Out of 11m children under 18 in England, nearly 400,000 come into contact with social services each year as 'children in need', with around 80,000 of them taken into care. When a child is assessed as being 'at risk' because of 'neglect or physical, emotional or sexual abuse', a child protection conference is held. At this stage, the child is added to the child protection register and a child protection plan is drawn up. If no progress is made in the case, the child may be placed with foster parents. If all goes well, they are allowed to return home. Otherwise care proceedings start, usually taking place at a family proceedings court in secret. After such court proceedings many children are removed from their family, although a small number are looked after at home under a care or supervision order. Social workers have a duty to place the child with relatives or close family friends. If this is not possible social workers consider other options such as fostering or adoption. It is at this stage that siblings can be split up, with an older child being fostered and younger children being adopted, a defining moment in childhood when their faith in the child protection system can be lost.
In contrast to the care system, adoption has a good record for bringing up children in a loving, caring environment. In the words of former prime minister Tony Blair 'We know that adoption works for children. Over the years children… have benefited from the generosity and commitment of adoptive families, prepared to offer them the security and well-being that comes from being accepted as members of new families'. However, large numbers remain in care for extended periods and the perception has arisen that this is due in part to the unpopularity of adoption with many social workers. Again, in the words of Mr Blair 'too often in the past adoption has been seen as a last resort. Too many local authorities have performed poorly in helping children out of care and into adoption. Too many prospective parents have been confused, or put off, by the process of applying to adopt, and the time the whole procedure takes. Certainly, adoption has fallen considerably from its peak in the late 1960s, from 20,000 in 1970 to 3,600 in 2014. This principally reflects the sharp reduction in the number of babies of unmarried mothers given up for adoption, driven by the decrease in stigma associated with illegitimacy and single motherhood, and the increased access to contraception and abortion. Although Tony Blair should be commended for the personal action he took to improve adoption procedures, more needs to be done to speed up the removal of children from the care system and, more importantly, preventing them from entering it in the first place.