In this special feature, former Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming explores the facts and figures behind national adoption statistics.
The Council of Europe is an international organisation which works to promote human rights and the rule of law across its 47 member states, which include the UK. It recently agreed and published a report looking at public family law. The ‘rapporteur’ for the report, who coordinated its production for the Social Affairs Committee, was Russian politician Ms Olga Borzova.
When she came to speak to me before producing the report she told me that there are more complaints about public family law from the UK than any other country. She said she found this surprising because the proportion of children in care was about the same.
Sadly I have not been able to get a copy of the PACE (Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe) Committee’s statistics. However, I have managed to get the Department for Education in the UK to do some more informative reports based on the annual SSDA903 report from each children’s services authority.
What I think the Council of Europe misses is that the turnover of children in and out of care in England (and all the figures I quote will be English) is much greater than in other countries – particularly of younger children.
Children’s services authorities in England have been under pressure to increase adoption numbers since the early 2000s. In the year to 31 March 2014 5,050 children left care through adoption, and of these 2,400 were “non consensual” or “forced” adoptions. The published national statistics do not properly distinguish between children placed in respite care voluntarily and those taken into compulsory case under care orders or similar legal measures.
I have, however, had an analysis done which looks particularly at the outcomes for children in compulsory care aged under five. This age cut off has been used because as children get older fewer adoptive parents are available and hence there are fewer adoptions as an outcome.
In the year to 31 March 2014, 8,200 children aged under five left compulsory care. Meanwhile, 3,700 left through adoption, and of these 1,800 were “non-consensual” or “forced” adoptions. Hence, of the more adoptable children leaving compulsory care, 45 per cent were adopted and of that 22 per cent were “non-consensual” or “forced”.
The original government formula for calculating the proportion of children leaving care through adoption was called BV163. This was used as the numerator of the number of children being adopted while the denominator was the number of children in care as on 31 March (and who had been there for six months). If you analyse this formula you will see that it does not produce a percentage as the numerator is children per year and the denominator is children giving a final dimension of a “per year”, not a “per cent”.
The formula also failed to separate out the older children and those children who were placed in care voluntarily. Hence it produced a misleading figure. However, that misleading figure was used by government to drive up the numbers of adoptions from care.
The assumption of the compulsory care system is that children are taken into care on a precautionary basis and reunited with their parents “if possible”. The proportion of under fives being reunited with their parents, however, is only 1,300 out of 8,200 (16 per cent) in the year to 31st March 2014.
It is clear from this that “non consensual” or “forced” adoptions are not exceptional within the context of the care system as a whole – contrary to international law and treaties.
It is, therefore, clear that the system as a whole is operating contrary to law and hence the threshold for a non-consensual adoption needs to be increased.
The recent Latvian case is particularly interesting when you look at the issue of the interplay between adoption targets and care plans. Initially (including after the home alone incident where the mum’s friend who was supposed to look after her daughter got delayed in traffic and arrived after the police) the local authority intended to reunite the family. However, in November 2010 the Minister Tim Loughton wrote to all children’s services authorities asking for “everything possible” to be done to increase adoptions. The adoption target for the London Borough of Merton was increased over time from 7 in 2008-9 to 13 in 2014-15. The numbers of adoptions and SGOs have gone up from 11 in 2010-11 to 16 in 2014-15.
I am aware of one social worker who was fired because she wanted to recommend to the court reuniting a family, but management disagreed. There are those that say that the adoption targets do not affect decisions as to what is in the best interests of a child. I would ask, however, whether, if the adoption targets do not affect judgments made by social workers then how is it that the adoption numbers were going up until the year 2014-15? I accept that Re B-S has caused a cut in placements. However, we do need to ask how much of an effect adoption targets are having on the numbers of adoptions, if they are not to prevent children who would previously have returned to their parents from doing so.
UPDATE August 24: Following the publication of this post, Marilyn Stowe invited barrister Sarah Phillimore to respond in a separate post after she expressed views in the comments below. However, on receipt of her draft we were concerned by a number of the claims made and by the overall tone of the piece, which was not in keeping with our house style. Sarah Phillimore was, however, unhappy with the edits we suggested and after some correspondence, we made the decision that it would be best not to publish her article.
John Hemming was educated at King Edwards School, Birmingham where he won the Rickard Prize for maths. He won a scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he graduated in Atomic, Nuclear and Theoretical Physics. He founded his first business which was a software house called John Hemming & Co, now called JHC Systems Ltd, in 1983. The company turns over around £20 million per annum and has over 250 staff. He continues to chair the board. He was a city councillor in Birmingham for 18 years and during part of that time was also Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group and Deputy Leader of the City Council. John was Member of Parliament for Birmingham, Yardley from 2005-2015. He plays keyboards in John Hemming and the Jazz Lobbyists, a quartet that recently played as part of the Birmingham Jazz Festival. He chairs the Justice for Families campaign.