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LGC OPINION

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The adoption white paper exemplifies the shallowness and inconsistency of government policy. ...
The adoption white paper exemplifies the shallowness and inconsistency of government policy.
It recommends a national register listing children waiting to be adopted and families approved to adopt. It sets out a plan for national standards, and a duty for councils to provide a full package of support services including financial help to adoptive families. None of this is particularly controversial. Nor, these days, is it much of a shock for councils to be warned that those who fall short will lose services.
What is controversial is a target for increasing the number of looked after children adopted by 40% in 2004-5 - 50% if possible. Decisions should be taken on prospective adopters within six months of application. A Plan for Permanence should be agreed for each child within six months of continuous state care.
The paper is the biggest shake-up of adoption for 25 years, according to the Department of Health. The issue has been rumbling on for decades. It picked up when Labour was elected to government, but it really kicked off after last year's publication of the Waterhouse report which detailed serious abuse in children's homes in North Wales.
Prime minister Tony Blair quickly made the populist move of setting up an adoption task force. Unfortunately, the government's plan to 'promote the wider use of adoption', as described in the white paper, is not the simple good it sounds.
Social services practitioners will tell you this goal is a siren song for a number of well-rehearsed reasons. Most of the children who need adoption are no longer babies. They are often traumatised by early experiences and many have special needs. Finding the right family for these kids is not as easy as it is for new-borns.
When seeking a family for life for a child there is no such thing as cutting corners. If this happens placements will, at best, break down - to the immense disappointment of both parties. At worst, children will be abused.
It is striking that a week before the publication of the white paper, Conservative MP Caroline Spelman proposed a private members Bill containing measures almost identical to those in the white paper. Over the last few years Tory MP Julian Brazier and a group of pro-adoption MPs have promulgated a strong anti-council message.
Could the two parties be competing? When adoption becomes a political football something is wrong.
The white paper, if it becomes law in its present form, will put social services departments in an interesting position. They are under unprecedented pressure to clean up their act, set up systems, improve performance, deliver results. They are being monitored like never before through best value, performance assessment frameworks and so on. Yet they are also supposed to calm down, cut rules, and go with the flow on adoption - on pain of death.
In twenty years time events could come full circle with a public inquiry into the suffering of children too hastily placed in unsuitable adoptive homes.
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