If adoption is to be the gold standard for looked-after children, then we appear to have failed as foster carers. Only one of the children we have cared for has been adopted, while a number of different outcomes were agreed for the other children.
And yet the boys and girls we have looked after are living settled lives in their homes, with families that come in many shapes and sizes. The time they have spent in care will always be a part of who they are but they are growing up in homes where they are loved and nurtured, while maintaining positive relationships with their birth families.
It doesn't feel like failure. But one cannot help feeling despondent at the widespread dismay that greeted government figures showing a drop in the number of adoptions last week. The number of children granted an adoption placement order (the first step to being adopted) fell 24% in the year to March in England. The number being matched for adoption with a family (the second stage before an adoption is completed) fell 15%, according to statistics published by the Department for Education.
These figures grabbed all the headlines, and attracted much comment about vulnerable children being denied a safe and supportive family. The Government, which has put adoption at the heart of its policy for looked-after children, promised to take action if necessary.
In fact, the number of children who were adopted during the year actually increased by 5 per cent. More importantly, in my view, the number of children who ceased to be looked after increased again, as it has done for each of the past five years. More than 31,000 children left care, through adoption or the granting of a special guardianship order, residence order or child arrangements order.
Adoption is the best outcome for many children and families. Indeed, when I worked for The Times I was part of a campaign to speed up the adoption process, which at the time was overly bureaucratic and fraught with problems. Once adoption has been agreed as the best route out of care, the process should be expedited as quickly as possible. So I was delighted when the Government introduced measures in 2013 to ensure adopters are approved more quickly and to overcome blockages in the legal system that slow the adoption process.
But an unwelcome consequence has been to reinforce the perception of other solutions for looked-after children, including long-term fostering and special guardianship, as inherently inferior, to be considered only because adoption is no longer possible. This is not just about the public's perception, for it also skews the views of policy makers at a national and local level.
The defining policy for looked-after children must be permanency, regardless of the legal status, and equal support must be provided for all forms of long-term care. Permanency must be about reducing the number of times a looked-after child is compelled to move home, which causes so much heartache and anxiety. Children need to know that they have been placed with a family for life, who will stick with them through good times and bad, who will love and nurture them through childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. This may best be provided by an adoptive family. But it might also be a grandparent, or a sibling; an aunt or a close family friend; a long-term foster carer or a children's home. It may even be through a combination of arrangements that the best outcome can be decided.
The increasing complexity of cases of looked-after children that come before the family courts present a significant challenge to the traditional role of adoption and this must be acknowledged by all those with an interest in the welfare of children. Policy needs to be reset, with more effective support provided to alternative arrangements, such as kinship care. Living with an older brother or sister, or sharing a home with a long-term foster family should never be seen as a poor substitute for adoption.
We have shared the sheer joy of social workers and legal guardians on securing a committed, long-term family for a looked after child, often against the odds, when the options are often severely limited. We have remained in contact with children who were in our care, formed friendships with their new carers, and been moved by the extraordinary ability of extended families to make room for another person in their lives. Adoption, long-term fostering, special guardianship, kinship care: all have a place. But caring for looked-after children must never be about numbers.