Adoption from Care in Northern Ireland: Problems in the Process

Author(s): Greg Kelly and Dominic McSherry
Document Type: Article
Year: 2002
Title of Publication: Child and Family Social Work
Publisher: Blackwell Science Ltd
Place of Publication: Oxford
ISBN: 1356-7500
Vol: 7
Pgs: 297-309
Subject Area(s): Alternative Care, Adoption, Family Life
Client Group(s) : Looked after Children

Abbreviations: NI - Northern Ireland, LAC Review - Last Admission to Care to 'Looked after Child' Review

Background to the Research

  • NI has been slow to embrace the 'permanence' agenda - the belief that children should not spend their childhood in public care but should either be returned to their parents or placed in a permanent substitute family, preferably for adoption.
  • The freeing order provisions in the Adoption (NI) Order allows parents to consent to their children's adoption without undue delay. Other studies have indicated that the freeing order processes are actually prone to long delays. This study aimed to complete a more extensive review of current practice, detailing the timescales involved, the points at which delays occurred, and to provide a vehicle for discussing practical remedies to reduce delay wherever possible.

Research Approach

  • The study population was all the children for whom the adoption panels within the 11 NI Health and Social Service Trusts had recommended freeing order applications between 4 November 1996 and 30 September 2000. All children who were the subject of freeing order adjudication before the courts during this period were also reviewed. 209 children met the criteria, and 200 questionnaires were returned from social workers.
  • Questionnaires were designed so that most of the material could be obtained from the social worker's report to the adoption panel. The NI Guardian ad Litem Agency provided the timescales for the court proceedings. Prior to the preparation of the final report, the findings were shared in a number of seminars with lawyers and social services staff.

Main Findings

  • The children were drawn from all 11 Health and Social Services Trusts.
  • The sample consisted of 47% boys and 53% girls; 46% Catholic and 53% Protestant. The average age of children at last admission to care was 1 year 7 months. Almost 95% of the children were under 5 years old at admission to care, 56% were under a year, and 21% were under a month.
  • Slightly over half of the children had siblings who were also en route through the freeing order processes and in the study population.
  • There was a wide range of legal routes used to admit the children to care, which is related to the implementation of the Children (NI) Order 1995.
  • By the time of referral to the adoption panel, 52% of the children 'accommodated' on admission had been made the subject of care orders. The other 48% were subject to care orders, with 67% of the care orders granted within 6 months and 90% within a year.
  • Less than 20% of the children were admitted to care/became looked after because of actual incidents of physical or sexual abuse. The most common reasons cited are 'inability to parent' and 'neglect'.
  • 52% of the children had three or more moves in care. Only 45% of the sample had completed the move to adoption by the time the questionnaires were completed, with 45% of this number being adopted by their former foster parents. 52% were adopted by Trust adopters. Those adopted by former foster parents had fewer changes of carers.
  • 89% of the children's mothers were known to social services for at least a year prior to the child's last admission to care. 64% were known for longer than 5 years, and 37% were known for longer than 10 years. 86% of fathers were known to social services before the child's admission.
  • Almost 50% of the mothers and 12% of the fathers had been in care themselves. 66% of the mothers were over 22 years old when the child in the sample was born, and only 11% were under 19 years old.
  • 33% of the parents of the children were living together at the time of the adoption panel meeting and just 28% had been or were currently married. Only 31% of the fathers were reported to have parental responsibility. The mothers of the sample children were caring for only 15% of their other children and the fathers for only 2%.
  • The average time from last admission to the LAC review that decided to pursue adoption was 1 year 11 months, which is the longest mean time for a single phase in the whole adoption process. A range of explanations were offered to explain the length of time this phase takes. These fall into three broad categories: the gravity of the decisions; the complexity of the work; and resource issues. Upon reanalysis of the material, it was found that the average time for this phase had reduced steadily over the period of the study.
  • The mean time from LAC review to the adoption panel meeting that first considered the child was 6 months. Social workers commented that delays were associated with intrinsic difficulties in the cases and with the social services agency. The time from the adoption panel meeting to the originating summons was also found to be delayed, again main reasons being the complexity of cases and pressures on social services.
  • The mean time from the issuing of the originating summons to the granting of a freeing order was 6 months. The average timescale from the granting of a freeing order to the granting of an adoption order was 10 months. Overall, the mean time for the whole cohort from last admission to care to adoption order was 4 years 6 months - those children who come into care before their first birthday do not have their final legal status settled until they are in school.


  • There are indications of an improving situation within this cohort.
  • At the final and main consultation/dissemination (held in the form of a workshop chaired by the Family Court Judge) all of the audience were shocked at the extent of delay revealed by the review. Suggestions were made to diminish delays.
  • Delay is confirmed as a serious problem in the freeing order process, with most of the delay in phases that social services have responsibility for.
  • Having to have the court's permission to place a child for adoption may increase significantly the time children spend waiting for an adoption placement. New legislation in NI is being discussed, but is a long way off. The freeing order will remain, for some time, the principal route to adoption for children whose families are not capable of caring for them.
  • This process is not meeting the needs of the children and their new families, mainly due to lengthy delays. Much of this delay can be reduced by a clearer focus on the acute needs of the children.

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