Northern Ireland news

Platform: The 'importance' of the Adoption and Children Bill

Since 2010, there has been a 30 per cent increase in the number of 'looked after' children in Northern Ireland

Colm Gildernew

Chair of Stormont Health Committee and

MLA Fermanagh and South Tyrone

The Adoption and Children Bill that the Assembly's Health Committee is now examining has been a long time in the making.

As long ago as 2006, a draft strategy, entitled Adopting the Future, was published and set out a proposed new approach to adoption and dealing with children in care. In 2010, the Executive agreed draft proposals for a new Adoption and Children Bill, but no Bill was ever brought forward.

Ten years after the Adopting the Future strategy, the Department of Health consulted the public on a new Adoption and Children Bill.

Only in August of this year did the Minister of Health confirm that a new draft Bill had been published and it is this Bill that we are finally able to consider.

I cannot overstate the importance of this Bill. Since 2010, there has been a 30 per cent increase in the number of looked after children here, with adoptions numbering between 91 and 168 in the past five years.

The targets for the adoption process to be completed is that 90 per cent of all adoptions should be completed within three years of the last time a child was in care.

This target has never been met. In 2019 - 2020 only 57 per cent of adoptions were completed in the time, with an average time of three years and one month. This compares unfavourably to the one year and 11 months in England and two years and two months in Wales.

This significant Bill will bring forward much needed reforms that we believe and hope will improve the outcomes for children, young people and families.

Some of the key provisions contained in the Bill are to align adoption law to ensure that the child's welfare is the paramount consideration in decisions; allowing the Department of Health to establish an independent review mechanism in relation to assessing prospective adopters, and bringing forward a new legal framework for adoptees to receive information and help establishing contact with a birth parent.

In addition, the Bill will extend and strengthen the Children Order to improve services to children and young people. One significant change will be to introduce a special guardianship order that will give children greater permanence when they cannot be returned to their birth families.

Alongside this will be a reduction in the number of years a child is required to live with a foster family before the foster family is able to seek a Residence Order to ensure continuity for the young person.

This was set at three years and now will be reduced to one year and should give children in foster care more stability, something that is likely to have a beneficial effect on both their educational attainment and their future lives.

These changes are important and will positively affect the lives of children and young people. They do not come without a financial cost.

The Department of Health has estimated £38 million over the first three years will be needed and this will be a challenge when local budgets are already tight. But we cannot just look at the costs of implementing these changes; the costs of not doing this may be seen in young people who cannot reach their full potential.

In the past we have not given looked after children and young people the care they deserve; this Bill will mean that we do not fail them in the future.

Further information on the Bill and the Health Committee's consideration of the Bill can be found on the Assembly website:

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