News - A suggested structure for the proposed National Adoption Agency

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A SUGGESTED STRUCTURE FOR THE PROPOSED NATIONAL ADOPTION AGENCY:
St. David’s fully supports the proposal for a National Adoption Agency viewing it as a moment of great opportunity for children waiting adoption. The National Adoption Agency had the potential to be the single greatest vehicle to deliver significant long term costs savings to child care budgets and has enormous potential to improve life chances for children in the looked after system in Wales.

While the proposal creates immense challenge in performance, scale and outcomes, it has the potential to place Wales at the vanguard of adoption services within the UK, a beacon for others to follow. This is a defining moment for adoption services in Wales. It must be seized.

THE NATIONAL ADOPTION AGENCY WILL:
Reduce delays and achieve better outcomes for adopted children.
Provide greater choice of prospective adopters for children.
Establish clear targets for completed assessments, placements and reduce delay.
Free up foster carers – (currently a shortage in England & Wales of 10,000), thus enabling LAs address their ‘sufficient duty’ requirement.
Reduce the need for social workers, team managers, legal challenges, IRO, mental health services, CAMHs services, after care service, etc.
Result in increased savings to the LA as child is looked after for a shorter period, which increases best value for the rate payer.

AIMS & OBJECTIVES OF NEW AGENCY:
It becomes a centre of excellence for domestic adoption – while this will be a challenge, it will be more easily achieved if the focus is on the fundamentals which is securing high quality, life long placements for looked after children and are not distracted by inter country or step parent adoption – or indeed birth parent counselling.
It drives forward placement outcomes for adoptive children
It is imperative that the new agency not only succeeds but in the first instance seeks to promote and provide high quality, accountable client focused adoption services.

NATIONAL ADOPTION AGENCY RESPONSIBILITIES:
The new agency to become a single reference point for all children with an adoption plan.
The new agency establishes and maintains a register for all children with an adoption plan.
A similar register of approved available adopters.
That is has responsibility for recruiting, training and approving new prospective adopters.
That it has initial responsibility for identifying and recommending proposed links of children with prospective adopters.
That it has the responsibility for ensuring that children are prepared for adoption and that life story books are in place, etc.  These omissions create significant delays for children.
The new agency being the placement support agency – until such time as the adoption order is granted.

LA RESPONSIBILITIES:
That the LA retains the decision to approve children for adoption, including panel approval of the adoption plan.
The LA adoption panel and decision maker retain responsibility for approving the link – the link being proposed to the LA by the new agency. – To further reduce delays, Guidance may be required for timescales between the link being identified by the National Adoption Agency and the LA panel approving the match.
Issues of Inter country and step parent adoption may require further careful consideration. The growing demands of step parent adoption are of concern and risk draining precious resources away from domestic adoption. The Assembly may wish to consider setting up a separate section for these two elements, but we would suggest that the initial focus of the new agency concentrate on domestic adoption, revisiting step parent adoption after a period of five years.
That responsibility for post adoption support after the granting of the order remains with the LA, or alternatively is commissioned out to Adoption UK or After Adoption.

ACCOUNTABILITY:
The Assembly may wish to consider the establishment of a ‘Board with Special Responsibility to advise on Adoption Matters,’ including a chair, a senior member of CSSIW, a local authority chief executive, a civil servant, an experienced child care & family law solicitor, a child psychologist or paediatrician, an experienced researcher in child law and family law outcomes, and an experienced adoption social worker.
The board works with the Chief Executive on matters of governance, strategic planning, accountability and financial oversight.
The chief executive / director of the new agency to report to the board.
The Chair of the Board prepare written six monthly reports to the Minister with Special Responsibility for Social Services.

PRECURSORY STAFFING NUMBERS…
In 2010 there were 229 children adopted in Wales. The increase in looked after child care population suggests it is prudent to estimate an increase in adoption placements to 250 children.
To secure widest possible placement choice for children the new agency would require a pool of 300 approved prospective adopters.
The St David’s team of social work staff deliver training, assessments, support to adopters, response to high numbers of initial enquiries, support to existing placements, support groups for adopters & children, workshops and an increasing role (and number) in providing guidance to individuals seeking contact with their birth parent, child they gave up for adoption, brothers and sisters etc.
Each member of the team achieves an average of 6 prospective assessments per year, each making approximately 5 – 6 adoption placements per year.
Using that staffing ratio, the national adoption agency would require a compliment of approximately 55 social work staff all working at an exceptionally high level of skill, outputs and outcomes – achieving 300 assessments.
55 social work staff would require approximately  8 managers, plus 3 higher tier management. The National Adoption Agency would lead to substantive savings in existing budgets.
Children often experience delays due to the slow response of district social workers in reading the prospective adoptive assessment report (PAR.). This is due to the critical mass of child protection, court work and staffing shortages. A designated linking team of 3 – 4 experienced social workers employed by the new agency to specifically explore and identify links between children and prospective adopters would significantly reduce delays for children, free up foster placements and provide substantive savings to budgets.
Additional social work staff would be required should the new agency consider preparing children for adoption, including life story books (this being another source of delay for children).
Admin support of approximately 15 full time equivalent.
Approximately 5 – 6 regional offices.
The new agency to consider securing the services of a pool of experienced self employed social work staff to respond to periods of increased demand, sickness periods, holiday leave, etc.

ADOPTION PANEL.
The new agency would need to plan for the approval of approximately 300 prospective adoptive applicants.
A workload of 5 – 6 applications per panel.
A permanent adoption panel that would meet weekly x 2 days activity: 1 x day report reading. 1 x day attending panel. Alternatively the panel could meet fortnightly though this would still require 4 days work over a period of 2 weeks.
The primary task of this panel would be to make recommendations to approve prospective adopters, including de-registration. – Approving children for adoption and linking children with new families would remain the task of the local authority panel.
A permanent adoption panel would require a change in legislative guidance.

TRAINING:
Training programmes for prospective adopters consume a significant proportion of social work hours.
Where social work staff are providing training, this is usually sporadically delivered requiring three days delivery by 2 -3 social workers with another 1 – 2 days preparation.
The appointment of 3 lead experienced trainers, (one North Wales, / two South Wales, each supported by a social worker from the new agency during the training programme), consistently delivering all training across Wales, would lead to significant time and cost savings for the main task which is assessing and approving prospective adoptive resources. – The linking being secured by designated staff.

RECRUITMENT / MARKETING OFFICER: – 1 POST.
Advertising, marketing, raising the profile of the new agency.
The National Adoption Agency will have its own unique, exclusive ‘brand.’ It will attract considerable media attention and quickly be viewed as a centre for excellence in adoption services.
Its uniqueness will do much to raise the profile of adoption and give rise to a new generation of prospective adopters.

RISKS, CONTINGENCY PLANNING:
It is imperative that in preparation for the new agency, the Assembly capture greater statistical data on children with an adoption plan. The annual number of children adopted each year in Wales may not represent the total number of children with an adoption plan. (It is not unusual to find approximately 15 – 18% % of the looked after child care population initially referred to the local authority adoption agency. While the adoption plans for a significant number of these children will change, the 4% – 4.5% annual statistic of adopted looked after children appears modest and considerably short of the initial referral rate. A successful National Adoption Agency may witness a considerable increase in referrals).

On occasions, the plans of children waiting for adoption are altered due to the lack of an available adoptive placement resource. (Situations occur where the adoption plan is changed with the child moving to long term fostering for reasons such as within a pre determined period an adoptive resource has not been identified, or that the child has reached a certain age, is part of a sibling group, has contact arrangements, etc. The Assembly may wish to devise an early formula for capturing such data, perhaps sourced from the IROs. Such data may evidence a marked increase in the number of children being referred to the new agency potentially leaving it under resourced at an early stage of its development).
Last year saw an increase of 500 children entering the looked after system in Wales, in part driven by the Baby Peter case. Eventually this will lead to an increase in the numbers of children being placed for adoption.
The establishment of the National Agency will result in a greater emphasis being placed on adoption with LAs viewing it as a positive option for children and budgets leading to a marked increase in the number of children being referred.
Over these past few years BAAF have consistently reported that somewhere between 25% & 35% of children (in England & Wales) with an adoption plan will not be placed primarily due to the lack of an available adoptive family resource.
The financial and emotional costs of keeping children in long-term care are immense:
Beyond Care Matters (Narey, 2007): Estimates that the average annual cost of a looked after child in 2005/6 was £33,000 but rises to £50,000 for children with emotional and behavioural problems.  For children with complex needs the estimated annual cost is £95,000.”

The adoption budget is of significant importance to the reduction of long term costs, particularly fostering costs. (We need to take greater cognisance of ever increasing foster fees, residential fees, reoccurring legal challenges, district social work and management time, governance time, medical reviews, IRO, GAL, reviews, staff offices & overheads, etc).
All agencies need a greater understanding of the true costs of adoption related activity. The Hadley Centre (A study of the financial costs of 9 local authority adoption agencies Sept 2009), evidenced that the cost to a local authority of placing a child internally was £36,000 per child. Loughborough University Sept 2009 estimated the same as £44,000 per child. Greater financial clarity is required on the full unit costs of running an adoption service.
The Adoption Act, the Children Act and the Human Rights Act all support the fundamental principle that every child had the right to family life. The legal status of so many looked after children has seen this most basic right diminished. The National Adoption Agency has the potential to champion this right. The creation of a National Adoption Agency would be a great legacy for some of our most vulnerable looked after children in Wales.

Gerry Cooney
Chief Executive
St David’s Children Society

Author: Gerry Cooney 01.03.2011

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