Government Should 'Adopt' Policies That Support Children

29/02/2012 12:14 GMT | Updated 30/04/2012 10:12 BST

Just because education secretary Michael Gove MP was adopted, doesn't mean that every child in care should be.

Although the secretary of state for education was an obvious choice for Number 10''s press office to deliver the latest - albeit largely regurgitated - policy on adoption, his own family background does not automatically make him an expert.

The government is obsessed with the topic of adoption, repeatedly peddling the same lines to a media which is all too willing to unquestioningly digest reheated platitudes.

The government keeps repeating three main points: adoption takes too long; social workers are anti-adoption; and political correctness is preventing black children from being adopted.

In his speech Gove admitted that the government view has been influenced by the new adoption 'tsar', Martin Narey, who has been openly critical of social workers.

Michael Gove has taken a different tack this time though, eschewing outright hostility to social workers, perhaps inspired by the favourable reception received by BBC's fly on the wall series Protecting Our Children, which followed professionals in Bristol doing their utmost to keep vulnerable young people safe.

Gove placed on the record his gratitude to social workers, and his "admiration for the vital and under-appreciated work" they do, claiming, intriguingly, that government and social workers now enjoy "a more mature relationship".

The well-connected few may have the ear of government, but this argument won't hold much sway with frontline social workers, particularly when on the very same day it was announced that local authority staff will have their pay frozen for the third year running.

Listening to Gove laud social work, a 'but' seemed inevitable and, right on cue, the minister didn't disappoint.

"There is strong evidence that, in recent years, there has been too much reluctance to remove a child from circumstances of consistent and outright abuse and neglect - or to return them to those circumstances later," social work's new Number 1 Fan added.

Gove's assertion seems at odd with the evidence, however. Cafcass (the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) announced at the beginning of February that the number of children being referred to care in England has hit an all-time high, passing the 900-mark in a month and matching a trend seen since November 2008 when Baby Peter Connelly's mother and two others were sentenced for their involvement in his death.

Less "reluctance" than ever it would seem.

The government's preoccupation with adoption is ignoring the issue of adoption breakdown. The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) has previously argued that the government tends to romanticise adoption, and certainly Gove's hyperbolic assertion that adoption is "an inspirational example of humanity at its best" does not reveal the whole story.

While it is clearly welcome that Michael Gove's experience of adoption was such a positive one, the government is wilfully ignoring the fact that not every experience is happy.

As many as one in five adoptions break down, a figure that may be even higher but can't be more accurately detailed because there is currently no centralised mechanism for recording statistics. Adoption agencies and social workers have repeatedly asked government to start recording and researching the number of failed adoptions.

They have also urged more investment in support for families, many of whom are dealing with children who have serious and complex needs. Put simply, adoption is not the only option for children in care and is only suitable for a small number of children.

For most children in the case system, there are far more pressing priorities. BASW has praised England's Children's Rights director Roger Morgan for shining a spotlight on the real issues for children in care, with the release of his annual children's care monitor, a survey of 2,000 children in care.

The survey findings suggest that:

• more than half of children in care are given a week's notice or less of being moved to another foster home

• nearly a quarter are given no notice at all

• three-quarters of those in care with siblings reported they had been separated into different placements

Criticising the chronic shortage of placements in our care system, BASW's Nushra Mansuri has said that "these are the care issues that merit serious attention, more so than the government's current posturing on adoption".

BASW has accused the government of ignoring the complexities of adoption, and the legislation that underpins it, in order to pander to those who all too willing wrongly believe there is a politically correct conspiracy at work in our public services.

Sadly, there are more black children waiting to be adopted because black children are overrepresented in the care system. Black adults are over-represented in the prison system and the mental health system too, so perhaps it is time the government made a concerted effort to explore the underlying social and economic inequalities that affect the black community in general rather than simply honing in on the end result.

Racial identity does matter and, wherever possible, children should be placed with adopters from a similar background. This may not be possible in every circumstance, but it is not a factor that should be ignored or minimised.

Gove is right to point out that the welfare of a child is more important than the rights of their parents, but this should also apply to the relative rights of the same children and would-be adoptive parents.

While stories about delays for prospective parents can make for heart-rending reading, the rights of the child must come first, both legislatively and morally.