20/11/2014 13:00 GMT | Updated 20/01/2015 05:59 GMT

Plunging Adoption Figures a Wake-up Call for All in Children's Care Sector

Last week's news about plunging adoption placements should act as a wake-up call for the children's care sector.

During the last decade, authorities and agencies across the country have found it increasingly hard to find permanent, loving families for children in care in a timely way. The government's plan to speed up adoptions, announced by Michael Gove in 2012, briefly reversed that trend.

But it looks as though there has now been a dramatic loss of nerve by many in the social care sector, including legal advisors. The new focus on avoiding delay for children has stumbled on the hard ground of presenting a robust case for adoption in the family courts.

The consequences have been staggering - in just nine months, the number of adoption placements has fallen by 51%.

Last week the National Adoption Leadership Board applied a tourniquet to stem this. It issued emergency guidance to bust several 'myths' around adoption which have grown up since an Appeal Court ruling made last September.

One myth is that the law on adoption has changed. It has not. Another is that local authorities have to explore every possible option before they apply to court for an adoption. They do not. They have to hold the immediate and long term welfare of a child as paramount. They have to take into account the fact that delay in decision-making is in itself damaging to children.

The guidance makes clear that the courts require 'expert, high-quality, evidence-based analysis of all realistic options for a child and the arguments for and against each of these options'.

As head of Barnardo's, which supports vulnerable children in families and is also one of the country's largest independent adoption agencies, I welcome this clarification. Presenting an adoption case should be no different to any other application for a family court order - thorough, timely and centred on the child.

There will always be a tension between the pressure to place children quickly and the need to pull together high-quality evidence to satisfy a court. However, the principle that the child's needs are paramount in any decision must always apply.

Clearly, we will have to wait and see how courts and the care sector resolve this tension to meet the child's best interests. But I sincerely hope the guidance will lead to more children who need adoption being identified without undue delay.

Last week's stark headlines proclaimed that adoption is in crisis. No it's not - at least not yet. But the number of children in care has risen for the seventh year in a row. Many of these cannot safely return home. Almost half of attempts to place children back in their birth families are unsuccessful. Unless adoptive families can be found for these children, then a crisis may not far away. The system needs a radical rebalancing.

Lengthy court processes drag out the time it takes to settle in a new and loving home. But they are not the only delay. Children must also be matched with the right family.

I am deeply concerned that stories like this give out the message that we don't need as many people to come forward as prospective adoptive parents. This would be wrong and dangerous to the children who are already waiting to be adopted.

There are currently around 4,000 children waiting for a new family - many more than the number of adopters currently registered with local authorities and adoption agencies such as ours.

It would be a crying shame if more children have to wait longer for a permanent, loving family because of a misunderstanding of the judicial process. It would be a tragedy for children if they miss out completely on the chance of a new family.

To find out more about adopting with Barnardo's contact