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Just as the Children Act 1989 gave primacy to the welfare of the child so does the Adoption and Children Act 2002 which received royal assent in November 2002 (Frank Roper. National Children’s Bureau. Highlight no199. May 2003). The Act revises the legal basis for adoption in England and Wales and some parts apply to Scotland and Northern Ireland. The main provisions are expected to come into force in 2004.
The intentions behind the Act are to safeguard the welfare of the child, to improve adoption practice, to shorten the adoption process, and to promote fairness and efficiency. It provides a “welfare checklist” and requires courts and adoption agencies to consider the wishes of the child as far as is possible. Local authorities will have to maintain an adoption service and provide adoption support services. Adoptive families and others involved will have a right to ask for an assessment of needs for support services and adoption support agencies will be required to register under the Care Standards Act 2000. The appropriate Minister will be able to set up an independent mechanism to review decisions such as refusal to approve a person as an adopter and unmarried couples, same sex couples, and single people will be able to apply to adopt. Step-parents will also have this right and may be granted parental responsibility. The Act also provides for improved access for courts and the Registrar General to agency records, for improvements in procedures for adoption of children from other countries, and for restriction of adoptions other than through adoption agencies. Courts will have to draw up timetables to ensure that adoption cases are resolved as quickly as possible. The Secretary of State will be able to set up an Adoption and Children Act Register to facilitate matching of prospective adopters and children waiting to be adopted. Unmarried fathers will acquire parental responsibility when they register the birth together with the mother.
Other recent initiatives have included the setting up of an Adoption Register for England and Wales, which includes details of all children awaiting adoption and all approved adopters (www.adoptionregister.net), and the establishment of an Adoption and Permanence Task force (www.doh.gov.uk/adoption/improvingpractice/index.htm).
Government targets for 2004–05 are to increase the number of looked-after children who are adopted by 40%, and preferably by 50%, compared with 1999–2000 and to increase the proportion of looked-after children who are placed for adoption within 12 months of the decision that the child should be adopted to 95%.