Mr. Brazier: That is clear. My final question is for Mr. Richards. You expressed some strong views in your memorandum on the possibility of extending adoption to unmarried couples. Do you want to say something about that?
Jim Richards: I support the Bill as it stands, in that only married couples or single people should be able to apply for an adoption order. Obviously, I have read the Second Reading debate and I am aware of the discussion around this issue. My feeling is that there is a qualitatively different nature to cohabitation and marriage. That is borne out by figures of higher breakdown of cohabitation as opposed to marriage. The other thing, of course, is the nature of marriage and the need for the state to uphold marriage because we see it as a demonstrable good, and that needs to go forward.
If you turn it round and say that cohabiting couples are going to be allowed to adopt, there will be a whole range of issues that those assessing the cohabiting couple will have to take on board. We have to look on the grim side, if you like. What happens if one of the cohabiting couple dies, or if they split up? There are issues of pensions, legacies, the house, and whether there is a cohabitation contract. I would certainly argue, if we are going to go down that road, that the assessing social workers will have to have a level of intrusion into the financial and other background of the family and obtain the necessary documentary evidence, such that couples may even say that it is easier to get married.
The Chairman: I put it to you, Mr. Richards, that there could be a situation in which the child welfare principle, which Parliament has long accepted, is best served by the adoption of that child by an unmarried couple. Is that not a factor?
Jim Richards: Of course, it is a factor.
The Chairman: You would accept that that could happen, which presumably contradicts your view.
Jim Richards: What we are expecting of adopters is a lifelong, public commitment to that child. Why not therefore expect of adopters themselves a lifelong public commitment to each other, which is marriage? That is the point I am making.
The Chairman: This is quite a contentious area and we have only a few minutes left. I appeal to my colleagues and the witnesses to be brief.
Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): To paraphrase what you said regarding placement orders, is putting marriage at a higher threshold than the child's interest the right thing to do? From what we heard yesterday, it is important to compare like with like. Your figures on the differing levels of break ups between cohabiting and married couples are one thing, but we should look at those who are being assessed for adoption, which is a different situation.
You could be assessing a married couple who might have split up or divorced half a dozen times, and a couple who have been cohabiting for 10, 11, 12 or 13 years. We have heard a lot about quality assessment this morning; the assessment must be based on stability of the relationship. Those, rather than a piece of paper, are the issues for a social worker. Do you not agree?
Jim Richards: Marriage is not a piece of paper; there is a distinct difference. We might possibly look at a married couple coming forward who have had six previous marriages, but I am not sure that we would. In framing legislation, we are sending out a signal. The signal that we are sending out with the Bill as it is, is that we as a country value marriage and see it as important. If we turn it roundas perhaps you are suggesting, I am not sureand allow cohabiting couples to adopt, we are then saying that marriage, as it were, does not matter. We undermine marriage, and by undermining marriage we then make it more likely that many more children will be in rocky situations. What we have to realise is that cohabitation is far less stable than marriage.
The Chairman: We could debate this all day, as you will appreciate.
Ms Munn: I shall be brief and give an example. A child is placed with foster parents who are not married. That placement becomes stable, and adoption is deemed to be in the long-term interest of the child. The adoption is by both parents in order to ensure a legal relationship to both parents. Under current practice, one parent would adopt the child and the other would seek parental responsibility. At the moment, people effectively go round the law to achieve the desired outcome for the child. Would it not be more honest to allow people a proper legal route?
Marion Hundleby: Our views are somewhat at variance with Mr. Richards on this. We have been considering the child's best interests first and taking into account the many and varied patterns that do not, of themselves, preclude people from adopting. We try to look at it holistically and put the child's interest first.
The Chairman: It is interesting to hear the differences.
Margaret Dight: May I briefly provide some information for the panel? Several Catholic children's societies in the country are completely autonomous. They have their own ethos and work according to the same policy and procedures suggested by their own philosophy. I support my colleague's comments in so far as the Catholic Children's Society in Nottingham currently has a policy of working with married applications, but that is currently under review in order to establish that we are promoting the best interests of children, rather than protecting and promoting the institution of marriage.
The Chairman: That is helpful. Hilton, do you wish to intervene?
Mr. Dawson: No, I am happy. I rest my case.
Naomi Angell: One small point is that looking at the matter from the point of view of the child's interest happens at the moment, and frequently. If one is looking for permanence, the child's relationship with one of those parents will last for ever, whereas the relationship with the other resident parent will end at 18. It seems that it is the children's right to have equality of legal status with both people who are bringing them up.
The Chairman: Are there are further points from my colleagues? If not, I thank the witnesses for a most helpful session. We are grateful to you all. Thank you very much.
The witnesses withdrew.
Memorandum from Professor John Triseliotis
I am writing as someone who has been looking forward to a new Adoption Act for a number of years now. As a result I welcome many of the recommendations featuring in the Bill which is now before the Committee. However, I have been both surprised and dismayed at clauses 53-62 and 76 which essentially will deprive eventually adopted people of the existing right to have access to their birth records and other relevant information. Not only these clauses have appeared out of the blue without prior consultation but their basis is unknown to me and to many other people I talked to.
I have an interest in the matter because I carried out on behalf of the Houghton Committee the original study which led to the opening of the records in England and Wales. Scotland provided for this since 1930. Before I give provisional findings from a current study relevant to the debate, it would be helpful, to summarise how Section 51 Adoption Act 1976, (previously Section 26 Children Act 1975), has come about.
SECTION 26 OF THE CHILDREN ACT 1975
Because of many representations made by Adoption Agencies and adopted people, one of the tasks the Houghton Committee set up for itself was to find out more about the subject of access to birth records and whether adopted people in England and Wales should have a right of access similar to that in Scotland. To this effect the Committee commissioned me to carry out research to evaluate the use made in Scotland of access to birth records.
The study In Search of Origins (Routledge, 1973) was made available to the Committee and among other things not only it highlighted the negative impact on adopted people of secrecy, but also made direct links between the impact of secrecy on the adopted person 's identity, feelings of self worth and overall mental health. Many of those searching had not been told about their adoption by their parents but found out accidentally or from outside sources. Sometimes disclosure had been delayed till adult life which was experienced as most traumatic in some cases leading to an identity crisis for the adopted person. Even where the adopters disclosed the adoption early-on, they had not been given background information to pass on to the child or the information was either not collected by Adoption Agencies or locked up in files. Unlike adopted people in Scotland who could pursue a search, adopted people in England would speak of their ``frustration'', ``anger'' and ``sense of desolation'' at being denied fundamental information crucial to their well-being.
The study In Search of Origins reported also how important it was to many adopted people to meet with members of their birth family to establish more directly their roots and genealogy and find out why their parent(s)parted with them and more indirectly learn whether they were wanted and loved before being 'given' up. Besides the publication of the study members of the Houghton Committee were also shown a video film based on the research which appeared to be equally influential in changing members' attitudes in favour of greater openness. The final Houghton report which was published in 1972 commented that the kind of information sought by adopted people
``helps the proper development of a sense of identity''
and urged that
``adopters be provided with relevant background information''
Later on, the report added:
(para 28, p. 8).
``The weight of the evidence as a whole was in favour of free access to background information, and this accords with our wish to encourage greater openness about adoption. We take the view that on reaching the age of majority an adopted person should not be denied access to his original birth records.''
In the ensuing years Section 26 was to be replicated in many other countries around the World.
(para 303, p. 85).
The requirement for counselling which was inserted in the Children Act 1975 was meant to calm the anxieties of sections of the press and of some MPs who viewed access as the equivalent to opening a Pandora's box. They were suggesting that this step would lead to ``vindictiveness'' and ``blackmail'' on the part of adopted people towards birth parents. Neither my original study, nor subsequent ones, found evidence of ``vindictiveness'' or of the use of ``blackmail'' in this or other countries. (Haimes and Timms, 1985; Howe and Feast, 2000). Had there been evidence of abuse of the facility over this period the press would have been quick to spot it. Instead, both the press and the TV channels with their documentaries and fictional plays have been highlighting the pleasure, joy and happiness that access to records could bring to adopted people and birth family members alike.
I am not saying that cases of vindictiveness may not surface. However, this is not a valid argument for depriving the vast majority of adopted people of a facility which has brought so much comfort, pleasure, and contentment to some 400,000 of them so far.
PROVISIONAL FINDINGS FROM OUR CURRENT STUDY
Studies across many countries and continents were also to show that parting with a child for adoption involves feelings of loss, grief, anger and guilt which for many birth parents cannot be wished away. The stressful nature of the event often gives rise also to physical and mental illness. Many of these birth mothers came to feel responsible for giving away their child, even if at the time they had almost no other choice. As a result they saw themselves as ``unworthy'' and had a very low opinion of themselves and a poor self-image. For some their sense of loss, far from diminishing with time, seemed to intensify and was particularly high at certain of the child 's milestones such as birthdays or starting school. (See Winkler & Keppel 1984; Bouchier, Lambert and Triseliotis 1991; Howe, Sawbridge and Hinings, 1992; and Hughes and Logan 1993; Wells, 1993). A summary of various studies on the subject concluded that:
Many of the mothers interviewed by the above studies wanted to establish contact with their sons or daughters from whom they had parted many years ago and viewed this as the only sway forward that would bring them some peace.
RELEVANT CURRENT RESEARCH EVIDENCE
No research known to me has studied the perspectives and reactions of birth mothers who had been sought by their sons or daughters or who had themselves sought their sons or daughters. We are currently carrying out such a study with my research colleagues Feast, J. and Kyle, F at the Children's Society. Our research is much wider than the issues debated here, but because of the urgency of the matter we outline below some provisional findings from answers to relevant questions. For obvious reasons we concentrate here on mothers who were sought out. Birth Mothers Who Were Sought Out by Their Sons or Daughters An analysis of the first 50 or so of those birth mothers who were sought out shows the following:
Table 1: Were you aware that the law changed in 1975 giving adopted people the right for information from their birth records?
Frequency per cent
Table 2: If you were aware how did you feel about this?
Frequency per cent
Table 3: What was your initial reaction when you heard that your birth son/daughter wanted to have contact with you?
Frequency per cent
Table 4: Do you feel the contact experience has been a positive one for you?
Frequency per cent
Acknowledgements to Julia Feat and Fiona Kyle for the following information.
Table 5: Looking back, how pleased are you that your son/daughter sought you out?
Frequency per cent
What the above analysis tells us is that 94 per cent of the birth mothers who were sought by their sons or daughters had a very positive or positive experience and a similar proportion were very pleased or pleased that their son or daughter sought them out. A reminder that in the study (Howe, D. and Feast, J., Adoption, Search and Reunion, London: Children 's Society, 2000), 72 per cent of adopted people sought by their birth relatives were positive about the contact and its aftermath. The rest had found it ``emotionally upsetting and negative'' (p. 142). Birth mothers who were sought in this study have been infinitely more positive than adopted people. Even amongst many of those birth mothers who initially expressed some concerns, such as worry or anxiety (see Table 2 above), they were now pleased for having being sought. Some comments indicating their earlier anxieties included:
We have an abundance of quotes from the 94 per cent of birth mothers who expressed satisfaction and pleasure at being sought and the following are only a tiny sample:
``I was absolutely over the moon when I learned that she wanted to make contact with me. I 'd been hoping she would, right from when she was young.''
``surprised, shocked and delighted.''
``I had waited 30 years for this moment, fearing I would die before ever seeing her again.''
``A feeling of overwhelming happiness at finding each other.''
In final conclusion to all accounts Section 51 of the Adoption Act 1976 has been shown to have worked very well indeed. There have been no reports that the facility has been abused. Apart from having proved so invaluable to adopted people in terms of their genealogy and identity, on the basis of our provisional findings outlined earlier, it appears also to have had an even more positive impact on almost all the birth mothers who were sought by their sons or daughters. Contact greatly helped to alleviate their anxieties about the child 's well-being, lessened the element of loss and guilt associated with the parting decision and brought about piece of mind and improved mental health to many.
``I am no longer sad and worried about his well-being.''
``Mainly as reassurance that she did have a happy childhood and that I made the right decision.''
``It eased the feelings of loss and in our case to find she had a happy home life.''
It is unlikely that a 100 per cent agreement can be reached in human relationships. The 94 per cent found in our current study, which was based on a 76 per cent return, should be accepted as very high and convincing. If there have been representations by some birth mothers to the Committee against Section 51, these cannot reflect the views of the vast majority of birth mothers. The best that can be said for them is that they should be able to place a veto not on information but simply on face to face contact. Because preferences are not usually static they should also be able to change their mind. The suggested changes in the Adoption Bill would, in my view, bring about untold misery to those adopted after the enactment of this piece of legislation. If the changes are based on anecdotal type evidence it is more regrettable. If the proposed legislation goes forward it will be a retrograde step. On the basis of the evidence produced from our current study I would urge the Committee to leave things as they are.
If anything I have been urging for years now that birth parents should have an equivalent right. When the adoption review first began, over a decade ago now, it was expected that future legislation would stipulate for adoption agencies to have a duty to provide intermediary services for birth mothers. It is disappointing that this has not been prescribed in the Bill. If it is the government 's intention to overhaul and modernise adoption then there needs to be a clause which ensures that this important opportunity is provided.
Examination of Witnesses
Professor John Triseliotis and Professor Sonia Jackson, called in and examined.