I write on behalf of We are Family, an adoption support community and registered charity, to share with you our views on your early plans for the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care (the Review) and to offer you our support in gathering insights to inform the review and shaping your recommendations.
We Are Family is a peer-to-peer support community by adopters, for adopters. We’re there for families throughout their adoption journey. Online and in person, our parents’ groups, events, resources and talks offer mutual support, information and inspiration to adopters and those considering adoption.
We believe that by coming together, sharing our experience and understanding, we can help each other to thrive. Founded and led by adoptive parents, We Are Family reflects and responds to its members, helping them navigate the challenges and joys that adoption brings. Through its 750-strong membership, We Are Family is well-placed to provide you with insights from adoptive families who have experienced, or are currently experiencing, children’s services.
By way of an overview, the key points which we ask you and the Review team to consider, and in relation to which We Are Family stands ready to provide insights from our members, are:
- The need for ‘support’ to be included alongside ‘safety, stability and love’ as a key priority of the review, in recognition that looked after, and previously looked after, children have often had adverse childhood experiences which, without therapeutic intervention and other forms of support can significantly hinder later life chances and create additional costs to the public purse.
- The importance of including adoption, and the lived experiences of adopted children and their families, within the scope of the Review in order to truly achieve the “whole-system approach” to which you have committed.
- The role which communities like We are Family plays in the lives of looked-after and previously looked-after children and their families and the extent to which increased Government support for this model could feature in the Review’s recommendations, not only in relation to adoptive families but across the whole social care system.
- Safety, stability and love is not enough
While we welcome the focus of the review on these important factors, the lack of which has such negative impact on children in care, we encourage the review to include ‘support’ as an additional key priority. There is ample evidence to demonstrate that there is a higher prevalence of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) among looked after children which can, and often do, have significant and long-lasting impact on their later life experiences. Of the children who were looked after on 31st March 2020, 65% had experienced abuse or neglect, with 14% having experienced family dysfunction, and 8% came from families experiencing acute stress.
The adoptive community that We are Family represents is all too aware that even with the most loving, stable and safe family home, the challenges that those ACEs create can impact not only on the success of the adoption placement, but also the lifelong experiences of the care-experienced child. Indeed, recent research conducted by the National Institute for Health Research confirmed that adopted children can experience lasting mental health problems with no improvement seen in their mental health for years after being adopted, highlighting the importance of effective strategies to support adopted children after they are placed with their adoptive families.
There are support options available to adopted children and their families to reduce the impact which ACEs have and provide adopted children with opportunities to flourish in ways they might otherwise be prevented by their past experiences from doing. The Adoption Support Fund currently exists to address this, and as such, could provide a valuable source of data about the sorts of issues that children present with following adoption. This information would no doubt be instructive for your thinking about the care system as a whole, and demonstrative of need to remember that love is very often not enough to ‘heal’ the wounds of the early childhood experiences which looked after children and previously looked after children have so often experienced. We would particularly welcome the Review’s consideration of the future of the Adoption Support Fund which currently remains uncertain, and how the continued funding of post-adoption support can better meet the diverse, complex and multi-faceted needs of adopted children and their adoptive families.
In order for any ‘support’ provided to looked after, and previously looked after, children to be effective, a holistic approach is required, involving coordination between key government departments (eg. Education and Health) who provide services to our children alongside social care services, as well as with private providers of therapeutic support. We would welcome the Review’s consideration of what improvements could be made here. A particular concern of our members is that there is still a long way to go before schools, for example, fully understand and adequately respond to the needs of care-experienced children and we recommend that this should be a key part of the Review’s recommendations.
The ability of the social care system, and associated provision for young people, to provide much-needed ongoing support to these young people, throughout their childhood as they transition into adulthood, would not only improve their life chances but would almost certainly result in savings to the public purse in other areas – such as mental health provision and the criminal justice system (in both of which we know looked after and previously looked after young people are over-represented). We would recommend that the Review should consider what packages of support need to be in place for looked after children (whether remaining with birth families or in the care system) and formerly looked after children, to enable them to flourish and to avoid further costs to the public purse.
- Adopted children must be part of the review
We are of the strong view that adopted children, and the social care services with which they and their adoptive families engage both pre- and post- adoption, should form part of the Review. The original terms of reference suggest that their inclusion was still under consideration, and we are not clear from your latest statement whether a decision on this has been reached. We are encouraged to note that events have been scheduled for 23rd and 30th April to which adoptive parents have been invited in order to share their experiences, but we would welcome clarification on the extent to which the Review will consider and make recommendations relevant to adoption and the experiences of children after they have been adopted.
The inclusion of adopted children in the scope of the Review is important for the following reasons:
- Adopted children are necessarily care-experienced and, along with their families, are therefore able to provide valuable insights from lived experience into the long-term impacts of different care journeys, even when safety, stability and love are provided.
- Some children placed for adoption remain ‘looked after’ for some time while waiting for an adoption order to be granted; they therefore remain part of the social care system and should therefore be included in the review on that basis.
- There are other examples of where ‘looked after’ and ‘formerly looked after’ children are rightly treated similarly, particularly in the area of education. For example, adopted children, as previously looked-after children, are entitled to the same priority school places as looked-after children.
- Even following the grant of an adoption order, adopted children still have interaction with the social care system, for example through engagement with post-adoption support teams. These teams are responsible for making ASF applications (to which we refer above) on behalf or adopted children and for managing the contact arrangements with birth families and a review of their effectiveness would be welcome at this stage given the relatively recent creation of Regional Adoption Agencies.
- Some adopted children may ultimately return into the social care system, either temporarily (under a Section 20 agreement) or permanently, following the breakdown of an adoption.
- Adoption won’t be the ‘solution’ that is so often seen to be if the system washes its hands of children once adopted, and fails to provide adequate ongoing and therapeutic support, with adoption breakdowns a key risk to be managed and impact of negative adoption experiences on ability to recruit adopters to sustain the ‘solution’.
- The question of recruitment, selection and support for adoptive parents is a key one for the Review to consider. While a focus on ‘stability, support and love’ means that maintaining a steady flow of approved adopters able to be a forever family for certain children in the care system should be a priority, so should consideration of what the right level of scrutiny of and training and support for such parents is necessary to ensure that adoptions have the best chance of success and the risk of adoption breakdowns is minimised.
- Many of the issues you’ve highlighted as priorities for the Review – including SEND Provision, interaction with the criminal justice system, and racial disparities – are just as relevant for adopted children and their adoptive families as for those who remain in the care system.
For all of the reasons above, it is our strong belief that the Review will be unable to take the “whole system approach” to which it has committed without taking adoption, and the experiences of adopted children, into account.
- Communities likes ours can help
We welcome your recognition of the important role that informal communities of support can play in the lives of looked-after, and previously looked-after, children, as this it was in recognition of the value of such communities that We are Family was established. In response to a recent survey, the majority of our members confirmed that they feel better equipped to parent their children as a result of their membership of We are Family, which enables them to talk to people who understand the challenges of adoptive parenting. A quarter of those responding to our survey said that their mental wellbeing had improved as a result of their membership of We are family. We hope to have the opportunity to tell you more about the We are Family model of peer support which we hope will be of interest to the review as demonstrative of how Government could leverage potential of such communities, not only to improve the experiences of adopted children, but also in other parts of the system, such as for birth parents, foster carers and Special Guardians.
We are Family would also be interested in discussing with you how we can most usefully tap into the wealth of experience which our community has in order to support the Review in developing recommendations for social care reform which will benefit our members and their families. We have encouraged our members to register for the events for adopters on 23rd and 30th April and would be happy to discuss whether you would be interested in working with us to convene a separate event with our members to gather insights on the issues we have identified above.
I would very much welcome the opportunity to discuss the above points with you and would happily liaise with members of your team to identify a convenient time for a conversation.
Chair, We Are Family