Shocked by the headlines – is IVF causing a drop in adoptions?

Jim Clifford tackles recent stories in the press speculating that the drop in the rate of children being adopted is partly caused by improvements in IVF.

I was shocked when I saw the news headlines last week (England adoption rates falling as IVF improves, says senior official). Several sources trumpeted Anthony Douglas, the retiring head of Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, bewailing how improvements in IVF since the late 70’s had contributed to, even caused, a reduction in adoptions.

I was shocked on three counts. Firstly, that Mr Douglas’ conclusions fly in the face of evidence that the lowering in adoptions since the 70’s is due to other factors. Second is that his other, important if strangely expressed, point about the dangers to girls (actually boys as well) being trafficked by drugs gangs was not the lead element in the interview. Finally I was shocked that informed and educated people can draw conclusions in such an illogical way, reaching the wrong answer making such basic mistakes in analysing causation and impact. Correlation (and spurious correlation at that) does not equal causation.

We live in a complex world, of complex people, living in and supported by complex systems. This is nowhere more true than when looking at children and young people, and perhaps even more so those whose growth and development is disrupted, traumatic and dangerous. Adoption is one of several ways in which homes can be found for children that desperately need them.

However it is not suitable for them all. The world, for children, has changed since the late 70’s. More support for single parents, increased understanding of neuropsychology and the effects both of early years trauma and how to address it, changes in the process of adoption, different expectations about maintaining family ties: these have changed the landscape immeasurably. Looking beyond that, the article cites 2016 figures for adoptions, and notes the fall in adoptions from 5,460 to 4,350 in two years. However this was the period that picked up much of the effect of the Re: B-S case, widely reported, that saw a 50% fall in numbers of adoptions as social workers perceived the courts had somehow turned against adoption as a permanence solution. Even that was perhaps not the sole cause of the tailing-off in ambition for children: we also had the targets introduced by the Adoption Leadership Board for getting adoptions through the system in twelve months from decision to placement. They are actually possibly going through more quickly (Children waiting more than two years were 63% in 2013, and 37% in 2016/7)… but have we cut out the more difficult-to-place children?

The twittering and comments on the articles show that people are keen to comment and debate. Yet we are still speaking to an uninformed public that may be susceptible to this skewed argument – the same public who, according to a recent survey, believed that most adoptees were orphaned, when in reality that ceased to be the case many years ago.

Which brings me to my third shock. Reporting of this nature needs to take responsibility for its effects on public opinion. These include skewed public perception; policy responses to the wrong areas; and lack of attention to the root causes of any given problem. With dwindling resources in many areas of public spending it’s important to properly understand the effects of any decision, budget allocation/reduction or policy change.

This is one of the reasons why impact measurement is gaining in traction in numerous sectors. It’s based in effective methodologies to unpick causal chains and determine proper attribution of outcomes to specific activities, inputs or actions. It includes rigorous investigation of negative impacts as well as positive – weeding out unintended consequences by drawing on behavioural and social research as well as economic. Above all it includes a realistic and open-minded review of the various causes of the effects it sees, so that they can be helpfully understood, and the wrong conclusions do not get drawn.

So come on, Mr Douglas and others: we are seeing a growing client base seeking our support in understanding, articulating and measuring impact , from a wide variety of sectors. Help us build, not wreck that understanding.

This information is necessarily of a general nature and doesn’t constitute legal advice. This is not a substitute for formal legal advice, given in the context of full information under an engagement with Bates Wells.

All content on this page is correct as of November 14, 2018.