Monday, 31 October 2011

Speeding up adoption

The Guardian ( and the BBC ( both run top stories today on the Prime Minister’s pledge to take action against local authorities that are slow in completing adoptions. Councils that perform badly in this regard are threatened with the prospect of their adoption services being taken over.

Everyone welcomes more children finding secure and happy long term placements and adoption is certainly a very favourable outcome for many children who have been abused and neglected. But simply setting targets and waving the big stick will not deliver the desired results. And a seriously unwelcome consequence would be if targets got in the way of quality, resulting in inappropriate placements being made because unsuitable couples have been approved to adopt. So any changes must be closely monitored and controlled with a clear focus on the best interests of children.

There also needs to be a very clear understanding that simplistic performance indicators must be avoided. It is very easy to process adoptions quickly if you restrict your efforts only to relatively straightforward cases. So the speed at which adoptions takes place also needs to be seen in the context of the proportion of children coming into care who are placed for adoption.

To improve the speed at which adoptions take place requires an analysis of the relevant professional, legal and business processes. On the ‘supply side’ local authorities have to recruit, vet, approve and prepare prospective adoptive parents. On the ‘demand side’ they have to select and prepare children who also have to be ‘freed’ for adoption via a legal process. The two sides are brought together in a matching process, which hopefully results in a placement. In successful cases the process ends with the court making an adoption order.

Each of these stages of the adoption process can be resolved further into component activities, each of which needs to be understood. It is then possible to gather data relevant to the issue of how quickly each stage in the process can be completed.

We need to understand where the delays are occurring, so very slow components of the process need to be examined to determine how, if possible, they can be speeded up. However the whole process will run at the speed of the slowest ‘bottleneck’ so there is often no point in increasing the speed of all the processes; indeed to do so may result in wasted effort and resources.

Service-processes often generate queues of people waiting between some or all of the stages. These queues are equivalent to in-process inventory (work in process) in manufacturing processes. Speeding up the downstream business stages can sometimes reduce the size of these queues or, where possible, the process can be redesigned so that some stages run in parallel rather than in sequence. Managing queues usually requires resources (for example children waiting for adoption require foster placements or residential care) so eliminating queues often liberates resources that can then be applied to making stages in the process quicker or more efficient.

Sadly there is no one simple answer to this type of redesign question. The specific facts underlying a particular process need to be investigated and understood. Various reconfigurations need to be tried out and tested.

I was impressed by the developments at Harrow Council that are described by the BBC’s Sarah Bell ( The key to this approach, apparently developed by Harrow’s partner orgnaisation Corum, is a system called ‘concurrent planning’. Children are fostered with people hoping to adopt while the birth parents undergo assessment. If a decision is made that a child is not to return to the birth family, the fosterers become the prospective adopters. An important benefit claimed for this approach is that the child is kept in one placement throughout.

This is an example of paralleling various stages to speed the process. It appears to be an exciting and important development that many local authorities may wish to investigate. There does, however, need to be a recognition that one size may not fit all. Opting for a solution before understanding the problem is never a good idea. So I would urge local authorities to carry out careful analysis in order to fully understand where the delays are occurring in their own adoption operations before deciding how to move forward.

One thing that can be said for certain is that delays in matching prospective adopters with children that are due to arbitrary considerations should be purged from the system without mercy. Without research it is difficult to know just how much delay in adoption results from ‘silly’ considerations surrounding ethnicity. The BBC’s article quotes an example of a Finnish/Greek couple, with the implication that they found it difficult to adopt because of the shortage of children who had both Finnish and Greek heritage. I find it difficult to believe that that sort of literalism is widespread, although clearly there are isolated cases of it. And these may get more attention than they deserve in the media. The most important issue to address, however, is why black and ethnic minority children appear to have such greatly reduced prospects in the adoption system. While race and ethnicity are factors that must be considered in every adoption, the absence of prospective adopted parents of the ‘right’ ethic mix should never be an obstacle to a child having access to adoption by the best family available at the time.