Government U-Turns on Adoption Drive, and other Interesting Things

The government’s acting Children’s Minister, Michelle Donelan, made a dramatic U-turn on Wednesday over a policy pushing adoptions for children in care after this site published a post explaining the proposal was illegal.

Donelan had asked all councils in a letter sent on January 16, to prioritise adoptions in every child protection case, and to ignore court judgments which approved alternative forms of care.

The proposal was met with strong resistance by several key stakeholders inside the child welfare sector, including fostering agencies who were concerned that the policy would lead to a reduction in business for foster care agencies.

Children’s charities and child welfare professionals with no vested interest in fostering or adoption also expressed concerns that the minister’s demand was out of touch with reality, and overly simplistic.

But on January 22, Donelan released a video statement through the Department of Education’s (DfE) Twitter feed, expressing a different view.

In the video, the acting Children’s Minister, who is filling in for Kemi Badenoch while she is on maternity leave, said that all forms of care should be considered, including kinship care.

Donelan also unveiled a new project in an answer she gave to a written question sent to the House of Commons on January 23, which asked what recent assessment the DfE had made on the effectiveness of contextual safeguarding.

Answering the query, Donelan announced that the government had been looking at this issue in a pilot to test “contextual safeguarding theory”. Contextual safeguarding examines the way councils respond to vulnerable children who may be being exploited outside of a family setting. She confirmed that the DfE had given Hackney Council up to £2 million to work on the project.

The pilot has been running since 2017, and focuses on phenomena like county lines exploitation and is led by Professor Michelle Lefevre at the University of Sussex, Dr Carlene Firmin from the UoB Contextual Safeguarding team, as well as Professor Gillian Ruch and Dr Kristie Hickle from the University of Sussex.

 

Family Court Watch List

These are the following things to look out for today:

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Concerns Raised Over Quality of Care Children Receive in Fostering and Adoption Placements

A growing number of parents with children in care have become concerned that their children are being left to play violent video games while in fostering and adoption settings.

Children as young as seven are being left alone by carers to play video games with graphic violence, which birth parents say have led to their children displaying increased levels of aggression and anger.

A father told this site, “My son desperately wanted to stay in my care, but his wishes and feelings were ignored. After some time in foster care, he was a changed person. He began to show signs of aggression and depression after he became addicted to a violent video game. I was blamed for this happening, even though I was not looking after him.”

A mother whose son is no longer in care, said that she was initially penalised in child protection assessments for allowing her son to play non violent video games.

Another mother whose 7 year-old son is still in care, explained that she had asked her son’s foster carers not to let him play violent video games, but the foster carers ignored her request.

Violent video games and music with aggressive lyrics have sparked a global debate about whether this kind of content can alter children’s behaviour. That debate has given rise to a large volume of research which concludes that there is no definitive evidence to suggest that violent content is a key factor for aggressive behaviour in adults or children.

However, research suggests that external factors like abuse, neglect and emotional difficulties can make children more susceptible to violent content.

Children in care can often feel neglected and alone. Unable to express their feelings with people they feel safe with, some children in care appear to be lashing out in home and school settings after playing games like Halo, Fortnite and Call Of Duty.

Other children are finding comfort in music bands whose lyrics share anti-establishment messages. This kind of music is popular with young people, and should not be banned in a free society, but questions could arise when looking at some of these lyrics in the context of vulnerable children.

A mother said that her son had been traumatised deeply by his experience in care. She believes that his mental health difficulties, for which he takes medication, were aggravated by that experience, and he is now turning to bands like Suicideboys, which she says offers her son a connection.

“When my son started going downhill, it came out he’d been doing a lot of negative things he’d picked up from a band or group called Suicideboys. I only realised because he said he’d been listening to a song called “Kill Yourself Part III” by this band, and he’s even got a tattoo done called grey 59 connected up his lower arm.”

“He told us he likes listening to Suicideboys a lot because they help him. He said they get across a message not to take tablets as they’re the devil. I said don’t listen to that band, you need to trust the nurses and me instead and the people looking out for you, ” she said.

Suicideboys has received criticism by mainstream music critics for its aggressive image, lyrics and behaviour. Several of the band’s songs contain themes around devil worship. The band’s musicians have claimed that the use of satanic imagery in their lyrics is nothing more than a substitute for the negative effects of money and drugs.

The mother went on to explain that her son’s adoptive parents felt that video games could also be worsening his frail mental health.

“His adoptive parent thinks my son sometimes believes he’s been shot in real life. I think this is to do with video games. She mentioned to me that he plays a game where one gets shot and gets back up, when of course in real life that doesn’t happen.”

Research suggests that parents and carers can influence whether or not a child plays violent video games. The study, which was produced by Iowa State University in 2015, found that carers who were more anxious and emotional could affect the amount of violent video games their children played.

Further reading:

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Poll Finds Public Want to Scrap the UK’s Adoption Policies

A Facebook poll has revealed that 93% of those surveyed are in favour of scrapping the UK’s full, forced adoption policy and replacing the model with simple adoptions.

Simple adoptions allow children and their birth families to remain legally connected, and encourage meaningful, child-focused contact with biological parents while in the care of adoptive parents, wherever possible. Adopted children are able to keep their original surnames and can inherit from both families.

Under the UK’s current adoption policies, which feature a full adoption process, all ties between birth families and their children are severed when an adoption order is made.

While post adoption contact is possible under existing legislation, the policy behind the law is weighted heavily in favour of the adoptive parents’ wishes and wants, making physical contact almost unheard of in adoption cases.

France uses a two-tier system which features both full and simple adoptions, but since the 1990s, the number of simple adoptions have far exceeded the country’s full adoptions, making simple adoptions the most common form of adoption in France today.

Luxembourg, which also uses simple adoptions, only allows a simple adoption to take place where there are strong grounds, and if it offers advantages for the adoptee. Interestingly, the law in Luxembourg also requires that the adoptive parent must be at least 15 years older than the child, unless there are compelling reasons to permit otherwise.

The survey, which this site ran on Facebook, gathered 445 votes and found that 93% of those polled wanted to see the UK’s current adoption policies removed and replaced with a simple adoption process, while just 7% did not want to see the current full adoption policy scrapped and replaced with a simple adoption framework.

One poster commenting on the poll said, I Don’t think adoption should exist. I think working with families so much better for the kids overall health wellbeing.”

Another poster said, “Adoption should only happen with the consent of everyone involved.”

And another commentator responding to the survey wrote, “In cases where the parents are either dead or doing life in jail and NO ONE else could have the child, I don’t see it as a bad thing. However, we all know it is being abused…. It’s horrific how something that I am sure was devised with good intentions, is being used to target the ‘lower classes’.”

Adoption, by law, should always be the last consideration in any child protection case but in rare instances where it is an appropriate course of action for a child, adoptions should be fully transparent.

In practice, that means each adoption plan must be highly tailored to each child to ensure birth family ties remain, and should be reviewed regularly and updated to reflect a child’s developmental needs.

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Acting Children’s Minister Pushes for More Adoptions, Breaking The Law.

The acting Children’s Minister, Michelle Donelan, who is filling in for Kemi Badenoch while she is on maternity leave, has told children’s services directors that adoptions must be a priority in child welfare cases.

The request was communicated in a letter, which also urged the child protection sector not to turn away prospective adopters based on factors like income, while confirming additional funds for agencies to “recruit” more adopters.

Startlingly, the Minister appears to have asked councils to ignore court judgments which have prioritised other forms of care.

In the letter, Donelan says, “We understand that some local authority decisions may be influenced by local court responses to previous applications, and this could mean some children missing out on the benefits of adoption.”

A recent shift in understanding around adoptions has seen the child welfare sector start to prioritise birth family support and temporary care arrangements with a view to reuniting children with their biological families, wherever possible.

The letter has been heavily criticised by sector bosses, who feel the Minister’s demands are short-sighted and overly simplistic.

Not unsurprisingly, adoption agencies in the UK welcomed the move, while fostering agencies threw temper tantrums over the declaration.

Shortly after the letter was shared, the hashtag #ambitiousforadoption was used by the Chief Executive for Coram, Carol Homden. Ambitious For Adoption is an initiative Coram has launched to try to secure more adoptions through collaborations with local authorities in London. (At the time of publication, this was the only tweet we could find using the hashtag).

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Coram has been criticised in the past for being both a children’s charity and running what it calls “one of the largest and most successful independent adoption agencies in the UK.” Social workers, charities and campaigners believe Coram’s portfolio creates a conflict of interest.

The more significant issue here though, is not the battle for market share between adoption and fostering agencies, but the fact that this decision is plainly wrong in law.

We wouldn’t expect a politician to imagine this might be important, so we’ll explain it for Michelle, here.

In what is now considered to be one of the most prominent judgments in family law, made in 2013 and which also set a precedent, Lord Neuberger confirmed that care orders must be “a last resort, because the interests of a child would self-evidently require her relationship with her natural parents to be maintained unless no other course was possible in her interests.”

This comment was made to explain the intent behind clauses in the Children Act 1989 and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. These are both pieces of legislation ratified by the UK, which bind all of us here in England and Wales, including politicians.

Baroness Hale, the former head of the Supreme Court, who was also involved in this case, offered additional guidance, saying that a care order should take place, “only in exceptional circumstances and when motivated by overriding requirements pertaining to the child’s welfare, in short, when nothing else will do. In many cases and particularly where the feared harm has not yet materialised and may never do so, it will be necessary to explore and attempt alternative solutions.”

Fast forward to 2015, and the then President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby warned councils in another case that adoptions with strangers must only ever be made after engaging with every available relative of the child, to see if they might be able to look after him or her.

This warning was rooted in existing legislation (the Children Act 1989), which makes it very clear that adoption should never be the first port of call, and if it is eventually considered, every effort must be made to try to place a child with appropriate members of their birth family.

The judgment led to a sharp decline in adoptions, as councils began to understand the implications of the law and the emphasis on doing what was genuinely in every child’s best interest.

And in 2017, the current President of the Family Division, Andrew McFarlane, who was acting as a High Court judge, raised serious concerns around the use of adoption in a speech he gave at a Family Justice Council event. McFarlane said, “Magistrates and judges up and down the country on every day of the week are making these highly intrusive draconian orders removing children permanently from their natural families on the basis that to do so is better for the child and that ‘nothing else will do’. But, I ask rhetorically: ‘How do we know this is so?’”

What we do know is that adoption does not work for a vast number of children, and that placements break down far too often. This site has written about these issues a lot, and much of the research in this area is available on Researching Reform to read.

We very much hope that others will join us in pointing out the Minister’s misunderstanding of the law on adoptions.

You can access more RR articles on adoption and the impact it has on children, here. 

Many thanks to Dana for alerting us to the hashtag.

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Michelle Donelan, acting Children’s Minister.

Important Resource for Child Welfare Professionals

As the UK child protection system tries to get a handle on the policy changes inside the sector – most notably the need to use care as a method of last resort, rather than the first port of call – a lot of very good resources are being published on how to do this well.

Anyone not familiar with the US’s Child Welfare Information Gateway should explore the site. While it’s true that the US has it own, very similar, problems to our own when it comes to putting children first in child welfare cases, sites like these offer a huge amount of information, a lot of which is progressive, intelligent and child-centric.

Our pick this week from the Child Welfare Information Gateway is the “Helping Children and Youth Maintain Relationships With Birth Families” bulletin, for child welfare professionals.

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