Social care is usually the poor relation of politics. Compared with other topics it seldom gets an airing, nationally at least. The reason is simple; it’s not a vote-winner, even though the way we look after our children, our sick and our vulnerable says more about the health of society than any alternative benchmark.
So it came as a genuine surprise to hear David Cameron discussing adoption a few weeks ago in the House. Although the critical perspective of adoption Czar Martin Narey has been making waves for several months, this has been largely confined to the profession itself. Cameron on his feet in the Commons brought the debate about rates of adoption into the full glare of the media spotlight. Adoption has become a political issue.
It’s National Adoption Week, an annual series of events designed to raise awareness and to recruit more carers. The secret world of the lives of abused children, the care system and social work planning briefly comes out into the sunlight before lying dormant for another 12 months. This year’s effort includes a new website and publicity for foster care too. It’s a reflection of growing concerns that our system is in danger of collapse if we cannot persuade more people to care for other people’s children.
Yet the familiar feel-good coverage that sounds trite but actually chimes with prospective carers has been replaced by dark clouds and threats. Professionals with spots booked days ago in the media spent their time fending off questions about league tables and biased, blinkered social workers, rather than talking about the rich potential of being a carer or the needs of the most vulnerable children and young people in our society. The message has beem transformed: ‘Come forward by all means but you’ll get screwed by the system if you do.’ Our once a year opportunity has been tainted.
The government’s response is league tables, no promotion or relegation, just naming and shaming for those at the bottom. I wasn’t aware adoption was a competitive activity. To justify this approach, Cameron has twice quoted the same statistic, once in parliament and again yesterday, that of the 3,600 children in care under the age of one, only 60 were adopted last year. This is profoundly misleading. The needs of these children differ vastly, as do their care plans. Adoption is by no means the only option. Most will go home, at least for a time. Agencies will be working hard to take the best possible decisions for them, to keep them safe and give them a chance of life in their own families. None of this was made clear yesterday.
However much we choose to believe it, governments aren’t stupid. There must be a reason why Cameron is wedded to this particular statistic as the best way of highlighting the need for action, as opposed to, say, talking about the chronic shortage of black afro-Caribbean adopters. In fact, it suits him perfectly and not only because it tugs at the heartstrings and portrays the government as caring and compassionate. The one thing that all politicians fear is where problems are complicated and intricate and require a solution to match. Adoption is profoundly complex, touching as it does on the lives of vulnerable children, carers and society’s responsibilities. This statistic obscures the complexity perfectly.
Throwing money at the problem won’t make it go away but it would surely help. More social workers, better training, more therapeutic services and post-adoption support, the list could go on, but local authorities face cuts of on average 28% over 4 years. Delays in adoption are often caused by parents and birth family exercising their rights. Change that and in a year’s time the parents’ lobby will be protesting. Also, this is the law of the land. It can neither be ignored nor changed overnight. The Mail reflected the popular conception of the adoption process by saying that the tables would shame ‘the worst performing social workers’ but it’s the court that sets the timetable and takes the decisions.
Such obfuscation is in keeping with other elements of the current adoption strategy. Precisely at the moment where social work needs to be valued and strengthened, the man appointed to define and oversee the changes begins by heavily criticising the members and practice of the profession he’s supposed to be working alongside. It’s hard to imagine that happening for teachers or doctors. Already the debate in one key area, transracial placements, has been framed by the supposed ideological bias of social workers rather than the evidence-based practise of the last 30 or 40 years. Identity is the essence of each and every one of us, yet apparently for black children and young people awaiting adoption it can be swiftly skimmed over.
No one disputes the fact that the system requires a long, hard review and if nothing else the government is providing the opportunity for this to take place. However, where currently parameters are tightly restricted, it needs to be opened up. Moving children to adoption more quickly shifts the threshold for care. This isn’t about numbers or league tables. Adoption is but one point on a continuum of care that stretches from home to community support, fostering and beyond. Rather, it’s about the fundamental questions of state intervention in family life in our society. The government’s interest in children in care is welcome but their current approach obscures the inescapable complexity of adoption. It’s a debate that involves all of us, and unless it takes places fully and completely, we’re not helping the lives of children in care one jot.