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Adoption: time for a change?

Date:30 JUN 2017
Elizabeth Isaacs QC
St Ives Chambers

Recent research confirms the clear link between deprivation and the chances of children being subject to state intervention (Bywaters et al, 'Inequalities in child welfare intervention rates: The intersection of deprivation and identity' (2014) 21(4) Child & Family Social Work, at p 452; Bywaters et al The relationship between poverty, child abuse and neglect: an evidence review (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2016). 
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Contrary to popular perception, the overwhelming majority (82%) of children in local authority care are not babies and young children "waiting for adoption", but older children aged between 5–16 years. For these children conventional adoption is likely to be a remote, if not impossible, aspiration particularly in light of the continuing decline in successful adoptive placements. On 31 March 2016 only a tiny percentage (just under 3%) of the 70,000 children in local authority care in England were subject to placement orders for adoption but had not yet been placed, and most (73%) of that tiny group were considered 'hard to place' (meaning a child aged 5 years or over, BME, disabled or part of a sibling group) (DfE: Children looked after in England (including adoption and care leavers) year ending 31 March 2016; Adoption Leadership Board quarterly data report: July to Sept 2015).

Yet in the face of continuing government policy which prioritises resources for adoption over resources for preventative services, the numbers of children remaining in local authority care are likely to continue to increase, while the chances of children remaining in their birth families are likely to diminish.

In 2016 the government announced extensive financial, legal and policy measures directed at increasing adoption for children in care: increased funding totalling £200m to speed up adoptions of harder-to-place children; the creation of new regional adoption agencies to improve recruitment of adopters; the strengthening of voluntary adoption agencies; extension of the Adoption Support Fund for a further 4 years; changes in statutory social work guidance so that prospective adopters can no longer automatically be excluded for reasons such as being older, single or of a different ethnicity to the child; and the introduction of a 'fast-track' approval process to help approved foster carers adopt more quickly.(DfE Draft statutory guidance on adoption July 2014 and DfE Press Release 14 Jan 2016)

Lord Justice McFarlane questioned in the recent Bridget Lindley Memorial Lecture 2017 whether we are getting the balance right between child protection and the right to family life and the data would suggest that a wholesale review cannot come quickly enough. However, part of that review must surely include an analysis about whether the prioritisation of resources for adoption for a minority group of children can continue to be justified.