Looked after children wait years for adoption, new study finds

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Looked after children in Scotland can wait years to be adopted, a University of Stirling-led study has found.

Every year, thousands of children in Scotland become looked after – either at home (under a Compulsory Supervision Order) or in foster care, residential placements or with relatives, due to concerns about their welfare.

Academics and researchers from the Universities of Stirling, York, and Lancaster, in collaboration with Adoption and Fostering Alliance (AFA) Scotland, have been tracking the progress of 1,836 children aged five and under, who became looked after in 2012/2013.

The findings of the Permanently Progressing? Building Secure Futures for Children in Scotland study will be presented at a conference at the Stirling Court Hotel today (19 September).

Researchers analysed data sent to the Scottish Government by all 32 local authorities in Scotland, to find out what happened to the children over a four-year period from 2012-2016.

The study found that for children who cannot return home, the process of being adopted takes an average of two to three years. This compared to an average time of nine months away from home, for children reunified with their parents.

The Children Looked After Statistics (CLAS) data showed that in 2012/2013, 1,355 children, aged five and under, were placed with family members, foster carers, or prospective adoptive parents, while 481 were looked after at home with their parents. 

By 2016, of the 1,355 children removed from their parents’ care, 31% were back at home; 11% were placed permanently with other family members; 16% had been adopted; 6% were moving towards adoption; 2% of children were on Permanence Orders; and 2% were no longer looked after, but there was no information on their destination.

A further 32% of children continued to be looked after away from home, and of these, just under half were with family members.

Head and shoulders shot of Dr Helen Whincup
Dr Helen Whincup
Lecturer in Social Work
For those children where adoption is the most appropriate option, there is no evidence that this decision is taken hastily in Scotland.

Lead academic Dr Helen Whincup, from the University of Stirling, said: “What this tells us is that when the child is going home, this happens relatively quickly.  However, despite the Scottish Government’s explicit commitment to early permanence, other routes to secure a child’s care take much longer, even for our youngest children.

“For those children where adoption is the most appropriate option, there is no evidence that this decision is taken hastily in Scotland. In fact, the data shows rather the opposite; it takes approximately two to three years, even for those children who became looked after when they were very young.”

Researchers found that the time taken to make decisions about the 481 children being looked after at home, appeared to be influenced by the Children Hearings System.

The maximum length of time a child can remain on a Compulsory Supervision Order (CSO) at home is one year, at which point a Children Hearings Review has to be held. By analysing the data, the team found a clear spike in the number of children who stopped being looked after at home at, or just before, the 12-month limit.

This suggests to us that in some cases, decision-making as to whether or not children should remain on a CSO may be system-driven rather than entirely needs-driven.

Co-principal investigator Professor Nina Biehal, University of York  

Following a ground-breaking development earlier in the year, researchers were able to link the CLAS data with information collected by Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration (SCRA) on all children who are involved in the Children Hearings process (including most of those children who are looked after both at, and away from, home).

The CLAS data tells us how many children are looked after but not why; linking the two data sets helped us to build a more complete picture of children’s experiences.

Dr Linda Cusworth, Lancaster University 

In addition to analysing CLAS and SCRA data, researchers interviewed a range of people from Reporters to the Children Hearings and social workers, to foster carers and children, and studied the responses on almost 600 questionnaires.

They found that while legal security was important to professionals, carers, and adoptive parents, for most children, reliable day-to-day routines and attuned care-giving was what made a difference to them and helped them feel secure.

Some children told us about early experiences of abuse and neglect, and were also able to tell us what helped them feel secure, including keeping important things from their past safe.

Dr Maggie Grant, Adoption and Fostering Alliance (AFA) Scotland

Researchers are now planning to continue with Phase Two of the longitudinal study, tracking the children’s progress into adolescence and beyond.

Background information

Media enquiries to Rosie Free, Communications Officer, on 01786 466 169 or rosemary.free@stir.ac.uk