Adoption and Children Bill

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The Chairman: Do any other colleagues want to speak on that? Mr. Shaw, you wanted to raise private fostering.

Mr. Shaw: Do the agencies have a view on private fostering? We discussed it at length yesterday with BAFF and local authority representatives. Do witnesses feel that the provisions of the Children Act that require private foster carers to notify the local authority that they are fostering a child are adequate to safeguard children in what are obviously vulnerable situations? Is the law working?

Ann Haigh: The law needs strengthening on that. There should be a register held by local authorities for private foster carers to be regulated and monitored. I understand that BAFF made representations or has written a paper. There ought to be a duty for local authorities to have a designated officer to monitor that. That protects very vulnerable children.

The Chairman: Do the others concur?

Christine Atkinson: Speaking from experience, I worked in a previous organisation as project manager working on a project on private fostering where west African children were involved. That received Department of Health funding. A survey we did revealed that there could be up to 10,000 privately fostered children. The issue was that it was not given priority in local authorities. Children were very often in situ before social services could do anything about it. The penalties for not complying were very small. So, you would have the problem—especially where it was west African children coming over from west Africa—of what the social services department could do when it was very difficult to trace the names and addresses.

On one side, the regulations and legislation requiring private foster parents to register needs to be looked at, but we also need to look at the parents' side. What are we asking the parents to do? Are we asking them to give their name and address and things like where they can be traced and how they can be contacted?

Jacqui Smith: I want to take up the point about the penalty. At the moment, the penalty for failing to give notice is a fine of up to £5,000. What higher penalty would you consider appropriate and why would it work if the present provisions do not?

Christine Atkinson: My experience is from approximately 10 years ago, when we worked on the issue. We had contact with a large number of private foster parents, many of whom the local authority would not approve as their own foster parents because they considered that they did not come up to standard. In conversations we had with some of those private foster parents, they were not aware of the penalties—but, in lots of cases, penalties were not even enforced by the local authorities, who were not aware of these private fostering arrangements. So, it did not come to the issue of the rate of the penalty.

Jacqui Smith: Right. So if authorities were not aware of those arrangements, what is it about setting up a register that will make them aware? Why will that change the situation? You said, and I agree, that it is a problem that we do not know how many privately fostered children there are. However, if there is a duty in law to notify and a penalty for not doing so, why are you arguing not that we should make the current system work, but that we should change it, when there is no certainty that we shall improve it?

Christine Aktinson: The situation over the last 10 years and even longer is that the legislation has not provided adequate protection for many children in private fostering situations. Again, it is about the low priority afforded within social services to this area and social workers feeling very helpless that the children are already in situ. Also, many private foster parents think that they did not receive support when they first approached social services, so why should they bother to continue to keep them up to date with information. I think there needs to be an awful lot done. It is about legislation, but also about raising awareness with private foster parents. It is also about considering whether that arrangement can be valued in some way.

Mr. Shaw: Do you agree that a register would at the very least—there is evidence that it would provide more—provide parents with information on whether the people looking after their child were schedule 1 offenders? We do not even have that at the moment. If there is a requirement for people to register, and that is known, and a parent is looking for a foster carer, they will go to the local authority and get the list. At least then they can weed out potential paedophiles.

7 pm

Christine Atkinson: The register is a step forward, a step in the right direction. Many of the parents live in west Africa. There is a need for public awareness that a register exists, as part of a much wider awareness of the legislation here and of how it can protect children. That is part of what parents coming from west Africa need to know.

Tim Loughton: What is the profile, from your research and experience, of the sort of children who are coming in? We hear a lot about west Africa. Victoria Climbie came from Africa and was fostered—I think—by a very distant relative. In my constituency in Sussex there was a trade in girls from Nigeria and Sierra Leone, who ended up as prostitutes in northern Africa. They came as asylum seekers and were taken into care. Is the problem largely one of people coming to the country from that part of the world? How old are those children, by and large?

Christine Atkinson: We are dealing with different groups. I am very much aware of the situation in Sussex. The children's organisations are involved in a piece of work looking at the trafficking of children.

The private fostering arrangement involved a distant relative, a great aunt, so I am not too sure whether it would be covered by the legislation in this country. In addition, the situation is one involving our legislation, which does not apply in west Africa. That was where the arrangement was first made. Ten years ago—and the practice goes back to the 1930s and 1940s, when west African students came to this country to study—that was the only suitable arrangement. That was a matter of cost and the hours for which they were studying.

Within that, there was also another group; I think that this goes back to colonial days and the way in which the importance of a British education was put across in west Africa—the status that it was given. Some west African families would send their children over here to private schools, and in the holidays they would make a private fostering arrangement.

Besides those families, there is another group—this links up to the Victoria Climbie case—in which children whose parents are in poor circumstances are brought over from west Africa. The parents are told by relatives or other people, ``If your child comes with me, I will ensure that they get a good education.'' Often they are brought to Europe and either involved in prostitution or used as domestic servants. They do not get the education that they have been promised.

Tim Loughton: What should happen when they are found out by social services departments? We know that many departments turn a blind eye simply because the alternative would be to take the children into their care, where there is already enormous pressure. What is the solution? Is it to send the children back to Nigeria or to Sierra Leone, or to provide for them here? In many cases, they will be in great danger in the place where they came from.

Christine Atkinson: This is an enormous problem and needs quite a lot of discussion not just by social services—this discussion needs debate in a much wider forum. It needs to bring in other organisations, not just individual social services but, for example, the international social services and also other Governments. I think it is about public awareness, with parents back in west Africa, to actually point out some of the risks.

We also need to include immigration, in terms of tightening up procedures and actually showing that, once children do come to this country, they are actually given protection—that the pimps are not actually taking them out of residential care, and that there are attempts to try and rehabilitate these children back with their families.

The Chairman: Do any of the other witnesses want to add any comments on the subject?

Liz Garrett: As a social worker of rather more than 20 years' experience, for me as well my experience of private fostering goes back to being a very young social worker in a part of north London where I was discovering pockets of private fostering practice which are quite different and have different histories and social international contexts.

What Christine Atkinson has said makes absolute sense: we do not know enough. We have different populations from different parts of the world. We need to know more, and we need to have a wider discussion about the best way to provide protection and support for those children. The issue of awareness is critical to what social services departments can deliver when they come into contact with those situations—to encourage families involved in that, and people involved in that, to come forward and seek support. So I just concur with everything that has been said.

Mr. Dawson: We have discussed children's consent a lot today, but I would appreciate your views on another aspect of the subject. The Bill states that we should be clear about ascertaining the wishes and feelings of children. Do you think that children of a certain age and understanding should have a right to veto any proposed adoption? Do you believe that such children should be required actively to agree to an adoptive arrangement before it goes ahead? Do you think other aspects of the subject important?

Ann Haigh: Speaking as a children's guardian, I think it is absolutely essential that the children's voice is heard. I would wish that extended when you are looking at special guardianship as well, when you are looking at an older child and the issues round step-parents' acquisition of parental rights and step-parents' adoptions. I think that if you are looking at a child with sufficient age and understanding who is saying, ``I do not want this to happen,'' I cannot imagine that any adoption would be successful. It is very important.

There are ways of getting the child's view to the court that is making the decision, and empowering the child to say that. I think that there are many ways of saying it rather than, ``Do you want an order to be made?'' I think it is about addressing the needs of that particular child in a way that their voice can be heard. It is essential that we all listen most clearly to the voice of the child.

 
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Prepared 21 November 2001