Adoption and Children Bill

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The Chairman: Mr. Paton, you have heard a number of thoughts and we would be interested to hear yours.

James Paton: Obviously, we will consider in detail the evidence from the Family Rights Group, which we have not yet had a chance to see.

A number of points have been raised—first, that which deals with where a local authority is authorised to place children for adoption, either under a placement order or through consent to placement. The point was made that it would be important for them still to be subject to the local authority's planning and review systems. The Bill provides for that by making a placed child, through either route, a looked-after child. The intention is to ensure that they are integrated with the planning and review system and that the placement is properly monitored.

The second point was about the parents' ability to request the return of a child when a child is placed for adoption with consent. I think that the position may be slightly different from that described in that, when a child is placed with consent, the Bill provides for that consent to be withdrawn at any point up to the point at which an application for an adoption order has been made, and then the child can be returned to the parent within a period of time.

The only exception to that is where a child is placed with a local authority for adoption by consent and when the consent is withdrawn the local authority considers that the child should still be placed for adoption and considers the significant harm threshold is likely to have been met. In that case, it is under a duty to apply for a placement order. What the provisions say is that, in the meantime, the child is not to be returned until the placement order hearing has determined what should happen. Unless the local authority is under a duty to apply for a placement order, a child who is placed for adoption with consent, which the parents withdraw, is provided for under the Bill to be returned to them. We think that it is philosophically consistent with the Children Act even if the provisions do not run identically.

Mr. Dawson: On that point, if a child were in care under section 20, and the parents wanted him removed and the local authority wanted to oppose that, would they apply for an emergency protection order or care order?

James Paton: They would, for an emergency protection order, yes.

Mr. Dawson: So, run me through the parallel. Are you saying that they would choose a placement order in such circumstances if the child had been placed for adoption?

James Paton: That would be one option.

The first thing to say is that the child's legal status changes and that is where we have the join-up between this legislation and the Children Act. If a child is voluntarily accommodated, and the parents then consent to placement for adoption, it ceases to be a section 20 child and becomes a child who is placed with consent under the Adoption and Children Act, as it will be. The removal provisions under the Bill would then apply. The parents would consent to placement for adoption and would give that consent in the prescribed form which clearly explains what it means. That is witnessed by an independent CAFCASS officer, who ensures that they understand what they are consenting to. After that, the agency is authorised to place the child for adoption. From that point on, the parents may revoke their consent to placement. When they do that, the Bill provides that the child must be returned to them. There is a number of time periods depending on whether the child has already been placed for adoption, in which case the adopters must return the child to the agency and the agency returns the child to the parents. In essence, that is the philosophy.

Placement by consent is a voluntary process, apart from when a local authority is authorised to place a child for adoption, the consent is withdrawn, and the authority considers that the child should still be placed for adoption and further considers that the significant harm threshold is likely to be met, in which case the authority is then under an obligation to apply for a placement order if it still thinks that placement for adoption is the correct plan for that child. In the meantime, the Bill provides that the child is not returned to the parents and remains the responsibility of the local authority until the placement order hearing happens and the issue is determined one way or another. Is that okay?

Mr. Dawson: I think so.

James Paton: It is complicated.

Mr. Dawson: What happens if a child is placed under clause 20 and during the course of that placement the parents decide that they would like the child to be adopted?

James Paton: As soon as they have consented under the provisions of the Bill, the legal status of the child comes under the adoption legislation and the various removal provisions in the Bill apply.

Kevin Brennan: To return to the comments of Mr. Tapsfield on the issue of dispensing with consent, we have heard conflicting evidence from various people who have appeared in front of us. Some have agreed with you that there should be some indication of significant betterment of the welfare of the child for consent to be dispensed with. Others have said that that would represent a significant obstacle to the intention of the Bill, which is to prevent some of the blockages that we have seen in the adoption system. That is an area in which there is some difficulty. I understand the point that you are making, which I think is that because of the way in which the Bill is drafted, there might be an impetus, when it is not clear whether it would definitely be in the interests or the welfare of the child, still to press for adoption. I understand that; perhaps we need to think about it and find out how to get round it.

You are the first person who I have heard say that the parents' voice should continue to be heard at the adoption order stage; that is a new proposal. Is there not a danger in that--I am playing devil's advocate for a moment--because it would prolong the pain for the birth parent and perhaps be an invitation to rehearse the arguments that were dispensed with when the placement order was made? Is that not a slightly cruel and unusual punishment, or is there real reason why the birth parent's voice needs to be heard at that stage? What is the essence of your argument?

Robert Tapsfield: There are real reasons and I shall give two of them. It is at the adoption hearing that we would like consideration of whether there is contact or what the arrangements are for the birth parent or other relatives to remain in contact with the child. We think that it is important that the birth parent can be heard about those when they want that. Certainly, there is evidence—and one of the reasons why we would support the placement order--that birth parents, having lost the placement order hearing, can themselves move on and begin to accept that their child will be adopted. It may be that their view about contact has matured since the placement order when they were in contest with the local authority. There are reasons to think that it may be helpful to the process and to them for them to be able to be heard at the adoption order hearing about issues of contact, for example, that they are primarily concerned with.

The Chairman: Is it possible to bring in one or two other witnesses who were listening to that exchange?

Philly Morrall: I wanted to add something to what Robert Tapsfield has been saying about the business of the birth parents and the contact issue. I am quite concerned about an aspect of the Bill—I cannot remember which bit it is—where there seems still to be this problem for adopters that the contact arrangements are set in tablets of stone before adopters even become involved, possibly even before the match. Robert Tapsfield's idea was that the whole issue of contact can be addressed at the adoption order.

I can think of all sorts of other stresses and strains about that time which would make it quite difficult, but the point about that is that the child will have been placed with the adopters for some time at that stage. The adopters will have much more of an idea of why some degree of contact or some means by which they can maintain links with their birth family would be realistic and could be manageable, because they will have lived with it by then. There is, therefore, much more chance that they can make a realistic arrangement between themselves. It might not need a contact order, because they will have had a chance to communicate with each other without too many social workers in between, which makes things a lot easier quite often—[Interruption.] There is a big problem for adopters about being faced with a whole plan about contact when they have absolutely no idea whether it is right or wrong, because they have never had any chance to live it. That aspect of what Robert Tapsfield is saying might have some favour with the adopters.

The Chairman: Can questions be brief, as we have spent some time on the subject?

5.30 pm

Mr. Djanogly: On the contact issue, to what extent should the children be involved at the placement hearing or, indeed, the adoption order hearing?

Robert Tapsfield: That depends on the age of the child.

Mr. Djanogly: What if the child has something to contribute?

Robert Tapsfield: I would hope that, in all decisions about adoption, we are hearing from the child and listening to what they say. I think it is absolutely essential that the voice of the child is heard loudly in decisions about adoption.

Mr. Djanogly: Would that become more important after the child had lived with the adopted parents and, therefore, at the adoption order stage rather than the placement stage?

Robert Tapsfield: It is much better to take decisions about contact when there has been a chance for people to meet—hopefully—and to see how the arrangements work. It is much better to take decisions about contact when, from the adopters' point of view, the likelihood of a decision being overturned on that adoption has diminished so that they are not seriously, significantly worried about the making of an adoption order, but simply looking at what those arrangements are.

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