With the suspension of the Adoption Register for England planned from 29 March, the Department for Education is reviewing the needs of the wider adoption and fostering sector, and considering what, if anything, should take its place.
For an unspecified period, there will be no statutory entitlement for children to be registered nationally. Until the suspension, there was a legal requirement for local authorities to "provide the information about the child to the Secretary of State for entry in the register", within 90 days of a decision being made to place for adoption.
Serious problems with compliance, however, have led to the register's matching work often starting later: councils only met the three-month timeframe for 39 per cent of children they referred.
The suspension is a cause for concern for some, who fear that without the free-to-use national database, the country's hardest-to-place children will wait even longer for a match, or, worse, never find a permanent home.
One of the UK's biggest adoption agencies, CoramBAAF, which since 2016 held the £600,000-a-year contract to run the register for the DfE, via its Leeds-based matching service Adoption Match, has been vocal about these concerns.
The charity says the timing is also "unfortunate" given the recent fall in the number of adopters being approved, at a time when the number of children coming into care is rising.
To illustrate this, in 2017/18, 1,903 children were referred to the register, double the 850 referred in 2014/15. Over the same period, the number of families referred has fallen from 1,993 families in 2014/15 to 934 last year (see graphic).
Launched in 2001, the register was run by BaafAdoption and Fostering, before the charity closed in 2016. Accessible to practitioners and adopters who were able search the secure database, it has found matches for more than 3,200 children, according to Coram's head of consultancy Kevin Yong.
Over 18 years, more than 25,000 children have been referred, says Yong, writing on a recent blog on the CoramBAAF website. He adds: "Over 80 per cent of these children were classified as ‘harder to place', by being part of a sibling group, of a black or minority ethnic background, aged five and over, or having a disability."
In recent years, the service has seen increasing success rates - accounting for five per cent of all children matched for adoption between 1 January 2015 and 30 September 2018. These rates are higher when considering register referral data alone, which does not include children who were matched before 90 days.
Adoption Match conducts searches "with a special lens" that Coram's chief executive Carol Homden believes draws out the potential for a match. She gives the example of a child with medical conditions who had been waiting a long time, but was matched on the same day as the search began.
"An adopter may have a particular experience of a medical condition or they may be a nurse," explains Homden, and the team will be "mindful of this potential".
The charity also offers "exchange days", which bring adopters and agencies together from other organisations and areas to "explore and discuss" options.
Last year, five per cent of all adoptions in England were supported by the register. Homden says: "Some agencies will say ‘it's only a few children', but it adds up to 278 children nationally. If that were one agency, it would be the biggest in the country."
The charity estimates that with the closure, as many as 200 children a year could end up remaining in care rather than being adopted, costing local authorities £7.3m extra a year.
According to Yong, £9.24m has been spent on the register over the past 14 years, and he adds that the register "could have achieved much more had agencies and the government enabled it to do so" by improving compliance.
In 31 per cent of child referrals, local authorities took up to six months to register children, according to his analysis.
"This means that for 30 per cent of children referred, the chances of finding a match through the register were a third lower than they could have been," he says.
While reasons for delay can be out of a local authority's control - such as apparent matches turning out to be unsuitable - for some children it was "simply due to the local authority itself", adds Yong.
GUIDE TO ADOPTION REGISTER
- Adoption Match team in Leeds carried out tailored data searches of children and adopters
- Matching tools included exchange and family activity days
- It matched more than 3,200 children with adopters
- Register contained more than 80 per cent of ‘hard to place' children
- Responsible for five per cent of all adoptions since 2015
Reasons for suspension
Homden accepts the DfE is entitled to pursue an improved system, but she questions why it is necessary to suspend it, without first putting alternative arrangements in place.
"It would be possible to continue while the possibilities are considered and technology developed," she says, adding that it's "unclear" how long a pause would be and to what extent the "best interests of children who are waiting the longest" have featured in considerations.
Coram has written to Education Secretary Damian Hinds, imploring him to "think again", and citing the potentially negative consequences for children, although Homden is not hopeful.
The biggest challenge nationally, according to Homden, is the need to recruit more adopters. "The register can't in itself solve that gap," she says.
Andrew Christie, who chairs the Adoption and Special Guardianship Leadership Board, advised the DfE ahead of the move to suspend the register, but states the decision "was not mine".
Christie says he is "not sure the evidence is there" to support Homden's argument that the most vulnerable children will lose out, although he adds that he understands the DfE is carrying out analysis of future options.
Coram's activity days will continue, which he believes should take the most credit for the matching levels achieved.
Christie believes alternative mechanisms already in existence will fill any gap left, and this is born out by DfE figures that show 93 per cent of councils are using a "commercial alternative" to the statutory register.
He says Link Maker - which in 2014 lost a joint bid with support charity Adoption UK to run the register - is the "tool of choice" for most authorities and adds: "What we discovered was that most social workers looking for a match, and indeed adopters looking for a match, turned to Link Maker - they didn't expect much from the Adoption Register."
Compliance is one of the "major problems", says Christie, but he puts this partly down to agencies' preference for Link Maker.
"What people found is the web-based system is very user-friendly and it therefore means that adopters and social workers find they can use it very straight forwardly," he says, adding that the cost of using it - authorities pay an annual fee - is seemingly no deterrent.
Andy Leery-May, chief executive of Link Maker, says 846 hard-to-place children were matched through the system in 2018. He also points to the fact that it holds the details of more than 1,500 approved adopters - around four times more than on the register.
"Link Maker is used in preference because it gives social workers themselves, those who know the children best, the most efficient way to identify adopters for children," he adds.
Homden also regards Link Maker as an "excellent" system and says that it "assists many matches to occur". However, she queries the DfE's "optimism" that this, and the creation of regional agencies, will be sufficient. "It's not currently," she warns. "Some children are waiting and in recent months, the waiting time has got worse."
The DfE says it is "confident" that agencies will continue to seek the best match for delivery, adding that an update on its work with the sector on a future system would be available "in due course".
Regional adoption agencies (RAAs) are being rolled out across England, although not as quickly as was initially hoped. Sue Armstrong Brown, chief executive of support charity Adoption UK, says she would prefer the fall back of some form of national system, partly because of what she considers to be the transition to RAAs weighing on local resources, and partly as she believes it could be used to boost recruitment.
"It's a process that takes resources and attention, and that has had an effect on the ability of agencies to recruit adopters," says Armstrong Brown. "We need a much bigger national pool of adopters - that's where the DfE should be putting support."
Christie confirms that there has been a problem with recruitment.
Christie believes RAAs will eventually improve the collective "front door" into the system.
This might capture potential adopters who may have previously been put off by the fragmented system - something else that concerns Armstrong Brown. She says there are examples of councils that turn away would-be adopters because they do not fit the immediate needs of children coming onto the local list. This might be because of a family's ethnicity or an unwillingness to consider sibling groups, when these features might match children elsewhere.
She also suggests more adopters may come forward if there were a "guarantee" of post adoption support to a higher level - some families have greater needs than are covered by the £5,000 cap, she says.
The government has invested £100m in its Adoption Support Fund, but needs to put in more, she says. "Ideally, no one who comes forward for adoption should be asked to pick up the consequences of prior neglect and abuse. Everyone who comes forward should be offered it."