Former Barnardo’s chief determined to bring adoption back into fashion

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MARTIN Narey describes the five-and-a-half years he spent as chief executive of Britain’s leading children’s charity Barnardo’s as the happiest of his working life.

He’d previously risen over 23 years through the administrative side of the Prison Service to become its youngest director general and the first D-G of the National Offender Management Service. He is, then, what most people would call a distinguished public servant, described variously by those who have worked with him as sane, level-headed, humane and decent.

It seems fair to mention Narey’s record up-front because, although he has not always been universally praised, nor does he seem to be the baby-snatcher he has recently been portrayed as by some, during heated arguments about the rights and wrongs of adoption services in this country.

Having taken on the role of government adviser on adoption, with a remit that focuses on helping to raise awareness of the need to increase the number of adoptions in England where it is in the child’s interests, the speeding up of the sluggish adoption process, the sharing of good practice and the promotion of better collaboration between local authorities, voluntary adoption agencies and the courts, he has given himself two years to shake things up.

When offered the job he figured the moment was ripe, as both Children’s Minister Tim Loughton and Education Secretary Michael Gove (himself adopted into a family in Aberdeen at four months old) were also fired-up about the need to change more children’s lives by finding them hand-picked, stable, loving adoptive parents after it has been deemed necessary to remove them permanently from their birth family.

Narey, born in Middlesbrough as one of nine siblings, and now living with his wife in Whitby when he’s not in Whitehall or visiting local authority adoption services and voluntary sector adoption agencies, had spoken out about adoption while he was still at Barnardo’s. He advocated the speeding up of the process and the removal of barriers to trans-racial adoption where the wait for a racial match proves to be unreasonably long.

He also said that living in local authority care might not be perfect but some children were left living in neglect for too long or being returned to homes where neglect then resumed. While adoption is not the answer for all – or even most – children who have suffered neglect or abuse and need to be removed permanently, in the right circumstances it is “absolutely transformative”.

He says adoption “has fallen out of fashion” although in his own family it is seen as normal, as two of his brothers and their wives successfully adopted five children between them. But what really triggered his interest in the cause of adoption was his experience at Barnardo’s.

“I’m a lay person, and the biggest thing that shocked me, and really it’s the foundation of my interest, was the circumstances in which we left children and the circumstances to which we returned them,” he says in a sorrowful tone. “The research on this is sound. We simply have to get across to courts and local authorities that when we track children who’ve been returned from care to families in the hope that things will be better, nearly 60 per cent are neglected again within two years.

“So it’s not that I want to break up families. The child has to come first, and if it’s better to put a child in a situation where they can have a successful life and be well loved and have stability, then that’s what we’ve got to do.”

The latest figures from the DfEE show that children in England wait an average of two years and seven months once cleared for adoption. In a quarter of cases the wait is more than three years.

In 2010-11 there were 3,050 adoptions, a five per cent decline on the year before, and eight per cent lower than in 2007. At the same time the number of children in care, most of whom were with temporary foster families, has risen nine per cent since 2007 to 65,520 – the highest since 1987. Of the 3,660 children under the age of one who were in care in England in 2010 only 60 were adopted compared with 70 the year before and 150 in 2007. Of children leaving care, about 11 per cent are adopted.

Tim Loughton called these figures “worrying” and criticised continuing delays and bureaucracy. He also issued guidelines urging social workers to act more quickly to find children permanent new homes, and to regard couples as suitable adoptive parents even if they did not share the same ethnic background as the child.

In the summer Martin Narey was invited by The Times to write a report on adoption, and he spelled out in 22,000 words what he saw as the hindrances to a more speedy and efficient adoption system across the country – there can be big variations in numbers, even in adjacent local authorities – and his proposals to improve the process.

He said he discovered an antipathy to adoption linked to reluctance to take children into care, stemming from concerns among social workers about breaking the bond between birth mother and child unless neglect is prolonged or has turned into abuse. Narey argued that if a neglected child is removed reasonably promptly he or she will be able to form a close attachment to another carer.

He says he has “utmost respect and admiration” for social workers, who do a difficult job out of “the best possible motives, for terrible money...” and on this aspect of his report he received many supportive messages from those working in the field, including comments such as: “Thank goodness someone has said it...”

Narey also reiterated his views about trans-racial adoption – and it was this section that stirred up the most animosity. He says there is a disproportionate number of black and mixed race children in the care system awaiting adoption, but it is the black children who wait longest to be adopted, and part of the answer it to recruit more black potential adopters. But if recruitment proves slow then trans-racial adoption should be an option.

“In many US states it’s illegal to talk about ethnicity; it’s about finding the best parents, and trans-racial adoptions are overwhelmingly successful. Here the law says that getting an ethnic match is important, and I agree that it is. Between two sets of equally good prospective parents for a black child, one white couple and one black, it is a significant advantage for the child to go to the black carers. But the law says that if such a match is not available the adoption should not be delayed – but it frequently is delayed. It’s a scandal in modern multicultural Britain that a black child is three times less likely to be adopted from care than a white child.

“The reality is that many white couples are being turned away by local authorities without any assessment because they’re white. The irony is that many then go off and adopt a child from Nicaragua, Mexico or Guatemala, and those adoptions are hugely successful. I’m absolutely certain that if anyone were to suggest that a black couple couldn’t raise a white child there would be outrage at the suggestion.”

Narey is sanguine about the criticism his views have attracted. “I stress that it comes from incredibly well-meaning people who believe I am wrong and that a child has to be brought up by parents of the same race. I don’t accept that and the evidence doesn’t support it.” As far as the process goes, matters would be helped, he believes, if clarification on the definition of “reasonable delay” was forthcoming from government.

He says his keenness on adoption is not because it would cut the cost of local authority care for children, but “...you rarely come across something where you can both improve the service to children and save money; you can do both here.”

Narey has high hopes of a helpful announcement on adoption from David Cameron (another of his supporters) during National Adoption next week. Of the many items on his wish list for changes to how the service is managed is removal of negative attitudes towards potential adopters who, according to the letters he’s received, feel there is far too much emphasis on what can go wrong and little sense that they are being welcomed.

“We need to see them as potential heroes, people who will take a child out of care and give them permanence and love them as their own. They are great people, but we can be pretty unwelcoming towards them. I’m not talking about everywhere, though. In fact, of the authorities I have visited so far, I’ve been impressed most by North Yorkshire. Their approach to potential adopters is refreshingly positive. A lot of that is down to the right leadership.”