Early Permanence Planning, South Tyneside

Themes this local practice example relates to:

  • Vulnerable (Looked After) Children
  • General resources
  • Adoption and Fostering

Priorities this local practice example relates to:

  • Increasing the number of care leavers in ‘settled, safe accommodation’

Basic details

Organisation submitting example

South Tyneside Council

Local authority/local area:

South Tyneside


The context and rationale

For a number of years this authority has routinely been able to appropriately place over 12% of its Looked After population for adoption. In doing so we have endeavoured to improve on the timeliness of such placements. In one year we actually placed 100% of the children adopted within 12 months of the decision that they should be adopted (as measured by NI 61). Whilst not always reaching such heights, we have remained one of the best performing councils year on year when consideration is given to this indicator. There are a number of factors that have come into play to help us achieve this, but the one given focus in this submission is that of ‘Early Permanence Planning’.

As practitioners, we observed that a number of children each year came from families where siblings were already adopted or were placed for adoption. These families had recently undergone a variety of assessments where the outcome had resulted in a plan of adoption. However, despite this knowledge, a reassessment would take place when considering the future of the new child. Whilst this was being conducted the child, following birth, would be placed with a foster carer. There were also children from families who we knew did not have the capacity for change or were heavily addicted to drink and/or drugs, and they too had to go through the same process.

In all of these situations, several months would ensue whilst care proceedings took place, then finally a decision that adoption was the appropriate plan would be made and processes were put in train to move the child to an adoptive family. By this stage the child could well be nearly 1 year old if not older before being placed with their permanent primary carer. They are now finally the subject of a plan that seemed inevitable at the time of their birth.

In such cases as described above we wanted to develop a planning process that would prevent these very young children from having to wait so long before being cared for by their primary carers. We couldn’t move them at birth to prospective adopters, as there is then no placement order in place and there won’t be for some time. 

What we decided to do was consider the concept of ‘Concurrent planning’ in which, if children are not rehabilitated to their birth family, they are adopted by their foster carers. This had been successful in America and was being piloted at the time in this country by Coram and the Manchester Adoption Society.

In the concurrent planning model foster carers are proactive in trying to support the birth family to rehabilitate their child and it is only when this does not work out that they step in to offer the child a permanent home through becoming adoptive parents.

The model we developed was a variation on this theme. In America and here with Coram and the Manchester Adoption Society the projects used foster carers who were prepared to become adopters. In our model we used adopters who were prepared to become foster carers for the duration of any assessment work with the birth family.

Our aim was to be able to move children who came into this category to the family who are likely to be their permanent carers as soon as possible after their birth. By doing so we would enable children to form attachments to their permanent carers from an early point and thus attempt to eliminate any difficulties from insecure attachments. The process would also mean that these children were placed much more quickly in an adoptive placement and they would not be subject to placement moves.

The practice

The concept of this form of concurrent planning was introduced to prospective adopters in our information and preparation sessions.

At the same time discussions took place with the local courts and the regional CAFCASS office in order to inform them of this change of practice, to outline what we were hoping to achieve and to reassure that such plans were in keeping with adoption legislation.

For applicants who expressed an interest in finding out more about what it would entail, further exploration was provided during the assessment phase.

Eventually we gained a small number of approved prospective adopters whose details indicated that if such an opportunity arose they would wish to be considered for a concurrent plan.

As concurrent planning is not a widely used practice, children’s social workers would tend not to be aware of it as an option to be considered when they are working with a child who may need to be adopted. Such knowledge is usually held by the specialist adoption social workers. To raise awareness of this and other forms of permanence planning for children, a permanence policy was developed by the adoption service and endorsed by the council. This policy is provided to workers when they join the directorate and is also available on the intranet. It is a document that underpins all of our work in the area of permanency and within it there is emphasis on concurrent planning being used if it is at all possible.

To ensure that only cases where adoption was the likely outcome were considered for such arrangements and to gain an understanding of any potential risks to the plan, adoption officers asked to be invited to Looked After children’s reviews and any planning meetings considering such a proposal.

When a case emerged that had minimal risks, and in many cases this was happening whilst the child was unborn, a potential family was identified. The adoption officer responsible for the family would discuss the birth family circumstances; explain the risk to the adopters that the child might be rehabilitated to the birth family at the conclusion of legal proceedings and to explain the process again in some detail.

If the child’s social worker, the adoption officer and the adopters were all in agreement that this could potentially be a very good match then the next step was to present the family’s details to the authority’s fostering panel in order to seek their approval as foster carers.

Once approved the family were available to foster the child from birth until the conclusion of the legal proceedings.

When a child enters the care system they become a ‘Looked After’ child. In order to secure and plan for their future, the local authority will either work in partnership with the child’s birth parents or if they are likely to oppose the local authority plan then legal proceedings are commenced to gain a care order. The child will usually be placed with foster carers but in the case of some older children residential care may be an option.

The children involved in the early permanence planning arrangement are very young and need to be placed in foster care. As previously stated, legally we are unable to place them with an adoptive family until a Placement Order is granted by the court at the conclusion of the care proceedings. This is why the adopters identified to care for the child from entering care have to be approved as foster carers too. 

From the point of placement in foster care to the granting of a placement order is a period when the possibility of rehabilitation has to be assessed. In order to do this the child will need to have regular observed and supervised contact with the birth parents, often on a daily basis. To preserve the anonymity of the carers they are not expected to play a prominent role in facilitating this contact plan, whereas mainstream foster carers would usually meet the birth parents and transport the child to and from contact or even host such a contact meeting in their own home. Instead contact is arranged and managed by contact officers at the contact centre. Carers on the scheme are not expected to support the parents directly with advice on caring for the child either. This is all a marked contrast to the American model where the carers are expected to take a leading role in working towards rehabilitation and meet regularly with the birth family. 

Such an assessment and care proceedings themselves often take several months to conclude, so the period that the child has the status of being a fostered child before they become a child placed for adoption can be quite lengthy.

During this time the family would be registered as foster carers, be receiving fostering allowance, be supported by a fostering officer and be subject to all of the conditions that apply to mainstream foster carers.

Once the legal proceedings are drawing to a close, the child’s plan of adoption and the potential match for adoption are presented to the adoption panel for a recommendation. If the agency approves this match then as soon as the placement order is granted the placement changes status from a fostering placement to a placement for adoption. The child’s status has changed but they have not had to move to another family.

A request is then made to the fostering panel to de-register the family as foster carers.

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

South Tyneside Council has used this model of planning since 2004. It has obviously only been able to be used with a select cohort of children, that is: children who have had a sibling placed for adoption quite recently and thus there has been no opportunity for positive change in the birth family; children from families who are known to the directorate and are judged to have no commitment to their children; or children whose parents have entrenched addictions to drugs and/or alcohol. However, from 2004 until the present 12 children have been the subjects of such a concurrent plan.

12 is obviously a small sample but it is twelve children who would otherwise have had to wait until they were several months old before being cared for by their permanent carers and may have suffered the trauma of being removed from their foster carers. As there are no increased costs in operating such a process then it is justified no matter how small the sample is.

In the seven years that the process has been used there have been a couple of years where no children have been placed in this way and other years where several have. This number represents 8% of the children who were adopted during that time. On average, as a small local authority, we have 26 children adopted each year; this in turn represents approximately 12% of the Looked After population.

In all of the cases the plan has concluded with an adoption order.

The benefits achieved have been:
• The child is placed immediately with their adopters once the Placement Order is granted
• The child is cared for by their primary carer virtually from birth
• There are no placement moves for a child
• The best opportunity for establishing healthy attachments is provided
• We have seen a child born prematurely reach their milestones much quicker than a sibling who was also born prematurely. The sibling was placed with the same adopters but following the traditional route of an interim placement in foster care before moving to her permanent family
• Birth parents appear to be more positive about such a placement as they realise the child will not have to move to another family
• Such placements mean that an extra burden is not placed on our over-stretched fostering services as a mainstream placement is not required
• Adopters have the opportunity of receiving a very young child into their family

We have had no formal evaluation of this work, but informal feedback from social workers, adopters, guardians, panel members and adoption officers is that this is good practice that operates to meet the best interests of children. 
It should be noted that all twelve placements where we have used this form of concurrent planning have resulted in adoption, and thus a positive outcome for both the child and the adopters. Informal feedback from the carers has all been extremely positive. Although a number have indicated that the period during which they are acting as foster carers is very stressful, due to anxiety that the child might have to leave them if rehabilitation is assessed as viable, they would all say that the benefits of bonding with the child from birth and the joy of seeing the child reach their milestones fully outweigh this. 

We assume that if rehabilitation to birth parents becomes the plan and the carers have to support a child returning to the birth family, then their feedback may not be so positive as they have experienced a major loss. Such a scenario would, we would hope, still be a positive outcome for the child but could be a very difficult situation for the carers to cope with.

We have to accept that, whilst understanding the risks and working with the plan, the carers’ primary goal was ultimately to become adoptive parents for that child and if this is not achieved, they will feel bereaved and need a high level of support from the agency. In time it would be hoped that they would be able to accept the positive role they have played in helping a child return to his or her birth family successfully, gain some strength from this and eventually have the opportunity to successfully adopt another child.

Helping others to replicate your practice

This form of planning is now embedded in our practice and therefore sustainability is not an issue.

Our main role as an adoption service in the future will be to provide caution as this route will not be the right one for every child needing to be adopted. However, many professionals working with the child are tempted to suggest it as they know the benefits that can arise when it is achieved.

The cost of this practice has not been calculated as it has not operated as a stand-alone project. All that we can verify is that there is certainly no additional cost, as the children would have had to have been in mainstream foster care with all of its associated costs. If anything there is likely to be a saving as overall the child is in foster care for less time and therefore allowances are being paid for a shorter period.

We would regard this form of permanence planning as successful but accept that it is only suitable or feasible in a small number of cases.

So what have we learned?

• We have learnt that you have to have the children’s guardians on board with this type of planning so it is worth the effort of having ‘early day’ discussions rather than risk problems or misunderstandings occurring once the child is in placement.

• Adopters need to be clear that for a number of months they will be fostering the child and therefore not technically eligible for adoption leave. They will need to understand the stance that any employer might take before committing to this.

• Training about this type of placement is crucial for all involved in the child’s plan so that the position and role of the foster carers/adopters is fully understood.

• It is crucial to place children for adoption at as young an age as possible as this greatly improves the chances of a successful placement and provides the opportunity for children to form strong healthy attachments and reach their developmental milestones at the appropriate stages of their lives.

Our first attempt at early permanence planning involved placing a child born very prematurely with an adopted sibling who was also born prematurely. The first child had been placed for adoption in the traditional way, moving from foster care with one family into the adoptive placement with another. This child suffered some delay in reaching her milestones. The second child, placed using concurrent planning, was placed at birth and despite her prematurity, rapidly reached her milestones at a much earlier stage than her sibling. We accept that there may be a number of factors that will have had an impact and that they are different children but the opportunity to bond with her primary carers from birth will have made a major contribution.

The main challenges have been: 

• Educating the children’s guardians and the local courts so that they understand that this is an appropriate way to plan for some children
• Being able to recruit adopters/foster carers who are prepared to take the risk of the child returning home to the birth family
• Being able to recruit adopters who can accept that there will be a high level of birth parent contact in the early stages of placement.

We firmly believe that this type of permanence planning can work and that every Local Authority could implement such practice. It is having the confidence to give it a try and being able to recruit adopters who have the capacity to work with such risks. We have now had seven years of success with this method and would be more than prepared to advise anyone considering such an option.

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