Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Llwyd: I take your point; it has been a long day.

Mr. Dawson: It seems to me that allowing the birth parent to be told if the adopted person has died is just fundamental humanity. I do not know whether you want to expand on that.

Pam Hodgkins: Simply, it seems inhumane that someone cannot know. Most of us, hearing of a tragedy such as Hillsborough, know within hours either that the worst has happened or that we can be relieved that no one close to us is involved. A birth parent whose son or daughter is of an age to be a football fan, perhaps, would not know—they might be one of those 89 names. Then another tragedy happens, such as at King's Cross. Birth parents go through the same thing every time. It is no wonder that such people have mental health problems. Their life is never normal again because there is no closure.

The Chairman: I want to ask Mr. Tapsfield about his point of view. We have heard concerns that what is proposed is a radical change from that in force since the 1970s. From your perspective, have the arrangements since the 1970s worked, or would you want changes?

Robert Tapsfield: No; I think that we are clear that they have worked. To add to what Pam has said, we believe that there should be an obligation on adopters to inform the agency if the child dies. The message that we hear from birth parents is that they go on thinking about the child even though they are not looking after them, whether or not they are getting information about them from a letterbox scheme. They go on thinking about them at birthdays and Christmas. It seems to us a basic human right that they should be informed if their child dies and that we should make that an obligation on adopters. It might be difficult to enforce that, but it would be important as a message that if you adopt someone else's child you should, if the child dies, at least inform the birth parents, who will otherwise go on assuming that the child is living and will have no information.

Mr. Djanogly: I faced those decisions when I chaired a social services committee, and the problem is not in deciding to release the information about the death, which is the humanitarian thing to do. The problem arises when the birth parent wants to visit the grave. That involves releasing the name of the deceased, which would be the adoptive name, and that often occasions a desire in the birth parent to see the adoptive parents. We are considering a period of history, so the people concerned are now very old and have operated under a certain set of rules for many years. We are talking about something that can be very disturbing and emotive for people in their 80s and 90s.

Robert Tapsfield: We have to look at the evidence and also have some trust. We often hear from birth parents who are now losing their children—often birth parents who are now losing their children in contested situations—that, ``I am not allowed to know where they are, but I do know. I am not going to do anything about it, but I do know.'' So there are now birth parents who have information that perhaps they should not have or have found out because they saw it on a letter heading or elsewhere, but they are not abusing the situation. It seems to me that if one is a birth parent, it is a basic right to know if one's child has died.

The Chairman: Can we turn to intercountry adoptions and the provisions in that respect?

Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley): How effective in the agencies' experience are the support services that are offered by local authorities in relation to intercountry adoptions?

Pauline Dancyger: I am also, in my professional life, involved in the work of intercountry adoption in the authority in which I work. It is almost impossible to offer any real support to families who choose to adopt from overseas. We are able only to offer a very peremptory service, which is a matter of completing home studies and offering advice and guidance. Beyond that, it is extremely difficult.

Ms Munn: Do you have a view as to whether, when a family has adopted from abroad and the child comes here, the initial supervision should be done by voluntary agencies rather than by local authorities?

Pauline Dancyger: Going by my experience, I think that it would sit better with the voluntary agencies than it would with local authorities.

Philly Morrall: I would imagine that adopters would find that more comfortable, because they have often had a lot of negative vibes from the local authority about their wish to adopt from overseas. In terms of the need for support if they are having difficulties, they need the same level of therapeutic help or educational advice as any other adoptive family. Sadly, because the preparation that they receive is not always equal to that which they might have had had they adopted in this country, they might not have such easy access to that help, and that is a major problem.

Ms Munn: Do you feel that there should be anything specifically in the Bill requiring a local authority—either itself or through arrangements—to provide any of those services?

Philly Morrall: It would be wise, if we are talking about trying to prevent disruptions and breakdowns. The families covered by the authorities that I know that have well-defined processes for prospective intercountry adopters do feel much more supported and they have a line of access to support if they need it. I echo everybody's feeling that if one understands what one is taking on—and hopefully that has come out in the preparation and assessment time of a prospective adopter—one is going to want to be in touch with the right people in order to get support later. A lot of people do not have such good preparation so that that is built in in the first place.

Pam Hodgkins: Intercountry adopters need as much support as any other adopters just in bringing up their children, and those children are likely to need at least as much if not more support, because they have more profound issues of identity and origins than children who are adopted—children who are adopted in the UK today are far more likely to benefit from letterbox contact or direct contact. If you are adopted through intercountry procedures the chances are you will not have that level of communication. For many children who are subject to intercountry adoption there is nothing in terms of information that is going to take them beyond a particular institution's gates at any time. Actually coming to terms with that is very, very hard. We see it ourselves in this country among people who were abandoned babies. They are the people—the only people—who can identify with the abandoned babies from, say, China, where there is no information. The loss of the sense of self should never be underestimated.

5 pm

The Chairman: Mr. Paton, for those who do not know him, is from the Department of Health. He has not just wandered in off the streets—he is actually here on business. Would you like to comment?

James Paton (Department of Health): Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I have just a very short point for the Committee's information: the adoption support provisions cover people who adopt from abroad as well as from the UK.

The Chairman: Thank you, Mr. Paton.

Ms Munn: Do any of the agencies have any comments about the provisions in the Bill to try to tighten up on countries from which children can come, which are designed to avoid some of the difficulties experienced with the recent high profile case from America?

The Chairman: Does anyone wish to comment on that?

Ms Munn: If you do not, that is fine. I am just making sure.

The Chairman: Do any other colleagues want to speak about the intercountry aspects? In that case, I would like us to look at placement orders. I gather that, since submitting evidence, the Family Rights Group has had something of a rethink on the issue. Do you want to lead us into the discussion with your thoughts, Mr. Tapsfield, because you have slightly revised your thinking, have you not?

Robert Tapsfield: Some of our thinking is apparent in our first submission. The more thinking we have done—and talking—the more we are extremely concerned about placement orders and the way that they are defined in the Bill. I ought to say that we wholeheartedly agree with the principle of a placement order. We think that a placement hearing that enables a court at an early stage to consider whether adoption is an appropriate plan is a good idea, and we support that. So we are not in disagreement with the notion that there should be a placement order. However, we think that the provisions as they are defined now are unnecessarily complicated, inconsistent with the Children Act in a range of ways that I will explain, and could be simplified to good effect.

We are concerned that the provisions contradict the Children Act, supporting some of BAAF's evidence about that—particularly about the legal status and children who are treated as if they are accommodated as opposed to being accommodated or looked after. We are concerned about the arrangements for discharging and for parents discharging children who are not even necessarily placed for adoption but where there has been a placement order. So we are concerned that they may be in conflict with areas of the Children Act.

We think and would propose that actually there should be a placement order in all cases where children are placed or it is proposed to place children for adoption, but the placement order should simply give permission to place. It should, if you like, authorise the placement of a child for adoption, so it would deal with the issue of consent where there is disagreement. I may say more about that in a minute. The child's legal status would remain unchanged, so an accommodated child under section 20 would remain under section 20—unless it was a contested placement, in which case if the threshold for section 31 were met, then a care order would be made. A child on a care order would remain on a care order.

The advantages would be that for some children they are not placed for adoption—there is a decision to place, but actually they remain in foster care for a long time. Those children would therefore remain subject to the planning and review provisions of local authorities and could remain with their long-term foster parents. The placement order would simply give permission for the local authority but would not require it. It would not always, therefore, be necessary to go back.

We believe that the placement orders as they are currently construed are going to pose unnecessary complications. Also, it entails new provisions for contact. We do not see why contact needs to be dealt with separately under a placement order and outside the Children Act. We would prefer to see contact dealt with under the arrangements for dealing with contact under the Children Act, and do not see the advantages of having a different and separate system. I can deal with the issues of consent separately.

 
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