Narey Report Part II – Blueprint or Fairy Story?

Once upon a time a long long time ago I wrote a blog post about a report written by Mr Narey. Mr Narey was a naughty man who wanted to take lots of babies away from their mummies. I wrote a story telling all the people about why Mr Narey’s naughty report said lots of things it shouldn’t. But it was such a long story that I had to stop for a little sleep. And although I promised to finish my blog post another day I never did. And now another very important man called Mr Loughton might do all the things that Mr Narey tells him. And all because I forgot to finish my story. Oh dear!

Oh for the love of god I can’t keep it up: And then the wolf gobbled them up. The end.

But seriously, I notice today that the Narey report remains on the agenda, and that the Government, through Mr Loughton, is due to respond shortly and it has prompted me to complete the task begun in July.


Narey Report: A Blueprint for the Nation’s Lost Children – Part II

In part I of this blog post I dealt primarily with the *cough* provenance of the report, and with rigour of the referencing and the source material that Martin Narey relied upon in his report.

I had intended in July to carry out a full and rather detailed analysis of the report. I’m not going to do that now. I’m going to look at things in a rather more broad brush way. The Community Care article referred to above reports Tim Loughton as telling us we have all the ingredients for a “perfect adoption system”. Now that is not Martin Narey’s phrase, but it is a good illustration of the upside down approach to adoption. What can ever be perfect about severing a child’s relationship with her parents and transplanting her with a new family with whom she has no connection? For the record, I’m not anti-adoption and neither do I favour children languishing* in care for years on end, or endorse them remaining in abusive homes – but there is a concerning tendency in some circles to view adoption as a “good thing”, as a success story. And concomitantly, a tendency to see low adoption figures as a failure – when the most recent batch of adoption statistics were published a month or so ago there was a lot of press coverage about the fact that only 60 babies were adopted in year to end Mar 2011 (No mention was made of the 3000 other over 1s who were also adopted or of those who were the subject of placement orders, or who were matched but not yet adopted).

From the perspective of those who wish to have children but who cannot, for whatever reason, become biological parents: of course adoption is a wonderful opportunity for them; although the romanticised picture of adopters taking home a newborn bundle is no longer realistic since the eradication of the social stigma associated with bearing children out of wedlock has radically affected the numbers of so-called “voluntary” adoption and the numbers of babies available for placement. That some blameless couples (or individuals) would otherwise be unable to become parents themselves is not a reason to promote more and faster adoption. Biological parents are themselves often the victim of cruel circumstance that has impaired their ability to parent, albeit in very different ways. If they can be helped to parent well they should be so helped. IF.

Adoptions can be successful, they can be the best (or at least the least worst) option for individual children. But the only “perfect” solution is to – somehow – enable a child to be safely and adequately parented by her own parents, or perhaps by her own extended family. Why do we find that aspect so easy to leave out of discussion about adoption? Because we know that sadly, today’s “lost children” are tomorrow’s are tomorrow’s inadequate parents. And today’s inadequate parents are yesterday’s lost children. And that is a story of failure that is quite hard to think about. Because it feels so inevitable, so immutable, so desperate.

Adoptions by their very nature are necessary because something has gone very wrong (excluding perhaps a small group of voluntary adoptions which fall into a rather different category). Sometimes that is the “fault” of the parent, for example because they perpetrate abuse on their children. Sometimes it is because, through no fault of their own they are unable to parent, or they are inadequate. Much of what people like Mr Narey tell us about adoption is all happy ending and no story. For most adopted children their life is not in any sense a fairy story.

Nobody would argue with the proposition that where children cannot return to their families adoption ought to be pursued as swiftly as possible. And we have to find ways to avoid delay. But the whole thrust of both the report and much of what one can read in the press rests upon the base assumption that more adoption is a good thing. Actually more adoption means that we have failed on more occasions to successfully support parents and families to stay together. It means that we have abandoned the task of improving the parenting capacity of parents, apparently oblivious to the inevitability that they will fall pregnant again and the cycle will be repeated.

There is a lot of talk about family intervention projects but nominal support for them by the Government. Those are where we should be targeting resources. District Judge Crichton of the Inner London FPC this week won an award for his outstanding contribution to family law in the shape of the successful and innovative Family Drug and Alcohol Court which supports parents to make the changes necessary to enable the courts to avoid draconian solutions like adoption (he got a rapturous applause from the audience and rightly so). That kind of project is where we should be targeting resources.

That is particularly so when the Government itself recognises the inadequacy of evidence about the breakdown rates of adoptions (even if Martin Narey does not). More adoption does not necessarily equate to more happy endings – even in what could properly be called a successful adoption an adult will be profoundly effected by the fact of their adoption and their experience and knowledge of the circumstances surrounding it. We have to be more creative about breaking these cycles and about investing efforts in making families functional, and we should be very anxious about approaches which encourage us to rush to judgment on the capacity of parents to do a good enough job. It was under Martin Narey’s stewardship remember that Barnardos proposed a timescale for the completion of an entire set of proceedings (12 weeks) that is shorter than the generally recommended time for residential assessment of learning disabled parents (16 weeks) that is required in order to properly establish their ability to parent and – crucially – their capacity to learn and change. Of course there are some who would say that the court’s role should be minimal in any event (the views of Family Justice Review Panel Member John Coughlan deserve a whole blog post in themselves, suffice to say he appears to be saying the exact same things that he said when I gave evidence to the panel last July).

We can never achieve perfect parenting. I can’t achieve it. My clients can’t achieve it. Those members of the judiciary, social work and other professions who have children don’t achieve it. Adoptive parents don’t achieve it. We all bumble along doing our best. Sometimes we fail to put the children first, make a textbook mistake. And some parents really do fail and fail irredeemably. But except at the extremes it is essentially a matter of degree, a spectrum. You can’t identify a hopeless parent by checking behind their ear for a label – you have to look carefully at the complexities, the details, the background. Adoption is and should be a draconian state intervention of last resort, not a quick fix or an aspiration. By all means speed up care proceedings where possible, improve adoption practice, do more robust research on adoption breakdown so that we can give children the best possible chances….But do not make adoption an end in itself. The only target we should have is to reduce the numbers of adoptions which become necessary at all.

* NB it is compulsory pursuant to s1 of the Emotive Language Act 1999 to describe all periods of accommodation by way of foster care as periods spent “languishing”. It is an offence punishable by a sentence of up to six months imprisonment (in a cell with Christopher Booker) not to employ the use of this term.

23 thoughts on “Narey Report Part II – Blueprint or Fairy Story?

  1. Excellent article. One of my major bugbears with adoption is the way that the ideal ‘forever family’ is sold to children and courts as the solution to all ills when in reality a significant number of adoptive placements break down catapulting children back into the care system where they subsequently ‘languish’ with ever more broken attachments

  2. Yes, the best one can ever say about adoption is that it sometimes ends up as being the ‘least worst’ of a range of options for a child available to the Court.

    I felt those headlines about low numbers of adoptions for babies were massively misleading – there’s a huge difference between ‘adoption orders being made’ (where one is really in the hands of the adopters and court bureacracy, and many adopters do want to wait for six months or so after placement before applying), and ‘placements being found’

    If there is something to look hard at, it is the time that children who have had the decision that adoption is the least worst option taken by a Court then wait to be placed in an adoptive family. Where that awful decision has been taken (and I speak as a long-standing Local Authority hack, it is never a triumph, it is always a tragedy), children shouldn’t drift in the system waiting for the placement they need.

    I can’t really fathom how the Times has lurched from its secret family courts snatching children campaign to get all these children adopted quickly.

    I did a final hearing just last month that took two years to conclude, but got to the extremely happy conclusion of mother and child being together and the proceedings had seen her get the help that she needed and blossom. If the Family Justice Review recommendations had applied, and the decision been taken after six months, the outcome would have been adoption. That might be the exception rather than the norm, but it points up the tension that exists in all public law cases – you just can never be quite certain whether someone might turn the corner if given a bit more time, a bit more help, one more chance, or how long that would take. So you have to judge as a snapshot at an arbitrary fixed moment in time – how are they doing as you get to the final hearing – are they improving, or going downhill – and are they improving quickly enough?

    I would prefer to see the government and media trumpet successful rehabilitations, and start doing some work on what makes successful conclusions (the family staying together) in care proceedings more likely, and how we can resource those measures.

  3. You might be surprised to know that I agreed with much of this and your two sentences: “Nobody would argue with the proposition that where children cannot return to their families adoption ought to be pursued as swiftly as possible. And we have to find ways to avoid delay.” pretty much summarises what I’ve been saying now for a number of years.
    Its just sophistry to suggest that I don’t think we should help families first or, to use a quote from you again, that I ‘want to take babies away from their mummies” Families can be fixed and its a joy when that happens and that is why, as I have consistently argued, families (or more accurately Mothers because they are so often on their own) deserve a second or even third chance. Just not a third, fourth or fifth. The research on children returned from care to their birth parents and which reveals that neglect occurs again in 60% of cases cannot be denied however much we might both wish that were not true.
    Kind Regards
    Martin Narey

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment Martin. It may well be that there is much we agree on were we to get down to nuts and bolts. However, what I struggle with is the public presentation of adoption in an idealised way, and the tendency to skip over the investment of effort time and money which is required to turn people’s lives around. Whatever we do agree about your report was commissioned in support of a pro-speedy adoption campaign and came out championing that cause, in line with government policy and The Times’ latest family justice bandwagon. Intentionally or otherwise it will have contributed I think to that imbalance in information and in focus, particularly since it is only really accessible to the public at large in the form of soundbites, summaries or headlines owing to the fact that it is behind a paywall, something I find rather odd given that it is apparently going to form the basis of government policy, or at least is going to inform the development of it.

      The quote that you have chosen to use is taken out of context, and was intended to be a blackly humorous way to introduce a difficult topic, and I think was self evidently meant to be a gross and misleading oversimplification. You will see from other posts on this blog that I don’t subscribe to the state as babysnatcher school of thought (although some of the regular commenters on this blog do). I think that discussion of adoption requires intelligent debate and thought, but that adoption is not the only way to achieve good outcomes, to keep children safe or to prevent intergenerational family dysfunction.



  4. My comments about the alternative forms of permanence quoted by community care are also relevant.

    Other forms of permanence are going up by a greater extent that the numbers of adoptions are going down.

    We cannot say with any confidence that the judgments in those cases are wrong and that the people who decided that residency orders or SGOs were appropriate solutions were wrong and the children should have been adopted.

    The care system is complex. Many times it goes spectacularly wrong. However, I do not think Martin Narey adds anything positive to this issue.

  5. i’m pleased, familoo, that we are finally in complete agreement.

    But unfortunately adoption has become an end in itself and seen as a good thing with the “Forever Family” – precisely because of the origins of the theory and movement just under forty years ago – , an in the various “relaunches”, of which Martin Nairey’s is the latest.

    It came about as a movement because of the discovery of the “Single Mother” and mothers keeping their babies, as well as the 1967 Abortion Act so the supply of babies for adoption was drying up. So the various adoption societies and BAAF launched this powerful campaign in these idealised terms with the “Forever Family”, Permanency etc. – “Children Who Wait” 1973, PPIEA, “Adoption Another Chance” Tizzard and Rees.

    This proposed to solve the problem by supplying children for adoption FROM CARE.
    Any child in Care longer than 6 months was likely to remain there till 18, so a 6 month time limit was set.

    Unfortunately the Adoption Industry which has come into existence must be serviced with a fresh supply of children which must come from Care.

    This is the analysis which has been stated both here and in America.

    In my High Street department stores have gone bankrupt and closed down because of the recession.

    If the supply of children for adoption dries up the nationally named charities will have to close because they will be unable to pay salaries and meet administrative expenses.
    They rely on the £30,000 placement fees as an essential part of their budget.

    It is of the highest significance that Martin Nairey said all this when running Banardoes, as like other children’s charities it has essentially become an adoption agency.

    Until now failure of adoption placements has not been acknowledges for doctrinal reasons – because Permanency was an essential part of the theory, it couldn’t happen.

    That MP much demonised as a stage villain, John Hemming, was responsible for publicising this state of affairs having approached the DSCF statiticians, in an incident similar to Lloyd-Georges WW1 walking into the admiralty, and obtaining the figues. Up till then it was claimed there were no statistics kept on adoption failures.

    But all to frequently adoption is the preferred choice and it is claimed parents are “not cooperating” and “lack insight into the SS concerns and their condition” – often the grounds for taking the kids into Care in the first place – therefore parents can’t change, therefore adoption.
    So if you are innocent your kids will be adopted.
    If you have “good quality” attractive middle-class kids your children will be adopted as there is a market for them.

  6. My wife and I do specialized foster care in the US, its heart breaking when a child gets removed from a family and the parents don’t or won’t get the help offered to enable them to be able to raise there children safely. We try to reunite families but in my experience this rarely seems to happen. Adoption is the last course for some children to be placed with a loving caring family, and maybe the only way they get a normal childhood.

  7. I was nearly a victim of injustice. I asked for some respite from social services after 4 bereavements and found myself in care proceedings after just 3 weeks. My child became withdrawn in their care as he had just turned 3.They made a case out of me having no bond or relationship with my child despite the evidence saying I had a profound bond and was a good mum. These social workers were uttely ruthless and corrupt.In a review they sat in a review with foster carer,managers,(apart from the corrupt social worker) etc saying you could tell he was a well bought up little boy. the foster carer said he had no behaviour problems and was well adjusted unlike the other children in her care.I asked them in that review if he would be adopted and they said “we dont know”. He was a cute, young,bright,attractive,white boy.The ideal child that adopters would be queing up for. By the way Martin Narey when I had got my child back (only because I had a change of social work team)who condemned the first team, I read in our local council news that this council had won an award for best practice for meeting adoption targets.
    None of the parents I encounter believe that Mr Narey is interested in keeping families together.They actually regard him as the enemy. If adoption was hurried through i would have lost my son for nothing. Some families need that length of time to appeal as the courts have been corrupt in their cases.Sometimes appealing is the only way to save their families.
    A social worker who knew me for 2 and half weeks wrote a 27 page report with nothing positive about me.Luckily all the other professionals gave me good statements in court. She never bothered consult other people properly. I had 1 say to me “I dont want to speak to her again as she was taking my words out of context. ie coming on the phone and trying to get negative statements from people.These workers disliked me intensely.For no reason cos I was polite to them,I do think they are prejudiced and bully the vulnerable.

    It was a deeply tramatic experience.My son had separation anxiety for 2 years.My case just goes to prove that social services do not go to the end of the world to keep families together and can destroy them quite quickly.

    6 and a half years later,despite being described as the worst mother ever and incapable I have had no social services involvement and no problems. When social services tried to come into my second pregnancy they were kept out by other workers as I was a good mum. My son has a talent at sports and is top group at school.

    I dont believe Martin Narey theory that most parents neglect their children if they are given chances by social services. I just think they like to take attractive young children as there are adopters waiting some time for these “adoptable commodities” as they are know in the system

  8. Emotive Language Act! Of course. And a rare example of where the punishment really does fit the crime.

  9. Adoption is very emotive Sarah.We are not robots.
    Try being in traumatic care proceedings and then have the legal team write and tell you your parenting is of a high standard. The whole system needs major reforms and to open up to the public.There are so many parents that have lost their children through injustice or just deemed to be unsuitable parents because they have been in care themselves or had problems in the past without being allowed to prove themselves.;

  10. The truth about America’s Adoption Awareness Month is doing the rounds. Anyone who isn’t adopted but discusses it is like a fishmonger discussing cheeses. Due to the immediacy of the Internet, adoptees, adults like you are taking a stand. Unsurprisingly, we bond like Freemasons and we are unlikely to go away.

    Furthermore adoption as America tries to sell it (children sell for thousands of dollars +) complete with a public relations drive, is a UNICEF breach.

  11. There is a huge amount of money involved in this industry, isn’t there? It is cheaper to send a child to Eton than to keep him in care; foster parents earn £400 per week per child; private fostering companies pay their directors £285,000; adoption agencies earn £18,000 per placement; lawyers’ fees are an average of £70,000 per placement.

    I wonder how different this industry would look if you removed the financial incentives to skew outomes and merely based everything on the child’s best interests.

    In this country once a child is taken into care they are unlikely to be returned to their family. In many other countries (e.g. Scotland) they are more likely to be returned. Are we putting more resources into removing children than in supporting families so that the children can remain with them?

    What do we mean by ‘supporting families’, and what, indeed, do we mean by ‘families’? If we are really talking about neglectful single mothers, shouldn’t we say so? Is a single mother a family? Not in my view.

    Isn’t it the case that these mothers need social services support to enable them to look after their children precisely because the father is absent? Most fathers are absent not because they are irresponsible (sorry Cameron) but because they are excluded. Just look at the hundreds of thousands who labour in the courts just for an hour’s contact a fortnight.

    Instead of investing vast resources into excluding fathers and kidnapping children, shouldn’t we be putting our efforts and our money (taxpayers’ money) into keeping families together – i.e. keeping fathers involved? If the father isn’t excluded it will become unnecessary in most cases to give the family extra support to enable the child to remain.

    Aren’t we just kidding ourselves if we create a nation of single mothers and then expect them to do a good job of raising their children?

    • I have to say that the majority of care cases I’m involved in are cases where both parents are parties and assessed but sadly there are usually significant issues with both of them. Fathers and mothers fail to engage in equally high proportions. A reasonably high proportion involve parents presenting as a couple, although often there may be a step parent. I dont have any stats (and suspect there aren’t any) but I think you’d be surprised how often children in care cases end up placed with the “other” parent (often dad) or paternal family when the mother is unable to give adequate care, even fathers who have been excluded by the mother. In fact for excluded fathers care proceedings can sometimes be a way “back in” to a child’s life (shame it has to get that bad before anyone will give them a chance). There are cases where a mother refuses to disclose the identity or whereabouts of a father, but pretty few and far between.

  12. It is worrying that the press stories advocating adoption cite politicians’ personal childhood experiences as a basis for formulating national policy. It is also worrying that they cite the amount of money local authorities can save by having children in care adopted. This seems to negate all the thought that went into the 2002 Act placing obligations on local authorities to continue to support adoptive familes in recognition of their ongoing needs. Framing the debate in terms of saving money will only raise further emotive issues.

    Also, rather than putting the blame for delay entirely on the courts, questions about the length of time it is now taking to find adoptive placements might be more productive.

  13. […] Tweet var addthis_product = 'wpp-262'; var addthis_config = {"data_track_clickback":true};By: Lucy Reed From: Pink Tape: Once upon a time a long long time ago I wrote a blog post about a report written by Mr Narey. Mr […]

  14. One of things which infuriated me was that it many of the new reports about the report, the inforamtion was presented as “only 60 babies were adopted last year …..3,000 child ren in care” without ever pointing out that “in care” is not the same as “waiting for an adoptive placement”

    I can think of many cases which I have had involvement with where children have not been adopted because it isn’t appropriate, becaue even where the parent(s)are not able to care for the children, but where adoption is not the right option – whether becauise the child is placed with extended family, with long term foster carers who are willing and able to support family contact or even, in one or two very difficult cases, where residential foster homes have been the least-worst option.

    I agree with Lucy that courts and local authorities put vast effort into identifying and contacting ‘absent’ (sometimes excluded) fathers and, certainly in my experience, the idea that all (or even most) mothers involved in Care proceedigns are single parents is a myth.

  15. It takes time and proper assessments to enable the courts to make the right decision for each individual child. The new legal aid proposals will deny legal aid to many people who might otherwise be able to play a part in proceedings to avoid adoption being necessary. these people cannot be expected to understand and take part in this complex system without representation and this govenment which promised to put children first in its thinking is severely disadvantaging the very children who are already disadvantaged. Adoption is often the best alternative for a child but it should also be the last option when other family options have been ruled out. Investigation and examination of the situation is absolutely crucial and the new proposals severely compromise that preliminary stage.

    • I don’t think that the new legal aid proposals will have much impact on care cases, other than the rates cuts and knock on effect, will they? What is the impact of the proposals on extended family members who may wish to become parties?

  16. Just could not escape the phrase ‘languishing in care’ anywhere today!

    (one effect of the LASPO Bill will be to drive more family solicitors out of business and hence fewer to do the public law work).

  17. Just to add my gripe about the phrase ‘put up for adoption’ still being used by the BBC, amongst others.

    • ‘cos all adopted children are left wrapped in blankets on doorsteps by insightful parents and are rescued before they suffer any harm, right? not removed against their parents’ wishes? too difficult to contemplate the idea that some parents want desperately to parent well, and want more than anything to keep their children but just cannot make it, often through no fault of their own. “put up for adoption” is the orphan Annie version of adoption.

  18. […] could write more about this topic (previous writing here). But there is some fantastic commentary on this already and I would be merely creating a poor […]

  19. I agree with Lucy and some others here when you said “you’d be surprised how often children in care cases end up placed with the ‘other’ parent (often dad) or paternal family when the mother is unable to give adequate care, even fathers who have been excluded by the mother” – the Family Justice Review Report just issued refers to a recent MoJ research report [Family Justice Children’s Proceedings – Review of Public and Private Law Case Files in England & Wales, by Davnet Cassidy and Steven Davey] that found half of all care proceedings ended without a care order being made.

    Some of those 50% of children that escaped care were either placed within their wider family or went home to one or other or both parents. As you say, this can take time to assess, if SWs don’t do it prtoperly they are then slated by the red tops. Delay IS a problem but six month guillotines are a sledgehammer approach for most cases.

    There are always some cases where it’s crystal clear that more assessment will achieve little and where adoption IS the only option but in many it’s not so straightforward at all. And as regards the ‘putting up for adoption’ term that Julie mentioned, it was appalling to hear the Association of Directors of Children’s Services using that ‘cattle auction’ phrase recently – they of all professionals should have known better.

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