The new year has started with a bang in adoption circles in England. Children’s Minister Michelle Donelan has written to every council in England directing them to prioritise adoption for children whose best interests are served by an adoption plan, and urging them to redouble their efforts to recruit more prospective adopters. The letter comes on top of £1m for adopter recruitment and £5m extra for the Adoption Support Fund announced at Christmas.

The letter is an opening salvo in the Government’s delivery of its manifesto commitment to prioritise stable, loving placements for children in care. Care numbers are rising year on year, with adoption numbers falling, and children with an adoption plan now outnumber prospective adopters by more than 2:1. But despite this apparently strong case for intervention, the Minister’s directive hasn’t received universal approval.  

Part of the problem is the tone of the government’s message. Talking about prioritising adoption appears divisive in a children’s care sector which is universally under-resourced. The other part is the language, which cuts across the need to move to a far more child-centric care service.

What’s the right number of adoptions?

The reality is that some children will never be able to return to their birth families, and for those children adoption is a critically important route out of care. There’s no right number of adoptions – but we know we have the wrong numbers when some children are facing waits of 18 months or more, and anecdotally, some social work professionals are not confident to recommend adoption to the courts because it has fallen out of favour.

But for other children, kinship care within their wider family, long term fostering, or return to their birth parents are the right pathways. There should be no hierarchy and no preference – the best plan needs to be identified for each child and social workers should be supported to make the right recommendation, not the popular one.

Should we prioritise adoption?

So was the Minister’s directive warranted? With a focus simply on the adopter shortfall against the numbers of children with an adoption plan, then yes. There is a problem with finding enough adoptive homes for children who cannot return to their families and should not remain in care, and something needs to be done about it.

Zooming out a little, the priority really needs to fall more on the manifesto wording of securing stable, loving placements for children in care. Adoption needs attention, yes, but so do kinship care and foster care. There won’t be placements without adopters, kinship and foster carers, so they need to be found and supported. And the placements won’t be secure without a step change in the level of post-placement support.

It’s not just about the numbers

We’ve seen how sensitive the social care system is to political and judicial intervention before, and stepping up effort to find adoptive homes for children who can’t return to birth families needs careful handling to avoid another damaging knee-jerk response.

We need a culture change to a sector which really values adopters and kinship carers. This means no more prospective adopters being turned away before assessment, children receiving a full assessment of needs at placement and on request afterwards, and fully funded support plans.

We also need a joined-up approach across the children’s care sector. Children with early life trauma, and the people who love them, all need the same things: understanding, stability, acceptance and access to professional help when needed.

So while a spotlight on recruitment may drive up interest, it’s far from the only thing we need. Adoption UK is pressing for improved long-term support for parents and carers. We don’t just want to see numbers in care fall, we want a brighter future for all care-experienced children.