David Cameron has set out plans to create a “fairer, faster” adoption process—including moves to make it easier for white couples to adopt black children.
The prime minister said there was “no more urgent task” for the government and promised to legislate to force councils to speed up the process.
As well as tackling the “absurd barriers” to mixed-race adoption, he said, the changes will see more youngsters fostered pending approval of full adoption.
Social workers will be legally obliged to turn to the existing national adoption register if they fail to place children locally within three months.
Full details of the shakeup will be published next week by the education secretary, Michael Gove, who last month criticised “misguided” efforts to insist on same-race matches.
Despite guidance issued last year, some local authorities were still putting their belief in finding “a perfect match” ahead of the children’s interests, said Gove, who was himself adopted.
But although the government said it would introduce the changes “as soon as possible”, officials would give no commitment to the changes being made before 2015.
Cameron said: “This government is going to tear down the barriers that stop good, caring potential adoptive parents from giving a home to children who so desperately need one.”
He said it was “shocking” that black children waited on average twice as long as their white counterparts to be adopted.
“We will tackle the absurd barriers to mixed-race adoption which trap many non-white children in care. We will make sure that local authorities who let children down make faster use of the national adoption register.
“And we will remove obstacles to make sure potential adoptive parents can be foster carers too, so that it’s no longer too hard for children to be placed with them while final decisions are made.
“Together, these are vital steps towards a system that is fairer, faster, and puts children and parents first.”
The Adoption and Children Act 2002 says a child’s welfare should always be the “paramount consideration” but requires “due consideration to the child’s religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background”.
Revised statutory guidance was issued last year in a bid to reduce delays faced by some children from ethnic minorities, but ministers believe it has failed to have a big enough impact.
“Now we will go further and will bring forward primary legislation at the next available opportunity. We want to make it clearer that ethnic matching should not automatically be an overriding consideration in the matching process,” a No 10 spokeswoman said.
Secondary legislation is expected to be used to make it easier for children to be placed with foster carers who are also approved adopters—and who can take them in permanently.
While the fostering and adoption processes would remain separate, No 10 said, enabling the sort of crossover employed by some areas should reduce disruption for youngsters.
“There’s no more urgent task for government than this,” Cameron said. “Young lives are being wasted while the process takes its toll—and the victims are some of the most vulnerable young people.”
Martin Narey, the government’s adviser on adoption who previously headed the children’s charity Barnardo’s, said he was “delighted at the urgency” being shown by ministers.
“The announcement today will secure the earlier and more successful adoption of many thousands of children whose lives will be transformed.
“Local authorities will be asked to make concurrent planning more widespread so that children are fostered by their prospective adoptive parents as long as it is in the child’s best interests.”
Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme he said, “It’s not that care is bad. Children are generally with foster carers who do a wonderful job but if a child is with a foster carers for 18 months and then wrenched away to be given to adoptive parents, that’s a pretty bleak start to its adoption.”
Matt Dunkley, East Sussex director of children’s services, welcomed the rule changes, saying: “There’s definitely a case for this change and a number of local authorities are already carrying out this kind of practice.
“What these changes do is shift the locus of risk of multiple placements away from the child and towards the adopters.
“So the prospective adopters have to take on a lot of risk—maybe the court will direct the child to go back or something won’t go quite right with the final placement order—and they [the adopters] have to be worked with very closely by social workers to accept that risk and manage it appropriately with the child concerned.”
The children’s minister, Tim Loughton, said: “We need to change legislation to make sure that reducing delay is the primary concern of social workers and adoption managers across the country. A year is such a significant proportion of a young child’s life. We can’t afford to waste time.”
The moves were welcomed by the NSPCC but it warned against making speed the prime focus.
Its chief executive, Andrew Flanagan, said: “The prime minister is right to address the impact that delays within the care system can have on children but this work must be driven by their best interests, not timescales.
“The most important outcome for any child is to have a safe, secure and loving home environment, whether that is through fostering, adoption or being reunited with their birth family or other permanent option.”
He also noted that adoption accounted for only a small minority of cases and called for urgent attention to the risk of children being abused after being returned from care to birth families.
“We hope the government’s broader children in care strategy due in the summer will set out how improvements will be made across the care system.”