Adoption webchat with Oona King and Jeffrey Coleman

Oona KingTo mark National Adoption Week in November 2011, we invited former Labour MP Oona King and Jeffrey Coleman from the British Association for Adoption & Fostering (BAAF) to MNHQ for a webchat.

Oona King has adopted two children, and Jeffrey Coleman is the director of BAAF's Southern Region, an expert on the issues surrounding adoption and fostering, and a social worker. 

They answered a host of questions including ways the government can speed up the adoption process, whether race should be a factor and where to seek support post-adoption.  

Adoption waiting times | Race and religion | Second-time adopters Inter-family adoption | Other

Adoption waiting times

Q. utterlyslutterly: I'm a very lucky mum to two wonderful adopted children (one placed at nine months and one at three months). I think I am the exception to the norm though, as many parents are forced to wait years to be matched with children and, increasingly, the children seem to be much older. 

While my husband and I were going through the process of being placed with our second child, there were a few weeks (whilst seeking parental adoption consent) where we may have had to become foster parents to allow for a faster and smoother transition to adoption - concurrent planning.

If the system is slowing down in terms of children placed for adoption and the age of children placed for adoption is going up, then surely it makes sense to pursue concurrent planning. This would allow children to be fostered and then adopted by one set of parents at a crucial and vulnerable age.

I know there are risks to the foster/adoptive parents but the children would surely benefit. What are your views on concurrent planning in adoption (such as the Coram Project) and what do you think has to happen to speed up the adoption process for children and parents in the UK?

Jeffrey Coleman

A. JeffreyColeman: I'm entirely in favour of concurrent planning on two conditions: first, birth parents are properly prepared and advised of what's at stake; second, adopters are prepared to lose or gain the child. To speed up the process we need to massively reduce court delays in care proceedings and increase the number of adopters for sibling groups and children with special needs by promising and providing more support of all kinds.

A. OonaKing: Congratulations on your wonderful family. I'm in the process of adopting my third child, and the first thing I asked my social worker was if we could look at concurrent planning. She said the biggest problem is that it is very resource-intensive, and that means her adoption agency (my adoption agency) won't be looking at it. I think that's really disappointing, but not surprising, as a lot of problems in the care system come down to a lack of resources.

I think the Coram Project is a great example of how to reduce the heart-breaking waiting time when there are babies that need homes, and I wish it was more widely available. I might change my mind, though, if I was given a baby that I thought was my child for life, and then after six months had to hand the baby back again, that would kill me. I think good foster carers are the most wonderful and incredible people in Britain.

Overall, we need a national approach to a national problem (the Government is looking at introducing regional agencies so that prospective adopters in one borough aren't turned down, when the borough next door needs adopters). And we urgently need to speed up the courts and prioritise adoption cases. These cases change people's lives. 

Q. MotherInWaiting: I started the process to adopt in 2008, and three years later - despite my 20 years' experience working with children - I am still waiting to be told whether or not I will even be allocated a panel date. This is not through any problems on my part, but due to issues within my local authority adoption and fostering team. Because of the issues I have had three social workers and three times as many home study sessions as I was told to expect. My Prospective Adopters Report is still incomplete.

Over the course of the last three and a half years, I have sold a property to release savings for adoption leave, changed my job, moved house and had my home inspected twice (once for general health and safety, the second for a poisonous and dangerous plants audit). The emotional cost is indescribable. I feel that a process that takes three-plus years to ascertain the suitability to parent a vulnerable child is clearly lacking in the most basic of common sense.
JeffreyColeman: Those delays really seem heartbreakingly long. You're very welcome to discuss this in more depth with our advice line at BAAF - 0207 421 2652, between 9am-1pm weekdays. I'm always very disappointed to hear an assessment delayed by staffing changes or professional indecision, and it's just not acceptable. 

Q. seenbutnotheard: I am an Independent Reviewing Officer and so review the care arrangements for children who are Looked After by the Local Authority.
 I regularly chair reviews for children who have been the subject of proceedings for 12-24 months. 
We absolutely have to be fair to parents and children to try and re-unify if possible, but these sorts of timescales are heartbreaking, and can make it much more difficult to then find adoptive families. Do you think that Care Proceedings could be sped up?

A. OonaKing: There seems to be too much too-ing and fro-ing between the courts and the panels, with both often blaming the other. To make it worse, the courts will regularly force postponements because there simply isn't the court time available. That tells me it's not enough of a priority, and that has to change. I think we'll get some movement now, as we did when the last Government made a fuss around adoption (2000-2005), but the problem is as soon as the foot comes off the pedal, it all slides backwards.

"Legal delays must be drastically reduced without sacrificing procedural fairness. It can be done. You need more judicial continuity, more court time made available, restrictions on the rights to brief endless independent experts and really stern timescales."

A. JeffreyColeman: Legal delays must be drastically reduced without sacrificing procedural fairness. It can be done. You need more judicial continuity, more court time made available, restrictions on the rights to brief endless independent experts and really stern timescales. This may not please the Daily Mail who will no doubt discover the cause of unfairly treated birth parents, but it would be in the interest of children. 

Q. robbieheald: I'm not a mum as I'm unable to have children after surviving cancer nine years ago. However, I have frequently thought of the love and security my husband and I could give to a child. Naturally it's important to ensure children are placed with appropriate families, but the timescale and stress that must go with the process worry me. Are the timescales and overall adoption process to be within scope of this review? And when should it be completed by?

A. JeffreyColeman: There are no automatic disqualifications of adopters on grounds of health. If one member of a partnership has a risk of an illness reoccurring that must be assessed in the context of what the other partner or their support network can provide. Many adopters have cancer in remission and indeed struggle with many other health issues. There is no research that relates health to parenting capacity. Also I can say that health issues do not in my experience affect placement stability in adoption in any way at all.

As to assessment timescales, at the moment there is a two-month gap for the information period, and six months for preparation and assessment. I think in many cases these are excessively long timescales and could well be shortened. But you need the trained social workers and preparation groups ready and waiting as soon as you apply. That's not quite the case at the moment. I do hope you apply.


Race and religion

Q. Littlezaltz: Do you support the Government's policy to support mixed-race adoption? Also, do you think it's odd that it's taken so long to introduce this policy, given that 'white' children from different backgrounds (Spanish, Greek, Italian etc) have always been placed with 'white' parents who may not share that particular background? Has something changed about the way Government thinks about race and nationality? Or is it just about numbers?

JeffreyColeman: We have enormous difficulty in this country speaking sensibly about race and difference. The research evidence for the outcomes for transracial adoptive placements (mainly American research) is that such placements are very successful. Therefore, I think its entirely right for the government to encourage greater flexibility in matching children with adopters who are available and waiting.

I think parenting capacity is much more important in adoption than issues of culture, heritage and ethnicity. Of course a good parent will empathise with and really value all aspects of their child's identity, and in adoption you can never forget a child's dual connection with two families, yours and the biological family. But too many children are denied adoptive placements because of our anxieties and confusions as professionals around this issue.

OonaKing: Yes I think it's right to make this policy more flexible. But no, I don't think much has changed about the way the Government views ethnicity. It's just clearly wrong for a child (any child) to be denied a family, and then languish in the care system, on the basis that the proposed family is the wrong colour. It's an area that needs to be thought through; the ideal situation is usually for a child to be in a family where their relationship to their parents is not continually questioned.

As a child I was constantly told, "that can't be your mother," because I'm mixed-race, and my mum is fair with blue eyes. It irritated me. But can you imagine how much that might damage a child who may already have huge feelings of loss about their birth mother (and father)?

It's one more issue for an adopted child to deal with, and you have to ask yourself, how many issues is it fair to load on one child? So as with everything with adoption, I think it's always a bit more complicated than at first sight. 

Q. Thingsfallapart: I would be really interested in your views on how prospective adopters of different ethnic backgrounds can be supported to avoid issues around negative self-identity and self-esteem that may arise if adoptive parents do not have some experience of the culture that their children are from? 

"Before I would have said it's not important whether you place a black or mixed-race child with a white or black family. Now I think you should place them with a family that has a similar background if there is a family with that background available immediately."

A. OonaKing: As you know, I was a mixed-race child brought up by a white mum. So, given my mum was the best mum in the world, I could never see the logic in telling a white couple they couldn't adopt a black child. I said this often in the media, and then started to be contacted by mixed-race and black kids who had been adopted in the 60s and 70s by white parents. They all said they loved their parents, and their parents loved them, but that they had basically ended up with identity issues that stayed with them for a lot of their lives, and were problematic.

So I've changed my views on this somewhat. Before I would have said it's not important whether you place a black or mixed-race child with a white or black family. Now I think you should place them with a family that has a similar background if there is a family with that background available immediately. If not, it can never be more important to prioritise ethnicity over a child's right to have a family.

As an aside on this, it's funny when you ask people who rant about the 'PC' nature of social workers denying black kids a white home, "so would it be right to place a white child in, say, a black British Sudanese family?" They often start to splutter... 

Q. BartletForAmerica: We are Christians and hold mainstream Christian views regarding, for example, sex outside of marriage. We would like to open our family and adopt children, however, I've heard that we wouldn't 'pass' the selection process because of our views.
 Are my concerns without foundation?


JeffreyColeman: Your religious beliefs are part of you and part of what you will bring as adoptive parents. They will not be seen as a disqualification. However, being an adopter also requires you to respect a child's emerging identity and sexual orientation.
 You will need to be able to cope with whatever the future brings in these dimensions. You're entitled to be protective of your child's moral welfare within reasonable limits. Sometimes very fundamentalist or extreme religious groups may struggle with the idea of tolerating a young person with a gay orientation. The national minimum standards for adoption require adopters to support their children's development and be tolerant of differences of orientation.

Q. hester: My question is about religious matching, which isn't talked about nearly as much as ethnic matching, but can still be a big issue in the system.

I'm the lesbian mother of two lovely girls - a birth child and a mixed-race adopted child, now aged two. We were assured during prep that the law requires religious matching. It was the first and last we heard of it, but I know it's often an issue in adoption. What do you think about it? Personally, I'm more convinced where the faith is part of a deep and enduring religious and cultural heritage. I got slightly irritated with looking at possible matches where the birth parents were specifying Christianity when they themselves appeared to wear any kind of faith extremely lightly.

A. OonaKing: I do think this is very difficult. I'm a Jewish atheist, married to an Italian Catholic. When we were matched with our first son from East London (who was miraculously black and Italian) we were asked if we would agree to bring him up Muslim. It took me a while to persuade my husband (you can see the comedy potential here, with the Jewish atheist and Italian Catholic wondering around the East London Mosque), but eventually it was agreed.

I know a lot of people at my local mosque, and I asked them for help, and they were all very forthcoming. But then, after the baby arrived, we were told the birth mother wasn't Muslim, and the birth father was convinced the birth mother was doing it as revenge. We're not sure what the upshot was, and may never know. But my personal view is that you find a baby a home, and you do not exclude a baby from that home - ever - on religious grounds.


Second-time adopters

Q. InWithTheITCrowd: The current process for second-time adopters seems extraordinarily long - and full of red tape - considering the fact that social services have already approved the adopters once (often relatively recently). Are there any plans to make the process easier and quicker for second-time adopters?


JeffreyColeman: The short answer is yes, the process should be quicker second time around. However, the new assessment needs to cover the impact on you and your family of having become adopters as that is a new issue. But generally it should be a more streamlined assessment as you're now experts! 

"I was shocked when it took longer to adopt my second child than my first. If 'normal' mums discovered their second pregnancy was going to be 12 months instead of nine, they'd probably get a shock too."

A. Oona King: This is a good point - I was shocked when it took longer to adopt my second child than my first. If 'normal' mums discovered their second pregnancy was going to be 12 months instead of nine, they'd probably get a shock, too. I think this is quite a "quick win" area for improvement; it wouldn't be too difficult to reduce aspects of the family assessment procedure for second-time adopters. 

Q. nicolamary: My friends have one son of their own and two years ago adopted a two-year-old boy. They live in a two-bedroom house. Since then the rules have changed and if you already have a child and want to adopt a child of the same sex you are excluded if you only have a two-bed property. Their story is a massive success and the two boys have bonded like true brothers should. The change in rules that will exclude friends like mine seems ridiculous. Your thoughts, please?

A. OonaKing: I completely agree that these rules are crazy! I'm in the middle of my third adoption, and we had to show copies of a house extension before we could be approved, because we only have two bedrooms. It's completely wrong. And since when should young children have a right to their own room? I'm not saying we should go back to my Gran's time, when eight siblings shared a bed (with a sheet pinned from a washing line to separate the girls' side from the boys' side). But I strongly feel it is wrong to "force" adoptive parents to provide a room for each child. Children don't need a room, they need a family. 

Q. BleedyGhoulzombiez: Did you adopt your two children separately? If so, how did you find the experience of 'blending' the family when you adopted your second child? This is our main concern with adoption, as we already have children but would love to adopt in future years.

A. OonaKing: Good luck with your possible adoption. We adopted our children separately (you have to have at least a minimum two-year gap between each adopted child), two years and two months apart, so our little boy was three when our daughter arrived as a 13-month-old.

I think blending works more easily than you might imagine. The main problem is that normally when a new baby arrives, the older sibling doesn't have to fight the baby for its toys, because the baby basically can't move. But it can be a bit tricky when you suddenly go from an empty cot to a zooming toddler, who doesn't understand about sharing (and nor does the older toddler). But our two children, who have no genetic relationship, are the closest of siblings, and we're really delighted with the way it worked out.

I also have a (white) friend staying with me at the moment who had two birth children (aged seven and nine) when she adopted her nine-month-old daughter from Taiwan. She was worried that perhaps the different ethnicity might make the blending harder, but it hasn't. Her daughter is now eight years old, and very close to her two older brothers despite the age gap. So if you think you can go ahead with adoption, I think it's a fantastic thing to experience.


Inter-family adoption

Q. JaneEjackson: Isn't it time grandparents were considered a priority choice for adopting their grandchildren? It would give continuity and stability to the children.

A. JeffreyColeman: I'm in favour of more grandparent adoptions - US style - than we have at present, for situations where you need complete legal permanence and security for a child. You're probably aware that most special guardianship orders are made to grandparents, and that's fine, but in some cases adoption may have been preferable.  

Q. thefirstMrsDeVeerie: I am a kinship adopter. We fostered and then adopted our great nephew. We encountered a great deal of resistance from some sectors. It was very hard to get financial support to make the adoption viable and we felt squeezed into a system designed for non-family adoptions.
 This made the process far more stressful than it could/should have been. Are there any plans to change this? Given that families are supposed to be the first port of call when a child is taken into care, WHY is it so difficult for interested family members?

"Family carers should be approached first when parents are failing. Adoption should be one of the mainstream options for family carers because the commitment built into adoption is more important than possible distortions in legal relationships because of kinship adoption."

A. JeffreyColeman: It should become less difficult for family members to adopt, if the government puts resources into its existing policies. Family carers - connected persons - should be approached first when parents are failing. Adoption should be one of the mainstream options for family carers because the commitment built into adoption is more important than possible distortions in legal relationships because of kinship adoption. Families can take these things in their stride but family carers often get involved in emergencies, when they've made no planning or financial provision to take on this kind of commitment. The government must ensure they receive realistic levels of financial support.



Q. Shangers: I've just been through the adoption approval process for adopting abroad (while living in the target country, so slightly different but we're British so it's through the UK). We've been struck by how much simpler and more positive we found the process here than we have heard it is for people adopting in the UK. How can families be convinced to adopt from the UK when the process abroad seems so much simpler and the chance of getting a younger child is so much higher? Is the process going to be made simpler? Are fewer restrictions going to be imposed?

A. JeffreyColeman: I think we need a more streamlined process in the UK that moves faster for adopters and for children. It still needs to be rigorous and regulated but the average of two point seven years from entry into care to adoption is far too long. 

A. OonaKing: As with most things in the UK adoption system, it all depends on where you are and who you're dealing with (something of a postcode lottery). For instance, my husband and I originally set out to adopt from abroad, but found it so complicated (we wanted to adopt from Rwanda, and there was no UK agreement with Rwanda) that in the end we gave up and decided to adopt from the UK. But overall we need to reduce the postcode lottery in all areas of the system. And, personally, I don't think it should be harder for people to adopt from abroad, but I understand that local services will always be focused on local children. 

Q. SallyDon: What support is made available to children and families post-adoption? Many children, including my own, adopted from the care system are profoundly affected by past neglect and abuse and yet the education and mental health services don't seem equipped to support, or to even understand the need for support. The all-pervading myth is still that these children's problems are 'solved' once they are placed. Wouldn't better support save money over the longer term (reduced adoption break down, lower school exclusions etc)?

A. JeffreyColeman: This is an excellent question. Most children who are adopted have endured neglect or maltreatment pre- or post-birth. So there is always the probability of significant support issues arising. The Adoption Support Services Regulations 2005 enables adopters to ask for reassessments of their adoption support needs at any time. This is a legal obligation that adoption agencies have to respond to. The problem is, adoption support is still a postcode lottery and needs significantly more resources, for example no long waiting lists for therapy.

A. OonaKing: Perhaps the biggest problem we face is that in Britain we spend our money on attempting to pick up the pieces once a child's life is shattered, rather than spending more modest sums on giving an adopted child the chance of success. The figures are staggering. It costs £290,000 per year to place a child in a residential therapeutic centre, but 'only' £15,000-£50,000 per year to provide the treatment you're talking about; treatment that will help traumatised children recover and lead normal lives within loving families.

I feel very strongly that families such as your own are not receiving the support they need and deserve. Not only are you giving children the love they never previously had, you're also saving the government a small fortune. It's shocking that in return you don't get the help you need.

Have you seen the BBC documentary A Home For Maisy? You probably have, but I urge everyone to watch this film to see how ridiculous and unfair the current system is. I'll be campaigning to change it in Parliament. 

Q. hester: We've had Loughton's statements, and the Narey report, but what do you think is likely to change? Telling off social workers for being too PC (as some undeniably are) seems to me the easy part. The important, and harder, bit is to invest the significant resources and absolute political will needed to drive through radical change in the system and in the resources that support it.
 Right now, it seems to me that this country's attitude to adoption is like an intensified version of its attitude to motherhood generally: strong on waffly, sentimentalised support; damn short on real practical support.


JeffreyColeman: I agree we need more resources, more - and better trained - social workers (they should be the court's experts, not loads of independent specialists), more court time available to a wider pool of adopters, and greater budgets for therapy and financial support. But I am uneasy with the Narey reports sweeping conclusions. Adoption is a very individualised and personalised service for children, and can't be subject to breathlessly quick timescales all the time. But it does need to be more streamlined and more sensitive to the needs of adopters. Hope that doesn't sound like sentimentalised waffle!

A. OonaKing: You're right - there's a lot of sentimentalised waffle but precious little to help children in the care system, or the families that want to adopt them. Still, I do think we'll see an improvement (not remotely enough or as quickly as I'd like); the current push is to spread best practice from the 'good' local authorities to those who are doing less well. This will help. If it could be coupled with a reduction in delays in the court process, I think things could improve.

I'm a bit more of a supporter of the Narey report, I think he said some very important things, but I also think he's had to miss out an important thing, which is that we need a national approach (ie national adoption agency) to sort out a national problem. 

Q. jaffababy: Do you think companies can be persuaded to offer the same maternity policies to adoptive parents as they do non-adoptive parents.

"As a freelancer, if I have my own child I receive statutory maternity pay. But as an adoptive parent (and freelancer) I'm not allowed any statutory maternity pay. Did I say I'm outraged yet? Let me repeat it, I'm outraged!"

A. OonaKing: I think it is outrageous that some adoptive parents do not receive the same rights as non-adoptive parents. For instance, as a freelancer, if I have my own child I receive statutory maternity pay. But as an adoptive parent (and freelancer) I'm not allowed any statutory maternity pay. Did I say I'm outraged yet? Let me repeat it, I'm outraged! I'll campaign on it to change it for others in future. 

Q. travailtotravel: How can we persuade parents to adopt older children? It's understandable that most families want to start with babies but the practical reality is that it's more likely to be children over 18 months that need new families.

A. OonaKing: This is really important. Both our children were 13 months when we adopted them. But now that I've done a lot of campaigning around adoption, I realise they're the lucky ones (even if I'd give anything to have had them as babies). It's much more important for people to adopt older children, and I myself very much hope to do that at some point in the future (that will be fourth time round, as I still have a bit of work to do persuading my husband)...

JeffreyColeman: Thanks for a terrific range of questions. Please go onto the website to find out more about becoming either an adopter or foster carer, or ring our helpline on 0800 652 9626. There are 1,834 children waiting for adopters on the adoption register, 996 of these are sibling groups. Please consider if you or someone you know can make a commitment to these children. Thanks. 

OonaKing: It's really inspiring to know there are so many people out there who have a genuine interest in, or commitment to, adoption. People always say to me "you're so good to adopt"; this is well-meant, but misses the point entirely. Because without adoption - and without my children - my life wouldn't be my life. Adoption is the best thing that ever happened to me, and it should be the best thing that happens to others. But too often it doesn't happen. I'll continue to work with organisations like BAAF and Mumsnet to highlight issues around adoption, and to make the system fairer and faster. But if any of you out there are thinking of giving a child a home, please don't be put off, please have the strength to persevere, it’s not just that a child out there desperately needs you, it's that your life will gain so much from that child!

 All the best.

Last updated: 9 months ago