Here, Jenny Whittle, Kent County Council’s cabinet member for specialist children’s services, reflects on the work of the department’s adoption service, its ongoing partnership with Coram, and how the crucial work of adopters is valued:
“Kent County Council’s annual Adoption Summit provides the perfect opportunity to look back on the past year and reflect on our achievements and the challenges ahead.
“The room was filled with adoption workers, managers, health workers, voluntary agencies, as well as adopters – all the people who work together to do their best for the children of Kent. We had speakers from academia, the Department of Education, KCC and children’s charity Coram but the highlight of the day was the moving and funny story told by Jonathan, an adopter who shared the journey he and his wife embarked on to get their little girl.
“Stories like his underline the importance of remembering adoption is so much more than statistics and scorecards.
“He, like so many others who have adopted, spoke of the moment they ‘knew’ they had met their child and this is the chemistry which comes when a good match has been made. Our social workers know the importance of this and we know that sometimes, even if it takes a little longer, the right match is crucial and worth the wait.
“This is not to say that we aren’t hugely proud of the improvements we have made to our adoption service in partnership with Coram which has seen a massive increase in children placed in permanent homes and the numbers of adopters recruited. In the first eight months of this year, 110 children have been placed in adoptive homes compared to 68 for the whole of 2011/2. The number of adopters approved since April this year is 115, compared to 67 for the whole of 2011/2. We have also reduced the time it takes to adopt which is something adoptive parents tell us is really important.
‘Coram helped us keep absolute focus’
“These improvements are very significant and they have been achieved with the help of our unique two-year partnership with leading children’s charity Coram. This support, the sharing of ideas and expertise, has been crucial to our successes and I think other councils could learn from what we have achieved. Coram has helped us by keeping an absolute focus on performance and doing everything we can to find homes for children. The partnership has been so successful we have agreed to extend it for a further year to help us build on the strong foundations we have already established.
“This partnership also led to the decision to hold our first ever adoption activity day and one of the first held in the UK since the 1980s. I, like many others, met this idea with trepidation as some considered it distasteful – it has been described as ‘ebay for children’. We did a lot of research and put careful consideration into how we would prepare both children and adopters before deciding to go ahead with the day.
“I admit I was nervous when I arrived at the pirate-themed event on a baking hot day in July this year. Walking in to the grounds which had been set up with games, crafts and sports, seeing adults wandering round with eye patches and parrots on their shoulders and watching the children running around shrieking with laughter, you could have been at any sort of summer fete. So many people have told us they were impressed by how prepared the children were and how relaxed the day was.
“Most importantly, however, of the 54 children who came along, 16 have now been matched with families and 11 of those are already living with their adoptive parents. Without this day, these children could still be waiting for a family. They are now in stable homes and they are facing much brighter futures. This is what we want for all the children waiting to be adopted and why it is crucial to do everything we can to find them families.
“I think back to my late mother’s experience in care, of multiple breakdowns in foster placements and several placements in children’s homes. If her local authority had worked harder to find her an adoptive family in her early childhood, I often think that the sense of rejection she always felt as a result of her traumatic upbringing could have been avoided.
“There are still significant challenges nationwide in adoption, in particular delays caused by the court process. We have improved our relationship with the local judiciary and we are working with them to speed up this process but this remains an issue when trying to place children more quickly. We are trying to tackle this ourselves by starting to look for potential parents for a child as soon as the decision that they should be adopted is made, rather than waiting for a court order.
“Looking to the future, our priorities for the year ahead are not just to increase the number of adopters we recruit but making sure we recruit from a wide range of backgrounds to meet the needs of children waiting for homes. In particular, older children, sibling groups, disabled children and those from black and ethnic minority backgrounds. We already have a wide range of post-adoption support services but we will continue to improve them to make sure parents can always get the help they need.
“People turn to adoption for all sorts of reasons and when they have a child placed with them, they really do make a difference to that young person’s chances in life. At the summit we heard the story of 17-year-old Megan who was adopted at just four months old. She is content and secure, she loves her parents to bits and, thanks to the support of her family and her own hard work, she is studying to fulfil her dream to care for animals.
“But any adopter will tell you that their child has also changed their life in ways they never dreamed possible. The personal stories of adopters are very powerful and when they tell you their experiences, warts and all, what remains is the fact that the love for their child is as strong as any birth parent and they feel just like any other family.”