Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Adopting the wrong measures

This week, the coalition government has announced that councils are to be issued with score cards to measure how quickly they place children for adoption. Councils that fail to speed up adoption processes will be punished. The scorecards will track how long it takes local authorities to find kids a care home.

The overall aim – to try to ensure that children, often damaged by their life experience to date, find a new home in a caring and committed family – is surely unobjectionable. But, the government’s use of a single primary target – time taken – provides a very real danger of substituting speed for quality and appropriateness.

Isn’t this the same government which railed against, and then removed, the maximum 18 week targets for hospital in-patient treatment on the grounds that the target distorted good health services? Of course, since those targets were removed, the number of people waiting longer has shot up, nationally and locally.

Although, generally, a shorter time for treatment or adoption is a good thing, that does not always apply to the specific case. I well remember a GP telling me to be wary of the surgeon with the shortest waiting-list; he was likely to be the one who GPs suspected – evidence-based or otherwise – of producing the least satisfactory outcomes for patients and, therefore, was receiving the least referrals.

Children in care and adopters are not commodities to be processed as quickly as possible. The focus has to be on the quality of adoption rather than speed. Of course, time is one element, but quality of long-term success is far more important. Just think about the pressure that councils will now be under to place individual children rather than placing siblings together. I can already see the next set of headlines “Government target forces family break-up. Council told to ensure adoption of siblings in different families, rather than take an extra month to keep them all together.”

There are already five times more children waiting for adoption than there are adopters. The law currently requires 140 pages of assessments and many delays arise, not because of a council’s performance but because of lengthy court delays. There must be a determined attempt to identify and remove any systemic barriers. And, of course, sometimes adoption is not the right answer.

Adoption must be driven by what’s right for the child, not what’s the whim of a government minister.