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.


David Brindle

The GuardianTramp

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