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 children the group focused on are children in public care in the 'looked after system'. Their need is both simple and complicated - a need for permanence.
  2. Permanence is essential for healthy emotional growth. For most children, the best place to develop their identities, values and relationships is within their family network and every effort should, therefore, be made to maintain this situation.
  3. If this is not in the child's best interests and their needs cannot be met in this setting, an alternative family should be found which can provide continuous care for the child and the commitment into adulthood. Such a family should be sensitive to the child's ethnic, religious and cultural heritage, acknowledge and respect their family of origin and maintain important ongoing links in relationships for the child. For a small number of children, particularly those who are older or who have strong family loyalties, or those who find living in a family difficult, residential care can be the best option for permanent care.
  4. At the heart of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 is the principle that the welfare of the child is paramount and is central to any decisions about his or her future. Duties, consistent with this, are explicitly placed on local authorities in s17(1), on Children's Hearings in s16(1), and on courts in s11(7) and s16(1).
  5. The purpose of this Chapter is to place adoption within the context of permanent outcomes for children. In addition, s6 of the Adoption (Scotland) Act 1978 states that it is the duty of a court or adoption agency to safeguard and promote the welfare of the child when planning adoption throughout his or her life. This report considers the place of adoption and how to improve the adoption process against this background.

Children Prioritised in This Report

Outcome of application in calendar year…..

Applications involving a birth parent, relative or step parent

Other applications

Total number of applications

% adopted by 'strangers'


























  1. no details available for 15 of the 476 cases
  2. no details available for 9 of the 443 cases
    Information provided by the Scottish Executive
  1. This table shows that around half of the adoptions in Scotland involve a relative, typically adoption by a step-parent and that the drop in overall numbers is mostly accounted for by a reduction in step-parent adoptions. In these cases, children are not in a family which is unable to provide safe or adequate care, or in need of a 'match' to a new parent. This report aims to focus instead on the needs of those other children for whom their birth family is unable to sustain an environment providing adequate care. Their numbers are small. Only 1% of children in Scotland do not live within their family, for whatever reason. The small size of the group puts them at risk of being excluded unwittingly from measures designed to tackle exclusion. It is particularly important that there are clear policies, practices and procedures that meet the welfare needs of these children.
  2. The Value of Permanence: The Place of Adoption

  3. A 'looked after' child may be at home, or placed away from the home with relatives, foster carers, or in a residential home or school. If the decision is taken that the child may not safely or sustainably live at home, another permanent option may need to be sought. It can be long-term foster-care, adoption or a residential unit or school place.
  4. Department of Health research [Jones (1999) Strategic Planning in Children's Services London] shows that, compared to the general population, children who grow up while looked after by local authorities:
  • are 4 times more likely to be unemployed;
  • are 60 times more likely to be homeless;
  • constitute a quarter of the adult prison population.
  1. These outcomes are very poor and may be attributed to the many changes that children experience in care. They point to the need to keep children in a stable environment.
  2. Being 'looked after' away from home does not in itself confer stability. In Scotland, for example, children 'looked after' away from home have an average 3.07 placement moves in each period 'in care'. Only 7% of young people stay in the same placement. A third move on at least 4 occasions [York University Residential Study]. Placement stability has been associated with improved outcomes in education, career and relationship skills [Biehal et al,1995].
  3. Early experiences are very important for children. Changes and moves can affect psychological and emotional development. There is research that shows that moving a child from his or her birth family or carers causes trauma, which of itself can be damaging and may affect the outcomes for the child. Balanced against this is research which suggests that:
  • where families are abusing or neglectful a very high degree of focused effort is required for preventative services to avoid the need for alternative placements;
  • return to birth parents can have positive outcomes, but the transition can be very difficult. Success depends on conditions in the home and the quality of care;
  • there is no clear evidence that returning home of itself necessarily or automatically delivers better outcomes than placement for fostering or adoption.

    [Rushton (1999) Adoption as a Placement Choice: Agreement and Evidence, London, The Maudsley. Also Gough (1993) Child Abuse Outcomes, London, HMSO]

  1. This suggests that returning or maintaining a child to or in the birth family should not always be the automatic and/or sole aim. Consideration of the welfare of the child as paramount is how a decision on permanence must be made.
  2. A major benefit associated with adoption, compared with other forms of care, is that it may bring a lifelong resource to children. There is good evidence that adopted children do as well, if not better, than those of the general population (see for example, Tresiliotis et al (1997) Adoption: Theory, Policy and Practice, London, pp19-28; also Parker (ed) (1999) Adoption Now: Messages from Research, London, DH). This is in marked contrast to the poor outcomes for children who grow up in the care system. There are indications from qualitative studies that children generally prefer the sense of security that adoption gives them over long-term foster placements. However, for some, usually older, children, the absolute legal break with their birth family that adoption creates is not welcome.
  3. Research in England has shown that the longer a 'looked after' child is accommodated away from home, the higher the chance that the child will remain in care. Once a child has been looked after and accommodated for 12 months the chances of remaining away from home are as high as 80%. If this pattern is repeated in Scotland, it suggests that rehabilitation plans or alternative permanence planning permanence should start as soon as a child is 'looked after' away from home
  4. chart

  5. By the time a decision for permanence is made a child could have had several moves, only then to be removed from foster carers with whom they have formed an attachment and placed with adoptive parents.
  6. In recent years a number of developments have sought to avoid sequential approaches and associated drift. Twin-track or parallel planning involves agencies exploring permanent solutions for children while maintaining a programme aimed towards rehabilitation with the birth parent.
  7. In concurrent planning, the same process is adhered to in terms of care proceedings and assessment of the birth family, but right from the start the child is placed with a carer who would adopt them if that is the outcome. This model, originating from Seattle Social Services, USA, is now established in some areas of England. The model is radical and requires highly skilled practitioners. It requires active partnership between the birth parent and potential adopters. Emerging evidence suggests it can lead to better outcomes as children are not damaged by successive moves.
  8. Part II of the Review should examine whether increased contact arrangements or other legal changes could make adoption a more viable option for those children, mostly over 12, who do not wish to break all links with their birth families. New arrangements, such as special guardianship, should also be considered.
  9. Views of Children

  10. Who Cares? Scotland conducted an exercise to interview children with experience of the care system to ascertain whether adoption had been discussed with them. The full report is at Annex 5. The sample of 26 was limited in size. Thus its findings should not be regarded as statistically significant or representative of the population as a whole. However, the work did show that adoption had only been discussed with one child. Options for permanence were not discussed routinely with children who had been 'looked after' away from home. Residential units and fostering were discussed in half the cases. However, the young people had a reasonably clear understanding of the nature and consequences of adoption.
  11. The group concluded that where Care Plans addressed permanence, discussions should be held with all children, appropriate to their level of understanding. In all cases there is a duty to take account of children's views. All options, including adoption, should be discussed.
  12. This is supported by the consultation with children and young people in England about the proposed National Adoption Standards, carried out by the Thomas Coram Research Unit and published in March 2001. The children and young people recommended that their views about adoption and possible placements should be listened to and respected. They should be given emotional as well as factual information on adoption and the best match possible should be sought out, with the emphasis on the quality of parenting.
  13. Local Authority Planning for Permanence, Including Adoption

  14. The survey by BAAF Scotland (2001) "Achieving Permanence for Children in Scotland - the Place of Adoption" found only 6 authorities had explicit criteria in relation to recommending adoption or other forms of permanent family placement for children. Fifteen authorities set out timescales for some or all parts of the process. Nine had no timescales. 30 out of 32 authorities responded to the survey.
  15. The group recognised that some authorities include planning for permanence, including adoption, as part of their Children's Services Plans. All councils have a statutory duty to do this.
  16. Longer-term planning must be a feature of all Care Plans for 'looked after' children. For children 'looked after' away from home, Care Plans must cover the expected duration of the placement and arrangements for rehabilitation.
  17. The decision that adoption is in the best interests of the child must be recommended by an adoption panel. Panels are established by adoption agencies. There is no common practice across agencies about the appropriate role, remit and composition of the adoption panel. In some local authority agencies there are separate panels to consider adoption and other forms of permanence, such as fostering.
  18. Some authorities have panels which consider all options for permanence. The group supported these initiatives. The group concluded that decisions in relation to all forms of permanence should be considered by one panel. The panel should decide whether adoption has been appropriately considered. Permanence panel members should be provided with and undertake ongoing training and the role of the agency decision-maker should be clearly laid down. This would help to ensure that quality assurance issues are addressed.
  19. Assessment of Children

  20. At the moment, the pressure on the heart of the system i.e. the social workers and their managers, and the planning and co-ordinating of the assessment of children's needs, is too great. Not only are the needs of children being considered for adoption more complex, but, critically, the birth families supported in the community have increasingly demanding needs. These are particularly influenced by levels of poverty and chaotic lifestyles often associated with drug and alcohol abuse. Faced with this pressure, workers are finding it more difficult to carry out the skilled and detailed assessments required to make long term plans for children's futures. Resources within authorities may skew the outcome of assessments of the needs of children. As a result, children are staying longer in the 'looked after' system and this leads to additional pressure on resources, imposing extra demands on overworked frontline staff. This area competes for resources with other social inclusion objectives and is not always regarded as a priority.
  21. A report (at Annex 6) was prepared for the group relating to assessment of children's needs and wishes. Given:
  • the emerging research which shows that continued attempts at rehabilitation of children within the birth family may not produce the best outcome;
  • the suggestion that absence of or the protracted nature of assessments are leading to delays in achieving permanence;
  • the difficulties in obtaining information on children and lack of skills to assess the different options for permanence

    there is a need for a national multi-agency assessment framework that meets the needs of children.

  1. The group recommends that the Scottish Executive should draw up a national assessment framework, linked to clear service standards. Permanence planning should form part of the assessment framework.
  2. An enhanced role for permanence planning and the new assessment framework will require an increase in continuous professional development as well as consideration of training during the third year of courses for social work students. There is a need for urgent consideration of a 3 rd year of training for social work students.
  3. Information about 'Looked After' Children and Adoption

  4. Annex 7 sets out some detailed figures and information about 'looked after' children, those placed for or potentially affected by adoption, and some background on the nature of children awaiting adoption. The information particularly looks at:
  • Numbers of 'looked after' children
  • Trends in numbers and placement of 'looked after' children
  • International figures for comparison
  • Children awaiting permanence, including adoption and the un-met demand for places for children
  • Sources of placements for children
  • Nature of children awaiting adoption.
  1. Whilst total numbers of 'looked after' children have fallen slightly over the last 10 years, numbers in foster care have risen steadily. This would suggest a latent demand for permanence away from the family home, some of which may be a need for adoption. When compared internationally we can see that a higher proportion of children are adopted from care only in the USA. Scotland is in line with the UK average for adoptions for children 'looked after' away from home.
  2. An increasing number of children are awaiting permanence and not placed after a year. In 1999-2000 the number increased to 272 from the previous year's total of 117. This shows there is an unmet and increasing demand for families to adopt children. The age profile of children awaiting adoption has changed and more older children now seek new families. The peak age for waiting for adoption is now 5-8 years old, but the peak age for placement is younger: 2-5 years old. This shows the importance of identifying the need for permanence early.
  3. Delays in the System

  4. The group considered that there is anecdotal evidence that some children wait too long to be adopted. They looked at the adoption process and identified 4 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

Chart 1 shows these stages.


Potential Areas of Delay

Care Planning should address permanence

Looked After Review recommends permanence

Delay 1: Between becoming 'looked after' away from home and a review decision to seek permanence. There are no timetables, regulations or rules about timescales before a permanence review decision is made or between that decision and the case going to the adoption panel. However, agencies increasingly have procedures that recommend 2 to 3 months only between review decision and panel. Even if these procedures are not stuck to rigidly, an expectation of proceeding quickly reduces the opportunities for drift.

Adoption Panel

Delay 2: Between the review and the adoption panel. It is crucial that legal services are involved at an early stage in the planning process, particularly in difficult cases and/or strongly disputed ones. Involvement earlier than immediately pre-panel is recommended.

The process should not be unnecessarily delayed because a written report goes back and forth between legal services and social work. Legal services may need more information and will need to prepare in detail before any court proof, but it is important that the momentum of the case is maintained at this stage.

Adoption Agency decision

Notification and consent certificates issued

Reporter notified if child on a supervision requirement

Hearing convened and advice provided

Application to Court

Delay 3: Between the panel and lodging the court application for adoption or freeing. Once the adoption panel has recommended adoption for a child, with or without a freeing order, the statutory timetables begin. It is the panel's recommendation for the child which triggers the timescales, not the matching recommendation, even if they are made at the same panel. If a matching recommendation is made later, it does not trigger timetables again.

Adoption matching and placement if not done before

Delay 4: During the court and matching processes. Section 25A of the Adoption (Scotland) Act 1978 states that where there is a dispute about consent in freeing or adoption, 'the court shall, with a view to determining the matter without delay' draw up a timetable for the case and give directions to ensure this is kept to. Unfortunately, there are no detailed court rules to back up this provision. Many disputed cases do not have timetables or they are not kept to. Many cases take a long time in court, despite the wording of Section 25A.

  1. The group considered (c) and (d) should be looked at in Part II of the Review. This Chapter makes recommendations to tackle (a) and (b). Chapter 4 addresses drift in the matching process.
  2. Requirement for Information System

  3. The group found that data on 'looked after' children was not widely available or robust. In particular, information on adoption was not collected routinely and not collated between local authorities, the Scottish Executive and courts. Most authorities and agencies collect data at different stages of the adoption process. Many of them do not hold records electronically, resulting in laborious manual extraction of data.
  4. This means for example there is no systematic collection of Scottish information about
  • how many children are being considered for adoption, or awaiting families
  • how long children wait before adoption (the average for England and Wales is 2 years and 10 months from permanence panel approval to placement)
  • which children wait longest
  • the mismatch between children awaiting families and vice versa
  • ways of identifying trends and changes in need.

    The group considers it a high priority that this need for information is met by development of a new system. An individual identifier for children would help track their progress.

The Children's Hearing System

  1. The group did not consider in detail the role of the Children's Hearing system in permanence. They appreciated that the Hearing system is primarily concerned with decisions about the short-to-medium term future of the children it deals with and that permanence cases form a small part of Children's Panel members' experience. The group suggests that the role of Hearings in permanence is scrutinised in Part II of the Review.
  2. Framework for Developing Permanence in Adoption

  3. Adoption is a complex system. All parts of the system should be addressed for it to work effectively. The group suggests a Framework for Developing Permanence and Adoption with a chart and notes and this is laid out in Annex 8.
  4. Recommendations

  5. The welfare of the child, taking account of all factors, must determine how permanence should best be achieved for the 'looked after' child.
  6. A plan for permanence should be made as soon as a child is 'looked after' away from home.
  7. Where Care Plans consider or address permanence, discussions should be held with all children on a basis appropriate to their level of understanding and their views heard and properly taken into account.
  8. Authorities should consider parallel and concurrent planning where appropriate.
  9. Proposals for services to secure permanence for 'looked after' children should be set out in local authorities' Children's Services Plans. These should show the links to other related services.
  10. The Scottish Executive should draw up national standards for adoption. Standards should set out clear timescales and arrangements for consulting stakeholders including children.
  11. Local authorities should have one panel to consider all decisions about permanence away from home, including adoption. The panel should decide whether adoption has been appropriately considered.
  12. Permanence panel members should be provided with and undertake ongoing training.
  13. There should be clear rules and guidance about how panels operate and the role of the agency decision-maker.
  14. The Scottish Executive should draw up a national assessment framework for children and families.
  15. An information system should be developed. This may allow systematic collection, collation and sharing between authorities, the Executive and courts of information about Scottish children 'looked after' away from home. An individual identifier for children would help track their progress.
  16. Urgent consideration needs to be given to resourcing effectively recruitment and retention of frontline social work staff and their managers in children and families teams.
  17. Both pre and post qualification social work education should take account of adoption. Preparations for the new Scottish Social Services Council and 3-year Diploma in Social Work should take account of these demands.
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