Examination of Witnesses (Questions 190
TUESDAY 8 MAY 2001
190. Colleagues, could I welcome you to this
session of the Committee, and welcome particularly the first group
of witnesses this morning. I wonder if I could ask each of the
witnesses to briefly introduce themselves, and if one person from
each organisation could perhaps sum up what your organisation
(Ms Morrall) I am Philly Morrall, Director
of Adoption UK. We are a support and information service for adoptive
families before, during and after adoption. We are a network of
(Ms Gilbert) Lynda Gilbert, Adoption UK.
(Ms Wilkins) Helen Wilkins, Adoption UK.
(Ms James) Sue James, the Adoption Forum.
(Ms O'Hanlon) Liv O'Hanlon, Director of the Adoption
Forum. Our organisation really is a pressure group to try and
make sure children get a fair chance of being adopted under a
191. Can I make a confession: with this Bank
Holiday, a number of our members, including the Chairman, have
not had a chance to fully digest the evidence submitted by your
organisations, for which we are very grateful. Mine has been floating
about in the post and arrived in Wakefield this morning. Some
of us have had a brief chance to look at what you have sent, but
none of us have had a chance to study your evidence. It would
be very helpful if I were to begin by asking each of you to briefly
summarise the key points of concern from your points of view in
respect of the Bill as it stands at the present time.
(Ms O'Hanlon) I think ours really is a plea for a
rather more radical approach. We are very, very pleased with a
huge amount of what is actually in the Bill. We like particularly
the whole notion that the child is at the centre of decision-making.
We see that as the most crucial factor. I think where we begin
to start edging away from what is actually in the Bill is that
we can see there are good opportunities for huge initiatives which
simply to our view are not there. One of the things we are disappointed
with a lack ofand I do not know how you legislate for itwe
are surprised that the whole essence of technology is not at the
centre of it. We feel it could make such a huge difference to
the number of children who get a good service. This is not simply
about adoption; this is about a really good, clean, honest and
transparent service for children. I think without that we are
going to find ourselves in a situation which is going to fail
children again. I think that is what scares us most. Going on
from the technology, we do not really see how a system can work
without the technology, but also without a really new approach
to the way children are funded within the system, rather than
how the whole system works now financially. Quite clearly what
happens under the present system is that a lot of the money seems
to go astray and does not go (not deliberately) in the direction
of the child and what is appropriate for that child. A constant
complaint is that there is not enough money for the child; and
yet when you start looking at the end figures for the whole budget
for children it seems so colossal it does not seem logical that,
in the end, you have not got enough money to give a child decent
care. We feel there is a way to re-committing funding which will
be a much more direct method; we can perhaps call it "direct
funding" of children. This has been supported by many people,
and is not exactly an original idea of ours; but it does seem
a much more sensible onethat the money is there in a central
fund, and anybody who wants to do something for that child has
to apply to that central fund for the money. You do not get the
situation then where nothing is done, and nobody takes any notice.
You actually have to apply and have to do something; because if
you do not do something for the child then you are not going to
get any money. That is the essence of it. Sue will be much clearer
about this than I am. We also feel very strongly that a comprehensive
appeal system is vital. As people have said both about the National
Health Service and Prison Service, we feel the appeals process
is something authorities should welcome. Appeals are about seeing
what is wrong with the system and being able to improve it and
actually deliver a good service. If that is what we are truly
interested in when it comes to children, then that is what there
must be there. It is not just about appeals for people who are
going forward to adopt; it is about what happens to children still
in the system and how you serve their best interests. If you do
not have an appeals process, or a process of reviewand
it does not really matter what you call itbut there has
to be a system of independent review for whatever goes on; because
we know that things can so easily slip through the net; and if
there is not a net there at all it is even easier to slip through.
We think all three corners of the adoption triangle should have
a means through which to appeal. We can see this perhaps through
an independent appeals group outside the Department of Health
and outside of local authorities; an independent body which could
also provide the whole system of independent visitors (which I
know several members here are particularly interested in) which
comes as part of the Children Act. We think if they could come
from this independent body they could then act not only as a personal
friend for the child, but a conduit for the child back into a
review system, so you get a circular movement. Also if you tacked
into that a requirement on foster carers and residential worker
carers to report back to that independent body as a perfectly
ordinary part of the system, bi-monthly, quarterly or whatever,
then you would also get another safety net which would help. This
is obviously quite a complicated diagram and I have not dared
draw it, except with lots of arrows and then it looks very complicated;
but I do not think in essence it would necessarily be that complicated.
There are three other things that matter to us very much. Assessments:
the fact is that children at the moment when they go into the
care system are not properly assessed all the time. We feel very
strongly that they should be, because without this essential piece
of information, without a serious multi-disciplinary look at each
child coming in, we are not really going to get anywhere. The
repercussions of not assessing a child properly at the start mean
that way down the line you cannot plan properly for that child.
You cannot begin to know what happens to that child if the child
is adopted, if the child remains in the care system or if, indeed,
the child goes back to their birth family. There is always a slight
inclination for all of us to think that if they go back to their
birth family everything is going to be fine; that will be the
end of that; everything will be hunky-dory and we do not have
to worry about them. Of course, we all know that is not really
true, that those children are likely to have problems still because
they have had these episodes in care. Again, we are talking about
something pretty comprehensive and expensive, but we think it
would be worthwhile right down the line. There must be, too, a
"duty of candour", that you tell the truth about the
people who are in the care system; so that, again, you do not
have repercussions. I think our final point would be taking us
out of domestic adoption into the confused world of inter-country
adoption. There is basically no provision on that, and that is
a great disappointment. If you are not going to provide for people
to do proper inter-country adoption you are going to end up with
what we have been seeing a lot of recently.
192. That is a very helpful summary. Ms Morrall,
would you like to give us a brief summary of your concerns.
(Ms Morrall) We have six key points, but I will focus
on three of them particularlymany are similar to one that
Liv has already mentioned, particularly the business about assessment
of children and I would echo everything she said on that. The
other thing we are very concerned about is the information that
adopters are given. We want to be absolutely sure that they have
a very clear picture of what it is they are being asked to do.
If they are not given that information you are setting them up
to fail. We are very concerned about how birth families are treated
up to the process of adoption and afterwards. We believe if that
is not handled sensitively and carefully in relation to their
consents and the issue of deciding whether their consent is to
be dispensed with or not, if that is not handled sensitively and
dealt with properly you are setting up the whole system for the
children going into adoption again to be very difficult for adoptive
parents. The other issue we are particularly concerned about is
the post-placement and post-adoption support issue. The Bill is
talking about a right for current new adopters to have an assessment.
There is no provision for that assessment to be carried through
necessarily; there is a possibility but it is not necessarily
so. There is no provision for current adopters to have a right
to that assessment. Finally, we are very concerned about resource
implications, and the fact that the explanatory notes actually
say that the Bill is not expected to place a significant financial
burden on local authorities, because we think that is probably
193. Thank you. That is a very helpful and gives
us a basis for our questions. I know a number of you have been
here in previous sessions so you are aware of the kind of issues
we have been looking at. I would like to ask a brief introductory
question. One of the challenges I see every government has had
on all child care legislation is achieving a balance between the
rights of the child and the welfare principle of the child's wellbeing,
and the rights of the child's natural family. Do you feel this
legislation as it stands at present has achieved that balance?
(Ms James) I think the whole system is weighted on
the side of the grown-ups so, no, I do not.
194. When you say "grown-ups" do you
mean the natural family, the State or adoptive parents?
(Ms James) The State really, more. I do not think
a child understands any of this.
195. Which is why you have probably raised the
issue of the appeals mechanism and bringing the child more into
(Ms James) Yes.
196. You are saying that balance has not been
(Ms James) No.
197. And more should be done specifically in
respect of the child?
(Ms James) Yes, which is why we think funding would
bring a power, if you like, to the child and redress an imbalance
that exists. I do not want one more powerful than the other, but
the child has nothing at the moment.
(Ms Gilbert) I do not think we are talking about the
rights either of children or of adults; we are talking about the
needs of children and the welfare of a child. That is where all
the focus should beon the needs of the children. That is
why we feel it is so important for a thorough assessment and balancing
of, not the rights of the birth family, but how the child's needs
can be met within the birth family. If the route forward is adoption
that is a very big question. If the route forward is that work
has to be done, it has to be done very sensitively and very fully
and has to be well resourced and well supported to support meeting
the needs of the child, because that is what has to be at the
centre. In terms of whether the Bill angles that correctly, I
would say, not quite.
198. You are saying, as your colleagues at the
other end of the table say this, more emphasis needs to be put
on the welfare aspect of the child?
(Ms Gilbert) Absolutely.
199. I am just trying to explore how that might
happen. At the moment, as I understand it and I could be wrong,
a social worker that is involved with a family in which the child
may be in the care of the local authority, the social worker will
still be looking after both the child and the family. How would
you see this working if you were going to give a child an independent
advocate, which is what you seem to be sayingthat the child
wants someone to fight for the child within the system? How would
you see that working in practical terms? What implications would
it have for the way children's services are currently organised,
because the local authority discharges that responsibility at
(Ms James) I think the job of a social worker has
changed a bit. I do not think they are able to champion the child
particularly. I think they are very bound up with budgets, their
line manager and meetings. I think an independent visitor would
help, but they need to be given teeth. I am an independent visitor
to a child and I do not think at a review meeting my opinion would
count for very much. What can I say? If they are not fulfilling
their statutory duties I can point it out but they will not like
me very much and probably will not invite me to the next review.
It is not a very positive position for independent visitors at
the moment. They need to be introduced from an independent section.
It is no use having the Social Services producing independent
visitors because, frankly, they do not. Only one-third of children
in care who are eligible for an independent visitor have an independent
visitor. Yet I am with a child who really does not need an independent
visitor. I am sure there are many more in the system who could
use my services better but they do not obviously want people looking
in on cases that are very complicated, or where they have not
actually fulfilled the statutory duty and I am going to find that
Ann Coffey: I appreciate the problems, I am
just wondering what you feel the solution might be. When a child
goes into, for example, the court system, a guardian ad litem
may be appointed by the court which is, in a sense, an independent
point of view. Where does an independent advocate fit into that
process? How would you feel under the present system with the
visitors they do not connect with? What way do you think you should
be given more teeth? How does that fit in with children's planning?
I understand what you are saying but I am trying to see what you
think the way forward is?