Monday, October 31, 2011

Cameron seeks rapid and radical adoption reform

The Times

Radical reform of the ailing adoption system will enable local authorities to be stripped of their duties if they fail to meet new standards, the Prime Minister has told The Times.

A Green Paper detailing new “floor standards”, similar to those issued to schools for their exam results, will set out the minimum proportion of children that should be adopted from care each year. It will also impose time limits on the process.

Any council that consistently fails to meet the standards will be compelled to contract out its adoption service to a more successful local authority or a charity, increasing its risk of suffering funding cuts and job losses. The failing councils will be “named and shamed” when data is published.

David Cameron set out his plans in an interview with The Times, which has been campaigning for reforms to the system, to mark the beginning of National Adoption Week. He commended the newspaper’s “enormously persuasive” efforts to increase the number of adoptions from its present ten-year low, calling it a “spur to action”.

“I see it as similar to Michael Gove’s intolerance of education failure,” he said. “We should be equally intolerant of social services failure in this area, even if it is for the best of motives.”

He also applauded the work of Martin Narey, the former chief executive of Barnardo’s, who wrote a landmark report on adoption for The Times in July.

Many of the reforms that Mr Cameron proposes are recommendations made by Mr Narey, who has recently been appointed a ministerial adviser. Transparent data on the performance of local authorities will be published each year, the first real scrutiny that councils have faced in this area.

Young children will be a particular focus. Only 60 babies under 12 months old were adopted in the year to March, compared with 150 in 2007, despite solid evidence that the younger a child is adopted, the better the outcome. There are 3,660 babies under a year old in the care system.

An innovative programme that places babies removed from their families with prospective adopters rather than foster parents should also become the norm. The programme, known as concurrent planning to minimise disruption, should be considered in particular for babies whose siblings have already been removed and taken into care, or whose parents have addictions to drugs or alcohol.

Reform of the family justice system, to cut the average wait for children to be adopted from two years and seven months, is also due later this week.

David Norgrove, former chairman of the Pensions Regulator, is likely to recommend that care proceedings take a maximum of six months when he presents his review. Some can take as long as 14 months.

Mr Cameron said it was clear, from what he had heard from constituents who had tried to adopt and from what he had seen in the data, that the system was in crisis.

“When you look at your own anecdotal evidence, what you have seen with your own eyes, this is an area that needs to be reformed and reformed rapidly,” he said. “It does require an element of radicalism. We have to be a little bit less sensitive to some of the perceived problems.”

He said that the reforms would come in two stages. “First, we set out clear information about different councils’ performance — educational attainment of children in care, placement stability, the proportion of children adopted, timeliness of adoption.

“Second, those who consistently fall below the floor are the ones where you say, ‘I am sorry, but you are not running your services properly, children are not getting what they need and we are getting another organisation to run it for you’.”

Powers to remove particular duties from underperforming councils were already in place, he noted, and had been used to outsource education and children’s social services. “This is simple local government reform and it doesn’t need legislation. We will consult and explain the extent of our ambitions in the Green Paper and I recognise that it will mean difficult decisions in the future.”
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