JUST before National Adoption Awareness Week in November, shocking news emerged that there had been a sharp decline in the number of children adopted in the UK in recent years.

Figures from the Department for Education showed the overall adoption rate had fallen by as much as 5% to only 3,050 of the 65,520 under-16s currently in care in the year to March 2011.

Indeed, only 60 babies were adopted in the UK last year. To put that in context, 4,000 babies were adopted in England in 1976.

These worrying revelations led to David Cameron criticising the bureaucratic adoption process and calling for: “a real culture change in this country to become more pro-adoption.”

The Coalition promised to name and shame those with poor adoption records.

“We will publish data on how very local authority is performing, to ensure they are working quickly enough to provide the safe and secure family environment every child deserves,” said Mr Cameron.

Hillingdon was ranked as the joint-sixth worst authority in the country on adoption performance, with only 58% of its eligible children in care being adopted over 12 months.

But this statistic does not tell the whole story.

In fact, Hillingdon is one of only a few authorities in the to buck the national trend and see its adoption rate rise considerably.

The number of looked-after children successfully placed for adoption in Hillingdon rose from just 5.1% in 2009 to 8% in 2010, while in the same space of time the national average declined from 8.1% to 7.4%.

With 12 children already placed for adoption in 2010-11, Hillingdon is projecting to place at least 20 children by the end of this financial year.

David Fry, Adoption and Fostering Service Manager, said: “It is quite an increase and we’re very proud of that because it means there are more children living with permanent families.”

He attributes the improved performance simply to more efficiently targeting the recruitment of adopters.

“From my experience we have a good recruitment process and a good pool of adopters,” he said. “We have people waiting that we can match with children, so the delays are less than they were and therefore we are appearing to buck the national trend.”

He also believes part of the reason for the decline in national adoption rates is the increase in special guardianship orders - an alternative form of permanency available to children in care.

SGOs are often more appropriate for children who are a little older as the birth parents retain some contact and responsibility, whereas when a child is adopted they legally transfer wholly into their new family.

“There is no national report into parental guardianship numbers, so you haven’t got a comparison,” said Mr Fry, who reports that SGO rates in Hillingdon are also improving considerably.

“It appears that adoption rates are going down, but I don’t think that means fewer children are finding permanents.”

Janet Smith, Director of Adoption Support at Adoption UK, a self-help charity run by and for adoptive parents and foster carers and an adoptive parent herself, agrees.

“Some of the children who may have been given a SGO this year, may have in the past been placed for adoption,” she said.

So, are the Government’s league tables fair on local adoption teams, such as Hillingdon’s?

“My personal view is that naming and shaming is never helpful,” said David Simmonds, deputy leader of Hillingdon Council and cabinet member for education and children’s services.

“I think the league tables don’t tell the whole story and, even in Hillingdon, around half of the looked-after children are older, unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who are unlikely to be adopted, so we’re doing even better than the figures superficially suggest.

“But these kind of issues are important and need to be part of that national debate about how to improve adoption overall.”

Sally, an office worker from Hayes, was adopted when she was six weeks old and says that, despite recent criticisms of the adoption process, attitudes and local authority support in the UK and Hillingdon have come a long way since she was a child.

“The experience and process of adoption has changed considerably - it’s much better nowadays,” she said/ Growing up, Sally had trouble fitting in as a mixed-race child. “Family life in general was happy, but I still felt different from other children, especially due to skin colour,” she said. “My adopted parents were also quite a bit older than my friends’ parents as in those days there were no restrictions on age.”

Sally’s mother had given her up because she was illegitimate, which was frowned upon at the time.

As an adult, Sally traced her mother in 1984 and had a 30-minute conversation with her on the phone. “It really was just like speaking to a stranger. She had gone on to marry and have two sons. She promised to send me photos of them, for me to see if there was any resemblance between them and me - but this never materialised and I never heard from her again.”

Attitudes and support surrounding adoption might have improved considerably since Sally was adopted, but the emotional difficulties she faced are still very common among children placed for adoption or fostering.

This is especially the case for older children in care, who, statistically, have a much smaller chance of finding permanent homes.

Despite Hillingdon’s increasing number of successful adoptions, Cllr Simmonds really wants to see a great deal of improvement for these older children in care.

“Babies tend to find adopted families relatively easily,” he said, “but for older children it is much more difficult and that is something that, as a country, we need to look at.”

Often, such problems simply boil down to not being able to find enough people interested in adopting children.

All my interviewees agree that recent discussions on adoption have been constructive, as anything that promotes adoption and helps to encourage more prospective adopters can only be a good thing.

“It’s really about those people interested in adopting stepping forward and making contact with their local authority adoption teams or a voluntary adoption agency,” said Janet Smith.

David Fry dismisses suggestions that the recession has had an impact on prospective adopters’ willingness to come forward. “There are – maybe surprisingly in these times – a heart-warming number who, for altruistic reasons, are recognising that there are children who need homes, and our children end up in good homes as a result,” he said.

There is no escaping the fact that adoption rates in Hillingdon and the UK are still low considering the number of children in care, but Mr Fry believes he and his team are capable of meeting the challenge.

“We think we’re doing all right, but we don’t rest on our laurels and we’re going to keep on improving,” he said.

“We do offer good support, and we do have a good, experienced team of social workers.

“If there are people who have space in their home and space in their heart and want to offer children a permanent home, we would love to hear from them and we promise we will welcome them with open arms.”

Sally’s name was changed for privacy reasons.

For more information about adoption and foster caring in Hillingdon, call: (0800) 7831298, email: fost-adopt@hillingdon.gov.uk or visit: http://www.hillingdon.gov.uk/index.jsp?articleid=7760 For more information on Adoption UK, visit: http://www.adoptionuk.org/