Decisions, decisions...

With so many adopters currently available, how should social workers find their way to the right family for each child? Link Maker Chief Executive Andy Leary-May looks at some of the issues.

The adoption sector is in new territory at the moment. While sadly there are still children unable to find a match, overall there is an unprecedented number of adopters available compared to the number of children waiting. New tools for family-finding have emerged which bring some advantages, but which are simply new arenas for human decision-making to take place. Do social workers have the right information, at the right time, to help them?

Prospective adopters can share certain information about themselves such as age, family make-up and matching criteria, as well as describing their strengths and experience. For a full, impartial assessment, a family-finder relies on the report from an adopter's agency. For harder to place children this may not be a problem, but for others there may be hundreds of eligible and interested families to consider. To read a full report (or to speak to a social worker) for all of these families, and to draw a conclusion about how well they might meet a particular child's needs, would take resources beyond those available to most adoption teams.

I have argued in the past for an adopter's report to incorporate a standard 'matching pro-forma', that would give family-finders a brief, specific assessment of the family's ability to meet a range of needs. In this way, when particular qualities are needed, families could realistically be shortlisted based on these important criteria.

Without this at their fingertips, social workers are left with rather more arbitrary factors with which to begin making a selection. And that can be a problem.

A few years ago I co-authored some guides for BAAF designed to help readers consider the potential strengths and vulnerabilities of a particular group of adopters, as distinct from any personal assumptions, beliefs and prejudices they might hold. These guides were around lesbian and gay adoption, and were part of a concerted effort in the sector to challenge prejudices that can cause a whole range of adopters to be inappropriately overlooked, for example around single status or ethnicity. I use the word 'inappropriate' rather than 'unfair' as this isn't just about the rights of adopters, it is about children finding the parents that can meets their needs best.

These factors should not in themselves be a reason not to place a child with an adopter. Families are approved to adopt any child, and if they are assessed to be able to meet a specific child's needs well enough, it doesn't matter what colour they are, or whether they are two men, one woman, or any other combination. Some children can wait a long time for a match, and for these factors to delay a child moving to the right permanent family would be tragic.

This message has been sent loud and clear, and I have heard little argument against it. A more contentious question is whether these factors are appropriate considerations when more than one suitable family is available for a child. This is where it gets tricky, and as with most areas of adoption the answer is not simple, and must be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Consider as an example Sean, a 5 year-old boy who has a particular attachment disorder which presents (amongst other ways) as clever and divisive behavior. This behaviour has contributed to the break-up of a couple whose care Sean was previously in, and it is felt that there are good, evidenced reasons that a single adopter is likely to offer the best chance of a stable placement.

Sean's social worker, Mary, wants to find the best family for Sean. She knows that there are over 2,500 families waiting for a match, and that at least 100 are single adopters prepared to support a 5 year old boy with attachment difficulties. What is the most appropriate way for Mary to begin to select the one family for Sean? She has to make a decision that will have a profound effect on the lives of at least 2 people. She can see all of the families available, and (using Link Maker as an example) there are two main ways in which she can proceed.

First, she can make her own choice of one, or a small number of families that she thinks are right for Sean, and talk to them first. This means that Sean's profile isn't advertised at all (and let's face it, why would we 'advertise' a child unless we have to?). It also minimises the number of adopters experiencing the loss of becoming emotionally attached to Sean's profile, only to be told that a different family was chosen. Might this be the best route?

Alternatively, Mary could list Sean's profile, making it available to a selection of families. All but one of the interested families will end up disappointed, and Mary will need to start cautiously so that she can keep up with the enquiries. But what is an appropriate and practical way to make that selection? What makes a certain group of families 'better' for Sean? Is it those who live closer to where he lives now – perhaps within 30 miles? Or those who are single, and are (in this case) assessed as more likely to result in a stable placement? Is excluding couples from the search at this early point unfair to them? Should they see the profile too, and if so, should they see that there is a preference for single adopters?

The example above could apply to any number of situations, for example where it has been assessed that a specific child's needs are likely to be best met with an adopter of the same ethnicity, or an adopter with, or without, an existing child. There are cases where a same-sex couple might be specifically sought – or a heterosexual couple. While it is hard to imagine good reasons for a preference as to a family's sexuality, I asked a family-finder about one case, and the recommendation of a heterosexual couple had actually been made in a CAMHS assessment. I didn't learn the reason, nor should I have done.

An assumption here is that social workers only conduct family-finding using properly considered and evidenced criteria. In reality of course we are not quite there yet, and personal beliefs do still drive decisions. There is more work to be done. In the meantime, do we withhold tools that allow social workers to be selective in their family-finding, to avoid the risk of misuse? In which case, won't the same families still be overlooked, but in a more covert way, and with greater upset caused? Or do we encourage preferences to be stated openly so that practice can be monitored, and challenged where necessary?

There are many questions, to which I don't claim to know all of the answers. I have had some interesting discussion of the issues with members of the Adoption Leadership Board, the Department for Education, and others. We can all agree on what shouldn't rule an adopter out – I think we need a wider discussion about how families are ruled in for specific children. In both adoption and long-term fostering we need consistent, practical strategies to ensure we can find the right family for each child without delay.

September 2015


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Finding the right match: a survey of adopters' experiences of agency support in the matching process

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