Adoption and Fostering

What are adoption and fostering?

Adoption is the term given for the permanent transfer of legal rights in relation to the parental responsibility of a child.

Foster care describes the temporary acquisition of guardianship rights in relation to a child. Foster care is often used when a child is waiting to be adopted or the courts are considering an adoption order.

As a legal condition, adoption is regulated by statutory provisions and administered through the courts in line with these principles. As a procedural matter, adoption is solely administered through adoption services and agencies approved by the secretary of state. Therefore, private adoption is prohibited in the UK.

A court may grant an adoption order for a variety of reasons, such as the failure of the biological parents to fulfil their parental responsibility, but at all times the interests of the child are the paramount consideration, in line with the provisions of the Children Act 1989. The complex interaction of conflicting rights and interests in adoption proceedings can make the law in this area intricate and unpredictable.

It should be emphasised that in the first instance parental consent for the process of adoption is always sought.

Adoption proceedings are complex, emotive and at times lengthy procedures conducted in closed court and with a variety of institutional representatives.


Adoption was first introduced into the UK under the terms of the Adoption of Children Act 1926.

In the early days of adoption, the focus was on providing relief for unmarried mothers and to satisfy the needs of those couples unable to conceive themselves. Since this time however, the focus of the law has shifted to the interests and welfare of the adopted child.

The Adoption Act 1976 is the main piece of legislation regulating the adoption process in the UK.

The government carried out a review of adoption policy and process in 2000 and detailed the findings in a white paper entitled Adoption: A New Approach. The paper advocated reforming the existing system with a raft of new measures to make the adoption procedure more transparent and to harmonise the adoption legislation with the Children Act 1989.

The Adoption and Children Act 2002 was the legislative outcome, with full implementation occurring in 2004.

There are a number of other pieces of legislation and government guidelines that also apply to the adoption procedure. Given the nature of adoption, human rights legislation such as the Human Rights Act 1998 (which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights 1950) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989 are important to any adoption proceedings.

The provisions of the Hague Convention on protection of children and cooperation in respect of intercountry adoption 1993 applies in intercountry adoption applications.


There are a number of controversial issues surrounding the adoption process, such as the rights of the child to access information on their past, and the issue of parents' rights in adoption proceedings. Recently these have been joined by the issue of overseas and internet adoption.

The issue of internet and overseas adoption was propelled into the public sphere following the widely publicised case of the attempts by the Welsh couple, Alan and Judith Kilshaw, to adopt twins from America over the internet. The case sparked a public debate on the morality of adoption when it interacts with commercial interests. Legislation followed shortly afterwards to try to close legal loopholes exposed by the Kilshaw case.

The way that local authority social services departments handle inter-racial adoptions has also been controversial. Some people have alleged that young people have had to remain in care because 'political correctness' has prevented children from minority ethnic backgrounds being adopted by white families.

In 2003, Lord Laming published a report into the death of eight-year old Victoria Climbie, who had been fostered by a distant relative in a private arrangement with her parents. Victoria was abused and later murdered by her foster carer and her partner. The Laming report recommended a review of the law relating to private fostering arrangements and for an approval system and register of private foster carers to be introduced.

The Children Act 2004 included measures that required private foster carers to register their arrangements with local authorities.

Provisions in the 2006 Equality Act banned discrimination in the provision of services on the basis of sexual orientation, and this quickly became a problem for the Catholic adoption agencies who handle a substantial proportion of the adoptions carried out in the UK.

Following intense public debate and what many opponents described as a rushed passage through parliament, regulations prohibiting discrimination were passed in the Commons with a majority of 210.

This meant Catholic adoption agencies had to allow homosexual couples to adopt children in their care, although many agencies claimed they would shut down before they submitted to the legislation. They were given a 21 month transition period from April 2007 to implement the changes.

In 2011, the Coalition government announced its intention to overhaul the care and adoption system and published performance tables for children in care for the first time; the tables showed a "huge variation " in how well local authorities were looking after children in their care.

There was particular concern about the slowness of the adoption process, which was taking on average two years and seven months to complete an adoption, and the fall in the number of adoptions – down eight per cent from 2007.   In addition, the number of children not in education, employment or training when they left care was found to be 33 per cent compared to a national average of 18 per cent.

The Government published a new Adopters' Charter in October 2011, setting out clear guidance for both adoption agencies and prospective adopters and called for "radical reform" of the family justice system, which was taking 13 months on average to process a child's case through the family courts.

The Prime Minister said it was "shocking" that of the 3,600 children under the age of one in care, only sixty were adopted in the last year. "This is clearly not good enough," he said. "We will publish data on how every local authority is performing to ensure they are working quickly enough to provide the safe and secure family environment every child deserves."

A comprehensive report published in January 2012 by The Adolescent and Childrens' Trust (TACT) and the Centre for Research on the Child and Family at the University of East Anglia, concluded that, contrary to many preconceptions about the care system, "going into care can prove effective and extremely beneficial in helping a young person deal with prior abuse and can protect against involvement in crime."

The report, 'Looked after children and Offending: Reducing Risk and Promoting Resilience', is the result of a two year Big Lottery funded research project and makes over 30 recommendations for government, local authorities and agencies working in the criminal justice system.

These include that the Government should place obligations on local authorities to ensure children in care are not at risk from inappropriate criminalisation; that all children entering care should have a full developmental screening including mental health, learning difficulties and speech and language; and that care leavers in residential and foster care should have the option of remaining in supportive placements until the age of 21


Children Looked After by Local Authorities in England (including adoption and care leavers) – year ending 31 March 2011

Key Points:

There were 65,520 looked after children at 31 March 2011, an increase of 2 per cent from 2010 and an increase of 9 per cent since 2007.
27,310 children started to be looked after during the year ending 31 March 2011. This is a decrease of 3 per cent from the previous year, but an increase of 14 per cent from 2007. Of these 27,310 children 35 per cent are classed as being taken into care.
3,050 looked after children were adopted during the year ending 31 March 2011, a decrease of 5 per cent from 2010 and a decrease of 8 per cent since 2007. Similarly there has been a decrease in the number of looked after children placed for adoption. This figure has fallen from 2,720 in 2007, to 2,500 in 2010 with a further fall to 2,450 in 2011.
26,830 children ceased to be looked after during the year ending 31 March 2011, an increase of 6 per cent from 2010 and an increase of 7 per cent from 2007.
Overall, for those children who started to be looked after during the year the main reason why they were provided with a service is because of abuse or neglect (54 per cent). This percentage has increased each year since 2008 when 48 per cent of children were provided with a service for this reason.
74 per cent of children who were looked after at 31 March 2011 were in a foster placement.

Annual Statistical Release on the outcomes for looked after children as at 31 March 2011. Outcomes reported include education, health, offending and substance misuse.

The key points are:

Of the children looked after continuously for 6 months during the year ending 31 March 2011:
At Key Stage 1, 65 per cent achieved the expected level in reading and 71 per cent achieved the expected level in mathematics compared with 63 per cent and 68 per cent in 2010 for each subject respectively.
At Key Stage 2, 53 per cent achieved the expected level in English and 52 per cent achieved the expected level in mathematics compared with 51 per cent and 50 per cent in 2010 for each subject respectively.
At Key Stage 4, 13.2 per cent achieved the 5+ A*-C at GCSE or equivalent including English and mathematics compared with 12.0 per cent in 2010.
Of the children looked after continuously for 12 months at 31 March 2011:
7.3 per cent of those aged between 10 and 17 years had been convicted or subject to a final warning or reprimand during the year.
4.3 per cent were identified as having a substance misuse problem during the year.
79.0 per cent were up to date in their immunisations.
82.4 per cent had their teeth checked by a dentist within the last 12 months.
70.5 per cent of children who completed National Curriculum year 11 during the 2009/10 school year were in full time education at 30 September 2010 and 17.5 per cent were unemployed.

Impact Indicators

This Statistical First Release introduces two new Impact Indicators for looked after children:
The Impact Indicator for Key Stage 2 is the attainment gap between looked after children and non-looked after children achieving level 2 in both English and mathematics. The attainment gap Impact Indicator is 31 percentage points, a narrowing of 2 percentage points compared with the gap in 2010.
The Impact Indicator for Key Stage 4 is the attainment gap between looked after children and non-looked after children achieving 'The Basics' – grade A* to C in GCSE or equivalent English and mathematics. The attainment gap Impact Indicator is 44.7 percentage points, a widening of 3.9 percentage points compared with the attainment gap in 2010.

Source: Department for Education – September 2011


"Adoption transforms the lives of some of the most neglected and abused children in the UK.
"We need earlier identification of neglect and removal of children from that neglect. We need early identification of adoption – when it is clearly best for the child – and an administrative and legal system which completes the adoption much more quickly than at present. Finally we need an assessment process for prospective adopters which is welcoming, efficient and which balances the quite proper warnings about the challenges of adoption with a little more about the joy it so often brings."

Martin Narey, the Government’s adoption adviser – October 2011

"The overriding message from this research is that the care system works. This report provides a powerful counterbalance to assumptions that entry in care leads to a life of crime. Children come into care through no fault of their own from backgrounds of abuse, neglect and chaos. This work shows that taking the right steps does transform lives."

TACT CEO Kevin William, commenting on the report 'Looked after children and Offending: Reducing Risk and Promoting Resilience' – January 2012