Groundbreaking legislation for children in Northern Ireland passes final stage


On Tuesday 15 March 2022, The Adoption and Children Bill reached a significant milestone, passing the final stage in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

This hugely important piece of legislation seeks to modernise the framework for adoption in Northern Ireland and will have a huge impact on children in care and with care experienced and the families who care for them.

Health Minister Robin Swann said the Bill was among the most important bills brought to the assembly*1, recognising that the journey to this point has been a long one. Law relating to adoption was last updated in the 1980s, and updates have been 16 years in the making, having been stalled after public consultation due to the collapse of the Stormont in 2017.

Some significant changes that will be brought about by the Bill include the following: The Bill places the welfare of the child at the heart of adoption decision-making, giving greater weight to the child or young person's thoughts and feelings and including them in the decisions that affect them. The Bill will aim to mitigate against delays in the adoption process by placing new responsibilities on courts and agencies. The Bill introduces a new framework for adoption support and enables families to request an assessment of support needs at any time, before or after an Adoption Order has been made. The Bill places responsibility on the 'corporate parent' to promote high aspirations for children and young people and support them in the preparation for adulthood, ensuring that each child and young person receives the same opportunities as their peers, and it places the Going the Extra Mile (GEM) scheme on a statutory basis to support older teenagers in care as they approach and enter adulthood.

We at Home for Good are delighted to see this Bill passed, and so encouraged to know that throughout the process the Assembly have continued to prioritise the voices of care-experienced children and young people and the families who care for them.

It was our privilege to have played a part in shaping the contents of the Bill. Below is a timeline documenting some of our advocacy work seeking to achieve this vision through engaging with the Adoption and Children Bill in Northern Ireland.


October 2021

Home for Good submitted a response to the Call for Evidence related to the Bill, which outlined our recommendations about how this piece of legislation could provide vast improvements to the outcomes for children and families in need, children in care and those who have left care.

December 2021

Home for Good was delighted to be invited to give oral evidence to the Committee for Health, alongside a number of other organisations including Action for Children, Barnardo’s, Adoption UK and the Fostering Network. Former Northern Ireland Lead Malini Colville and current Southern Trust Co-ordinator Judith Dawson provided evidence to the Committee, emphasising the role of community groups in supporting children and families and sharing stories from Home for Good’s work in Northern Ireland of individuals stepping up to care for vulnerable children.

"This week, I spoke with two adoptive parents who are paying privately for their children to get assessments for their health and educational needs because they do not have the services and support that they need. That is putting financial pressure on that family, but they have to weigh that up against the risk of not having a timely assessment and intervention. If they are waiting for a year, or a year and a half, for example, for an occupational therapist to have input, what impact will that have on their child?"

Judith Dawson, Southern Trust Co-ordinator, in evidence to the Committee. *2

While a range of expertise was shared with the Committee, all organisations giving evidence were unanimous in stressing the importance of the Bill passing in this legislative period.

The committee also held a number of informal sessions with care-experienced young people, parents and carers. The Chair of the Committee, Colm Gildernew MLA noted the remarks of one young person who said, “Give us options. When you have options, you have a voice.” As a result of this call, the Committee expressed their desire to see a change in processes that will ensure the voices of children and young people are clearly heard, taken into account and acted on when decisions are made about their care and future. We wholeheartedly welcome this call, recognising that the lives of children and young people can be significantly impacted by decisions made and therefore their perspectives should be intentionally sought and listened to at every stage.

February 2022

On 14 February, the Committee for Health presented their findings and suggested amendments to the Assembly. We were hugely encouraged to see that a number of amendments put forward reflected what we had raised and recommended within our written and oral evidence.

1. Assessment of needs for adoption support services

While the Bill enables all adopted children to access an assessment of needs, we emphasised to the Committee the need for a guarantee of timely support to accompany this assessment. We recommended that the Department of Health consider the sufficiency of the infrastructure, resources and finance within the Trusts to ensure they are equipped to implement support, based on the outcomes of the assessment of support needs, as outlined as a duty within the Bill. The Committee have since proposed an amendment to the Bill that requires there to be provision of support services for those who have had an assessment undertaken.

2. The Social Care Workforce

Social workers are at the heart of effectively supporting children and families and we know that many go above and beyond in their roles to do so. In presenting to the Assembly, Committee Chair Colm Gildernew MLA highlighted the existing pressure on social work staff which has been exacerbated by the pandemic and urged the Department of Health to ensure that there are sufficient social care workers to consistently meet the needs of children and families in the social care system. He also urged the Department to consider the support and programmes provided by the voluntary and charity sector, and to invest in these organisations to enable their services to be expanded. Home for Good has been working to find homes for children and support families in Northern Ireland since 2016 and we are grateful for the recognition of our work. We work alongside all five Trusts to find homes for children and would be delighted to support the Department of Health in its work to enable every child and young person in care in Northern Ireland to flourish.

Health Minister Robin Swann MLA responded that work is already underway to review social worker capacity and to implement changes to build a stronger workforce, including around commissioning, recruitment, retention and development. The review of children's services, due to begin in February 2022, will also inform actions that will build the capacity of children and family social services.

3. Education

The draft Bill included a new requirement for authorities to promote the child’s educational achievement as part of their duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of a child and to ensure that wherever possible, their education or training is not disrupted. Home for Good were pleased to see this inclusion in the Bill; we know that disruption to education and the positive relationships children can have with educational professionals can have a huge impact on their ability to engage in a school environment and reach their potential. However, our evidence called for the Bill to go further to ensure that educational settings are equipped to recognise the impact of trauma and therefore create a safe and supportive environment for children. In addition, we expressed that educational achievement should be considered holistically; ensuring that educational performance is not prioritised over a child’s emotional wellbeing.

    The Committee proposed the Bill should be amended to include the words ‘facilitate and support’ alongside the word ‘promote’ to express the intention behind this clause, which is that care-experienced children and young people should have access to the same range of opportunities as their peers and should be enabled and encouraged to learn.

    In addition, the Committee suggested that ‘educational achievement’ be replaced with ‘achievement and development in relation to education or training’. We strongly support this amendment which widens the scope of what is considered ‘achievement’. As Committee Chair Colm Gildernew MLA expressed during the debate, “There is more to education than just educational achievement...educational achievement is not the only achievement.

    March 2022

    On Monday 7 March, the Bill moved into the Further Consideration stage, where five technical amendments were put forward by the Minister of Health Robin Swann MLA and the Committee for Health. During this stage, members acknowledged the positive collaboration and cooperation between the Committee, the Department and the Minister during the course of the Bill’s journey and all amendments proposed were agreed to.


    Our vision is of a care system where children are thriving within homes that are havens and where every child always has a family by their side. We are grateful for the work of MLAs from across parties who are working together to secure change on behalf of Northern Ireland’s vulnerable children. We look forward to continuing to work with MLAs from all parties in the forthcoming Review of Children’s Social Care Services, which commenced in February, to enable every child and young person to receive the safety, stability and love they need to thrive.

    "It is my belief that, by improving confidence in our adoption systems, we will encourage more people to come forward as potential adoptive parents. That can only be good for the children in Northern Ireland for whom adoption is considered the best way forward."

    The Minister of Health, Robin Swann MLA *3



    *1. BBC News: Out-of-date adoption laws in Northern Ireland set to change. Tuesday 15 March 2022. Available online.

    *2. Official Report: Minutes of Evidence Committee for Health, meeting on Thursday, 16 December 2021. Available online.

    *3. Official Report: Executive Committee Business, Adoption and Children Bill: Final Stage on 14 March 2022. Available online.

    Author:
    Home for Good


    Date published:
    March 2022


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