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By Ben Leapman, Home Affairs Correspondent
A council has admitted receiving Government money under a controversial "adoption target" scheme that rewards the removal of children from their parents.
Hammersmith and Fulham council, in west London, was paid £500,000 as a reward for placing more than 100 children for adoption in three years. The council is the first to acknowledge publicly a payout under the target scheme. It said that its social workers had "pulled out all the stops" and "cut down on the amount of bureaucracy" to boost the numbers.
They exceeded their goal of 101 adoptions, securing 106 by this month's deadline. In almost every case, the birth parents fought to keep their children but were defeated in the family courts.
A spokesman for the Tory-controlled council said: "Nearly all of these children were adopted compulsorily through the courts. In each of these cases the courts decided that adoption was the right thing for the child."
The councillor in charge of the campaign, Antony Lillis, said that the children had had the "least promising" start in life, and were more likely to "go on to achieve economic well-being" with their new adoptive parents.
Campaigners said that some babies might have been taken unnecessarily from birth parents of limited means. John Hemming, the Liberal Democrat MP and chairman of Justice for Families, said: "I am concerned that Hammersmith and Fulham may have removed children to hit its target."
The council announced its success in a press release headed "Adoption target met". Its disclosure appeared to contradict the claims of Kevin Brennan, the children's minister, who seemed to deny the existence of adoption targets when he said earlier this year: "The only national adoption targets, which ended in 2006, were on the number of adoptions of children who were already in care and waiting to be placed for adoption, and on the speeding up of this. There was never a financial incentive for local authorities to meet these national targets."
Mr Hemming said: "These comments by Hammersmith and Fulham blow the Government's claims out of the water. The Government said there were no numerical targets, but this council says there were. The Government said nobody would be rewarded for hitting the targets, but this council says it has been."
The first nationwide adoption targets were set in 2000, with the aim of cutting the time that children spent in foster care or children's homes - which are unsettling for children and expensive for taxpayers - before being found permanent homes.
However, critics claim that targets for councils, backed by cash rewards that have totalled at least £36?million, give social workers a perverse incentive to remove more babies from their parents, rather than find homes for older children already in their care. The Government responded by scrapping the targets from this month, so the payout to Hammersmith and Fulham will be one of the last.
The Sunday Telegraph, in its "Stop the Secrecy" campaign, has reported cases where babies have been removed from their devastated parents at birth, following family court sessions held in private with the threat of prison for families who speak out. Campaigners claim to have identified more than 100 possible miscarriages of justice.
Sometimes pregnant women are identified for forced adoption because they are drug addicts or have neglected previous children. In other cases, social workers cite mental health problems in the woman's past, or concerns about their likely skill as a parent. Babies removed at birth tend to spend a year or two in foster care before adoption, which is permanent and irreversible.
The number of newborn children taken into care has almost trebled in a decade, reaching 1,400 in 2005/6, A Hammer smith and Fulham spokesman said of the 101 target: " At the time, the council felt that the bar was set too high, as in the previous three-year period only 71 children had been adopted.
"H&F's adoption team swung into action and pulled out all the stops in order to meet the target. In part, this was made possible by the adoption team linking up with the council's legal department and cutting down on the amount of bureaucracy that prospective adopters had to deal with."
Mr Lillis said: "There is absolutely no relationship whatsoever between Government targets and the removal of children, and it is impossible for this or any other local authority to inappropriately have children adopted to meet targets."
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