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).
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.
Many thanks to Dana for alerting us to the hashtag.