suppose. Similarly, whether the Court of Appeal’s softening of position on “nothing else will do” translates into an increase in ADM decisions that adoption is the plan.

 

[Cynically, I doubt it. I’m well aware that I am not a normal human being in my interest in case law, and I haven’t always had it. For about my first five years in child protection law, you could get by on three cases  Re G (interim care is a deep freeze affording no tactical advantage), H and R  (the nature of the allegation doesn’t increase the standard of proof) and whatever at the time was the law on residential assessments.  Re B and Re B-S, with their hard-hitting message and backed by a soundbite ‘nothing else will do’ resonate with people much more than the inching back, case specific, deeply nuanced and incremental Court of Appeal cases since that time.  Even the Re R case https://suesspiciousminds.com/2014/12/18/re-r-is-b-s-dead/  that was intended to slay the Re B-S myths is so nuanced that it takes nine or ten reads to have a grasp of what it is actually saying, and almost the day after you’ve done that, you couldn’t actually put it into a meaningful summary sentence]

 

 

[I argued before HERE  https://suesspiciousminds.com/2015/05/15/adoption-rates-in-freefall/  that the Press narrative that the case law will mean ‘children suffering in unsuitable and unsafe homes’ is an emotive over-simplification. I’d stand by that. At the moment, the case law on adoption has been going through its most radical changes in a generation, and it is certainly less predictable than it has ever been to decide what sort of case will result in a Placement Order and what won’t.  We are in a period of re-balancing. I don’t know yet whether these figures show that we have found the right level of those cases where adoption IS the right plan to put before the Court, whether there are even more drops to come, or whether there’s an over-reaction to it.   I have a suspicion, given that the entire history of child protection and family justice is about lurches from child rescue to family preservation and vice versa, and an eventual settling down at one particular side of the scale but hopefully not at the absolute far end of the scale…]

 

Given the huge push to recruit adopters – all the Government policies about making it easier, less time-consuming, less intrusive, more appealing , this statistic may get less attention but must be concerning

 

Registrations to become an adopter have decreased by 24% from 1,340 in quarter 2 2014-15 to 1,020 in quarter 3 2014-15. The number of adopter families approved for adoption has decreased by 3% from 1,240 in quarter 2 2014-15 to 1,200 in quarter 3 2014-15.

 

 

We will wait to see how the Court decisions that moved children from prospective adopters to the birth family (which is a completely new phenomenon, having not occurred at all prior to December 2014) has on adoption recruitment and retention.

 

 

The backlog (which had stood at 1 approved adopter for every 3 children approved for adoption) has been nearly cleared.

 

Our most recent estimate for the “adopter gap” suggests that the gap has closed, and we now have more adopters than children waiting. However, there are still 2,600 children with a placement order not yet matched and the relevance of this measure assumes that matching is working effectively.

 

 

The number of adoption ORDERS made is, they claim the highest since recording began

 

3,740 children adopted in quarters 1 to 3 2014-15

2013-14 saw the highest number of adoptions from care since the current data collection began in 1992, with 5,050 children adopted from care.

 

 

When I have looked at Court stats on adoption http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/publications/re-reference-tables.html?edition=tcm%3A77-316163   5050 looks like a pretty average year, with there having been figures nearly 50 per cent higher in the earlier 1990s.   (Now, it may be that the measure that is being used here is “Adoption of children who are in care” and that the Office of National Statistics figure bundles that in with ‘step-parent adoptions’,  so it is not a like-for-like comparison)

 

 

 

Finally, this statistic initially looks positive (how long does it take between a child coming into care and a child being placed for adoption  – you’d WANT that number to go down, since whether you want more or less children being adopted, most of us could agree that we wouldn’t want children to wait so long for a family to be found)

 

In 2013-14, the average number of days between entering care and placement was 594 days, an improvement from 656 days in 2012-13. Latest quarterly data suggests there has been a further improvement to 533 days. At 216 days, the average number of days between placement order and match in 2013-14 was a slight improvement on 2012-13. However, the latest quarterly data suggests that this has increased to 241 during quarter 3 2014-15.

 

 

The closer inspection is this :-

 

That since the 2012 figures, there has been legislation and huge resources expended on bringing care proceedings down from what was an average of 55 weeks to a target of 26 weeks.  That OUGHT to have had far more of an impact than 60 days being shaved off the time between entering care and a family being found.  It should be something more like a saving of 200 days. As the time from Placement Order to placement had gone slightly down (but was now going back up), that SUGGESTS that IF there is a saving of 30 weeks from start of care proceedings to Placement Order, but it results in only a time saving of 8 ½ weeks,  that there’s about 20 weeks unaccounted for.

 

Does that mean that :-

 

  • Whilst average time of care proceedings has gone down, it hasn’t gone down as MUCH for cases where adoption is the plan?  (That makes sense, as those are the ones that are most contentious and where all avenues tend to be exhausted?)
  • There’s been an increase in the time that children who go on to be adopted are spending in care PRIOR to care proceedings?  That “front-loading” element.

 

 

I don’t know how or if statistics on those issues are being kept.  It must be problematic that if we are compressing the time that care proceedings take, with all that involves, but barely reducing the time that a child waits between coming into care and a new family being found, have we really improved anything for the child?   (Note particularly that with the latest quarterly data, HALF the time that has been cut appears to have been lost by an increase in the family finding process.  216 days of family finding and matching post Placement Order equates to 30 weeks)

 

 

The notional 200 day saving from faster care proceedings isn’t turning into a real saving, and that feels counter-intuitive. What we’ve been told for years is that if decisions about children are made by the Courts quicker, the children will be easier to place  – they will be younger and have less issues (and thus, you’d assume, faster to place).

Adoption rates in freefall

I’ve been asked if I would write about the story in the newspapers this week about adoption rates going down and the blame being placed on some high profile case law decisions. This is the first time that I have ever received a request, so I should oblige.  [If anyone’s future request is that I write about my love of Jaime Lannister, or that Joe Hill’s Locke and Key is the best comic series since Grant Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol, then for those, it’s on like Donkey Kong]

 

The Painting that Ate Paris (Doom Patrol)

The Painting that Ate Paris (Doom Patrol)

 

Locke and Key - this is what happens when you use the Head key to look inside your own mind

Locke and Key – this is what happens when you use the Head key to look inside your own mind

 

 

So, here is the Independent piece – there’s a startlingly similar one in the The Times, but you need to pay Rupert Murdoch money to look at it. The choice is yours.

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/adoption-rates-in-freefall-after-court-ruling-leaves-children-languishing-in-unsuitable-homes-10245614.html

 

This piece is very knowledgeable about family law and case law – more than you’d expect from a journalist. The fact that two newspaper articles with the same cases turned up this week makes me suspect a press release was involved.  The same piece appears on the BBC website.

 

Let’s have a look at it bit by bit.

The number of children being put forward for adoption has plummeted over the past year following a series of court rulings that have left local authorities frightened of removing them from birth families.

Child welfare experts are worried the decline will mean more children suffering in unsuitable and unsafe homes. It also means agonising delays for parents approved for adoption who now find no children are available.

The number of children signed off for adoption fell from 1,550 in the summer quarter of 2013 to 780 in the same period last year, down almost 50 per cent.  

 

Okay, well firstly, whilst one feels for an adopter who is waiting for a child, the family justice system isn’t, and shouldn’t be, prioritised to deliver children to adopters. The idea is that the family justice system tests fairly whether a parent can be helped to care for their child, with adoption being the last resort. Secondly, “Signed off for adoption” is not only a very ugly expression, it is hard to put a proper meaning on it. Does it mean “The Agency Decision maker decides that adoption is the plan the social worker should recommend to the Court”?  or does it mean “A Placement Order is made”?

As the Department for Education hasn’t published (yet) the statistics that is getting all of these newspapers up in arms, it is a bit difficult to tell. The thrust of the article suggests that the drop in figures is that Local Authorities are too scared to ask for adoption, so the assumption is that the drop here is in the number of APPLICATIONS for Placement Orders (i.e a social worker recommending to the Agency Decision Maker that adoption should be the plan and the ADM agreeing) – that in itself could be that social workers are asking the Agency Decision Maker less often, or that the Agency Decision Maker is saying no more often, or both.

That in turn could be because the thrust of the Re B, Re B-S et al decisions made social workers look harder and more carefully at whether adoption really was the right plan for a child – could more be done to support a parent, could those grandparents who are not ideal be good enough? Really hard to guage that from statistics – you’d need to have a look at a pile of actual cases and compare the sort of cases that were ending up with adoption in 2013 that are now ending up with parents or grandparents.  It is also difficult to know whether that’s a bad thing anyway. If the trend is to be more willing to work with parents or grandparents who are not perfect, but could be helped to be good enough, that could be a perfectly laudable aim. We might not know whether that greater willingness to give things a try was a long overdue adjustment or a bad mistake for a few years – the real test will be whether those attempts broke down.  At the moment, we can’t even tell if that’s what happened.

Certainly Local Authorities aren’t taking any less care proceedings than they used to. The latest CAFCASS statistics show that the number of applications is continuing to go up – 18% up on this time last year.

I honestly don’t think, and the recent clarifications from the Court of Appeal make this clear, that the caselaw ever meant that children should be “suffering in unsuitable and unsafe homes”. If the Court considers that the alternatives to adoption are unsuitable and unsafe, then adoption is going to be the outcome. Nothing has changed there. I also don’t think that social workers have decided to leave children “suffering in unsuitable and unsafe homes” as a result of Re B, Re B-S et al, rather than asking for adoption as the plan. What might have changed is that it is no longer enough to just assert that an alternative is ‘unsuitable’, but you have to evidence it. I don’t consider that a bad thing.

 

Next

But in November 2013 the President of the Family Court, Sir James Munby, made a ruling that left many local authorities convinced they must try every extended family member before putting a child up for adoption. The judge said that six-month targets for adoptions should not be allowed to break up families unnecessarily and that grandparents and other extended family members should be considered before placing children for adoption.

It had been hoped that a second ruling last December from the same judge, clarifying he had not changed the law in the original judgment, would curb the freefall in adoption numbers. But instead further rulings from Sir James and other judges have exacerbated the problem.

 

The first case is Re B-S  – and you can read my post about that case here https://suesspiciousminds.com/2013/09/17/this-is-some-serious-b-s/    – it was undoubtedly a big case, telling social workers, Guardians AND Judges that decision-making on adoption cases had gotten very sloppy and that the argument to justify making such a serious order needed to be clearer, stronger and more analytical. It was no longer enough to parrot stock phrases about why a child needed to be adopted – a proper comparison of the pros and cons of EACH option tailored for the individual child needed to take place. It is really hard to see much wrong with Re B-S. If anything, it should have been said years earlier. There’s nothing in it to suggest that a Court should leave a child ‘suffering in an unsafe and unsuitable home’

 

The scond case is Re R – and you can read my post about that case here https://suesspiciousminds.com/2014/12/18/re-r-is-b-s-dead/  – that clarifies that some of the more outlandish claims that lawyers had pushed to extremes about Re B-S – that it was a “climb every mountain, ford every stream, follow every river – before you make a Placement Order” case was not right, but that everything I just said above was still right, and the Supreme Court’s formulation that “the test for severing the relationship between parent and child is very strict: only in exceptional circumstances and where motivated by overriding requirements pertaining to the child’s welfare, in short, where nothing else will do.”  was still bang on right.

 

Next – let’s have a look at these further confusing rulings

In January Sir James granted an appeal in a case in Liverpool where three children were taken away from a mother with a history of drug and alcohol abuse who was given no opportunity to prepare a case.

The President of the Family Court ruled that the “ruthlessly truncated process” employed by the earlier judge in the case – who had admitted he was motivated by a desire to embrace family justice reforms designed to encourage adoption – was “unprincipled and unfair”.

 

Well, that’s the His Honour Judge Dodds case, where he made Care Orders at the very first hearing (i.e in week one) in order to beat the week 26 target, even though nobody in the case had asked him to do that and there was no final evidence filed by anyone. That’s not a warning to Judges not to make adoption orders – that’s basic common sense that a Judge who behaves in a way that is utterly unfair is going to get overruled. Nobody with any common sense looked at that case and felt that it had worrying implications for adoption cases, or that it meant that children should be ‘suffering in unsuitable and unsafe homes” –  If you read this piece and think “Well, I don’t know why the Court of Appeal had any problem with what the Judge did” then I’m not sure I can help you. https://suesspiciousminds.com/2015/02/02/sentence-first-verdict-afterwards/

 

What’s the next ‘confusing’ ruling?  (I wasn’t in any way confused by the last one) – this one apparently had a “similar chilling effect on Local Authorities desire to expedite adoption cases” as the His Honour Judge Dodds one did.  (not that it should have done – the Dodds one wasn’t even about adoption)

 

Another case decided in January is understood to have had a similar chilling effect on local authorities’ desire to expedite adoption cases. Mr Justice Keehan ruled that Northamptonshire County Council had made “egregious failures” in its handling of the case of a baby taken into care without proper assessments of the mother or the maternal grandparents in Latvia. The baby was eventually placed with his maternal grandparents.

I wrote about that one too – you may pick up a slightly different tone from the title of the piece https://suesspiciousminds.com/2015/02/03/unfortunate-and-woeful-local-authority-failings/

This was just an old-fashioned Local Authority f**k-up. Sorry to anyone involved, but that’s what it was. This wasn’t a case where Local Authorities read it and it had a chilling effect on them, making them think “gosh, if social workers are getting told off for this exemplary work, then we may as well pack it in and let children suffer in unsuitable and unsafe homes” – it was one that you read and thought “If you f**ked up as royally as that, you are going to get the judicial ass-whupping that they got”.   There’s nothing in that case that would make anyone think “well, I really think in my heart of hearts that this child should be adopted, but because the law has done something weird and stupid, I guess I’ll have to leave the child to suffer in an unsuitable and unsafe home”

[Yes, I’m hammering home that phrase, because I think it is seriously misleading]

If there are Local Authorities, or social workers (and I really doubt it) that took the His Honour Judge Dodds decision and the Northamptonshire decision and interpreted them as ‘adoption is even harder to get now’  rather than ‘if you really screw something up, expect not to get away with it” then these articles are doing a great public service in correcting that total misapprehension and interpretation of the law.

Anything else?

 

No, there are no other “chilling” or “confusing” cases cited.  That’s a shame, because one could make a case for the President’s decision in Re A fits the bill far better than the two examples they have chosen.  https://suesspiciousminds.com/2015/02/17/a-tottering-edifice-built-on-inadequate-foundations/

 

For a start, it is a case where a Local Authority asked for adoption and didn’t get it – and walked away with nothing but a flea in their ear. More than that, it is a case where what looked like perfectly decent threshold criteria (the concerns that a Local Authority have to prove exist in order to get an order) was torn to bits by the Judge. And finally, it had principles and issues which affected all cases, not just the particular one being decided (unlike the two examples that were used), and there is a distinct possibility that that bar was raised, making Care Orders (and hence indirectly Placement Orders and hence adoptions) more difficult to obtain, since it is now harder to prove that the threshold is met.

But once again, the law is not saying that children ought to suffer in unsuitable and unsafe homes. It is saying that where a Local Authority says that a child should live somewhere else, they need to produce proper evidence and analysis to show WHY their home would be unsuitable and unsafe. Re B-S and Re A are not saying that adoption isn’t the right outcome for some children, but they are saying that where the State (whether that be a social worker or a Judge) is taking a child permanently away from a parent, the least that society can expect is that they both work very hard and have proper evidence and reasons for why that has to happen.

Perhaps when the stats do come out, the adoption figures really will have ‘fallen off a cliff’, just as the article claims.  Perhaps that is because social workers, lawyers, Agency Decision Makers and Judges are paralysed by chilling and confusing case law. But it might be that the numbers were too high before, and proper scrutiny of the evidence and proper analysis of what is really involved has meant that we aren’t placing children for adoption unless the proper tests are met.

 

Sometimes, an initial look at something can make you chilled and scared, and even want to throw stones. But a longer more detailed careful consideration can make you realise that Jaime Lannister kicks ass y’all, and that a Lannister always pays his debts.

 

Plus, he has a gold hand. A hand made of gold. What's not to like?

Plus, he has a gold hand. A hand made of gold. What’s not to like?