Select Committee on Adoption and Children Bill Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120 - 129)



  120. What you feel is the most important factor is making sure that children are placed as quickly as possible; you see that as being overriding?
  (Ms Collier) It will vary according to the needs of the individual child. When talking about very small children that is very important. If there are people who are currently being assessed to adopt when, in order for them to be assessed, there may be a delay of several months, then if there are people to consider for that child we would think waiting the extra few months for some children would certainly be an important balance in terms of their commitment. There are some children, older children, who are absolutely clear that they want to live with a black family and where that is very important to their own self-esteem and their own contact with other members of their family. For those children the balancing act will be different; and it will be appropriate to wait longer when finding security and permanence in other ways to meet children's needs. We reflect the importance of avoiding unnecessary delay.
  (Ms Cullen) Not to say that one factor overrides all the others. That is why the checklist is set out and is not necessarily in a particular order. All those factors have to be taken into account. As Felicity says, with different children, different ages and different circumstances, one factor will weigh heavier than it will in another case. I do not think one would want one thing to override anything else.
  (Ms Collier) We have been very clear in identifying in Surveying Adoption, which I know you are familiar with, that some black infants experienced considerably longer delays than other children. We are not satisfied with that, and we are drawing this to people's attention—both in recruitment campaigns to recruit more adopters, and also recognising for some mixed parentage children it is very difficult to find a family within a reasonable timescale that reflects their ethnicity and we have to look more widely to find families.

  Chairman: I am conscious we have spent an hour on Clause 1, I think it is because it such an important area and we have had a useful exchange. Can we turn to the issue of support services where you have raised certain points in your evidence.

Mr Shaw

  121. I want to say something to link previous evidence. Do you have a concern that there is a danger for all the political parties (with the main agenda being numbers and throughput) that we might lose the focus of the damaging effect that we know of from research—when black children are placed in white placements, and grow up with horror stories of children bleaching their skin because they are confused about their identity etc? I hope that we do not, but it does not seem that has been around in the debate. Do you have that concern, or are you satisfied that we are being sufficiently aware of that and will not be so focused on numbers?
  (Ms Collier) I think that is why, in issues about the balance in terms of each individual decision, there will be different issues, and some families are better able to assist those children to develop as confident and successful people than others. As I have said, it is a very important consideration to take into account whenever you are placing children that the placement of choice is a family that reflects that child's own heritage; and that means the application of better support to black families who are certainly economically disadvantaged in our society; and clarity about the proper framework of adoption allowances and support services as recommended by Professors Murch and Lowe in Supporting Adoption research.

  122. In Supporting Families you made the point, and I raised this last week, that we would perhaps encourage more people to come forward when they receive support. We know that where local authorities are performing well in terms of the number of children who are adopted, it was said last week in evidence, that generally all of their adoption services were of a good standard; you do not necessarily see at the front end lots of children coming through and at the back end lots of breakdowns, so there would be a good service from start to end. Word on the street within those particular areas is about good back-up from the local authority when there were particular difficulties and there was respite care and support. It is about local confidence as well within the areas. One of the issues, it seems to me, for adoptive families is that they do not necessarily want to see themselves in mainstream social services. It is likely children they adopt come to them for all reasons, of abuse etc., and they do not necessarily want to be lumped in with children and families. Do you advocate, where local authorities are setting up support services, it should be external to that of the mainstream?
  (Ms Collier) We would argue for a consistent quality of post-adoption support services across the country, not just provided by the Social Services Department but provided by mainstream education and health. To take your earlier point—you may have confidence to adopt a child locally if you see the quality and the way that services are provided; but if you move house to another area, perhaps because of job issues, you need to be assured you will get the same level. With the prospective National Adoption Register, with perhaps more children placed at a distance, it is critical that there is confidence and equality across the country in those provisions. Some of the good high quality of post-adoption services we have seen have been provided by dedicated teams for whom it is their particular task, rather than children being referred to a children in need team; but actually having post-adoption support services that are ring-fenced within the local authority that seems to make sense; some contract with very good voluntary adoption agencies; and we know that the Government has commissioned one of the voluntary adoption agencies to develop a post-adoption framework structure and we applaud that.

Mrs Spelman

  123. Coming on to the area of Adoption Allowances, I wonder if you would give a bit more clarification to us really on your view on the provision of post-assessment support services. Specifically, I wonder whether you think that special guardians should be provided the same financial support as children in the care of adoptive parents?
  (Ms Collier) Yes, we particularly recognise that special guardianship may particularly apply to children who are with foster carers with whom they are very settled, where legal separation from their birth families may not be appropriate but the foster carers want to make that commitment to the children, and may well be persuaded to do so if they have had the potential of the drop in income which we know will be very important to family income maintenance. Equally, relatives: grandparents may want to make that commitment to their grandchildren with special guardianship where financial support will be critically important. We think the same order of financial support should apply. I have to say, we are not confident there is sufficient detail in this legislation in the face of the Act about the level of financial support. We are unhappy about it being left to regulations and subsequent development. We want absolute clarity about a national framework for adoption allowances; the same levels of assessment and clear levels of financial support. We recognise—and I know that Julian Brazier has quoted this as an example—that very significant adoption subsidies have been made available in the US, particularly for foster carers, and have made a tremendous difference. We applaud this and we believe this is very important.

  124. Just a rider to that—what about informal and private fostering arrangements?
  (Ms Collier) We are very concerned about private fostering arrangements. I would like to draw your attention to an anomaly. Yesterday the Government introduced one of the Clauses of the Adoption (International Aspects) Act which made it an offence for people to have a child placed with them overseas for the purposes of adoption if they have not been properly approved; and yet we have the anomaly in this country where birth families can select and find a private foster carer and place the child with those foster carers. There is an expectation subsequently that they will register with a local authority and have a very basic check on police and medical clearance, but there is nothing about the fact that many of these people are failed foster parents who have not actually been approved as suitable. I have to say, we have two issues here: Sir William Utting identified this as one of the very difficult areas and made a very clear recommendation in the Children's Safeguard Report, following investigations of abuse in residential and foster care, that all private foster carers should be registered, and it should be an offence to place a child with a private foster carer who had not been approved prior to the placement as suitable by the local authority. That recommendation was not taken on-board by the Government; although they did say they would highlight the importance of foster carers' registering arrangements, and I am aware that this campaign is shortly to start. We do not think that that is enough. We are very concerned about this issue. We also recognise that the Victoria Climbié case is an example of a child privately fostered by somebody who was not a close blood relative, and the Lord Laming inquiry is ensuing; but we see no reason to wait for the outcome of that inquiry when somebody of the respectability of Sir William Utting made this recommendation; and we have the gross example of this case that has hit the public eye in relation to the Internet twins. The Government has an ideal opportunity to insert this provision into this Adoption and Children Bill, and we urge you all to recognise this.

Ms Taylor

  125. I agree with an awful lot of what you say, and would like to hear what you think we could provide, should provide or maybe even should not provide to women who are unsure about their pregnancies; they might even decide they are unwanted pregnancies and they may decide that going through this period in their lives they would like someone to turn to. We could be talking about some very young people. From all the information you have sent us I do not think I have actually gleaned anything from you about how and in what way this group of people should be or could be supported. I happen to believe that young women most particularly (but it does not just relate to young women) are oftentimes sheer desperate to speak with people, to talk to, to be counselled, to be supported, so that they can come to a decision about their pregnancy; and possibly it means they are supported to keep their child, and we are giving them that support, or they may make a decision that they want the child to be placed. How do you see that support panning out? Do you see it as relevant?
  (Ms Collier) Yes, we do see it as relevant. We think there is a very delicate balancing act to not dissuade the young, vulnerable woman coming forward for support, because if they believe there will be some pressure (and I know you are not talking about pressure) to lose their babies through adoption—and it is losing their babies through adoption—we would be concerned about that. We ourselves publish a leaflet Single, Pregnant and Thinking About Adoption which affords young women the opportunity to look at where they might turn in relation to that sort of help and where that should be available, in maternity units and so on. I do think we need to recognise that some of the youngest women who decide to go full-term with their pregnancies would not wish to consider adoption, and need to have the support and care of their children themselves. We are concerned that we have heard stories of young women who have approached local authorities to consider having their babies adopted and been told (and I am not saying this happens in the main), to "come back after the baby is born as they may change their mind". We do not think that is acceptable and we have published advice and guidance about the importance of providing a counselling service so they can form their thoughts, which they may review post-birth at that time. We actually do not think there would be a massive increase on the number of young women wanting to have their babies adopted.

  Chairman: We had hoped to conclude this first session by quarter to twelve but I do not think we are going to do that. There are two key areas we wanted to ask you questions about, and I would appeal to my colleagues and myself to be brief in terms of the questions. The review mechanism and placement orders—Julian Brazier.

Mr Brazier

  126. In your evidence you have some objections to this. Would you like to explain how you feel about this?
  (Ms Cullen) Obviously an awful lot is open because most of it is to be dealt with by regulation; but there is a specific provision that the expenses of the Review Panel might be paid by the agency. We are concerned about that, both from the point of view that small adoption agencies have very limited resources, but more in terms of the interests of both applicants and children. We would not want this to act as a perverse incentive for agencies to say, "We can't afford the cost of a review, so we'd better say we're going to approve these people". If they are actually approved it does not follow that they will be used; so they will be more dissatisfied in the long-run because no child will be placed. Or, potentially, they might be used and they are not suitable, and that will be disastrous for the child. As far as I understand it, the way the local authority ombudsman works, although the costs of that are met by a general levy on local authorities, it is not per case. Even a local authority that has been found guilty of maladministration may have to pay a sum to the party affected but does not have to pay the costs of the ombudsman. I think it would be wrong for the individual agencies to pay the cost of the review.

  127. That seems to me to be a very fair point. Do I take it from what you have said you do not object to the principle of the independent review mechanism?
  (Ms Collier) We welcome it because it will give adopters confidence. We want more people to come forward and have confidence. We do not think it is appropriate for agencies to pay for that review because there would be all sorts of complexities.

Mr Shaw

  128. Your good friends at the Association of Directors of Social Services do not share your view. They have said in evidence to us that there is no evidence to support the contention that adoption agencies turn down large numbers of potential adopters. They are saying that since the Government introduced amendments to regulations three years ago this has been effective. Are we going to bog down the process by lots of people who want to seek a review where potentially social workers, all those involved, are getting on and assessing other people who are likely to be successful?
  (Ms Collier) I do not disagree with the Association of Directors of Social Services. Our evidence shows that 94 per cent. of those people going to adoption panels are approved. Nevertheless, we are concerned about the negative effect of people coming forward from high profile cases that have been discussed in the press about people who have been rejected, and it is purely about transparency. We recognise that if a review system is not tightly managed there will be some people for whom there is confidential information available which would be very difficult to share, perhaps of a medical nature, that actually means they will not be approved by them ever. We hope and trust the review system will be able to look at the papers and decide whether to go forward with a full assessment. We can never be complacent about the confidence of adopters. In fact, there will be the odd person in any system who feels unfairly treated and to some degree may be right. It is about getting the resources for that but not wasting the resources. I do not think there is that much difference.

Mr Swayne

  129. My concern is about the abolition of freeing orders. I am aware of the criticism there has been about freeing, particularly with respect to delays. I was not aware of any cause for them to be removed. I wanted to be assured that many of the advantages for which freeing orders were sought were preserved, in your view, in the new regime?
  (Ms Cullen) I would say that there is some detail there that needs picking over but, on the whole, placement orders preserve the good points of freeing orders, while managing to get rid of the major drawbacks: the fact that the relationship with the parent is completely ended by a freeing order even if the child is never subsequently adopted; and the fact that the parents under a freeing order may not have any standing with which to come and talk about whether they want to have contact once the Adoption Order is made. They will not have completely lost their parental responsibility under a placement order so their views will still be able to be taken into account and the child has not completely lost the relationship; so if the child is not adopted he or she still has parents. We certainly welcome the concept of placement orders, and although there is some argument on the detail I think we would say that they are a big improvement on freeing.
  (Ms Collier) We welcome the National Adoption Register which we think is a very important development. We need to declare an interest because we had tendered and we know there has been no decision in relation to that; and we must bear that in mind in relation to a point I am now going to make. The Government did make a commitment to have this up and running in July and has not yet made a decision. We are very concerned about the impact of delay. We think this is a very important facility which is going to go through and hope that this will be addressed. Secondly, although we believe a National Adoption Register offers a very important opportunity, whether or not a local authority uses families that are referred to them as suitable for a child may inevitably be dictated to by their own budgetary restraints, because of the application of inter-agency fees. This means there is no easy alternative to inter-agency fees, whereby the local authority placing a child pays for the costs of recruiting and assessing families. We thought it very important that this issue is addressed. We know that the PIU report, the Prime Minister's report, did not say that this is a major disincentive. We beg to disagree with them—that is not the evidence we received from our members. We think there should be some central pot or ring-fenced fund that would not act as a disincentive to recruitment. We do not have much time, but we urge you to give this more attention.

  Chairman: Could I thank you for your cooperation with this Inquiry. We are most grateful to you. Thank you.

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