The findings from the Social Services Inspectorate were said to be the most damning yet on local authorities, which have presided over a collapse in the number of adoptions to 2,000 a year. This has happened despite determined efforts by both Tory and Labour ministers to ensourage adoption, which research shows is the best way to give stability and hope to abandoned or needy children. At the same time, the number of youngsters living in children's homes or with foster parents, and often being shuffled repeatedly between different carers, has risen to 53,300.
Julian Brazier, Conservative MP for Canterbury, who heads an informal all-party group of MPs on the issue, said: 'This report has exposed a catalogue of failure and gives the lie to anybody who suggests that local authority social services are engaged in the best interests of children. We are talking about the ruin of thousands of children's lives, which could have been rescued had they had an early opportunity to be adopted instead of being lost in the labyrinth of care.
'The one positive thing is that the inspectors have gone out and uncovered this in such a robust manner'.
Often, hopeful adoptive parents were intimidated by the behaviour of local authority social workers. Adoption services were 'variable in quality and often had a low profile within childcare services', said the inspectors. A number of departments did not even have enough information to properly evaluate their adoption work.
The report, which did not name individual authorities, said: 'The quality of their childcare planning and decion-making was uneven. Strategic planning was poor or absent. In many departments, adoption had become a marginalised rather than a mainstream service'. Reviews of services, required by regulation every three years, 'were either not done at all or were not sufficiently well done'. The report condemned this as unacceptable.
It said many councils had no details on children, even those who had been in care for years, to determine if they should be considered for adoption. This left voluntary sector agencies trying to find new homes struggling to gain adequate information. Failure to keep and supply basic information on children in care was again a breach of the law, said the report.
In contrast, the inspectors praised voluntary agencies in their efforts to help children find new families, including projects run by Barnardo's, NCH Action for Children and locally-based societies. Their social workers had much better relationships with both birth parents and would-be adopters. The inspectors urged local authority social services to co-operate much more closely with voluntary agencies.
The Daily Mail feature claimed that Ealing LBC is widely regarded as having the country's worst record on adoption and has been repeatedly condemned by inspectors and ministers for its failings. Figures revealed that in 1997, just one of the authority's 393 children in care was adopted.
Its social services director resigned last year after a damning report warned there was no guarantee that children in council care were safe. Inspectors found that in 1998, Ealing had 416 children in care who had no designated social worker although 94 were 'at risk'.
Even after the resignation, it was found that social services failed to inspect a fifth of council-run children's homes. Inspectors lso found a five-day-old baby had been placed in care and left there for more than a year. The child was visited just twice by social workers and no one had prepared a long-term plan for its future. Critics say many babies and toddlers go on to spend years in care, although council officers protest that adoptive parents only want to take on young children.