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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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.