Care-experienced and Adopted Children

– in the Scottish Parliament on 9th March 2023.

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Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

I encourage people who are leaving the public gallery to do so as quickly and quietly as possible. The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-07728, in the name of Roz McCall, on Scotland’s forgotten children. The debate will be concluded without any question being put. I invite members who wish to participate to press their request-to-speak button now.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes, with concern, the findings of the Adoption Barometer 2022, published by Adoption UK, which found that more than four out of five children (81%) represented in the survey were reported to need more support in education than their peers, rising to 85% of secondary school-aged children; considers that children who are adopted in Scotland are, under the current arrangements, disadvantaged when it comes to support offered in primary and secondary education, when compared to other children who are care-experienced; recognises what it sees as the challenges of the adoption process and its impact on the ability of education providers to deliver relevant and prompt support for adopted children; understands that care-experienced children in the education system may display signs of attachment issues due to previous trauma; notes the calls on the Scottish Government to increase the level of support that adopted children receive to match the level of support given to fostered children, to ensure that both groups of children receive additional support within the education system; further notes the findings of the Scotland Foster Care Allowances Survey 2021-22, conducted by The Fostering Network, which showed the differences in weekly allowances for children and young people in foster care and those in a continuing care arrangement across Scotland’s 32 local authorities, including those in the Mid Scotland and Fife region; understands that, despite a commitment in the Scottish Government’s 2021-2022 Programme for Government to implement a national allowance for foster care and a national review of care allowances in 2017, Scotland remains the only part of the UK to not have a national minimum allowance, and notes the further calls on the Scottish Government to honour the commitment it made to implement the Independent Care Review’s The Promise, in which it states that “to provide the care that children require, foster carers must be sufficiently financially maintained”.

Photo of Roz McCall Roz McCall Conservative

I welcome to the public gallery Sara Smith and Jacqueline Cassidy from the Fostering Network. I am pleased to open the debate on the support that is available for fostered and adopted children and their families. I thank colleagues from across the chamber who supported my motion, allowing this important matter to be discussed.

It is a matter that is very close to my heart. I have called the debate “Scotland’s forgotten children” because those children have fallen through the net and we have to make sure that that stops happening.

Adopted children are care experienced and are care leavers. Most people—including some in this chamber—would immediately think of care leavers as children aged between 16 and 26 who had gone through the care system and had been placed with carers. Many people would not think of a care leaver as being a child aged, perhaps, five, who lives with an adoptive family.

Every adopted child in Scotland today has experienced trauma—some have experienced way more than others. They will have gaps in their mental development. Those gaps cannot help but affect their behaviour at various points in their lives, especially at school. The current system does not recognise that trauma in such cases.

Foster children, who have also experienced trauma, are cared for in many cases by foster parents—foster mums and dads, who are parents in every way, barring a legal document. Foster children also show those gaps in their mental development, which will affect their behaviour in school. Normally, a parent is notified, but the current system does not recognise foster parents in such cases.

My husband and I fostered and adopted our two daughters. They are siblings who have lived with us since they were five and two years old. Both are now grown up—they are 21 and 19. They are in further education and are experiencing all that life has to offer: the benefits, the pitfalls and the everyday highs and lows. They have made us laugh and cry. They have made us proud, anxious, elated and frustrated. They are our daughters and we will support them throughout their entire lives—no question.

However, when it came to getting the additional support that both of them needed as they moved through different stages of schooling, the hurdles that they faced were challenging at best. Both displayed aggressive behaviour when they felt unsafe. Any process that was not properly explained, or any experience that brought up dormant trauma, was met with fear, insecurity, and a forced retort. To those in the know, that is attachment disorder 101. It is very easily controlled in a group environment but, to teachers who had no concept of attachment issues, my daughters were aggressive, difficult, disruptive and an overall problem.

That experience is not in any way unique. “The Adoption Barometer” for 2022, which was published by Adoption UK, found that, of those children who were represented in the survey, more than four out of five—81 per cent—were reported to need more support in primary education than their peers. That rose to a horrific 85 per cent when children reached secondary school.

Under the current arrangement, when it comes to the support that is offered in school, children who are adopted in Scotland are disadvantaged when compared with other children who have additional needs. It is therefore of little wonder, often, that adopted children are still excluded from school.

I support the Promise 100 per cent and I welcome the outgoing First Minister’s commitment to it. I will do everything that I can to ensure that the commitments in the Promise are delivered for every child. However, the challenges of the adoption process and its impact on the ability of education providers to deliver relevant and prompt support for adopted children are failing those young people. Although the Scottish Government has long chanted “no child left behind”, it is failing those children, failing in its policy and failing on the Promise.

Both fostered and adopted children deserve additional support in school, to ensure an equal opportunity to learn and experience school life in the same way as their peers. Fostered children who exhibit certain behaviours are recognised by the school system, which will contact social services, ensuring a council-wide approach to supporting the child. Adopted children are not recognised in a care context and are therefore not open to that support.

That raises another important point in the discussion. Foster families are not the first point of contact for the children that they care for. Foster mums and dads are secondary to the state, even though they are best placed to offer everyday support for the young person and will often do so. Not only are they out of the loop in such instances, they are often out of pocket for the support that they provide.

Photo of Miles Briggs Miles Briggs Conservative

First, I congratulate Roz McCall on bringing the debate to the Parliament. Does she agree that it is unacceptable that, after years of agreeing to have a national kinship care payment—kinship carers are often grandparents bringing up their grandchildren—we have still not seen that being put in place; councils across the country provide different levels of payment. Does she believe that the Scottish Government needs to fix that now?

Photo of Roz McCall Roz McCall Conservative

It is very simple for me to respond to that point. I agree 100 per cent. The whole range of care, especially kinship care, also needs to be recognised. That is not the point that I am making in my speech, but nonetheless, I agree entirely with Miles Briggs.

The Scotland foster care allowance survey 2021-22, conducted via the Fostering Network, shows the difference in weekly allowances for children and young people in foster care and those in a continuing care arrangement across Scotland’s 32 local authorities, including the Mid Scotland and Fife region that I represent. Scotland remains the only part of the United Kingdom not to have a national minimum allowance.

The Scottish Government must honour the commitment that it made to implement the independent care review. “The Promise” report says:

“To provide the care that children require, foster carers must be sufficiently financially maintained”.

A manifesto commitment to a national minimum allowance was made by the Scottish National Party in 2016, but has not yet been implemented. We support the recommendations of the independent care review and want to see the Promise enacted.

The Scottish Government must ensure that care-experienced children are not ignored or forgotten. No child will be left behind as long as this SNP Government does not forget about fostered or adopted children.

Despite more than a decade of pledges, foster carers are confronted with yet another year of financial allowances that fall considerably short of what is necessary to adequately cater for the requirements of foster children. Without the implementation and complete financing of a nationwide allowance, and until a minimum allowance is established and enforced on a national level, foster carers and the children they care for will continue to suffer because of delays. In order to achieve the commitment to children across Scotland, the Scottish Government must guarantee that local authorities will be fully funded. That must come from additional funding to ensure that other vital services do not suffer.

We want all children to be given the opportunity to have the absolute best start in life, the best standard of education and the best chance to succeed in everything that they want to do. Sometimes, children cannot stay with their birth parents, and foster carers and adoptive parents are there, waiting to give the child—or, in my case, children—the best start or restart that they can. The Scottish Government must do everything in its power to guarantee that no child is left behind and that carers and parents get the best support possible to ensure that. That should be the minimum standard and we—politicians and the Scottish Government—must be held accountable if even one child falls below it. If we truly want to get it right for every child, we cannot overlook those who fall through the net. We have a duty to ensure that we fight for Scotland’s forgotten children.

Photo of Stephanie Callaghan Stephanie Callaghan Scottish National Party

I thank Roz McCall for bringing the motion to the chamber. I also thank her for allowing those children to enrich her life

, and for really enriching those children’s lives. I applaud her for that.

As we have heard, Scotland is home to 13,500 looked-after children. We should never take for granted the essential role of carers in our society. In what can be highly challenging circumstances, they provide care to children who face significant vulnerabilities, grounding them with the love that they require to start a new chapter.

A long-time friend of mine who I have known since school—I will call her Eve—has experience of both fostering and adoption. I thank her for having a chat with me and sharing her experiences before today’s debate. Eve welcomed the recent progress that Scotland has made, particularly the emphasis on and the value of the Promise, which is founded on an understanding of the fact that children need loving and stable relationships to grow, learn and reach their full potential. Although I strongly agree, there is so much more to do. We have heard a lot about that already today, too. We need to face those challenges head on.

“The Adoption Barometer” for 2022 highlights the gap that remains in the provision of and access to adequate support for carers, with 75 per cent of respondents facing continual struggles to access support. What is more, the support that they do access is said to be inconsistent and unaligned to the needs of the child and the family. Eve described access to vital financial support for foster carers as a postcode lottery, pointing out that it can range from anywhere between £77 and £266 per week. She also emphasised the need to roll out a national minimum allowance across Scotland that covers carers’ full costs, because carers often have to dip into their own pockets, which is not okay.

Eve initially fostered her wee girl. It will come as no surprise to members when I say that her child’s history and needs did not disappear when she decided to adopt. However, her access to support did—it became a lot more limited. In 2021, 199 Scottish children joined their new adoptive families. However, 37 of those adoptions broke down—that is just under a fifth of those who were newly placed. That is devastating for children and for their families, and I ask the minister to consider what additional support can be provided for new adoptions.

Peer support and online groups are a critical support network for Eve and others, and we must recognise their value. However, the burden of supporting our carers must not fall solely on those networks, as it sometimes feels like it does. Policies surrounding the provision of support services need to be tightened to ensure that families can maintain safe and loving relationships, whether they choose to foster or to adopt.

The Promise highlights the need to recognise trauma, and that must also apply to newborn adoptions. Eve spoke of the common misconception that babies who are adopted at a very young age will not have any problems. That is far from the truth: they come with baggage. She also told me about the development of the Lanarkshire infant mental health observational indicator set, and she put me in touch with the consultant Graham Shulman. That work is allowing health professionals to identify early warning signs of mental health difficulties in infants who are aged from zero to three. We know that early intervention promotes better mental health through childhood and adolescence and into adulthood. That work is a fine exemplar of perinatal and infant mental health support.

Every child deserves to grow up loved and understood, with not one single soul left behind, so that we can truly deliver on our promise to ensure the best present and future outcomes for every child in Scotland.

I asked Eve why she chose to adopt a daughter. She said:

“to secure her life forever, so she has a sense of belonging, and to anchor her. I love seeing her wee name on her passport, it still gives me a buzz and we’ve added her middle name after my maternal gran, which is the same as the rest of my kids”.

That lies at the core of the Promise.

Photo of Paul O'Kane Paul O'Kane Labour

I, too, thank Roz McCall for bringing this important debate to the chamber and for speaking so powerfully and personally about her commitment to these issues. I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak on behalf of Scottish Labour, and I am also pleased to do so as the chair of the newly established cross-party group on care leavers, which was set up in the current session of Parliament.

Adoption UK has produced “The Adoption Barometer”, to which the motion refers, which is a highly useful resource that provides illuminating insights into the experience of families with adopted children in Scotland. It is encouraging that, in most areas, Scotland is performing comparatively well on the levels of education support that are provided for families with adopted children. As we have heard, however, experience of the support that is offered is often patchy and not consistent. Doing comparatively better cannot be the limit of our ambition for these young people.

Although the situation is better in Scotland than in the rest of the United Kingdom, only half of adoptive parents believe that teachers have a good understanding of the needs of care-experienced children. Let us be honest—that is simply not good enough.

That point was emphasised clearly in “The Promise” report, which highlighted the importance of teachers and school staff being appropriately trained to empower them to be fully aware of the challenges faced by care-experienced young people, and to equip them with skills to encourage those young people to support themselves and become more resilient—indeed, to reach the absolute limits of their potential.

Already in the debate today, and more broadly, we are hearing about the Promise and looking again at what was committed to in it and how we are delivering in those areas.

More broadly, it is critically important that the Government gets the Promise right and continues to deliver on that commitment, because, sadly, the reality for too many care-experienced young people and children is that much of their life has been shaped by broken promises—by adults who made commitments to them to improve their lives in one way or another and then failed to deliver.

As we have heard, the First Minister will be remembered in years to come for making those commitments to young people in the Promise. It is for all of us to commend her for focusing on care-experienced people, and particularly children and young people, and bringing the subject into the light of our national discourse and debate in a way that had perhaps not happened previously.

However, the First Minister’s resignation, which comes three years after the publication of the care review, provides an opportunity for us to pause, take breath and assess the effectiveness of the current approach and the impact of the Promise. There are some issues around accountability, and I know that concerns are being shared by third-sector organisations that work in this space.

An issue that has been raised with me is who in the Government will be accountable for delivery of the Promise, given the outgoing First Minister’s very personal commitment? Will it be the Minister for Children and Young People or the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, or will it be the equal responsibility of everyone in the Cabinet and all ministers? I think that we all want to see it as everyone’s responsibility but, very often, when something becomes the responsibility of everyone, it can quickly become the responsibility of no one.

I understand the rationale for having an organisation that is distinct from Government and seeks to be accountable to the people of Scotland for delivery of the Promise. That is important and admirable. However, we need to look at how we can have more parliamentary oversight of delivery of the Promise. Perhaps that could be achieved if we had specific ministerial responsibility or specific committee responsibility in this Parliament. We should consider all those things to ensure that all of us in this place hold the Government’s feet to the fire and indeed hold our own feet to the fire in relation to what we are trying to do for care-experienced young people in particular.

It is imperative that we do not fail care-experienced children and young people. As parliamentarians, we all have a responsibility to ensure that their voices and the voices of those who care for them are present in our debates and in every decision that we make in the chamber. Let us work together to ensure that our ambition matches the rhetoric and that it transforms into the meaningful change that care-experienced children and young people so richly deserve.

Photo of Meghan Gallacher Meghan Gallacher Conservative

I congratulate my friend and colleague Roz McCall on securing this important debate and on making an excellent speech in which she brought first-hand experience to the chamber and spoke from the heart.

I want to start my remarks on a positive note. I believe in the Promise. I want all children and young people, no matter what start they have had in life, to receive the same opportunities. However, I have learned in my short time in this Parliament that believing is not enough. We have to want to make it work, and to make it work requires diligence in education—and buy-in, not from MSPs, but from the children and young people whose lives we are seeking to improve.

The fifth of February marked the three-year anniversary of the Promise. When we signed up to the legislation as corporate parents, we promised care-experienced young people that we would improve their lives in care and provide them with opportunities when they left the care sector. I have taken part in previous debates relating to the Promise and improving outcomes for care-experienced young people. The previous debate on the topic took place a year ago, and in that debate I criticised the Government for its lack of progress. Let me be clear that we are still in the same position. We need, collectively, to do much more when implementing the Promise.

During that debate, I raised the concerns of Jamie Kinlochan—a long-term campaigner who has raised the subject of the number of young people who have, tragically, died shortly after moving out of care. A freedom of information request had revealed at that time that 24 young people in care died in 2020, compared with 21 the year before. In total, between January 2014 and September 2021, 111 children and young people died. The chair of The Promise Scotland, Fiona Duncan, admitted that the young people who had, sadly, died had been let down by the policy. I would be grateful if the minister, during her speech, could update the Parliament on the work that has been done in that area.

Another huge concern for me is that council funding levels may threaten the commitment to the Promise. Many care-related services depend on local government funding to survive, including council care providers, respite services, services to support mental health and social wellbeing and services that work alongside third-party organisations to promote and retain foster carers. Should the Scottish Government continue to underfund councils, I fear that those services may be scrapped.

I would be grateful if the minister could confirm whether she has considered the millions of pounds-worth of cuts that are scheduled for local government over the next three years and the impact that they could have on our care-experienced young people.

Four minutes is not enough time for us to properly discuss the Promise. There are many areas that require proper dialogue, and many of those areas have been covered collectively in the contributions that we heard so far.

I will finish by discussing the introduction of a national care allowance for foster care. At present, Scotland remains the only part of the United Kingdom that does not have a national allowance for foster carers. I am sure that everyone in the chamber agrees that foster carers are selfless, caring and wonderful people who provide young people with a fresh start in life. Foster carers have waited too long for the Government to back them as they have backed our care-experienced young people. Therefore, I have another request for the minister: will she confirm that the national minimum allowance will be introduced soon?

We are still a long way from achieving the Promise, but my colleague Roz McCall clearly articulated how it can be achieved. We often talk about lived experience in the chamber, so I call on the Government to continue to listen to our foster carers, care organisations and care-experienced young people—only then will we be able to achieve the Promise.

Photo of Clare Haughey Clare Haughey Scottish National Party

The debate has been valuable. It has allowed the Parliament to consider some of the challenges that adopted children and young people in education face, and it has highlighted the important topic of foster care allowances.

Importantly, it has also demonstrated the continued strength of cross-party support for keeping the Promise. It is absolutely vital that we continue to work collectively to ensure that all care-experienced children and young people are supported to grow up loved, safe and respected. That includes crucial activity to support children and young people who are adopted or fostered.

As the Scottish Government, it is right that we lead from the front, and we set out our commitment to do that in the Promise implementation plan that was published last year. In that plan, we outlined our vision for delivering a good childhood and ensuring that every child lives in a safe and loving home where families are given support to overcome difficulties and stay together.

Where that is not possible, the focus first and foremost must be on what a child wants and needs, underpinned by nurturing relationships, to enable them to have happy childhood experiences and live their life to the full.

I will talk about our work to deliver on that vision, but before I do, Presiding Officer, please allow me to put on record my thanks to all caregivers, including adoptive families and foster carers, and practitioners working in these sectors.

Photo of Roz McCall Roz McCall Conservative

A question comes to mind. I welcome the information that the minister states in relation to looking at children who have moved into an adoptive or care environment and the support that they require. Does the minister agree that that information must flow into education and that our teachers and educators must be fully aware of the problems and issues that those children face?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Minister, I can give you the time back.

Photo of Clare Haughey Clare Haughey Scottish National Party

I am about to come on to education, and I hope that what I have to say will answer the member’s question.

Getting it right for every child—or GIRFEC, as it is known—is the Scottish Government’s commitment to ensuring that all children and young people and their families are offered the right support at the right time from the right people.

We know that children who are adopted may require distinct support for a variety of reasons. GIRFEC supports professionals to assess and design that support, including through multidisciplinary working, to meet individual children’s needs, and to make sure that the level of support is reviewed regularly.

Education is an important part of every child’s upbringing. Children have the right to learn and achieve, and for their educational needs to be supported. The Adoption Barometer report showed that adoptive parents from Scotland were more positive overall about their family’s experience of navigating the education system than those in the rest of the UK. Scottish respondents were also more positive about how well their child’s school was working with them to support their child. That is testimony to the progress that we have made in our schools and other educational settings.

That said, we know that children with care experience are less likely to achieve qualifications than other children. That is why, since 2018, we have invested over £50 million in the care-experienced children and young people fund.

Money is provided to all local authorities in Scotland to fund initiatives that are designed to provide additional support for care-experienced children and young people, including adopted children.

It is clear that that money is making a difference. We have seen mentoring programmes that have had a positive impact on attendance and attainment, and the introduction of the virtual headteachers networks, in which good practice and learning can be shared. That has increased the strategic focus on improving educational experiences and outcomes for care-experienced children in their local authority areas. Importantly, the fund has been used to establish teams to provide direct trauma-informed support to young people who have experienced previous trauma.

We are continuing work through the national trauma training programme to ensure that our education workforce is trauma informed, recognises the impact of adverse experiences on children, and provides the right support to ensure that no further harm is done.

More broadly, the whole family wellbeing funding, with an investment of £500 million over the parliamentary session, will transform services to ensure that families, including adoptive families, can access the support that they need when they need it. We have allocated £50 million in this year’s budget, including £32 million provided directly to children’s services planning partnerships, to enable work at the local level. There is also a statutory duty on all local authorities to provide assistance to adoptive families in their localities.

I turn to the topic of foster care allowances, which several members have raised. I absolutely acknowledge that the introduction of a Scottish recommended allowance for foster and kinship carers has taken far longer than originally anticipated, and I totally recognise the frustrations of care givers and stakeholders. However, I reassure Parliament that that is an absolute priority for me. I remain committed to working constructively with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to deliver that as quickly as possible, and we are exploring all available options to do that.

I began by focusing on the importance of working collaboratively to keep the Promise. In closing the debate, I restate the Scottish Government’s absolute commitment and my commitment, as the Minister for Children and Young People, to do just that. We will continue to work tirelessly with partners across Scotland to ensure that all care-experienced children and young people are supported to grow up loved, safe and respected.

13:22 Meeting suspended.

14:30 On resuming—