The Review of children’s social care published on 23rd May sets out a vision for a system which provides earlier help, less process and sustained and loving relationships for children. It offers a bold and potentially transformative set of recommendations, which include many things Adoption UK has been campaigning on for a long time, such as better support for kinship carers, improved support for contact between adoptive families and birth families, and ensuring social workers have the knowledge, time and resources to do the best job possible for vulnerable children. The call for a new protected characteristic for care experienced people is something we can all get behind. 

The scope of the consultation carried out during the Review is impressive. Adoption UK worked with the adoption community and the Review team for over a year. Yet adoption is largely invisible in the report and its recommendations. This isn’t a surprise – the Review team were clear that they felt adoption was already getting a lot of attention – plenty of interest from Ministers and a new National Adoption Strategy. But there are two significant problems with the decision to sideline adoption.

Firstly, it means a vital part of the care story is missing. Most adopted people come from the care system. Adopted children have the same terrible starts in life as those still in care, with the same lasting effects. Currently we have a care system that invests heavily in creating adoptive families and then fades away, leaving adopters to pick up the pieces of their child’s trauma. 70% of adoptive families say they face a continual struggle for support.

Secondly, it risks perpetuating siloes and competition in the system, which is not in the best interests of children. When the ‘Case for Change’ was published last year, Adoption UK warned that the Review must not fall into the trap of choosing where to load up resources, thereby adding to the competition for funds in these straitened times. We can’t choose to either help birth parents or foster carers, kinship carers or adopters. We must provide an equal chance for all children by supporting them and their carers, whatever point in the system they find themselves at.

Where adoption is briefly mentioned in the Review, it is with reference to the need to improve support for contact between birth families and adopted children – something Adoption UK has long called for, and which the adoption community raised consistently during the consultation. Contact is a key area of focus for this year’s forthcoming Adoption Barometer, the only comprehensive annual assessment of adoption policy and practice, based on a large-scale survey of adopters and adopted people.

There are a couple of red flags in the Review from the perspective of adoption. It appears to call for support for birth family contact to be funded via the ASF. This would mean less funding available for therapeutic support.

One central proposal is to fold the Regional Adoption Agency (RAA) structure into new Regional Care Cooperatives. Whatever misgivings there were about the regionalisation of adoption services, they are now up and running and are doing some great work, including creating centres of excellence to share best practice, introducing a standard core offer of support, some innovative work on matching and increasing the voice of children and young people in shaping agency practice. It’s slightly alarming to think of any further changes being imposed on the structure of adoption agencies in the foreseeable future. 

The ‘Moving On’ section of the report has many very sensible things to say about the foundations needed for care experienced young people to thrive in adulthood. It sets out ‘five ambitious missions…so that more care experienced people have a strong network of loving relationships, live in a safe and suitable home, progress to university, have a well paid job and lead a happy and healthy life.’ However the language is muddy – at times referring to care experienced young people, at other times to care leavers.  Many of the recommendations are equally relevant for young people adopted from care, yet here only care leavers are specified. The intentions and ambitions of this section will need challenging and clarifying before the Review moves into implementation stage.

Adoption did not need to take centre stage in this Review, but it did need to be given its proper place. There should have been a clear recognition that adoption is part of the continuum of care for vulnerable children and a commitment to join up with adoption sector leaders to ensure the best possible journey from care to adoption where that is the best decision for a child. There should have been an agenda for change around the key things raised in the many detailed conversations held between members of the adoption community and the care Review team, including therapeutic and practical support for adopted people and their families, and a joined up approach across all agencies that typically work with adoptive families –such as the police, mental health teams and education.

There should also have been a recognition that poor support can result in adoptive families reaching crisis point and children re-entering the care system. 3% of families end up in this situation. 3% may sound like a small number, which is testament to the level of commitment, resilience and love amongst adopters. But it still represents hundreds of children a year, and obviously every one of those children matters. If we don’t improve mental health, educational achievement and long term prospects for adopted children, we simply won’t have reformed children’s social care.

There are interesting comparisons to be made between this Review and The Promise, the independent Review of children’s social care in Scotland, published in 2020. The Promise talks a lot about the whole spectrum of places children grow up, and the need for support wherever that is, including adoptive families. It recognises the vital role that adoptive parents play in transforming the lives of some of Scotland’s most vulnerable children and highlights the need for ongoing support once a child has left care: ‘Scotland must not assume that a successful adoption match is the end of the need for support …Adopting parents must have access to support at any point during the life of their child if they require it. That support must be available even if it was not initially required and must mirror the principles of intensive family support.’ Recommendations in The Promise include specific reference to adoptive families.

So what’s next?

The Review recommends a five year reform programme, led by a senior government official and managed by a Reform Board which includes people with lived experience of children’s social care. It also recommends a government National Children’s Social Care Framework be developed. Adoption UK will do all we can to make sure the voice of the adoption community is heard loudly and clearly as the Department for Education works out how to address the Review and its recommendations.

Alison Woodhead, Director of Public Affairs and Communications