Adoption, Agencies and Costs

Children in Jerusalem.

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This week is the so-called ‘National Adoption Week’ where press focus switches towards the promotion of adoption. It’s an area I don’t really have any experience of but there are a story milling around in the press gave me pause for thought.

It emerged from the Independent on Sunday. The Leader headline ‘The shame in our adoption failures’ highlights the plight of children who are waiting for permanent homes, currently languishing in temporary foster care due to the local authorities’ reluctance to use agencies to find placements.

The companion article in the Independent starts with the slightly galling statement that

Hundreds of vulnerable children are stuck in foster care because local authorities are short of cash and begrudge paying adoption agencies to place youngsters with families.

Begrudge’ is quite a weighted term here. Maybe unable to actually afford the costs could be considered as well. Agencies make a lot of money through recruiting for adoption and fostering services remember. Remember the lessons learnt through contracting out services in adult care. Private and profit-making does not always equal good.

The Independent produces some scathing quotes, and to be honest, any child who suffers as a result of these processes is one child too many but all the quotations in the article come from these self same agencies or representatives of them.

For example

Satwinder Sandhu, director of adoption and fostering at the Pact agency, said some social workers wrongly thought the agencies were making money out of adoption, which was holding back adoptions. “Annual budgets do not work for adoption,” he said. “If the money were ring-fenced and local authorities worked in partnership with particular agencies, it would allow everyone to think more long term, and we could make sure the right families were being recruited for the children coming through the care system.”

Now, having never worked in an adoption team, I don’t know but I doubt it is the individual social workers who make such high budgetary commitments as to whether to place a child through their own adoption service or through an agency. Yes, I’m sure some social workers are wrong in their assumptions, but there is no refutation to that position in the rest of the response – just the obvious fact that a placement is cheaper and better than the alternative. To be brutally honest, I am one of those social workers who thinks that agencies make money out of adoption. Please prove me wrong.

Christine Smith from CVAA said: “Adoption makes economic, emotional and social sense. We want to get to a position when we are working in conjunction with local authorities to find the best family for the child, as quickly as possible, and cost doesn’t come into the equation. All we are asking for is a level playing field; for local authorities to recognise that working with us will not cost more, but will actually save money in the long term, especially because we are good at recruiting families able to take more complex children.”

It’s hard to refute this statement. Of course the children and their wellbeing has to remain at the heart of the issue and there is the plea that ‘the cost doesn’t come into the equation’ but that’s a little shallow when the initial costs are higher than the local authorities can provide. A happily adopted and settled child is ‘cheaper’ for both financial and social reasons than an unhappy, displaced child but the argument doesn’t explain why an agency is better than an in-house adoption although perhaps having access to more or different families might be a reason.

I live in an idealistic world where people don’t  make profit from children but that’s just me. This is exactly the reason I actively choose to foster through my own local authority. I think it is important that the links are retained and although I know I could get higher fees through countless foster care agencies that seem to be relentlessly touting for business promising ever  higher fees,  for me support and local links are much more important. Every child that we have fostered has been able to continue attending their own school.  I also don’t like the idea of gouging the local authority of much-needed cash to allow a private agency to profit from that child’s difficult situation, but I do realise that is not the way the world works and that adoption and fostering is big business for agencies.

I wonder if the Independent considered a more balanced article involving comments or remarks from local authorities about their lack of enthusiasm for the use of agencies. That is my concern with the piece. It just plays out like a whine from some agencies that they aren’t getting enough business as local authorities are increasingly pushed for money.

Maybe appealing to central government for ring-fenced funding rather than to the pig-headedness of stubborn social workers would do them better as a means of campaigning.

We, in adult services,  have seen the impact of privatisation in our sector and it is not a pretty sight. Yes, there are good providers and costs have been driven down by block contracting but the cost has been too high regarding general overall quality. We have seen the future and it doesn’t work.

I feel uncomfortable about profit-making in the health and social care sectors  but this is the way we are being pushed and articles like this which are inflammatory and do not balance the point against the positives of in-house local authority adoption services are hastening the end of those in-house services that at least are able to provide a little more consistency across the board.

The Independent Leader closes with

Anything should be tried in the drive to raise standards not only of social workers but of social work management, so that a sense of urgency can be transmitted to the front line of arranging adoptions.

Which brings us back to the quality of social workers being questioned. Again. As if the lack of use of these agencies is somehow due to the incompetence of individual social workers or social work management rather than higher level organisational decisions made to reduce costs which take place in the broader umbrella of ‘childrens’ services’ possibly by managers who have no connection whatsoever with social work.

My own answer would be to halt the privatisation of adoption and fostering agencies and bring all the services in house including specialist teams that could do the work of these agencies at lower cost because the profit-making element could be removed.

I fear the absolute opposite will happen and soon, it will only be the private agencies that are an option. Contracting out seems to be in vogue at the moment but it is not only more expensive in the long run for many reasons not least because ‘profit’ has to be accounted for but it does not necessarily lead to a better service.

I’d be really interested in people who do work in the sector to share their experiences of working with these agencies though.

P.S Thanks to fluffosaur who inspired me!

4 thoughts on “Adoption, Agencies and Costs

  1. Would somebody care to define “ring fenced”? It is not a term used in Canadian politics so I am completely unaware of its meaning. Help Please!

  2. Hi Carolyn
    Ring-fenced is when money is, for example, given to a local authority from central government for a particular purpose and it can’t be spent on anything else so they might get £2 million to spend only on childrens’ services. If they don’t spend the ring fenced money, they lose it.
    When the money is not ring fenced, it can go on whatever the council need, whether bin collection, adult social care , childrens’ services or salaries of chief executives…. so when the money is not ring fenced, it often goes all over the place!

  3. I am Satwinder Sandhu as quoted in this blog from the interview in The Independent on Sunday. I manage Adoption & Permanence Services for PACT. We are a charity / not-for-profit organisation in the UK. I completely agree with the author that there are lots of agencies making profits from offering fostering services but I am not aware of any adoption agencies in that position.

    Previous to this post I was adoption team manager for a London borough so I feel I have a good overview of why there are delays for children waiting for adoption and what could be done to improve this. It is a fact that all local authorities are stretched when it comes to finance and budgets but the problem is annual budgets do not work when it comes to adoption and fostering because the cost of a child’s care experience does not neatly fit into one fiscal year.

    We and other CVAA memebers have families waiting for children but they don’t get used because the local authority have to pay a fee. At present it is between £20-25k per child. The fee to another local authoirty is half that amount but research by Julie Selwyn last year showed the true cost to a local authority or voluntary agency to have a child adopted was in the region of £35k. Unless your adoption service is well managed and has resources to draw upon you will end up making a loss on such work.

    My experience is that Social Workers do not always understand the long term needs of children who need adoption and they are too keen to place their own values on the child and family they seek. I know this because I see it and hear it all the time. This of course does not account for all the delays and there are many children being placed with families assessed by local authorities and voluntary agencies. Just not enough children and certainly not quickly enough.

    Like most specialist areas of work adoption and fostering a complex and voluntary adoption agencies have been leaders in developing initiatives and practice. Local authorities are being pushed to place children of BME heritage quickly and to consider white families. Our experience shows that if you work with communities directly and have a diverse staff group you can recruit BME carers. We can offer greater support which is critical to the success of adoption and because we have autonomy and expertise we can tailor this support to fit each family. Recruiting BME families and excellent support are two common traits in the voluntary adoption agency sector and two of the reasons we attract applicants over local authorities. I cannot speak for all voluntary adoption agencies but certainly at PACT our aim is to support applicants through the process and once they have a child to ensure success.

    Clearly the media are never going to be in a position to offer a truly balanced view of the realities in social care and our field of work. Local authrities and other organisations are full of unsung heroes who quietly get on with their work and make a real difference to the lives of many. However, media, the web and blogs such as this can generate debate, raise awareness and contribute to the wider agenda so it is important we all make use of that to champion our causes. PACT have been around for nearly 100 years and I hope to contribute to us being around for the next 100 too.

  4. Thanks a lot for coming back with that, and I know I sounded harsh. I have to say I come from the point of not working in childrens’ services and my main knowledge is that I am actually a foster carer myself but I accept there are ranges of different agencies and my fear remains in the more profit-making ventures rather than third sector. I maintain that few costing decisions are made purely by social workers and it is a matter of commissioning processes but the article seems to imply it is down to personal decisions of intransigent social workers.
    At the end, I dearly hope that children get a better service from everyone and we don’t need to position ourselves into separate ‘camps’

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