Written by Dotty Winters

In The News

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The adoption process takes time for a reason, says Dotty Winters. Why isn’t the government addressing social worker shortages instead?

child and adult handsI was completely delighted to hear this week that the government want to speed up the adoption process. When we adopted our youngest son it took us (a fairly typical) two years. As a family with biological and adopted children our two-year wait wasn’t too hard to bear; we already had enough chaos and laughter to keep us distracted.

For couples who come to adoption as their final option on a long fertility journey, a two-year process can be too much to cope with. For children waiting for their forever homes the need is even more pressing and the sooner they can be with the right family, the better the likely outcome.

However, when I looked more into what the government was proposing, I was pretty horrified. They aim to reduce the amount of time it takes for children to be with their adoptive parents by placing them in homes in advance of the full legal process being completed. This already happens in a small number of cases but a large expansion of this approach carries risks for adopted children and for adoptive families, as they start the settling and bonding process in the midst of ongoing uncertainty about whether they’ll be together long term.

Even in the current standard process there is a period between the panel approving an adoption and when a child comes to live with you before the official legal process completes; the chances of the final rubber stamp process not happening is minuscule but many adoptive families still feel a massive sense of relief when everything is signed, sealed and official.

“Freedom of Information requests by the Press Association at the end of last year estimated that 11 per cent of permanent children’s social worker posts were unfilled; this was as high as 45 per cent in some authorities.”

I also have some concerns about due process in this revised system. It is a life-changing and traumatic event when a child is removed from a family and put into care. Wherever you are involved in the process, whether you are the child at the centre of it, the birth family, the social worker or the adopter, it is vital that everyone is confident that due process has been followed.

Judges do not take these decisions lightly, but to me, the balance of what is best for a child is tilted slightly if that decision is made when they are already based in a new home. Whether any increased risk of children being placed for adoption when they could remain with their birth family is real, or perceived, this will have an impact on the adoption process.

To put it bluntly, it is important to me to be confident that I adopted a child following a full exploration of his circumstances with his interests at its heart. Separating the decision of who a child should live with forever from the decision that a child can no longer be cared for by a birth family provides protection which the new system may not.

The main disappointment that I have with this situation is that it goes no way to addressing the biggest issue facing children awaiting adoption: there is a massive shortage of qualified and experienced social workers in the UK. Freedom of Information requests by the Press Association at the end of last year estimated that 11 per cent of permanent children’s social worker posts were unfilled; this was as high as 45 per cent in some authorities. Some authorities are having to turn away prospective adopters because they have no available social workers to assess them. In fact we had exactly this experience with a local authority when we first applied.

child and teddy bearApplying to adopt a child takes time, for lots of very good reasons. During the home study phase of assessment we saw our social worker once every week or two weeks, usually for sessions lasting several hours which were in-depth, exhausting and emotional. We needed the time between those sessions to recover, process and discuss each session as well as preparing for the next.

This process is designed to ensure that children who are adopted are matched with families who can love them and care for them forever. Getting this wrong and risking a failed adoption has devastating consequences for children and families.

The process also needs to prepare adopters for parenting an adopted child. Much of what we know about how to parent is based on the needs of children who have had a secure attachment to a primary caregiver since they were tiny. Interruption to this attachment changes the needs of a child and requires a very different approach to parenting. Understanding this and building the skills and understanding adopters need takes time.

This means there is a limit to how short the assessment and matching process should ever be, before it starts to increase the risk of failed adoptions. Addressing the shortage of social workers without taking shortcuts in the process would increase the number of children adopted and speed at which this happens, without negatively affecting the outcome for adopted children.

I’d love to see more children find the right forever home sooner, and I’d be overjoyed to see more people experience the joy and excitement of growing their family through adoptions, but don’t let the Tories fool you that this is a good news announcement. Adoption takes time for lots of good reasons. They should be focussed on removing the bottlenecks, not the safeguards.


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Written by Dotty Winters

Nascent stand-up, fan of fancy words, purveyor of occasional wrongness, haphazard but enthusiastic parent, science-fan, apprentice-feminist.