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MP inquiry hears how adoption targets will lead to rushed assessments and increased risks to children

The imposition of six month targets for placing children in care for adoption will lead to rushed and inadequate assessments, potentially making the process too fast for would-be adopters and open to abuse by predatory child abusers. This was the message to MPs at the second evidence gathering session of an inquiry by the All Party Parliamentary Committee on Social Work into the state of the profession.

Judith Acreman, a team manager for a large county council and an adoptive parent herself, said: “Adopters often say can we just slow down here – we have work, we want to take our time, we want a holiday etc – they want to know its going to take a finite and reasonable amount of time but they don’t want it to happen in three months just because you can".

 “Only a tiny amount of the adopters assessment is information gathering, most of it is therapeutic, counselling. There is lots to process, practically and emotionally. We accept that it takes at least nine months to prepare to be a birth parent, and 'responsible adults' start planning before conception but now we’re saying that you can take on our most traumatised children and make that journey in four months? I think that’s reckless. We also have to get to know them, to be confident what kind of child they could manage".

Ms Acreman, a social worker since 1979, said she and her colleagues regularly work late into the evening and on weekends to deal with a current volume akin to “the M25 at rush hour” and that demanding more speed with fewer resources was an invitation to child abusers to exploit weaknesses in the system.

“One of the things that mustn’t be forgotten when we’re doing the 'quicker, faster, better' adoption assessments is that there is a really important safeguarding aspect to this work. Unfortunately, paedophiles will always locate the places where they are not scrutinised. And if we take the scrutiny level out of adoption then I’m very worried that it will become the latest example of the abuse we saw in children’s homes, or priests in the catholic church or BBC children’s TV presenters.

“I’m also very worried by the number of times the word ‘heroic’ is used in association with adopters, not dissimilar to a recent TV presenter who was universally believed to be a hero for his voluntary work and fundraising, and hence given free access to some of the most vulnerable people in the country. Adopters may be called upon to do heroic work once they’ve adopted and are parenting the children, but not everyone who comes forward is heroic – some of them could be paedophiles. We cannot afford to be so naive and gullible.”

Addressing the current thrust of government policy, which has seen ministers emphasise their commitment to be prepared to remove more children from vulnerable family situations and increase adoption numbers to prevent children remaining in care, Ms Acreman told the MP-led inquiry: “One of most important things is we must never forget is that the child is the customer, not the adult adopters. Adoption in this country is a service for children in care, the most damaged and abused children in our society – to find them new homes to help them rebuild their lives; it’s not a service to find children for childless couples. Within current government polices there is a spoken acknowledgement of that – they say proposed change is to improve timescales and chances for the children – but, very quickly, the debate becomes about the experience of the adopters – and though of course they are related and impact on one another they are not necessarily the same thing. We are seeking families for children not children for parents, and the children’s needs must come first, always, which may sometimes mean adopters needs take second place if they are different.

“As with any good service the needs of their customers should determine the shape of the service for adoption agencies – the kind of children, the numbers of the children all determines how many adopters a local authority takes on. We have to be strategic. If we put all our finite resources into recruiting adopters for babies but only have four-year-olds to place, we are not doing our job. So we have to turn away the perfectly suitable would-be adopters of two-year-olds, though not necessarily because there is anything wrong with them. It is never going to be possible for all potential parents to have the opportunity to adopt, as Michael Gove recently said, as many of them do not want or cannot manage the kind of children we have available.

“Assessments have had to become more therapeutic, not just looking for a nice couple with a nice home and spare bed. Other things have to be considered too – unresolved issues around their own marriage, their reasons for being childless … if there’s stuff there that you don't deal with, that stuff comes back to bite you.”

Ms Acreman also used the APPG hearing, chaired by Labour backbencher Ann Clywd, to emphasise the growing gap between rising case numbers and a freeze on resources. “The one thing I’d like you to take away is that I’m proud of my local authority which I think is doing a good job, although that is not reflected by the adoption scorecard. The thing crippling my team, and this has been the case for the past two years, is sheer volume.

“I went to a British Association of Adoption and Fostering (BAAF) training day this month and whereas the average number of children up for adoption for the past 10-15 years was always around the 3,000 mark, now it’s over 7,000. Twice as many children to place means twice as many adopters required, so our work has gone up fourfold. Yet I’ve had no increase in bodies to be able to do that work. I have social workers working most evenings, and weekends, because they care about the children and the adopters they're responsible for.

“I would so like to have a debate about adoption but not the we are currently having, which seems to be about ‘if only social workers could work a bit harder’. I would like to have one about what our society wants from an adoption service which is primarily intended to help children, and how it intends to resource it."

MP Paul Goggins asked whether ministers were right that more children should be taken into care sooner in order to safeguard them from long term harm, a theme of a speech last week by secretary of state for education Michael Gove.

Ms Acreman responded: “Probably, to a degree – we certainly see children coming through for adoption who were placed at three, four and five who should have been placed much earlier and have been horrendously damaged by that delay.

“The issue is that a lot of the things that are said [by ministers] are true but the reasons given aren’t. I don’t think children are left in homes because social workers are too politically correct, for instance. If it was my daughter or your daughter who had fallen in with a bad boyfriend, experimented with drugs, got pregnant, how long would you want her to be given to show she could parent a child? Unless she has a previous track record, how do you know when a girl of 18 is going to take to sort her life out – how long do we give her, who decides what is reasonable?

“At the moment we say she should be given at least 40 weeks for the case to go through the court system, for various assessments of her competence to be done. That's not a social workers decision, it's social policy enacted by government and carried out by the social worker. The issues are very complex and not helped by gross oversimplification of and blaming of different parties. How do you balance the needs of mother and child? If a 19-year-old mother comes off drugs after two years, that's a triumph for her but would be far too long for her baby – and then how long do you wait to see if she stays clean?"

The APPG inquiry is being held in response to lobbying by the British Association of Social Workers in the wake of its State of Social Work survey earlier this year, in which 1,100 respondents reported unmanageable caseloads, cuts to support staff and plummeting morale.

See more about the State of Social Work survey