Adoption and Children Bill

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Kevin Brennan: May I press you on the point about birth parents' access to information about adopted children when they reach adulthood? What are your views on Professor Triseliotis' proposal that birth parents should have the right to contact their natural children who have been adopted when they reach adulthood? Is that the best approach or should birth parents have the right at least to know that their desire to contact their children has been passed on through a third party?

Mrs. Crank: We have been operating in this way for probably eight years on behalf of about 30 local authorities and have had absolutely no difficulties whatsoever. We also operate panels where birth parents, birth siblings and adopters who want to open past adoptions, write or ring and say, ``This is what we need''. We sit down and tell them that this is something that we want to do. We deal with about 120 of these cases per month and we have had no problems whatsoever.

A lot of children come back, and I will give you an example. One young girl was adopted by her grandmother, and her sister who had disabilities was adopted by a stranger family. The girl dreamed that her sister had died. She knew that her sister had a disability, but they had no contact with each other because the grandmother still had contact with the birth family and there were safety issues.

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There was a lot of discussion, but we opened that adoption for that child and she was right, her sister had died on her way to Disneyland with a bunch of disabled children. She had read it in the newspaper and had dreamed about it. It would be easy to say, ``No, no, come back when you are 18'', but you feel like you need to deal with these cases humanely and appropriately.

Kevin Brennan: Should the Bill contain a clause that would either grant birth parents the right to contact adopted children in adulthood, or create an opportunity for them to signal their desire for contact?

Mrs. Crank: Our view would be that we would like both or either. We want that because we have been working in that way as intermediary services.

Jenny Robson: We would agree.

Susanna Cheal: With the rider that that would depend on how the child was removed in the first place.

The Chairman: Could you make it clear what you believe?

Jacqui Smith: So that is not an absolute right?

Jenny Robson: It is, but we have a practice model that deals with these matters which has been worked out in conjunction with the local authorities.

Susanna Cheal: I think that the child, having had the most major challenge to overcome, has some rights here—far more than the adoptive parents. The child is dealing with two things: the memories of the past and present, and a new challenge that is like climbing a mountain.

Kevin Brennan: Are you agreeing with my first or my second suggestion?

Jenny Robson: I am saying that it should be qualified—when the child is ready.

Kevin Brennan: So it is the second point.

Jenny Robson: Yes.

Mr. Dawson: Mrs. Crank, you run a service to enable birth families to contact their children who have been adopted. People have to use your organisation to do that. Is that right?

Mrs. Crank: They have to come via our organisation and whichever local authority holds their records. We would have a panel to discuss that. For example, if a child were at risk, we would clearly say no, but we would write to the birth parent and tell them why we were saying no. We have done that in the past when someone who had abused their child was due to come out of prison. We would say ``at this point, no, but we can tell you that the child is well and happy''.

Mr. Dawson: That is a long way from the current position for adults who have been adopted. They can obtain their birth records and make inquiries to locate their parents.

Ms Charlton: The bit that we are talking about is a mechanism for dealing with the risk. We would also say that people need to have access to their birth records as a right.

Mr. Dawson: Of course, I agree. However, you are not saying that birth parents can have access as a right to information about their adult children who have been adopted.

Ms Charlton: They can signal an interest.

Mr. Dawson: May I ask the question about consent that I asked previously? If a child is of sufficient age and understanding, would you support their right when appearing in court to be able to veto a proposal that they be adopted?

Susanna Cheal: Yes, we would.

Mr. Dawson: Do you think that a child should be able to give active consent to their adoption?

Jenny Robson: Yes, we do. Some evidence has been presented from the linkline. A small number--I emphasise that it is small--of young people have called us about adoption. In most cases, we pass them on to another helpline that deals specifically with adoption, but from time to time we deal with cases ourselves. Young people talk clearly about the feeling that they had no say in whether they would be adopted. I am talking about children who were adopted from five years plus. It is clear that they had valuable things to say and useful information about why they did or did not want to be adopted.

If I could return to a previous matter concerning support, it is clear to me and the trust from the few children we hear on the helpline talking about adoption that young people should have some way of signalling that they need post-adoption support. There is a lot of emphasis in the Bill about the adopted parents being able to signal for support and I stress that the trust does not want mountains of time being spent on assessment. We know clearly from young people, particularly when they enter adolescence--it is a turbulent time for all adolescents, but especially for an adopted child--that they are seeking their identity about themselves and trying to deal with their identity as adopted children.

The Chairman: So you think the Bill needs strengthening.

Susanna Cheal: Yes.

Jacqui Smith: May I go back to the question about ascertaining the child's wishes and consent? The Committee is discussing best practice and how we want the system to develop, but we are also discussing the legal rights and conditions that will or will not be included in the legislation. There is probably not much disagreement around the table on the importance of taking the child's wishes into consideration. That is why it is at the top of the checklist in clause 1. We can talk about how to do that most effectively, but the question on which I suspect we shall have some discussion, and which was raised yesterday--I think that this is what my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) was asking, but I am not sure about the answer--is whether you think that under the law a child of a certain age must consent to the adoption before it proceeds. BAAF said yesterday that that should not be the position because of the pressure that it may put on the child. Can you answer in relation not to what would be good practice, but to whether you think that should be in the law?

Mrs. Crank: We asked the young people in one of our groups last week how they felt about that. They said things such as, ``Yes, we should be asked. We would still have wanted to be adopted, but we feel we should have been asked. I was 10 and my sister was 10''--they were twins. Many of them said clearly that they should have been asked.

Susanna Cheal: I think that the age is important and the implication is putting too much of a burden on the child for the future. I think there has to be a mechanism in ascertaining the wishes of a child and that it is taken seriously if a child says no. We must look at what ``no'' means. It might mean ``delay'' or ``not ready'' or a whole range of things. I find myself in quite a lot of difficulty in answering that point, because it depends on individual cases and the age of the child. I think we do children a disservice by not taking on board the fact that with the right kind of help and support they can understand these things very early. Advocacy around this would be very helpful in getting the child's wishes on to the table.

I think if a child instinctively and over a period of time says no to people, we should listen to that. It is quite the vogue now in social services for children to be interviewing members of staff. They make very good decisions. They interview the Prime Minister. They do all sorts of things. They are very good at making judgments, and I do not see why they would not know if there had been a wrong match of themselves without being able to use all the flurry of words that adults can.

Mr. Brazier: My question is almost an exact echo of the Minister's. I return for a moment to the original wording used by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre. He did not ask whether you think that the child should be consulted—we are all 100 per cent. agreed that much more consultation is required—but whether they should have an absolute veto. The Minister's question, which, legally, went even further, was whether the child should have to consent formally to the adoption. We are in danger of making bad law if we go as far as saying that. Would you reflect once more on what exactly you are saying that we as parliamentarians should legislate for? Are you really going as far as saying that there should be a legal requirement for the child to sign on the dotted line?

The Chairman: As I understood it, Mrs. Crank said yes.

Mrs. Crank: I said if a child is of age, reason and understanding.

Jenny Robson: Yes, with qualifications around the child's understanding. I am not interested in age. It is about the child's conceptual understanding of what they are saying yes or no to. That is a very important point.

Tim Loughton: How on earth do you define that in a way that will not be challenged out of court by lawyers?

Jenny Robson: I have no idea. I am not a lawyer.

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