Fall of 12% put down to local authorities misinterpreting a 2013 family court ruling that adoption should be a last resort
The government’s flagship adoption policy is showing signs of faltering, with the latest figures showing a 12% drop in the number of vulnerable children matched with adoptive parents over the past year.
Adoption numbers in England have risen in recent years after David Cameron introduced reforms designed to “tear down the barriers” preventing children from being matched with parents.
But official figures show that 4,690 children in care were adopted in 2016, down from 5,360 in the previous year, and experts said further falls should be expected.
Ministers believe the decline, which follows a significant slowdown in the rate of increase in adoptions in 2015, is a result of local authorities misinterpreting family court judgments made three years ago that indicated adoption should be treated as a last resort.
A 2013 ruling by Sir James Munby, the president of the high court family division, said the political drive to hasten and increase adoption should not override due process and break up families unnecessarily. The law states that a child should only be separated from its parents in extreme circumstances.
Ministers and expert advisers insist that the ruling did not change the law, but there are continuing signs that local authorities are opting to place children with foster parents or kinship careers.
Hugh Thornbery, chief executive of the charity Adoption UK, said: “I’ve feared for some time that there would be a dramatic fall in adoptions this year, so the drop comes as no surprise. We expect to see a further fall in the current year.
“Adoption can offer the best chance to permanently break a cycle of neglect and abuse and give a child a second chance at fulfilling their potential with the support of a loving family. So we cannot stress enough the importance of clearing up any confusion over the 2013 rulings, which has undoubtedly had a negative impact upon adoption decisions and placement orders in recent years.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said the children and social work bill currently going through parliament would ensure adoption was prioritised when it was in the child’s best interests. “It is right that we make sure children are protected and that we aspire to have every child grow up in a loving, stable home,” the spokesperson said.
The latest statistics show there were 70,44o children in care in England in 2016, up 1% on 2015. Numbers have risen steadily every year since 2008, in the wake of the Baby P child protection scandal. Nearly three-quarters of children in care are with foster parents.
The increase includes a 54% rise in the number of unaccompanied asylum seeker children in care. There were 4,210 young asylum seekers in care at the end of March 2016, two-thirds of them in London and the south-east.
• This article was amended on 30 September 2016 to clarify that the 54% rise is in the total number of unaccompanied asylum seeker children in care, not the number “being taken into care”, and to correct the number of young asylum seekers in care.
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