Adoption and Children Bill

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The Chairman: Good morning, colleagues. I welcome everyone to the sitting. I welcome, in particular, the witnesses and wish to thank them for their co-operation and willingness to come here today. I ask them to introduce themselves briefly to the Committee.

Marion Hundleby (Catholic Children's Society, Nottingham): I am currently the post-adoption specialist at the Catholic Children's Society, Nottingham. I have a background in research consultancy and social work practice.

Margaret Dight (Catholic Children's Society, Nottingham): I am the director of the Catholic Children's Society, Nottingham, the same agency at which Marion Hundleby is employed. I have been with the agency for 20 years, pioneering in inter-agency placement for children from the public care system. A decade ago, I developed the first post-adoption specialist service remit within a small voluntary adoption agency.

Jim Richards (Director of the Catholic Children's Society, Diocese of Westminster): We are a separate agency from Nottingham. We are a broad-based child care agency. One of our specialisms is adoption.

Jacky Gordon (Norwood Ravenswood): I manage the adoption service for Norwood Ravenswood. We are involved in both domestic and inter-country adoption.

Naomi Angell (Network for Inter County Adoption): I am a solicitor, specialising in domestic and inter-country adoption. I am a member of NICA—the Network for Inter Country Adoption—and the inter-country adoption lawyers group. I am also legal adviser to the Norwood adoption panel and an inter-country adopter.

Vivienne Reed (Operations Manager for the Register, Norwood Ravenswood): I have just become the operations manager for the adoption register, administered by Norwood Ravenswood. I have a background in child care social work. Before that, I managed the guardian ad litem service for Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire.

The Chairman: The sitting is time limited, which causes us difficulties. I hope that my colleagues will be brief when asking questions and that witnesses will also be brief and to the point in their answers. I ask everyone to speak up as people are not easy to hear in this large room.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): I wish to ask the representatives of the two branches of the Catholic Children's Society and Norwood Ravenswood about adoption support services. The provision of support services is an important part of the Bill, and one of its clauses deals with assessment. We have expressed our interest in whether the assessments are necessary. Surely support services are far more essential at an early stage. Will the witnesses give brief descriptions of the support services in which they are involved and explain their relationships with local authorities?

Jim Richards: There are several issues. As the Bill stands, there is a duty to assess, but we are concerned about what might flow from that. It is not clear whether the needs that are assessed will necessarily be delivered. We face another problem, particularly as voluntary organisations. We will support adoptions, but we are involved in situations when a child will be in local authority A, but placed in local authority B. We receive services in local authority A, but have to work very hard and, sometimes unsuccessfully, to transfer those services. There is not only the issue of support services from social services, but of health and education. The Bill is unclear about that.

Tim Loughton: What are your solutions? What would you do about trans-border services and inter-agency working?

Jim Richards: We would like a much clearer duty to be placed on local authorities to provide those support services alongside assessing the need.

Jacky Gordon: One of our difficulties in inter-country adoption is the monitoring and review role. At present, local authorities have a welfare supervision role in inter-country adoption. We would like the regulations to reflect an expectation on local authorities to allow us to do that work and to fund it as well, because we have difficulty with supervising if we do not have any funding. Under the current regulations, it is not possible for us to charge applicants for that supervisory role.

Tim Loughton: Can you elaborate a little on working with local authorities? The Catholic Children's Society stresses the importance of voluntary agencies in the whole process. If anything, that needs to be talked up in the Bill. You have cited your adoption and quality option research. How will that develop under the new legislation? I am particularly keen to get to the bottom of the issue. There is a lot about assessment and the right to assessment. If adopters cry for help, they usually need help. There are few cases when it is not required. You now have a right to an assessment process. You will be told that you can have an assessment in a few weeks' time. The assessment will take place and at the end of it you might receive a recommendation, but there is no guarantee that the support services are coming through. Will not all the work of those in social services, in which there are many vacancies, be concentrated on carrying out the assessment rather than supplying the services that are so desperately need? Will that work?

Margaret Dight: There are two main issues here; you are quite right. Any child being placed for adoption now in this climate will definitely need post-adoption support; there is no question about that. The assessment of need should be taken as right. What we are saying is that local authorities should ensure that their post-adoption assessment support services are developed and informed through close collaboration with the voluntary adoption agencies, which have spearheaded a great deal of the post-adoption support work over the past 20 years in this country.

It is essential that those services are provided in tandem. It is equally essential that local authorities have a clear budgetary mandate for post-adoption support services. One of the issues that we have found extremely difficult in our 20 years of providing adoption and post-adoption services for children adopted out of the public care system is that there can be a recognition of need and potential need at the time of placement, but there is a blurring of the issue of funding through the local authority.

The voluntary agency carries out an efficient and effective brokerage service, making a clear assessment of need. That assessment of need is often on a multi-disciplinary, multi-agency level, involving health, education, legal support and advice for adoptive parents. That will break down if the necessary ring-fenced funding is not made available through the local authority. I would ask my colleague Marion Hundelby, who has done significant research on this, to respond also.

10.15 am

Marion Hundleby: I endorse the fact that assessment is not just about what the children and families need, but about what services are out there that can be brought to bear on a situation. As Margaret Dight mentioned, this can be an interdisciplinary response. In many ways, having that point of gate-keeping at the beginning and understanding what is needed hopefully directs people most quickly to the appropriate services. That may not necessarily be social services; it may be support groups that volunteers run, for instance, or it may be initiatives that come from corporate parenting in which local authorities have included adopted children.

While I take your point about the resource issues, we are also looking at the right routes to support families that have these very, very damaged children. I think that we have to keep coming back to the point that an adoption order is not a magic wand; it does not make things better, in the sense that these children continue to be extremely vulnerable, and if we do not get the services right and the assessment right, and they come out of adoptive homes because they return to the care system at whatever stage, it means that their problems are only compounded.

Assessment is important, and as a former researcher, I would also say that assessment is important in terms of ensuring standardisation of service, and—if we are looking at what is delivered to people—ensuring that if people wish to make representational complaint, there is a standard against which they can do that.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): I am interested in what Mr. Richards said earlier. He said that even after needs assessments, some needs will not be met. Those are large questions in a fairly substantial subject. In a few words, could you elaborate on that, please?

Jim Richards: In the voluntary sector, we are conscious of the issue of resources in local authorities. We are not merely saying, ``Come on, local authorities, cough up.'' I have worked in local authorities and have been an elected member in a local authority, so I know what the resource issues are, but if you are spending enormous resources on recruiting adopters and then placing severely damaged children with those adopters, the local authorities need to realise that resources have to stay with that child. Just as resources were being expended on that child while that child was in care, so resources need to be carried through when that child is placed.

Naomi Angell: From the family's point of view, there is concern about the delay that will be engendered if, first of all, there has to be an assessment. After that, they will have to wait for a decision to be made as to whether there will be a supply of services. It may be too late by then; the family are actually stating their need at the time that they ask for the assessment. If they then have to wait for a considerable time for discretion to be exercised as to whether there will be supply, it just could be too late.

Mr. Llwyd: What will be the effect of the extension of local authorities' duties to carry out assessments? What difference will that make in practice? Is it simply a matter of resources?

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