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sound the action klaxon, summon action jackson…

It is all go today, good job it is my non-working day. My bits will be in bold, on this piece – the non-bold stuff is directly from the report.

The much-vaunted Government Adoption Action Plan is finally published. No longer will we have to rely on scraps on information leaked by Ofsted or behind paid firewalls at the Times (just a little gripe that if you are going to launch far-reaching policy guidance on vulnerable children, maybe making people pay Rupert Murdoch if they want to read it isn’t the greatest plan)

Here’s where it is  (in usual government style, it takes a while to find by searching, so I’ll save people the trouble)

Firstly, tackling delay in adoption is a laudable aim, as is trying to do something about the disparity of time that children of different ethnicity have to wait, and promoting the concept that adoption might be something that more people want to try and removing some of the more unnecessary barriers to good-hearted people coming forward are all good things. 

Let’s see if they’ve accidentally thrown the baby out with the bathwater, however. The headlines flying around suggest that the report is yet more micro-management and exactly the sort of Tony-Blair target-setting that has (a) worked so badly in the NHS and (b) Munro thought so little of.  Are those headlines reflective of the report as a whole, or have the Government just done a press-release for the media that’s all “tough on lazy social workers, tough on political correctness gone mad” but with a report that is actually much more nuanced and thoughtful?

A shocking statistic early on  (albeit from 2004) – that 42% of looked after children aged between 5-10 had a mental disorder of some kind – this being five times the figure for children of that age-group generally.

The current number of looked after children under five is 15,680 and growing quickly.

.Delays in the adoption system cause lasting harm for vulnerable children, and may rob them of their best chance of the love and stability of a new family.  Based on an in-depth study of the case histories of 130 older looked after children for whom adoption had been identified as the best option, Dr Julie Selwyn concluded that: ‘delay in decision making and action has an unacceptable price in terms of the reduction in children’s life chances
and the financial costs to local authorities, the emotional and financial burden later placed on adoptive families and future costs to society’. We must not and will not allow unnecessary delay to continue

There’s a nice recognition of both the important role that social workers have, and the risks of breakdown – it is pleasing to see some proper research being commissioned into adoption breakdowns  (I’m sure we’ve all heard different figures bandied about, to suit various agendas, as to what proportion of adoptions break down and it will be good to get a definitive answer, and hopefully some better understanding of the factors that lead to this and how we can address them.)

32.Social workers have an extremely sensitive, challenging, and important job to do.  We expect them to make decisions which change lives, on what can only ever be imperfect evidence.  We owe them a great deal of gratitude.
33.When a social worker is considering a decision about adoption, the risks of getting it wrong are all too evident in terms of the impact on vulnerable children, birth parents and adoptive parents.  What can be less obvious is the harm done to the child by delaying adecision in order to allay all remaining doubts.
34.Social workers need time to gather the necessary evidence, work with birth parents and provide the basis for a robust decision.  Some argue that efforts to speed up adoption will lead to an increase in adoption breakdown, by forcing social workers and local authorities to make rushed and therefore lower quality decisions.  Adoption breakdown is of course an important issue and we currently have too little data and evidence about it.  Estimateshave tended to put it at around 20%, but in his recent report, Martin Narey convincingly argued that the true figure was much lower – around ten percent for children adopted under the age of five, and just three percent for those adopted under the age of one.  He cited a study which followed a high risk group of children – adopted between the ages of five and eleven – until their fourteenth birthday. It found that 23% of the adoptions had broken down by that age, which would suggest a much lower rate for adopted children overall.  We have commissioned the University of Bristol to undertake further research into the rate of and reasons for breakdown
35.But it is too simplistic to argue that speedier adoption will lead to more adoption breakdown.  First, it is wrong to suggest that unnecessary delay in the system is all down to social worker decision-making – the causes are much more widespread and include the regulatory and accountability frameworks, the supply of prospective adopters and issues in the family justice system. Second, as we have seen, taking longer to make decisions is in itself harmful to children and reduces the chance of successful adoption

This also sounds like a sensible proposal

.Currently, the generic degree for social workers contains limited content on child development, attachment theory and other relevant research from neuroscience, and very little on adoption.  The Government is asking that universities address these gaps as a matter of urgency
43.The Family Justice Review identified a similar issue and suggested that a better understanding of child development and the negative impacts of delay for children was an absolute requirement for all family judges.  It recommended that the Judicial College, the provider of training for judicial office-holders, reflect this in its training for family law work.  The Government accepted this recommendation and will work with the JudicialCollege to take it forward.
44.At present, there is no readily accessible reference material for family justice professionals, such as judges, magistrates and lawyers, on the impact of delay on a child’s development. To address this, the Government has commissioned Professor Harriet Ward to produce some concise but authoritative guidance which summarises the key research evidence in the context of care proceedings.  The Government will make this guidance available later this year

Best-practice – they were taken with the involvement of Coram in adoption, and particularly this model 

We spoke to a number of local authorities who had rigorous case management systems, which were effective in tackling delay.  The London Borough of Harrow, which works with the voluntary adoption agency Coram, holds monthly meetings chaired by a Coram senior manager at which the progress of every child is tracked.  These meetings help social workers to balance the demands on their time and give due regard to the child’s pressing timetable in their decision-making. They provide a forum for delay to be escalated and tackled – for example by widening the search for a family to other agencies.  They can also offer a useful mechanism for the
Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO) to monitor the local authority’s performance of its functions.  Every looked after child has an IRO, who is appointed by the local authority to quality-assure care planning.
48. Our fieldwork showed that these simple but effective approaches are not yet standard practice.  The Government will therefore work with the Children’s Improvement Board – the consortium of local government representatives responsible for supporting local authorities in improving children’s services – to gather and disseminate best practice in establishing management systems that help ensure swifter high-quality decision-making.

Ethnicity – the big hot potato of a political issue  – the italics are mine here, to show plans for new primary legislation

52.That is not to say that ethnicity can never be a consideration.  Where there are two sets  of suitable parents available then those with a similar ethnicity to the child may be the better match for the child.  Sometimes an ethnic match will be in a child’s best interests, for example where an older child expresses strong wishes.  However, it is not in the best interests of children for social workers to introduce any delay at all into the adoption process in the search for a perfect or even partial ethnic match when parents who are otherwise suitable are available and able to provide a loving and caring home for the child.
53.Similarly, there are approved adopters who are ready and able to offer loving homes but who are too readily disregarded because they are single, or considered too old.  These can, of course, be relevant factors, but we know that in most cases delay and the instability associated with it will be the greater potential cause of damage to the child.
54.The Government will bring forward primary legislation at the next available opportunity to  address these issues.  The overriding principle in finding a match for a child will remain what is in the child’s best interests throughout their life

National register – requirement to search on this register after 3 months if child not placed

56. It also proposes a legislative requirement on all adoption agencies to refer to the Adoption Register all prospective adopters who are not being matched to a child within three months of being approved (provided the adopters agree).

58 .We are also considering other ways of promoting earlier and wider efforts in family finding.  Over the last decade, about 20% of children who have been adopted were placed with adopters recruited and approved by voluntary adoption agencies, but voluntary adoption agencies tell us they could do more.  One of the reasons that many local authorities do not make more use of them is that they think the inter-agency fee is   too high. In fact, Dr Julie Selwyn has found that inter-agency placements cost virtually the same as in-house placements when overheads are taken into account. As part of our work for the summer children in care publication, we intend to review the effectiveness of local authority commissioning arrangements for adoption, and consider whether further action should be taken to increase the role of voluntary adoption agencies in the system.

(I have to confess that this bit makes me apprehensive, and thinking that when some people hear the phrase ‘conflict of interest’ they might possibly be hearing something different to when I hear it. My fear prior to reading this report is that it would be setting up a system that public authorities couldn’t comply with, in order to smuggle in private practice taking over the role of adoption agencies – this being a political belief that private=better than public always, which has served us so well in IT, security guards, the NHS, construction of schools, hospitals etc over the years. This was the first bit that made me shudder, as I am very aware of the gulf that currently exists between in-house and inter-agency placement fees/costs)

Concurrent placements, and make it more easy to convert from fostering to adoption

.We would like the principles behind concurrent planning to be used more widely and for children as well as infants.  Whilst there can be no question of pre-empting a court decision, we want to see local authorities working with family-finding teams as early as possible to find potential permanent carers for children, and children with families who may, if the court agrees, go on to adopt them.  Where a child’s case is still in court and no placement order has been made, these placements are foster placements under the Children Act 1989.
62.While such practice is consistent with the current legislative framework, the Government believes that it should be easier for local authorities to approve prospective adopters as foster carers as this would enable more children to benefit from a greater continuity of care.  We will therefore consult on changes to legislation to enable a more stream-lined process for prospective adopters to be approved as foster carers in appropriate cases. This will enable vulnerable children, for whom there is little likelihood of a return home, tobe placed with their potential permanent carers as early as possible.  Local authorities will make sure that carers have the necessary skills, training and ongoing support to meet the needs of the child who is being fostered whilst allowing full consideration of the placement order application by the courts, and the birth family will continue to be supported.

I’m very excited about the idea of concurrent placements and think that it has potential to really transform outcomes for children. I was very excited when I first came to my area that it was something they did, but in three years, I’ve not done a single one, and the distrust of it amongst other family justice practitioners has made it unworkable. I can see a real and genuine fear amongst those acting for parents that foster carers (who often are a source of primary evidence about say, how the children react to contact or missed contacts) might find themselves in a conflict of interest if they are at the same time hoping to adopt the child AND providing the Local Authority with evidence about the children.

Recruitment and training of adopters   (all seems sensible – though I’m not sure four months gives the time both for a robust assessent and for the prospective adopters to have really undergone the rigorous self-examination that is required)

76.At the heart of the proposals is a radically redesigned two stage training and assessment process.  For the majority of prospective adopters the first stage (pre-qualification) will be completed within two months and the second (full assessment) within four.  There will be a fast-track process for people who have adopted before, or who are already approved foster-carers who wish to adopt a child in their care.
77.The pre-qualification phase will involve initial training and preparation – clearly separated from the full assessment phase.  During this stage, prospective adopters will use initial training sessions and online training materials to develop their understanding of adoption and to reflect on what they have to offer before progressing with their application.  The full assessment stage will consist of more intensive preparation and training and a new more streamlined and analytical assessment process. Adoption agencies will sign up to assessment agreements with prospective adopters setting out what will be involved and what the timetable will be, given their particular circumstances.
78.We think this new process has the potential to improve significantly the quality of the service that prospective adopters receive from the adoption system and to begin to increase the numbers that enter and complete the assessment process while providing the appropriate rigour. This in turn will improve its reputation and attract greater numbers of prospective adopters.  We accept these proposals outright.  Implementing them fully will require changes to regulations, statutory guidance and the National Minimum Standards. The Government will consult on the necessary changes later this year, with aview to implementing them as early as possible next year.  In the meantime, theGovernment will work with the national and local agencies represented on the WorkingGroup to prepare for successful implementation of the new system.   BAAF has produced a draft new assessment form and intends to pilot this over the coming months.  We agree in principle with the proposal that the government develop new online training materials,and will consider further how they can best be developed.
A new national gateway to the adoption system  – again, seems sensible that adopters can get a secondary route into the process and not be solely reliant on their own LA

79.The Working Group’s second key proposal is the creation of a new national gateway to the adoption system.  This would complement adoption agencies by providing a central point of contact for anyone interested in adoption.  Through a telephone helpline and website, it would provide independent advice and information about adoption and how to apply to become an adopter.  In particular, it would make sure those interested in adoption knew they were not obliged to adopt through their local authority, and help them to choose the right agency for them in their local area.  It would also assess management  information about how prospective adopters are treated and support a national customer service charter.
80.We think the proposal for a new national gateway could dramatically improve the experience of those who enquire about adoption.  We think it could also help prospective adopters to exercise greater choice and so encourage improvement by adoption agencies.  We accept the proposal in principle but before we begin to implement it, we want to consider whether the gateway’s remit should extend further.  Should it for example have a role in supporting prospective adopters to hold local authorities, voluntary agencies and consortia to account for the quality of their service?  Should it be linked to the Adoption Register – the other national element in what is primarily a local system?  Should we seek to encourage all prospective adopters to use it as a first point of contact to ensure it has a comprehensive national picture of the supply of adopters? We will explore these questions and others, with the help of the Working Group, in order to develop a final proposal in time for the summer children in care publication.  We welcome the proposal for a customer service charter and we have asked the WorkingGroup to develop its contents, as we consider the proposal for a national adoption gateway

There’s also discussion of an “adopter’s passport” which will be a transparent guarantee of the support adopters will get – sounds very sensible (silent as to whether there will be more funds for adoption support, and silence speaks volumes, as we all know)

The adoption scorecard  (this is where the ghosts of Tony Blair and John Major’s cones hotline came in and rested cold skeletal hands on my shoulder, but I don’t think it is necessarily as bad as the truly awful name suggests – it might actually be a way of getting some quality information as to where the problems exist so that they can be targeted – and I mean where in the system more than where in the country)

A new adoption scorecard
94.All of this will make a difference, but we need to go further if we are to get the system from where it is now to where it needs to be to best serve children in need of adoption.
95.Generally, the Government does not believe in managing the performance of local authorities from the centre by reference to a large and comprehensive set of targets and indicators. In most circumstances, we think it is more effective for local authorities to be held accountable by their local residents through democratic means.  However, where necessary, we continue to take action ourselves to ensure adequate services are provided to the vulnerable. Looked after children are amongst the most vulnerable people in our society and they are not in a strong position to hold the local authority – who acts as their parent – to account.  It is clear that the current inspection and accountability frameworks have not secured the improvements needed to maximise their chances of being placed quickly in a safe and loving home.
96.At present, all but a small handful of local authorities fail on average to meet the timescales that statutory guidance sets out for the different parts of the assessment process.  And there is huge variation between local authorities.  Large numbers of them fall short by a significant margin, with the very slowest local authorities taking an average of nearly three years for a child to go from entering care to being placed for adoption.  As this Action Plan has made clear there are a variety of reasons for this, but for the sake of children whose best future depends on timely adoption, we need to increase the focus of the adoption system on eradicating unnecessary delay.
97.In the coming weeks, the Government will therefore publish new adoption scorecards for each local authority, which will then be updated annually when new data become available.  The scorecards will highlight key indicators for how swiftly local authorities place children in need of adoption and how swiftly they and adoption agencies deal with prospective adopters.  They will allow local authorities and other adoption agencies to monitor their own performance and compare it with that of others.  Because comprehensive national data on timeliness for prospective adopters will not be available until autumn 2014, the scorecard will focus initially on local authorities and the adoption process for children.  In the interim, we will assess the timeliness of the prospective adopter’s journey in a cross-section of adoption agencies as they prepare to implement
the new training and assessment process. From 2014, the scorecards will include data on prospective adopters and will be published for all adoption agencies so that they can
compare their performance in relation to timeliness with each other (see figure 1 below).

98.The first key indicator will relate to the overall experience of a child who is adopted. It will measure the average time it takes for a child who goes on to be adopted from enteringcare to moving in with his or her adoptive family.  The local authority leads this process, working with the child, the birth parents and the prospective adopters, but they share the responsibility for parts of this process with the other agencies in the family justice system,  including the courts and Cafcass.  Where this indicator signals weaknesses in the family justice system in a local area, this will be tackled both through the work of the Family Justice Board at national level and the Local Family Justice Operational Boards.
99.The second key indicator will look at the same period, but identify the proportion of  children who wait longer for adoption than they should.  It will help ensure the scorecard takes account of children still waiting, as well as those who have already been adopted – and allow us to act quickly if a large number of children seem to be stuck in the system in a particular local area.
100. The third key indicator will test the speed and effectiveness of family-finding.  It will measure the average time it takes for a local authority to match a child to an adoptive family once the court has formally decided that adoption is the best option.  Family finding is a part of the adoption process which is the sole responsibility of the local authority so this indicator will always give an undiluted picture of their performance.  We will measure the time it takes to match a child, rather than for the child to move in with their new family because we recognise that a smooth introductory phase is vital and will be different for each child. As we set out in chapter one, family-finding should begin as soon as a child is identified as needing adoption, and run in parallel with other parts of the adoption process. In many cases, prospective adopters should be ready and waiting
for the child when the placement order is made.
102. The introduction of the scorecard does not mean that we are asking adoption agencies to focus on the timeliness of adoption to the exclusion of everything else that makes a difference to a child’s adoption.  It is designed to incentivise the adoption system to give timeliness greater attention than it previously has.  We don’t want it to distort local authority decisions about whether adoption is the best option for children, for example by discouraging them from placing some children for adoption – such as older children, those in sibling groups or those with complex needs.  Both the Department, in looking at local authority performance in relation to the scorecards, and Ofsted in their inspections, will take account of and give credit to local authority efforts to place childrenfor whom it is difficult to find a family.  We will therefore include amongst the additional
information the numbers of older children being adopted, and the numbers of children where the local authority initially decides adoption is the best option, but revisits and changes that decision before the child is adopted

The overall target – there’s a recognition that one can’t make immediate dramatic transformations, and it is more stepped

. Initially, our performance threshold for the child’s journey overall will be twenty one months.  Within four years, it will be fourteen months. The threshold for the family finding indicator will be seven months initially, moving down to four months within four years. We will keep these thresholds under review as we develop and implement the changes to the adoption system set out in this Action Plan and elsewhere.  Achieving this level of transformation will help protect thousands of children from the harm associated with delay and instability

What’s at the end of the stick, Vic ?   (as usual, it is Ofsted, the paragon of good practice everywhere. Sorry, my SARCASMLOCK button got pressed accidentally there) Note the really big stick in my italics at the end.

105. In line with our general approach to local government, we expect the sector to lead efforts to ensure local authorities and the family justice system improve in line with these minimum expectations through its own improvement mechanisms.  However, given the vulnerability of these children and the current levels of under performance, central Government can and will intervene where necessary.  The indicators alone do not give a full and authoritative picture of local authority performance so there will be no automatic link between the performance thresholds and intervention. Where local authorities are below one or both of the thresholds, we will look at further information from the performance tables and from Ofsted reports to get a fuller sense of the results they achieve for the children in their care. We will, for example, look at whether poorperformance against the indicators reflects the complex needs of the children being placed for adoption, as opposed to failings in the local authority’s family finding.  We will also consider to what extent a local authority’s performance is already showing signs of improvement, even if the threshold has not yet been met.  Where this exercise substantiates performance concerns triggered by the scorecard indicator, we will have conversations with local authorities about their performance. Ultimately, we will consider where we may need to intervene in order to ensure that local authorities are providing an adequate service to children in need of adoption.
106. Where we need to intervene in the interests of children, we will use improvementnotices to require authorities to take specific action to improve their performance within set timescales. Where performance remains poor and the evidence suggests an authority will be unable to improve its own performance sufficiently, we will not hesitate to use our statutory powers of intervention.  This might involve, for example, directing local authorities to outsource all or part of their adoption service to another higher performing local authority or voluntary adoption agency with a strong record

My overall impressions – not as bad as I had feared – the document has clearly had input from people who have actually had something to do with adoption, rather than being a top-down this is what the Daily Mail will like hatchet job, and whilst I don’t necessarily embrace all of how they want to achieve their goals, the goals themselves are laudable. This reads to me like a genuine attempt to address problems, rather than the Politicians Syllogism  (1. We must do SOMETHING. 2. THIS is SOMETHING. 3. Therefore we must do THIS)

Three, is not the magic number

I’ve been pondering this week about an issue that seems to come up more and more. Obviously, this whole article is prefaced by the caveat that children are better off with their birth family or family members if at all possible, even if that means a lot of support going in, so the issue arises in cases where the Court is being presented with a plan by the Local Authority that a sibling group can’t go home to the birth family or extended family.

It is the vexed question of separation of siblings – how far can anyone predict whether the future desired placements will materialise, does there ever come a point at which the desired outcome of keeping a sibling group together actually becomes harmful (i.e the trade-off between them being together versus them not having stable, lasting placements but running the risk of placement breakdowns), and to what extent is the detail of the care planning for a sibling group within the control of the Court, and what happens if the Court don’t want to let go of the reins because they doubt that what has been promised will be delivered?.  I’m probably going to do a post about the official solution to the “starred care plans” issue, and whether that official solution actually works in practice  (hint, since the introduction of the IRO referring to CAFCASS, CAFCASS making an application system has been in place, CAFCASS have had 8 such requests, and issued on none of them)

But one thing kept coming to my mind, and it is that children in a sibling group of three are the most difficult in this argument. A single child, siblings don’t arise. Two children – you generally want to keep them together (although if there’s a big age difference, that can be tricky) and you stand a good chance of doing so. Four children, it is generally accepted that you’re unlikely to be able to keep them together and although you may try to find such a placement, the consensus is that it would be a beautiful and pleasant surprise if you managed it, but not something you’d be condemned for if you couldn’t. Five and over, and it is accepted that the siblings would have to be split and the debate is about how to do this.

When you have a group of three, however, there remains a disconnect between what people hope and expect  (you should be able to keep these siblings together, and you must find them a placement together, because splitting them would be terrible) and what the reality of carers searching for sibling groups of three actually are.  Even assuming your sibling group of three has no particular quirky features, no unusual cultural issues, not a high level of post placement contact being planned, they have no significant behavioural problems  (all of which assumptions are not necessarily the reality), the carers in the available pool who are looking for sibling groups of three are very limited.

A figure I saw this week suggested that currently for sibling groups of three or more, there are far, far, far more sibling groups looking for carers than there are carers looking for sibling groups.  [I was going to give the figures, but had an attack of unease about doing so – but if you’re imagining that there are five sibling groups for every one carer looking for a sibling group, you’re way, way overestimating the number of carers]  

That doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t try, or shouldn’t try really really hard, or that for any one of those individual sibling groups that not being placed together is anything other than a  tragedy  (having already given my caveat that this arises only if they CAN’T go home or to extended family), but it strikes me that no matter how hard one tries, no matter how fervently every professional involved scours the potential placements, not all of the sibling groups who are competing for a much, much smaller pool of carers are going to find placements together.

Even if we tripled the number of carers who want sibling groups; by some magical recruitment process, or as Gove is suggesting by dramatically reducing standards/the exhaustive bureacratic and draining process (depending on where you stand), still the vast majority of those sibling groups of three waiting to be placed together (who all professionals have determined, really really need to be together if at all possible) are going to be let down. And are we letting them down further by spending months of such a critical period in the children’s lives searching for something that has a high probability can’t be delivered?

I don’t know what the solution is. Long-term, taking action to either support families, to prop up and improve placements within the family, to get the treatment that parents who have been through the care system process badly need, or earlier intervention on the first child, so that we don’t get three children needing to be removed, with a view to massively reducing the need for large sibling groups to come before the Court. A whole different approach with foster carers – the concurrency model rolled out across the board, so that more often than not, the people fostering the children during the proceedings do so with an open mind that they would offer them a home for life, if needed? I don’t know what you would need to offer, or seek in recruitment to make concurrency foster placements the norm rather than an exception.

But we are working in a reactive system. What Government is ever going to throw millions of pounds of public money in helping parents who have heroin addictions or alcohol problems, and stand firm in front of the criticism that would come from the Daily Mail about that policy? Even if those millions would save that tenfold over time, and greatly reduce the human tragedy that ever single set of care proceedings inevitably is, no matter how well handled they are?