A review of a central piece of child welfare legislation by a parliamentary committee says the government has missed a key opportunity to protect children and support families, but in reality has itself missed a key opportunity to separate conflicts of interest within the child protection sector, and truly focus on children.

The report, Children and Families Act 2014: A failure of implementation, produced by the Children and Families Act 2014 Committee, found that the law had not made the lives of children in Britain better.

The act was designed to protect vulnerable children, offer improved support for children whose parents were separating, create a system to help children with special educational needs and disabilities, and to help parents balance work and family life.

The review by the peer-led Committee found that little effort to implement the Act, poor information gathering and a lack of cohesive services had made the law useless. It also agreed with and supported the government’s view that adoptions should be increased.

Although the Act covers much more than adoption, adoption appears to be the central focus of the report and its recommendations, highlighting once again that the House of Lords is out of touch with the latest science and research behind adoption and what really works for children in need.

While Researching Reform finds members of the Lords generally well-meaning and wanting to provide the best for children in Britain, the House is still looking to all the wrong people to inform its reports.

That, in part, is down to a lack of awareness about the often complex nuances inside the child protection sector and a lack of sensitivity with regard to organisations, bodies and corporations inside the sector with a strong financial incentive to push certain services, and interventions – regardless of whether they are in the best interests of children in the UK.

What the peers in the House of Lords need to know, is that these interventions have never been tested, nor are they evidence-based.

We implore members of the House to think really carefully about what this means for children in practice, paying close attention to the volumes of Serious Case Reviews (SCR) and pioneering research – produced for the government – which are increasingly telling us that adoption only works for a tiny fraction of children, and that far better solutions, tested solutions, exist.

One positive recommendation from the report includes amplifying the voices of children inside the family justice system, including allowing children to meet with judges. We invite the Lords to take a look at this site’s investigation into children’s right to speak with family court judges during their cases, which we undertook in 2017. We discovered that the government had quietly shelved this policy, but not before rolling out vastly inadequate guidelines which did not amplify children’s voices or offer them a chance to really be heard. We spoke about this issue and our investigation on the BBC’s Radio 4 Programme.

The report is split into five chapters: an introduction; adoption; family justice; employment rights; building a better future for children and families.

The adoption-heavy focus in the report can be seen in the placement of adoption as an issue in the chapters – right at the start – and the list of adoption-centric recommendations.

The Act itself was created in part to push children out of foster placements and into adoptive placements as quickly as possible, to avoid children being bounced around the system. This idea, though well meaning, fails to take into account the many issues at play in this context, including the damage just one wrench or placement can do to a child.

Despite a growing awareness in recent years inside the social work sector that adoption is not a gold standard for children in need by any stretch of the imagination, the government has been steadily trying to row back this shift by enforcing its adoption-first policy, which is actually in breach of legislation in England and Wales governing child protection. This legislation tells us that adoption must be a last resort, and that adoption must only be considered when there is no other alternative.

This is where the Lords are getting confused, or hoodwinked, depending on what they know or who they are talking to.

That is because local authorities – who are also under a legal duty to provide support services and keep families together whenever possible – are failing to do either of these things. And by the time an adoption order is made in court, peers automatically assume that is the right outcome for the child.

But we know that too many children are entering the care system wrongly, once again because some of our most senior government figures have admitted as much. Chief Social Worker, Isobel Trowler is one such example.

A tell-tale sign in the report that its focus on adoption is not child-centered, but sector-centered, is this quote from social worker Al Coates who ‘warned’ the Committee that “[post adoption] contact is the issue that will define whether adoption is still with us in 20 or 30 years.”

It is a terribly disappointing comment which highlights the sector’s deep concern about its own survival, rather than the healthy development of children in Britain.

The section on post-adoption contact is a distressing read. There is a focus on ‘digital’ post adoption contact for natural families, rather than meaningful contact. There is also a failure to acknowledge the rise in children looking for their natural families as a sign that those children want meaningful relationships with their natural parents.

Natural parents who were interviewed for the report said they wanted to move away from letterbox contact, and to be able to send voice messages and photographs.

The Lords also seem overly-fixated on keeping our unnecessarily large and overbearing adoption sector alive, though they never give a convincing explanation as to why they are so invested in this policy. In the report they say:

“Contact, where safe, appropriate and properly managed, can be valuable for an adoptive child, their new family and their birth family, including siblings and other relatives. However, contact orders and support can vary, and the current system of letterbox contact is outdated. The failure to modernise contact threatens to undermine the adoption system. We urge the Government to support adoption agencies in developing and rolling-out a safe and appropriate national digital system for contact as a priority. This system should allow for faster and more intuitive contact, while ensuring contact remains moderated and safe for all.”

The report offers a link to the peers’ financial interests, some of which make for interesting reading. There are peers with financial interests and paid employment roles including within governance-focused companies, digital services, legal and public body consultancies, and one peer, Baroness Wyld, who is a board member of Ofsted.

Researching Reform remains deeply concerned by the several comments in the report, which are not evidence-based, including the suggestion that “Early permanence placements, including fostering to adopt placements, can bring many benefits for the children involved.” We have a whole body of research which tells us that outcomes for children in care are far worse than for those children left with their natural parents. The research also tells us that this is not because the children are irreparably damaged when they enter the system making their outcomes a foregone conclusion.

There are some rays of light in the report’s dark and predictable narrative.

On the issue of the 26-week time limit for children going through care proceedings, a spokesperson for the NSPCC told the Committee: “An unintended consequence of the 26 week rule was that it became the success measure through which everything was judged, and we ought to go back to thinking about the best interests of the child. Yes, focus on timeliness, but also on the impact and outcomes for children, which is ultimately the most important thing. In certain cases, over-adherence to the 26 week target can prevent the use of innovative interventions, which are more likely to meet the long-term needs of the child.”

This comment is correct, but gets dismissed in the report as a “holistic” view, a term which is often used to “demote” a view as being airy and without substance.

From adoption to family justice, the report is effectively nothing more than an echo chamber for poor government policy mantras, which have done nothing to protect, nurture and empower children in this country.

You can acess the report here.