Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Adoption: Is Children Minister criticism of Judiciary Fair

Today's Times has an article on page 15 headlined "Judge's Criticism raises fear of adoption crisis".  Comments in the Leading Articles page carry the message "A humane adoption process must be meticulous, but also fast."

These seem wonderful sentiments, but when I heard Michael Gove was seeking an adoption revolution, it was inevitable there would be a mess. This Government introduces policies with little thought to the impact and practicalities in light of available resources. Examples include the removal of legal aid (a reliance on the third sector who saw their resources fall at the same time), the bedroom tax (smaller properties not being available), faster adoption (while there were drastic cuts to Children's Services). We won't mention ATOS...

Sadly, the way in which the Government handles fall-out from ill-considered policies is not so much closing the stable door when the horse has bolted, but wondering if there is someone left at the stables who could do it for them.

In 2013, Sir James Munby, President of the Family Court, raised concerns about the inevitable fall-out from the Government's fast-track adoption policy. In the case B-S in 2013, he criticised the lack of "proper evidence" that alternatives to adoption had been sought and criticised the "recurrent inadequacy" of analysis he came across. There was also criticism of the lower courts and inadequately reasoned arguments in judgments.

In 2011 in my own county, it was announced that under austerity measures, 300 posts in Children's Services were due to be cut, some saying this represented 50% of the service. This problem is compounded by a lack of other resources to keep families and children together. A prime example being there are no mother and children residential wards for mothers with post-natal depression.

Now the Government replies to Sir James's criticism. The main thrust is that his criticism has caused a reduction in the number of children being put forward for adoption. No, he has sought to place a stop to children unnecessarily being placed in care.

The Times writes "Edward Timpson, Minister for Children, said he was "very concerned" at the impact the judge's words appeared to be having. He goes on... "My reading of the judgment itself doesn't give me cause for concern, as it is saying very clearly adoption has to be demonstrably the best option for a child. That is restating what the law says. My concerns are over the dip in the number of [placement orders] and the way local authorities and the lower courts appear to have responded to this judgment, and I am not alone in being concerned about that."

Social Services, are struggling. Of interest is that 70% of Social Workers opposed Michael Gove's reforms. A House of Lords' legislative committee warned that reforms were moving too far, too fast. Anyone with an ounce of common sense foresaw that cuts to the courts, cuts to Children's Services and the closing of family law solicitors' firms due to legal aid cuts would place great pressure on the system.

Perhaps Timpson's chief concern, like Munby's, should be children unnecessarily being placed for adoption, kinship care not being adequately explored, and relationships being permanently severed due to Government polices which lacked proper planning and resourcing. I feel some sympathy for social services and the courts. I feel more for the children concerned, their grandparents, mums with transient mental health conditions and non-resident dads.

I appreciate funds have to be found, but I note the estimated £3billion for an air campaign against ISIS (to which the House of Commons seemed almost unanimous in their belief that an air campaign alone would achieve nothing) could be found. There is an opportunity cost with any decision, and it appears that vulnerable children are low down on the pecking order (we note MPs lunches are still subsidised).

In the real world, policy has to be practical, and goals achievable. Pardon the venacular, but that old business saying of "piss poor planning result in poor performance" springs to mind. Thank God the President of the Court is prepared to say so, albeit in more measured language.

Munby can't be criticised for this current problem (praise for highlighting them would be appropriate). Nor, do I feel, the ultimate responsibility for poor investigations lies with social workers. The fact that new guidance is being considered highlights the inadequacy of the system itself, and that planning and impact analysis seems to always come after this Government's policies.

Only 4% of social workers agreed with the Government's adoption reforms. The concern being "Speed alone will be a recipe for disaster". One respondent said “The government’s misinformation about adoption only serves to further undermine those working in the field. The government sees this as an easy area to score political points.”

Yesterday Cameron announced the intended removal of housing benefit for the under 21s. Will the Conservatives have made provision for teens coming out of care? Given their track record, we doubt it. No doubt they will say it is a local authority responsibility to house these children, and cast blame in another direction as Timpson does with Munby... as for local authority funding for this...

We hasten to add we're not rabid socialists here, we just believe that if you're going to introduce a policy, it needs to be thought out, an impact assessment done, and those introducing the policy need to listen to the words of people on the ground. Sir James Munby's criticism of recurrent inadequate analysis might also have been aimed at the Government who are equally failing in this respect.