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Sunday, January 17, 1999 Published at 09:14 GMT


History of adoption and fostering

The controversy surrounding the couple who disappeared with their foster children to avoid losing them has put the adoption and fostering system under the spotlight. BBC Social Affairs Specialist. Lisa Harker, examines the history.

Although adoption and fostering have taken place informally for centuries, it was only in the 1920s that adoption became legally recognised in Britain.

Since then, nearly a million people have been adopted. Initially, adoptions were seen as a way of providing security for war orphans and children born to unmarried mothers.

The 1960s and 1970s saw major changes in adoption, fostering and childcare practices. While the number of babies available for adoption fell rapidly because of improved birth control and changing public attitudes, adoption practice changed its focus to finding families for children with 'special needs', such as those in local authority care who had been abused, neglected or had physical or learning disabilities.

The legal process of adoption

Adoption is a legal procedure in which all parental responsibility for a child is transferred. An adopted child loses all legal ties with his or her birth parents and becomes a full member of the new family, usually taking on their surname.

Most children available for adoption are in local authority care, either with foster parents or in a children's home. Sometimes step-parents adopt the child from the previous marriage of their new husband or wife. In other cases, people adopt the child of a close relative.

Adoption law is set out in the 1976 Adoption Act and 1989 Children Act. However, most of the detailed procedures are laid down in guidance rather than in law.

Those wishing to adopt a child must be aged over 21 and able to show that they can give the child the care he or she needs. Decisions are made by an adoption agency, which is normally a local authority - but adoption is sometimes arranged by a voluntary agency.

Strict conditions

Agencies apply strict conditions when assessing prospective adoptive parents. Most will only place babies with married couples who can prove they are unable to have children of their own.

They often give an upper age limit of between 35 and 40. Some agencies will accept people who have been divorced but most expect a couple's marriage to have lasted at least three years.

Adoption agencies are also required to give consideration to a child's religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background in making decisions about a placement.

There are considerable variations between local authorities in terms of the number of children who are adopted after being in care. A recent study found that some authorities placed no children in adoption, whereas in others one in 10 of all children in care were placed with adoptive parents.

On 28 August 1998 the government announced new adoption guidelines. In light of the fall in number of adoptions in recent years, the guidelines sought to emphasise the benefits of adoption and encourage more flexibility in the selection procedures.

The guidelines stressed that it would be unacceptable for children to be denied adoptive parents solely on the grounds of racial or cultural background or a parent's smoking habits, for example. The government also expressed concern about the length of time some children wait in care before joining an adoptive family.

Facts and Figures

The number of adoptions are about a quarter of the level they were two decades ago. There were 21,000 in 1975 compared to 5,797 in 1995

About half of adoptions are by step-parents. Some 35,000 children are living with foster parents and a further 10,000 in local authority care.

Only 10% of applicants become adopted parents.

Nearly half of children who are adopted have previously been the victim of abuse or neglect.

Children entering care after the age of five wait an average of five years before being adopted. More than a third of children who are taken into care have three or more placements prior to being adopted.

Around a quarter of adoptions are made by foster carers.

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