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
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.