Adoption and Children Bill

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Tim Loughton: The age of 10 is the age of criminal liability. Do you place any particular weight on that, for example as a starting point, or can you not go on numerical ages at all?

Jenny Robson: Bearing in mind the background of some children who come into care and their development—intellectual, social, moral and the rest of it—I think that 10 is okay, but I am going to stay with the view that it depends on the child's level of understanding about what they are agreeing to and not agreeing to. I think we have to be clear about that.

Tim Loughton: Trying to frame legislation in the light of what you are suggesting is a minefield.

I come back to the point that you made earlier about children being able to call for support services. We are tossing about that great term, but what does it actually mean? How can one filter out not a maliciously vexatious but a whimsical call by a child who falls below your benchmark for being responsible enough to know what a support service is? Can you define the sort of support services that you think that children should be able to call for?

Ms Charlton: The youngest ever caller on our helpline, TALKadoption, which is the UK helpline for young people, was aged five. That was an assisted call by an adoptive parent to help the child know about the service. Other children in the middle age range—say, eight to 13—call our helpline. They do not ask adult questions. They ask things like, ``What does adoption mean—it was talked about once?'' They do not always contact us about a problem; sometimes they just want to tell somebody, ``I am adopted'', then start engaging in conversation about that or ring at another time.

In a sense, we are looking with adult views at what children need. What children want from support is to be able to access it. We put a quote in our evidence from a child who said, ``We need something 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year; we need to be able to call it if we need to or want to.'' That is the point. Children need to be able to access services pitched at their level and that are responded to appropriately and sensibly by adults on the other end of the phone.

Tim Loughton: You still have not said what that support is. I have a five-year-old child who is perfectly confident of ringing up emergency services, usually when you do not want them, and she could be minded to ask for support because she has been told that she will not get the latest Barbie doll for Christmas. What do you mean by support services that a child as young as five could realistically call for, and be realistically given?

Ms Charlton: The example that I gave of a five-year-old was an adoptive child facilitating that information for the future. The word ``adoption'' has not been heard and periodically, children need to talk to someone about what adoption means to them. We have children ringing up about specific problems on the helpline and they receive much more in-depth counselling. A number of callers have rung up over a period of time.

12.45 pm

We are talking about an 0800 number, which will not show on a phone bill, that children are able to call, perhaps when their parents are not home or are busy cooking tea. Broad accessibility is required. Children could use that number without anybody knowing. All of our helpline information is publicised at the end of TV programmes that children watch in which the issue of adoption has come up. It is important to let people know about things. We need people who can respond by having just a chat—perhaps by giving information on what adoption means and the difference that it brings to your life—by dealing with deeper problems about adoption there and then or by referring them on if the problem concerns something else. We do not get many of the silly calls that you talk about.

Susanna Cheal: We must not think of information being given to children as a one-off exercise. It is something that goes on because children understand meanings at different levels. If you pay attention to the different development stages of children, they keep coming back to things. At a certain age—five or seven, perhaps—they may know that they are adopted but not quite know what that means; they hear about someone else in the playground and want to ask. It is their right to ask because they are facing a different set of circumstances to the adoptive parents. We would support what the previous speaker said.

Mr. Shaw: On the issue of whether a child should give their consent, the idea that has entered my mind is some sort of tick box. Best practice says that life story work, a matching process and an introduction should happen. In the main, that does happen. Any panel worth its salt would want to know how the child has been prepared. The idea that we go down a road where a child has not signed off for the adoption process is for the birds. This is not a case for a tick box.

The theme throughout the evidence has been that good quality assessments are required for people to make good judgments. The relationship between the social worker, the child and the prospective adopter is the basis on which one makes a judgment on a child having made a decision; it is not a yes or a no. Would you agree with that?

The Chairman: By the way, he used to be a social worker.

Susanna Cheal: May I just put a question referring to those circumstances? Could you be absolutely sure in every case that a child knew that he or she was adopted? I do not know that you could.

Mr. Shaw: We do not live in a black and white world. These are people, not equations.

Susanna Cheal: The child has a right to know that a big thing has happened in their life and that their status has changed. They may have a new surname or a new identity, but they are still carrying memories from the past. Some configuration of circumstances must signify that the child has understood that this has happened and is willing to go ahead with it.

Mr. Shaw: Life story work and questions to the social worker panel would presumably answer that question.

Mrs. Crank: You are surmising that there is good practice everywhere, when the reality is that there is not always; sometimes things do not work out. I can think of a recent case where there were two children being adopted by foster carers. They were adopting the younger child and had had the older child for a longer period of time. They said, ``Would you like to be adopted, too?''. She said, ``Yes.'' The guardian ad litem came along. She had lived in this family for eight years. When she actually got to the court, the judge saw the two children on their own and the family were in a panic because the child was in for one hour. When they came out, the judge said, ``We have a problem''; he told the guardian that the girl was saying, ``I don't want to be adopted''.

That was a horrendous position to get to. Throughout all of that, nobody had actually stopped and said, ``Do you want to be adopted?'' She did not want to change her situation, and what she was saying to the judge was, ``I don't want to change my name.''

Mr. Llwyd: On the issue of children's rights, I tabled an amendment to the Family Law Act 1996 to allow children's wishes to be heard in the divorce process on which parent they saw their future lying with, and so on. However, giving a child what is almost an ultimate veto is fraught with problems. Some children develop emotionally quickly and others slowly; you cannot have a rule of thumb about the age of 10 or 12.

Some children might feel—wrongly, of course—rather guilty about being adopted. They might not want to say that they are leaving their birth parents, and for various reasons they might have attachments to them, even when they have been abused. That will play on their mind. Surely it is better to rely on the checklist to say that the children's wishes must carefully—not in a tick box way—be taken into account in any assessment. The idea of a veto for a child, who might often be immature and persuaded either way by various extraneous factors, might make bad law and bad practice.

Susanna Cheal: The developmental stages of a child are important, and an older child really may not wish to be adopted. The child will be able to handle the ambiguity of knowing that it cannot live at home but does not want to change identity. In those cases, I think that the child should be able to say, ``I don't want this'', and for that to go further. Otherwise, the adoption will break down.

Mr. Llwyd: With respect, is that not what ascertaining the child's wishes is all about?

Susanna Cheal: In the best practice way, of course. But we do not witness that all the time.

Jacqui Smith: That is why that matter is related to clause 1.

The Chairman: We must finish by 1 o'clock, but can we turn to unmarried couples and adoption? We had exchanges earlier on this.

Ms Munn: I would like to get a view on this. We are especially interested in hearing children's voices on this point, if it has ever come up. From their perspective, do they have a view, for example, about being adopted only by one parent and not by two?

Mrs. Crank: There are four or five children in the group of 16 with whom we have discussed this. Those have been adopted into a same-sex couple. That couple have four children in total, and one other child is with another same-sex couple. Those children said, ``I waited five years for a family'' and, ``They have given us a family and we love them. It doesn't matter what they are like.'' It did not matter whether they were the same sex. I think that they were clear that what they needed was for the family to match and be right for them.

Mr. Shaw: Do you think that there is more likelihood of breakdown if a couple is unmarried or married? Do you have any evidence on that?

Ms Charlton: I cannot comment on the evidence overall, but I can say that, certainly with same-sex couples coming forward, the commitment that they show is often to the older children who are more difficult to place, or to the more damaged children. They are also more open to support. We are seeing that as a growing pattern across our organisation.

In terms of couples living together who are not the same sex, the issues are for the children. The children know very clearly who their parenting parents are, and that is borne out in all the research on divorce and so on. But they also need both parents to be able to give equal commitment. The family that Mrs. Crank describes are in an awful situation because the younger children are adopted by the younger partner and the older children are adopted by the older partner. What happens if that family falls apart? Do you then divide that sibling group into two? What do you do about that, because, in law, there is not equal status? We have to put such issues on the table. If we are talking about wanting to increase the stock of potential adoptive parents for these children who wait, we need to be more realistic about what our society is composed of.

Susanna Cheal: We can only comment on what children ask for all the time; ``Someone to be there for me and someone to love me all my life.'' It does not really matter what the configuration of the people is. It is the quality of the relationship with the prospective parents that matters.

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Prepared 21 November 2001