Latest government figures show that the number of court orders granted so that children can be adopted – known as placement orders – have more than halved in just nine months.
Between April and June this year a total of 760 placement orders were granted, compared with 1,550 orders being made between July and September 2013.
The fall is being blamed on an appeal court ruling made last September by Sir James Munby in the case of Re B-S in which he criticised the “sloppy practice” of social workers and said that local authorities must provide evidence that all alternatives to adoption had been considered before bringing a case to court.
It is unclear whether the resultant decline in placement orders is down to authorities being more cautious about applying for orders or whether courts are rejecting applications, but the development represents a blow to government efforts to get more children adopted.
A record 5,050 children were adopted in 2013/14, a 26 per cent increase on the 2012/13 figure of 4,010, and a rise of 63 per cent on the 2010/11 figure of 3,100.
But Andy Elvin, chief executive of fostering and adoption agency Tact (The Adolescent and Children’s Trust) said he thinks there will now be a “flattening out” in the number of adoptions taking place.
He also raised concerns that the situation could threaten smaller voluntary adoption agencies, which rely on matching children with adoptive parents for their income.
“I worry about the financial stability of some of the smaller voluntary agencies in light of this,” he said.
“It is all very well having plenty of adopters wanting to adopt, but they [the agency] will not be receiving working capital.”
Hugh Thornbery, chief executive of Adoption UK and a member of the government-created Adoption Leadership Board to drive through reforms in the sector, said he is concerned by the "sharpness of decline" of placement orders.
"Some of it is an over-reaction to a judgment that, in a way, just reaffirmed what should have been taking place already.
"I think we will see the impact of it [in adoption figures] next year.
"What it actually means in the long-term, I don't know.
"We hope that the system rebalances, but we're not sure how long that might take."
As a result of the drop in placement orders, the number of children waiting to be placed with a family has fallen from 5,480 on 31 March 2013 to 3,890 on 30 June 2014 – a drop of 29 per cent.
The so-called “adopter gap” – the difference between the number of adopters needed for children with a placement order, and the number of adopters waiting for a match – has also fallen dramatically.
In 2013/14, the number of families required stood at 2,400, but as of 30 June this year it was down to just 140.
The fall in the number of placement orders being granted comes despite figures published last month showing the number of children being made subject of a child protection plan increased from 43,100 at 31 March 2013 to 48,300 a year later – a rise of 12.1 per cent.
News of the drop in court orders for adoption comes during National Adoption Week, which runs until Sunday (9 November).
Children’s minister Edward Timpson wrote to adoptive parents yesterday thanking them for their commitment in caring for some of the country’s most vulnerable children.
A Department for Education spokeswoman said the "record" rise in adoptions in recent years prove that the government's reforms are working.
“Children are also having to spend less time waiting to be adopted, which means thousands more of our most vulnerable children are finding the loving homes they need more quickly,” the spokesperson added.
She said the government believes the drop in placement orders is "a result of the way local authorities have interpreted some recent court judgments".
"The Adoption Leadership Board will shortly be issuing guidance to clarify this," she added.
"In the meantime we will continue to monitor the numbers closely."