Adoption Policy Review Group: phase one report

Report on phase one of a two-phase review to look at adoption law and practice, commissioned in April 2001.


  1. The group considered a number of wide-ranging and detailed issues. A clear overall feature of the resulting recommendations is the need to raise the profile and scope of existing services across Scotland, for:
  • all 'looked after' children for whom adoption/permanence needs to be considered, and other children affected by adoption
  • all adopted people, including adopted children and young people
  • all adopters and prospective adopters
  • all members of birth families who have had a relative adopted

    There is also a need to tackle drift and delay in the current system.

  1. The group recognised the considerable amount of good service provision that exists in adoption services in Scotland. However, it also considered that some provision might be enhanced if services were provided on a Scotland-wide basis. For example a national recruitment strategy, a national Adoption Support Network, a Scottish service to match children and adopters and a national system of information collection and collation. The group considered a Scotland-wide consortium of agencies or an existing national organisation could deliver these services. The group considered and rejected the case for a national adoption agency. It was feared such an agency would reduce resources in front line social work teams, which could not be replaced.
  2. The group noted that some recommendations involve adjustments in practices or the development of new standards and guidance whilst others have resource implications.
  3. The Place of Adoption Services Within the Spectrum of Services Considered for Children and Young People looked after by Local Authorities

  4. This issue is dealt with in chapter 1. The group highlighted the difficulties faced by the 1% children who are 'looked after'. Their small number exposes them to the risk of exclusion from policies designed for all children, or even for those who are socially disadvantaged. An even smaller percentage of children may need an adoptive family. Their needs should be recognised and responded to in a coherent way. The report focuses on the needs of those children 'looked after' within the public care system.
  5. The group recognised and accepted permanence as essential for healthy growth of children. This is the need to provide continuity of care throughout childhood and into adulthood. It can be delivered within the birth family, with adopters, with foster carers or, for those who find living in a family difficult, in residential care. Planning for permanence should be consistent with the key principle of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995, that the welfare of the child is paramount. A "whole systems" approach should be taken to planning and delivering permanence.
  6. The group found that outcomes for children who grow up while 'looked after' away from home by local authorities are very poor. Additionally, the longer the child is 'looked after' away from home, the higher the chance that child would remain in care. Children 'looked after' in Scotland have a high number of moves within each period away from home with a third moving on a least four occasions. These findings pointed to the need to plan early for permanence and deliver stability quickly. All Councils are encouraged to give permanence, including adoption as well as rehabilitation in the birth family, a higher profile in Children's Services Plans.
  7. The outcomes for adopted children, in contrast, were as good, if not better, than those of the general population. Indications from qualitative studies showed that children generally preferred the sense of security that adoption gives them over longer-term foster placements and that adoption brings a lifelong resource to children. It will not, however, be suitable for some, usually older, children who do not welcome the absolute legal break with their birth families. The next phase of the review should consider new arrangements such as special guardianship, which could make adoption more viable for older children who have needs for greater contact with their birth families.
  8. An increasing number of children are awaiting permanence and not placed after a year. There is an unmet and increasing demand for families to adopt children. The group found that more older children now need adoptive families. But there is a much better chance of being matched with a family at age 2 than at age 5. The odds get even worse by the age of 9. Delays carry very real risks for children. They suffer more disruption and change and more emotional damage. So permanence must be implemented quickly.
  9. The group looked at the adoption process and identified four stages at which drift for children can occur.
  1. between becoming 'looked after' away from home and a review decision to seek permanence
  2. between the review and the adoption panel
  3. between the panel and lodging the court application for adoption or freeing
  4. during the court and matching processes.
  1. The group found that resources within local authorities' children's and families' teams had become very strained and that this contributed to delay. In particular there was a shortage of timely assessments of children's needs. A clear assessment framework is needed which dovetails with the information for planning and review. It should promote early collection of key information and analysis of need. A new assessment framework will require investment in continuous professional development as well as specific input during the proposed third year courses for social work students.
  2. To address further the problems of instability the group welcomed new twin-track or parallel planning approaches and the development of concurrent planning.
  3. The group found that children were not often consulted about options for permanence and that discussions on adoption were rarely held. The group supported findings that children and young people wish to have their views about adoption and possible placements listened to and respected.
  4. The group found that data on 'looked after' children was not widely available or robust. It was not collected routinely and not collated between local authorities, the Scottish Executive and courts. The group considered it a high priority that this need for information is met.

    The Recruitment, Selection and Assessment of Prospective Adopters

  5. This issue is dealt with in chapter 2. There was acknowledgement of an identified unmet demand for families for children; and also of the good work already carried out by agencies. The information set out includes: the current recruitment process and potential problems; the stages of the recruitment process - enquiry, application, assessment, approval and matching; charging and inter-agency fees; whether there should be a National Recruitment Agency; and basic principles for informing practice.
  6. The group found that there are a number of stages in the process when potential adopters might be 'lost' or discouraged from continuing with their enquiry or application. At the enquiry stage there was much variability in the amount and quality of information provided by agencies and an inaccurate or discouraging response could deter applicants. The need for standard basic information about adoption and the adoption process was identified.
  7. Some prospective adopters might be deterred by misconceptions that there is a bias in favour of middle class or professional adopters and the group concluded that all agencies should explicitly recognise and publicise the wide variety of successful adopters. The group also found that some agencies recruit, prepare and assess prospective adopters only according to their own needs and capacity. This means that some potential adopters are lost because their local agency may not recruit regularly. The group concluded that agencies should assess all applicants prepared to consider children against the profile of children typically awaiting adoption in Scotland.
  8. The group also found that each agency has its own pre-assessment criteria. Some of these may be unrealistic and enforcing them may reduce the number of successful applicants.
  9. The group also found that methods of assessment differed between agencies and considered that a common framework would guarantee consistency of preparation and assessment. A common assessment framework would also assist those families who moved area during the course of their assessment. An independent appeals process would assist those applicants assessed by an agency as unsuitable to adopt.
  10. Some approved families do not find a match. Further research is required to clarify the link between un-matched families and children available for adoption.
  11. Looking after a child away from home may quickly become more expensive for an authority than paying a placing fee to another agency to cover recruitment, assessment and some post-adoption support costs. The group considered that resources should be managed with authorities in a way that enables these policy changes to be met. This would also reduce the prevalence of children from outwith Scotland being placed with Scottish families whilst children here still await a placement.
  12. The group considered and rejected the case for a new Scottish recruitment agency partly because it was felt that setting up such an agency would further reduce resources in social work teams as staff moved to join such an agency and could not be replaced.

    The Provision of Post-Adoption Support Services For Families

  13. This issue is dealt with in Chapter 3. It looks at questions about current services from the perspective of the 3 parties in adoption - adoptees, birth families and adopters; asks 5 key questions; and lists 9 principles about post-adoption support that should form the basis of future services.
  14. The group started its consideration from the duty on local authorities to provide counselling and assistance to adopted children and adopters, after placement and adoption. There is also a duty to provide counselling to others affected by adoption, including birth relatives. The duties on the local authority where the individual lives lie with the whole local authority, not just the adoption agency. In particular, the need for a service contribution from education and health authorities was highlighted.
  15. In considering the support required by children, young people and adults who are adopted, the group noted that it is important to prepare children and family well for adoption. A particular need by adopted people for access to confidential counselling and advice services was highlighted. Good quality general information about adoption was needed as well as readily available services that offer more specific advice. It was noted that BAAF produce a range of helpful information leaflets and services such as TALK ADOPTION provide confidential assistance to help meet this need. Post adoption support services must also be developed to meet the increasing challenge of maintaining contact between adoptees and those who are important to them prior to adoption.
  16. The group identified several areas where adopters needed more support. In particular in the planning of contact, so that it is clear who is responsible for initiating and maintaining links. When adoptive families experience difficulties there is a need for earlier advice and assistance in developing practical strategies and providing support to assist in the upbringing of the child. This requires knowledge, skill and resources in the area of mental and physical health, education and other services. Adoption leave from employment was seen as valuable to help the adoptive family establish a new set of relationships.
  17. The group noted that birth parents have found that services for them are inconsistent and variable. Birth parents need support. More resources should remain available to birth parents beyond the point when an adoption plan is made.
  18. In response to key questions the group found that national standards for post-adoption services for children, birth families and adoptive parents are seen as necessary. Expert help and support could often be provided by voluntary agencies. Adoption allowances are seen as a key component of post-adoption support by families. There is support for a uniform system across Scotland and for a payment of allowances without means testing. A survey of adopters, birth parents and adoptees would help to clarify where there are gaps in service provision around the country and highlight models of good practice.

    The Case for Scotland Joining the Proposed UK National Adoption Register

  19. This issue is dealt with in chapter 4. The group considered whether it would benefit Scotland to join the proposed Register in England and Wales, making it a UK National Register. Such a Register would match children and families across the UK. The group looked at how the proposed Register in England will work, the current position in Scotland, the possibility of a Scotland-wide consortium and how that would operate with the Register, the issue of inter-agency fees and the need to have the Scottish system properly recognised in the Register's processes.
  20. The group found that where agencies cannot find a match within their own area, a range of consortia and ad hoc arrangements are used to match children and families. But there is no formalised Scotland-wide consortium which means some authorities are not able to maximise the potential matches between families and children. The group also found a lack of reliable Scottish-wide information about the children awaiting adoption and the numbers of prospective adopters. There was some suggestion that Scottish children were 'losing out' compared with English counterparts. The group considered that given the existing range of family-finding mechanisms, the variability of these, the impact of an adoption register in England and Wales and the number of children who continue to wait for a family, the status quo in Scotland should not be maintained.
  21. It is widely recognised that a local match is likely to be in the child's best interests in most cases. Examples of exceptions, where placement at a distance might be sought, include the need to remove a child from a seriously abusive birth family, the need to find a match for children from a particular ethnic background or the need to find a match for children with a particularly challenging combination of disabilities. The group considered whether a Scotland-only register would meet all the needs, particularly those for a wide and varied pool of potential adopters. Whilst recognising that joining the UK register would not automatically result in matches outwith Scotland the group examined how maximising the opportunities for a local match could be reconciled with membership of a UK register.
  22. The group proposed that a Scotland-wide consortium would maximise the chances of a local match. The consortium should seek a match during the 6-9 month time-scale allowed by the Register for such work. Scotland should join the Register.
  23. To enable the operation of the Register in Scotland to run smoothly the group considered that the issue of inter-agency fees needed to be addressed. Without an undertaking to meet changes, Scottish families ready and able to take a placement would be swiftly approached by agencies south of the border who were willing to meet the charges incurred by the family's agency in recruiting and assessing them. It will also be necessary to ensure that the Register takes proper account of the Scottish legal and administrative arrangements for adoption.

    Part 2 of the Review and Future Issues

  24. The second phase of the Review is expected to consider a wide range of possible reforms to the law on adoption. Some possible topics for consideration may flow from the ideas and Recommendations in this Report. Others may focus on issues which the group has not yet considered.
  25. In particular, the group suggests the following outline agenda:
  • legal options for permanence for children including potential new 'special guardianship' arrangements
  • the role of the Children's hearing system in permanence
  • delays in adoption, including the court processes
  • the rights of birth parents, including unmarried fathers
  • contact in adoption
  • fostering provisions for 'looked after' children and private fostering
  • curators in permanence proceedings
  • appeals processes.

A Report on these and other issues will be made.

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