THE idea of would-be adopters also providing foster care while social workers are working intensively to return a child to his or her birth parents might seem fraught with difficulty, especially when it’s applied to new borns and children under two.
Will the foster carers be able to part with the baby they have loved and hoped to adopt? Will the birth parents see the move as a presumption that their child will be taken away permanently before they have been given a chance to turn things around?
The reality is very different. What’s known as concurrency planning is beginning to creep into Scotland, with a handful of local authorities trying it, or something similar. But, the approach has already been used for a number of years in England, and has proved to be a potent means of achieving permanent, stable homes and futures for the youngest looked after children.
I work with local authorities and their partners to improve outcomes for looked-after children, by helping them to gather and interpret evidence about what they need to change.
The number of women who are vulnerable during pregnancy and may be unable to look after their child is a grave concern. Outcomes for children under the age of two who have to be removed from their birth parents can be very poor because they are doubly vulnerable, from the impact of being removed and possibly moved again after that, and from the harm they can suffer in utero,all in a period when hugely important brain development is happening.
It is vital that local authorities get to grips with the problem early on, providing really good services to women who are vulnerable in pregnancy and to mums and dads who are looking after very young children, to secure better outcomes for children.
The birth family is given intensive support to change and address the problems that have led to the child being removed, with a clear, determined focus on returning the child back to their care. A time limit - usually three months - is put on this process. The concurrency carers play a prominent role in achieving this timescale. They should live within 20 miles of the birth parents, and they take the child to contact sessions every week, meeting and engaging with the birth parents, telling the birth parents how the child is doing and giving them pointers, if they can, about the child’s needs and how to deal with them. The birth parents also get a session with social workers to address their own problems each week.
At the same time, the blunt truth is that many children who are removed from families, at or around birth, can’t be returned to them, and reducing the number of placements those children go through, and the damage this uncertainty does, is essential.
Finding people who will sign up for this has proved far easier than expected: they are adopters who want very young babies (and the number of very young babies who are adopted is relatively small) so concurrency planning gives carers the chance to care for a baby from birth. In England, the adoption agency Coram found that, of 57 children put into concurrency placements, 54 didn’t go home. Importantly, the three that did go home were still at home 2 years later, without any of the all-too-common yo-yoing in and out of care.
The research tells us that birth parents really welcome concurrency planning and that prospective adopters really value this approach too. They value the chance to get to know the birth parents. That relationship allows them to carry the story of the child, so that when the child is older, they are able to say: 'I knew your mum, and she said she cared about you', which is a gap we often see at the moment.
And it reduces to zero the number of placement moves the child experiences; from day one the child is building the attachment relationship with potential adopters.
There are knock-on effects, too, according to research in England. Even where parents haven’t had their children returned to their care, they want children to remain with the concurrency carers because they know them and have had the chance to build a positive relationship with them.
The birth parents also often go on to have fewer children, because in the period of time-limited intensive assessment, they receive effective support to deal with their trauma and to look at their own parenting issues.
I am working hard to promote the model, and there is clear evidence that it can be hugely beneficial, but only one local authority in Scotland has bought into it completely so far. This local authority is hoping to secure its first formal concurrency placement soon. Others have focused on rapid assessments of birth parents or finding dual-role adopters/fosterers, but not taken on the model in its entirety. So what are the obstacles to concurrency planning?
There is the idea, not supported by research, that people think you are in some way pre-empting the decision of the court by placing children with people who want to adopt them - that it’s almost a foregone conclusion.
But in fact, the opposite is true, because it’s an incredibly transparent process. Birth parents have to agree to it, and because the focus is actually on getting children home, they can see that it is absolutely not a foregone conclusion.
There’s also the potential problem that social work staff don’t want to upset pregnant women by having that difficult conversation about the process of adoption if children don’t return to their care. However, this has to be done to ensure the best long-term outcomes for children.
People who recruit carers often don’t believe that there are people out there who really want to adopt a baby, but would also be prepared to support their return back to their birth parents’ care. But research says that’s not a problem. We have a third-sector adoption agency on the east coast that is now doing concurrency planning and it doesn’t have a problem recruiting prospective concurrency carers. The main ingredient for success is a belief in concurrency planning, and the recognition of the benefits for children.
If the assessment fails, it will derail concurrency planning. The opportunity for concurrent carers to have a baby placed with them and, if they are adopted, for them to adopted within a year is very attractive because it means there is no long drawn-out court process threatening to disrupt the placement, as there can be even in conventional adoption.
And of course, one argument that can help persuade local authorities to try concurrency planning is that reducing the number of children who are looked after and accommodated over the longer term, as concurrency planning does, actually costs less.
Next steps? It’s about trying to create a guiding coalition of senior leaders who get it and are willing to buy into it: It’s a lot of work - and system change within big local authorities is hard - but it’s worth it.