UK Adoption Agency Websites

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					                         UK Adoption Agency Websites

                                                by Roger Fenton

               Centre for Information Quality Management at Information Automation Limited.

                                             e-mail: rff@aber.ac.uk
                                          phone: +44 (0)1970 621 805


Abstract

This paper presents the findings of the second stage of an investigation into the information presented on
the World Wide Web by UK adoption agencies. The first paper, available at http://www.i-a-
l.co.uk/Print_Resources/Adoption websites 1.doc, examines the information presented in the online
directories of agencies published by the British Association for Adoption and Fostering and the UK
Department of Health. This paper examines the information architecture and information content of 30
agencies’ own Websites.

An expanded version of this paper, with an introduction and further material on adoption in the UK, a
literature review, fuller conclusions and a discussion, was published in First Monday 9(2) 2004:
http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue9_2/fenton/index.html.



Introduction
The legal context: Adoption law in the United Kingdom

The first UK act of Parliament to regulate adoption was the Adoption of Children Act 1926 (Great Britain,
1926). The most recent law is the Adoption and Children Act 2002 (the 2002 Act) (Great Britain, 2002). The
2002 Act, together with the statutory instruments and codes of practice which it authorizes, makes a number
of important basic changes to the law. These are intended to:

   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 joint aim of these changes is to increase the number of adoptions by 40% by 2004/05 over their level in
2001.


The e-government context

Internet access in UK households has risen steadily from a figure of just over 10% in January 1999. In
August 2003 household Internet penetration reached 50%. Among people of an age to adopt children, home
Internet access is higher than average: 57% in the 25-34 age band, 66% for ages 35-44, and 62% for ages
45-54 (Oftel, 2003).

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 has decided that central and local government
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‖
(p. 5) by the end of 2005. By then ―all services should be available electronically, but accessed through a
variety of channels‖ (p. 9). 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‖ (p.
9), both of which include the aims of local authority adoption services.

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 Website and page design and
accessibility standards. I do not however investigate whether Websites conform to the Local Authorities
National Wesbites National Project (LAWs) standards (Local Authority Websites National Project. n.d.),
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.


Methodology
Find Your Agency (British Association for Adoption and Fostering, 2003), the only comprehensive online
listing of UK adoption agencies, 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.

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
UK government), 12 served semi-urban or rural districts; and four served wide geographical areas including
both rural and urban authorities.

The Websites 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 Webpages (microsite) and the links between it and the authority’s larger
Website as a whole were examined. In the case of stand-alone agencies, the entire Website was examined.

In some cases adoption-related information was discovered outside the adoption service microsites of 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, it was not evaluated. However information reachable via links from the adoption pages
was included in the evaluation.


Results

Information architecture

Information architecture is ―[t]he art and science of organizing information to help people effectively fulfill
their information needs‖ (Hagedorn, 2000, p. 5): that is, how a Website 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 Website
(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.

Own Website or a microsite?
A microsite is a unified subset of pages within a larger Website. In itself, having a microsite rather than a
Website 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 sourcecode that makes its content accessible to search engines.

Five agencies had stand-alone Websites, 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 Website, much less a microsite, while several voluntary agencies had microsites within the
Websites of their larger host organizations, such as a religious diocese or national child welfare charity.

Sourcecode

The survey looked at a selection of Dublin Core (DC) elements, checking the sourcecode of the frontpage of
each site, and also that of the destination page of the first adoption-related link within the same microsite.
(That is, links to pages outside the microsite and links to pages which did not relate to adoption, were
ignored.) A site was rated 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 the large-scale Centre for
Information Quality Management (CIQM) research project (Fenton and Armstrong, 2003), which examined
quality indicators in 600 commercial and non-commercial Websites, primarily from the UK and the USA.

!DOCTYPE statements

A DC !DOCTYPE statement 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%) of the Websites included a !DOCTYPE statement. Fenton and Armstrong (2003) found that
50% of 100 non-commercial UK Websites included one.

DC <meta> tags

Wise use of <meta> tags can significantly enhance the chances of a document being given a high relevance
score by a search engine. Use of <meta> tags in local authority Websites is now also required by
government standards and the UK Cabinet Office has published a list of approved and required terms
(Office of the e-Envoy, 2003; UK 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 sourcecodes, but only seven used more than
10 types. The mode was 6; four sites used none at all, and the average was 6.8.

The presence or lack of five particular <meta> tag types was also noted:

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

The provision of ALT statements with DC <img> tags was recorded. The agency frontpage was examined,
as well as up to two randomly-selected other adoption-related pages in the Website (some agencies had
only one or two pages in total). All <img> statements were examined. It was decided to use a less rigorous
standard than that used by Fenton and Armstrong (2003): rather than requiring total provision of ALT
statements, it was 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 Websites (76.7%) complied with this lower measure, and provided ALT statements
for all significant <img> tags. Using the higher standard, just 12% of UK non-commercial sites provided
100% ALT statements; using a different measure, 77% 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% provided good-quality <img> tags; on the 16 sites
without !DOCTYPE statements, only 68.8% 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.

Website size and structure

The 30 Websites showed great variation in their size and structure. At one end of the scale was a local
authority Website, which as far as could be determined contained nothing whatever on its adoption services.
At the other end of the scale were six agencies which each 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 was 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 Website, 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. Index pages and pages of FAQs were exempted from this test. Thirteen sites contained at least one
offending page.

Correlating long pages (over two screens) with the number of pages per site, it was 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 Websites were a site with
nothing but a list of PDF documents, considered in the next paragraph, and a site where the adoption
service was restricted to one 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. Most of the rest of this authority’s Website was similarly constructed. A few
other Websites also provided PDF or DOC files, but usually as alternatives to Webpages, 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 Website 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. 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 Website is
standards-conscious. The following three sections show how sites advertised their compliance with
standards.
Disabled accessibility

The W3C (W3C, 2003) and Bobby (Watchfire Corporation, 2002) schemes rate sites for accessibility to the
disabled. The UK government has also endorsed the W3C standards for application in local authority
Websites (Local Authority Websites National Project, n.d.). Nine Websites (30%) displayed either a W3C or
Bobby badge or both. The comparable figure from Fenton and Armstrong (2003) is 3%, 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 Websites (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 Website
owner £1,500 for initial registration and £500 per annum to maintain. Two sites (6.7%) displayed such a
badge.

Nineteen local authority sites (63.3%) 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 Website 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 while
providing the same information content. Not all sites need such an alternative. Twenty sites (66.7%) either
provided an alternative or did not need one because they contained no significant graphic content. Fenton
and Armstrong (2003) found that 28% of 100 UK non-commercial Websites either provided a text-only
alternative or did not need one. Ten sites (33.3%) incorporated significant graphic content but did not
provide a text-only alternative.

Eight sites (26.7%) provided printer-friendly versions of pages

“Frames”

Only one Website in the sample used frames. Its frontpage provided no alternative, merely the unhelpful
message, ―This page uses frames, but your browser doesn't support them.‖

Text size and color

Only one Website 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

Links and the quality of linkage are also commonly used objective indicators of Webpage quality. Websites
studied were evaluated for the number of links, their presentation, and their validity.

How many links?

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

1. the Website’s frontpage,
2. the first page linked to from the frontpage which was within the same Website, even if this was to a page
   which had nothing to do with adoption,
3. any special ―helpful links‖ page in the Website which included adoption-related external links.

The initial count was for all links of all kinds, including navigation elements and other ―housekeeping‖ links.

Table 1 gives the results of this count.

Table 1

Numbers of links on selected pages of 29 adoption Websites*

                                              First internal                                      Total
   Type of page           Frontpage                                Helpful Links page
                                              linked page                                    (up to 3 pages)
Number of such
                               29                   25                      12                      66
pages evaluated
Number of links:
                            0 – 456             11 – 421                  5 - 228                0 – 877
range
                          1,917 on 29                                                          5,040 on 66
Total links (all sites)                    2,289 on 25 pages         834 on 12 pages
                             pages                                                                pages
Median links per
                              46.5                  66                     57.5                    145
site
Mean links per site           66.1                 91.6                    69.5                    76.4

*Excludes the local authority with no adoption information.

Link corruption

Data on the validity of links were compiled using the Elsop LinkScan validator http://www.elsop.com/quick/,
which examines every link on a Webpage for errors in syntax in its sourcecode and whether the target
document actually exists.

The 66 pages evaluated for links had a range of zero 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% to 62.8%, with
an overall mean of 7.04% (355 corrupt links from 5040 total links). One worst score was 62.8% corrupt links;
the next worst was 34%. The Fenton and Armstrong (2003) study found an overall score of 5.49% corrupt
links in 600 Websites.

External links

Fourteen Websites provided no external links at all. On the 16 Websites with external links, numbers
provided ranged from 0 to 23, with a mode of two and a mean of 3; the mean was 5.7. Almost all external
links were to adoption-related organizations and other local authorities.

Webpages 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

Only eight of the 30 Websites used the standard color code: blue type for links which have not been
accessed, and purple or red for links that have. The other 22 used other colors, with some allowing no
distinction at all between used and unused links.
Navigation

Whole-site navigation

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

There are a number of methods of finding an internal page from the Website’s homepage. The most obvious
is providing a direct link from the homepage. Most organization Websites are simply too large to allow for all
the pages to be listed on the homepage, even using drop-down menus, but four of the sites did provide such
links to their adoption frontpages, one of them by using a drop-down menu of internal pages.

Another method is to provide obvious links drilling down to the target page from the home page. On a local
authority Website an obvious chain of such links would be something like ―Social Services Department‖
leading to ―Children’s Services‖ then to ―Adoption and Fostering‖ then to ―Adoption Services.‖

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. Twenty-six Websites 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 Website homepage, one provided no adoption information,
and in two cases there was no chain for any part of the local authority’s Website. The modal number of links
in the 26 chains was 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.

A-Z index

Twenty-three Websites had A-Z indexes. 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

Only eight Websites had a sitemap, and of these five had a listing for adoption services.

Sitesearch facility

Twenty-five Websites included a sitesearch facility or internal search engine. 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. (it should be notes that a sitesearch facility is not very good at locating information on adoption
in a local authority Website because ―adoption‖ has several distinct meanings, and the number of hits which
contain the word but are nothing to do with child adoption is potentially large.)

Returning to the homepage

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 Websites the
browser’s back-button is deliberately or carelessly disabled by the sourcecode, making it impossible to
return to the previous page (Nielsen, 1999a). Two sites exhibited this fault.
Orientation in Relation to the 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 Website 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. 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 side-bar 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.

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

Only one Website failed to provide a consistent scheme of navigation. Of 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 where they were now.

Visible navigation

Navigation belongs at the top of a page (Nielsen, 1999b), where it can be seen when the page is first
loaded. Some or all of the navigation may be repeated at the bottom of the page. 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.

Website ownership and feedback

Of the 30 sites studied, 25 (83.3%) included explicit statements about their ownership and which
organization (local authority or registered charity) was ultimately responsible for the content. Twenty (66.7%)
of the 30 sites provided a Webmaster link. In all, 27 sites (90%) provided one or other of these two links,
with 18 of those (66.7%) providing both. In the Fenton and Armstrong (2003) study, of the 100 non-
commercial UK Websites in the sample, a much lower 56% provided a statement of ownership and/or link to
the Webmaster.

Date of contents

Fourteen sites (46.7%) included a date on the frontpage of the adoption microsite, usually the date of
creation or copyright. In nine of the 14, 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. This
also indicates commitment to freedom of information. Three or four (one agency Website 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 Websites 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%, virtually the same as the 46.7% in this study.

Languages

In the UK three languages other than English have official status: Welsh, Gaelic and Irish, but only Welsh
has full official status in Wales; the other two have much more limited status.

All the Websites examined were in English. They were also examined to see to what extent they offered
information in Welsh, Gaelic and other languages with no official status but which are spoken by significant
numbers of immigrants (―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 Websites were
examined serve those districts. No Irish agencies were included in the sample. 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 Website provided any information in community languages: short summaries in Bengali, Somali,
Chinese and Vietnamese. Seven agencies provided links to automatic Web translation services such as
AltaVista’s Babel Fish (http://babel.altavista.com/). A few metropolitan local authority sites also included links
to their own in-house translation services or independent interpreters. 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 links to translation Websites, only one offered translation into non-
European languages. Thus, provision for non-European languages was almost nil.

Miscellaneous information architecture considerations

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. 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.

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 arbitrary time limit of 15 seconds.

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%) consistently used URLs which were
over about 75 characters in length. Seven websites (23.3%) consistently used URLs that were
unmeaningful. Six sites (20%) offended on both counts.

None of the sites studied needed horizontal scrolling.


Information content

In most cases when discussing the provision of information, the study simply looked at whether a given item
of information appeared in the Website, not what its content was, unless it was inaccurate.

Audience

One of the first tasks of a Website owner is to decide who the site’s audience will be. For an adoption
agency Website 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 Websites in the sample were overwhelmingly aimed at prospective adopters as their primary or even
only audience. Every Website examined provided information for this group, except for the one whose
Website did not mention adoption at all. Most Websites ignored some or all of the other groups entirely, or
provided only the barest minimum of information for them.

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

General characteristics of the 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 Website], the more likely
its site will be kept up to date‖ (Demchak et al., 2000, pp. 10-11).

As noted above, 14 agencies provided an indication of 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).

Language

It has already been noted that two Websites 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 Websites.

Websites need to be written differently from print articles (Nielsen, 2000). The language needs to be
different, the paragraphs shorter, headings more frequent, etc. Most Websites 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 Webpage. 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 Website from a
previously-published print publication without sufficient editorial revision.

Adoption agencies 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’ Websites 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 hectoring:

        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 two 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.

Another Website 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’ Websites were so confusing that it was virtually impossible to
pursue an interest in adoption. A London borough Website illustrates this. The 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 Webform, headed ―Family Placement Service, Initial Enquiry.‖ The top screen of this very
long (seven screens) form includes six areas of interest to enquirers, one of which is ―adoption.‖ There is
nothing on any of the pages prior to reaching this stage which would have led a person to think that the next
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 sitesearch function, interrogated for
―adoption‖ provides only one hit: the Social Care frontpage quoted above; it does not include the ―Webform.‖
The form itself turns out to be intended for printing out and mailing and not a Webform at all. But nowhere on
the form is there a mailing address or any other contact information.

Adoption defined

Nine agencies (30%) included a short statement about what adoption is: its social function and legal effects.
These only covered the main provisions:

   severing legal ties with the birth family,
   giving the new parent(s) exclusive ―parental responsibility‖, 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 frontpages (73.3%) 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%), all of them voluntary adoption agencies, provided information about their history.

Membership of adoption-related organizations

Only one Website, for a voluntary agency, mentioned membership of any professional adoption
organizations, specifically Adoption UK or the British Association for Adoption and Fostering. Also, only
three agencies (10%), 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) 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‖ (Demchak et al., 2000, p. 10).

In all, 28 agencies (93.3%) provided some contact information. In one case it was 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 Website. In another 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%) 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 (where the recipient pays the
postage). Twenty-six (86.7%) provided a telephone number (four had Freephone numbers, where the call is
charged to the recipient), while 12 (40%) provided a fax number. Three agencies made provision for
minicom or textphone users (a service primarily for the hearing handicapped). Ten agency Websites (33.3%)
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%), with 20 of them being mailto links. Seven sites
(23.3%) included a dedicated family placement team contact Webform in addition to or instead of an e-mail
link.

Only three agencies (10%) provided a list of their 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.

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%) included a statement or promise of good practice or a link to a customer care document; 12
local authorities (40%) included information about how to complain in general about poor council services,
often including a Webform for e-mailing the council complaints team. Seventeen Websites (56.7%) included
statements on data protection or confidentiality. Eight agencies (26.7%) provided none of these three, while
two provided all three.

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.
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 Website 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. One of these agencies had indicated on the Department of Health directory of agencies
that it provided prospective adopter education in community languages, but this information was not on its
own Website.

Providing further information about adoption

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

Links to other Websites

Sixteen agencies in all (53.3%) provided outside links, ranging from one to 23 links, with a mode of 2 and a
mean of 5.7 links. External links were almost always to organizations to do with adoption, such as BAAF and
Adoption UK, or to other local authorities involved in a regional adoption consortium.

Other organizations

Seventeen agencies (56.7%) directed users to other organizations for help or further information. In almost
every case this took the form of links to the organizations’ Websites, sometimes with mailing or e-mail
addresses as well. There were modes of 2, 3 and 5 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%) were all the data provided for these organizations correct; 10
agencies provided incomplete, out of date or otherwise incorrect contact data for one or more of the bodies
they listed.

Printed sources of information

Only six agencies (20%) 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.

Website information about adoption

The following sections deal with information about the institution of adoption and the agencies’ own services
as provided by the Websites themselves, that is. This is how each agency projects itself as a service
provider to those it serves and how it presents itself to prospective adopters. The study looked at over 100
separate items of information that could be provided. 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. 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 that had information specifically for
birth parents. One site did mention the possibility of a contested adoption (where the birth family files a
formal objection 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, although at the
time of the study this provision had not been implemented.

Financial information

Assessment fees

While domestic adoptions in the UK 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%) 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.

One-off and short-term payments, and adoption allowances

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 Website 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. Nine agencies (30%) 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.

Other benefits

One agency mentioned Child Benefit in relation to adoption, but no agency mentioned that adoption can
affect other welfare benefits in the same way as the addition of any other child to the family.

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%) mentioned the possibility of help with paying the legal costs associated with a
contested adoption, although it is standard practice for agencies to pay. 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 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, but 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%) gave even the most general
description of the kinds of children they place.
No agency provided any information about the medical-psychiatric conditions often 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.

Eight (26.7%) mentioned their geographical catchment areas and seven (23.3%) mentioned how many
children they placed in a recent year or gave a total for several past years. Five (16.7%) agencies gave
profiles of individual children awaiting placement, either actual children or fictive composites. Seven (23.3%)
included photographs of children on their Websites, but in no case were these described as waiting or
placed children and given British data protection legislation, then can be assumed to be models. None of the
agencies had photolistings of actual waiting children, although several agencies not in the sample are known
to provide them.

Agency policies

“Telling”

Four agencies (13.3%) 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.

Matching

Eleven agencies (36.7%) expressed a policy on physical or cultural matching of children with adoptive
families.

Corporal punishment and accusations of abuse against carers

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.

Policies relating to assessing applicants

— Couples undergoing infertility treatment

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

— Catchment area for recruiting adopters

Fourteen (46.7%) agencies gave specific information about the geographical area from which they recruited
families. Of the 16 agencies not providing catchment area information, 14 were local authorities and two
were voluntary agencies.

— Eligibility for assessment

UK adoption law makes only three blanket exclusions 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, and
3. there are residence (but not citizenship) requirements.
Other than those categories, agencies are free to establish their own criteria. Eight agencies (26.7%)
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). The present
study looked at a number of such classes of applicants in terms of whether agency Websites 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

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

* 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%) expressed no policies in any of these areas. The maximum number of such policy
statements for any agency was 12. The modal number was 2 and the mean was 4.6.

Sixteen agencies (53.3%), 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.

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

The assessment process

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

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

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

The legally-required checks against the records of the police and other specified agencies were mentioned
by 16 Websites (53.3%), but only six (20%) gave a complete list of these checks, while just three (10%) 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 types 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%) mentioned that applicants have the right to read and make corrections to or submit 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. It does not make final decisions about
approving adoption applications; it recommends. A nominated officer of the adoption agency, usually the
head, makes the final decision. Six (20%) 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 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%)
mentioned the possibility of appealing against a rejection.

Six (20%) 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

Only 13 Websites (43.4%) gave any information at all about the period between acceptance and having a
child placed with you. Four (13.3%) 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%)
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, a BAAF photolisting publication.
None mentioned a similar publication, Children Who Wait, from Adoption UK.

Seven (23.3%) 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 Website 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%) 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%) mentioned paying the legal costs of the adopters in
such cases.

Fifteen agencies (50%) gave information about post-adoption support. Seven (23.3%) gave explicit promises
of support or assessment for it. Nine (30%) mentioned specific support providers, such as their own social
services team or independent agencies. Eight (26.7%) 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.

No 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% of all UK 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%) stated that they provide a
confidential mailbox service for the exchange of letters and gifts between birth and adoptive families. Only
two (6.7%) 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 more than once. Neither made reference to any maximum
family size or a preferred waiting period between placements.

Services to other members of the adoption community

Information for adoptees themselves, birth families and other people was very scarce.

Services to adoptees

Only 10 agencies (33.3%) mentioned any services to adoptees. Eight (26.7%) 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%) mentioned the 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 enabling self-help groups
for birth mothers. While sections of Websites 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. 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 Websites 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
Websites? The following were provided by at most two agencies (less than 10%):

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 UK or BAAF
   Recommendation that prospective adopters join Adoption UK, etc.
   Agency PO 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
   Website 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

Of the 28 most commonly-provided features 23, or 82.1%, are either housekeeping/navigation-related or
basic contact details, with only five (17.9%) 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%) are information items about adoption, with only two
contact details and two navigation/housekeeping features in the list of 36. 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 Websites:

Table 3

Agencies providing the information identified by Carpenter and Caine (1997) as most needed by
adopters, or listed in the DoH FAQs for adopters

                                                                         Agencies         Agencies
                                         In Carpenter      In DoH
    Data item deemed important                                           providing        providing
                                          and Caine         FAQs
                                                                          (n=30)          (percent)
Disruption rate                                                             0                0
Information on adopting a relative                                          0                0
Numbers of children available for
adoption (agency)                                                           0               0
When and where preparation
meetings take place                                                         0               0
Court fees (amount)                                                         0               0
Payment of court filing fees by agency                                      0               0
State benefits affected by adoption                                        0               0
Payment of expenses during
introductions                                                               0               0
Contents of BAAF Form F;
information on adopters collected by                                       0               0
agency
Information on the child given to
adopters                                                                   0               0
Information on RAD                                                          0                0
Legal framework of adoption                                                 1               3.3
Legal effect of adoption                                                    1               3.3
How applicants can prepare
themselves for                                                              1               3.3
assessment/parenthood
Encouragement to join Adoption UK                                           1               3.3
Use of Be my parent, etc.                                                   1               3.3
Alternatives to adoption (both special
guardianship and fostering)                                                 1               3.3
Residence requirement (UK)                                                  2               6.7
Numbers of children available for
adoption (nationally)                                                       2               6.7
Payment of legal fees for contested
cases                                                                       2               6.7
Notification of panel’s
recommendation                                                              2               6.7
Parental leave for adopters                                                 2               6.7
Information about second adoptions                                          2               6.7
Information on step-parent adoption                                      3              10
How referees are contacted                                               3              10
Appeal against rejection (procedure)                                     3              10
Agency’s consortium memberships
and use of matching agencies                                             3              10
Timescale for adoption (enquiry to
adoption order)                                                          4             13.3
Smokers’ eligibility                                                     4             13.3
What experience of children agency
expects of applicants                                                    4             13.3
Applicants given social worker’s
report/their Form F for comment                                          5             16.7
Who ultimately approves applicants                                       5             16.7
Link to DoH Website                                                       5             16.7
Named contact person                                                     7             23.3
Policy in assessing couples
undergoing fertility treatment                                           7             23.3
Information about letter-box facilities                                  7             23.3
Catchment area for children                                              8             26.7
Applicants given date of panel
meeting/may attend meeting                                              8             26.7
Criminal record restrictions                                             9              30
Renters’ eligibility                                                     9              30
Encouragement to do outside study
(reading or organizational)                                              9              30
Financial aid available                                                 9              30
Information about Section 23
payments                                                                 9              30
Sexual orientation restrictions                                          10            33.3
Health issues restrictions                                               10            33.3
Time scale for assessment                                                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                                                              11            36.7
Age restrictions                                                        12             40
Complaints procedure                                                     12             40
Low-earners’/benefits claimants’
eligibility                                                              13            43.3
Catchment area for families                                              14            46.7
Outline of policies and procedure
(general)                                                                15             50
Expected contact with birth family                                       15             50
Information about post-adoption
support                                                                  15             50
List of statutory checks                                                 16            53.3
Further sources of information given                                     17            56.7
Criteria for adopters (general)                                          18             60
Marital status restrictions (any
statement)                                                              19            63.3
Types of children placed and families
who took them                                                           20            66.7
How to register interest/apply (contact
information provided)                                                   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 Websites and a further 12 are provided by
only one or two. Twenty-seven data items (44.3%) are provided by less than 10% of Websites. Only nine
items were provided by as many as half of the Websites, and only one item, contact information, by more
than two-thirds of agencies.
Conclusions: Rating the agencies

It is possible to rate agency Websites 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

                                                                Information          Information
                                              Country of                                              Total score
Agency type       Catchment area type                        architecture score     content score
                                              HQ office                                                max.=158
                                                                  max.=46             max.=112
   Local
                     London borough            England                19                   1               20
  authority
  Voluntary         Regional / National        England                20                   5               25
   Local
                    Non-metropolitan            Wales                 20                   5               25
  authority
   Local
                 Metropolitan not London       England                23                   5               28
  authority
   Local
                    Non-metropolitan           England                24                   7               31
  authority
   Local
                     London borough            England                24                  10               34
  authority
   Local
                    Non-metropolitan           England                23                  11               34
  authority
   Local
                 Metropolitan not London       Scotland               26                  11               37
  authority
   Local
                    Non-metropolitan           Scotland               21                  19               40
  authority
   Local
                 Metropolitan not London       England                28                  16               44
  authority
   Local
                    Non-metropolitan           England                26                  20               46
  authority
   Local
                    Non-metropolitan           Scotland               23                  23               46
  authority
  Voluntary      Metropolitan not London       Scotland               31                  16               47
  Voluntary        Regional / National         England                18                  31               49
   Local
                    Non-metropolitan           Scotland               20                  32               52
  authority
   Local
                    Non-metropolitan           England                28                  25               53
  authority
   Local
                 Metropolitan not London       Scotland               26                  29               55
  authority
  Voluntary         Regional / National         Wales                 23                  32               55
   Local
                 Metropolitan not London       England                26                  30               56
  authority
   Local
                     London borough            England                25                  33               58
  authority
   Local
                 Metropolitan not London       England                28                  33               61
  authority
   Local
                    Non-metropolitan           England                29                  33               62
  authority
   Local
                 Metropolitan not London       England                30                  33               63
  authority
   Local
                 Metropolitan not London       England                33                  30               63
  authority
   Local            Non-metropolitan           England                19                  45               64
  authority
   Local
                      London borough            England                 25                   41              66
  authority
   Local
                      London borough            England                 31                   36              67
  authority
   Local
                     Non-metropolitan             Wales                 33                   38              71
  authority
   Local
                     Non-metropolitan           England                 33                   42              75
  authority
  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 Website, with agencies providing in some cases as
little as 12.7% (a London borough) or 15.8% of the items sought. Even the best-performing agency (a
voluntary agency based in London and placing children from all over the UK) provided exactly half the items.

In information architecture, 12 Websites provided half or less of the features, and the highest-scoring
Website scored only 71.7% of the possible features. Under information content items, only one Website
provided more than half of the data, and that scored only 51.8% of possible. Twenty percent of sites
provided less than 10% 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       Information content            Total score
                                score                        score                  max.=158 per
                         max.=46 per agency           max.=112 per agency              agency
All agencies
                                  1380                         3360                      4740
(possible total)
All agencies
                                  756                          750                       1506
(actual total)
All agencies
                                18 – 33                       1 – 58                   20 – 79
(range)
All agencies
                                  25.2                         25.0                      50.2
(mean)
All agencies
                                   25                          29.5                      52.5
(median)
All agencies
                                 23, 26                         33                  34, 46, 55, 63
(mode/s)
All agencies
(percent scored of               54.8%                        22.3%                     31.8%
possible items)


Discussion
There seems no doubt that in this sample of the Websites of 30 out of 139 UK adoption agencies the
amount of information provided is inadequate for the purposes of all their potential users. The results
support one of the key findings of the UK 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‖ (Social Services Inspectorate, 2002, p. 24).

The only constituency whose needs are regularly addressed to any meaningful degree is of 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 at all in its
Websites of its adoption services, 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).

Assuming the sample to be representative (and statistically it is small), the reason may lie in the relatively
unsophisticated level of development of UK local government and non-commercial organization Websites 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
Websites 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 which could be mounted 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
formats are not as accessible to the public as ordinary HTML.

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 contrary to government policies about the
provision of public information over the Web. Oral information without written back-up is subject to variability
and misunderstanding. Written information documents have the disadvantage of being less easy to keep up
to date than Webpages, and are also subject to being out of print or stock, 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. 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.


References
Note: The children’s social services functions of the Department of Health for England have been transferred
to the Department for Education and Skills. As a result the URLs of DoH adoption Websites cited below, and
possibly their content, will change in the near future.

British Association for Adoption and Fostering, 2000. Form F1: Information on Prospective Substitute
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British Association for Adoption and Fostering, 2003. ―Find Your Agency,‖ at
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Carpenter, Sue, and Caine, Sue. 1997. ―Good Practice in Adoption,‖ Adoption UK, number 82 (August), pp.
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