The following witnesses were examined:
The Adoption Forum
Family Rights Group
National Children's Homes
Special Standing Committee
Wednesday 21 November 2001
[Mr. David Hinchliffe in the Chair]
Memorandum by the Adoption Forum
The Adoption Forum welcomes the Bill very warmly. It will bring many necessary reforms to a system that has tragically failed far too many of the children in its care over the past years. We hope that with the new reforms the system will be able in the future to help those children who are unable to live with the families of their birth to find peace, love and comfort for the rest of their lives in adoptive families.
We particularly welcome the emphasis on the paramountcy of the child's best interest. Children, and certainly those children within the looked-after system who are, after all, society's least advantaged, have been at the mercy of adults and the paramountcy of adults far too often and for far too long. They need a champion and this Bill will become just that by stating and restating that the best interests of the child must come first.
We welcome among many valuable measures:
the national registers
the provision of adoption services by all local authorities
the tackling of delay within local authorities and the courts
and much, much more. We believe all these measures will help hugely in ensuring that the lives of children are improved.
There are, however, some measures that we believe could be equally advantageous to the betterment of the system for the children within it, and not simply for those looked-after children who will be the beneficiaries of adoption itself but also for those who continue to be the responsibility of the State.
In this paper, we have tried to be as brief as possible in the knowledge that the Committee has a tremendous amount of paperwork with which to deal.
We have decided to concentrate on two concerns about the Bill in general and also, as requested, the changes made to the Bill since the March version. We hope very much that they will be seen in the spirit in which they are offered: that of trying to be helpful.
Our principle suggestions concern:
a comprehensive database.
There is general agreement, eloquently restated by the Secretary of State himself during the Second Reading of the Bill, that there needs to be `fundamental' and `cultural' change in the system in order for improvements to be achieved. There is agreement too that potential adopters need to feel confidence in the system if they are to participateand without them, of course, there will be no adoption.
The Secretary of State went on to say:
``It is right that we build in independent review throughout the system, whether of the provision of information to adopted children about their birth families, or of decisions to place a child with a particular family...The issues are difficult and emotionally fraught. Not only must we get the processand the law in regard to who should or should not be adoptedright, we must build in independent safeguards throughout the system.''
Clause 12 introduces into the system of adoption and permanence a new and very welcome elementthat of appeals for prospective adopters who are turned down by adoption panels. This will go some way to establishing confidence but we believe more could be done to instil confidence.
There is no provision for appeal against any other decision made along the adoption trail, no independent scrutiny of, or appeal against, bad or unjust decisions.
Mr and Mrs PJ, living in Central London, would have liked to appeal on several grounds. Their case in short:
``We live in a very mixed area racially speaking. Our circle of friends and acquaintances is also mixed. We adopted a 7 year old boy from our local authority in 1996 and, with the usual ups and downs, it is a stable and happy relationship for my husband, me and our boy. In 1999, we applied to adopt his older half-sister, then 13. We had grown to very fond of her after regular contact ordered by our local authority and she had been moved several times in foster care and expressed a desire to live with us. Our local authority refused the placement on the grounds that she was of mixed race and we were not. We did our utmost to try to persuade them but nothing was achieved. We still abide by the contact order and the girl is still in foster-care (she has been in several placements) which we all value. But we believe our relationship with the girland inevitably our son toohas been ill-served by the decision not to allow the placement as, of course, has the relationship between them.''
There is only the old system of local authority complaints, and, as the Secretary of State said himself, they are often inadequate and long-winded.
it is, after all, difficult to complain to the very authority who has made the decision that you are complaining about.
given the power of insurance companies (as we saw in Clywd) which discourage local authorities from admitting any form of liability for fear of compensation claims, it is quite understandable that apologies, self-criticism or punishment are unlikely to result. This of course militates against learning from complaints, a vital factor if systems are to improve
dissatisfaction with a local authority's complaints procedure can be taken up with the Ombudsman or the Social Services Inspectorate but neither will examine a case unless the complainant has already been through all levels of the LA's complaints procedure. Neither has the remit or the resources to go beyond identifying maladministration.
some matters can be examined through Judicial Review, but these are very narrow and it is extremely expensive and thus limited to very few.
We believe that an ombudsman for children in care would be a valuable introduction. We understand, however, that this would not be possible within the remit of this Bill.
We understand also that adoption agencies must not and cannot be beleaguered with requests and rights of review from every case because it would inhibit too greatly their valuable work. However, we believe it is perfectly possible for gate-keeping mechanisms to be introduced to preclude vexatious or inappropriate requests for review. However, given the importance of the decisions with the life-long implications that are made, we believe there must be a right for those affected to be heard.
With this in mind, we would like to suggest that the following safeguards are included:
Clause 4(7): could include a right to review if a person/family is turned down for adoption support.
Clause 12(1): could include that all determinations made by adoption agencies with regard to children in care are subject to review.
Clause 12(4): could include the word `independent' alongside `organisation'.
Clause 14(1): could include provision for an individual to be able to put their case to the Minister.
Clause 16: could include specifically that the Minister may cause an inquiry into individual cases and overturn adoption agency decisions if necessary (this power already exists in intercountry adoption applications although there is no appeal mechanism for the applicant).
Clauses 53 to 62: could include a provision for arbitration and/or review on the withholding of information.
Children can disappear in the system and there are some terrible cases to prove it. There are no centrally held records and on average a child moves around three times a year, sometimes beyond their local authority's boundary. There are approximately 100,000 children who are looked-after during the average year, around 58,000 at any one time. A large number return to their birth families, others go back into care once again, yet others move within foster care or residential care, or on into adoption.
Record-keeping is thus difficult and, not surprisingly, notoriously poor. It is not clear how local authorities do keep track of their charges. This problem is highlighted in the first annual report of the new Adoption Taskforce which confirms that a good tracking system is desirable. It cites that one model has been developed by the Catholic Children's Society Nottingham.
The Government has said from the beginning of its work on improving the adoption system that what was needed was ``better grip'', that it wants to prevent children ``drifting'' in care and introduce timescales. In the Prime Minister's Review of Adoption (on p.52) it states:
``There is a lack of external monitoring, review and stimulus to ensure timely progress.''
And on p.53:
``What is needed is a wide range of interventions targeted on tackling the causes of poor performance.''
We believe that one of the ways to ensure that this becomes reality is to have a tracking system that will monitor children's progress.
This Bill is entitled the Adoption and Children Bill, a reference to the fact that not all children in care will find an answer in adoption. Their fate, as has been much discussed by all concerned since the start of the Prime Minister's Review of Adoption, deserves equal attention.
The All Party Parliament Group on Adoption has supported the notion of a national statistical database that would act as a tracking mechanism for all looked-after children.
A centrally-held statistical system should record each child's elementary details, entry in to care, duration, place of care, moves, care order (or other court directions), and care plan decision.
These statistics would ensure that:
there was less chance of children going missing
improvements to tackling of delay in the system
there was a further check that plans are both made and fulfilled
there was a reliable method of monitoring outcomes
there was extra provision for assisting the new court system
Clause 13: provision could be made for the collection of the specific statistics discussed above to be gathered in a national database.
CHANGES IN THE BILL
There are other matters, namely support and information, included in the Bill over which we share huge concern with other organisations such as NORCAP, Adoption UK, and other adoptive family groups. We are also deeply worried about the section on `foreign element' adoptions.
a) Adoption/permanency support
i) Provision of support
One of the laudable aims of this Bill is to bring adoption/permanency support into the front line. Adoptions that fail do so because families feel unable to cope and support has been all but impossible to find and fund. If the rate of success is to be improvedand it is difficult to see why there would be much point in upping adoption figures unless adoptions are going to succeedthen there must be help available.
Clause 4 and Clause 110 however provide only for a duty on LAs to assess need: there is no duty to provide supporteven if a need has been established.
It seems to us that families are the foremost experts on whether and when they need it; they recognise when they are in crisis and unable to deal with the child. The danger of not providing support at the time of request is that the placement/adoption may break down irretrievably, to the great damage of all concerned and probably great expense to the state in the longer term.
There are of course degrees of adoption support: some, possibly the major part, will be reasonably easily resolved within a short time, necessitating in the main experienced counselling. Other families will need longer term, more profound assistance with an input from other areas such as health and educationas is made clear in the Bill.
If families have to go to their LA for assessment they are very likely to find themselves involved in a very long process: waiting for assessment, the assessment, waiting for a decision, waiting again while the LA decide to act on their decision and so on. This could take months, by which time the adoption may well have broken down.
Given that assessors will have to possess the same finely-honed skills (which are in short supply) as those offering the support itself, surely they would be put to better use in providing it rather than assessing? If there is a need to assess the family or child for other services, such as education or health, then the support social worker could do itor arrange for itto be done simultaneously.
Other questions that arise:
What if the LA says yes, you need support but we have no staff to do it?
What if the LA says no? The family still feel they do; the problem remains.
Will any family who feels in need of support have to submit to assessment by their LA first, or can they find help for themselves, privately?
Who pays for assessment/support: the placing LA or the receiving LA?
We suggest that there should be a right to adoption support, not simply to assessment. This right to adoption support should also, specifically, include families adopting from abroad.
ii) Registration of adoption support providers
We welcome in theory the Bill's proposals to inspect and register the professional providers of adoption support so that standards are high and consistent. But we are concerned that this part of the Bill (Clause 8) will not hinder the development of many and various family groups that provide valuable help and support to thousands of adoptive families through peer-group discussion and social ties.
i) Pre-adoption information
One of the root causes of disruption in placement/adoption is a lack of information about the child's history.
Clause 57 proposes that information about a child's history should be disclosed as soon as practicable after the making of an adoption order i.e. long after the child has moved in and only once the child has become legally part of the new family.
It is our view that without sufficient information at the time of matching, it is very difficult for the prospective family to make an informed decision about whether they could or would want to become the child's parents. For example, a family may not feel it could deal with a child who had been sexually abused. If social services hold that information (such matters, of course, have not always been disclosed by the child), then that should be proffered when the adopters are contemplating taking that child on. They could decide whether to proceed and prepare themselves adequately for the task ahead.
Without that vital information the adoption could be put at risk because neither the adopters nor the child can understand each other's behaviour or reactions.
There are, of course, questions about the protection of the identity of the child but that information could be withheld until later on, perhaps at the time of placement, so that there was no risk of information being misused.
Clause 57 (1) should read: ``At the time of matching, the appropriate agency. . . .'' etc.
ii) Adopted adults seeking information
Since the Adoption Act of 1976 there has been a much more open attitude to adults seeking information about their past. This has proved beneficial for most: those who have wanted to seek their birth-families have been able to do so. Yet the Bill under Clause 58 and Clause 76 seeks to remove that right if a member of the birth family wishes to withhold their identity. The upshot is that an adopted person may find themselves in the position of not being able to obtain their original birth certificate.
The Department of Health have stated that there have been occasions on which this may prove dangerous to birth parents. Our feeling is that it would be preferable to prohibit adopted persons from making direct contact with birthfamily members than to prevent the adopted person discovering their genetic family. The adopted person could instead register a desire to contact or, if it were for time-sensitive medical reasons for example, the adoption agency could seek out the birth family and make contact on the adopted person's behalf.
c) Intercountry adoption
This section of the Bill proved very difficult for us to understand (perhaps Clause 83 most of all). We are awaiting the interpretation of experienced legal counsel and hope to be able to speak with greater lucidity at the oral hearing on this matter.
We find it difficult too to interpret the general attitude to intercountry adoption: the Bill will make it possible to ratify the Hague Convention, which is hugely welcome and which the Government has said it is keen to do. But it then introduces extremely tight restrictions on intercountry adoption without providing any assistance to those who wish to pursue it.
On the one hand the Bill does, helpfully, make it clear that local authorities have to provide home-studies and, most understandably, privately-commissioned ones are outlawed. However, it continues to allow the payment of fees for this service. Presently, home-studies/assessments can cost up to £6,000 in some areas, in others it is £1,000, sometimes even less. Even if the Government is unwilling to waive the fee system, surely it would be fair to cap the cost. At present these high fees could, to some eyes, seem liable to being interpreted as profiting.
There is no provision for help or advice beyond the home study. Prospective adopters will still be on their own battling with the bureaucracies of two countries their own and the country of origin of the child. How are people to find reliable contacts and agencies abroad when there is so little official help on offer? Does not the very lack of help mean that people with the best possible intentions are vulnerable to those who might want to exploit them? Does it not lead them into danger?
There are many people interested in adopting from abroad: the Overseas Adoption Helpline receives 3,000 inquiries a year. They have personal connections, family, friends, or they have worked and lived abroad. Others are involved in international businesses here, or are linked with ethnic communities in other ways. Most have firm convictions of the need to offer family life to children in desperate circumstances.
It is believed that the Department of Health processes fewer than 300 applications a year. Meanwhile France, with a similar population to the UK, gives 3,600 children a year the chance of family life built on adoption; Norway with 4.5 million people brings in some 400 children from abroad through its carefully controlled programme.
Success rates for intercountry adoption in the UK are excellent. There are very few adoption breakdowns.
There were certain other matters that we found puzzling or unclear:
Clause 14 (1) and Clause 128: How is the Minister to discover a lack of compliance on the part of Local Authorities? Of course he will have reports on performance from the SSI but beyond that how will lesser degrees of a failure in duty, or individual cases, become known to him? It is unlikely that the LAs will themselves point any out.
Clause 53 to 62: If information is to be withheld regarding a person's origins, how is it possible to comply with Clause 71?
Clause 64: An adopted person must be seen as part of his new family legally of course but the use of the phrase as if the `person had been born as a child of the marriage' is odd andto someobjectionable. An adopted person has his own particular history which, even if it is awful, should not and cannot be obliterated by a parliamentary act. Would it not be possible to simply say `as a child of the marriage'.
Also, how does this sit with Clause 68 which does recognise the blood-line?
Clause 67: what reason could there be for adopting her own child?
Clause 115: are the adoption registers open to either approved adopters seeking a child (as with the publications advertising adoptable children), or open to waiting children who are old enough to do so knowingly?
We would like to thank the Special Standing Committee for taking the trouble to read our submission. We hope very much that it has been of use. If you would like further information, we would be delighted to try to assist.
Memorandum from Adoption UK
Adoption UK submitted evidence to the Special Select Committee on the previous Bill and gave oral evidence on 8th May 2001. We are delighted to have the chance to submit further evidence.