United Kingdom adoption agency Web sites
First Monday

United Kingdom adoption agency Web sites by Roger Fenton



Abstract
The United Kingdom made major changes in its law on child adoption in 2002. The government is also requiring central and local government agencies to provide more information to the public via the Internet. This paper investigates how U.K. local authority and voluntary adoption agencies present information about themselves and adoption on the Internet. It examines the Web sites of 30 U.K. adoption agencies in terms of 189 features of information architecture and information content, to see to what extent they fulfill their mission of informing the public and reach recognized industry and government standards of presentation. The results show major shortfalls in almost every respect.

Contents

Introduction
Literature review
Methodology
Results
Conclusions: Most and least common features
Conclusions: Rating the agencies
Discussion
Further work
Provision of adoption information on the Internet

 


 

Introduction

Imagine you are an infertile couple in Great Britain and you want to start a family. You’re reasonably Web–savvy, so you log on to your local authority’s Web site to find out how to adopt. What are you likely to find? Not much. Now imagine you’re an adult adoptee and you’ve decided to trace your birth family, which you have the legal right to do. Or you’re a man who fathered a baby boy years ago who was adopted, and you want to find out what happened to him. What useful information are you likely to find on the Web site of the agency which handled the adoption? Probably nothing at all. Why? Because the Web sites of United Kingdom adoption agencies almost entirely ignore the needs of most of the people they should be serving. And even for the one group they do cater to, they meet neither basic government requirements about providing information nor industry and government standards of presentation.

The legal context: Adoption law in the United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom (U.K.) child adoption is tightly controlled by the State. Each local authority (roughly equivalent in powers to a U.S. county, but without the same degree of tax–raising power) must provide an adoption service, either on its own account, as a joint service with other local authorities, or by contracting the service out to a licensed voluntary (non–government) adoption agency. Private placements by doctors, midwives, clergymen, etc. are illegal. The law of adoption in the U.K. differs between the four "home nations" — England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland — although the law in England and Wales is virtually identical, with Scotland and Northern Ireland differing more significantly. The laws in the Isle of Man and the Channel Isles, which are not part of the U.K., are also similar. Adoptions made in any of these jurisdictions are recognized by the others and children can be sent from one jurisdiction to another for adoption.

The first U.K. act of Parliament to regulate adoption was the Adoption of Children Act 1926 (Great Britain, 1926). Since then there have been several other acts more or less exclusively concerned with adoption. The most recent law is the Adoption and Children Act 2002 (the 2002 Act) (Great Britain, 2002), which consolidates all previous acts. The 2002 Act, together with the statutory instruments and codes of practice which it authorizes, also makes a number of important basic changes to the law. The intention of the 2002 Act is to:

  • consolidate previous adoption law,
  • make adoption available to more children by enlarging the pool of potential families,
  • make the process quicker and more transparent for all parties, and
  • improve the support of families after adoption.

The aim of these changes is to increase the number of adoptions by 40 percent by 2004–05 over their level in 2001.

Specific provisions of the 2002 Act and its supporting legislation and regulations include:

  • The child’s interests will be the paramount consideration by the courts in all decisions regarding adoption, bringing adoption into line with the Children Act 1989 (Great Britain, 1989).
  • Adoptions where a child is brought to the U.K. from a foreign country for adoption are now regulated more tightly, and local authorities now must provide a service to assess prospective inter–country adopters.
  • Regulations outlawing advertising and payments in relation to adoption are tightened up.
  • Decisions about placement are to be made at an earlier stage in the process.
  • The time taken to come to decisions in all aspects of the adoption process is to be speeded up, without prejudicing the welfare of the children.
  • Legal parenthood is to become easier for step–parents to acquire.
  • The procedure for foster parents who which to adopt their foster children is to be speeded up and simplified.
  • A form of semi–adoption, "special guardianship," was introduced for children who need the permanency of adoption but without losing their legal relationship to their birth parents.
  • Adoption is now possible by both members of an unmarried partnership, whether heterosexual or homosexual.
  • An independent review process for unsuccessful applicants has been set up.
  • The system of financial support for adoptive families has been modernized.
  • An Adoption Register has been established to improve the matching of waiting children who have special needs with adoptive parents. Its use by local authorities in England and Wales is mandatory.
  • All local authorities must now provide a post-placement support service for adoptees and their families, and must assess applications for the service (although there is still no right of service).
  • A national standard has been imposed for providing information from adoption records to adoptees and their birth families.
  • Standards for contact between adopted children and their birth families are set.
  • Local authorities must set up advocacy services for children in their care care and for those who leave care when they become legal adults.

The E–government context

Internet access in U.K. households has risen steadily from a figure of just over 10 percent in January 1999. In August 2003 household Internet penetration reached 50 percent: Half of all homes in the country had direct access to the Internet. Among people of an age to become adoptive parents, home Internet access is higher than average: 57 percent in the 25–34 age band, 66 percent for ages 35–44, and 62 percent for ages 45–54 (Oftel, 2003). In addition, every public library in the U.K. has, or soon will have, public–access Internet terminals, giving every person in the country access to the World Wide Web.

Mindful of the potential this represents for distributing large amounts of information to its citizens quickly, efficiently and at any time of the day or night, the government decreed that central and local governments must make the availability of information and services over the Internet a priority (Department for Culture, Media and Sport, 2003).

The government spelled out its intentions with respect to local government information in Local E–Gov: The National Strategy for Local e–Government (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, 2002). This states local government services must be "more accessible, more convenient, more responsive and more cost-effective" [1] by the end of 2005. By then "all services should be available electronically, but accessed through a variety of channels" [2]. The service areas targeted as priorities for online delivery include "[i]mproving the quality of life for: — children, young people and families at risk" and "promoting healthier communities" [3], both of which include the aims of local authority adoption services.

This does not mean providing services exclusively electronically, and Local E–Gov recognizes that "[w]hat may be right for some customers paying parking fines may not be right for others seeking home care" [4]. Adoption services such as assessment, post–placement supervision, court hearings, post–adoption support, and counseling will probably never be provided over the Web, but there is a definite role for the Web in providing information about services, about adoption itself, and providing a point of first contact. The up–to–dateness, accuracy and amount of information provided by agency Web sites constitute one strand of the research reported here.

To make e–government more efficient the central government has also provided some consistency by developing compulsory standards and models for local government Web sites. The Local Authority Websites National Project (LAWs) (http://www.laws-project.org.uk/) is intended to be complete by 31 March 2004 and "will develop a suite of applications that can be implemented in a modular fashion dependent on local technological skills and maturity" [5]. These include standards for information architecture, metadata and accessibility (Local Authority Websites National Project, n.d.).

In light of the government’s goals for presenting information over the Web, a second strand of the research looks at the way information is presented: Is it clear, can it be found easily, and is it accessible to disabled users? It takes as its starting point industry and government guidelines about Web site and page design and accessibility standards. I do not however investigate whether Web sites conform to LAWs standards, because at the time of the study these were not at a stage of development where you could expect them to be implemented on the ground.

 

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Literature review

There has been little research analyzing U.K. local government Web sites, and no previous studies of adoption agency Web sites in any country were found.

Although there are many lists of recommended adoption Web sites, from organizations and individuals, none is based on objective criteria.

What material has been published on the role of Web sites in adoption is restricted to their potential and use and abuse as "advertising" or photo–listing media for waiting children and prospective adopters, their role in helping adoptees and birth relatives find each other, and as virtual support communities for people affected by adoption (Martin, 1997).

Information architecture and quality

In the U.S., the Cyberspace Policy Research Group (http://www.cyprg.arizona.edu/), based at the University of Arizona, works to establish objective criteria for analyzing organization Web sites. They developed the Website Attribute Evaluation System (WAES) (Cyberspace Policy Research Group, n.d.), applied by Cyber–state (http://www.cyber-state.org/) to a series of evaluations of Michigan state local government sites (Cyber–state, 2001) and of ministerial–level Web sites of countries around the world (Demchak, et al., 2000). WAES criteria divide into those concerning transparency: The information an agency provides about itself; and those concerning interactivity: Convenience in accessing this information. These main categories subdivide into 45 individual features. The features correspond to specific markers of Web site quality.

Transparency includes such features as:

  • identifying the site’s ownership and legal liability,
  • providing contact details for officials and departments,
  • whether the site’s design and maintenance are outsourced or provided in–house,
  • whether the site gives information about the organization’s structure and function, and
  • whether all parts of the site are freely accessible.

Interactivity and accessibility include features such as:

  • the use of cookies or registration forms to collect data about people accessing the site,
  • whether commercial or confidential areas of the site have confidentiality protection,
  • whether e–mail addresses are given as links or not,
  • provision of information in minority languages, and
  • whether the site includes downloadable or online forms for users.

Jakob Nielsen over the past decade has approached the question of Web site design quality from the angle of usability. His books and Alertbox newsletter (http://www.useit.com/alertbox/) have greatly influenced the user–friendly design and functionality of Web sites, through a mix of campaigning and analysis of existing sites. Other accessibility and usability guides have come from studies of non–commercial organizations’ Web sites, especially those of universities and libraries. These include the U.S. National Cancer Institute’s guidelines (National Cancer Institute, 2002), Procter and Symonds’s (2001) study of New Zealand Web sites, and the checklist by Raward (2001) for university library Web site design, based on a review of the human–computer interface literature.

In the U.K., C.J. Armstrong’s Centre for Information Quality Management (http://www.i-a-l.co.uk/ciqm_index.html) has recently published the first of a series of Web site evaluations, comparing 600 Web sites in the U.S. and U.K. against an objective set of quality markers (Fenton and Armstrong, 2003).

Internationally, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) (http://www.w3.org/) is establishing standards for many aspects of the Web, especially accessibility. Their Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (W3C, 1999) and related documents set out in detail ways in which high accessibility can be achieved. The W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (W3C, 2003) also operates one of the major validation schemes for Web sites, awarding a badge to show its conformity to their standards. Other schemes in the same field are Watchfire’s Bobby scheme (Watchfire, 2002) and SSB Technologies’ Ask Alice (SSB Technologies, 2003).

The international Dublin Core Metadata Initiative (DCMI) (http://dublincore.org/) is establishing a set of data elements for the coding of Web pages (Dublin Core Metadata Initiative, 2003) that will act like the cataloguing–in–publication data, making them able to be automatically catalogued and classified (and incidentally, evaluated), and also to be indexed by search engines.

The information architecture aspects of this study are based on the publications of these groups.

There are many sources of criteria against which to judge the reliability and authority of Web sites. Some, such as the Stanford Guidelines for Web Credibility (Stanford Web Credibility Research, 2002) are intended for Web site designers and owners, with checklists of features to include in order to improve their site’s credibility, such as showing the qualifications of those providing the site’s information content, dating pages, checking for spelling, and including the Webmaster’s contact details.

Others work from the other end of the problem: Guidelines against which to judge the quality of a given site, written for Web site users and those responsible for compiling lists of quality–approved sites. These range from simple checklists of features such as the Criteria for Evaluation of Internet Information Resources (Smith, 1997) to online tutorials in information literacy for high–school and university students, such as DESIRE’s Internet Detective Tutorial (http://www.sosig.ac.uk/desire/internet-detective.html).

Other works study how users evaluate Web sites in practice and how their sophistication can be improved, so that they avoid falling victim to the poor–quality or malicious information which abounds in the uncontrolled world of the Internet. This has opened up an entire new sub–discipline of information science: Information literacy. One representative such study of end users is Fogg et al. (2002), which studied 1,500 mainly U.S. and Finnish Web users, and which factors of a Web site’s structure and information content raised or lowered their perceptions of its credibility.

High–credibility factors included:

  • having a known and respected organization as author or sponsor,
  • including contact details for those responsible,
  • showing evidence of recent updating,
  • professional–looking design,
  • comprehensible organization and navigation,
  • including authors’ professional credentials,
  • providing bibliographical references for statements of fact, and
  • being linked to from another respected site.

Negative–credibility factors included:

  • not differentiating effectively between content and advertisements,
  • lack of updating,
  • pop–up windows or advertisements,
  • poor navigation,
  • broken links,
  • spelling errors,
  • unexplained unavailability, and
  • long downloading times.

Studies of Web sites in a particular sector of industry include those of commercial organizations, health and medicine, government, schools, and libraries. There has been considerable research into the evaluation of health Web sites designed for lay users, one recent example being Bath and Bouchier’s study (2003) of 15 Alzheimer’s disease sites. Much of this work relates directly to the present study, especially in terms of the evaluation criteria used. But the most relevant for this research are studies of school and public library Web sites, since both are services controlled by local authorities and aimed at the general public, rather than an academic elite or profession.

Information content

Zorba and Kendall’s (2001) study of 111 English secondary school library Web sites showed that they are of almost uniformly poor quality, seldom created by librarians, lacking significant content and with few external links. Clyde’s early study (1997) of 50 school library Web sites across nine countries included a list of 21 content elements, of which only four were found in more than half the sites: School and library name, links to external resources, information about the library, and an e–mail address. The situation is strikingly similar to the findings of the present study.

A 1997 study by Wille (1998) compared the Web sites of German libraries and commercial companies. This covered academic and public libraries, publishers and mail–order companies. As with other such studies, including the present one, it relied on a yes–no dichotomy for the presence of specified features of both information architecture and information content. Public libraries came a poor fourth in the rankings.

A recent study of Australian public library Web sites (Hildebrand, 2003) found that earlier similar studies’ results had not been much improved upon: Public library Web sites still relied largely on static information provision and had poorly developed interactive features such as online registration, reference service, interlibrary loan applications and access to databases.

Adopters’ information needs

Turning to the information needs of U.K. adopters, the only sources located which gave specific items of information thought by their authors to be useful for adopters were the frequently asked questions (FAQ) pages of some individual agency Web sites and those of the Department of Health (Department of Health, 2002, 2003), and an article on good adoption agency practice in Adoption Today which included a list of information items needed by prospective adopters (Carpenter and Caine, 1997). Only the Carpenter and Caine list was compiled by adopters, as opposed to social workers and civil servants providing what they thought adopters need to know. These were used to compile the list of information items for which sites were interrogated for this research.

Other documents were located which stressed the need to provide information to adopters, or which gave some idea of areas of interest to prospective adopters. These include the U.K. Social Services Inspectorate’s report Adopting Changes (Social Services Inspectorate, 2000), which however makes no mention of providing information over the Internet nor any mention of agency Web sites, although they must surely figure as part of an agency’s services.

Among the information needs of adopters, Adopting Changes mentions [6]:

  • the kinds of children who are in need of adoptive families,
  • making members of all sections of the community aware that applications from them are welcome,
  • how adoption applications are processed, including how an adoption panel (which in the U.K. recommends to the agency whether an application should be accepted or rejected) functions,
  • making it clear what financial assistance is available to adopters,
  • what services are available to adoptees and their families after the adoption is finalized,
  • how to make a complaint, and
  • information in languages other than English and in alternative formats.

Adopting Changes also mentions that information provided to adopters is "occasionally very off putting and frequently failed to give them all of the information they needed to make informed choices" [7].

 

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Methodology

There is only one authoritative and comprehensive online directory of licensed U.K. adoption agencies: Find Your Agency (British Association for Adoption and Fostering, 2003). This list was downloaded into a MS Word document for manipulation. There were 143 entries in July 2003, of which four were eliminated as not being appropriate. From the rest a random sample of 30 was taken, using the random.org pseudo–random number generator (http://www.random.org/). One voluntary agency originally part of the sample of 30 was found to have no Web presence at all and was replaced by another. This gave a confidence interval of 16.8 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.

The sample included 25 local authorities and five voluntary agencies; 21 were located in England, three in Wales and six in Scotland. Five agencies served individual London boroughs, nine served other urban centers (populations of 100,000 or more, or officially designated as "metropolitan borough councils" by the U.K. government), 12 served semi–urban or rural districts; and four served wide geographical areas including both rural and urban authorities.

The Web sites of these agencies were examined during late July and early August 2003 against a list of 189 features and criteria. Where an adoption service was part of a larger organization, either a local authority or voluntary body, the adoption Web pages (microsite) and the links between it and the authority’s larger Web site as a whole were examined. In the case of standalone agencies, the entire Web site was examined.

During the analysis I found adoption–related information contained outside the adoption service microsites of some local authorities. This included data such as staff names and contact details, annual figures for placements and other measures of service provision, hyperlinks to other organizations, policy statements, and information about recruitment drives for ethnic–minority families. This was often contained in press releases, departmental reports, minutes of meetings, and other council documents only discovered through the sitesearch facility and not referred to from the adoption pages. Because this information is effectively hidden from ordinary users I did not evaluate it. However, information reachable via links from the adoption pages was included in the evaluation.

Results of the evaluations were entered into an MS Excel spreadsheet and SPSS database for analysis.

 

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Results

Introduction

There are several ways in which a Web site can be evaluated. I will examine two: In terms of its information architecture and in terms of its information content.

Information architecture is "[t]he art and science of organizing information to help people effectively fulfill their information needs" [8]: That is, how a Web site and its individual pages are designed so that users can find what they need or want. This includes deciding where information should go (site structure), how users will find the information and be able to know where they are within the Web site (navigation), making information clearly visible and attractive (usability and presentation), and making information available to "non–standard" users such as the visually handicapped (accessibility). It also includes features that enable a user to judge the currency, reliability and ownership of the site and its contents, and features that make the site more or less accessible to Internet search engines, so that users can find the site in the first place if they don’t already know its URL.

Information content refers to the information provided: What kinds, how much, in what detail, and for whom. It also includes what is omitted.

Information architecture

Own Web site or a microsite?

A microsite is a unified subset of pages within a larger Web site. In itself, having a microsite rather than a Web site of one’s own is neither a positive or negative feature, as long as the its overall architecture provides suitable site navigation aids and a source code that makes its content accessible to search engines.

Five agencies had standalone Web sites, while 25 did not. This did not follow a local authority/voluntary agency division: Several local authority adoption services did not even have a separate page within the authority’s Web site, much less a microsite, while several voluntary agencies had microsites within the Web sites of their larger host organizations, such as a religious diocese or national child welfare charity.

Source code

A request made to a search engine may retrieve millions of pages (hits) — a search using Google (http://www.google.com) on 1 September 2003 retrieved 7,580,000 worldwide hits for the word "adoption," with 464,000 from the U.K. alone. The search engine evaluates the results to determine their placing in the list of hits. The source code used to write Web pages influences its placement in the list, and indeed, whether it is retrieved at all.

Special elements of the source code, Dublin Core (DC) metadata elements, prescribed by the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative (http://dublincore.org/), are important in this determining a page’s ranking in the hit list. DC metadata are incorporated into virtually all Internet standards. This includes the official U.K. standard for central and local government Web pages (Office of the e–Envoy, 2003; U.K. GovTalk, 2002). But since the application of this standard is not policed and there is no penalty for not following it, many Web sites, especially older ones, do not adhere to it. Thus including them indicates that an organization appreciates the value of information and information standards.

The survey looked at a selection of DC elements, checking the source code for the front page of each site, and also that of the destination page of the first adoption–related link within the same microsite. (That is, I ignored links to pages outside the microsite and links to pages which did not relate to adoption.) Not all pages in a Web site will necessarily have the same DC elements, and I rated a site as having a specific DC element if either of the pages examined contained it.

In some cases in the following sections on DC elements, I make reference to a similar but larger–scale research project (Fenton and Armstrong, 2003), which examined quality indicators in 600 commercial and non–commercial Web sites, primarily from the U.K. and the U.S.

!DOCTYPE statements

A DC !DOCTYPE statement can appear at the beginning of a page’s source code, and states which version of HTML or other code the document is written in, and tells the user’s browser how to set out the document on the computer screen. Lack of a !DOCTYPE statement means the browser uses its default setting which may not display the document the way the author intended. Only 14 (46.7 percent) of the Web sites included a !DOCTYPE statement. Fenton and Armstrong (2003) found that 50 percent of 100 non–commercial U.K. Web sites included one.

<meta> tags

DC specifies a number of source code elements which specify the document’s authorship, title, subject, date of creation, intellectual ownership, language, etc. Each of these elements is enclosed in angle brackets and begins with the word "meta" (<meta ... .>). Wise use of these tags can significantly enhance the chances of a document being given a high relevance score by a search engine, since search engines give greater weight to words appearing in <meta> tags than to words in the main body of the document (Nielsen, 2000). Use of <meta> tags in local authority Web sites is now also required by government standards and the U.K. Cabinet Office has published a list of approved and required terms (Office of the e–Envoy, 2003; U.K. GovTalk, 2002) to use in the descriptive parts of the tags (Cumming, 2002).

The 30 sites used up to 33 different DC <meta> tags in their source codes, but only seven used more than 10 types. The mode was six; four sites used none at all, and the average was 6.8.

I also individually noted the presence or lack of five particular <meta> tag types:

  1. Ten sites (33.3 percent) incorporated tags related to authorship, ownership or the publisher of the site (Fenton and Armstrong, 2003: figure for 100 non-commercial U.K. sites: 27 percent).
  2. Six (20 percent) of sites provided tags giving dates of original creation, copyright or latest update (Fenton and Armstrong, 2003: 13 percent).
  3. Fourteen (46.7 percent) of sites included tags listing keywords relating to the page’s content (Fenton and Armstrong, 2003: 57 percent).
  4. Eight (26.7 percent) of sites included tags giving the page a title (no comparable figures from Fenton and Armstrong).
  5. Fifteen (50 percent) of sites included tags giving a narrative description of the page’s contents (no comparable figures from Fenton and Armstrong).

Comparing the use of !DOCTYPE and <meta> tags I found that sites including !DOCTYPE statements included more types of <meta> tags and also more of the five particular types of tag. Those with !DOCTYPE statements averaged 9.4 different types of <meta> tags and 4.6 of the five special types; those without !DOCTYPE statements averaged 3.1 total tags and 1.4 special types.

<img ... ALT> tags

I recorded the provision of ALT statements with DC <img> tags. An <img> tag defines images used in the Web page. These, instead of being incorporated in the source code directly are called up by the tag from files elsewhere on the server where the page resides. An ALT statement provides a verbal description or equivalent of the image. A typical <img> tag incorporating an ALT statement looks like: <img src="/images/logo.gif" width=276 height=110 alt="Google"> (from the Google search engine home page). This means that the image (named "Google" in the ALT statement) only needs to be stored once in the computer’s memory. This can result in a significant saving in disk space when the same image such as a logo or masthead is used many times in a large Web site.

Including an ALT statement within an <img> tag also means that when the user’s mouse pointer hovers over the image a text description of the image appears, and the ALT statement helps generate a complete text version of the page when this is provided for the visually handicapped. (This is considered in more detail below in relation to accessibility measures, but here it is considered in terms of overall quality.) The provision of ALT statements is another measure of the page’s compiler’s commitment to source code quality standards.

For this study, I evaluated the agency opening page and up to two randomly-selected other adoption–related pages in the Web site, where available (some agencies had only one or two pages in total). All <img> statements were examined. I decided to use a less rigorous standard than that used by Fenton and Armstrong (2003): Rather than requiring total provision of ALT statements, I only required that they be provided for all significant graphical elements: Minor decorative borders and rules, blocks of color, etc. were not counted, although bullets, logos, clip art and photographs were.

Twenty–three of the 30 Web sites (76.7 percent) complied with this lower measure, and provided ALT statements for all significant <img> tags. Using the higher standard, just 12 percent of U.K. non–commercial sites provided 100 percent ALT statements; using a different measure, 77 percent of the sites in Fenton and Armstrong (2003) provided at least one <img> tag with an ALT statement.

Of the 14 sites with !DOCTYPE statements, 85.7 percent provided good–quality <img> tags; on the 16 sites without !DOCTYPE statements, only 68.8 percent provided good–quality <img> tags. There is a correlation between the different quality measures: Provision of !DOCTYPE statements, <meta> tags and ALT statements for <img> tags.

Web site size and structure

The 30 Web sites showed great variation in their size and structure. At one end of the scale was an English city Web site, which as far as could be determined contained nothing whatever on its adoption services. One Welsh local authority’s adoption service rated nothing more than a short paragraph in its A–Z directory of services, without even a single page of its own. A third Web site was under construction, with missing pages. At the other end of the scale were six agencies, each of which provided more than 10 pages of information.

Simply counting page numbers can, however, be misleading, because one agency may put all its information on one very long page, while another may divide it up into a number of smaller pages of one or two screens’ length. Two other measures were also used.

One was the number of levels in the adoption microsite’s hierarchy or tree structure. The most common structure had two layers: A frontpage and a number of sub–pages; this structure was used by 13 agencies, with a further five having a three–tiered structure, where one or more of the second–level pages were further subdivided. Ten agencies included all their information on a single page. A number of adoption microsites also included links to pages elsewhere in the host institution’s Web site, most often to general pages of contact details and to maps showing office locations.

The final measure of complexity was the number of pages that extended to more than two full screens of data when called up. Web pages should not normally extend to more than two screens, because longer pages are difficult to read (Nielsen, 1996). Index pages and pages of FAQs were exempted from the test, because they are difficult to split into smaller pages. Thirteen sites contained at least one offending page.

Correlating long pages (over two screens) with the number of pages per site, I found that sites with over–long pages had 4.5 pages per site on average, with six sites putting all their information onto a single page. This compared with an average of 7.1 separate pages in sites with shorter pages, where only two sites put all their information on a single short page. (The other two single–page Web sites were a site with nothing but a list of PDF documents, considered in the next paragraph, and the site where the adoption service was relegated to a paragraph in the A–Z listing of services.)

One local authority provided a single adoption page, which contained nothing but contact details and links to a number of PDF documents. These are slow to load, often pose problems for printers, and are usually very difficult to read on–screen. For these reasons the use of PDF for short documents such as these pamphlets is condemned by experts, who recommend providing normal Web pages instead (Nielsen, 2003). Most of the rest of this authority’s Web site was similarly constructed. A few other Web sites also provided PDF or DOC files (MS Word documents), but usually as alternatives to Web pages, not as the sole source of information. Because of their limited availability to the public, PDF and DOC documents are not counted in this survey, nor are their contents evaluated.

Badges of approval from validating agencies

One way a Web site can show its compliance with recognized standards is to display a seal of approval from a validating agency. There are several different such badges, showing compliance with different types of standards. Sites submit themselves to the approving organization and if validated they may display its seal of approval on their pages, rather like a U.K. British Standards Institution kitemark (http://www.bsi-global.com/Kitemark/index.xalter) or a royal warrant. Although lack of such a badge does not mean non–compliance with standards, a badge does give users confidence in the site and shows that the organization behind the Web site is standards–conscious. The following three sections show how sites advertised their compliance with standards.

Disabled accessibility

Although end–users can often control aspects of Web site display on screen such as type size and color and background color, many users do not know how to do this, and accessibility for the disabled consists of much more. The W3C (W3C, 2003) and Bobby (Watchfire Corporation, 2002) schemes rate sites for accessibility to the disabled. The U.K. government has also endorsed the W3C standards for application in local authority Web sites (Local Authority Websites National Project, n.d.). Nine Web sites (30 percent) displayed either a W3C or Bobby badge or both. The comparable figure from Fenton and Armstrong (2003) is three percent, markedly lower.

Family–friendly content

The Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA) (Internet Content Rating Association, 2003) rates sites for family–friendly content. Two sites displayed the ICRA badge.

Plain English

The Plain English Campaign (PEC) issues a Crystal Mark to compliant Web sites (Plain English Campaign, n.d.). It attests to PEC–approved content, design and layout. In contrast to most schemes, which do not charge for rating sites, a Crystal Mark rating is periodically reviewed by the PEC and costs the Web site owner UK£1,500 for initial registration and UK£500 per annum to maintain. Two sites (6.7 percent) displayed such a badge.

Nineteen local authority sites (63.3 percent) displayed none of these badges, and only two displayed two different kinds. None of the voluntary agency sites displayed any badges of approval. Other than the schemes listed above, no Web site displayed any badges denoting standards compliance.

Other measures of accessibility

The following three sections discuss three other measures of accessibility: The provision of text–only or low–graphics alternatives, the use of "frames," and type size and color versus page background color.

Text–only or low–graphics alternatives

Sites that incorporate graphics and other non–print features can provide a parallel site that omits these, but provides the same information content, known as a text–only alternative. Not all sites need such an alternative, and 20 sites (66.7 percent) either provided an alternative or did not need one because they contained no significant graphic content. Fenton and Armstrong (2003) found that 28 percent of 100 U.K. non–commercial Web sites either provided a text–only alternative or did not need one. Ten sites (33.3 percent) incorporated significant graphic content but did not provide a text–only alternative.

Another way to provide a more text-based alternative is to provide a printer–friendly version of a page. This is normally used in cases where there is considerable peripheral content such as sidebars, flashing graphics, moving text, etc., which make normal printing unsatisfactory, but it can also be used to give a cleaner, more readable version of a page. Eight sites (26.7 percent) provided printer–friendly versions.

"Frames"

Frames is a technique of Web page construction which provides for one or more sections of the page, commonly the masthead, navigation features and sidebars, to remain constant, with variable content for the "meat" of the site’s different pages. Older browser versions are not equipped to cope with frames, frames frequently make printing the page as it appears on the screen impossible without off–line manipulation, and they make direct reference to individual pages within the frameset impossible, because the URL remains constant for all pages. Nielsen condemns their use for those reasons (Nielsen, 1999c). A pre–frames version of a browser, when called on to display a page with frames, will usually display a message that the page is only viewable with a frames–enabled browser. The message can also incorporate links to enable users to update their browsers in order to view frames, or there may be a link to an alternative version of the Web site that does not use frames. If there is no browser–update or no–frames alternative the page remains unviewable to that user.

Only one Web site in the sample used frames. The frontpage provided no alternative, merely the unhelpful message, "This page uses frames, but your browser doesn’t support them."

Text size and color

While text size and background color can be altered with some browsers, this is not always possible, and pages were rated for these features. Only one Web site failed to provide clearly contrasting background and type colors (in this case a mid–purple background and black type), and all sites had large–enough type faces.

Links

A Web site can improve its usefulness to the public by linking to other Web sites. Linked–to pages can provide supplementary information, more detail or another point of view. The number of such links, the way they are presented on the Web page, and their accuracy are crucial to a site’s usefulness. Links and the quality of linkage are also commonly used objective indicators of Web page quality. The Web sites studied were evaluated for the number of links, their presentation, and their validity.

What kinds of links?

Links on a Web page are of two kinds: Those which take the user to another page or site for information (substantive links), and those used in the construction of the current page (housekeeping links), such as the <img> tags evaluated above. Substantive links can be divided in turn into two kinds: Navigational and external. Navigational links take the user to other pages in the same Web site or navigate up and down within the same page. External links lead to other Web sites. Normally, a Web page will have many more navigational and housekeeping links than external links.

How many links?

Links on up to three different pages for each Web site were counted, although not all sites had all three types of page:

  1. the Web site’s frontpage (either an agency’s homepage or the opening page of the service’s microsite),
  2. the first page linked to from the frontpage which was within the same Web site, even if this was to a page which had nothing to do with adoption, and
  3. any special "helpful links" page in the Web site which included adoption–related external links.

The initial count was for both housekeeping and substantive links.

Table 1 gives the results of this count.

 

Table 1: Numbers of links on selected pages of 29 adoption Web sites.
Note: Excludes the local authority with no adoption information.

Type of page Frontpage First internal linked page Helpful Links page Total (up to three pages)
Number of such pages evaluated 29 25 12 66
Number of links: Range 0–456 11–421 5–228 0–877
Total links (all sites) 1,917 on 29 pages 2,289 on 25 pages 834 on 12 pages 5,040 on 66 pages
Median links per site 46.5 66 57.5 145
Mean links per site 66.1 91.6 69.5 76.4

 

Link corruption

Crucial to all links is that they must lead where they are supposed to. Links can be defective for several reasons, including:

  • because the target page has changed its URL, even if it retains its original content,
  • because the content of the target page has changed,
  • because the target page has been removed altogether from the Web since being linked, or
  • because the URL was copied incorrectly by the source code author.

A broken or corrupt link is worse than useless. It not only provides no information, but it wastes the user’s time and justifiably undermines confidence in the site as a whole (Stanford Web Credibility Research, 2002). A broken housekeeping link to call up an element of the Web page from another file may result in the page displayed being defective. For this reason Webmasters should frequently run checks on the links from pages they maintain, to ensure they still lead where they are intended to, and correct any errors. Not running these checks is a sign of poor quality.

Data on the validity of links were compiled using the Elsop LinkScan validator (http://www.elsop.com/quick/), which examines every link on a Web page for errors in syntax in its source code and to determine whether the target document actually exists. LinkScan cannot test whether the content of the target document is still what it was when the link was written, or whether, if it no longer exists, the change is due to it being removed from the Web or the link address given being incorrect.

The 66 pages evaluated for links had a range of 0 to 99 corrupt links per site. Twelve sites had perfect scores: No corrupt links at all. Two of these achieved perfect scores by not providing any links, but the other 10 sites had from 17 to 877 links. The other 18 sites had a mean of 19.72 and a mode of 4.5 corrupt links.

Corrupt links as a percentage of all links, excluding the 12 perfect scores, ranged from 0.3 percent to 62.8 percent, with an overall mean of 7.04 percent (355 corrupt links from 5040 total links). One score indicated 62.8 percent corrupt links while another site had 34 percent of its links corrupted. The Fenton and Armstrong (2003) study found an overall score of 5.49 percent corrupt links in 600 Web sites.

External links

Differentiating between housekeeping links on the one hand, and substantive external links on the other, required manually counting the apparent external links, excluding links used to download the software needed to read PDF documents or to the validation services discussed above. Fourteen Web sites provided no external links at all. On the 16 Web sites with external links, numbers provided ranged from 0 to 23, with a mode of 2 and a mean of 3; the mean was 5.7. Almost all external links were to adoption–related organizations and other local authorities.

In order to decide whether to follow a link, the user must know where it is leading. External links can be expressed in three ways:

  1. A sentence on a Web page can read something like, "To learn more about emotional problems in adolescence, click here." The word "here" is highlighted, but there is no indication where it leads, except by hovering with the mouse pointer over it, which will reveal the URL of the destination page, which may be uninformative.
  2. A sentence like the above is used but the URL itself will be shown on the page, instead of or following "here." This is little better than "here" on its own, because the URL may still be uninformative.
  3. A more meaningful phrase can be used, such as, "Click here to go to the Child Psychology Clinic of Birmingham’s Website on Adolescent Anxiety," with the phrase "Website on Adolescent Anxiety" as the link (Nielsen, 1999a). This tells users the type of Web site being linked to, and helps them make an informed choice about whether to follow it or not. It also gives a larger target for the mouse pointer for clicking — helpful for users with fine–motor control problems, who could easily miss a small word such as "here."

Web pages were evaluated as to whether they made the destinations of navigational and external links clear, and all 28 with links were satisfactory.

Coding previously followed links

Working one’s way through a multi–page Web site can take a considerable amount of time and can be extremely complex, especially when you follow up links to outside pages and back. Technology makes it possible for a Web page to differentiate by color between so–far unfollowed links and links which the user has previously followed. The user determines this to some extent by browser settings. But the writer of the source code determines whether these browser settings can work. The Internet industry has evolved a standard code: Blue type for links which have not been accessed, and purple or red for links that have. Users rely on what they have come to expect as normal, and a Web site that uses a different code confuses its users (Nielsen, 1999c).

Only eight of the 30 Web sites used the standard color code. The other 22 used other colors, with some allowing no distinction at all between used and unused links.

Navigation

Navigation refers to the means provided to the user to move around an individual Web page and between pages within a Web site.

Whole–site navigation

The most basic navigation need for the user is to go from the Web site’s homepage to a page within the Web site and back to the home page.

There are a number of methods of finding an internal page from the Web site’s homepage. The most obvious is providing a direct link from the homepage. This method is seldom used for all pages in a site because most Web sites are simply too large to allow for all the pages to be listed on the homepage, even using drop–down menus, although many Web sites do provide direct links to a selection of pages which are expected to be heavily used. In fact, four of the sites did provide such links to their adoption frontpages, one of them by using a drop–down menu of internal pages.

The most that can be hoped for under normal circumstances is that there be a chain of intuitively obvious links leading to the target page from the home page. On a local authority Web site an obvious chain would be something like "Social Services Department" leading to "Children’s Services" then to "Adoption and Fostering" then to "Adoption Services." Each click takes the user to the frontpage of a microsite, then to a sub–microsite, and so on until the target page is reached.

For this method to be useful each link in the chain must be obvious to an uninitiated user as the category within which the target will eventually be found: No one is going to click on the top–level heading "Planning Department" to find adoption services pages. Twenty–six Web sites did provide a chain from the homepage to the adoption pages, but in three cases the intermediate or first steps were not intuitive. For example, "Children" turned out to be pages of local events information for children, and "Children’s Services" led to the education department. In the four cases where no chain at all was provided, one case needed no chain as the adoption page was the voluntary agency’s Web site homepage, one provided no adoption information, and in two cases there was no chain for any part of the local authority’s Web site. The modal number of links in the 26 chains was just two (two clicks were needed to get from the organization’s homepage to the adoption services frontpage), with a median of three and a mean of 2.8 links. In only two cases were more than four clicks needed to reach the adoption frontpage.

Other ways of providing access from the organization’s homepage to internal pages are the A–Z index, the sitemap, and the sitesearch facility. Each Web site was evaluated for these three features and their usefulness in finding the adoption pages.

A–Z index

Twenty–three Web sites had A–Z indexes, listing the topics or departments in the Web site in alphabetical order. Of the seven which did not, five were voluntary agencies, which had very few pages to index. Of the 23 indexes, 17 listed the adoption service.

Sitemap

A sitemap is usually an outline–format listing of the contents of a Web site, with pages arranged under departmental or subject headings, rather than alphabetically. Only eight Web sites had a sitemap, and of these five had a listing for adoption services.

Sitesearch facility

A sitesearch facility is an internal search engine that searches the Web site for occurrences of a target word in the same way as a large search engine searches the Web. Twenty–five Web sites did include a sitesearch facility. Tested by searching for "adoption," 22 provided a hit list that included at least one page on adoption services in the first page of hits. Some of results were poorly presented, with the content of the hits being impossible to determine without visiting them. (I should note that a sitesearch facility is not very good at locating information on adoption in a local authority Web site because "adoption" carries several distinct meanings such as to adopt a road in the highways department, or to adopt a motion in a meeting, so the number of false drops — hits which contain the sought word but are nothing to do with the user’s current needs — is potentially large.)

Returning to the homepage

Returning from an internal page to the homepage is often a useful way for a disoriented user to start over again or retrace steps previously taken. Standard practice is to provide a direct link, by means of a clickable logo, a stylized house icon, or the word "home" on every internal page. Of the 28 agencies with dedicated adoption pages, 27 did provide a direct link back to the organization’s homepage.

Breaking the back button

One other measure of general internal navigation quality is breaking the back button. On some Web sites the browser’s back button is deliberately or carelessly disabled by the source code, making it impossible to return to the previous page (Nielsen, 1999b). Two sites exhibited this fault.

Orientation in relation to the whole

Once deep inside a large Web site, it is easy to lose track of where you are in relation to the rest of the section or the site as a whole. A major function of site navigation is to help the user stay oriented and move around the site systematically. There are many techniques used to achieve this aim, and this is an area where Web site designers often feel they can show off their creativity, technical skill and artistic flair. The results are often confusing and counter–productive from the point of view of a user new to the site (Nielsen, 2002a).

Techniques used include the simple "breadcrumb trail" on the top of the page: A chain of A > B > C > D, with D being the current page and A being the Web site’s homepage; this duplicates the chain of links described above to get from the homepage to a target page, with the entire chain of superordinate pages being shown in a line or column. If the elements of the trail are active links clicking on an element will take the user to that page, from which navigation can proceed sideways to another suite of pages. A breadcrumb trail does not usually show pages deeper inside the Web site below the current page.

Other methods include sidebars with alphabetical or outline lists of higher and lower pages or sections, page–top or page–bottom outlines, page–top or sidebar tabs, and combinations of two or more of these. These can be combined with extra elements such as different typefaces, sizes and colors, often in conjunction with a breadcrumb trail.

The 30 sites under review did well. One site had no navigation aids at all; four were more or less unhelpful; and 25 were quite helpfully laid out. The most common mechanism was the sidebar, followed by the simple breadcrumb trail. Twenty sites used one or the other or a combination of the two, together with typographical distinctions.

Consistent and comprehensible navigation

Navigation aids should be consistent throughout a Web site, so that the user doesn’t have to continually relearn the conventions. They should also be intuitive; the user should not have to puzzle over what the format or various symbols mean. The relationships between hierarchies must also be obvious, so there is no doubt whether A is a subpage of B or vice versa. All the elements of the trail should be in place all the time.

Only one Web site failed to provide a consistent scheme of navigation. Of the four sites with unclear navigation, the worst was one in which the currently displayed page disappeared from the sidebar list of pages, combined with a hyperlink color system which did not differentiate between visited and unvisited pages, so users had to remember all the pages previously visited in order to know their location.

Visible navigation

The correct place for navigation aids is on the top screen of a page (Nielsen, 1999c), where they can be seen when the page is first loaded. Some or all of the navigation (links to the homepage, A–Z index, sitesearch, sitemap, etc.) may be repeated at the bottom of the page. Pages using "frames" (see below) almost always include the navigation in the frame so that it remains in place while the content of the frame scrolls down. Nine of the sites did not conform to this standard, with navigation aids appearing only at the bottom of the page or on long sidebars that could not be completely displayed on one screen.

Web site authority, ownership and feedback

Web site users need to be able to judge the reliability of a site. Three markers used to judge reliability are whether the people responsible are authorities in their field or reliable, whether the information is current, and whether there is a mechanism for user feedback.

Responsibility

Of the 30 sites studied, 25 (83.3 percent) included explicit statements about their ownership and which organization (local authority or registered charity) was ultimately responsible for the content.

All Web sites should have an e–mail link to the Webmaster or Web team — the person or team responsible for the site’s technical maintenance, not for the intellectual content. This enables users to alert them to problems with the site such as broken links. Only 20 (66.7 percent) of the 30 sites provided a Webmaster link.

In all, 27 sites (90 percent) provided one or other of these two links, with 18 of those (66.7 percent) providing both. In the Fenton and Armstrong (2003) study, of the 100 non–commercial U.K. Web sites in the sample, a much lower 56 percent provided a statement of ownership and/or link to the Webmaster.

Date of contents

Dating a Web site is an indication of currency and attention to standards. Fourteen sites (46.7 percent) included a date on the frontpage of the adoption microsite, usually the date of creation or copyright.

A more stringent dating test is whether every page carries a date, instead of only the homepage or microsite frontpage. In nine of the 14 providing a frontpage date, every page carried a date of some kind.

A more reliable indicator of currency is a date of last updating for a particular page or suite of pages. There is of course nothing to stop someone from simply changing the date without having changed the content at all, and the content of a site can be updated without changing the date at the bottom of the page. Nevertheless dating is used as an indicator of reliability. It also indicates commitment to openness and informing the public. Three or four (one agency Web site was unavailable on the Web when this feature was evaluated) carried last–updated dates on the adoption pages. One date was five weeks old, one was 11 months old and one was 14 months old. That is, only one was explicitly marked as having been updated since the passage of the 2002 Act, although in several other cases it was apparent from the pages’ content that they had in fact been revised since then. All of these Web sites also carried a date of first creation or copyright. The figure for carrying any kind of date in the Fenton and Armstrong (2003) study was 43 percent, virtually the same as the 46.7 percent in this study.

Languages

In the U.K., three languages other than English have official status. In Wales Welsh is an official language for almost all purposes. The Welsh Assembly, local government agencies, and most quasi–government institutions at least aim to be fully bilingual, and many U.K. central government departments are also at least partly bilingual in Welsh. In Scotland, Gaelic also has official status, but on a much more limited scale. In Northern Ireland, Irish also has more limited status. The other living native languages of the British Isles — Manx, Cornish, and Norman French — are used officially only in restricted ceremonial circumstances. The differences reflect the relative sizes of the populations who speak these languages as their first or preferred language. In addition there are a number of other languages spoken by statistically significant numbers of British residents, many of whom speak little or no English. These languages have no official status, although many institutions and government departments offer limited services in those languages for the convenience of their speakers. These languages with no official status are commonly termed "community languages."

All the Web sites examined were in English. They were also examined to see to what extent they offered information in Welsh, Gaelic and community languages. None of the Scottish sites provided even summary information in Gaelic. It should however be pointed out that while Gaelic is spoken by a significant number of people, its geographical distribution is very limited and none of the Scottish agencies whose Web sites were examined serve those districts. All three Welsh sites provided parallel and fully equivalent Welsh–language versions, although in one case a faulty link prevented access to the Welsh version until the researcher alerted the Webmaster — an incidental illustration of why such a link is necessary.

Only one Web site provided any adoption information in community languages, and that consisted of short summaries in Bengali, Somali, Chinese and Vietnamese. A few other sites appeared at first glance to offer foreign–language versions, but these all turned out to be links to automatic Web translation services such as AltaVista’s Babel Fish (http://babel.altavista.com/), where the URL of a page is submitted and the service provides an almost instantaneous automatic translation. There were seven agencies that provided such links. A few metropolitan local authority sites also included links to their own in–house translation services or independent interpreters, but these did not constitute Web page translations. The sites with community language provision or links to automatic translation services included only one of the London boroughs, four other metropolitan authorities and three non–metropolitan local authorities; no voluntary agency provided any foreign–language provision. Of the seven with links to translation Web sites, six were to sites that only provided translations into major European languages; only one offered translation into non–European languages. Thus, a provision for non–European languages was almost nil.

Miscellaneous information architecture considerations

Audio–visual elements

Audio–visual features can enhance a Web site’s attractiveness and usefulness, but their gratuitous inclusion distracts from the information content and they can significantly slow down loading times, which increases user frustration (Nielsen, 1999b). Pages were evaluated as to whether or not they included images, and whether these were clipart, original artwork or photographs. They were also evaluated for whether they included animations, flashing elements, scrolling text, video or audio clips, Flash or anything requiring plug–in software. All the Web sites scored well: One provided clipart illustrations and one included a minor example of unhelpful animated text. A number of sites included original artwork or photographs, but while none of these added any significant information content, they were also not intrusive. No sites included any other type of audio or visual material.

Page loading time

Web pages should appear quickly after they have been called up. Experts consider more than 10–15 seconds to be too long, as most users will give up and move to an alternative Web site (Nielsen, 1996).

You could argue that a local authority Web site is immune to users seeking alternative sources of information; and for some purposes, such as planning applications or rubbish collection schedules, this is true. But user irritation can still be significant, and local authority adoption services no longer have a captive clientele: in the U.K. anyone can apply to any agency, including a local authority on the other side of the country, for adoption services. If user frustration of any type drives potential adopters to apply to another agency, they may no longer be available to their own local authority, and that is a resource lost to that adoption service.

A major reason why pages load slowly is overuse of graphics and other non–text material, which take longer to be transmitted. Because of the relative lack of such material, as described in the previous section, all the pages in the sample loaded under the time limit.

Long or unmemorable URLs

There is no good reason why URLs should be very long or full of incomprehensible or unmemorable sequences of numbers and other symbols, although some Web page construction techniques, where pages are built ad hoc from elements in a database, do result in very long URLs. There are good reasons why URLs should be short and memorable: So that they can be manually transcribed without errors and so that they can be usefully transmitted in an e–mail message, since many e–mail programs cannot make a working hyperlink more than one line long (Nielsen, 2002b). Twelve sites (40 percent) consistently used URLs which were over–long, that is more than about 75 characters. Seven sites (23.3 percent) consistently used URLs that were unmeaningful. Six sites (20 percent) offended on both counts.

Horizontal scrolling

Many Web pages are longer than will fit on a normal single screen; some are also too wide, making it necessary to scroll horizontally to read them, and this usually also causes problems in printing (Nielsen, 2002b). None of the sites studied needed horizontal scrolling.

Information content

Preliminary note

In most cases when discussing the provision of information, the study simply looked at whether a given item of information appeared in the Web site, not what its content was, unless it was inaccurate. For example, in evaluating whether an agency had a policy on assessing homosexuals, whether an agency stated that it welcomed or refused gay applicants was not recorded, only whether it had a stated policy.

Audience

One of the first tasks of a Web site owner is to decide who the site’s audience will be. For an adoption agency Web site there are at least six potential audiences, not counting its own staff:

  1. prospective adopters looking for help in deciding whether to adopt or not, and if so which agencies to apply to; or who are in the process of being assessed or awaiting placement,
  2. post–placement and adoptive parents looking for information or for post–adoption support,
  3. birth parents considering placing a child for adoption or who have had a child placed for adoption, and needing counseling or information,
  4. birth family members, including parents, wanting to locate an adopted person or find out more about a relative’s current situation,
  5. adopted people wanting information about their past or heredity, wanting to trace and possibly contact their birth families, or needing counseling of some other kind,
  6. the general public, such as school students doing a social studies project, looking for information about adoption as a social or legal institution.

For voluntary adoption agencies there may be an additional audience: Social workers from other agencies looking for help in finding a family for a child.

All the Web sites in the sample were overwhelmingly aimed at prospective adopters as their primary or even only audience. Every Web site examined provided information for this group, except for the one whose Web site did not mention adoption at all. Most Web sites ignored some or all of the other groups entirely, or provided only the barest minimum of information for them.

The next sections will deal with individual information items and the frequency with which they were found on sample Web sites.

General characteristics of information

Currency

"The more frequently it is updated, the more likely it is that an agency’s managers regard the site and its services as essential parts of the agency’s activities. In other words, the more that openness via the Web is endorsed by the agency in practical terms like budgeted personnel [to maintain the Web site], the more likely its site will be kept up to date." [9]

As noted above, only 14 agencies provided any indication as to the date they were compiled or updated, and in most cases this was a date of creation or copyright. Only three or four provided a date of last updating of their adoption pages, and very few of these were recent. If asked the question: "Have these pages been updated in the light of the 2000 Act and its regulations?", in only one case were they dated to show this was probably the case. In a second case the adoption page was taken off the Web during the course of writing this report, and may reappear showing revision.

In other cases internal evidence showed recent revision, such as a reference to special guardianship, which was introduced for the first time by the 2002 Act. In other cases, internal evidence made it obvious that pages had not been updated for a long time, such as the site that referred to National Adoption Week in October 2002 as a forthcoming event. The same site also stated that there was no statutory parental leave (similar to maternity leave) for adopters, although parental leave for adoptive parents has been a right since December 1999 (Department of Trade and Industry, 2000; 2003).

Clear headings

Only three agencies’ pages (10 percent) suffered from unclear headings to the adoption pages. In all other cases it was clear from each page heading what it contained, and individual paragraphs or sections were also clearly headed.

Language

It has already been noted that only two Web sites carried a Good English Crystal Mark from the Plain English Campaign. This does not mean that the others were poorly written or badly organized, merely that just two had gone through the trouble and expense of having themselves validated. In fact, with only one exception the pages were written clearly and without unnecessary jargon, or else the jargon used was clearly explained.

There were, however, other language problems with some Web sites. Web sites need to be written differently from print articles (Nielsen, 2000). The language needs to be different, the paragraphs shorter, headings more frequent, etc.

Most Web sites in this study do appear to have been specifically written and designed for the Web, but in one case the single page of a voluntary agency’s site was nothing more than the reproduction of a short article from a magazine, four years old, and quite inappropriate for a Web page.

Another voluntary agency’s site included the phrase "... the kinds of children mentioned in this booklet ..." revealing that the text had been transferred to the Web site from a previously published print publication without sufficient editorial revision.

Adoption agencies now to some extent compete with each other to recruit adopters, since there are many more children in care waiting for adoptive families than there are people coming forward to adopt. Services that want to attract clients need to be welcoming. Most agencies’ Web sites were written with this in mind. One was not. It was not only unattractive and badly organized, but the language itself was negative, confusing, and officious:

"Applications will only be accepted where the younger partner has not yet reached their 40th birthday and the older partner has not yet reached their 45th birthday.

The age difference between the younger applicant and any child to be adopted should not normally be greater than 40 years at the time of matching. In the case of the older applicant, the maximum age difference should not normally be greater than 45 years at the time of matching.

Couples must be married. There is no time requirement for the marriage provided that they have lived together for at least 2 years prior to the enquiry. Single applicants will be considered for children in specific circumstances.

Medical advice should have been sought in relation to [infertility] and both applicants must have undergone basic infertility investigation to the point where it is determined that they are unlikely to achieve a viable pregnancy. Applications will not be accepted from enquirers currently undergoing any form of infertility treatment or from enquirers on a waiting list for treatment. Enquirers are welcome to re–apply at the point when they have satisfied themselves that they no longer wish to pursue any form of infertility treatment, provided they still meet the other criteria of the service.

Enquirers must attend preparatory groups prior to making a formal application.

Applicants must demonstrate their commitment to sharing information about the child’s birth family and the circumstances of the adoption throughout his/her childhood. Applicants must be prepared to meet with the birth family members if requested to do so by the Adoption Panel. Adopters must be prepared to offer occasional contact (e.g. photos, cards or letters) with significant birth family members via Social Services if requested to do so.

Stringent Checks will be carried out on all applicants.

In the event of a pregnancy occurring, the application will be temporarily withdrawn until the outcome of the pregnancy is known.

In circumstances where applicants move outwith [catchment area], it would be unlikely that the application would proceed."

It would not be difficult to rewrite these paragraphs in a much friendlier style. A fourth Web site suffered from the same tone of voice but to a lesser degree. Both sites belong to Scottish local authorities.

There were also two cases where agencies’ Web sites were so confusing that it was virtually impossible to pursue an interest in adoption. One example, from a London borough, illustrates this. The agency’s homepage has no obvious link to the social services department and there was nothing in the sitemap about either adoption or fostering. The "Social Care" frontpage states only that

"Social services provides round the clock support to vulnerable people of all ages, from babies to the very old. Our responsibilities include fostering, adoption, child protection, children needing care, mental health, people with dementia, carers needing a break, youth crime, drug and alcohol misuse, and all types of disability."

There is no link on the page to any agency contact other than the general council offices. A sidebar lists "fostering" as a link, but not adoption. The fostering link leads to a page headed "FAQs," which however has no questions or answers on it. It does have a link to "Fostering Initial Enquiry," which takes the user to what appears to be a Web form, headed "Family Placement Service, Initial Enquiry." The top screen of this very long (seven screens) form includes six areas of interest to enquirers, among which is "adoption."

The point of reciting this is that there is nothing on any of the pages prior to reaching this stage which would have led a person to think that the link followed would be appropriate, since up to that point, after the initial list of services quoted above, the word "adoption" has never appeared on any page. Furthermore, the site search function, interrogated for "adoption" provides only one hit: The Social Care frontpage quoted above; it does not include the "Web form." The form itself turns out to be intended for printing out and mailing and not a Web form at all. But nowhere on the form is there a mailing address or any other contact information, although the bottom of the form states:

"Thank you for your enquiry, you will be contacted by the Family Placement Service on the next available working day.

Go on, give us a call, we know you care."

Leaving one to ask how meaningful "the next working day" is in this context, and how the public is supposed to "give them a call," since the only contact details are for the general council offices: Hardly appropriate for such a sensitive and private enquiry as adoption.

Adoption defined

Nine agencies (30 percent) included a short statement about what adoption is: Its social function and legal effects. These were invariably incomplete in detail but covered the main provisions: Severing legal ties with the birth family, giving the new parent(s) exclusive "parental responsibility" [which is the term in the U.K. for legal parenthood], and giving the child status in the new family [nearly] equivalent to a child born into it.

Administrative features

Introduction to the agency’s services

Twenty–two (73.3 percent) frontpages were rated as adequate introductions to the range of services provided by the agency. Assuming the agencies are carrying out their statutory obligations, in four cases that information was incomplete, and in four cases there was no substantive information on adoption at all: There were no adoption pages or adoption was simply listed as one service among others provided by the department.

Agency history

Four agencies (13.3 percent), all of them voluntary adoption agencies, provided information about their history.

Membership of adoption–related organizations

Only one Web site, for a voluntary agency, mentioned membership of any professional adoption organizations, specifically Adoption U.K. (primarily for parents, but with agency membership available) or the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF: Primarily for agencies and professionals). Also, only three agencies (10 percent), two local authorities and one voluntary agency, named any regional consortia (groupings of neighboring agencies which pool their supply of prospective adopters and children needing placement) to which they belong. Three mentioned in general terms that they used a regional clearing house or the National Adoption Register (a statutory clearing house established by the 2002 Act to find adoptive families for children with special needs anywhere in Great Britain) as a placement tool.

Contacting the agency

"Contact information ... indicates the agency’s willingness to permit outsiders to reach inside the organization beyond the webmaster gateway." [10]

In all, 28 agencies (93.3 percent) provided some contact information. In one case it impossible to find any adoption team contact details of any kind: No address, telephone or fax, and no e–mail address, either in the family placement team microsite or anywhere else in the local authority’s Web site. In the other case there was no information on adoption at all. In both cases users could contact the general council offices to find out how to contact the adoption team.

Only 21 agencies (70 percent) gave their street address, while one gave a box number. In other cases contact was only possible by telephone or e–mail. Only one agency had a Freepost address (a license under which the recipient pays the postage). Twenty–six (86.7 percent) provided a telephone number (four had Freephone numbers, where the call is charged to the recipient), while 12 (40 percent) provided a fax number. Three agencies made provision for minicom or textphone users (a free service primarily for the hearing handicapped). Ten agency Web sites (33.3 percent) included a location map for getting to the agency offices, usually on separate council pages with a link from the family placement team pages.

E–mail addresses were provided by 21 agencies (70 percent), with 20 of them being hyperlinked, which only need to be clicked on to produce an addressed blank e–mail message form in the user’s own e–mail application. Seven sites (23.3 percent) included a dedicated family placement team Web form, which the user could complete online and send to the team to make initial contact, in addition to or instead of an e–mail link.

Only three agencies (10 percent) provided a list of their family placement or adoption team staff. Seven provided a named individual as a point of first contact (two of these also provided full staff lists), but in some cases this was only given as part of the team e–mail address, with no indication as to the individual’s position or even whether it was a real person.

Specialist Black placement staff

Three agencies reported that they either had Black social workers or a specialist team for ethnic–minority placements. All three are voluntary agencies. No Web site gave any information about community languages spoken by their staff, which would be useful to help prospective users whose first language might not be English or Welsh.

Customer care

Sites were interrogated to find whether they included promises of good practice, customer care charters, data protection statements or information about complaints and appeals procedures. This involved examining the host body’s site in general as well, since such features could apply to the whole organization.

Six sites (20 percent) included a statement or promise of good practice or a link to a customer care document; 12 local authorities (40 percent) included information about how to complain in general about poor council services, often including a Web form for e–mailing the council complaints team. Seventeen Web sites (56.7 percent) included statements on data protection or promising to keep applicants’ personal information confidential. Eight agencies (26.7 percent) provided none of these three, while two provided all three.

Just three (two local authorities and one voluntary agency) mentioned that applicants have a right of appeal against a rejection of their application by the agency; all these three also provided at least one of the three other good practice features.

Providing further information about adoption

One possible function of an adoption agency Web site is to point users to sources of further information, both Web–based and printed. Web sites were checked for such pointers.

Links to other Web sites

Sixteen agencies in all (53.3 percent) provided outside links, ranging from one to 23 links, with a mode of two and a mean of 5.7 links. External links were almost always to organizations to do with adoption, such as BAAF and Adoption U.K., or to other local authorities involved in a regional adoption consortium.

Other organizations

Seventeen agencies (56.7 percent) directed users to other organizations for help or further information. In almost every case this took the form of links to the organizations’ Web sites, sometimes with mailing or e–mail addresses as well. There were modes of two, three and five links, with a mean of 5.5. One local authority linked to the other local authority members of its regional adoption consortium, but this was the only example of its kind. In only seven cases of the 17 (41.2 percent) were all the data provided for these organizations correct; 10 agencies provided incomplete, out–of–date or simply incorrect contact data for one or more of the bodies they listed.

Printed sources of information

Only six agencies (20 percent) provided any list of printed sources of information about adoption, all of them to books. None provided all the standard bibliographical data information about the readings (author, title, edition, publication date, publisher, ISBN) so that users could easily order them from a bookseller or public library, and no agency stated whether it had items it would loan to the public.

Web site information about adoption

The following sections deal with information about the institution of adoption and the agencies’ own services as provided by the Web sites themselves, that is, other than through links to other sites. This is each agency talking, using its own voice, to its potential clients. This is how each agency projects itself as a service provider to those it serves, and more pointedly, how it presents itself to prospective adopters, the people it is trying to attract in order to find homes for waiting children.

The study looked at over 100 separate items of information that could be provided. Most were provided by at least one Web site, but some were provided by none. The following sections present these items under several headings: Legal information, financial information, information about children waiting and placed, agency policies, the assessment process, from acceptance to placement, after placement, and services to adoptees and birth families and others. Some information items appear under more than one heading.

Legal information

One area where lay people are often very uninformed is the legal process: How a child becomes legally available for adoption, filing adoption applications with the courts, contested adoptions, the adoption hearing itself, the legal effects of adoption.

Only one site included any information about the current legislation under which adoptions are regulated, and only nine contained any information on the legal effects of adoption, which was often incorrect in minor details (for example, no mention was made by any Web site that adoptees cannot inherit titles of nobility from their adoptive parents, or of how adoption is affected by incest law). No agency gave any information about the legal processes involved in obtaining parental consent or freeing a child for adoption against the parents’ wishes, not even those few that had information specifically for birth parents. One site did mention the possibility of a contested adoption (where the birth family files an objection to the adoption with the courts). Three had cursory information about the filing of adoption applications with the courts by the intending adoptive parents, or about the hearing itself.

All agencies included information about their fostering operations if they had any, and these often included a statement of the difference between adoption and fostering. Three agencies included specific information about adoption by step–parents. Two agencies mentioned other alternatives to adoption, such as special guardianship. No agency mentioned concurrent planning, where a child is placed with prospective adopters on the understanding that if the birth parents can demonstrate their ability to care for the child within a specified period of time that it will be returned to them.

Out–of–date legal information in some sites showed a lack of updating. One example is the local authority that stated that unmarried couples cannot adopt jointly, a situation changed by the 2002 Act. Another was the agency that stated parental leave is not available to adopters: This administrative anomaly was rectified in December 1999.

Financial information

The study examined Web sites in terms of financial information presented.

Assessment fees

While domestic adoptions in the U.K. incur no assessment fees whether done by a local government or voluntary adoption agency, international adoption assessments can be and usually are charged for. Six of the agencies (20 percent) stated that they do assessments for international adoptions or referred applicants to an agency which was contracted to do this, and five of them stated that a fee is charged, although none put a specific figure on the fee.

"Section 23" payments and adoption allowances

Under the Children Act 1989, Section 23, and the Children and Young Persons, England Adoption Support Services (Local Authorities) (England) Regulations 2003 (Secretary of State for Health, 2003), agencies are authorized to make one–time or short–term payments to families for the purpose of enabling a placement. These include expenses during the period where the child and prospective parents are introduced to one another (which can extend to several months of long–distance visits and overnight stays), furniture or special equipment needed for the child, etc. No agency mentioned the possibility of making these payments.

Adoption allowances are regular payments to adopters, based on their financial circumstances and the child’s needs. They can last until the child’s nineteenth birthday, and are intended to make it possible for lower–income families to adopt. Only nine agencies (30 percent) mentioned the existence of adoption allowances or how they are awarded, although Adopting changes (Social Services Inspectorate, 2002) specifically calls on agencies to make this information and other financial support possibilities known to prospective adopters.

In both cases, the lack of information means that potential adopters with limited resources may be needlessly lost to the system.

Other benefits

One agency mentioned Child Benefit in relation to adoption. Child Benefit is payable to all parents to help maintain their children, and takes the place of income tax deductions in the U.S. No agency mentioned that adoption can affect other welfare benefits in the same way as the addition of any other child to the family.

Medical costs of adopted children were not mentioned by any agency, but this would not be expected because the U.K. provides completely free medical treatment at the point of delivery for all legally resident children regardless of their family status, including foreign–born adoptees.

Parental leave

Two agencies mentioned that parental leave is now available for adopted children. A third agency stated, incorrectly, that parental leave was not available.

Legal costs and fees

Two agencies (6.7 percent) mentioned the possibility of help with paying the legal costs associated with a contested adoption, although these can be substantial and it is in fact standard practice for agencies to pay these costs. None mentioned paying the statutory filing fee for an adoption application or what that fee is.

Paying for post–adoption services

Only one agency mentioned anything about paying for post–adoption services such as counseling, psychotherapy, and respite care, although unlike medical treatment, these are not necessarily free.

Information about children waiting for adoption

Prospective adopters need to know about the kinds of children being placed by agencies. Most importantly, they need to understand that adoption is no longer primarily about healthy babies or orphans. Adoption today is much more about older and often damaged children, often in sibling groups which need placement together in the same family. Considering its importance, it is surprising that only 20 agencies (66.7 percent) gave even the most general description of the kinds of children they place, as in the following two examples:

"Many of the children who require new families are older and have special emotional needs by virtue of the fact that they have been separated from their birth families."

and

"All kinds of children are waiting for a permanent adoptive family — boys, girls, toddlers and school age children. In [local authority], the majority of our children are older children (5–10 years), brothers and sisters who need placement together, children who have been living with a foster family for sometime. Some of these children have special needs and may need educational support or health input ... ."

No agency provided any information about the increasingly common medical–psychiatric conditions suffered by children needing adoption, such as fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), fetal drug addiction, attention deficit–spectrum disorders (ADHD), learning disabilities, and reactive attachment disorder (RAD), although these can significantly affect the suitability of a placement, the need for post–placement support, and the outcome of an adoption. Mention in general terms was made by five agencies (three local authorities and two voluntary) that children needing adoption might suffer from the after–effects of maternal drug abuse, and the like, but nothing specific about what these after–effects are and how they impact on adoptive families. The most specific statements were of the following type:

"Many [children] share the same background of family breakdown, uncertainty, insecurity and abuse: physical, sexual or emotional. Because of their past experiences, few have any trust left in adults. They all need help in overcoming the sometimes devastating effect of what they have been through — a loving and secure family is the best possible start."

and

"There are very few adoptions in [local authority] and children who have been placed for adoption tend to be older children who may have social, emotional and behavioural problems as a result of difficulties in their birth families."

Eight (26.7 percent) mentioned their geographical catchment areas and seven (23.3 percent) mentioned how many children they placed in a recent year or gave a total for several past years. Five (16.7 percent) agencies gave profiles of individual children awaiting placement, either actual children or fictive composites. Seven (23.3 percent) included photographs of children on their Web sites, but in no case were these described as waiting or placed children and can be assumed to be models. None of the agencies had photolistings of actual waiting children.

Agency policies

"Telling"

Four agencies (13.3 percent) expressed a policy on telling adopted children that they are adopted and about their background. They also mentioned that this is an ongoing process, not a once–only event. This is surprising in view of the still widespread belief among the general public that the facts of adoption or the child’s past life can or should be kept secret, although such views go against the current professional consensus: One might expect the published information make a real attempt to correct widely held public misconceptions.

Matching

Eleven agencies (36.7 percent) expressed a policy on physical or cultural matching of children with adoptive families. In all cases it reflected current government thinking that while a cultural or ethnic match was an ideal to be aimed at, it must not be an absolute condition of a placement, and placements must not be deferred indefinitely simply to get an ethnic match.

Corporal punishment and accusations of abuse against carers

Only one agency, a local authority, stated a policy on whether the corporal punishment of children was tolerated. No agency mentioned anything about procedures followed in cases where a child placed for adoption accused the carers of abuse, although this is an increasingly frequent occurrence.

Policies relating to assessing applicants

Seven agencies (23.3 percent) stated policies as to whether a couple currently undergoing infertility treatment could apply to adopt.

Fourteen (46.7 percent) agencies gave specific information about the geographical area from which they recruited families. One small London borough specified that they would not assess people from within their own jurisdiction, but residents of neighboring authorities were welcome to apply and local residents could apply to neighboring authorities. The reason for this was that for security reasons they would only place children from their district out of the area. Of the 16 agencies not providing catchment area information, 14 were local authorities and two were voluntary agencies.

U.K. adoption law makes only three blanket requirements of people as adopters:

  1. there is a minimum age (21 for an adoption by someone not a close relative) but no maximum,
  2. people with convictions as adults for crimes against children or for sexual offenses are ineligible, and
  3. there are residence (but not citizenship) requirements.

There is also a provision that if a couple is legally married and not legally separated they must both be adopters, although an exemption is allowed if one partner is mentally incapacitated to the point of legal disability or in prison. Other than those categories, agencies are free to establish their own criteria. There used to be a provision that in order for two people to adopt a child, they had to be legally married. This prohibited both heterosexual and homosexual cohabiting couples from adopting together. Children could be, and were, placed with these families for adoption but only one partner could complete the legal adoption. This provision was repealed by the 2002 Act, although that section has yet to be fully implemented.

Eight agencies (26.7 percent) mentioned particular categories of applicants they would not assess. These restrictions were:

  • imposing an upper age limit,
  • against people with criminal convictions against children, or
  • in the case of strictly religious voluntary agencies, against assessing single men or unmarried couples.

These agencies also specified a minimum length that a couple had to have been living together (married or unmarried) before assessment could begin.

There are a number of types of families who may unnecessarily disqualify themselves from considering adoption or who may be anxious about the reception they would receive when they approach an agency. A previous paper has highlighted this in relation to families from ethnic minorities (Fenton, 2001). This study looked at a number of such classes of applicants in terms of whether agency Web sites made specific mention of their eligibility for assessment. Table 2 summarizes the findings (note that having a stated policy does not imply either excluding or encouraging the applicants):

 

Table 2: Agencies’ policies relating to the assessment of 15 specific groups of people as adopters.

Family characteristic Agencies with a stated policy (n=30) Agencies with a stated policy (percent) Agencies without a stated policy (n=30)
Single men 2 6.7 28
With no religion 2 6.7 28
Divorced or separated applicant; remarried 4 13.3 26
Without prior experience of children 4 13.3 26
Both applicants employed 5 16.7 25
With a criminal record 9 30.0 21
Not home owners 9 30.0 21
Gay men/lesbians 10 33.3 20
With health issues or physical handicaps, including obesity and smoking 10 33.3 20
With born–to children 11 36.7 19
Ethnic minorities 11 36.7 19
Living outside the agency’s normal catchment area 11 36.7 19
Older people 12 40.0 18
Low–income, unemployed or on welfare* 13 43.3 17
Unmarried couples 16 53.3 14

*Note that of these 13 only nine went on to tell low–income applicants that there was financial help available. The other four simply said low income was not a barrier to adopting.

 

Six agencies (20 percent) expressed no policies in any of these areas. The maximum number of such policy statements for any agency was 12. The modal number was two and the mean was 4.6.

Sixteen agencies (53.3 percent), not including any of the six that expressed no individual policies, extended an explicit but non–specific invitation to non–standard families to apply, expressed in terms such as:

"In [local authority], we are concerned that some people who could make excellent adopters, rule themselves out before even coming to talk to us. This is because there are many myths about who can become an adoptive parent. So if you had thought you would not even be considered, why not check this out by talking to us? Find out if you could make a very positive contribution to a child’s life by becoming an adoptive parent."

Positive qualities looked for in adopters

While 24 agencies made specific reference to one or more possibly disqualifying attributes of prospective adopters, only 10 listed positive qualities they look for in assessing potential parents. These invariably took the form of general statements such as:

"Obviously, you need to be able to care for children responsibly and in a safe, happy environment. To meet their needs, you need the time, enthusiasm and energy — not to mention a well developed sense of humour and plenty of patience. Because of their background and experience ... It also helps enormously to be part of a supportive network of family and friends who can provide practical and emotional support."

and

"There are no hard and fast rules about people who can adopt a child. However, some of the qualities you will need to have are plenty of patience, commitment, humour and energy! But above all you need to be determined to give a child the sort of support that will really make a difference to their lives."

The adoption process

Prospective adopters want to know what is involved in adopting: How assessment is done and how long it takes, what happens between assessment and placement, and what happens after placement.

In the U.K. the process of adopting consists (from the applicants’ point of view) of a number of distinct stages and can take several years:

  • The prospective adopters contact the agency expressing their interest.
  • They attend a general information evening with a group of other enquirers, to learn about adoption and the process.
  • The applicants are interviewed, as are other members of the household and close family members, and enquiries are made to the police and child protection agencies about their background.
  • The applicants attend a series of classes with other applicants, giving more detail about adoption and parenting adopted children (usually simultaneous with the previous step, or even before).
  • The applicants undergo a medical examination by their family doctor.
  • The social worker writes a report which is submitted, together with other documents, to the agency’s adoption panel, which recommends acceptance or rejection of the application.
  • A designated official of the agency either accepts or rejects the panel’s decision and the applicants are notified.
  • The applicants may appeal against a rejection.
  • The applicants wait until a child becomes available which suits the their profile.
  • During this waiting period the applicants can themselves actively search for children, using a number of publicly available resources; if they find a child they notify their own and the child’s social workers.
  • The applicants’ and child’s social workers discuss whether they think the match is reasonable.
  • If the adopters do not already know about the child, they are notified and given information about the child to help them decide whether they want to proceed.
  • The social workers submit the proposed match to the child’s agency’s adoption panel for approval.
  • The child and adopters are notified that the match has been approved. Until this point the child often does not know that a family has been found.
  • If the child is from another agency, negotiations take place between the agencies about payments and arrangements for the next stages in the process.
  • The child and adopters are introduced to each other over a period which varies according to the needs of the child and other circumstances.
  • The child moves in with the adopters (the "placement" itself).
  • Social workers visit the new family to supervise the placement, give advice, etc., and later write a report for the court, assessing the placement.
  • Formal consent to the adoption is obtained from the birth mother or parents, although this often happens at an earlier stage and the courts may have previously dispensed with the right to consent.
  • After the statutory waiting period, the applicants file a formal application to adopt the child with the appropriate court.
  • The parents and child appear at a private court hearing, where the adoption order is made, at which point the child becomes legally part of the new family.
  • An adoption certificate and new birth certificate for the child are issued, showing the adoptive parents as parents; the original birth certificate is sealed until the child comes of age and is entitled to see it.

This is the process for a straightforward adoption. If the birth parents lodge a formal objection or there are other complications there can be other court hearings and reports. The adopters often also often apply for an adoption allowance, which can be made at any time after the child and adopters are matched, and is also heard by the adoption panel.

This section examines these stages in the adoption process in detail and the information provided by adoption Web sites about them.

The assessment process

Twenty agencies (66.7 percent) gave more or less detailed information about the assessment process and 11 of them (36.7 percent) also gave an indication of the time assessment took.

One agency suggested that prospective adopters join Adoption U.K. for support and information.

Eighteen Web sites (60 percent) mentioned that preparation classes formed part of the assessment process. Seven of the 18 (38.9 percent) described the role and/or purpose of these sessions, while three (16.7 percent) gave an indication of their content.

The legally required checks against the records of the police and other specified agencies, made to confirm that applicants have no disqualifying criminal records or complaints against them to child protection agencies, were mentioned by 16 Web sites (53.3 percent), but only six (20 percent) gave a complete list of these checks, while just three (10 percent) said how personal referees would be contacted.

No agency listed the kinds of personal information collected for BAAF’s Form F1, (British Association for Adoption and Fostering, 2000), the standard form used by virtually all agencies to record data about prospective adopters.

Only one agency listed the type of personal documentation they needed to verify to complete their investigations: Birth and marriage certificates, etc.

Part of the assessment process requires the social worker to write a narrative report about the adopters for presentation with the Form F1 to the adoption panel, which considers their application. Five agencies (16.7 percent) mentioned that applicants have the right to read and make corrections to or representations about this report and Form F1 for consideration by the adoption panel.

An adoption panel is a legally required part of an adoption agency, consisting of a specified number of people, some of whom must have particular qualifications (medical, legal, etc.). Its role is:

  • to consider whether adoption or some other course of action is to be pursued for a particular child,
  • whether an application to be placed on the list of potential adopters should be approved,
  • to approve proposed matches between named children and named adopters, and
  • to hear and approve applications for adoption allowances and Section 23 payments.

The panel does not make final decisions about approving adoption applications; it only recommends. A nominated officer of the adoption agency, usually the head, makes the final decision.

The role and function of an adoption panel were satisfactorily explained by 11 agencies (36.7 percent), and the process of submitting applications to the panel by 10 agencies (33.3 percent). Eight (26.7 percent) mentioned the possibility of applicants appearing at the panel meeting to present their case in person.

Six (20 percent) mentioned that the final responsibility for accepting an application to be placed on the register of prospective adopters is made by the agency on the advice of the panel, rather than the by panel itself. Two other agencies gave the wrong information, one stating: "being approved by a panel as a prospective adopter" as part of the process, and another: "The panel either approves your application or does not approve it." Two stated how they notify applications of the decision. Three (10 percent) mentioned the possibility of appealing against a rejection.

Six (20 percent) agencies mentioned that they did assessments for international adoptions, but only four gave information about the process or what international adoptions involve.

From acceptance to placement

The period between acceptance as adopters and the placement of a child is for many families no less fraught than the assessment. How much are potential applicants and those waiting told about this period?

Only 13 Web sites (43.4 percent) gave any information at all about this period. Four (13.3 percent) gave a rough indication of the time that could elapse between acceptance and placement. Four noted that contact with the agency continued during the period. Six (20 percent) referred to the use of clearing houses, regional consortia and the National Adoption Register to find families for children, with one of them also specifically mentioning Be My Parent, which is a BAAF publication containing photographs and profiles of children with special needs waiting for placement. None mentioned a similar publication, Children Who Wait, from Adoption U.K., although both publications are specifically intended for prospective adopters, as well as for social workers. Seven (23.3 percent) described the process of introducing a child to new prospective parents.

Only one agency specifically mentioned disclosing to prospective adopters any information about the child’s past history or any special needs he might have prior to placement or during the introduction period.

After placement

One Web site mentioned that social workers visit the family after placement to supervise and counsel and must write a report for the court partly based on these visits.

Three agencies (10 percent) gave information about filing adoption applications with the courts or the adoption hearing, with one of these also giving information about what happens in the case where the birth family files a formal objection to the adoption. Two agencies (6.7 percent) mentioned paying the legal costs of the adopters in such cases.

Fifteen agencies (50 percent) gave some information about post–adoption support. Seven (23.3 percent) gave explicit promises of support or at least assessment for it. Nine (30 percent) mentioned the sources of support, such as their own social services team or independent agencies. Eight (26.7 percent) gave lists of specific forms post–adoption support can take, such as respite care and counseling. One gave information about paying for support services. None stated clearly that while assessment for adoption support services is now mandatory, the actual provision of support is discretionary.

Not one agency mentioned the possibility of a disruption, when an adoption breaks down and the child returns to care, or what happens in such an event. This is in spite of the fact that about 20 percent of all adoptive placements disrupt (Performance and Innovation Unit, 2000).

Contact with the birth family after placement

Half the agencies made reference to continuing contact with the birth family or other significant people in the child’s past, which now happens in a large number of adoptions. Seven (23.3 percent) stated that they provide a mailbox service for the exchange of letters and gifts between birth and adoptive families without revealing addresses or names. Only two (6.7 percent) mentioned the possibility of facilitating supervised in–person visits, in cases where there are concerns for the child’s or adopters’ safety.

Adopting again

Only two agencies made any mention of adopting a second time. Neither made reference to any maximum family size or a preferred waiting period between placements.

Services to other members of the adoption community

If the foregoing sections appear grossly imbalanced in the amount of space devoted to prospective adopters, this reflects the content of the Web sites themselves. Information for adoptees themselves, birth families and other people was very scarce.

Services to adoptees

Only 10 agencies (33.3 percent) mentioned any kind of services to adoptees. Eight (26.7 percent) mentioned providing birth records counseling for adult adoptees (a service required by law) and two referred users to the National Organisation for the Counselling of Adoptees and their Parents (http://www.norcap.org.uk/), which can help in tracing and meeting their birth families. Five (16.7 percent) mentioned contact registers where adoptees and birth family members can make known their wishes for or against contact. Five stated that they provide their own intermediary service for making first contact with traced families. Five provide post–contact counseling for all parties. No agency mentioned the possibility of opening up previously closed adoptions while the adoptee was still a minor.

Services to birth family members

Only 10 agencies mentioned anything at all that could be construed as about services provided to members of the birth family, usually in terms of counseling at the time of relinquishment or sponsoring self–help groups for birth mothers. While sections of Web sites devoted to tracing by adult adoptees or open adoption are obviously relevant to birth families, these were with one exception written from the perspective of the adoptive parents or an adult adoptee.

Services to birth families were usually simply listed among a register of different services, as in this example:

"As well as finding families for children we also provide a range of post adoption services by offering counseling and support to birth families, adoptive families, adult adoptees and any other person affected by adoption. ... In addition, support groups are provided to meet the needs of all parties affected by adoption. These include a post–placement support group, two post–adoption support groups for adopters, and [sic] adoptees [sic] group and a birth mothers’ group."

Only three agencies provided a paragraph or page explicitly for birth family members. One religious agency provided a separate page for pregnant women considering relinquishing their child for adoption.

The overlap in agencies providing information specifically to adoptees and to birth families was striking: Nine of the agencies mentioning either service mentioned both; only one agency mentioned services for adoptees but not for birth families, and one agency mentioned services for birth families but not for adoptees. This shows that agencies tend to be aware of the need for information by all parties to an adoption, or they ignore both the adoptee and birth family entirely, devoting all their attention to the adopters.

Other services

Six Web sites mentioned the provision of services other than fostering or those detailed above. These services were:

  • training placements for social workers,
  • consultancy for local authority adoption services,
  • family finding services on behalf of other agencies,
  • community outreach in areas such as support for vulnerable families.

No agency included information about adoption written for school children doing project work or for the general public interested in adoption.

 

++++++++++

Conclusions: Most and least common features

Which of the scores of features or information items were least and most commonly provided by agency Web sites? The following were provided by at most two agencies (less than 10 percent):

By no agency:

  • Anything about adoption and welfare benefits other than Child Benefit
  • Anything about agency fees other than those for assessment for international adoption
  • Anything about concurrent planning
  • Anything about legal processes before adoption
  • Anything about paying expenses during the introductions period or other Section 23 payments
  • Anything about procedures in the case of accusations of abuse against the adopters
  • Enough bibliographical data on items for further reading: Author, title, publisher and date
  • The agency has items of further reading for loan
  • Information about RAD, ADHD, FAS and related conditions
  • Staff community language capabilities
  • What data are collected for BAAF Form F1 during the assessment process
  • Anything about adoption disruption
  • Whether the agency will open up a closed adoption for minors
  • Any information on adoption provided especially for the general public or school pupils

By one agency:

  • Agency memberships of Adoption U.K. or BAAF
  • Recommendation that prospective adopters join Adoption U.K., etc.
  • Agency P.O. Box number
  • A FREEPOST address
  • A list of documents the agency needs from the applicants during assessment
  • Agency policy on corporal punishment
  • Anything about adoption and Child Benefit
  • Anything about contested adoptions
  • Anything about current adoption legislation and regulations
  • Anything about disclosing details of the child to the adopters before placement
  • Anything about paying for post–adoption services
  • Mention of Be My Parent, or Children Who Wait as placement resources

By two agencies:

  • A badge for good English
  • A family–friendly content badge
  • Adult adoptees referred to NORCAP for help
  • Anything about how applicants are notified of acceptance/rejection
  • Anything about parental leave for adopters
  • Anything about paying legal costs for contested cases
  • Anything about second adoptions
  • Anything about special guardianship, etc. (excluding fostering)
  • Mention of assessing people with no religion
  • Mention of assessing single men

At the other end of the scale, two–thirds (20) or more agencies provided these items:

By 20 agencies:

  • A general statement of the kinds of children placed by the agency
  • Assessment process described
  • Site has a text alternative for older browsers or visually handicapped users
  • Site includes a link to the Webmaster

By 21 agencies:

  • All navigation was visible on the first screen
  • E–mail address provided
  • Street address given for the agency

By 22 agencies:

  • Adoption frontpage includes a satisfactory introduction to the agency’s functions
  • Site includes a sitesearch facility giving access to adoption pages

By 23 agencies:

  • All significant <img> tags with ALT= statements
  • Obvious chain of links from homepage to adoption pages
  • URLs not meaningless

By 24 agencies:

  • Appropriate language

By 25 agencies:

  • Sidebars used effectively
  • Web site owner named

By 26 agencies:

  • Contact telephone number given
  • Navigation easy to understand

By 27 agencies:

  • Direct link from adoption pages to host organization homepage
  • Headings in text clear and informative

By 28 agencies:

  • Browser’s back button never disabled

By 29 agencies:

  • A consistent navigation style
  • Adoption pages complete, not under construction
  • Good contrast between type and background color
  • Lack of unexplained jargon
  • No frames used
  • Site–internal links never open new windows

By all 30 agencies:

  • All pages took less than 15 seconds to load
  • Lack of intrusive or distractive audio–visual elements which slow down page loading

It is striking that of the 28 most commonly provided features 23, or 82.1 percent, are either housekeeping/navigation–related or basic contact details, with only five (17.9 percent) being information about adoption. No item of information, other than contact details, was provided by more than 22 agencies. In contrast, among the 36 least–provided items and those not provided at all, almost all (32, or 88.9 percent) are information items about adoption. Agencies simply do not provide the kinds of information prospective adopters and others want to know.

Confirmation of this lack of information of real interest to adopters comes when we compare the list of information items wanted by adopters from agencies (from Carpenter and Caine, 1997), and the Department of Health (DoH) adoption FAQ pages (Department of Health, 2002; 2003) against the information items actually provided by agency Web sites:

 

Table 3: Agencies providing the information identified by Carpenter and Caine (1997) as most needed by adopters, or listed in the Department of Health (DoH) adoption FAQ pages for adopters.

Data item deemed important In Carpenter and Caine (1997) In Department of Health (DoH) adoption FAQ pages Agencies providing (n=30) Agencies providing (percent)
Disruption rate   Y 0 0
Information on adopting a relative   Y 0 0
Numbers of children available for adoption (agency)   Y 0 0
When and where preparation meetings take place Y   0 0
Court fees (amount)   Y 0 0
Payment of court filing fees by agency Y   0 0
State benefits affected by adoption Y Y 0 0
Payment of expenses during introductions Y   0 0
Contents of BAAF Form F1; information on adopters collected by agency Y Y 0 0
Information on the child given to adopters Y Y 0 0
Information on RAD Y   0 0
Legal framework of adoption   Y 1 3.3
Legal effect of adoption   Y 1 3.3
How applicants can prepare themselves for assessment/parenthood Y   1 3.3
Encouragement to join Adoption U.K. Y   1 3.3
Use of Be my parent, etc. Y   1 3.3
Alternatives to adoption (both special guardianship and fostering)   Y 1 3.3
Residence requirement (U.K.)   Y 2 6.7
Numbers of children available for adoption (nationally)   Y 2 6.7
Payment of legal fees for contested cases Y   2 6.7
Notification of panel’s recommendation Y   2 6.7
Parental leave for adopters   Y 2 6.7
Information about second adoptions Y   2 6.7
Information on step–parent adoption   Y 3 10
How referees are contacted Y   3 10
Appeal against rejection (procedure)   Y 3 10
Agency’s consortium memberships and use of matching agencies Y   3 10
Timescale for adoption (enquiry to adoption order)   Y 4 13.3
Smokers’ eligibility   Y 4 13.3
What experience of children agency expects of applicants Y   4 13.3
Applicants given social worker’s report/their Form F1 for comment Y   5 16.7
Who ultimately approves applicants   Y 5 16.7
Link to DoH Web site     5 16.7
Named contact person Y   7 23.3
Policy in assessing couples undergoing fertility treatment Y   7 23.3
Information about letter–box facilities Y   7 23.3
Catchment area for children Y   8 26.7
Applicants given date of panel meeting/may attend meeting Y Y 8 26.7
Criminal record restrictions   Y 9 30
Renters’ eligibility   Y 9 30
Encouragement to do outside study (reading or organizational) Y   9 30
Financial aid available Y Y 9 30
Information about Section 23 payments Y   9 30
Sexual orientation restrictions   Y 10 33.3
Health issues restrictions   Y 10 33.3
Time scale for assessment Y   11 36.7
Trans–racial placement policy   11 36.7
Whether agency will consider families with born–to children   11 36.7
Adoption Panel’s function and/or composition   Y 11 36.7
Age restrictions Y Y 12 40
Complaints procedure Y   12 40
Low–earners’/benefits claimants’ eligibility   Y 13 43.3
Catchment area for families Y   14 46.7
Outline of policies and procedure (general) Y   15 50
Expected contact with birth family Y   15 50
Information about post–adoption support Y   15 50
List of statutory checks Y   16 53.3
Further sources of information given Y   17 56.7
Criteria for adopters (general) Y   18 60
Marital status restrictions (any statement) Y Y 19 63.3
Types of children placed and families who took them Y Y 20 66.7
How to register interest/apply (contact information provided) Y Y 28 93.3

 

The lists contain 61 data items, 39 from Carpenter and Caine and 31 from the DoH, with nine items common to both lists. Of the 61, 11 are provided by none of the agency Web sites and a further 12 are provided by only one or two. Twenty–seven data items (44.3 percent) are provided by less than 10 percent of Web sites. Only nine items were provided by as many as half of the Web sites, and only one item, contact information, by more than two–thirds of agencies.

 

++++++++++

Conclusions: Rating the agencies

It is possible to rate agency Web sites by awarding a point for each item of information or positive design feature. This does ignore the fact that some items are more important than others (for example, the way in which personal referees are contacted by the agency is undoubtedly less important than whether the agency will assess a family currently undergoing fertility treatment), but it does give a general indication of the variation in quality.

 

Table 4: Agencies’ scores in providing information needed by adopters and others.

Agency type Catchment area type Country of HQ office Information architecture score (max.=46) Information content score (max.=112) Total score (max.=158)
Local authority London borough England 19 1 20
Voluntary Regional/National England 20 5 25
Local authority Non–metropolitan Wales 20 5 25
Local authority Metropolitan not London England 23 5 28
Local authority Non–metropolitan England 24 7 31
Local authority London borough England 24 10 34
Local authority Non–metropolitan England 23 11 34
Local authority Metropolitan not London Scotland 26 11 37
Local authority Non–metropolitan Scotland 21 19 40
Local authority Metropolitan not London England 28 16 44
Local authority Non–metropolitan England 26 20 46
Local authority Non–metropolitan Scotland 23 23 46
Voluntary Metropolitan not London Scotland 31 16 47
Voluntary Regional/National England 18 31 49
Local authority Non–metropolitan Scotland 20 32 52
Local authority Non–metropolitan England 28 25 53
Local authority Metropolitan not London Scotland 26 29 55
Voluntary Regional/National Wales 23 32 55
Local authority Metropolitan not London England 26 30 56
Local authority London borough England 25 33 58
Local authority Metropolitan not London England 28 33 61
Local authority Non–metropolitan England 29 33 62
Local authority Metropolitan not London England 30 33 63
Local authority Metropolitan not London England 33 30 63
Local authority Non-metropolitan England 19 45 64
Local authority London borough England 25 41 66
Local authority London borough England 31 36 67
Local authority Non–metropolitan Wales 33 38 71
Local authority Non–metropolitan England 33 42 75
Voluntary Regional/National England 21 58 79

 

Of 158 features counted for this table (items which could not be counted as yes/no features have been eliminated for this count, such as those to do with numbers of links and the number of pages in the microsite) less than one–third were found in the average Web site, with agencies providing in some cases as little as 12.7 percent (a London borough) or 15.8 percent of the items sought. Even the best–performing agency (a voluntary agency based in London and placing children from all over the U.K.) provided exactly half the items.

In information architecture, 12 Web sites provided half or less of the features, and the highest scoring Web site scored only 71.7 percent of the possible features. Of information content items, only one Web site provided more than half of the data, and that scored only 51.8 percent of possible. Twenty percent of sites provided less than 10 percent of the data items. The higher score for information architecture-related items is almost all due to the fact that they provided most of the elements to do with contacting the agency.

There were no significant differences in scores when agencies were grouped by local authority vs. voluntary, by urban vs. non–urban area served, or by country. In any case, the sub–samples were too small to be statistically reliable.

Table 5 aggregates the scores of all the agencies together, showing that in total the 30 agencies provided just over half the information architecture features that were evaluated, and less than a quarter of the information items sought.

 

Table 5: Summary table of agencies’ scores in providing information needed by adopters and others.

  Information architecture score (max.= 46 per agency) Information content score (max.= 112 per agency) Total score (max.= 158 per agency)
All agencies (possible total) 1380 3360 4740
All agencies (actual total) 756 750 1506
All agencies (range) 18–33 1–58 20–79
All agencies (mean) 25.2 25.0 50.2
All agencies (median) 25 29.5 52.5
All agencies (mode/s) 23, 26 33 34, 46, 55, 63
All agencies (percent scored of possible items) 54.8 22.3 31.8

 

 

++++++++++

Discussion

There seems no doubt that in this sample of the Web sites of 30 out of 139 U.K. adoption agencies the amount of information provided is inadequate for the purposes of all their potential users. Not one agency provides anything like the amount of basic information prospective adopters want and need, and from the point of view of other members of the adoption community they are even worse. The results support one of the key findings of the U.K. Social Services Inspectorate’s report Adopting Changes:

"Written information for prospective adopters ... frequently failed to give them all the information they needed to make informed choices. Information was not widely available on sources of support to adoptive families, such as adoption allowances and access to post adoption services." [11]

Virtually nothing is provided for the general public, for adoptees of any age, for their birth families, for adoption professionals or for current adoptive families needing help. The only constituency whose needs are regularly addressed to any meaningful degree is prospective adopters or those wanting to know about the criteria and assessment processes of the individual agency. And here there is considerable variation — from one local authority which makes no mention in its Web sites of adoption services, through to local authorities and voluntary adoption agencies that provide considerable detail. But even the best agencies perform poorly when evaluated against the needs of the adoption community, as expressed by Carpenter and Caine (1997). Some Web sites are written in language that puts off potential clients or contain out–of–date and incorrect information.

The information architecture features of some Web sites fail the most basic tests of accessibility and usability, although the best are very good in this respect.

Assuming the sample to be representative (and statistically it is small), the reason may lie in the relatively unsophisticated level of development of U.K. local government and non–commercial organization Web sites in general. The only recent comparable study, covering only information architecture (Fenton and Armstrong, 2003) is inconclusive when its results are set against those of the current study: In some areas the adoption Web sites performed better than the general non–commercial sector, in others they performed worse.

Policy considerations

Constraints imposed by local authority or organization resources or policies may restrict the amount of information available on the Web.

Some agencies provided information in non–HTML formats: As PDF, RTF or DOC files, not assessed in this research. It may be that they feel they are performing their information functions in that way. But these are not acceptable alternatives to normal Web pages, for the reasons explained above.

Other agencies may feel that they should be using the Web to provide only an introductory level of information for possible users of their services, with more detailed information to follow either in personal conversations with social workers or in printed documents. This is undoubtedly contrary to clear government directives about the provision of public information over the Web. Orally giving information without written backup is certainly unacceptable, given the potential for omission and misunderstanding. Written information documents have the disadvantage of being less easy to keep up to date than Web pages, and are also subject to limited availability, to social workers forgetting to give them to clients, to being lost, or to containing out–of–date information when revised editions are not provided to replace earlier copies. Even in language terms, it is easier to get a Web translation of a document on demand than a printed one, or to find a social worker speaking your language, if you know where to look. The only advantage of oral and printed information is that it is universally available, while Internet access is still not in every household or happily used by everyone.

Information and client choice

A reading of Gambrill’s (2001) article "Social work: An authority–based profession" suggests a less attractive idea. This is that information–poor Web sites demonstrate an authoritarian or paternalistic tendency to withhold information. Agencies are arrogating to themselves gatekeeper status: The power to determine when the client gets which information. They deliberately reduce their clients’ ability to make informed choices for themselves by manipulating the information flow, instead of allowing clients to decide which information they want and when. The information they provide on the Internet (the distribution of which cannot then be controlled by the professionals), is kept to a minimum, letting the social workers decide when and if the client (whether prospective adopter, adoptee, or birth relative) is told or given any further information. At each stage in the proceedings clients are rewarded for compliance by more information, and a failure to comply means no more information. In short, information may be being used by the professionals as a means of client control, control which they are denied if all the information is laid out on the Web.

Supporting this idea is the total omission of any mention that adoptions can break down. An editorial in Adoption Today reported pressure from social workers among others, "not to say too much about the problems that adoptive families encounter" [12], in case they frighten off potential adopters. This removes clients’ ability to make a decision early on in the proceedings about whether or not they feel strong enough to cope with such an eventuality. Yet, given the 20 percent disruption rate cited above (Performance and Innovation Unit, 2000), this is a decision that the clients need to be able to make.

The crucial nature of this is shown by the following statement posted by an American adopter to an e–mail support group for adopters of severely disturbed children, concerning her child, who after placement in her family raped three of the family’s other very young adopted children and the family dog:

"We adopted overseas; thought we had all the grim information. After he was home for 15 days here came a telex from Korea about his sexual acting out. [The agency in] Korea said they only knew about it right before his departure for the [S]tates. I would have loved to have had the chance to make an INFORMED decision about adopting him. It was harder once he was home, and [the agency] knew it. He has caused untold pain in our home. ... I wonder what life would be like now if I had had complete disclosure?"

The boy is now in a residential treatment center and will probably never be able to live at home again.

Lack of information about financial support deprives prospective adopters of the ability to make informed choices about whether they can afford to adopt. If no support is mentioned, people may assume that none is available, without enquiring further, and lower–income families who might otherwise be excellent adopters may be lost to the system.

Conversely, adopters who are misled about the availability of support may find themselves with an adopted child who later badly needs specialized treatment which they cannot afford. None of the 15 agencies mentioning post–adoption support in their Web sites stated that clients have a statutory right only to assessment for support, not to support itself, which is discretionary. People reading agency Web sites would logically, but wrongly, expect that service would follow assessment, as long as the assessment showed there was need. A considerable but unknown proportion of adopters claim that in fact, when support is needed it is either refused outright, is provided too little, too late, or is inappropriate to their needs.

Every issue of Adoption Today, the voice British adoptive parents, contains first–person accounts of hopes or placements blighted by inadequate or inaccurate information provided to the adopters. The following examples from issue 111, August 2003 illustrate:

  • p. 5: A couple not told until three months after approval by their local authority agency that they were very unlikely to have a child to be placed with them because of agency policy. The policy, given the small geographical area covered by the agency, is sensible, but nobody told the clients;
  • p. 8: A couple provided with a Form E for a child (which gives a medical, social and psychological history and needs assessment) that had major gaps and many errors, and was "so poorly prepared that the council was embarrassed to give it to us";
  • p. 12: A single adopter not told until the disruption conference that there had always been suspicions that the girl had been sexually abused in a previous placement; the girl’s sexualized behavior towards her brother had been explained by social workers as child’s play. At placement the child’s Form E was three years old. Requests for post–adoption support had been denied on the grounds that the adoption was not yet finalized;
  • p. 13: A couple not told until the disruption meeting that the girl placed with them had said she didn’t want to leave her foster placement — to which she returned after the disruption; and,
  • p. 20: Two couples suing local authorities for withholding information about their new children’s severely disturbed behavior in previous placements, on the grounds that they would not have consented to the placements had they known the truth.

Most of these relate to deficiencies in the information supplied about individual children before placement, but some relate to a lack of information about agency policies or denial of services adopters had reasonably felt they were entitled to, but which were in fact discretionary. All of them relate to agencies knowingly exercising their ability to withhold, drip–feed or distort the information provided to adopters. Full, realistic and clear information on Web sites would help alleviate the problem of unrealistic expectations, misunderstandings and disputes in many areas, such as:

  • timescales for assessment and waiting for placement,
  • the availability of particular types of children,
  • policies about assessing particular classes of people for adoption,
  • the availability of financial aid and post–placement support,
  • the use of regional consortia and the Adoption Register,
  • continuing contact with the birth family,
  • the complexities of the process leading to a child legally free for adoption, and
  • the possibilities of concurrent planning.

 

++++++++++

Further work

Web site investigation

No investigation was made into the principles behind the Web sites: What did their creators intend and why? Nor were the information policies of their host organizations inquired into. These may have imposed limits on the amount of information that could be made available, navigation or other design features, against the judgment of the adoption teams, who might have preferred more openness. Random examples of where this is quite likely to be the case are:

  • naming members of the family placement team (for personal security reasons and the restrictions of the Data Protection Act 1998) (Great Britain, 1998), which forbids publishing such information without the informed and explicit consent of the person named, and
  • in providing last–update dates to pages.

A longitudinal study could chart changes to the Web sites, assuming increasing compliance with the government’s e–government guidelines and standards and incorporation into the sites of the new legislative climate.

The main set of information items used to evaluate the Web sites was compiled in 1997. These may no longer be as relevant as they were then, and should be tested against a current sample of members of the adoption community to see whether they still reflect their needs, before they are applied in further research. Also, the information needs of adoptees, birth families, and current (as opposed to prospective) adoptive parents are not catered for by the available lists. The same research might also be able to provide a means of weighting individual data items according to their relative importance.

When testing the Web sites the PDF, RTF and DOC documents available could also be evaluated.

A more objective measure of the size of the adoption microsites could be used, such as a total word count. This could provide total information and content–per–page measures.

To improve the statistical reliability of the research, a larger sample should be tested.

It would be difficult but interesting to test a hypothesis based on Gambrill’s (2001) thesis that social work is still an authority–based profession, and that this is reflected in adoption agency Web sites in proportion to their authoritarianism and paternalism in their treatment of clients. It would involve a deeper study of the culture of the departments and their relationships to both clients and parent organizations.

 

++++++++++

Provision of adoption information on the Internet

Consideration should be given to the possibility of creating one or more model adoption agency Web sites, as templates which agencies could use to construct their own Web sites, giving them the assurance that they were following accepted professional and e–government guidelines and providing the information their users really need. Kitemarking by BAAF or Adoption U.K. could also be used to give public assurance that an agency Web site was fulfilling information quality and presentation standards based on the needs of the adoption community.

Finally, information, such as legal processes, the rights of birth families, the legal framework of adoption, the legal effects of adoption, the availability of financial and other support, legal eligibility criteria, the provision of original birth certificates on adulthood, and adoption contact registries could be provided in a joint Web site to which agency Web sites would link, although there would need to be separate Web sites or microsites for each country of the U.K. because of the differences in law and practice. The site would also include links to relevant legislation, agencies, and other organization Web sites, statistical data, the statutory Social Services Inspectorate reports on agencies, etc.

Such a Web site would ensure a fuller and common information base for the adoption community, which clients could safely rely on in making informed decisions: Something this research has shown they cannot now do. Individual agencies could then concentrate on providing information specific to themselves, such as their criteria for assessing clients and the content of their pre–adoption parenting classes. This would save them having to concern themselves individually with keeping the general information up to date, while ensuring full disclosure, timeliness and accuracy for clients. The current Web sites of BAAF (http://www.baaf.org.uk), Adoption U.K. (http://www.adoptionuk.com/), and the Department of Health (http://www.doh.gov.uk/adoption/index.htm) are a major step in the right direction but not comprehensive enough. It should be possible to compile a single, comprehensive and authoritative source if information endorsed by all interested bodies. End of article

 

About the author

Roger Fenton is an American living in Wales and working as an information science researcher for Information Automation, Ltd. He was educated at Reed College, Freie Universität Berlin, University of Chicago Graduate Library School, and the College of Librarianship Wales, before moving to New Zealand as one of the foundation lecturers in the Victoria University of Wellington Department of Librarianship. He and his wife have four adopted children aged 15 to 22. He has been an adoption counselor and editor of Adoption Today, the magazine of British adopters, and is the author of Famous and Remarkable Adoptees, Foster Children and Others, and Adopting a Child in Britain: Advice for Prospective Adopters.
E-mail: rff@aber.ac.uk.

 

Notes

1. Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, 2002, p. 5.

2. Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, 2002, p. 9.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Local Authority Websites National Project, 2003, p. 1.

6. Social Services Inspectorate, 2000, pp. 4–5.

7. Social Services Inspectorate, 2000, p. 24.

8. Hagedorn, 2000, p. 5.

9. Demchak, et al., 2000, pp. 10–11.

10. Demchak, et al., 2000, p. 10.

11. Social Services Inspectorate, 2002, p. 24.

12. "Who Will Parent these Children," 2000, p. 6.

 

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Editorial history

Received 17 December 2003; accepted 18 January 2004.


Copyright © 2004, First Monday.
Copyright © 2004, Roger Fenton.

United Kingdom adoption agency Web sites
by Roger Fenton.
First Monday, Volume 9, Number 2 - 2 February 2004
https://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/1120/1040





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