Carol Homden: Children will suffer – if we lose the national adoption register

The chief executive of the Coram charity calls on ministers to rethink plans to axe the register for hard-to-place children

As chief executive of the UK’s oldest children’s charity, Carol Homden is not given to hyperbole. But her usual reserve is being tested by a little-noticed government decision to close the national adoption register for hard-to-place children at the end of this month.

“It may be only relatively few children, but these are the ones that agencies need all the help with that they can get,” says Homden, who has led the charity, Coram, for 12 years. “They are the ones left behind.”

The register was established in 2001 and Coram has run it under the name Adoption Match for the past three years. In 2017-18 it found families for 277 children across England with particular needs, developmental issues or requiring placement with siblings.

Social services or a local adoption agency can refer a child to the national register at any time, but they are required to do so 90 days after a placement order if there is no active interest from prospective adopters. What especially worries Homden is that the gap between the number of children on the register, 1,016 at the latest count, and the 334 approved adopters on its books is the biggest that anyone can recall.

The charity has received almost £600,000 a year to operate the Leeds-based service, but Homden says there is no surplus. “That’s the cost to Coram. This must not be seen as a financial issue and the government has assured us it is not a financial decision,” she says. The move to close or “pause” the register, which was broken to the charity in an email last August, follows the introduction in 2015 of a strategy to set up regional adoption agencies to speed up the placement of children. The fragmented nature of the system, with around 180 agencies placing about 5,000 children a year, is held to be a key reason why it takes an average of eight months to match a youngster with an adoptive family once a placement order is made.

It is not clear, however, that the embryonic regional structure is working. An interim independent evaluation report last November found a “mixed picture”: only some of the proposed 25-30 regional agencies had gone live, costs were much higher than expected, and there were difficulties with IT, legal support and transferring staff. Overall, the report found “a picture of frustration and challenge”.

Homden, 58, who has a background in marketing and communications, says: “Anyone who has any experience of change programmes knows it takes longer than you think and it gets worse before it gets better. We are in the ‘it has got worse’ situation.” While a regional structure “may” eventually work and obviate the need for a national register, “there is a mismatch between the timescale of the child and the policy ambition – and the child cannot wait”.

The register is due to stop taking referrals on 22 March and close seven days later, but Homden is still hoping for an 11th-hour reprieve.

Children’s minister Nadhim Zahawi says: “Children continue to be matched with caring and devoted families, with adoption agencies using a variety of systems. We are working closely with the sector to see how technology can support better use of data and further improve services for children.” He made no mention of the regional agencies.

Beyond the issue of the register, Homden has been presiding over steady growth of the Coram group from an annual turnover of around £6.5m when she joined in 2007, to £25m today. Founded in 1739 in London by Thomas Coram as the Foundling Hospital, and famously boosted in its early days by fundraisers such as the composer, Handel, it now embraces six constituent charities and two trading companies working across a range of issues affecting children and families.

Coram did not join other leading children’s charities in their recent warning about the “devastating and dangerous” consequences of cuts in children’s services. Homden takes a more nuanced view, informed by what she and her colleagues observe by way of inconsistencies of practice around the country.

“In too many settings there is no direct correlation between expenditure and outcomes,” she says. “It is generally the case that if you spend too little you will do badly. But it is not necessarily the case that by spending the most you will achieve the best.”

Pointing to a recent National Audit Office report on children’s services, which found wide variation in performanceand estimated that 44% of differences were attributable to “local authority characteristics” such as custom and practice of commissioning services, Homden adds: “There is no doubting the impact of austerity. But not all impacts are the result of austerity.”

Curriculum vitae

Age: 58.

Lives: North London.

Family: Married, two sons.

Education: Shrewsbury High School; University of East Anglia (BA English literature, PhD contemporary drama).

Career: 2007-present: chief executive, Coram; 2003-07: commercial director, Prince’s Trust; 1999-2003: director of marketing and public affairs, British Museum; 1987-99: director of marketing, Polytechnic of Central London/University of Westminster; 1986-87: public relations officer, Polytechnic of North London; 1981-86: freelance arts editor and journalist.

Public life: Chair, National Autistic Society; CBE 2013.

Interests: Museums and art galleries, theatre, cinema, cottage in Suffolk.

Contributor

David Brindle

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Behind Cornwall’s sea and surf: thousands of children living in poverty
Cuts to children’s centres are hitting Cornish families who can’t afford a trip to the nearby beaches, warn charities

Nicola Slawson

24, Aug, 2016 @6:30 AM

Article image
Helen Costa: ‘We don’t prepare people for the huge challenge of adoption’
Shocked at how ill-equipped she felt as an adoptive parent, the social entrepreneur started to make VR films from the child’s perspective

Rachel Williams

04, Feb, 2020 @1:00 PM

Article image
‘Why I’m fighting to set up a food bank for BME disabled charity users’
Julie Jaye Charles, head of the Equalities National Council, on trying to cater for black and minority ethnic disabled people’s needs, while her own organisation struggles for funds

Mary O'Hara

15, Jul, 2015 @6:59 AM

Article image
Stuart Etherington: ‘Brexit is curbing charities' influence on the government’
The outgoing chief of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations says civil society still has a vital role to play in people’s lives

David Brindle

11, Sep, 2019 @5:00 AM

Article image
‘We are the epitome of the gig economy – we deserve rights’
Sarah Anderson of the Foster Care Workers Union says those looking after the most vulnerable need better pay and job protection, even if it means changing the law

Camilla Palmer

17, Jan, 2017 @2:30 PM

Article image
How to make an impact on the charity sector
The head of New Philanthropy Capital, Dan Corry, on why charities, not wealthy individuals, are now the focus of its work

Patrick Butler

29, Nov, 2011 @4:29 PM

Article image
Hard choices will help drive innovation, says chair of alliance of 80 care charities | David Brindle
Vicky McDermott, leader of the Care and Support Alliance, says it is fighting in the face of huge cuts, to transform the lives of disabled people

David Brindle

16, Dec, 2015 @8:00 AM

Article image
Barnardo's chief: in the best interests of the children
Anne Marie Carrie says the pre-departure accommodation centre Barnardo's runs for asylum-seeker families is the right thing to do

Rachel Williams

11, Sep, 2012 @2:30 PM

Article image
Why the state still has a duty of care to children
Bridget Robb, head of social work association, Basw, defends the embattled profession in the face of cuts and outsourcing

Patrick Butler

09, Sep, 2015 @6:59 AM

Article image
‘Care work is tough. We should not be paying minimum wages’
David Miles, head of Mears Group, which has given up some homecare contracts, says paying staff more could save money

Anna Bawden

10, Jan, 2017 @2:00 PM