Adoptions need to quadruple, says outgoing Barnardo’s chief

Martin Narey blames prejudice for decline and criticises ‘inordinate’ length of court processes
21 January 2010
Outgoing Barnardo’s chief Martin Narey says too many local authorities are ‘antipathetic’ towards adoption. Photograph: Graham Turner for the Guardian
Britain is facing a dangerous collapse in adoption rates because of the prejudiced attitudes of some local authorities and adoption agencies towards white parents adopting minority ethnic children, according to Martin Narey, the outgoing chief executive of Barnardo’s.
The adoption rate of babies must increase fourfold, and the numbers of toddlers and older children placed with new families must also increase dramatically, he said in an interview to mark his resignation from the charity he has run for more than five years.
He said adoption was at a historic low and had all but disappeared for babies, despite being a “vital tool in the child protection armoury”, particularly for under-ones. “Only 70 babies were adopted last year compared with 4,000 in 1976. We need that figure to get back into the thousands so we need to quadruple it over the next few years – and quadruple it again,” he said..
Narey said the collapse in the use of adoption was perplexing. Citing evidence that it offers the best outcomes for children, he said: ” Early adoptions are particularly successful and yet it remains out of fashion.”
He accused local authorities and adoption agencies of thwarting the law through a reluctance to allow white couples to adopt children from different ethnic backgrounds. The “prejudice” was so entrenched he feared it would not be easily reversed.
He said: “The law is very clear. A child should not stay in care for an undue length of time while waiting for adoptive parents of the same ethnicity. But the reality is that black, Asian and mixed-race children wait three times longer than white children.” Narey’s comments come in the same week a survey revealed widespread poor practice among adoption agencies. The Adoption UK research found that prospective parents are frequently unfairly rejected or forced to endure waits of up to six months after their initial inquiry, three times longer than legislation demands.
However, Narey said he was pleased that it was now increasingly accepted that children should be taken into care if they were living in “horrific situations”.
He pointed to the cases of Shannon Matthews, the nine-year-old kidnapped by her own mother in 2008 to make money, and Baby P, Peter Connelly, who died at the hands of his mother, her lover and a lodger, as being key in changing public and political opinion towards care.
Babies should be removed at birth from those who have had children removed in the past, he said, and who have been unwilling or unable to grasp the deficiencies in their parenting skills.
“Too many social workers and senior people in local authorities are at best antipathetic towards adoption and at worst believe it to be an entirely unreasonable intervention,” he said.
He said attitudes needed to change towards adoption. “We know adoption is far and away the most effective intervention we can make for a child. If we are absolutely clear that a child will be significantly better off if they are taken away from their parents, then we have to do that,” he added. “Contrary to popular belief, being in care makes things better for children. Adoption transforms life chances.”
But, Narey added, even when social workers make early interventions, court processes mean that adoptions commonly take more than two years to complete. “The legal process takes an inordinate amount of time, largely because courts repeatedly adjourn until they have taken a very large number of expert assessments that say the same thing,” he said.
Narey, who will be replaced by Anne Marie Carrie, the former deputy chief executive of the Kensington and Chelsea family and children’s services,, said his years at the charity had been “the happiest of my working life” but criticised the voluntary sector as being frequently “impractical”, “naive” and “very irritating indeed”.
“The voluntary sector tends to assume it has the monopoly on compassion and is very sanctimonious,” he said. “It can also be hugely and damagingly unrealistic about what can be done in the real world, indulging in perpetual carping and criticism of the government, which ceases to listen to them as a result.
“While some people in the sector are remarkable, I find the unpragmatic attitudes of most within it, very irritating indeed,” he added.
Next week will be Narey’s last because, he said, he wants to get his professional and personal lives back into balance: while he has spent his weekdays over the past five and a half years living in a small, shared flat owned by Barnardo’s situated behind their offices in Barkingside, north-east London, his wife has remained in the family home 280 miles away in Whitby, Yorkshire.