What is early permanence?

Local authorities have a duty to identify which permanence option is most likely to meet the needs of an individual child. Where the local authority considers that adoption might be the right plan for the child, early permanence ensures that, when appropriate, the child is placed in a foster placement with a family who is also able to adopt them if that is the outcome of the care or placement order proceedings.

Early permanence (EP) is an umbrella term including both Fostering for Adoption (FfA) and Concurrent Planning placements (CPP). Both approaches aim to place children where the courts are considering whether they can safely return to the care of their family or whether they might need to be adopted. The children will need to be fostered while the court decides on the future plan. Most will go on to be adopted but a small proportion will return to the care of their family. Most often, this approach is used with children under the age of two years, although it is not limited to this age group. The approach is aimed at giving vulnerable children as much security as possible and avoiding repeated moves before they can be adopted.

Concurrent Planning placements: the carers are dually approved as both foster carers and adopters and it is therefore possible to place children during proceedings.

Foster for Adoption placements: this provision was introduced in 2014, allowing the Agency Decision Maker to temporarily approve adopter/s as foster carers for a particular child during proceedings. The families need preparation and training to understand the issues involved.

All early permanence placements ensure that the child is placed at the earliest opportunity in what is likely to be his or her permanent family on the basis of the known family history and assessments of parents and extended family members. It therefore avoids further moves and broken attachments. The risks are accepted by the adults, who need to be child centred and willing to manage the possibility of loss.

Who decides whether the child should be adopted or not?

In all cases, the court decides whether the child should return to his or her family or be adopted on the basis of all the evidence presented by the professionals and the family.

How are placements selected? What issues are considered?

Selecting a placement is a two way process. The agency must be satisfied that the prospective carers understand the child’s situation and are in a position to meet the child’s needs, both in the long term and the short term. Although formal matching will not take place until after the court has made a Placement Order, the social worker still needs to consider long term issues when selecting an early permanence placement. At the same time, carers need to consider the needs of a particular child and decide whether they feel able to meet those needs, in both the short and potentially long term. Although the placements will initially be made on a fostering basis, the long term plan includes adoption as one possibility, and the prospective carers therefore require full information about the baby or child’s parents’ health history and the potential implications for the child.

The prospective carers should also be provided with full information about the child’s background.

What other health risks are considered?

There may be a range of uncertain health issues when placing very young children. These can include the long term impact of maternal substance-abuse during pregnancy, the impact of hereditary illnesses in the birth family including mental illness, the impact of parental learning difficulties, and the possibility that the birth father may be unknown. There are also blood-borne viral infections which cannot be definitively tested for soon after birth. EP carers need to be given full information about the implications of such factors.

Does early permanence pre-empt the court decision?

Early permanence placements are usually made when a child is already in proceedings and where, in the view of the local authority, likely to need to be adopted. Nevertheless, there is always a possibility that other relatives may come forward, or that the court may decide that the child should return to the care of a parent or family member.

It is essential that all early permanence placements are transparent and that the parents and any members of the extended family involved are kept informed about the nature of the placement and treated with respect. Parents are entitled to legal representation during these proceedings.

It is also possible to place a child with FfA or CPP carers when the child’s parents have requested that the child be placed for adoption and have considered through counselling the implications of their plan. It is always a possibility that parents may change their mind and withdraw consent. EP carers should be made fully aware of the parents’ rights in this regard before accepting such a placement (see section below on Section 20 and early permanence).

In all EP placements that are in care proceedings the Children’s Guardian will make his or her own assessment and recommendation to the court. The judge will make the final decision and the decision of the court is not pre-empted.

Can children on section 20 be placed in Early Permanence placements?

The duty in s22C(9)B(c) of the Children Act 1989 to consider placing a child in a Fostering for Adoption placement is the same for all looked after children, whether the child is in proceedings or subject to a care order or looked after under section 20, whenever a local authority is considering adoption for that child.

It should be considered very unusual for a Fostering for Adoption placement to be made when a child is accommodated under Section 20, and a placement under such a legal framework should be considered short term only, pending ratification by a court. It is important that parents understand the LA’s plans and do not later feel that their rights had been abused.

Some potential situations where it may be appropriate are:

  • Child relinquished for adoption: If a match via an Adoption Panel has not yet been arranged, the child can be placed under FfA pending the parent(s) signing the agreement to adoption with Cafcass.
  • Abandoned child: Occasionally a parent will be explicit in their intention to relinquish a child for adoption, but fail to engage with Children’s Services or Cafcass to provide the necessary consents. For example, a mother may give birth but leave the child in hospital and lose contact with the child and Children’s Services. In such cases it will be the duty of the local authority to accommodate the child under s20(1)(b). Once family placement options have been ruled out, the child’s placement moves could be minimised by placing him into a Fostering for Adoption foster placement. The local authority will need to make an immediate application for either a care or placement order (as appropriate) in order that they may exercise parental responsibility for the child.
  • Placement pending proceedings: Care proceedings may not be issued pre-birth, so there may be cases where the local authority has enough information to consider that the likely outcome for a child is an adoptive placement, but be unable to issue proceedings until the child has been born. If it has been concluded that the child should not be discharged from hospital into his parents’ care, the options for the local authority will be either to ask the parents to consent to section 20 accommodation of the child with the plan to take proceedings, or to make an urgent application to the court for an interim care order (ICO) with a hearing on the day or day after the child’s birth.

It is important that the child’s parent/s understand the local authority’s plan for the child, and in cases where the local authority is planning to take an ICO, the parents should receive a pre-proceedings letter explaining the plan. This also entitles them to seek legal advice which would not be available in section 20 placements. Open communication is essential in all early placements.

Any potential adopter considering a Fostering to Adopt placement of a child under section 20 must be made aware that the parents have the option of removing the child from the placement at any time, without giving any notice.

These placements will be unusual because of the importance of transparency with the child’s parents and the perceived risks for the FfA carers.

How are early permanence carers prepared?

Information about EP should be included in all stages of the recruitment and preparation of adopters. Carers need to understand the benefits of EP for both the child and themselves. They also need to understand their role as foster carers while court proceedings are ongoing. They must accept the risk that in a small proportion of cases the child will be returned to the care of a parent or extended family member.

Those who decide they want to be FfA carers (or those approved adopters who may be approached to consider taking on an FfA placement in respect of a particular child), should attend preparation training for EP carers or receive a bespoke programme if specialist prep groups are not available. These preparation groups should offer the opportunity to meet an experienced EP carer, and include information about the role of foster carers, working with birth parents, and managing contact arrangements.

How are early permanence carers assessed?

EP carers need to be prepared and assessed as adopters. In addition their assessment should include discussion of how they would manage the fostering role and the risk of a child not remaining with them where adoption is not the outcome of the court decision. It is also important to discuss the carer’s support network, their attitudes to birth families, and issues surrounding contact management. The CoramBAAF Prospective Adopters’ Report 2016 includes sections on EP to support the assessment and provision of evidence required for the Adoption Panel to consider.

Does early permanence apply to older children?

The principles of avoiding unnecessary delay and limiting the damage of multiple sequential placements apply to all adoption or permanence placements and there are examples of such placements being successful. However, when placing older children in EP placements, social workers also need to consider additional issues such as the child’s understanding of the nature of the placement and whether the child might be placed in a situation of having divided loyalties. This might be distressing for the child and undermine the placement. There may also be additional issues of confidentiality to be considered.

EP placements of older children are by their nature more complex and should only be made in cases where all the potential difficulties have been assessed and the prospective carers have been fully involved in considering the issues.

Who is responsible for supervision of the fostering placement?

Although the placement will be made under fostering regulations, the carers will also be adopters and will usually have an adoption social worker who assessed them and with whom they have an existing relationship. The long term outcome of the placement is likely to be adoption. It is usual for agencies to come to an agreement so as to avoid a family having several key workers, and so not being a good use of resources. Due to the nature of the placement there needs to be collaboration between fostering and adoption social workers, but in general the lead is taken by the family‘s adoption worker, supported by the fostering section as appropriate.

If the carers have been approved by a local authority, then both adoption and fostering workers are likely to be in-house, making collaboration more straightforward. Some Voluntary Adoption Agencies (VAAs) are also Fostering Services, and can therefore provide a seamless service to carers. Where the VAA or Regional Adoption Agency (RAA) is not also a fostering service, there will need to be collaboration with the local authority regarding the fostering supervision. Care should be taken to ensure that from the carers’ perspective the arrangements are supportive and lines of communication and responsibility are clear.

Are fostering fees payable?

A carer may be dually approved as a foster carer and an adopter, or approved as an adopter and additionally have been approved by the Agency Decision Maker on a temporary basis as the foster carer for a particular child. In both cases the local authority is required to pay the fostering fee in accordance with agreed rates.

FfA carers and CPP carers are also entitled to statutory adoption pay and statutory adoption leave from the time an EP placement is made. Many EP carers choose to save their adoption allowance to use once the Placement Order has been made and the placement becomes a pre-adoption placement. This will ensure that they have time to make practical arrangements for the child’s care and their own return to work.

If a child returns to the care of a member of his or her birth family, it is appropriate to pay the EP carers a retainer allowance for a month in case the placement is not successful and the child needs to return to the care of the EP carer(s). This also allows the carer(s) to make arrangements to return to work.

In which situations might early permanence be applicable?

Children who might be suitable for EP placements include those where their family has one or more of the following issues:

  • parent(s) with long-term problems which have led to previous children being adopted
  • parent(s) suffering from chronic substance abuse
  • parent(s) experiencing chronic mental health issues or ongoing domestic abuse
  • mother unable to protect the child from a schedule 1 offender
  • previous interventions to improve family functioning (such as substance abuse treatment or anger management) have not proved effective
  • parent(s) have been assessed as unable to make and sustain adequate changes within the child’s timescales
  • relatives have been sought, such as through a Family Group Conference, but this has resulted in a negative viability assessment.

How does contact work in an early permanence placements?

A risk assessment must be completed before contact is set up to ensure that the parent(s) or relatives who may have contact are not people who are potentially dangerous, either to the baby or child or to the adults involved.

This is particularly important as early placements by their nature offer the birth parents an opportunity to meet and get to know the carers who may become adopters. It is therefore essential that the identity of the carers is scrupulously protected, and arrangements for the baby to arrive and leave contacts take account of the possibility of the carers being followed.

Children in EP placements need as much continuity of care as possible. It is therefore important that they have a dedicated escort to contact sessions – preferably the EP carer(s). There should also be a dedicated contact supervisor as managing the relationship with the parents who know that the carers are potential adopters requires establishing a supportive relationship.

What if my local court is reluctant to agree to early permanence placements?

Despite the legal framework which encourages early placements, it is recognised that Re B and Re B S case law raised the bar in terms of evidence and analysis required by the courts to support recommendations for adoption.

In order to provide robust evidence based court reports, additional training for social workers which also involves legal representatives of the local authority is likely to be helpful.

Members of the judiciary may also need to be involved in discussion about the reasons for making early placements. Local Justice Boards are a forum for such discussions. It may also be possible to arrange workshops for the local judiciary and Cafcass representatives to share thinking about early placements.

What are the implications for Regional Adoption Agencies (RAAs)?

Regional Adoption Agencies are being established across the country as part of government policy to optimise adoption performance, create economies of scale, and share expertise. Since corporate responsibility for the child and the child’s journey will remain with local authorities, it is essential that the interface between the RAAs and LAs is well managed.

Policies and procedures should embed systemic planning for children across all childcare teams within the local authorites who are members of the RAA and between the RAA and the local authority. This may include mechanisms for early alerts to the RAAs of children potentially needing adoption so that they can design recruitment and sufficiency plans to meet the needs of children coming forward for adoption. Likewise the RAAs should have representation on Permanence Tracking Panels and professionals’ meetings regarding children potentially needing permanence, including at pre-birth conferences.

The Good Practice Guide on the role of Fostering for Adoption in Early Permanence 2017 and also The Good Practice Guide on Concurrent Planning:  achieving permanence for babies and young children BAAF, 2013, both include advice to support agencies to work together so that services do not become fragmented.