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Looked after children wait years for adoption, new study finds

Posted on 20 September 2018

Children in care in Scotland can wait years to be adopted, a study led by the universities of York and Stirling has found.

The study found that for children who cannot return home, the process of being adopted takes an average of two to three years.

Every year, thousands of children in Scotland become looked after – either at home (under a Compulsory Supervision Order) or in foster care, residential placements or with relatives – due to concerns about their welfare.

Researchers from the Universities of York, Stirling, and Lancaster, in collaboration with Adoption and Fostering Alliance (AFA) Scotland, have been tracking the progress of 1,836 children aged five and under, who became looked after in 2012/2013.

Adoption process

They analysed data sent to the Scottish Government by all 32 local authorities in Scotland, to find out what happened to the children over a four-year period from 2012-2016.

The study found that for children who cannot return home, the process of being adopted takes an average of two to three years. This compared to an average time of nine months away from home, for children reunified with their parents.

The Children Looked After Statistics (CLAS) data showed that in 2012/2013, 1,355 children, aged five and under, were placed with family members, foster carers, or prospective adoptive parents, while 481 were looked after at home with their parents. 

By 2016, of the 1,355 children removed from their parents’ care, 31% were back at home; 11% were placed permanently with other family members; 16% had been adopted; 6% were moving towards adoption; 2% of children were on Permanence Orders; and 2% were no longer looked after, but there was no information on their destination.

A further 32% of children continued to be looked after away from home, and of these, just under half were with family members.


The research team found that the time taken to make decisions about the 481 children being looked after at home, appeared to be influenced by the Children Hearings System.

The maximum length of time a child can remain on a Compulsory Supervision Order (CSO) at home is one year, at which point a Children Hearings Review has to be held. By analysing the data, the team found a clear spike in the number of children who stopped being looked after at home at, or just before, the 12-month limit.

Co-director of the study Professor Nina Biehal, from the Department of Social Policy and Social Work  at the University of York, said:  “This suggests to us that in some cases, decision-making as to whether or not children should remain on a CSO may be system-driven rather than entirely needs-driven.”

Children's experiences

The researchers were able to link the CLAS data with information collected by Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration (SCRA) on all children who are involved in the Children Hearings process (including most of those children who are looked after both at, and away from, home).

Linking the two data sets helped the researchers to build a more complete picture of children’s experiences, as they were able to see how many children became looked after as well as the reasons why.

In addition to analysing CLAS and SCRA data, researchers interviewed a range of people including social workers, foster carers and children.

They found that while legal security was important to professionals, carers, and adoptive parents, for most children, reliable day-to-day routines and attuned care-giving was what made a difference to them and helped them feel secure.

The researchers are now planning to continue with Phase Two of the longitudinal study, tracking the children’s progress into adolescence and beyond.

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About this research

The findings of the study Permanently Progressing? Building Secure Futures for Children in Scotland were presented at a conference at the University of Stirling on 19 September.

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