My meeting with Martin Narey and why we need a National Adoption Authority

A few days ago I had the pleasure of meeting with former Barnardos CEO Martin Narey. Following his retirement Martin has dedicated his time almost entirely to thinking of  how to improve the adoption system. In July he was appointed Adoption tzar by Children Minister Tim Loughton and unveiled a rather forward thinking 19 steps approach to solving the issue with adoption.

When we met, I also discussed with him my campaign, Adoption With Humanity, and these are my thoughts following our discussion about his 19 point plan, and our plans for a National Adoption Authority:

We welcome your report and believe it contains some very sound research and extremely positive ideas for reform. The findings are compelling, indeed you may agree that they are dramatic.

The core of your paper is, we believe, the development and implementation of a completely new ethos behind adoption: one in which the best interests of the child are genuinely given priority and where adoption is seen as a positive way of ensuring that a child is cared for in a family situation; and where those who put themselves forward for this role are accepted and welcomed as a constructive resource.

Many of the issues you have raised and which we acknowledge below, in addition to others which concern us greatly, seem to lead to one central conclusion: there is an authority vacuum.

Looking first at the issues:
A. Problem of delays
1.  The time it takes to bring children into the care system (when they are obviously being neglected)
2.    The length of time it takes a child to be adopted – due to system being too bureaucratic
3.    Social workers’ attitudes in seeking the perfect match (when “suitable” is sufficient)
4.    Appalling delays in courts and with Guardians

B.   Problem of social workers’ attitudes and lack of appropriate training
1.    Professional role – personal opinions vs policies local and national
2.    The key role of social work being seen as the preservation of the biological family
3.    Individual antipathy to adoption
4.    Desire (at almost all costs) to keep children with birth families
5.    Obstruction to “less than perfect” adoption
6.    Issue of misuse of Special Guardianship as quicker and cheaper option when in fact often its use is not compatible with the best interests of the child
7.    Putting off / turning away too many potential adopters

C.  The way the adoption system is set up
1.    Lack of rational control structure across all the elements of adoption
2.    Problem of Government not having control over local authorities hence problem of ensuring any change in policy/guidelines is adhered to (see recent changes in ethnic guidelines…)
3.    Budget structure within LAs plus anomalies like Courts being able to spend LA budgets on additional reports etc with no LA control
4.    Cross charge of real cost of home studies and no more has led to a disincentive to prepare more adopters than are strictly needed by an authority leading to a national shortage of prepared adopters (plus additional delays for a child if prepared adopters are not available when adoption becomes the plan for him/her.)
5.    No proper integration with the court system
6.    Local authorities working independently / lack of co-ordination – may turn down a potential adopter in one authority because no suitable match when the next door authority may have a suitable child available for adoption.
7.    Broad spectrum of standards & policies and achievements of local authorities – effects of leadership/management or lack thereof

From all of these points we are inevitably drawn to the conclusion that there is an authority vacuum, and thus an imperative need for the Government to create a rational control structure to move adoption practice forward in the UK and to be able to ensure that its policies can be realized (and measure that success).

Looking at your 19 points, we believe that the problem warrants action far stronger then just encouragement to address these. Your conclusions make it apparent that the problem with adoption in the UK is a very serious one, and as such we suggest that what is required is a major intervention to ensure the improvements the adoption system is crying out for.

We believe it is time for the government to take a step forward – a major one – and claim its authority over adoption practices by setting up a National Adoption Authority (NAA). This body will have the authority and power to devise new policies and practices that would be enforceable by the Authority over Local Authorities and Courts.

Although this might seem revolutionary, it’s actually purely evolutionary. We strongly believe this is the best way for the Government to take the initiative and create the mechanism to address the issues. Whether we like it or not, the responsibility of tackling huge issues in our society does fall to governments. It is also a way in which we can avoid the compartmentalisation based on old policies and the biases that are so ingrained in our current system, in which it appears that the Government has not been able to enforce its wishes for change.

We have given some thought to the structures and bases for such an authority. We would suggest that the NAA would be governed by a mixed representative body covering the whole spectrum of adoption, including social workers, but also experts such as psychologists, doctors, birth mothers, adoptive parents and adoptees who would offer a thorough view on adoption as seen from all aspects. Its operational team would enforce policies and guidelines set by the government and based on best practice or empirical evidence. It would have authority over all adoption agencies, and have a strong role with regard to adoption courts and the integration of procedures between them, including early and continuous co-ordinated planning.

A key feature which we believe should attend the creation of the authority is the idea of the budget being allocated to the child (similar to a statement of educational needs) and the creation of a separate National budget for the assessment and preparation of potential adopters with the Authority being responsible for the analysis of the correctness of its value and the efficacy of its use.

Another core function would be to take over the “inspection” role which has to date been undertaken by OFSTED. Crucially it would be in a position to gather, analyse and publish statistics and genuinely audit data on the whole of the adoption system.

We believe the Authority should also have a significant role in defining the training curriculum and oversee its implementation. Finally, we believe it should continue the really vital work of the Adoption Research Initiative in providing the evidence on which to base policies in the future.
Financially, we would see the budget coming from the reallocation of the budget for the current policy team at the Department of Education and the relevant budgets granted to Local Authorities. The significant improvements to the system that would result from enforcing standards and policies, shortening time in care, and reducing waste by proper co-ordination between agencies and the courts should be sufficient to create significant improvements without the need for additional budgets.

On the other hand, we are aware the government does not want to create major centralized bodies but is a keen supporter of local solutions. The creation of a National Adoption Authority follows a tried and tested route, particularly familiar to the Dept of Education who currently have responsibility for Adoption in the UK, of having a central policy setting authority and delegated local implementation.

The creation of such an authority would avoid some of the dangers present in other options. For example we are concerned that were one to follow the route of creating a National Adoption Agency, there would be a significant danger of replicating the same attitudes and behaviours – because almost inevitably it would in large part be formed by the same individuals. It is also a more radical solution which would create greater disruption, cost more and take more time – a National Adoption Authority would be a more evolutionary, more easily achievable step and one which we believe should be given serious consideration as the optimum structure to reform adoption in the UK.


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