Nearly 7,000 children are in foster or residential care in Scotland, but just 300 a year are adopted, writes Robert Swift.
Of our four fine children, William was the most carefully planned. We adopted him when he was four. He was born prematurely, has cerebral palsy and various health problems and had lots of disruption as an infant.
He’s been challenging to care for at times, but we’re incredibly proud of William. He’s got a great sense of humour, he’s very sociable and he knows what he wants. He saw his older brothers and sister move away from home and go to college and university and he wanted the same when he became an adult. He now has his own tenancy and is at college.
He uses a wheelchair and needs lots of care and help, but he’s as independent as he can be. He’ll always have the support of us and his siblings. They have introduced him to rock concerts, trips to the pub and watching the mixed fortunes of the Scotland football team! He’s an important part of our extended family and he’s told us which of the family heirlooms he wants us to leave him in our will!
Adoption gets a mixed press. The well-being of children is at the core of child care law in Scotland, but there are tensions between the needs of children and the rights of parents. Decisions about adoption are taken by courts. A high standard of proof is required and alternatives to adoption must be explored thoroughly before an adoption order can be granted.
Should adoption without the consent of birth parents continue to be considered for looked after children? The available evidence is that adoption works for children; they do well compared to children brought up in care. This is linked with the ethos of adoption. Children should wherever possible be brought up by their birth families. If this is not possible, then logically we should look for the alternative that most closely replicates this, and that is adoption. Adoption empowers the new parent(s) to be wholly responsible for the child, and at its best provides a real sense of belonging, security and permanence. Scottish Government policy is that children who cannot live with their birth families should have permanent care elsewhere. There are alternatives to adoption, including permanence orders, where children can stay with foster carers on a long-term basis. This is the right decision for some children, including older children, but others who might benefit from adoption do not get the chance for a number of reasons.
To maximise their life chances, children need to make attachments with their care-givers as soon as possible. However, some children, even if they are accommodated at birth, can wait years before they are adopted because of systemic problems in the adoption process. After children are placed in care, often following neglect or abuse, it can take too long to assess whether birth parents or other family members have the potential to care for them. The Scottish Government is supporting efforts to address these delays, but more needs to be done.
The legal process relating to the adoption of children is flawed. The ‘Permanence Order with Authority to Adopt’ is intended to be the main legal route to adoption for a looked-after child. But since its introduction a few years ago, it has led to increased delays for some children being adopted, which is the opposite of what was intended. Legislation currently gives Children’s Hearings a role in the decision-making process about adoption, which adds to the timescale but with no clear added value.
Furthermore, opposed cases can wait months for court dates and there can be lengthy appeals processes. In response to these problems, many local authorities use a different legal route to adoption known as direct placement. This requires the prospective adopters themselves to apply direct to the court for adoption after they have started caring for the child. This can avoid some of the delays, but means the adoptive parents may have to go through an adversarial court process with the birth parents, just when they are trying to form a new family with a child who will need all their love and attention. There is a need to look again at adoption legislation, the role of children’s hearings and to have legal timescales that are less detrimental to children. Finally, adoption support needs to be improved. Children who are adopted from care will have experienced change, disruption and loss. This can include neglect or abuse, exposure to drugs or alcohol in utero or after birth, with resultant developmental uncertainty, or disability. Some will have had a number of care placements, leading to added insecurity.
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Such children and their carers need ongoing therapeutic support, but while some provision is excellent it can be patchy and, for some families, non-existent. The granting of an adoption order does not mean the child is sorted! Some adopted children will be affected by early adversity for their whole lives. Recent research has shown that while only a small proportion of adoptions break down, many adoptive families find day-to-day life difficult, some extremely so. The earlier placement of children for adoption and consistent ongoing statutory support would help. Birth parents too need more support. Many birth parents whose children are adopted have themselves suffered trauma in the past. They need
therapeutic help to prevent sometimes repeated pregnancies for which they are unprepared, and the loss of children to the care system with all the associated grief and heartbreak.
A few children are adopted by their foster carers if they cannot return home. Such children can do very well, but some foster carers are fearful of losing support and income if they adopt. Statutory guarantees of support are needed.
We sometimes wonder what would have happened to William if we had not adopted him. He would probably have had a number of foster care placements or moved to residential care. It is hard to see how that would have better equipped him for life. William himself thinks it was “okay” to have been adopted by us, but, with a twinkle in his eye, he says he wonders if a celebrity might have adopted him if we had not; he’s always been drawn to the lifestyle of a rock star!
The Scottish Government has a policy called Getting it Right for Every Child. There are around 15,000 looked-after children in Scotland, including nearly 7,000 in foster care or residential care. About three hundred children are adopted from care annually. The numbers have been rising slightly but let’s make sure that all children who would benefit from adoption get that chance and get the support they need. Let’s get it right for them and their families.
Robert Swift is a former chief social work officer and author of Adopting a Child in Scotland