I recently saw a report on another Family Court hearing where the Judge had taken the LA to task and, in this case, had overturned a placement order on appeal. The Judge ruled that the LA had not made a sufficient case for adoption for the child, and said that adoption should be a "last resort" and only considered "when nothing else will do". Those who follow these things will recognise these phrases from other, earlier judgements.
I'm not going to comment on the circumstances of that case because I don't fully know about them - for all I know, the Judge made absolutely the right decision.
But I really hate the phrase "when nothing else will do." I hate it because there's nearly always something that will "do". If we search hard enough, wait long enough, we're bound to find a vaguely suitable relative, however distant, however non-existent their relationship has been with the child previously. Or there's long term foster care. Or there are residential homes. There are any number of places we could put a child and say "That'll do" if we're really treating adoption as a "last resort".
I hate it because "that'll do" isn't good enough for children who have already been terribly let down. I hate it because I think the phrase should be "when it's in the best interests of the child". For some children, kinship care, SGOs, long-term fostering, residential homes or other non-adoption permanence plans really are the best option for their circumstances. For others, adoption is their best option, sometimes even when these other options are available.
Yes, I really did just say that for some children, adoption might still be in their best interests even if a kinship care option is available. I realise that this is controversial and many will strongly disagree. I am not against kinship care at all, and have seen many successful outcomes for children cared for by family members, but kinship care is not a panacea.
Too often I have seen and heard of cases where children are left on a Residence Order, or similar, with relatives who have been barely vetted and whose main qualification is willingness. Willingness is important, but re-parenting a neglected or abused child will test many an adoptive parent or foster carer to the limit, and at least they are coming to the situation after a serious vetting and preparation process and, hopefully, some decent training.
Bearing this in mind, what support will be offered to the kinship carers? What training? What financial help? If the children need therapeutic input or specialist services, who will be responsible for arranging and paying for that? Again, I have seen some examples of very bad practice with families left with nobody to turn to.
What contact will the child have with birth parents? Who will manage this? Will the child be plagued throughout their childhood by inappropriate and unhelpful interference from birth parents who, while not being in a position to parent their children, can still undermine their carers and unsettle them from a distance? What if there has been physical or sexual abuse that has yet to be disclosed? Will managing all of this tear wider families apart through divided loyalties? When carers are presented with a relative's child or children and told that if they don't take them they will be adopted and they'll never see the children again, and then given a week to think it over, is anyone really helping them think through the ramifications for themselves and their wider families?
What if the carer's circumstances change? My own son's birth mum's kinship care placement broke down after her relative got married. She had been there for eight years, and suddenly she was thrown back into the foster care system. It was disastrous for her.
And what about long-term foster care? I spoke to a foster carer the other day who'd had a long-term placement break down recently. He was devastated. He had been begging his LA for support for months and nothing had been forthcoming. Eventually, after the child had lit over 60 fires in the family home, the LA 'solved' the problem by removing the child to another placement.
There are kinship carers out there doing an absolutely fantastic job of raising their relative's children under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. I take my hat off to them because they are often doing this without even the support that an adoptive parent would get, and we know that post-adoption support is often woefully inadequate. I know long-term foster carers, too, who are totally committed to the children they care for, making them fully part of the family and pouring themselves out on their children's behalf. I can't emphasise enough that I am not dismissing kinship care, or any other form or long-term permanency plan.
But, the decision on a long-term plan for a child must, must, must be based on the best estimate of what will be in that individual child's best interests, in their individual circumstances, both now and in the future. It must not be based on a tick sheet, on speed, or on finances because, yes, it is quicker and cheaper to drop children off at a relative's house and drive off into the sunset without a backward glance or any promise of material support, but that's hardly the point is it?
Adoption: not a last resort, when nobody can find anything else that "will do", but a valid option where it is in the best interests of the child.