On 15 January, the Adoption and Special Guardianship Leadership Board published the first data on adoption during the Covid-19 pandemic (downloadable here). The data, which covers 1 April to 30 September 2020, confirmed a number of trends that were both reflected in prior data publications and also relayed to CVAA anecdotally by our members. In this post, we’ll explore some of what the data tells us, and consider what to look for in the data going forward.

There continues to be a decline in the children being considered for adoption. This is translating to fewer children matched and placed, and there has been a sharp decrease in placement orders and adoption orders.

As expected, there has been a continued decline in decisions for adoption (also known as ADMs) and placement orders in the first two quarters of 2020/21. This trend has been evident since at least 2017/18, with adoption being considered for fewer children each year. While fewer children were matched and placed in the first six months of this year than in previous years, those declines haven’t been quite as sharp as the drop in placement orders and adoption orders, which may speak to increased delays in the courts alongside creative practice within agencies to keep plans and children moving.

 

  • There were 1,740 ADM decision, a decrease of 17% (350n) from Q1-2 2019/20
  • 1,180 POs were granted, a decrease of 32% (550n) from Q1-2 2019/20
  • There were 1,500 children matched with an adoptive family, a decrease of 12% (200n) from Q1-2 2019/20
  • 1,490 children were placed with an adoptive family, a decrease of 14% (250n) from Q1-2 2019/20
  • There were 1,110 AOs granted, a decrease of 37% (660n) from Q1-2 2019/20

Over the next 6-12 months, we will want to keep an eye on whether the number of placement orders and adoption orders increases from this new low, which is what we would expect if these 30+% declines have been caused by pandemic-induced court delays.

For the moment, however, these sharp drops beg the question – where are these children? The drop in ADM decisions over this six-month period (-17%)  is about half of the drop in placement orders (-32%) and adoption orders (-37%). Are children lingering in foster placements as they wait for placement orders to be granted? Are children who are already in their adoptive placements waiting much longer than usual for adoption hearings? This is the kind of analysis that we would like to see from the ASGLB.

 We can see that the number of children leaving care under Special Guardianship Orders has held steady.

There were 2,000 SGOs granted in the first two quarters of the year, accounting for 48% of the total for 2019/20. In other words, almost the same number of SGOs were made during this six-month period in 2019 and 2020.

This is interesting given the sharp drop in placement and adoption orders, and merits further exploration. It may be that a similar number of children had a plan for special guardianship and the courts have given these hearings more attention than adoption – or, perhaps more likely, it may be that a higher number of children than in previous years have a plan for special guardianship, but pandemic-related delays in the courts have only allowed a fraction of those hearings to be completed. The latter is more likely because SGOs have been increasing every year since 2017/18, and we would expect to see that trend continue in 2020/21.

With both placement/adoption orders and SGOs, we may see an increase in hearings being completed over the next 12-18 months as pandemic- and workload-related delays in the courts work through – and this might indicate that the pandemic introduced egregiously long delays for far too many children.

Fewer children are waiting to be matched, but those who are waiting have been waiting longer.

We are heartened to see that the number of children waiting with a placement order but not yet matched (often referred to as ‘children waiting’, for brevity) continues to decline. However, the total number of children waiting longer than 18 months since entering care has surpassed the number of children waiting fewer than 18 months. The children who wait the longest are increasingly lingering in the system.

Average waiting times also continue to increase, and have done since around March 2017. Although fewer children are waiting, those who wait are waiting much longer.

  • There were 2,030 children with a PO waiting to be matched at the end of Q2, a decrease of 24% (630n) from Q2 2019/20
  • 1,050 children with a PO had been waiting 18+ months since entering care at the end of Q2, a decrease of 5% (60n) from Q2 2019/20
  • 52% of children with a PO have been waiting to be matched 18+ months at the end of Q2, an increase of 10% from Q2 2019/20
  • The average number of days spent waiting to be placed with a PO since entering care was 647 days at the end of Q2, an increase of 77 days from Q2 2019/20 and an increase of 35 days from Q4 2019/20

While RAAs seem to be achieving timelier placements for a growing number of children, the increase in waiting times for children who have already waited far too long tells us that the system as it currently exists is not meeting these children’s needs. It should be the urgent priority of all those working in adoption to change the approach for the children who wait the longest.

Children with ‘harder to place’ characteristics are still overrepresented amongst children who wait the longest.

Describing children as ‘harder to place’ is unhelpful in its implication that somehow this is down to the child, rather than a failure of the system to find them a family. However, ASGLB data uses the phrase ‘children with “harder to place” characteristics”, which means: aged 5 or older, part of a sibling group, with a disability, and/or Black, Asian, or minority ethnic.

The proportion of children with ‘harder to place’ characteristics who are waiting for adoptive families continues to grow. Not only do these children make up an increasing cohort of all children waiting, but they are also overrepresented amongst children who have been waiting 18 months or more. We can see below that the overall number of children waiting with ‘harder to place’ characteristics has decreased in recent years, but the proportion of these children who wait the longest has increased every year since 2017/18.

  • There were 1,320 children with ‘harder to place’ characteristics waiting at the end of Q2 2020/21, making up 65% of all children waiting.
  • 800 children with ‘harder to place’ characteristics had been waiting 18+ months at the end of Q2 2020/21, making up 76% of all children waiting 18+ months

 Adopter recruitment increased during the first six months of the pandemic.

After an initial few weeks of anxiety at the start of the pandemic, we began to hear from VAAs that more people than ever were enquiring about becoming adoptive parents. Agencies felt that the pandemic was giving people time and cause to reflect on their fundamental values, and that many people were resolving to take action on big dreams that they might have been putting off.

This anecdotal intelligence has been borne out in the data: VAAs registered and approved more adopters in the first half of 2020 than in the same time period in each of the previous three years!

Across voluntary and statutory agencies, there has been a large increase in the number of prospective adopters currently going through the approval process. We hope to see this translate to not only an ongoing decrease in the number of children waiting over the next 12-18 months, but specifically a drop in the number of children waiting longer than 18 months and the number of children waiting with ‘harder to place’ characteristics. A numerical increase in adoptive families is sure to benefit some children, but we will have to wait and see whether the adopters currently going through the process are the right people to meet the needs of the children waiting the longest.

  • There were 2,330 registrations of interest across the adoption system, an increase of 19% (370n) from Q2 2019/20
  • 1,450 adoptive families were approved, an increase of 1% (10n) from Q2 2019/20
  • There were 3,110 prospective adoptive families not yet approved at the end of Q2, an increase of 20% (520n) from Q2 2019/20

It undoubtedly benefits children for there to be choice in the system, with many different families available to meet children’s needs. However, the continued decline in children with a plan for adoption, combined with the dramatic increase in adopters coming forward, will need to be considered carefully by individual agencies as well as by the National Adopter Recruitment Steering Group.