Adoption Services in Swindon

Themes this local practice example relates to:

  • General resources
  • Adoption and Fostering

Basic details

Organisation submitting example

Swindon Borough Council

Local authority/local area:

Swindon Borough Council

The context and rationale

Swindon’s Adoption Service is part of the Family Placement team, which is part of the service for children in care. The team consists of:
• Head of Service
• Family Placement Team Manager
• 1 full time Assistant Team Manager with direct responsibility for the adoption service
• 3 x Adoption Social Workers, all highly qualified and experienced, and in post for 10 years plus
• 1 x full time Children’s Social Care Worker available (from a pool of 4 Social Care Workers) to support the Adoption Service.

Everyone in the Family Placement Team has access to extensive on-going training in all aspects of their work. 

The ethos of the adoption service is to give support to adopters throughout the young person’s childhood and beyond where necessary. The service never closes a case, and gives adopters easy access back to the Service for advice, guidance and support. Adopters are provided with post approval training and support, and can access extensive further training once the children have been adopted. 

Our aim is to ensure that every child has the opportunity to develop successful lifelong relationships. The work is supported by strong, tested and regularly reviewed policies and procedures. 

In Swindon, we have been highly successful in recruiting adopters, and therefore are able to rely, where appropriate, on our own resources – all but 3 of our children were placed with Swindon approved adopters. This enables us to give better consistency for the child and for the adopters – evidence tells us that where there is a distance between the placing authority and the placement, it is more difficult to support it in a meaningful way.

Birth parents are supported by being given information, the birth parents pack, which contains information about available services to support them and an explanation of the letterbox system. The adoption service is able to arrange, through an adoption support agency, counselling, advice and information to all those affected by adoption. The service has a 50% take up by birth parents. The service can support birth parents with transport costs to attend counselling sessions and birth parent groups. 

We are committed to growing and developing our knowledge around adoption so that we can better support adoptive parents and children. We regard it as important that there is an understanding of attachment theory between all professionals whether working in schools, foster homes or clinics. During the last three years, we have held a seminar with one of the world’s leading authorities on attachment, Pat Crittenden, and this was followed up by various seminars on specific areas around attachment. These have been attended by social workers, guardians, adopters, members of the Adoption Panel, CAMHS, schools, health professionals etc. This work has influenced and informed our practice and development of policy and management practices. 

We also hosted a day seminar with Dr Lesley Ironside covering in depth issues regarding contact. We are working to get more evidence and consistency from all professionals around our understanding of all the very complex issues around contact, as we have clear evidence that it makes a difference to the placement. 

More recently, we have engaged in a partnership with Coram, funded by the Department for Education, where we are one of 12 local authorities looking at improving permanence planning. We are undertaking this work because of the recognition of the need to make early and clear decisions in planning for children in the care system. We understand that if the courts, Children and Family Court Advisory Service, social workers, child care experts and others are able to work more effectively together, avoid unnecessary delay, rigorously assess the prospects for reunification, and where appropriate make plans for adoption and special guardianship, then we will see a significant improvement in outcomes for these children. 

Swindon Borough Council’s adoption service believes that this continuing learning and research for everyone in Swindon involved in adoption is vital for successful outcomes for children and young people and for adoptive parents. This learning provides an opportunity for all of the professional groupings to come together with a wealth of expertise, research and information in the room, and enables professionals to have a ‘different conversation’ about what needs to be done to effectively improve practice. 

The practice

The range of duties undertaken by the adoption service within the team includes the following. 
• The recruitment, assessment, training and support of prospective new adopters, including applicants for inter-country adoption.
• Post-approval training and support of adopters searching for the right child and awaiting placements.
• ‘Homefinding’ and matching children identified as in need of adoption with suitable prospective adopters, in conjunction with the children’s social workers.
• Provision of prescribed adoption support services to adoptive families. This includes families where the child has been placed by Swindon within the last three years wherever the adopters live, as well as all adoptive families living in the Borough, regardless of whether the child is placed by Swindon or by another local authority. The responsibility for the latter will be shared between Swindon and the placing agency if the child was placed within the last 3 years.
• The prescribed support services are.
o Financial support.
o Support groups where adoptive parents and adopted children can discuss adoption matters.
o Assistance with direct (face to face) and indirect (Letterbox) contact with the adopted child’s birth parents and wider family.
o Therapeutic services for adopted children (with the health authority).
o Assistance to ensure the continuation of adoptive relationships, including training to meet the special needs of the child and provision of respite where needed.
o Assistance with preventing and managing disruption of an adoptive placement.
o Counselling, advice and information to those affected by adoption in any way.

In addition there is a duty to provide:
• Advice and counselling services to adopted adults seeking access to their birth records and who may go on to trace their birth family. This is provided by the adoption team.
• Advice and independent counselling to birth parents who are losing or who have lost their children to adoption. This is provided through a service level agreement with South West Adoption Network who can also provide Intermediary Services for adopted adults and birth family who wish to search for each other.

Recruitment, Assessment and Training
Every enquirer can have an immediate conversation with an experienced adoption social worker/link worker.

Those exploring whether adoption is for them begin with receiving an information pack and then attending an information session. This process is laid down in regulation. 58 packs were sent out in the period April 2010 – March 2011. 36 feedback forms were received, all rating the packs as excellent or good. 

We are required by regulation to hold 6 information sessions a year for those interested in adoption and 6 sessions took place between April 2010 and March 2011. These sessions attracted a total of 67 people representing 36 families. (Last year the figures were 86 people representing 38 families) The 23 families returning feedback forms rated the sessions as excellent or good with appreciation of the helpful combination of information from staff and from adopters sharing their experiences. 
During the same period, 21 initial counselling and assessment home visits were undertaken with those families exploring adoption further. (18 were completed in the previous year).
• Of these, 17 were assessed as being eligible and potentially having the capacity to become adoptive parents and indicated they wished to be assessed with a view to approval. 
• 13 of these have now been approved or are about to be approved as adopters (the same number as last year). 
• The other 4 withdrew for the following reason: 1 to attempt IVF again; 1 was offered an earlier assessment by a neighbouring authority (1 week earlier); 1 felt the adjustments they would need to make were too great and 1 simply changed their mind. 
• The 4 who were assessed as not yet having the potential to adopt needed to make significant changes in lifestyle to become potential adopters. 
• Preparation training courses (3 days each) were held for all those being assessed, in October 2010 and March 2011.

We are very honest with prospective adopters. They know from the start that they will have a role in repairing the damaging experience that the child may have gone through, and we provide them with early and extensive training to understand the key issues involved in caring for a child unable to be cared for by their birth parents. 

The partnership between staff and adopters is an essential feature of all our adoption work in Swindon in all parts of the process before and after adoption orders. Word of mouth recommendations from satisfied Swindon adopters has made a significant contribution to recruitment of new adopters.

The Swindon Adoption Panel endeavours to strike the right balance between attention to our statutory responsibility and being user friendly and not intimidating. Equality and diversity is very important to us, and is evidenced by composition of Adoption Panel. Membership includes representatives of various minority ethnic groups, people who have been adopted themselves, birth parents who have given up their children for adoption, adoptive parents, and representatives from health and education. The Panel meets monthly. Adoption panel members’ on-going training needs are identified by an annual appraisal carried out by the panel chair and the panel advisor. 

The Panel has approved adoptions for same sex couples, disabled people and single parent adopters. 

Post-Approval Training and Support
At 31st March 2010 there were 23 sets of approved adopters waiting to be matched with a child. During the period April 2010 to March 2011, 17 of these 23 adopters were matched with children. 1 family decided not to proceed and two unmatched families (who are still waiting) have very specific views about the children they want to adopt (1 about ethnicity and 1 around age). The other 3 have been recently matched.

Adoptive families are viewed as a national resource, and full use is made of our membership of the South West Adoption Consortium, and the National Adoption Register, to provide information about those families to other adoption agencies. 10 Swindon children were placed with 9 Swindon families and 11 children were from other local authorities. 2 Swindon children (siblings) were not placed but potential adopters with a national voluntary agency have recently been identified.

The work involved in servicing potential matches is intensive and time-consuming, especially where inter-agency placements are being explored. Approved adopters have high hopes and expectations of being matched quickly, and will make considerable demands of staff in pursuing possible matches. Where children are being placed from other agencies, workers are required to attend planning meetings and the placing Authority’s own Adoption Panel. 

There have been no disruptions of adoptive placements in the year of children placed for adoption with Swindon adopters. In the previous year, 2 adoptive placements of children placed with adopters from a voluntary adoption agency were disrupted. 

Placing Swindon children with adopters assessed by the adoption team and approved by the Swindon adoption panel has advantages for both the adopters and the children. The adopters have already placed their trust in the adoption team and their link worker who has assessed them and a pattern of asking for support and advice is already in place. The children’s social worker and the adoption worker can easily and effectively work together and can identify at an early stage the problems which are common in new placements and support immediately. 

Adoption Guidance requires that a proposed placement with suitable prospective adopters should be identified and approved by the adoption panel within six months of the agency deciding that the child should be placed for adoption. This a challenging target, which in some cases has proved difficult to achieve, primarily because of inherent delays in the Court system. Of the 6 children matched by the Panel between April 2010 and March 2011, none were matched within that time-scale, although all but 2 were matched within 9 months.

Adoption Guidance also makes it clear that children of black and minority ethnic backgrounds should not have to wait longer in order to place them with an adoptive family that reflects their ethnicity. We fully accept this but want to continue our encouragement to all ethnic groups in Swindon to consider adoption and so increase the local and national pool of adopters from all social and ethnic groups. We do have Swindon adopters matched with children who do not closely reflect the ethnicity of each other but these adopters have wider family or friends who do or the adopters have established links with the child’s culture. There are also adopters from minority groups who are willing to offer white children a family. 

Our experience of supporting adoptive families indicates that the better the match between the adopters and the child the greater potential for better outcomes.

Provision of Support Services
Individual membership of Adoption UK is valuable to adoptive families and cost effective at £45 per family. All adoptive families are being offered the cost of membership so that they can access regional support groups, buddy support, parent consultation services and their monthly magazine with useful articles as well as subsidised regional trainings.

The Adoption Team is in contact with 135 adoptive families in the Swindon area of which 125 requested and used services. Advice and information and attendance at activities, support groups and training were the most requested services. 
• 60 joined the family activity day based at the Lyndhurst Centre in the May half term.
• 98 filled a whole train carriage for a windy but dry and much enjoyed day at Weston Super Mare in July.
• 70 came to the family BBQ at the Lyndhurst Centre in August and a similar number to the day in October half term. 
• 114 attended the Winter Wonderland in December and 115 enjoyed the outing to the Pantomime.
• 75 came to the Spring Half Term event at the Lyndhurst event.
• 11 coffee mornings were held in the year which the adopters arranged themselves.
• A fortnightly group for adopters and their pre-school and recently placed children is facilitated at the Lyndhurst Centre.
• Training events included 2 series of 4 modules on attachment issues and helping children develop life skills as well as individual adopters being funded to attend training on issues relevant to their situation.

The Adoption team will refer adopted children where necessary for specialist creative attachment therapy through music and play.

Adopters have recently asked for additional activities for junior age children and teenagers. We had a successful trial of a group for 9 teenage adopted girls in April 11 and plan to build on this. 

The adoption team continues to take part and contribute to Team Around the Child Meetings (TAC) of adopted children held with parents, schools and professionals from the Locality teams for children who have several needs. Adoptive families can benefit significantly from this collaborative approach of sharing expertise and resources to support the child.

When adopters are assessed contact is made with their referees and people in their support networks who at the time are enthusiastic in their promises of support when a child is placed. We have found that if such promises are to become practical they need to be nurtured by the adoption team. We encourage extended family and friends to attend adoption events and feel part of the Swindon adoption community and become more knowledgeable about what works best in bringing up adopted children. It has been found that one of the key factors in adoption breakdown is families becoming isolated from their support network and adoption professionals when they have difficulties and we aim to prevent this isolation through nurturing networks. 

Support may also involve the provision of financial assistance. Two families are being supported by the funding of specialist therapeutic treatment to address attachment issues at an intensity which was not previously available through the local CAMHS service and one family are accessing a counselling service. In total 27 families are receiving an adoption allowance. 

Parenting an adopted child or young person can be emotionally draining and we encourage adopters to have some time to themselves to recharge batteries. Some adopters receive financial support where respite for children and parents can be helpful especially for older children. We work with adopters to promote combining respite for themselves with opportunities for children to develop interests and hobbies which increase self-esteem and social skills. 

Access to Birth Records
Sixteen requests (1 less than in the previous year) were received during the year for counselling and support from adopted adults seeking access to their birth records. There is an increase in the number of persons getting in touch with family members they lost to adoption and their requests for advice and support in managing this

Letterbox Service
The letterbox service has continued to grow, with the adoptive parents of 141 adopted children now involved in the exchange of written information with their child’s birth family. All written information is checked for content before being forwarded with a copy kept on the child’s adoption file. 

All the adoption staff have become very skilled at supporting both adopters and birth families by phone and emails. We produce a newsletter 6 times a year to share information and news of forthcoming events.

We recognise that adolescence is a particularly challenging time for adopted children and their adoptive parents and this is an area for which we want to make greater provision. 

We are very aware that the emphasis on encouraging adopters to keep in touch and seek early advice to prevent difficulties is leading to a request to increase services which will enable adopters to parent their children in a way which increases their child’s resilience. We recognise that it is vital that we work in a way which reflects current national and local approaches. 

The service has included in its recruitment campaigns, attendance at gay and different cultural festivals within Swindon. Posters displaying information about the adoption service reflect the ethnic diversity of the service and its commitment to supporting people who are disabled.

Evidence and evaluation - making a difference to children, young people and families

In Swindon, we are mindful that our performance in relation to placing children for adoption and special guardianship has been strong. We have started to examine our performance in detail through a series of audits and an examination of the care population. The audit work uncovered a small number of young people who may well have benefited from a decision to strive for a permanent solution (adoption or special guardianship) at an earlier point in their care history. It also demonstrated that in some cases, even when there had been an early decision made about permanence, it was taking too long to arrive at the final placement. This could mean that a child who was 2 at the point of a permanent decision being made would then get caught up in a protracted court process which meant that they were 5 before being placed. 

In order to address these issues, we have undertaken a range of activities to increase the profile of permanency planning within our service. These include regular permanency audits, following up with managers on individual case decision making, using placement panel to make recommendations regarding permanence, ensuring that Independent Reviewing Managers were thinking about permanent options at reviews early in their care careers. 

To take this work further, we have entered into a partnership with Coram, as detailed above. 

The service is very focused on effective concurrency planning, with early engagement of the adoption service. Special guardianship is highlighted in parallel with adoption where appropriate, e.g. grandparents.

As a part of the work undertaken by Coram a ‘Diagnostic Tool’ has been used to interrogate our data. This shows:-

Data and Performance measures
• Stability of staff team – just one staffing change in four years.
• Older care population compared to the national picture – 71% over 10, just 13% under 5 (30 children).
• Therefore slightly lower proportion of children placed for adoption than nationally (Swindon 2.55%, national 3.74% in 2010/11).
• Three quarters of children placed for adoption were White British (roughly matches the ethnic profile of looked after children).
• 54% female, 46% male.
• Average age at placement was 4. 2/3 of placements were under 5, but 1/3 were over 5 (hard to place) including 2 over 10 years old. 3 with a learning disability.
• There was only one disruption in the past 3 years (with adopters approved by a different LA).

Coram Early findings - Children with an Adoption Order
• 20 months from entry to care to Placement Order.
• 3 months from Placement Order to placement.
• 9 months from placement to Adoption Order.
• 32 months from entry to care to Adoption Order (2 years six months). National average 2 years seven months.

Adoptive Families
• For every child placed, 2 adoptive families recruited. 42 adoptive families recruited in three years, most proceeded to adopt (4 did not).
• Ethnic profile: 35 White British couples, 3 single White British Adopters, 3 mixed couples (White British + other ethnicity), 1 same sex couple.
• Swindon a ‘selling LA’: 19% ‘sold’ to another LA, whilst just 4 ‘bought in’.
• Waiting for a match – a little over 7 months on average from decision to approve to placement, but reduced over last two years to 6 months in 2010/11.
• Those ‘sold’ to another LA wait longest – 11 months on average.

In Swindon, we work to make sure that our adoptive parents don’t feel ‘clientised’, they don’t feel like a service user. Once a relationship is established with and between adoptive parents, and they become part of a ‘community’, supporting each other, and it is a forum of advice, support and friendship for each other. The culture is that it is OK to acknowledge that you might be struggling and to ask for support and advice, and that might not be from us, it is just as likely to be from other adoptive parents. 

Our Education service provides the same level of support, for instance around school admissions as they would to children in care. Schools in Swindon will go above their stated numbers to accommodate adopted children, as they would for children in care. Likewise, adopted children have priority in Health services, with speedy access to specialist CAMHS service. 

Feedback from adoptive parents – The following quotes are from Swindon adoptive parents who took part in a focus group in September 2011 to discuss what it was that made the most difference to them about the people who worked with them.

“My social worker has been so positive all the way through the process. Really encouraging. She is approachable, straightforward, and she never hides anything from us.”

“The family placement team has given us really good aftercare. It feels like a big family, and it’s not an ‘us and them’ situation. They are smiley and happy and cheerful and welcoming. I know that if I have a problem, I can phone and they will definitely help me.”

“When she first came to see us, one of my fears was that she was going to judge us, and judge my home. But she acknowledged my fears immediately, and said ‘I’m not here to see the house, I’m here to get to know you’. She shows us her own emotion too – there have been tears of joy.”

Helping others to replicate your practice

Costs and benefits are being evaluated in detail through our work with Coram, particularly around identifying areas of cost savings in relation to permanency of young children so that we can develop a cost benefit analysis. 

We are a cost effective service as the vast majority of our placements are made in house. We are net providers of placements/adoptive parents for other authorities’ children.

Barriers and challenges
• Managers’ confidence in the adoption process needs strengthening and supporting owing to number of adoption breakdowns involving adoptive households moving into the area.
• Delays in court process – use of expert witnesses, late introduction of extended family members wishing to be assessed

The must dos are
Providing adoptive parents with access to support for the life of the adoption and really embracing that. The adoptive parents are partners with us in the care of the child. That is the nature of the relationship between the department and adopters, and is a vital part of the whole package around the child bringing children to healthy development. 

Getting partners on board for the support of adopted children, including health, education, the courts and a broad range of professionals is vital, as is the focus for all of us on continuous research and learning to improve our collective practice. 

In order to improve further this is what we are doing
• Rigorous permanency tracking
• Further seminars with staff and managers and partners to promote permanence, including presentation to Wiltshire Family Justice Committee in March 2012 in order to work together to reduce delays in the court process
• Drive towards concurrency planning

The big thing that we do differently is that we attract people for recruitment that they stay with us because they really value the level of support that we give, and that support is able to be provided because of the consistency, experience and knowledge base of the staff in the team which you cannot underestimate and they know how to effectively target interventions for adopters. 

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