Adoption and Children Bill

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Ms Munn: I am a little concerned about the idea that contact arrangements might be finalised only at the adoption hearing. Adopters might feel unable to go ahead if they did not know what the expectations on them were. I have much sympathy with what Ms Morrall said about not necessarily setting out a clear plan right at the start. I have recently studied adoption, and my experience was that it was more helpful to give general indications about the type of contact that would benefit a child rather than to say that this, this and this must happen, because circumstances change over time. There might be problems at the adoption hearing if the birth parents believed that they could have more contact than the adopters were willing to accept.

Robert Tapsfield: A key issue about contact—and what we know about contact—is that the child's need for it is likely to vary over time. One of the difficulties we have is how one makes arrangements when a child is very young that may be appropriate as they grow older. We want to find ways where at all possible—this goes back to the very beginning about how the parties are supported—to provide help for the channels to be open between adopters and members of the birth family. That is not just birth parents; it is often grandparents. We hear regularly from grandparents who are mystified why they are stopped from seeing their grandchildren when they are adopted and who, from our contacts, it seems could offer nothing but helpful support, but who are routinely stopped. So, we think that it is essential that the court has an opportunity to look fully at what those arrangements are—accepting that you have to build in flexibility and that, in the end, you have to work with what people will work with, but provide encouragement and support for openness along the way.

Mr. Brazier: Does Pauline Dancyger have a view on whether the new arrangements for placement orders in the Bill are an improvement on those in the Children Act? Would she, like some of the other speakers, prefer us to stay with the approach in the Act?

Pauline Dancyger: I have to acknowledge that I have not studied that part of the Bill, but from the discussions that I have heard this afternoon, I think I agree with my colleague, Robert Tapsfield—with some provisos.

Mr. Brazier: What sort of provisos?

Pauline Dancyger: I was struggling with the question of contact arrangements. I was considering that there would need to be, obviously, some skeleton arrangements and agreements regarding contact prior to placement. I feel very strongly indeed that the question of finalising arrangements for contact cannot take place at the adoption hearing. The experience that the family, the child and, indeed, the birth family will have had must come into it at that final hearing, but we cannot leave it to that hearing to make those arrangements.

Pam Hodgkins: I am rather concerned about the idea of anyone thinking that you can finalise contact arrangements, because the whole point is that contact is something that evolves beyond childhood into adulthood. It is about the adopters that we recruit. It seems, on a number of points this afternoon, as though there is a competition going on, or that there are sides and that if one side gains, another side loses. Somehow, the child is generally caught up in the middle.

What we need to work very skilfully towards is a win-win situation, where people acknowledge the role that different parties are playing in family life. Inevitably, a birth family and an adopted family are also joined—they are connected for life through that adoption process. Those people need help and support to co-operate to achieve what is best for the child at particular points in time, and that will vary considerably: the needs of a two-year-old will be very different from those of a 12-year-old and different again from those of a 22-year-old.

The Chairman: We have had a useful discussion, and it has been helpful to hear what people have said. Can we look now at the issue of unmarried couples and adoption?

Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): Most of the witnesses have had a say on this matter. I have a question for them, and the easiest approach might be to start with Mr. Tapsfield and then move to the witness on his right. Mr. Tapsfield, do you think that unmarried couples should be able to adopt jointly? If not, why not?

Robert Tapsfield: Very simply, we think adoption needs to be a service for the child and that children can and do grow up with married and unmarried couples. Adoption law needs to reflect that.

Pauline Dancyger: I must say I struggle a little with this question. My view is that it is an added dimension for adopted children to have to consider that they are not part of a conventional family—that is, a married couple. My experience thus far is that children desperately want to be like their friends along the road, where they have a mum and a dad.

The Chairman: As a parent, I can say that you might be a little out of date in respect of what goes on in current families. Large numbers of my children's friends do not have a mum and a dad at home. Things have changed somewhat, sad as that may be.

Pauline Dancyger: Yes, I know they have, but none the less—

Mr. Shaw: Can you envisage a set of circumstances in which a child was in a foster home that everyone agreed was to be their permanent home, and in which the foster parents said that they had been together 10 years and would not get married but would adopt the child? Would you say yes in that situation?

Pauline Dancyger: Yes; indeed, I have been in that position.

Mr. Shaw: So you do not set your face against that and say, ``No, never.''

Pauline Dancyger: Not at all.

Mr. Shaw: You might say that marriage is preferable, but in certain circumstances you could envisage a situation such as that I outlined being in the best interests of the child.

Pauline Dancyger: Yes.

Philly Morrall: I think that the needs of the child are what come first, not the status of the adults. I notice in the Bill that special guardians can apply to be special guardians if they are not married, and both be equal special guardians. The problem for the child is not so much that they cannot say they have a mum and dad, but they cannot say they have a mum and a whatever-it-is because only one of those two people will have been able to adopt them. If you have been able to place that child with those two people and you have assessed them equally as being suitable, then I think it is a bit of a funny message to be giving to the child that actually only one of them is suitable to adopt you.

Mr. Shaw: You might agree that permanence would be better for the child. They might have to say to their friends, ``No, my parents aren't married'', but better that than, ``I'm moving again next week.''

Philly Morrall: Yes; sure.

Pam Hodgkins: Exactly as my colleague has said—if the placement is the right placement for the child, and that is where you place them, then they are the people who should be able to adopt them, whether they are married as husband and a wife, a couple living together of the same sex or a couple of the opposite sex. If that is the placement of choice, then the child's right is to have the same legal relationship to both parent figures.

Sue Gourvish: I agree with Pam Hodgkins. The parallel with foster care has been drawn. Unmarried foster carers bring up foster children over many years perfectly successfully. There are many examples of that to point to—and indeed some small-scale research which points to—the success of those arrangements.

Mr. Brazier: I should like to ask about a wider issue. In studying statistics, I noticed how difficult it is to find anyone in this country willing to collect data on favourable and unfavourable outcomes based on whether parents were married, although there have been plenty of such studies in America. From your experience, what proportion of children in care do you think come from married and unmarried families? I am told that the Government do not have such statistics. Is a child more or less likely to be in care in this country if the parents are married or unmarried? Does it make any difference?

Pam Hodgkins: I cannot answer that question. I perhaps can throw light on the matter with the fact that, over the past 50 years, the number of people who were adopted by a married couple who divorced or separated during the childhood of that child is quite enormous. When assessment procedures were not as they are today, very often you had a situation where a wife wanted to adopt and a husband went along with it until a better idea came along. The number of adult adopted people who, effectively, grew up in single-parent families is quite remarkably high. I do not think you can assume that a married couple is a guarantee of stability throughout childhood.

Mr. Brazier: Do any of you have a feel for the statistics in this country? I have seen a 1988 study by the Department of Health and Human Services in the United States that showed not children in care but those in juvenile prisons. It suggested that those from the poorest decile of the community whose parents were married were less likely to be in a juvenile prison than those in the richest decile whose parents were unmarried. It is curious that we do not seem willing to produce statistics. Does anyone think that it would be worth undertaking statistical studies on that subject?

Pam Hodgkins: Only if you are going to decide you are not going to place children in those situations. Very often they are the placement of choice. If it is a placement of choice, then both should adopt. If it is not a placement of choice, you should not place the child there in the first place.

The Chairman: We have covered most of the key areas that we wanted to consider. Mr. Shaw wants to touch on special guardianship before we conclude.

5.45 pm

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