Adoption and Fostering - A Brief Introduction

This is the introductory post in a short series on adoption and fostering in Northern Ireland, written by our research assistant Hazel MacAulay.


Fostering and adoption are not a new phenomena. Historically, insofar as families have been experiencing difficulties there have been carers stepping in to care for children who have fallen victim to such circumstances, be it short-term or long-term.  It has been regulated in the UK since 1948 and this has been continuously developed until today. 

The current aim of the government in this context is that it desires to see every child in the UK provided with a permanent and stable home to grow up in.  It probably should go without saying that ideally children being properly cared for by their birth family is where they should be able to thrive best, in alignment with God’s original design for family.  However, there are cases where children are not cared for as they should be, whether it is through abuse or neglect.  Efforts should be made to support a birth family to remain intact in recognition of their rights and that, in the overwhelming majority of cases, many factors beyond the remit of the family’s control have contributed to the issues that the family face.  Yet this must be balanced with the need of a child to grow up in a home that is stable, loving and permanent.  For the minority of children who come to the attention of social services, fostering (either short-term or long-term) or adoption will be deemed as most appropriate in seeking to ensure that this home is obtained.

Fostering & Adoption in Northern Ireland

In March 2017 there were 2,983 children in the care system (Department of Health, 2017), an 11% increase from the previous year.  2,272 of these children had been in care for 12 months or more.  This is not the total number of children with whom social services are involved, this is the number of children who have had a Care Order granted.  This often, at least initially, means that the child will be removed from the home.  Most of these children will be placed into foster care, in 2017, 78% of children in the care system were in foster care.  This can be long-term or short-term and can be provided by family (kinship) or strangers.  For a minority of children (12% in 2017) they live at home with the Care Order, this means that the home situation will be heavily monitored, and a child can easily be removed if necessary.

In 2017, 130 adoptions took place. The average age of a child, when adoption is granted by the courts, is 4 years 5 months, however they have often been with the family for most of their life by the time this takes place.

Impact of being in care

There are some amazingly positive and redemptive stories of children who have been in the care system and who have been profoundly shaped for the good because of their experiences. Unfortunately however, and without prejudice to any individual child, most evidence makes clear that outcomes for children who have been in the Care System are significantly lower than children who have not.  This, for the most part, is often due to the unresolved trauma of abuse or neglect that they were subject to and/or early childhood domestic instability.  Research undertaken by Bright (2017) outlines these key findings relating to the outcomes of children who have been in the care system:

EDUCATION: In 2015, 14% of looked after children achieved 5+ A*-Cs (including English and mathematics) at GCSE, compared to 53% of all children. This is an increase on the 12% achieving this in the previous year.

HOMELESSNESS: The Department for Education reports that in 2010, 25% of adults who were homeless had been in care at some point in their lives.

ABUSE / NEGLECT: In 2015, 61% of looked after children had been taken into care due to abuse or neglect.

OFFENDING / ANTI-SOCIAL BEHAVIOUR: There is an association between children who are in care and offending; the group is over-represented among the offender population. A 2012-2013 survey of 15-17 year olds in young offender institutions found a third of young men and 61% of young women had been in local authority care at some point. This is in comparison to just 0.006% of children in the general population.

MENTAL HEALTH: In 2012, it was reported that looked after children and care leavers were between four and five times more likely to self-harm in adulthood.


The story for these children and young people does not, and can not, end here. There are many people of different faiths and none working together to ensure the best possible futures for young people in care and many Christians are already playing their part. In this fallen world, we worship a God who has revealed Himself as the Father who sacrificed His Son to make wayward orphans His children, eternally. The beauty of this spiritual reality can take on a profoundly practical flesh and form when God’s people embody his heart in this space.  

This week’s series barely scratches the surface of this complex area and certainly does not attempt to provide easy answers. We do want to prompt some questions though, about how the Church can love and better serve vulnerable children and young people, their birth and adoptive or foster families. It is simply our prayer that it might encourage the heart of God’s people into ever closer alignment with His own.

Bright, C. (2017) Assessment of the outcomes of vulnerable children, London: Children's Commissioner.

Department of Health (2017) Children’s Social Care Statistics for Northern Ireland 2016/17, Belfast: Information Analysis Directorate.