Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240
TUESDAY 8 MAY 2001
240. Can I put it to you though, wearing another
hat, you may know the Health Committee did an inquiry into British
child migrants who were sent through the care system all over
the world and a number of the issues you have raised parallel
that inquiry. One of the worries I have about how we can in practical
terms address what I think are perfectly reasonable points you
have made is that so often people in the past were adopted through
voluntary organisations whose practices were very different from
what they are now. Do you think it is practical to assume we can
in law cover all the practices which took place 20 or 30 years
ago within the voluntary organisations which were handling the
(Ms Hodgkins) I think it is absolutely vital you do
241. But how? We need to be specific here. How
will this Bill be amended?
(Ms Hodgkins) In our evidence we have given you two
proposals. The one which is our preference is for a clause which
would provide for birth relatives of adopted people to be entitled
to the information within a framework in the same way that adopted
people are entitled to information within a clearly defined framework.
We have suggested a number of options within that proposal which
could be called safeguards and a range of ways in which you could
implement them but fundamentally the right will be there. If you
felt unable to take that step, then we would suggest at the very
least the guidance which was issued last October by the Department
of Health called Intermediary Services for Birth Relatives:
Practice Guidance must be given a statutory basis because
at the moment it is just guidance, simply that. To the best of
my knowledge there is only one local authority which has changed
its approach to birth relatives' requests for services as a result
of receiving that guidance. Those that were minded to do so felt
empowered by it, those who were minded not to, focus on the fact
they do not have to.
242. Can I just disentangle things so I can
be clear about what you are asking for? I think everyone recognises
in the past there were not perhaps the support services for the
parents of children who subsequently went on to be adopted, and
that is one issue. Clearly you are saying instead of this being
provided to new people it also should be provided to existing
families who have given their children up for adoption. What I
am not so clear about is what you want to build into the Bill
in terms of information and I wondered if you could tell me what
(Ms Hodgkins) We would welcome information that matched
the best professional practice which exists today being common
across the adoption services throughout the UK. For example, adoptive
adults in Scotland are entitled to read the court process, this
means they can go to the court office and they can read everything
which is in their adoption file. The proposal in the Bill is that
certain documents will be specified. We do not know within the
regulations whether the intention is that it would be all the
documents or perhaps a very few of them, so we are looking for
access to the best practice that is available now. Similarly,
for information held by adoption agencies. You have, if you like,
potential for conflict with the Data Protection Act which is actually
mentioned in the Bill but there are ways of dealing with this,
and a particular schedule could be drawn up in relation to information
in the adoption files. The point we would want to make is that
people growing up surrounded by their birth relatives actually
take completely for granted information which, if it was written
down on paper, could be designated third party information. As
a person within a family you know your parents' names, you know
your brothers' and sisters' names, you know your parents' birth
dates, you know what their health has been like. If you are an
adopted person and you are seeking to access that information
from a file, it is third party information. Up until now social
workers undertaking birth records counselling have used their
discretion about the information they can share, they have used
professional judgment. If we are expecting them to do a professional
job they should make a professional judgment, but the important
thing to know is if you have information which you decide to either
share or to withhold from people, what that person then does is
to make a judgment about what they do next. I think the person
who has the information has to realise they must accept responsibility
for what they share, on the one hand, because that may well influence
what the person then chooses to do, but they also need to accept
responsibility for what they choose to withhold, on the other,
because that too will influence the decision the person makes.
243. I understand that. Obviously that is an
issue, what information is there for people who may at a later
stage wish to trace their own families. I may be wrong but the
impression I get, particularly from the letters which have come
in, is that you are looking for us to do something which makes
it in retrospect easier for those families who were adopted under
very different circumstances 20 years ago to now get information.
(Ms Hodgkins) Absolutely. Access to birth records
was retrospective. It was perceived as something which was going
to be problematic. The problems did not arise.
244. But who would you wish it retrospectively
for? Both for adults who wish to find their original families
and for the families who may have given up children for adoption?
(Ms Hodgkins) Absolutely.
(Ms Ward) That is something which happens in a number
of other countries, with as few or as many difficulties for the
parties concerned as happens regarding the right for adopted people
in this country to seek out their birth relatives. A number of
countries actually made that legislation retrospective and they
did it for both parties at the same time, so birth relatives at
the same time as adopted adults had the right to access information
so they, through a third partywe would advise through an
intermediary third party with a framework of counsellingcan
start the ball rolling to learn something about the adult son
or daughter who they lost through adoption many years before.
It is said in the paper, many years on to look back on a time
in your life when you were given no choice whatsoever whether
or not you could keep your baby and you thought you would never,
ever have a chance to know whether that child was alive or dead,
is actually a very painful lifetime experience and one that people
do not recover from.
245. Would you see those as being equal rights,
both for the person who was adopted to look for their natural
parent if they so wishand I understand still the minority
of people do that kind of searchand for those parents who
gave their children up to adoption?
(Ms Ward) Our philosophy is for equal rights but we
recognise that we have to be pragmatic, and circumstances may
in some ways make that not quite as easy as ideally we would like
it to be. We have made suggestions about how that might be done
within a limited framework if it was felt that wholesale, open,
equal access was not considered acceptable. But we do feel that
what is happening at the moment is a great discrepancy between
what one agency will do and what another agency will do. It is
very difficult for two birth relatives who may meet in a support
group setting if one hears that their agency was willing to seek
out the adopted family of their adopted son or daughter and as
a result they now have information and may even have a reunion,
and the other one, sitting next to them, has been told categorically,
"No, we will not do that for you and there is no way you
can do it for yourself." That discrepancy has to be addressed.
246. We heard earlier, and we all agree, about
the importance of prospective adopters having every single piece
of information about the child, the birth family, et cetera, and
we want to see more children being adopted. Do you think if there
is more information and more chance for prospective adopters feeling
the birth family, who may be a dangerous family, tracing them,
that will put people off coming forward to adopt children?
(Ms Ward) I think the guidelines we have suggested
cover these eventualities. We are not talking about children,
we are not talking about children who are damaged and who for
many reasons do need protection from their family and the law,
we are talking about adults. The majority of adults who are adopted
are adults who were adopted at a time when they did not go through
the care procedures, they were adopted as babies, and they are
the bulk of adopted people today, they are not the minority, they
are the majority, and we are talking about thousands and thousands
of middle-aged and elderly people possibly getting the right to
have some information about the adult they placed for adoption
in a very different social climate today. We all recognise the
protection young children today need who have been placed in the
care system because of damage, and we are not talking about that
scenario, we are talking about the adults in adoption.
(Ms Hodgkins) If you were to use the mechanisms we
have suggested, because you would be providing a structured, a
staged structure, through which contact could be initiated with
adopted adults, the need and the circulation of information about
the means of tracing using unauthorised methods would actually
diminish considerably. Therefore the children who are being placed
at the present time would actually be safer as a consequence,
and the steps which may be needed to be taken to protect children
would not gain the opposition they might gain from organisations
like ourselves when they are also impacting on adults. We too
want children to be safe, what we are saying is that when children
are adults you need to look at the situation in a far more balanced
247. I think it is actually a very difficult
issue because there may be out there a very large group of people
who we have not heard from who would be very alarmed to feel the
decisions they had made 20 years ago and the choices they made
might now become subject to a change of law. Obviously that is
a group of people we have not heard from and making legislation
retrospective is very difficult, whatever the nature of the times.
There was an understanding about how the contract was drawn up
and I feel a little uneasy about it, partly from personal experience
and partly from another situation I have been involved in, that
there might be groups of people out there who might not wish this
to happen because they might not wish to be contacted, they might
wish to be left as they are. To some extent that has to be balanced
against the group of people you represent who want those changes
to be made.
(Ms Ward) That was said in 1976.
(Ms Tanner) In 1976 the same thing was said. There
were probably groups of birth relatives in 1976 who were fearful
and did not want to be contacted but the adopted adult had the
right to information and then to make a choice. We are asking
for the same thing.
(Ms Hodgkins) There is recent research by the Children's
Society, a very large study, and the outcome, both in cases where
it was the adopted person who initiated the renewed contact and
also in those cases where the Children's Society initiated the
contact at the request of the birth relative, was that in well
over 75 per cent of cases the adopted people who had made no enquiries
themselves at all, the non-searchers of their study, said they
had no doubt whatsoever the Children's Society was right to make
the approach to them, and they had the right to make the choice
and be aware that the birth relative was enquiring about them.
In terms of actual outcome, there was very, very little difference
between those cases where the adopted person initiated the first
move and those cases in which the birth relative did.
248. Can I turn to Ms Webster and the issue
of foundlings and your own personal circumstances? How do you
see legislation being able to help somebody who is in your situation
where, presumably, nobody knows who your parents were?
(Ms Webster) Exactly. The problem is with the legislation,
and it is the 1861 Act which surely in the 21st century needs
249. That legislation still applies?
(Ms Webster) It is section 27, the abandonment of
250. It still applies?
(Ms Webster) That is my understanding. There seems
to be no process across-the-board for the police and what they
do, how they decide to act, because unfortunately that Act covers
the whole range of what you call abandonment, not necessarily
just foundling children who are not reclaimed. The police in each
area act on their own processes, do what they feel fit, and there
is no statutory procedures for them to follow. The same goes for
social workers. I have had social workers ringing me up saying,
"What do you think we should be doing for this baby?"
To me that is woeful. It is not necessarily the right thing to
do. I can speak for my circumstances and other people I know but
there should be statutory processes to deal with these issues,
perhaps by a central body. I do not know how it would work in
legislation but it does seem to me there should be some provision
now. As an adult surely it is my human right to be able to find
out who I am, where I came from, my medical background, my genetic
background. In the 21st century we have everything now for these
things to come more on boardDNA testing for instance. We
are not able to register on the National Contact Register, for
instance, because we have to provide information of who we are.
My birth relatives need to know who we are. If we were purely
talking about a birth mother who left their child, it might be
you may feel it is not appropriate for somebody who left their
baby in dubious circumstances, but I and others like me may have
brothers and sisters out there who are part of my genetic heritage
and I would strongly ask that you consider ways forward for us.
NORCAP will take registration from adult foundlings. We have not
as yet been able to link anybody, although we have had one or
two dubious phone calls when there has been something in the press,
and people ring up saying, "What do you do for somebody who
has been abandoned?" It seems to me morally wrong that people
like myself need to use the press and the media to emphasise publicly
our personal situation, talk about personal things which are very
deep-rooted in order to gain perhaps that person out there who
might look like us, who may be our family. That to me is morally
251. You are concerned with looking at the practical
aspects of the situation where a child is abandoned and how that
might be proved from the word go, but also the situation of someone
like yourself being in a position to make it known you would like
to find out who your blood relatives are relatives or vice versa.
They should be able to come forward without fear of prosecution.
At the moment, my understanding is because they left a baby under
two they could be prosecuted, that is nonsense. What public interest
would there be to prosecute if my mother was 70 and she had left
a baby. It is absolute nonsense. The other side of the coin is
the distress. It causes me distress to think that somebody could
have left me and that they themselves might have been distressed.
It is the same for other families, we have heard the distress
of birth relatives of birth mothers of today who have children
who knowingly gave them up, even though they may have not given
their consent. For people in my circumstances we have nothing.
252. Does the 1861 Act make it a criminal offence
still? Technically that would apply.
(Ms Webster) Technically that would apply, but who
would want to prosecute. It may be that I might be so angry if
my mother came forward, I might think you should be prosecuted,
it would be a private matter. I do not think most of us think
like that. The majority of us were left to be found. Today the
majority of children are left to be found, left in safe circumstances
and, surely, you know, there should be some provision to support
anybody who did come forward.
253. In your own circumstances are you in a
position if you went on a register to actually give enough information
that would identify you from what you know from your circumstances?
(Ms Webster) Yes, because what I have been able to
glean, and I say "glean" from the information I have
been able to get, which is quite limited, because records were
not kept properly, which again harks back to records being kept
today. I know where I was left, I know approximately what time
I was found. I do say to people who contact me, "Try and
keep back one small thing about yourself, however small".
It might be what you were dressed in, because that birth relative
who left you might remember they left you in that blue cotton
dress that had been handed down through the generations. I believe
that links could be made.
254. On that last point, what I was going to
ask you is, surely one thing we ought to do is seek to amend whatever
guidance is currently available to those agencies that might well
be able to discover the family. You said yourself that that would
be, perhaps, the police, probably the police and a social worker
should be involved. The crucial thing in talking to you and other
families is that it is vital in those very first minutes of the
discovery that accurate observations are taken. That is an absolutely
(Ms Webster) Absolutely.
255. I am sure we will do what we can to make
sure because that becomes really very important. An example was
given through your organisation to us of a gentlemen called Victor
Banks who does not know what day is his birthday and does not
know what day he was found, except he was found in December. That
is very hard, is it not?
(Ms Webster) He does not now where he was found, I
do not think, whereas I know who I was found by. I have to say,
in my records it has one name and on my original registration
I have another. I was given conflicting advice from that. There
is nothing that seems to be standard. I do not know what happens
so much today, I hope more care is taken but it is very easy with
a slip of the pen. Anything is vital. I do not know my birthday.
I do not know what star sign I am. I do not know anything. I am
the person I am today because of my adoption, I have been through
the adoption process, but I know nothing. That is now quite difficult
for my children and their genetic heritage.
256. Any points you want to add before we conclude
(Ms Hodgkins) The only thing we want to add is that
you have asked other people about whether you have the balance
right in this proposed Bill. We do not think the balance is right.
We think that the issue of human rights, the fact that adoption
is for life as opposed to special guardianship, which can be terminated,
is a reason for you to look again at the question of dispensation
with consent and the fact that chance welfare is really not a
257. How do you mean it is not sufficient?
(Ms Hodgkins) We think it does infringe
human rights. There was an article in The Guardian about
10 days ago by Alan Levy actually questioning whether this was
a step too far and NORCAP would endorse that it is a step too
far as it is written. We would very much support the dispensation
with consent test that was in the report from 1994, "The
consent of the birth parent may be dispensed with only if the
advantage to the child of being adopted is so significantly greater
than any other option as to justify dispensing with the parents'
Chairman: Can I thank you for the very helpful
session. We are most grateful to you. Thank you.