Select Committee on Adoption and Children Bill Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100 - 119)



  100. That is not what you said.
  (Ms Collier) With respect, we are saying that the decision about how you achieve a permanent and secure family life for a child should be taken within months of the child starting to be looked after. Where it is a return, which for most children it is entirely appropriate it refers to their birth family, resourcing of support services needs to be in place. However, for children for whom that is not judged to be realistic then an early decision about adoption is clearly in the child's best interests because we know that delay and moves have a fairly deleterious effect on the child's ability to adjust within new families. We are talking about the quality of the test, not about the delay.


  101. Can I slightly shift the emphasis on the welfare issue to the unmarried couples question? Presumably you are arguing—and I know my colleagues want to explore this—that there is a conflict between the Bill not allowing unmarried couples to adopt and the issue of the welfare of the child. You see that as completely contradictory and you have given evidence where a child may be placed with foster parents who are unmarried and they would be debarred from adopting, which would be a decision that was not in the interests of the child. Can you see a way for the Government to get out? How could that be changed, bearing in mind the Government has signed up to the international convention which, as I understand it, clearly underlines the need for partners to be married in the adopting process? How do you see a way forward in this, because I certainly take account of the contradiction here that you have raised?
  (Ms Collier) We must remember that we signed up to that European Convention in 1967, the peak time of babies being adopted because their unmarried mothers felt the degree of social stigma was so great and the child would be, therefore, adopted by a married couple. I do think it is right and proper in this country that we review the sort of commitment that we made in 1967 in the light of current social practice and what we know. We recognise that many people who actually enquire about adoption are living in stable partnerships but are not married. The first issue is that we know this deters some people from going ahead because they do not want to differentiate between two adult relationships to a child. However, from the point of view of the child, it is illogical to have a child who is living with a single adopter with an adult partner, which is perfectly legal and, in many circumstances, the partner of that single adopter will apply for a residence order. How do you tell a child that there are different levels of importance attached these two: one is their legal parent but one is not? That does not seem to us to be logical. So we therefore think that we need to review, however difficult that may be, our signature to that particular convention. We think it should be possible, as it is for special guardianship orders; there is a clear anomaly here where it is proposed that two adults living together can both apply for a special guardianship order but not in relation to the commitment of adoption.

  102. Do you think there are wider political issues as background to the Government not moving on this than simply this convention?
  (Ms Collier) Yes, I understand and recognise the commitment of the Government and, indeed, the cross-party commitment to the importance of marriage to secure family life, but the reality is that there is a very different position in society at large where we are told that approximately 40 per cent of children are being born out of wedlock. We do not think it is helpful to use the importance the Government may wish to attach to statements about marriage in this particular issue of adoption. Adoption is too important for using it as an example of what is a perfect family. The family values argument is important but it is for another place. This is about achieving lifelong security and permanence for our most vulnerable and disadvantaged children.

  103. This is going to broaden out into the issue of heterosexual versus gay fostering. Caroline is possibly going to raise it, but clearly the assumption here is that we are talking entirely about heterosexual couples.
  (Ms Collier) I think the minister has said that the Government has no objection to gay and lesbian people who are appropriately assessed as suitable in adopting as single people. If two people are living in a committed and stable relationship and wish to make a joint commitment to a child, then I believe an obvious sequitur of having unmarried couples in stable, committed relationships is that since there is no bar for people in gay and lesbian relationships adopting a child that they, too, would have the option to apply jointly to adopt and make a lifelong commitment to a child. If that particular placement is in the best interests of the children, then we would support that.

  104. It is fair to say that currently there are a number of same-sex foster couples with children on a long-term basis.
  (Ms Collier) Yes.

  105. Before I broaden this out, are you aware of any pressure to change that convention from the Government?
  (Ms Cullen) I have not been able to do research about which other countries actually have signed up, but I have information from the Netherlands. Maybe they have not signed up to that convention anyway, but they have recently passed legislation specifically allowing adoption by same-sex couples. So, presumably, they have not signed up to it. Certainly, in France, where they are considering formal agreements between unmarried partners, it would seem logical that in due course they would allow adoptions by unmarried partners as well. I do not know the legal position.

Caroline Flint

  106. On the marriage and on the sexuality issue, on the marriage issue when we are told that for people who want to adopt children—often because they cannot have children of their own—it is something that is very important to them, why then would they not see—not necessarily in church but under the law—defining their relationship in terms of a more public, legal contract as being a precursor to actually adopting a child? Of course, there are very successful co-habiting relationships (I happen to be in one myself), but also—and I recognise this, as someone who is in a co-habiting relationship—the number of children that do come into a situation where they are being looked after, the issues around social exclusion, the issues about teenage pregnancies, often occur—not always—in situations where there have not been established relationships and certainly where marriage has not been a feature. I say that as devil's advocate because I actually think that is what the evidence suggests.
  (Ms Collier) I think back in the early 1990s, when this was first considered, I would have tended to agree with you, that if an unmarried couple in a heterosexual relationship wanted to make a legal commitment to a child it was logical, therefore, that they might demonstrate that by making a legal commitment to each other. I think now we have to recognise that there are people in society who make a decision that marriage is neither necessary nor appropriate in terms of a philosophical recognition of their commitment to each other which will survive despite marriage. If we actually say that we do not accept that, for the arguments you put forward and which I might once have put forward in the past, then what we are effectively doing is denying children the full range of potential adopters at a time when there are insufficient adopters. Let us be absolutely clear, there are insufficient people coming forward to adopt the children with the complexity and backgrounds currently looking for adoption.

  107. On to my next point. From what I understand marriage is on the increase today and has become popular again. I am getting married in July; having been married and co-habited, I am getting married again. It is, apparently, becoming a popular institution once again. Is the real issue here—and I think it needs flagging up because I think in your submission you studiously avoid the issue around same-sex relationships, which I think is a bit cowardly on your part, if you are going to raise this issue—marriage or is this a way of your organisation saying up front, and perhaps you would like to say up front today, whether or not you do approve of adoptions by same-sex couples, and that is actually what you are driving at here rather the issue around co-habiting couples?
  (Ms Collier) The first thing I want to be absolutely clear about is that this is not our way of making a backdoor statement; we have always been clear that people should be approved and assessed for adoption, but on the basis of what they can offer to children and on their suitability to adopt. Sexuality, for us, is not the predominant issue. A range of people should be considered for adoption, and there is perfectly good evidence that gay and lesbian people are just as capable of being excellent adopters as single and married people. However, with the best interests of children, there are many children for whom their assessed needs are to have a mother and a father. So we are looking at what is best for particular children. We recognise that if there are so many people living in co-habiting relationships who are deciding not to marry and there is a massive shortage of adopters, then we consider that unmarried couples should be considered for adoption. In terms of the stability and popularity of marriage I am pleased to hear you say that marriage is on the increase, but I think we all need to recognise that one in two marriages end in divorce.

  108. There is a far greater rate of failure in co-habiting relationships as in married relationships.
  (Ms Collier) Yes, but what we are talking about is people making a lifelong commitment and children having the opportunity of two legal parents. Had we wanted to draw this to your attention, I am happy to say that we would see that the inclusion of allowing two people who are unmarried and in a stable and committed relationship (and we are talking about social workers assessing adopters' relationships) was very important, and would also, we believe, apply to gay and lesbian people in close and committed relationships who can also demonstrate the longevity and stability of that relationship during their assessment. However, that is not the primary reason that we have brought this forward, but you are right it would also apply.

Mr Hutton

  109. Very briefly, in relation to the earlier exchanges we had about dispensing with parental consent in relation to adoption orders, you cited the Adoption Law Review Committee in support of your argument that the Bill as it is drafted should be changed to include this concept of significantly better. In relation to this debate we are having about whether unmarried couples should adopt, you suggested that the international convention we signed in the 1960s needed to be reviewed because it reflected a previous social climate. It is true to say that the same Adoption Law Review Committee that you cited in support of your earlier argument reviewed this issue, did it not, in the early 1990s and recommended that you retain the prohibitions on unmarried couples adopting. That is right, is it not?
  (Ms Collier) Yes, that is, and we are talking about 8 or 9 years ago. There is one comment within that report—you will correct me if I am wrong—which actually pointed out that one of the reservations about this was that the extended family of partners within unmarried couples may not make the same commitment to children who were not legitimised through being adopted by a married couple. We believe now that given the numbers of children born outside marriage many more extended families will make commitments to their grandchildren who are born to unmarried couples. We believe that we have to reflect the growing changes in society's structure.

  110. Can I ask you one more question about your comment earlier, when you said that the present legal requirements enabling a married couple to adopt would, effectively, preclude unmarried couples from considering adoption of a child. That is not true, is it, because one of them could adopt and the other parent could obtain a residence order under which they would gain parental responsibility of the child.
  (Ms Collier) I did say that earlier. I said the difficulty there is two-fold: one is that some adults will not come forward to adopt in these circumstances because they will see that the differential status of the two people in relation to the child is not helpful to their commitment to the child, and, secondly and more worryingly, children's organisations tell us that children find it difficult to perceive the logic by which they have got a real mum and a dad who has got, if you like, some kind of custody order—is how it is interpreted—rather than a legal and forever adoption. If these unmarried relationships subsequently break down—which, as you say, is slightly more likely, than if couples were married—then the child would still have two legal parents who were then responsible for that child in the same way as an adoption when the parents sadly divorce.

  111. But the current arrangements around adoption in regard to unmarried couples simply reflect, do they not, the legal position that unmarried couples have in relation to their own children? They are not anything different. If they are not, there is no difference.
  (Ms Cullen) I think that is, actually, quite a significant difference. There is already the law that allows an unmarried father to obtain parental responsibility in all respects, exactly the same legal status as a married father, in respect of his child by agreement with the mother or by a court order. Under this Bill that position will be achieved simply by jointly registering the birth. There is also the position under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act whereby the male partner in an unmarried couple in a stable relationship who use artificial insemination by donor is legally the father of the child. If we recognise that—where, actually, I think, generally speaking, infertility clinics would not be doing the same sort of assessment of such couples as adoption agencies would be doing before placing a child—it does not seem to me to be logical to exclude those same unmarried couples from having the joint lifelong commitment to the child that you get from an adoption order.

Mr Brazier

  112. I would like to come back to Caroline's point. You referred to the condemnation and the stigmatisation of the 1960s, but it seems to me this is more about aspiration. The most recent survey by the ONS into the stability of co-habiting relationships was, I think, 1997, and it showed that a child born to a married couple ten years before had an 81 per cent chance that the parents were still married. A child born to a co-habiting couple (and you talked about couples who were deeply committed but philosophically opposed to marriage) interestingly, an awful lot of those children—over 47 per cent—had gone on to get married. However, the interesting thing was that those who had philosophical objections to marriage, of the 59 per cent who did not get married, 85 per cent had separated by the ten-year mark. So the difference between married couples is 81 per cent and 15 per cent on the other. I just put it to you that the statistics reinforce the very sensible point that Caroline was making: if people are willing and so anxious to get the piece of paper to say "This is a formal adoption" rather than the kind of arrangements which the Minister was suggesting, why do they not get the other piece of paper and get married?
  (Ms Collier) I do not particularly want to say anything about that, Julian.

Mrs Spelman

  113. I do want to reinforce this piece of logic, which is that when you were explaining your justification for the position that you take, you were saying that society has moved on from the position it was in 8 or 9 years ago and that a couple may philosophically choose not to get married. Does this not nibble away at the paramountcy of the child argument, because you are there placing the right of adults to decide. They philosophically choose not to get married and you are choosing to recognise that right by arguing the case for them, but before us is some pretty strong evidence of stability being more likely—although not cast iron—where people get married. My concern here is are you being driven along in your position by what society is choosing to do which may actually, statistically, be completely the opposite of what is in the interests of the child?
  (Ms Collier) There are two points. First of all, we do not know the degree of relationship breakdown of people who go on to successfully adopt children, be they—as with the Minister's example—single people with partners with residence orders or married couples. We do know that the strain of caring for some of the children who are currently adopted is such that some relationships do break down. Nevertheless, my assumption would be that because of the degree of very careful assessment by social workers about the emotional stability and perseverance of people who come forward to adopt, I would be surprised if the sort of examples from the ONS study that Julian cites were, in fact, typical of the sort of people who are approved as suitable adopters. It would be very interesting to do a piece of research in that respect. The other issue is that we are looking at increasing the number of children who are successfully adopted at a time when there is an enormous gap in the number of people coming forward to adopt children from this background. I think, in the interests of children, we therefore have to increase the range of prospective adopters who will make forever and legal commitments to children and, at the same time, assess their suitability to do so.

Mr Shaw

  114. We are able to agree with the point you are making that we are not comparing like with like, and the statistics that Julian was referring to are not people who have been subject to the rigorous examination of prospective adopters. How many constituents say that there is no qualification for being a parent? There certainly is a very, very big and rigorous qualification to being an adoptive parent.
  (Ms Collier) Can I just say that we absolutely think that is important, because what we do not want is for children to experience the breakdown and separation of the adults caring for them in the same way that, sadly, they have already lost their original birth family.

Caroline Flint

  115. I want to be clear here. In terms of your priorities, all the evidence seems to suggest that one of the reasons why, potentially, there are not enough prospective adopters coming forward and other reasons why there are so many problems within this area and why this Bill is being put together, is the delays that occur within the system which mean that more and more—compared to 20 years ago—prospective adoptive parents are potentially having to take on older children with some known and unknown difficulties, which, as has been cited in the evidence, can lead to the adoptive relationship breaking down. When push comes to shove, and talking about using the argument about getting more adoptive parents, would you agree that the priority should be reducing the time in which children are looked after part-time and sent back to birth families before they are adopted, and that the younger child should be adopted before damage is unfortunately done, as with so many children? Are these the two key priorities above this issue around marriage?
  (Ms Collier) We are, obviously, concerned about inappropriate delay but, of course, we also recognise the fact that of the children who are placed for adoption, where there are difficulties in finding adopters, there are many other factors that we think discourage people from coming forward. One is the lack of appropriate financial support, one is the inconsistency of the availability of practical support and other support services. If adopters had the confidence that with even young children who have already experienced neglect and abuse they could get support more people would come forward. We must also remember that 60 per cent of the children who are referred to BAAF's national linking mechanisms to find new families need to be adopted with one or more birth sibling, and that makes a considerable demand on prospective adopters, and not all adopters believe they can take that on board. Addressing delays alone would not make the difference to the numbers of children in sibling groups. It would not, also, make the difference to the fact that 20 per cent of children have a physical impairment and a significant number of children have learning disabilities and difficulties. We do not think there is a simple answer to increasing the number of adopters.

  116. I was asking which priorities you would give to those three things.
  (Ms Cullen) I think it probably is fair to say that the question about the marital status of adopters is of less weight than the other factors. We are just trying to get—I hate to use the phrase—a level playing field so that, basically, we do not deter people unnecessarily from coming forward and meeting the needs of these children.

Ann Coffey

  117. Going back to the Bill again, as you know the Bill says that in placing the child for adoption the adoption agency must give due consideration to the child's religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background. The last time we met we had quite a discussion about what due consideration should be, particularly if it gave rise to delay. Ten years ago when I was an adoption worker there was quite a strong emphasis on making sure that there was considered to be a proper match between those particular factors and the adoptive family. I do recollect that that could lead to long delays in finding what was then considered to be the right family in terms of racial and cultural match. I wondered what your views were on it now, and what you would interpret as being given a due consideration meaning, and how you would balance that against that bit in the Bill which is clearly aimed to do away with unnecessary delays in adoption?
  (Ms Collier) We recognise the complexity of this issue. I would point to the Government's draft national standards for adoption which say that the family of choice for a looked-after child is the one that reflects his or her birth heritage. We believe in that principle. We believe in that principle on the basis that what we know is, where children have already experienced disruption, difficulty and separation, that they will have a lack of self-esteem and self-confidence. Where children can be brought up—be they white children, be they black or mixed parentage children—with families that broadly reflect their own ethnicity and cultural background it really affects the way they feel most confident and good about themselves in the future. That does not diminish the fact that there have been many successful adoptions that, in terms of external indicators, have succeeded where children have been placed with families of a different ethnicity. We understand from what young people and adults tell us, who have been trans-racially adopted, that there is an extra barrier.

  118. Can I stop you there because I am not disputing that. The question I was asking you was, that in the Bill it says "due consideration", and those factors are important for all the reasons you are saying. What I am inclined to get back from you is how you balance that. For example, do you think it is more proper to wait perhaps a year or 18 months to find the right family in terms of those factors, or two years or three years; or do you feel that there should be a balance where perhaps one should seek a family match but, if that is not available then, because it is important to place particularly young children without delay that that factor should be taken into the balance? I am trying to get your views on that. I am not disputing that it is important.
  (Ms Collier) We believe that no child should be subject to indefinite and unnecessary delay. We recognise the importance of particularly small children being placed as quickly as possible in families that can offer them that lifelong security; but we do not think it is easy to have arbitrary timescales in relation to this particular decision to fly across the board, because different children have different experiences and have different levels of need. I do not want to beleaguer the point, and I know it is not the question you are asking me to answer, but of course we know we can bring forward more families from different ethnic groups with better financial support services.

  119. Your view as an agency—
  (Ms Collier) We believe that some children will be placed with a family which will not reflect their ethnicity but can actively "value and promote" (which tend to be the words we use) the children's ethnic background. For example, living in perhaps multicultural communities where the children are not being isolated and are not the only children of a different skin colour; and, therefore, where families understand the issues and are able to support and help those children if they do experience racism. We think those are important. Indeed, that is reflected in BAAF's new form F1 which actually asks social workers to assess adoptive parents' ability to parent a child of a different ethnicity. We think that demonstrates our commitment to finding families for children which will not always reflect their ethnicity when it is not possible to do so.

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