The number of children being adopted from care in Northern Ireland has increased, according to a study by Queen's University. However, Health Boards and Trusts vary dramatically in their decisions on long-term placements for children in care.
From Care to Where? A Care Pathways and Outcomes Report for Practitioners explores the placements of the 374 children who were under five years old and in care in Northern Ireland in March 2000. Researchers followed their progress through foster care, adoption or return to birth parents. In March 2000 none of these 374 children were adopted, but by 2004 38 per cent (140 children) had been adopted. In the same period the proportion of children in foster care fell from 61 per cent to 22 per cent.
The study - the first of its kind in Northern Ireland - was conducted by the Institute of Child Care Research at Queen's and funded by the Research and Development Office for Northern Ireland. It is the first study to look at an entire population of young people in a variety of care environments over a long period of time.
Dr Dominic McSherry from the Institute of Child Care Research said: "While the majority of children in Northern Ireland grow up in a safe and secure family environment, a minority face violence, abuse and neglect in their own homes, and the state has a duty to intervene on their behalf. Prior to 2000, very few children in care were adopted, but this report highlights a fundamental change in long-term placement practice.
"The report also highlights inconsistencies across Health Board areas in the types of long-term care placements chosen for children in care. A higher proportion of children in the Northern and Southern Board areas were adopted. In the Western Board area, children were more likely to be placed in foster care, whereas in the Eastern Board more children were returned to their birth parents.
"The needs of the child must be central to deciding the type of long-term care placement that child should receive, but the findings suggest that inconsistencies across Board areas appear to arise from differences in decision-making within Health Boards and Trusts. These inconsistencies must be addressed if we are to achieve a consistent service across Northern Ireland.
"Due to difficulties in contacting parents whose children had returned home from care, fewer parents from this group were involved in the study, compared with adoptive and foster parents. The study highlighted that a majority of parents in all three groups experience parenting stress. Parents of children who have returned home, however, have higher stress levels than foster or adoptive parents. Their children were also experiencing more emotional and behavioural difficulties.
"The report therefore recommends more targeted support services for all families, and the development of a dedicated support service for the parents of children who have returned home from care.
"The longer a child remains in care, the less likely it is that he or she will return to their birth parents. This is particularly true if they come from a lone parent family, or if their mother or father has a history of alcohol problems. Health authorities must ensure that long-term foster and adoptive parents are given the support and resources they need to care for those children who do not return home to birth parents. Lone parents and those with alcohol problems should also be given support to help prevent their children being taken into care.
"Children in care deserve to be placed in an environment that meets their specific needs and supports them through what must be a difficult time in their childhood. This report should help inform the decisions of those who determine what care pathway is most appropriate for each child, and help ensure that every child in Northern Ireland receives the long-term placement that allows them to achieve their full potential."
Jonathan Pearce, Director of Adoption UK, said: "Adoption UK welcomes the report and, in particular, its findings in relation to adoptive families. It welcomes the evidence that adoption is a beneficial outcome for children who cannot live in their birth families. Adoption UK is pleased to see evidence that backs its call for a regionalised adoption service along with support services available to adoptive families after, as well as before, adoption."
Alicia Toal, Project Co-ordinator of Voice of Young People in Care, said: "It is vital that policy makers have access to good quality locally-based research into the needs of this vulnerable group of children. Given current restructuring within Health and Social Care, targets to reduce the numbers of children coming into care, and recent media coverage of failings within children's services, this report contains a number of important findings that policy makers must now consider when making decisions about the long-term care of younger children."
The report for practitioners is the first of three reports to be published on the study and is available at www.qub.ac.uk/cpo A report for parents, and another for children and young people, will be made available before the end of the year.