THERE are an estimated 65,000 children in care in the UK, 4,000 of whom are waiting to be adopted.
But while the number of children being taken into care is rising, the number of adoptions has been falling since 2007, with just 2,450 in 2010, a decline of 10 per cent since 2007.
The Government has plans to make adoption more accessible and last year introduced ‘league tables’ to challenge local authorities to ‘do better’ in finding new families for the children in their care.
In 2011, Oxfordshire had 450 children in its care.
Oxfordshire is faring reasonably well in the league tables, with 87 per cent of looked-after children found adoption places within 12 months, over the last three years.
In bottom place was Hackney, with just 48 per cent found places.
But Teresa Rogers from the county council’s adoption team, admits the challenges are many.
She said: “Most prospective adopters are childless couples and hoping to adopt a child as young as possible with no special needs. Although there are quite a few young children needing adoption, their development has often been delayed in some areas.
“We have older children who need to be adopted, groups of brothers and sisters we wish to place together, and some children who have a more significant developmental delay.
“Our challenge is to help prospective adoptive parents progress from their first idea of the child they would like to adopt, to thinking about the children who are actually waiting to be adopted or who are likely to need an adoptive family in the near future.“ The Thames Valley charity Parents and Children Together (Pact), placed 62 children with families in 2011.
And the agency, which celebrated its centenary last year, is aiming to increase the number of adoptions of older children in care, through its Dual Approval Scheme, which approves families for fostering, with a view to adopting.
Shirley Elliot, Pact’s assistant director for Adoption, said: “Pact recruits people with the skills and experience to nurture children with complex needs. The agency’s therapeutic services, Facts (Fostering and Adoption Consultation and Therapeutic Support), can help severely traumatised children to come to terms with their early life experiences and to form attachments with their new carers.
“And then, when the bond is strong enough and the child is ready, Pact’s team guide the family through the steps to adoption.”
Mrs Elliot has been involved in adoption for more than 20 years.
She said: “We talk about your motivation for adopting, you will have a medical, a CRB check and references will be taken, and then you will be given a place on one of our preparation groups, which enable you to mix with other adopters, ask questions and have training. “From here, with your own social worker, your home study will begin and take around four months. People find it quite challenging. It involves eight, two-hour meetings and will look at all areas of your life, and if you are with someone, your relationship too.
“It challenges you and sometimes takes you to places you didn’t know were there. People sometimes wonder why they are asked questions about things that may seem very personal. But when a person has adopted, they understand why it has been so thorough, because they need to be prepared for all the challenges adoption will throw their way.”
Many children put up for adoption have experienced neglect or abuse.
Many will have trouble learning and forming relationships. And this will bring a host of challenges to adopters.
At the end of the home study, the social worker writes a report which goes to the panel – a group of six to eight ‘experts’ who will decide if the person should be put up for final approval to adopt.
Made up of professionals like doctors, teachers, and even those who have been adopted themselves, the panel sits for about 45 minutes.
Mrs Elliot said: “It is a huge responsibility and one the panel does not take lightly.
“But while they are very thorough with their questioning, they are not there to trip people up, or trick them. They want to place children with new families and when the adopters leave 45 minutes later, they will know whether the panel is recommending them for final approval.”
Anne Bateman, 56, from Oxfordshire, is the panel’s newest member and was put up for adoption at three months old by her unmarried, Catholic, birth mother.
She said: “Adopters these days are encouraged to preserve their adopted child’s heritage and faith and even to encourage them to maintain a relationship with any birth siblings.
“That wasn’t the case when I was young.
“Being on the panel is a huge privilege and I hope my experience of being adopted might give me some kind of insight.”
‘WE HOPE TO BE PARENTS NEXT YEAR’
Johnny and Caroline, (not their real names) from South Oxfordshire are part-way through the process leading towards adopting children.
Johnny said: “We talked about adoption but planned to do it after we had biological children.
“Two years into marriage we haven’t fallen pregnant and while that might still happen, we have decided to go forward with adoption.”
“The social worker wants to know all about your own upbringing and how you were parented – and what you think about that. But it feels relaxed and really positive and that it is actually helping us with the challenges ahead. There is a good chance that our adopted child or children will have come from a difficult background and we want to make sure we can offer them the support they need.”
Johnny and Caroline have a panel meeting in December and will soon start being ‘matched’ to prospective children.
“Whatever happens we are hopeful that we will be parents by the start of next summer,” said Johnny.
“Our children are out there, waiting for us and we just want to welcome them in and give them a loving home.”
HOW DECISIONS ARE MADE
BEFORE a child is approved for adoption, he or she will have been taken into care.
In 2011, Oxfordshire had 450 children in its care.
Teresa Rogers, for the county council’s adoption team, said: “A lot of work goes on to support and advise a family before care proceedings are initiated.
“(But) if they are not able to go home in the near future, we begin the process of permanency planning.
“This could be either a programme for a return to their birth family; a plan to place them with a member of the extended family, or family friends; or a plan for adoption or long-term fostering.
“The child’s needs are first and paramount.
“The social worker completes a detailed report and a senior manager must review this before making a decision on behalf of the local authority that the child ‘should be placed for adoption’.”
She added: “However, for children in care proceedings, the final decision is made by the court, and if the court agrees that the child needs to be placed for adoption, then the court makes a placement order.”
For more details about adopting through Oxfordshire County Council, visit: www.oxfordshire.gov.uk/cms/public-site/adoption
For more details about Pact, go to www.pactcharity.org
‘IT COULD ALL BE SPEEDED UP A LITTLE’
Vicar of the parish of Sutton Courtney and Appleford, the Rev Helen Kendrick, and her husband Christopher, adopted an eight-year-old girl and her seven-year-old brother in 2009, through Pact.
Mrs Kendrick, 46, said: “I think the adoption process could be speeded up a little. It took us around 18 months but I would say nine months to a year would be good.
“It is a fine balance because you don’t want the children to be waiting too long to be adopted, but you also need to give the adopting parents enough time to prepare.”
She added: “It is important changes are made to the system, because while the process is being held up, children are getting older and because of that many will miss out on the chance of being adopted.”
A TEDDY BEAR WELCOME
A GROUP of family lawyers have contributed to a scheme which gives newly adopted children a bear to start their life with their new family.
Children adopted at Oxford County Court receive a teddy bear when they are formally adopted.
Members of Oxford Resolution, a group of family lawyers, have sent a donation of £547.50 to the judges at Oxford County Court to help fund the scheme.
With more children in care and fewer parents willing to take them in, our fostering system is in crisis. Can it really be such a thankless task?
'I’ve seen children do everything,” says Marie, while briskly doling sausages into a frying pan. “Some swear, some spit at you, some lie, some pinch your things. Some smoke, drink, take drugs, some run away, some wee on your floor. You have the school on the phone complaining, you have to go to listen to court appearances.” Marie, a slight, smiley woman in her fifties who doesn’t want to disclose her real name, is a foster carer from Essex. Over the past 20 years, she’s looked after around 80 of this country’s most disturbed and vulnerable children. Some have stayed a night with her, some for years. Her responsibilities are vast but her pay modest – meaning few people are prepared to do her job.
And that’s a problem. There are 87,000 British children in care today. Each one needs a stable, loving environment and children’s homes are a last resort. But with a new child coming into care every 22 minutes, Britain’s fostering system is struggling to cope.
Since the sickening case of “Baby P” – 17-month-old Peter Connelly, who died in 2007 after a sustained campaign of abuse – social workers are removing children from unsuitable parents far more swiftly than before.
“Local authorities started to intensively review all their cases,” says Anthony Douglas, the chief executive of children’s advisory service Cafcass. “When the microscope was put on a lot of these children’s situations, what was judged to be tolerable before is increasingly being judged as intolerable.” This, combined with the recession, which has led to a huge rise in family breakdown, has resulted in the number of children in care rising by 57 per cent over the past four years. Yet the numbers of foster carers have declined, with carers retiring and not being replaced. People are also starting families later, and children are staying at home longer. By the time people have the spare time and rooms to foster, they no longer have the energy. At present, 75 per cent of children in care live with foster parents.
“To cope with demand we urgently need another 8,750 carers, especially in big cities,” says Vicki Swain of the Fostering Network. “It’s hard because foster carers must have a spare bedroom, but the high cost of living means many candidates can’t afford homes with enough rooms to accommodate their existing families.” For now, experienced carers have their hands full with the increased influx of young children, leaving a lack of people to take on trickier cases, like newborns, siblings and teenagers. Matters aren’t helped by a cultural distrust of young people, fuelled by last summer’s riots and exacerbated by rare horror stories like this month’s case of the Scottish 14 year-old jailed for stabbing his foster mother, Dawn McKenzie, to death because she sent him to bed early.
For the children themselves, the outlook can be bleak. Children who have been through the care system are far more likely to become teenage parents than their peers – and twice as likely to lose the right to care for these children. More than half leave school with no qualifications, and they are more likely to end up in prison than at university, with one quarter of the prison population consisting of former “looked-after” children. Nearly 50 per cent of crimes committed by under-21 year-olds are by children in care.
The best way to improve these depressing odds is to minimise movement within the system, by quickly finding an adoptive match. If this proves impossible, as is often the case with teenagers, one long-term foster placement can offer the best outcome. “But right now, it’s a case of find a spare bed and think later,” says Eric Mole, who, together with his wife, Rita, has been a foster carer for 14 years. As a result, children find themselves staying nights here and there with carers with little experience of their age group. Months or years can pass before a suitable, long-term placement is found, leaving siblings separated and children dispersed around the country, far from their schools and friends. All this only compounds the traumas of children who have probably been physically and/or sexually abused.
Such grittiness is more than many can take. “Our culture has this ideal of precocious, adorable orphans,” says Krish Kandiah, 40, who lives near Oxford, works for a Christian charity and who – with his wife Miriam, also 40 – has fostered seven children over the past six years. “Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Anne of Green Gables – there’s a romanticism there, but the reality is tough. You’ll have sleepless nights when you wonder how you’re going to carry on.” Anyone of any age, without a criminal conviction involving children and a spare bedroom, is eligible to become a carer. The Kandiahs already had three young children when they applied to be carers six years ago. They spent around eight months being, first, assessed and then trained for the role.
“Some people find the vetting really intrusive, but to me it was necessary. A child in care has already lost so much they have to be safeguarded in every way possible,” Kandiah says. “Sometimes, I was frightened at what we were taking on, but social services assured us they would help and they always have – we’ve worked as a team.” Since then they have fostered one child – occasionally two – at a time, with stays lasting between a night and three years. Many parents might be anxious about their children mixing with “damaged” peers, but Kandiah says that his brood, aged between nine and 13, have loved the experience so much they all want to foster themselves.
The Kandiahs have opted only to foster children younger than theirs, so their own can act as role models. So besotted were they by their first charge, a three-year-old girl, they adopted her. “Basic rookie error,” Kandiah laughs. “Our children don’t need a PHSE [Personal, Social, Health and Economic] lesson to know what drugs can do to people,” he continues. “They see it in the scars on the face of the boy sitting with them at the dinner table.” Kandiah is a glass-half-full man who prefers describing the highs of fostering to the lows. “Miriam and I do have far more grey hairs than when we started, but there’s such joy there, introducing children to their first positive experiences. Recently, I’d had a really dull day at work in meetings, but when I got home I took the youngest foster child to the park and put him on a bike without stabilisers. He’d never been able to pedal before, but now he was shouting 'Awesome, awesome!’. It really made my day.” The toughest part of the job, he says, are the farewells. “They do say if your heart doesn’t break when a child leaves you have done something wrong.
“You love these children as if they were your own. You have to console yourself that even if it is painful for us they have gone on to happy endings, either reunited with their birth parents or adopted. And we have stayed in touch with all but one of the children we’ve fostered – it was one boy’s birthday recently and we all went to see a film together.”
Other carers are more negative about goodbyes. “You can only stay in touch if their adopted or foster parents allow it, and so sometimes you never see or hear from them again. It’s horrible, like a bereavement,” says Marie, who tends to look after children aged between three and 11. “Sometimes they’re reunited with their birth parents and you’re unsure it’s the right decision, though that’s happening less since Baby Peter. Court decisions can come out of the blue and they can be moved on with very little notice.
“It’s very unsettling for them. Once, I was obliged to take a child to see his father fortnightly, even though I was sure he’d been abused by him – that was traumatic for both of us. You have to console yourself you made some difference in whatever time you had.” Divorced and with two adult sons, Marie is paid a weekly allowance to cover childcare costs, as well as being remunerated for her time – typical wages are between £350 and £550 a week, not a huge sum for a job where you can never clock off. “You do this job for love, not money,” Marie stresses, yet 36 per cent of foster carers have considered abandoning their work because they think the pay is inadequate.
Eric and Rita Mole, aged 59 and 63, from Congleton, Cheshire, applied to be carers after Eric sold his auto-electrical business in order to help Rita, who suffers from multiple sclerosis. “Our children had left home and our house seemed to echo with just the two of us around,” he says. “We’d been successful with our own children, so we thought it would be nice to offer a home to people that needed it.”
Because Rita finds caring for young children too physically challenging, the couple have tended to foster teenagers – though they refuse to take on anyone with a history of violence – so far caring for around 120.
“We’ve come across some situations that were completely alien to us and had some hard times, but we’ve had the rewards of seeing these people get on and have a better life.” Their two daughters have helped frequently, and the eldest has fostered herself.
Most placements start badly, Mole says. “Then there’s usually a honeymoon period, when they get up in time for school and are helpful and social. Then they get confused, they’re not used to life being so straightforward, so they decide it’s time to push the boundaries. We’ve had youngsters who think hard drugs are a natural part of everyday life, that we were the aliens for not using them. We had to make them realise this was not normal after all.”
Some have autism and ADHD. “Some are completely detached, they won’t respond to anything you want to involve them with. I used to look at that as being anti-social, but my training’s taught me it’s to do with their history, that it probably developed in the first three months of their lives.”
Other children rebel constantly. “Some youngsters just don’t want to be looked after by what they perceive is the state. You can’t get across to them that we are a family because they’ve never really known what a family is. Sometimes they don’t come back at night, which is very upsetting. It’s only happened to us for 24 hours, but I know of carers whose charges have disappeared for weeks on end and then turn up out of the blue saying: 'Right, where’s my tea?’ Once or twice, there’s been a clash of personalities, and the youngster has had to move on. You tell yourself you did your best, but you do feel a failure.”
The Moles think of themselves merely as custodians of other people’s children to lessen the emotional wrench when they leave. None the less, they’re applying for special guardianship (a process similar to adoption but maintaining links with the birth family) of a 15 year-old they’re currently looking after. “He’s never had a feeling of belonging anywhere and we feel it’s important he has a sense of identity,” Mole says.
Their other current charge is Daniel Foden, 20, who, with a family background of drug and alcohol abuse, has been living in foster homes since he was two. On and off, he’s been with the Moles for the past six years.
Normally, state funding ends at 18, but Daniel is one of a lucky few to benefit from a pilot scheme extending this to 21 (the average age to leave the family home is 24).
“I wasn’t always the best behaved boy and I had my ups and downs with my old foster parents, so I moved out at 16,” he says. “Social services said they’d get me a flat, but I didn’t have the maturity. Now Eric has me in my own little cabin in the garden. It’s kitted out with an electricity meter and I’ve had to learn to be a bit tidier and to budget.” Daniel is just starting a new job at a DVD warehouse. “Eric and Rita have helped me with growing up.”
“You’re a saint,” I tell Eric. But he’s heard it all before. “We didn’t do it for the accolades,” he shrugs. “We’ve just realised we can make a difference.”
Leading British charity Action for Children to back key adopters and foster carers event next year.
Action for Children has been chosen as one of the main sponsors of Britain’s second ever LGBT Adoption and Fostering Week.
LGBT Adoption and Fostering Week, which will run from 4 to 10 March next year, is a national campaign run by New Family Social, the UK charity for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender adopters and foster carers.
The week aims to find more families from lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities to change the lives of children currently in care.
Darren Johnson, director of children’s services at Action for Children, a leading British charity, says: ‘Over the years, our LGBT foster carers and adopters have been pivotal in helping transform the lives of some of the UK’s most vulnerable children.
‘Our priority is finding the right placement to best meet the needs of the children and young people we work with – and we welcome more applications from LGBT foster carers and adopters.’
Andy Leary-May, director of New Family Social, says: ‘More and more LGBT people are choosing adoption and fostering as a way to form a family, and we want prospective parents to see just how rewarding it can be, and how much advice and support is on offer from our huge community of families around the UK.’
Action for Children’s support of LGBT Adoption and Fostering Weeks comes close on the heels of its excellent rating in this year's Stonewall Workplace Equality Index which rates Britain’s top gay-friendly employers. The charity jumped 68 places, and has been placed sixth best-performing organization in the voluntary sector.
Dame Clare Tickell, Action for Children chief executive, said: ‘This achievement demonstrates our continued commitment to promoting equality and diversity, and we will continue to strive to improve our results – as we do in all of our services – year on year.’
The Stonewall rating has been achieved through an ongoing commitment to improve staff training on anti-bullying, managing diversity, and carrying out equality impact assessments. Examples of this can be seen across Action for Children’s projects from mentoring and personal development programs for LGBT young people and positive practice on same-sex fostering and adoption.
For further information on fostering with Action for Children, call +44 (0)845 0845 200 5162 or visit actionforchildren.org.uk/fostering. For adoption call +44 (0)845 355 5533 or visit actionforchildren.org.uk/adoption.
And to learn more about the LGBT Adoption and Fostering Week and event updates, visit lgbtadoptfosterweek.org.uk. You can find more information on New Family Social at newfamilysocial.co.uk.
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