Barnardos recently highlighted the worrying drop in baby-adoptions to just 60 last year. This led to some debate about speeding up the system in recognition of the fact that once a child is four years they are pretty much past an adoptive sell-by date and, like convenience food, there may well be a greater appetite for something fresh rather than the aging, forgotten package discarded somewhere on the back of the supermarket shelf.
That’s certainly not surprising. It really does take a special kind of adoptive family, geared up, patient and able enough to take on an older child who may have been through years of problems at the hands of dysfunctional parents at home and/or poorly-functioning corporate parents in care.
Action can be taken about the drop in baby-adoptions. De-mystifying the process, speeding up assessments, constructing a big positive PR campaign about the benefits of adoption can all help towards encouraging those brilliant potential adoptive parents to step forward.
But what about that other statistic: that there’s been a 2% increase in children in care?
Since Baby P, it’s been widely accepted that local authorities are taking more care proceedings. The courts are clogged up as, despite efforts to prevent delay, cases are invariably long and complex often involving medical or other experts and a number of parties.
And the care order is just the start. Once that order is made, a local authority owes, by statute, a whole host of duties to the child it is then responsible for. Amongst other things, it must secure suitable accommodation, education, make health checks, consult with the child, hold reviews as well as provide for the child’s day to day needs. If the care population is going up and yet cash-strapped authorities are making cuts in vital services, it is difficult to understand how the local authorities will perform the functions they are legally obliged to discharge. It doesn’t need a complex algebraic calculation to work out that increasing kids with decreasing expenditure equals amplified disadvantage to a group of young people who are already facing more hardship than nearly any other group.
We all know the statistics about children in care. They are far less likely to achieve decent GCSE results often due to a messy and changing school life. More than half suffer mental health problems (as opposed to one in 10 of the general child population). Young women from a care background are three times more likely to become young mothers. Care leavers and children in care are disproportionately over-represented in our criminal justice system.
The funding that local authorities are given must be enough to ensure the children they are responsible for get everything they need. Never has this been more important than now. The slashing of legal aid is barbaric. Children and young people, who at best find it hard to access the law, are going to face even more barriers in seeking help when services are cut. The government needs to take pro-active steps to support our vulnerable children in care. We need to encourage more good quality adoptive parents and foster carers not just for the babies in our care system, but the teenagers too. Plus we need a legal system young people can use if systems fail.
Without all this, the increasing numbers of young people in care will be set up to fail. Is this better than growing up at home with a dysfunctional family? Would that family provide a better starting point in life than that given by an underfunded care system that is bursting at its seams? There are new questions to ask now. Perhaps we need new answers.
Liz Fisher Frank
Liz Fisher-Frank is a solicitor, writer and children’s rights campaigner. She set up and ran the Lawyers for Young People project. Liz has considerable experience in working with young people in the care system - most recently as head of the legal unit at the Children’s Society - and that experience has formed the basis of her efforts to increase awareness of the problems some children do face. Liz writes about the barriers children and young people face in accessing the law. She also writes fiction for young adults.