Review of the Freeing Order Processes in Northern Ireland

Author(s): Greg Kelly and Dominic McSherry
Commisioned by: Department of Health, Social Services & Public Safety
Document Type: Report
Year: 2003
Publisher: Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety
Place of Publication: Belfast
Subject Area(s): Alternative Care, Adoption
Client Group(s) : Looked After Children

Abbreviations: NI - Northern Ireland, COAC - Children's Order Advisory Committee

Background to the Research

  • This is a study of the processes for freeing children for adoption in NI. Freeing children for adoption is provided for in Articles 17 and 18 of the Adoption (NI) Order 1987. This legislation is substantially similar to that which currently exists in England and Wales pending the implementation of the new Adoption and Children Act (2003). This study was commissioned because of the widespread perception that the process was being undermined by long delays.

Research Approach

  • Social workers completed questionnaires in relation to 200 children who were in various stages of the process from the Adoption Panel recommending that adoption was in the child's best interests to the granting of Freeing and then Adoption Orders. The main focus was the time taken for the whole process and for various stages within it.

Main Findings

  • The findings confirmed that the process is dogged by delay at each of its several stages. In total the average time from the child becoming looked after to the granting of an Adoption Order was 4.5 years. There was some, but not conclusive, evidence that, in recent practice, this period was lessening.
  • Most of the time taken was in the stages of the process for which social services had lead responsibility, principally the decision to pursue adoption as the plan for a child. There were also problems with the legal services provided to Health and Social Services Trusts.
  • The social workers were very conscious of the complexity of the cases, of the gravity and difficulty of the decision to seek adoption, often against a parent's wishes, and of the level of scrutiny their work would be subject to in court. These worries appeared to contribute much to the delays in decision-making.
  • The children were mostly very young when admitted to care - the average age was 1 year 7 months. Most (80%) were admitted to care because they were being neglected or were in danger of being neglected. Their parents were well known to social services and had multiple problems. Almost 50% of the children's mothers had been in care themselves. Alcohol abuse was a contributory factor in the parent's failure to parent for 64% of the children. Most (74%) of the parents contested the social services' application and this contributed much to the delay. Very few parents were successful in contesting cases in court - 94% of the Freeing Order applications were granted.
  • The study's findings were subject to widespread consultation before the report was finalised, including an all day seminar of invited legal and social services personnel.


  • Various recommendations for consideration by COAC emerged from the review.
  • The Department should introduce adoption standards to NI similar to the National Adoption Standards, which apply to England and Wales, and ensure that Boards and Trusts are adequately resourced to implement these.
  • Health and Social Services Boards and Trusts should ensure that the policies which have been established to promote permanency planning for looked after children are implemented and appropriately monitored and resourced.
  • There should be an increase in resources in and available to child care social work teams. This should include an increase in social work staff, with particular attention being paid to training staff in permanence and adoption work and retaining experienced staff. There is also a need to increase the resources available for assessment of children and families.
  • New adoption legislation should be introduced to bring adoption law into alignment with the Children Order and allow a better balance to be struck between the paramouncy of the child's welfare and the rights of parents in adoption proceedings.
  • Efforts should be made, led by the COAC, to rationalise the current reporting system that demands at least three different, but related, reports for different stages of the Freeing Order process.
  • Continuous efforts should be made to reduce delay in court proceedings. In the period covered by this research, delay in care order proceedings became an area of increasing concern and needs to be addressed urgently. Better case planning for individual cases in the court arena was widely seen as a means of reducing delay. Key elements of case planning that were thought to need further development were consolidating Care Order and Freeing Order proceedings in an increased number of cases and the rationalisation of the use of expert witnesses.
  • Parents contested 74% of freeing applications and lost 94% of the cases they contested. Contested cases are much more expensive in terms of staff, time, money and they take longer to progress than those that proceed with agreement. Alternative means of resolving the conflict that these cases generate should be explored.

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