Statistical Information 2
What influenced where the children were living?
A range of factors influenced the 5 key care pathways the children had taken by 2004 (towards adoption, non-relative foster care, relative foster care, return to birth parents, and Residence Order). These factors were: location; mother’s living arrangements; parental alcohol problems; age the child first entered care; length of time the case was open; and behavioural and developmental problems.
Location (Board area)
Where children were living in 2004 by the placing Health and Social Service Board
Location (Board area) seemed to influence whether children were being adopted, remaining in foster care, or returning home to their birth parents. In 2004 the Northern Board had placed 59% of children with adopted parents, 22% with birth parents, 16% in non-relative foster care, 1% in relative foster care and 2% on residence orders. At that time, the Southern Board had placed 69% of children with adopted parents, 19% with birth parents, 6% in non-relative foster care, 0% in relative foster care and 6% on residence orders. The Eastern Board had placed 33% of children with adopted parents, 34% with birth parents, 20% in non-relative foster care, 6% in relative foster care and 7% on residence orders, whilst the Western Board had placed 19% of children with adopted parents, 21% with birth parents, 46% in non-relative foster care, 14% in relative foster care and 0% on residence orders. The overall distribution in 2004 being 42% of children living with adopted parents, 27% with birth parents, 23% in non-relative foster care, 6% in relative foster care and 4% on residence orders.
Higher percentages of children followed the adoption pathway in the Northern (59%) and Southern (69%) Boards, compared to the Eastern Board (33%) and the Western Board (19%). Higher percentages of children followed the non-relative (46%) and relative foster care (14%) pathways in the Western Board; and a higher percentage of children followed the birth parents (34%) pathway in the Eastern Board.
In both the Northern and Southern Boards, 12% of the children in care were at home with their parents in 2000. These figures were 18% in the Eastern Board, and 9% in the Western Board area. Children from the Eastern Board, who were in foster care in 2000, were 6½ times more likely to be returned to birth parents by 2002 than those from the Northern Board. It was also found that children from the Northern Board were 2½ times more likely to be adopted by 2002 than those from the Western Board.
Such variation in decision-making in child welfare has been found in many studies and jurisdictions (Packman, 1966 and 1986; Lowe and Murch, 2002). Even where there is general agreement on what the long-term plan should be for young children who cannot return, different authorities generate very different patterns. For example, there is evidence that the Northern Board developed specific organisational structures, including specialist staff, to promote the use of adoption for children in care during the period of this study (Kelly et al., 2007).
Given that statistical comparisons across multiple variables showed that the groups of children within each of the Trusts are essentially homogeneous, these variations appear to lie in the decision-making, and particular traditions of the Boards and Trusts (McSherry and Larkin, 2006). This issue has been highlighted by Adopting Best Care (DHSSPS, 2002), whilst the DHSSPS are proposing the regionalisation of adoption services (DHSSPS, 2006). The variation in the proportion of children returned home also needs further and careful consideration in view of the evidence of the troubled nature of the return home placements that this study has identified (see part two which deals with the parent and carer interviews).
A key question is: If the needs of the child are central to deciding on a long-term placement, why are major variations in professional decision-making being found across Northern Ireland? The recent Reform of Public Administration (RPA), creating five Health and Social Care Trusts where there were previously 11, the development of Regional Policy and Procedures in relation to adoption, and the Government’s plan to regionalise elements of the adoption service, may help foster greater consistency. However, consistency will not be improved if the reasons for inconsistency stem from more deeply held values/opinions on the appropriateness of different placement paths for children and families.
DHSSPS (2002) Adopting Best Care: Inspection of Statutory Adoption Services in Northern Ireland. Belfast: Department of Health, Social Services, and Public Safety. An Roinn Sláinte, Seirbhísí Sóisialta agus Sábháilteachta Poiblí.
(available from: http://www.dhsspsni.gov.uk/adoptpart1.pdf)
DHSSPS (2006) Adopting the Future. Belfast: Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. An Roinn Sláinte, Seirbhísí Sóisialta agus Sábháilteachta Poiblí. (available from: http:// www.dhsspsni.gov.uk/adopting_the_future_16-6-06pdf.pdf )
Kelly, G., Haslett, P., O’Hare, J. and McDowell, K. (2007) Permanence planning in Northern Ireland: A developmental project. Adoption and Fostering, 31(3), 18-27.
Lowe, N. and Murch, M. (2002) The plan for the child: Adoption or long-term fostering. London: BAAF.
McSherry, D. and Larkin, E. (2006) Exploring Regional Trends in Pathways to Permanency. In: D. Iwaniec (Ed.), The Child’s Journey Through Care: Placement Stability, Care Planning, and Achieving Permanency (pp.113-130). Chichester: Wiley.
Packman, J. (1986) Who needs care? London: Basil Blackwell.
Packman, J. (1968) Child care: Needs and numbers. London: Allen and Unwin.
Mother’s living arrangements
The percentage of children whose mother was living alone on 31st March 2000 was high (54%) compared with the average population for Northern Ireland of around 15% (Percy, Higgins, and McCrystal, 2001). This high level of lone parenting mirrors other research in this area (Kelly and McSherry, 2002; Selwyn et al., 2003). Children whose mother was living alone when the study started were 2½ times more likely to be adopted by 2002 than those whose parents were living together. This may suggest that Social Services are more likely to deem lone parents to be less able to provide long-term care for their children.
The need for a family support strategy to be developed in conjunction with the Boards and Trusts was outlined in Priorities for Action 2004/2005 (DHSSPS, 2004a), and the 20-year regional strategy (A Healthier Future) focused on the importance of family-support services (DHSSPS, 2004b). The findings presented here should encourage Heath and Social Care Trusts, and other relevant care agencies, to review the nature and quality of supports that are currently in place for lone parents, particularly in terms of preventing children entering the care system.
DHSSPS (2004a) Priorities for action 2004/2005. Planning priorities and actions for the Health and Personal Social Services. Belfast: Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. An Roinn Sláinte, Seirbhísí Sóisialta agus Sábháilteachta Poiblí.
DHSSPS (2004b) A healthier future: a twenty year vision for health and wellbeing in Northern Ireland 2005-2025. Belfast: Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. An Roinn Sláinte, Seirbhísí Sóisialta agus Sábháilteachta Poiblí.
Percy, A., Higgins, K. and McCrystal, P. (2001) The Youth Development Study: Research Update for Schools. Issue 1, Autumn 2001. Belfast: Institute of Child Care Research, Queen’s University.
Parental alcohol problems
It was found that children whose parents had a history of alcohol problems were 3 times less likely to be returned to their birth parents by 2002 than those who did not. Only 8% of children who were returned to birth parents by 2004 came from a family with a history of alcohol problems. This suggests that where there are alcohol problems in the family, these can remain intractable, and prevent the child returning home to the birth parents. These findings reflect Kelly and McSherry’s (2002) findings that mother’s alcohol abuse was a problem in 42% of the families whose children were Freed for adoption, with father’s alcohol abuse being a problem in 28%.
In 76% of these cases, there was a family history of alcohol abuse. Failure to resolve parental alcohol problems decreases the likelihood of children returning home from care. Consequently, the findings should encourage agencies to review the support services that are available to parents who are struggling with alcohol related problems, particularly those whose children have been removed from their care as a result of these difficulties.
Kelly, G. and McSherry, D. (2002) Adoption from care in Northern Ireland: Problems in the process. Child and Family Social Work, 7, 297-309.