• Frances Brown

80,000 Children in Care: Are the Authorities Doing Enough to Support Them?

On average, there will be 1,952 births today in the United Kingdom. Throughout the course of that baby’s childhood their family situation may change. Due to financial problems, death, domestic violence, mental illness, criminal convictions or other reasons a child's family may not be able to adequately care for them. Then, the child will have to enter the care system.


Between March 2019 and March 2020 30,970 children entered the care system in the UK. It is important to contextualize these numbers; children can move in and out of the care system and not all 30,970 will need to be adopted by a stranger. Many children are adopted by a family member or returned to their parents. However, thousands do need a permanent and loving family to care for them.


To answer whether the authorities are doing enough for the 80,000 UK children in care, consideration of two factors is needed: the history of adoption-related legislation in the UK and analysis of the current government’s policies.


Legislation

The Adoption of Children Act 1926 of England and Wales was the first piece of legislation which shifted de facto adoption to de jure adoption. The Act included laws such as stipulations that adopters must be at least 25 years old or 21 years older than the child. Whilst this Act was successful in finally outlining the legality of adoption, it did include many flaws. Firstly, it still permitted informal adoption to continue without the requirement for a legal adoption. Secondly, due to its vagueness, adoption continued to be haphazard. The casual nature of adoption is highlighted by the presence of adoption adverts in newspapers such as "Offered for Adoption, 4 months old baby girl, all rights forfeited".

Today, there are no adoption adverts in newspapers but instead a rigorous safeguarding process to ensure the protection of looked-after children entering their new family. Legislation has been introduced such as police background checks on prospective parents and an adoption panel to consider all the evidence regarding the child and prospective parents. The panel must be made up of independent experts such as experienced adopted parents, social workers and other professionals with experience in looking after children in care.


Government Policies

The latest government policy update of the adoption system was published in July 2021 and sets out the vision of the Conservative government. One of the main goals is reducing the time children must wait for a permanent placement. The report recognises the unacceptable fact that many children wait over 18 months for a home to grow up in, evidencing the fact that authorities are not doing enough for children in care. This report clearly recognises failings of the adoption system on a local and national level. While historically, not enough has been done to match children to prospective parents in a timely manner, this report aims to put the processes in place to enact change for looked-after children.


Another problem that remains is that the educational attainment of looked-after children is far lower than the national averages. Only 25 percent of looked-after children achieve five or more A*-C GCSE grades compared with the national average of 75 percent. This also shows authorities are not giving these children enough support.


Further Barriers to Adoption


Perhaps the most upsetting truths behind the statistics outlined in the report are the demographics of children who must wait the longest. Adoption has changed from the 20th to the 21st centuries such that previous taboos such as an unmarried woman giving birth to "illegitimate" children are no longer as prevalent and problematic. However, taboos around race, disability and the age of children in care remain steadfast. Children over five years, groups of siblings, children from ethnic minorities and disabled children fall victim to longer waiting times. It is unfortunately a fact of the adoption system in the UK that able bodied, white babies are the most appealing for prospective parents.


Former Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson and Minister for Children Vicky Ford describe the prejudices in the adoption system as "an outrage". It is prevalent that ethnicity and skin colour are major factors in the adoption system. This comes both from the preference of the adopted parents wanting a child of the same skin colour as well as some local authorities turning away prospective adopters if there are no children in their system with the same ethnic appearance.


Solutions


The two major problems for looked-after children is waiting too long for a permanent family and a significant attainment gap. The government’s approach to solve the first problem is to provide an additional GBP 48.1 million in 2021-22 to help boost adopter recruitment and matching children with families. This is hoped to hugely reduce waiting times.


The second problem is more complicated to solve. The government aims to make funding available for schools to claim depending on the number of adopted children they teach to help alleviate this problem. Currently, it costs GBP 2,345 per child per year to give looked-after children greater support. There are also notable efforts to help looked-after children into employment; the c=Civil Service has a Care Leavers Internship for looked-after children to gain experience in almost twenty different government departments. The aim is to develop skills for long-time employment and enhancement of professional and personal prospects.


Conclusion


Novelist Dorothy Richardson wrote "A happy childhood is perhaps the most fortunate gift in life". This gift of a happy childhood is a gift looked-after children are often deprived of, in comparison to their peers who are not in the care system. The government is providing the funding and attention to solve the unjust problems within the care system. While it is too early to assess how successful this new policy will be, looked-after children cannot afford to be failed anymore.