In recent years there has been increased government and media focus on the benefits of adoption for children in care who cannot return to their birth families, the importance of reducing the time children wait for a permanent placement and the need to increase the number of adoptive families available.
One option that has not had enough attention is the potential contribution foster carers could make to improving the chances of achieving adoption, particularly for children who may be seen as harder to place. While foster carer adoption has always been possible, it is an area of practice that has been a source of divergent views and controversy over the past 30 years, and only represents around 15% of adoptions in England and Wales.
There are clear benefits for a child being adopted by their foster carer, the most obvious being the continuation of relationships and attachments with the foster family. It also means fewer moves for the child, the chance to remain in the community, school or nursery they have become familiar with, and – for some – a greater likelihood of maintaining a connection with their birth family or siblings.
There are also challenges for social workers to address so they can make the best decisions for the children they are responsible for: how can confidentiality be maintained if the carers are known to the birth family or live in the same area? Should carers stop fostering other children for a period of time? What level of financial support will they need if their role is changing and how might this affect the child?
Ultimately, each case must be decided on its merits, with social workers balancing strengths, concerns and areas for support. There may be times when the barriers are assessed as being too great, but it is important that social workers keep foster carers involved in trying to find solutions to the practical issues where there are no other concerns about their ability to offer permanence. Some foster carers have moved house, moved area and even changed their names to ensure the child’s – and their family’s – safety.
When assessing foster carers, it is important for social workers to recognise that their motivation and route to adoption will be different to that of “stranger” adopters and based on the bond and attachments that have developed while the child has been in their care. Some carers have described negative responses from social workers to their request to adopt, based on a view that this is a back-door route to adoption or a reluctance to lose a valuable fostering resource. It is important that local authorities have clear policies so carers receive consistent responses across the social work teams involved. Research has shown that the attitude of key people in a local authority can have a positive impact on foster carers coming forward to adopt.
Social workers need to ensure that foster carers consider the differences between their role and that of a prospective adopter and the long-term impact on their family and the child. Ideally this should be through attending tailored group training for carers adopting, but where this is not available they should have the opportunity to meet and talk with other carers who have adopted. It is important too that they are given full information about the child’s past and implications for their future health and emotional needs, which may not have been made available to them in their fostering role.
Social workers should inform foster carers that they will have access to the Adoption Support Fund to provide them with additional resources. Where children are already settled in their fostering placement and there has been an assessment of their immediate and longer-term needs, it is now possible to apply to the fund so work can start even before an adoption order is made.
Research has shown that financial support can be a key factor in enabling foster carers to adopt and agencies should consider how they determine these allowances and tailor them to the needs of the family.
Evidence from other countries such as the US and Northern Ireland suggests that a more consistent and positive view of carer adoption in the sector could ensure that the stability and security offered by adoption is extended to more children in local authority care.
The decision to adopt a child from foster care is a life-changing one for both the child and their foster family, and the support of helpful and informed practitioners is essential in making this happen.
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