Appropriately for a report published during the excitement of the EUROs, the Adoption Barometer 2021 is a report of two halves. Or perhaps, a report on two levels. 

On one level, it paints a unique picture of how the UK’s adoption community fared in the year the world was turned upside-down by Covid-19.  We see how the school closures, court delays, approval backlogs and emergency support provision of 2020 impacted on adoption.  

On the other, it deepens our understanding, exploring themes that were exposed in previous Adoption Barometer reports. Now in its third year, we can start to track trends, and examine the degree to which policy responses are addressing the challenges faced by adoptive families. 

Overall, the Barometer shows us that the adoption system is waking up to the need not only to create adoptive families, but also to nurture them – but change is coming too slowly for many adopted young people.  

Adopted young people and their families are paying the price of the adoption system’s failure to provide early and consistent support.  

This year we added a survey for adopted people aged 16+. They courageously shared their stories of trying to access mental health support, reconnecting with birth family members, and moving towards independence while coming to terms with their histories and identities.  

Over two thirds of adopted respondents said they needed more support than their peers during the transition to adulthood, but only a quarter said they found specialist support which understood their needs. Our data shows that adopted young people’s mental health is deteriorating, with almost half of 16-25 year olds involved with mental health services in 2020. Adopted young people are twice as likely to be not in employment, education or training as their peers.  

But the key insight provided by the adopted people who answered our survey was this:   

The single most important factor in navigating the transition to adulthood as an adopted young person is the stability of their family relationships 

Adopted adults cited parents who were equipped and supported to talk with them about all aspects of adoption as key to their ability to navigate the world. If ever we needed confirmation that we have to hold adoptive parents close as their children grow up, this is it.  

But the Adoption Barometer shows that this is not yet the case. 

Adopter experience, tracked along the stages of the adoption journey, gets steadily worse.  

Newly approved adopters and families with young children report their training was helpful, and their social workers supportive. Despite the pandemic, prospective adopters were more likely to complete their approvals process within 12 months than in 2019.  Most have contact plans with their children’s birth families. Most do not have written adoption support plans – a finding which becomes all too relevant later on.  

Fast-forward to families with children in their teens and early twenties, and only half of the parents of 16-25 year olds felt optimistic about their future. Chief concerns are education, violent behaviour and accessing effective support. School closures had a detrimental impact on three quarters of established families’ wellbeing, and while there is some evidence that lockdowns reduced risky activities in the younger cohort, the proportion of 16-25 year olds involved with the criminal justice system increased last year. 

The evidence provided by the Adoption Barometer, year on year, is that this pattern can be changed.  

Where adoption support is provided, it works.  

The bottom line is that 70% of adopters still tell us they are struggling to access the support they need – unchanged from previous years. 

But we can see the tide starting to turn. When families do get support, their assessments of its quality and the impact on their family have increased on all our indicators since last year - a considerable achievement considering the pandemic 

Adopter experiences in Wales have improved at both approvals and matching stage, and among families with older children, due to investment in adoption services in 2019. The emergency COVID adoption support fund in England has been widely praised by families as easy to access and of rapid benefit.  

Conversely, in Northern Ireland, still labouring under out-of-date legislation which does not recognise the need for support, adopters reported worryingly poor experiences when their children need help. 

6 steps to stable adoptive families 

Today we’re setting out a six-point plan for change. The foundation is the provision of written support plans for every child, agreed with adopters before placement, anticipating future as well as current support needs and annually reviewed. It includes training in early childhood trauma for education and health professionals and the extension of adoption services to at least age 26.  

These things will cost money. But the cost if we don’t do them is too high – an increasing mental health emergency amongst adopted young people, more family breakdowns, and the erosion of the life chances of adoptive parents and young people alike.  

The protective effect of the quality and stability of the parent-child relationship is both the reason for adoption and the condition for its success. We must support the parents to support the child. Adoption UK was founded on this principle. With the evidence presented in the Adoption Barometer, the integrity of the adoption system now depends on putting it into practice. 

To mangle another footballing analogy, despite recent welcome progress in adoption support provision it isn’t all over – and we won’t think it is until every adopted child and their parents receive planned and funded support from the day their family is created. 

Author: Sue Armstrong Brown, CEO Adoption UK

Click here to read more about our Adoption Barometer 2021, and to read the report in full.