Adoption and Children Bill

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Margaret Dight: It is a resource issue, certainly, but it is also dependent upon an accurate assessment of need. That assessment has to be made by individuals who are fully informed on issues around the adoption process, the implications of a child's background and life experiences and how that will impact on the child in placement and the on-going needs of the family. So, it is an assessment that can be made in the here and now with information that is based on the child's past and current needs, but also has to have a dynamic that recognises the level of support that may be needed for some considerable time ahead. So, we are looking at detailed, skilled, professional assessments, which need to be done rapidly and take cognisance of the skills and knowledge in different disciplines and different organisations. Again, I place emphasis on the need for effective collaboration between local authorities and voluntary adoption agencies in this issue.

Jim Richards: We must not have prolonged, protracted assessments that take up an awful lot of time. The best assessors of needs will be the adopters, and we must listen to them very carefully and quickly and get the resources in. I can see the prospect of a huge assessment industry being set up, which diverts resources from the actual helping of the adopters.

Liz Blackman (Erewash): You mentioned that, currently, the role of voluntary organisations is often to broker the resources that are available from local authorities, and that the situation becomes more difficult if a child is on the books of one local authority but placed with another. However, you must also be aware, in your line of work, that some local authorities have better practice than others. I am interested in the differences that we keep seeing in the figures between the practices of local authorities. What have you learned about the best performing local authorities, in terms of providing appropriate and swift support when it is needed?

Margaret Dight: What it is based on is our experience of inter-agency places. You are quite right. We realised that the levels of practice across the country varied hugely, which led us to our research project ``Adoption—A Quality Option'', because we wanted to find out what it was that made one local authority able to offer an effective adoption service while another with a comparable budget offered a less effective one. We found that it was important that agencies had an integrated approach to adoption; that, if you like, adoption was in the hearts and minds of everyone within the organisation before it ever became part of the decision making process. For very long, adoption was seen at as a satellite service in many statutory, and some voluntary, organisations. But we found that the successful delivery of adoption services occurred where there was a very clear, integrated, committed and well resourced adoption service within that statutory environment.

Liz Blackman: Will the Bill's framework and the taskforce be helpful in achieving a more integrated approach across all authorities?

Margaret Dight: My agency very much welcome the Bill. There are aspects of the Bill that we feel extremely positive about. It raises issues that needed to be raised. It looks clearly at the on-going needs of children for adoption, as my colleague said, and it moves away from the concept of the adoption order being some magic wand that will solve all ills. We welcome that very warmly.

My concern is, as I have entered in my submission, that there is insufficient recognition of the need for effective collaboration between the voluntary sector and the statutory authorities. That is essential. I actually included figures, which you will be aware of, to inform the panel of the numbers of children involved and the £3.5 million invested through voluntary agencies to meet effectively the needs of children in adoption and post-adoption services. That has a huge impact on informing best practice in adoption and I would feel happier if there was a tacit recognition in the Bill of the need to offer a comprehensive, fully informed, operative adoption service. It is essential that statutory agencies inform and provide their services through close collaboration with voluntary adoption agencies in their environment and beyond.

Jacky Gordon: The on-going nature of adoption support is sometimes lacking with our colleagues in local authority social service departments. We are funded for post-adoption for just one year, and it is likely that post-adoption support will be needed far beyond that. The first year may be the most straightforward for some children, and our adoptive parents would be asking for post-adoption support many years into the placement.

The Chairman: According to the evidence that we have, an aspect of the Bill that has caused some anxiety relates to access to birth certificates. Mr. Richards, your evidence suggests that you have reservations about the changes that have been made. Why do you believe that those changes have been made? Presumably the Government have experienced some difficulties with the current system. Are you aware of those problems?

Jim Richards: I do not know why that change has been made in the Bill, and some of us have spent a great deal of time trying to figure out why it has been put in. Our universal practice experience in the voluntary sector is that people welcome the information-giving process. Yes, there can be tears and tribulations, but if there is an intermediary service—that is, well placed social workers acting as intermediaries between the parties—we can cope. That evidence comes not just from practice experience, but from very good research. I refer particularly to the work of Julia Feast, from the Church of England Children's Society, and of David Howe. It is well attested, and we just do not understand why this measure has been included. Why cannot adult adoptees get hold of their original birth certificate? That seems to me a fundamental right.

The Chairman: Presumably in expressing that anxiety you are speaking on behalf of other agencies to which you have spoken.

Jim Richards: I know of no voluntary adoption agency that has a different view from mine.

Marion Hundleby: The workability of what is being suggested would have to be considered extremely carefully. In my extensive experience of providing counselling in these situations, the majority of children coming into adoption now are older and know a lot of this information anyway, so I question the workability of what is suggested in the Bill. Children often contact family members—other siblings, for instance—who may have different experiences of the birth family and will be sources of information. So as well as endorsing Mr. Richards' comments about the success of this section to date, in over 25 years, I question whether it is viable as it is described.

Naomi Angell: This also applies to children adopted from overseas, who are dislocated from their country and their birth families by geographic boundaries. The adoptive parents will in most cases hold the majority of the information about the birth family. They may have met the birth mother in the country of origin. However, the agency and the central authority will also hold information, and it is important that it should be an independent right of the child in a child-centred adoption service that the child should have that right of information.

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): I have a great deal of sympathy with all the points that have been made. However, do you believe—I am playing devil's advocate—that a compromise might be reached whereby people have access to that information on condition that they do not make contact, as one agency suggested in evidence to us?

Marion Hundleby: I understand what you are suggesting. I would suggest, however, that that is just about impossible to police. As it is, an awful lot of contact takes place that bypasses adoption agencies. We are in the age of the internet, and people can find each other quickly. We need to provide user-friendly services in which people do not feel that their needs and feelings are misunderstood or blocked because of legislation that I can only describe as unhelpful, in the way that is drafted in the Bill. We need to be approachable and to support people in their quest for information. Frankly, what you are suggesting would happen anyway through other means.

Mr. Walter: So you think that people would bypass and circumvent the system anyway?

Marion Hundleby: Yes. They would try to do that.

Jim Richards: I am not sure that I entirely agree with that. It is our practice experience that, when we are working with people and saying, ``Look, birth mother does not want to see you,'' because of the nature of the relationship between us and the adult adoptee, and the explanations that we give, that is respected. It is far better to get people into the office and to discuss these things, than to have people floating off on their own and using private agencies that have no base in adoption.

Marion Hundleby: My point is that bringing people into the office is the crucial factor. Once we are working with people, we can establish the relationships that help the most productive things to happen.

10.30 am

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Jacqui Smith): That is a very interesting point. Can you envisage a situation in which it would be either inappropriate or dangerous for an adopted adult to be able directly to contact their birth parents?

Marion Hundleby: Yes.

Jacqui Smith: So what could we do to prevent that?

Jacky Gordon: I would say that what people need in those situations is counselling. Adult adoptees who have been obliged to have counselling have approached the situation in a much more prepared way, because they have been advised not just to make immediate contact, but, for instance, to use the agency in an intermediary role.

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Prepared 21 November 2001