‘Children who Wait’ by Jane Rowe and Lydia Lambert

Jane Rowe and Lydia Lambert (1973) Children who wait: a study of children needing substitute families London: Association of British Adoption Agencies

With the passing of the Abortion Act 1967 there was a significant fall in the number of infants available for adoption and the queue of prospective adoptive parents lengthened. Adoption agencies began to look for alternative sources of children to satisfy this demand, among them children from ethnic minorities and children with disabilities. This study sought to identify whether there were children in the care of local authorities or voluntary organisations who might benefit from long-term foster or adoptive parenting. In the event, it also provided a useful snapshot of the state of child care in Great Britain.

Key Ideas

–           Every child has a right to a family of his/her own.

–           Adoption and foster care are not separate categories.

–           If children are not discharged from care within six months, they tend to stay in care for a long time.

–           Single illegitimate children and sibling groups from disorganised families are more likely to remain in long term care.

–           Though only 52% of children in long term care were in residential placements, 91% of the 22% awaiting long-term family placement were in residential care.

–           Children in residential care generally received more visits from their parents.

–           Children in foster care generally had fewer problems.

–           Younger children and illegitimate children tended to be favoured for adoption with indeterminate fostering for older children, sibling groups and those with parental contact.

–           The main obstacles to placement were siblings, the shortage of suitable placements, parents’ behaviour and attitudes, any behaviour problems and the child’s ethnicity.

–           There were wide variations between the agencies sampled but adoption was more likely to be a central resource and fostering managed locally.

–           The decision to begin the search for a long-term family placement generally followed a change in the situation of the child, the family or the social worker/agency rather than a review.

–           Significant minorities of children had never had a review or had not had a recent review and had not been visited in the past year.

–           Social workers had a tendency to disparage the capacities and interests of parents.


In Chapter I Why the study was done, the authors explain that in 1971 there was little information on whether there were any children in care who needed permanent substitute parents. Adoption had peaked at 27,000 in 1968 and there were now long queues of prospective adopters in spite of efforts to extend adoption to children from minority ethnic groups and those with special needs. There were plenty of adverts for the long-term fostering of older children but not for adoption.

The authors started with two basic assumptions, that

–           every child has a right to a family of his own,

–           adoption and foster care are not separate categories.

They initially intended to study children already assessed for long term family placement but, following the pilot study, extended the scope of the study to:

–           all children under 11 in long term substitute care,

–           assessment of social work aims and family situation,

–           expected length of stay,

–           certain basic data,

–           allocation of cases, and

–           recruitment of adoptive parents.

In Chapter II How the study was carried out, they note the need to minimise the workload on agencies because the study took place during a re-organisation in England and after one in Scotland. As a result of the pilot study, they estimated that they needed a sample of 3,000 to get a study group of 4-500 children and selected eight Scottish local authorities, twenty English and Welsh local authorities and five voluntary organisations each of whom was asked to identify 70-100 children.

For the study they used a three part questionnaire: one part for the administrative staff, one for the social worker and one for the project worker.

In Chapter III All the children in the study, as it had become clear that it would be useful to publish data on all the 2,812 children identified by the agencies, they present this: 57% were boys, 71% were school age, 23% two to five years old, 6% under two and 50% were illegitimate.

62% had siblings in care, with legitimate children twice as likely to have siblings in care as illegitimate; 46% were placed together.

25% were Roman Catholic though Roman Catholics only accounted for 10% of the population; 67% were Church of England or Church of Scotland and the remainder non-conformists, Jews, Muslims or Hindus. 80% were white.

Their assessments revealed problems in health, intelligence and/or behaviour; 60% were in voluntary care, 21% had been subject to parental rights resolutions and 19% to care orders. 52% were in a residential placement

In Chapter IV The realities of long-term care, they review the existing research which suggested that, once a child had been in care for six months, the chance of rehabilitation to parents was slim.

Yet 75% of the children in the sample had been in care for more than two years and 61% were expected to stay in care until they were eighteen.

51% of the sample had been admitted before the age of two, most of them only once but 17% had had two admissions and 11% three or more. Less than a quarter had been in only one placement, 40% had had one or two moves and 16% four or more moves. Around a third had had the same social worker, 61% had had two or three and 5% had had four or more. 23% had frequent contact with one parent; 35% had infrequent contact with one and 41% had no contact.

It was clear that the longer children remained in care, the less often they saw their parents though Thorpe (1973) argues that social workers lost interest in parents.

Overall, the authors were struck by the number of:

–           single illegitimate children,

–           sibling groups from disorganised families.

In Chapter V The children who need substitute families, they conclude that probably 6,000 children in care are in need of substitute families but most are of school age and have special needs; 25% are black.

They identified 626 children or 22% of the sample as awaiting family placement; 60% were boys, 50% were illegitimate, about two thirds were five or over and most were fostered with their siblings; 30% were Roman Catholic; a substantial minority had health, intelligence and/or behaviour problems.

The number of moves in care they had had was similar to that of the whole sample but 91% were in residential care.

Among the rest of the sample, 1,233 or 44% were already boarded out and for 953 or 34% residential care had been assessed as the best option.

While there were exceptions, children in residential care had most visits from their parents and children in foster care least but it was unclear whether this was because foster parents created difficulties or because fostering had been chosen because there was little parental contact. Parental opposition to foster care was often given as a reason for residential care.

Overall children in foster care had fewer problems, particularly those related to lower intelligence/behaviour, while those who needed substitute families had more problems and less parental contact.

In Chapter VI Choosing homes for children, they note that the children had been assessed for:

indeterminate foster care


permanent foster homes


foster homes as prospective adoptees


adoptive homes


The factors which seemed to influence these choices were age and estimated length of stay; a permanent foster home would be considered for those expected to be in care for a long time; where there was parental contact or siblings, indeterminate foster care was more likely to be considered. Little work was being done with parents if a permanent foster home was expected. Adoption tended to be favoured for illegitimate children or younger children.

The main obstacles to placement were siblings, the shortage of suitable placements, parents’ behaviour and attitudes, any behaviour problems and the child’s ethnicity.

In Chapter VII The agencies, they describe the local authorities and voluntary organisations that had taken part in the study and note that it is difficult to explain some of the variations between them particularly in regard to their perceived need for placements.

In Chapter VIII Homefinding services, they note that adoption was more likely than fostering to be a central service and more likely to be subject to specific standards. There was very little cooperation between agencies or systematic recruitment of foster parents. A search often began after a change in the situation of child, family or social worker/agency but in practice foster parents recruiting foster parents was the most successful way.

Only 57% had had a review (mandatory in England and Wales) in the previous six months while 13% had never been reviewed and 10% had not had a review for over a year. While over half the children and half their parents had been visited by a social worker up to six times in the previous year, 15% of children and 39% of parents had not been visited at all.

In Chapter IX The main findings, the summarise the results of the study. Of the 626 or 22% of the sample needing substitute families (the percentage ranged from 3-45% in different agencies), almost all had special needs, mostly relating to behaviour problems or low intelligence, nearly two thirds were boys, over half were living with their siblings but had less family contact than other children in residential care.

Adoption tended to be preferred for those with specific problems and fostering for those from disorganised families.

Because finding homes for the children needed special effort, it was hampered by pressure of work; more organisation and more cooperation was needed for adoption than for fostering.

Summarising the results for the whole sample, they note that rehabilitation was expected for a minority, most had been admitted young and remained in care and social workers tended to disparage their parents’ capacities and interests.

Children in residential care were more likely to be touch with their parents and return home while 57% of children in foster care had no contact with their parents.

In Chapter X The implications for practice, they argue that in the short term there needs to be greater recognition of the situation, commitment of staff and resources of all types. In the long term there needs to be more effective family diagnosis, decision-making and implementation; there needs to be a range of substitute families available, accompanied by greater recognition of issues relating to good quality foster care. More emphasis needs to be placed on both pre- and post-placement services. Even though adoption is often regarded as cheap and fostering more expensive, both require effort and investment.

The study concludes with a number of appendices covering aspects of the study.


Though the authors were not to know it, they were carrying out their study at much the same time as Taylor and Alpert (1973) and Fanshel and Shinn (1978) and coming up with very similar findings, though the conclusions they draw are somewhat different as the purpose of their study was significantly different.

They start from much the same position as Mary Carpenter (1853) that, if a child does not have a functioning family, the state needs to make sure they have one but, whereas she saw this family being provided within a residential context, they envisage it being provided in a foster or adoptive home.

They note the antipathy of some parents to foster care and the greater willingness of parents to visit children in residential care but list the former as an obstacle rather than seeing it, as Trasler (1960) had done and Fanshel and Shinn (1978) were to demonstrate, as the key to understanding that successful social work relies on working with families, not excluding them. However, Wiener and Wiener (1990) suggest that there may be another dynamic with a minority of parents’ whose children really need a substitute family opposing this. As Bettelheim (1950) argues, there are some parents whose children need to be away from them; the questions are how many and should one adopt Neill’s approach (1962) of keeping them at arm’s length or Mr Lyward’s approach (Burn, 1956) of maintaining active contact with them? The overwhelming evidence is that these parents are few in number.

Their rather cavalier lumping of adoption and fostering into one category (though they identify four separate types of arrangement in the study) betrays a very limited awareness of the importance of identity for a child and of a child being able to choose their own identity. As Tom O’Neill (1981) describes, his brother, Terry, was pressured to adopt a relationship with his foster parents which he did not want, while his brother, Freddy, chose to take his foster parents’ surname, but that was a choice Freddy made, not one imposed on him by a foster parent or a social worker.

That said, the way the study was carried out and the data they were able to assemble provided the first comprehensive picture of what was happening in child care services; broadly speaking, those who remained in care for any length of time were likely to remain in care for a long time; those who were perceived to have fewer problems and whose parents did not object were more likely to be fostered while the remainder remained in residential care.

However, while Trotzkey (1930) had shown that a similar situation existed forty years earlier in the US, he had also shown, as Wiener and Wiener (1990) were to do twenty years later, that children with greater needs benefited from the greater resources available in residential care. In view of the generally poor quality of extra-familial care (Department for Education and Skills, 2006), that may not have been the case in the UK but it is certainly not clear in the light of the evidence that was to emerge in the subsequent two decades that taking children with special needs out of residential care and placing them in foster care would have been as beneficial as most professionals at the time thought.


Bettelheim, B (1950) Love is not enough: the treatment of emotionally disturbed children Glencoe IL: Free Press See also Children Webmag August 2009

Burn, M (1956) Mr Lyward’s answer London: Hamish Hamilton See also Children Webmag May 2009

Carpenter, M (1853) Juvenile delinquents, their condition and treatment London: W & F G Cash See also Children Webmag November 2008

Department for Education and Skills (2006) Care matters: transforming the lives of children and young people in care Cm 6932 London: The Stationery Office

Fanshel, D and Shinn, E B (1978) Children in foster care: a longitudinal investigation Guildford: Columbia University Press See also Children Webmag March 2009

Neill, A S (1962) Summerhill: a radical approach to education London: Victor Gollancz. Originally published 1960 Summerhill: a radical approach to child rearing New York: Hart See also Children Webmag July 2009

O’Neill, T (1981) A place called Hope: caring for children in distress Oxford: Blackwell See also Children Webmag May 2009

Taylor, D and Alpert, S W (1973) Continuity and support: following residential treatment New York: Child Welfare League of America See also Children Webmag March 2009

Thorpe, R (1973) Consumers’ Viewpoint. Social Work Today 4(3)

Trasler, G (1960) In place of parents: a study of foster care London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

Trotzkey, E L (1930) Institutional care and placing-out; the place of each in the care of dependent children Chicago: The Marks Nathan Jewish Orphan Home See also Children Webmag November 2008

Wiener, A and Wiener, E (1990) Expanding the options in child placement Lanham MD: University Press of America

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