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Why are adoption numbers falling, when there are so many children in need?

More and more young people in England are growing up in the care system. We need to make it easier for people to adopt

I adopted my daughter when she was six years old. She had been in the care of a local authority pretty much since birth. Now 18, she and I both worry about the current predicament for many children in the UK who grow up with a local authority as their corporate parent, a situation exacerbated by the pandemic as lockdown puts families under pressure. “How can we change things?” my daughter asked me as we completed my book about adopting, The Wild Track, together. “Who will really listen?”

Government statistics show that, in England as of 31 March 2020, there were 80,080 children in care. In that same period only 3,440 children were adopted. But in 2015 the number of adoptions in England had risen to 5,360. Why this rise? And why the subsequent fall?

In 2005, a review of the adoption system introduced amendments, including support for adopters and – reflecting changing attitudes – broadening the field of prospective adopters to include single parents and the LGBTQ+ community. In 2011, a significant adoption reform programme followed on from a report by Martin Narey, a government adviser on children’s social care, initiated by Tim Loughton, then parliamentary undersecretary for children and families, and Edward Timpson, who took over that post in 2012 – and supported by Michael Gove, then education secretary. The latter two had a personal investment: Timpson, the son of John (of the shoe repair chain), grew up with children fostered by his parents; Gove and his sister were adopted as babies.

The plan was to make faster decisions on release for adoption, to speed up court procedure, to find more prospective adoptive parents, and to relax strictures on matching and the search for “perfect” homes. As Gove put it at the time: “We can’t afford to ration love.”

But then came some important legal rulings. In one case from 2013 the judges declared that adoption was only appropriate “where nothing else will do”. Also that year, a survey of case law concluded that “the severance of family ties inherent in an adoption without parental consent is an extremely draconian step and one that requires the highest level of evidence”. Social workers, while eager to place children at risk, felt constrained and cautious.

At this time, special guardianship orders (SGOs) also came into play. These give approved carers a greater share of parental responsibility (but not complete transfer, as with adoption) and can be delegated to family members other than parents. The rise in adoptions to 2015, and the subsequent fall thereafter, can perhaps be attributed to these various changes and rulings. In the last two years the number of SGOs has risen, overtaking the number of children leaving care through adoption.

Where there is an extended family able to provide stability for a child, this has to be a good thing. But what, then, of the children with no relations who can safely care for them? Link Maker is an online service matching potential parents with those released for adoption. But things aren’t always simple for children. A “hard to place” child is: over the age of three, differently abled, with special needs, a sibling or from a black and minority-ethnic background. UK fostering agencies are desperate for people willing to look after teenagers and sibling groups. Many children will spend their childhoods in residential homes.

In 1722 Thomas Coram, a successful shipwright walking into London for business, was distressed to see dead and dying children along the way. The children were there for numerous complicated reasons including poverty, distress and desertion. Coram decided to do something about it. When he could find no influential men to support his plan to establish a safe haven, he turned to eminent women – “ladies of quality and distinction”. His petition for a Royal Charter argued that “no expedient has been found … for suppressing the custom of exposing [infants] to perish in the streets”. The Foundling hospital was eventually established in 1739.

Today, Coram – the children’s charity that takes his name – offers advice, support, legal and counselling services to children as well as providing the adoption services for many local authorities. Their work is vital now, just as it was then. Dr Carol Homden, CEO of Coram, says that adoption is “first of all a service for the children”. So there is a peculiar mismatch here.

For most people who wish to become parents, the focus is on themselves and their desire to make a family. Couples choose to have birth children. Then, rising success rates for fertility treatment and IVF, and the growing acceptance of surrogacy seem to offer new possibilities to those who take this route. Adoption is too often a last resort. Meanwhile, there are thousands of children out there, already in the world, who desperately need secure and loving homes.

In 2011 Gove wrote that being an adoptive parent means that “there is someone … who will wake up every morning for ever in your debt”. I don’t agree. Children owe nothing to anyone except themselves, nor should they. But, as a society, we owe them everything. Each and every one of us is responsible for all children. This is what Thomas Coram knew. This is what we need to remember.

At this moment, an odd combination of a focus on individual fertility, changes in adoption procedure, anxiety about its “draconian” effects resulting in fewer children being released for adoption, and more families being put under intolerable pressure with lockdown, means that more and more children will be stuck in the care system with the risk that they will never form the attachments that help make for a healthy adult life. Not everyone can adopt, but, for the sake of all those children, it needs to be more clearly in our view. There are many children living, day after day, with the sad fact that they have no family who can safely care for them.

On his website the poet Lemn Sissay – who grew up in a residential home – lists many high-achieving people with a similar experience. In a room at the Foundling Museum you can see Sissay’s inspiring calligraphic installation citing fictional characters who were orphaned, fostered or adopted. It’s called Superman Was a Foundling. And it calls to, and celebrates, all the children who grow up in care, who are adopted or estranged from their birth families, because it recognises that difficult beginnings do not rule out bright futures.

  • Margaret Reynolds is the author of The Wild Track: Adopting, Mothering, Belonging, published by Doubleday

  • This article was amended on 11 March 2021 after a reference to the organisation Children Who Wait was wrongly included. Children Who Wait ceased to operate at the end of 2018.

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