Select Committee on Adoption and Children Bill Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Fostering Network/National Foster Care Association

  The National Foster Care Association aims to ensure the highest standards of care for all children and young people who are fostered, through the provision of training, advice, support, information and consultancy services. Founded in 1974, the organisation works to define high standards and best practice for foster care and assist local authorities, agencies and individuals to work effectively in the interests of fostered children.

  All local authorities in the UK, with the exception of two, are members of NFCA. It also has over 18,000 individual members and 150 local foster care group members.


  NFCA welcomes the publication of the Bill and the Government's efforts to improve the adoption process as part of a broader commitment to the well-being of looked after children. We recognise that adoption is a very important part of the range of solutions to meet the needs of children who cannot live with their own families. There are children for whom adoption into new families is the right solution, and believe that when such decisions are made, adoption should be secured within a reasonable period of time. However, we also believe that it cannot be a rushed decision. In the future these young people will need to be reassured that every effort was made to ensure that their own families were helped to keep them before a decision was made that adoption was in their best interest.

  The majority of children who are currently placed for adoption are under five. There are many older children who start being looked after at age eight plus. The general public does not come forward to offer themselves for older children despite all the publicity that there has been about the need for adoptive parents. Most continue to want to adopt babies or younger children, hence their moves to adopt babies from abroad. For some of these older children adoption could be the right decision if sufficient families could be recruited, and post-adoption support and adoption allowances were adequately resourced. Decisions for these children cannot be rushed. They need time to get to know their new family, and for their family to feel that they will be properly supported in the future if difficulties occur. Successful adoptions have taken place for older children by their foster carers who have already received training in looking after children, who because of their life experiences have problems and exhibit challenging behaviour. Many successful adopters of older children see themselves as "professional carers" because they have similar qualities to foster carers. Whilst providing children with love, they can still retain their own self-worth, and not get caught in the spiral of blame which inexperienced adopters can suffer from when their adopted children act in ways which are alien to the family's culture.

  For some older children adoption will not be the right solution. They will want to retain their identity as a member of their original family. The Special Guardianship status outlined in the Bill could provide these children with the security they need, as long as the resources for their carers are also available.

  We would not, however, wish to see long term fostering denigrated as a positive option for some children. There will remain children for whom adoption is not the right solution, and who will need the continuing support services provided by local authorities, throughout their childhood. These children should not be given the message that their choice of placement was any less carefully planned than the placements of adopted children. Neither should these children remain in limbo whilst an ideal of adoption is pursued.

  Long term fostering is a positive option for children who have strong allegiances with their own families, but whose families are unable to provide them with appropriate care throughout their childhood. For some of these children special guardianship will be a viable option. However, for some children there will still need to be a third party involved as a negotiator when difficulties arise. Whilst families may not want their child adopted, and may therefore prefer long term fostering, the fact that they are unable to look after the children themselves will inevitably lead to frustrations, which at times will be focused on the children's carers. At such times, having a local authority social worker to help mediate can ease tension.

  Equally, some children will need services that can best be provided through the intervention of a local authority. Many adopters have suffered in the past because they have not been able to access appropriate services for their children. A child who remains in a long term fostering situation, should ideally, be best placed to have their needs met for services.

  "Growing Up in Foster Care" by Schofield, Beek, Sargent, with Thoburn, published by BAAF describes long term foster care as one of the "best kept secrets of the child care system" because so little is known about it. The research started because of the authors knowledge that there "was a group of vulnerable looked after children for whom foster care was the only available chance of a secure, family life, and yet these children were almost invisible; unrecognised by legislation, guidance, or, in many agencies, procedures or practice.

  In the early 1980s many children were returned home prematurely, or placed for adoption, when a policy of "no child should be in care for more than two years" was being pursued throughout the country. A lack of resources both for children at home, and in particular with new adoptive families led to an increase in the number of breakdowns in adoptive homes as families struggled to cope with the difficulties presented to them by the children.

  This reinforces our view that the quality of post adoption support will be crucial in ensuring that adoptive placements can be successful. Only time will tell if this Bill can provide the long term stability for children that we all desire, with lasting positive outcomes for children. If it is introduced without adequate resources, the problems of the past will simply be repeated.

  We also hope that placement with relatives and friends is not forgotten as an option for children who cannot live with their own parents. Research has shown that children who are placed in their wider family have successful placements. The option for kinship care should be a high priority for local authorities, and throughout their planning should be required to show why children should not be with their own relatives. However, as with all foster and adoptive placements, placement with relatives needs to be properly supported both in terms of the cost of looking after children, and the support services that the children need.

  We particularly welcome the Bill in relation to:

    —  achieving consistency between adoption and the Children Act 1989;

    —  the welfare of the child being paramount;

    —  the requirement to give consideration to the child's religious persuasion, racial origin, cultural and linguistic background;

    —  the provisions for special guardianship which potentially could provide a real alternative option for children for whom adoption is not appropriate; and

    —  the establishment of a National Register.

Specific Issues

  The following are the areas of the Bill which currently concern us. We have approached these, mainly from the view of foster care, in particular where foster carers might become adopters. But, we have also considered how this Bill will impact on the wider view of the looked after children system, and whether or not the Bill will deter some families from seeking help.

Adoption Support Services Clauses 3, 4 and 5

  We welcome the fact that local authorities will have a duty to provide adoption support services under Clause 3. However, we are concerned that within Clause 4 local authorities, having assessed a child's needs, can then decide whether or not to provide the services that they have identified are needed. They clearly will be under no obligation to provide the services. Any prospective adopter would rightly be concerned that they could be agreeing to adopt a child with very complex needs, and no assurance that the identified support will be forthcoming.

  The legislation is not clear about which local authority is to undertake the assessment, and, which authority is to provide the agreed services. Is it to be the responsible local authority that has placed the child, or the authority in whose area the adopter lives that undertakes the assessment and then provides the service? Given that with the introduction of a national adoption register children are likely to move far away from their original local authority, the issue of who assesses, and who provides will need to be very clear. It will also be very important to ensure that the funding for the service follows the child, wherever he/she is placed.

  It is our view, that as with foster care, a written agreement should be drawn up at the time of placement of a child for adoption, specifying the support required, and what will be provided. No child should be placed for adoption without an assessment of their needs, and for many children, access to therapeutic services will be required. There will, however, be children whose real needs in relation to their developing personalities will only become clear some years after adoption. For instance, children who have been subjected to a number of moves during infancy, (sometimes within their own families), often portray as very submissive children during their early years. However, the degree of disturbance that these moves might have caused can affect their behaviour as they get older, and it is then that they will need an assessment and services to help them understand what has happened to them. At that time it would clearly be the area where they live that should take responsibility for undertaking an assessment and providing services, but without some priority being given for adopted children, their needs could remain unmet.

Adoption Allowances (Clauses 3 and 10)

  The introduction of Adoption Allowances as part of the 1975 Children Act was welcomed by NFCA. We knew that there were situations where foster carers and the children they cared for, wished to apply for an adoption order in order to give the children security, but could not do so for financial reasons. As foster carers they received allowances for the needs of the child, and in some situations, a reward payment for the complex job that they undertook. Without an adoption allowance most families felt that they could not adopt because of the financial pressure that this put on their own families. They did not wish to lower the standard of living of their own children, and therefore build up resentment towards the additional child/children in their family.

  The first schemes introduced in 1983 had a great deal of flexibility in their criteria. As a result many children were adopted where allowances were paid. The introduction of the schemes also saw adoption being extended into communities where previously it had been difficult to recruit adopters. The 1989 Children Act Regulations made schemes more restrictive, and the focus has shifted.

  Clause 3(8)(b) has a reference to "financial support" that does not recognise the valuable role that adoption allowances can play in widening the potential pool of families able to consider adoption. Foster carers will not consider giving up a fostering allowance unless they can be assured that at least the maintenance costs of a child will be covered.

  We trust that when the regulations in relation to Clause 10 are developed there will be a recognition of the high costs of caring for children, particularly those who were not born into the family.

Independent Review Mechanism (Clause 9)

  We do believe that applicants have the right to have a decision not to approve them as adopters independently reviewed. However the mechanism as outlined in the Bill will not encourage any adoption agency to reject an applicant, if they are then going to have to fund the applicant's appeal to a higher authority. The likely scenario is that agencies will simply approve everyone, and then not use those that it would have wished to reject. This is not helpful for anyone.

  An independent review body is a valuable addition to the service, but we do not believe that the costs of individual appeals should be borne by the agencies themselves. The review body, if it is to work, must be funded by central government.

Placement for Adoption of Children

  We welcome Clause 15(5). We have been concerned that on occasions, some foster carers have tried to circumvent the usual procedures by applying direct to a court for an adoption order. In these circumstances local authorities have often decided to let the court decide the matter, rather than follow their usual procedures.

  We believe that although applications from foster carers should be given due consideration, and be speedily considered, foster carers should be considered alongside applications from others, and should be subject to the same checks and balances that the local authority has.

Application for Placement Order—Clause 18

  We wholeheartedly agree that decisions in relation to children should be taken with the child's best interest being paramount. However, we are very concerned that the effect of this Clause means that a placement order can be sought in relation to children who are placed voluntarily into the looked after system.

  The looked after children system is there to help parents and other family members who cannot currently care for their children. Anything that causes them to believe that their children could be lost to them is likely to create a barrier to asking for help. This would cause us great concern as it would mean that children might remain in unsuitable, unsafe conditions, simply because their families were frightened of permanently losing their children. Many parents already have this fear of the "care" system, and the ability to place children for adoption on the grounds of "in the child's best interest" would, we believe, increase this fear.

  Adoption is seen as providing children for deserving parents. Those "deserving parents" are usually middle-class, whilst the families the children come from are seen as undeserving, and incapable of coping. Unless the system is strong enough to ensure that families have been provided with all the help possible to take care of their children, and children's views have been listened to in relation to adoption, the service will be blamed for destroying families rather than helping children.

  We have concerns that if the ability to seek a placement order for a child who is accommodated by a local authority remains, along with a requirement on local authorities to make decisions within tight timescales, this will have a negative effect on the involvement of parents. We can see situations where plans will be pushed ahead mitigating against parental involvement in decisions about their children. Children's rights, in the long term, would also be diminished if they feel that their parents have been cut out of their lives without due consideration of the long term effects on the child in terms of their identity.

  We would wish to see, either in the Bill, or in regulations, a requirement that the adoption agency that is seeking a Placement Order must be required to show why children should not be living with their own relatives.

Applications for Adoption (Clause 41)

  Family life in Britain has changed dramatically since the last adoption legislation was produced and current legislation will probably be in place for at least another 25 years. We are disappointed that the Bill does not consider the possibility of unmarried couples, and same sex couples adopting a child. More people will live in a relationship which is not confirmed by marriage and yet has all the components of it in terms of commitment to one another, and the capacity to provide a home for children in need.

  The foster care service has provided a model. Unmarried couples and gay and lesbian carers have given children excellent care often for many years, until adulthood. These children have benefited from the love and care provided, and the security of the relationship. Many of the placements made have been of children with special needs who may not otherwise have benefited from family care had there been a need to wait for the perfect married couple to come forward.

  Useful background information to support the case can be found in "Lesbian and Gay Fostering and Adoption—Extraordinary Yet Ordinary" edited by Stephen Hicks and Janet McDermott.

Information for adopters (Clauses 47, 48 and 49)

  Prospective adopters need information about the children they are proposing to take into their families prior to the making of an adoption order, not after, as suggested by Clause 47. We are also concerned that local authorities will have discretion to withhold information from adopters. We can think of no circumstances where it would not be in the child's interest for their adoptive parents to have all the information that the local authority holds. Children can cope with even the most disturbing facts if they are part of the information that they grow up with, rather than learn it when they are young adults.

  We know that information has been withheld from foster carers, on the grounds that to have it might prejudice them against the child. Often in these circumstances placements have disrupted because carers have not understood the needs of the young person, and their behaviour. We feel that adopters should be given all information, and then they are in a position to judge how to use it.

  We believe that it is right that adopted adults should have information provided to them. There will be rare circumstances where their adoptive parents have not shared information with them. However, in normal circumstances one would hope that this information was simply confirming what they already knew from their parents.

  We are concerned that Clause 49 could enable birth parents to refuse permission for information about them to be passed on to adopters. Medical information in particular is important for adopted people to have, as well as information about their roots. Whilst they will be putting down roots with their new families, there should not be a denial about their families of origin. A denial of information reinforces negative messages about the original families.

Special Guardianship Order—Clause 94

  We welcome the arrangements for Special Guardianship Order as set out in the Bill, and feel that this could be a useful addition to the armoury of orders to help provide stability for children.

  Our reservations are limited to the amount of support, both financial and other, that special guardians might receive. Unless this is a properly funded service, it will go the way of both custodianship and residence orders, ie not used for those children in long term foster care who could benefit from the stability that the order could give.

National Adoption Register—Clause 96

  We welcome the development of a National Adoption Register, but its main aim must be to work to keep children in their own area. It can be devastating for children to move out of the culture that they have been brought up in, eg North East Tyneside, and then placed for adoption in rural Devon. Children suffer because they are seen as different as a result of their adoptive status. For them to suffer further because they do not speak like the people around them will give them an added burden. We believe that every effort should be made to place children locally, with the register being able to operate on a geographical basis moving out from the child's original home to try to ensure the least disruption possible for the child.

May 2001

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