Research obtained by the BBC and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reveals significant variation in adoption rates across England.
For children born in 2011-12 the chances of being placed for adoption by the age of five were 12 times higher in Southampton than Greenwich.
The data is from a series of Freedom of Information inquiries sent to all English local authorities. Half provided full responses.
Of those, 20 had significantly increased adoption rates for this group compared with children born five years before.
It is the first time groups of children have been tracked in this way over time.
Andy Bilson, emeritus professor of social work at the University of Central Lancashire, wanted to compare child protection practice across all local authorities in England.
He sent a series of detailed questions to all 152 bodies, asking how many children, born between 1 April 2011 and 31 March 2012, had by the age of five been investigated by social services, and how many had been permanently removed from their families, adopted or given placement orders by family courts.
He asked the same questions about children born five years before.
He had full responses from 70 local authorities and used ONS data to calculate adoption rates.
This revealed a huge variation: in Southampton, almost one in 50 children had been adopted or placement orders. In Greenwich, which has a similar socio-economic profile, the rate was a twelfth of that – more like 1 in 600.
In Southampton there was a marked rise in adoption rates for this age group, compared with children born five years before. The FOI response also showed the authority had investigated many more families. The number of detailed investigations, carried out under section 47 of the children act, had risen from 215 to 454.
There was a similar pattern in 19 other authorities.
For nearly 20 years, both Labour and Conservative governments have promoted adoption as a way of getting children out of care, where they often move from one foster family to another, and fare poorly in education. Adopted children do much better.
But Professor Bilson found in the authorities where adoption had risen, the numbers in care had risen too. In authorities where adoption was stable or had fallen, care numbers had fallen.
“This is the exact opposite of what you’d expect,” he told the BBC.
“It points instead to a difference in the way that children are being removed from parents.”
The BBC asked Southampton why it had changed its approach.
The authority responded: “All children who were adopted were subject to rigorous scrutiny by the legal system and the Family Court, both of which agreed with the Local Authority that not only had the threshold for a Care Order been met, but that the Local Authority had exhausted all opportunity and support for any potential family or other carers: adoption was therefore the only realistic option.”
There may, however, be another influence at work in Southampton. In 2011, there were four child deaths, one especially high profile. Blake Fowler died of a head injury aged seven.
Concerns had been raised about him since he was a toddler: the authority were later severely criticised for failing to act.
Sir Mark Hedley, who for many years was a High Court judge in the Family Division, told the BBC: “It would be wrong to suggest that one is the cause of the other. But there is no doubt that public criticism of social workers if children have suffered will lead to an increased priority being given to child protection at the expense of maintaining family groups.”
Social workers have to intervene if they believe a child is at risk of “significant” harm. But significant is not defined in statute. Sir Mark says action will vary from one authority to another.
“There will inevitably be a wide range of views in relation to what is significant harm,” he said.
“Just as there will be a range of views about the desirability of intervening in families in the first place.”
Professor Bilson found that far more children are being put on child protection plans because of “emotional abuse” and neglect – 82% of the children in the younger group. Again, these are terms which can be subject to interpretation.
Over the last decade, the number of children in care has risen by 134%. Many talk of the crisis in the care system, the family courts overwhelmed by cases.
Why this happens is less clear, though council support for families, so-called early intervention, has been dramatically reduced thanks to cuts, and rising poverty increases the pressure. For many months now local authorities have been warning that more families are in crisis, and that child protection is becoming an emergency service.
Professor Bilson’s research is a snapshot only, of two cohorts of children, covering half of England. But it provides a dramatic picture of varying approaches in different authorities, a starting point for further investigation.
The Department for Education said: “Every decision regarding adoption is made with the best interests of the child at its heart. Many children and their adoptive families have had their lives transformed by adoption, and we are determined to support them every step of the way.
“On top of this, there are of course a number of alternative options available, including long-term fostering and special guardianship, which may be chosen when it is best for the child.”