Select Committee on Adoption and Children Bill Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 130 - 139)




  130. Could I welcome you to the second part of our session and welcome our witnesses. Would you please introduce yourselves.

  (Ms Staples) Meg Staples, Adoption Manager at Nottinghamshire County Council, representing the ADSS.
  (Mr Hutchinson) Robert Hutchinson, Director of Social Services for Portsmouth. I Chair the Children and Families Committee.
  (Mr Christie) Andrew Christie, Assistant Director of Children's Services, the London Borough of Hammersmith. I am here with the LGA.
  (Cllr Rutter) Maureen Rutter. I am a Gloucestershire County Councillor and I Chair the Children Task Group on the LGA.
  (Ms Blatcher) Dorothy Blatcher, Policy Officer, Children and Families from the Local Government Association.

  131. Thank you for your written evidence which will probably be the basis for some of our questions. Perhaps we could start with a general point, to the ADSS and other witnesses as well. You will be aware that there has been concern about the marked difference in performance between local authorities on adoption. I have never been a great fan of league tables because I am well aware there are all sorts of factors behind it. What would you say from your own point of view, looking across a range of authorities, are the reasons for the marked discrepancies in apparent performance on adoption?
  (Mr Hutchinson) There have been a number of inspections by the Department of Health, and there has been the Prime Minister's review, which have highlighted a number of issues. The inspections have raised the issues of lack of clear policy guidance. They raised issues on practice, delay and making decisions. They raised issues about training. All of which are down to local authorities to improve performance. They also raised other issues related to delay which are linked with procedures or the absence of procedures that local authorities had. They observed that there were delays in court process, and in that in some areas there were particular difficulties in recruiting staff and recruiting carers/adoptive couples. They also saw that there was good practice in some authorities, but the major problem of course, and what is unacceptable, is the lack of consistency between authorities. Therefore the national standards internally, things like best value, quality protects initiative and, of course, the Bill, will hopefully establish that consistency which has been lacking. I have to say in defence of my colleagues that they had received that message loud and clear, and the increased numbers of children adopted between 1990 and 2000, which I think was something like 700, demonstrated that messages had been received and action was being taken and people were determined to do better.

  132. One of the issues that came out of the previous session which rather surprised me was that the BAAF witnesses suggested that there were serious discrepancies in authorities handling of the review procedures for children in care, in particular where nobody appeared to be addressing this question of permanence. I was rather surprised at that. Would you feel that is a problem in itself? Is it something that, in the process of improvement you are describing, is being looked at specifically?
  (Mr Hutchinson) One of the problems that the Department of Health inspections showed up was in some places a lack of seniority of officers who were scrutinising, monitoring and agreeing policies in relation to permanence. That is an issue that has been clearly pointed out to all directors by the Department of Health and the ADSS. I would be surprised if the reviews and the importance placed on the reviews was not now at the centre of the adoption policies within each local authority.

  133. Do the LGA have any thoughts on these general opening points?
  (Ms Blatcher) The councillor's role and the senior management role has been very much highlighted by the LGA, and by the Task Group that Maureen Rutter chairs. There has certainly been a lot of awareness-raising over the last few years. As Rob said, there has been an increase in adoption as a result. There has been an increased awareness at all levels, from councillors down to staff working with children, that permanence needs to be looked at, at each review—one month, four months, ten months and in between.
  (Cllr Rutter) I think there is a difficulty. I think everything that Rob has said about the reasons for differences is probably true, from a shortage of social workers and trained social workers. My own perception is that the actual emphasis has been on working as long as you possibly can to keep a child with its natural family. It may well be that social workers have got that in the back of their minds. So that the issue of adoption, or the issue of some permanent change, has not been right at the front. I am not actually saying that that is the case, but I would not be surprised if it were. It might account for some of the different performances in different authorities.

  134. In a sense we are back to previous sessions we have had when this question of the balance between the natural family and the rights of the child and the role of the state has been at the heart of debates throughout social policy on child care. I wonder, from the point you have just made, whether you feel this Bill as it stands achieves a better balance than in the past—particularly bearing in mind the point you made about social workers having in the back of their minds this issue of the child's natural family?
  (Cllr Rutter) I think the Bill will help; it will change minds and it will change the emphasis and it will certainly be a new agenda to some extent. From that point of view I think it is to be welcomed. Obviously I have got my reservations about some of it. It is always going to be a balance. I would emphasise that really I do tend to speak from the point of view as a councillor of being the corporate parent and being very much involved in the children and looking after as a corporate parent and what is best for them. So I am coming from the point of view of the child, and I do think that the balance needs to be readjusted. I will go no further than that.

  Chairman: We have attempted in our questions in previous sessions to focus on the key elements of the Bill. One of the main elements, of course, is the welfare principle and Ann Coffey would like to ask you a question.

Ann Coffey

  135. I would like to widen it out because adoption services are part and parcel of wider children's services. I guess the key to successful adoption as part of those services is to have better children's services. I wonder about your comments on this. Most children when they come into care are placed in foster care, not in children's homes. I think it is about 70 per cent. that remain in foster care. Do you think that planning for children has got significantly better, because of course it is easier to leave children in foster homes and review from time to time the placement there, and they could continue which often can lead to delays in reaching plans for permanence for those children. Is it your view that that is improving?
  (Cllr Rutter) I think it is improving, but I think it is early days really. Certainly from the point of view of the Children Task Group, what everybody sees as being absolutely vital is permanence for children. We feel that long-term fostering, for instance, has its place, and that that might very well be more suitable for some children than adoption. In particular, we had very strong feelings about the possibility of more kinship care being part of the overall solution; because we did feel that lots of friends and relations would take on this task with more support; and that that was very much part of the whole issue of permanence, and of course good adoptive parents were extremely desirable. I do think there has been a change. I have some reservations about some of the changes but, yes, I think it has changed.

  136. Were local authorities not always able to do that—to place children with grandparents or relatives through de facto fostering; was that not quite widely used by local authorities?
  (Cllr Rutter) They were certainly, but it was never suggested that they should be giving them support, either financial or other kinds of support, after the adoption. I think that is what put a lot of people off, especially grandparents. I think they found it difficult to contemplate taking on young children when they were older without a degree of financial, emotional and moral support. Some of the suggestions in the Bill would help address that.
  (Mr Hutchinson) May I make a comment about the wider charter of services. The number of children in care at the beginning of April 2000 was 5 per cent higher than in 1999, and 18 per cent. higher in 1994. The numbers on the Child Protection Register are increasing. Of those children who are registered, neglect is one of the highest category. If you put this together with research the Department of Health has commissioned, that the increase in numbers of children tend to be around the four and five age group rather than teenagers, the previous reason for the bulge; and if you put that together with some of the research done for Portsmouth University, which is many of the characteristics of the parents of children on Care Orders, 75 per cent have drug and alcohol problems, and 55 per cent have mental health problems; the role of adoption, that whole process, is absolutely critical, because it sounds as if children are coming and staying for longer.

Mr Brazier

  137. Could we get a copy of that?
  (Mr Hutchinson) We could certainly submit something. With regard to planning better, we have to plan better because our rules, regulations and inspections require it. One of the performance assessment framework criteria is about stability within foster care and placements, so we have to do it. There is a capacity problem, because you should know that we are experiencing the same problems with recruitment of social workers as other public sector employers are having. In some places that problem is more acute. My own authority goes between 20-30 per cent. With regard to relatives, we learn as we develop as organisations. Mr Brazier mentioned Australia, the family group conferences which come from New Zealand. They are conferences which work with particularly the Maori people. Families are put into a room and asked to sort out their problems. They agencies are there to support them and not the other way round. That kind of research is finding its way into our practice. I think now there is far more emphasis on kinship placements there. Mr Brazier said in Australia it has dwindled; I believe in New Zealand it has dwindled almost to nothing. I think we recognise the need for kinship placements. There is more likely to be more commitment with the grandmother around looking after the child.


  138. On the welfare principle issue, we had a discussion with someone who presented a previous session about this whole issue of the unmarried parent question within the Bill—the bar on unmarried adoptive parents and the conflict between that and the welfare principle. In practical terms as the Bill stands at the present time, do you see that causing problems in looking at some of the cases you are dealing with, and the situation where you feel that such an arrangement, as discussed in the Bill at the moment, would impact upon the welfare of the children you are dealing with?
  (Ms Staples) I think we welcome the idea of permanency and the notion of working together with adoptive parents and birth parents to come to some agreement about where children are best placed. I think historically birth parents have been put in a very adversarial position in respect of adoption. If the Bill is able to move birth parents into a position where they feel they have a positive part to play in giving agreement to their children's adoption, then maybe the issue of whether they are married or not may not be so significant. What we are focusing on are the abilities that the parents bring to securing a child's welfare through the rest of their childhood and beyond.

  139. If you have a situation now where you may have within your local authority foster parents who are unmarried, who are caring in the longer term for a child whose interests will be best served by being adopted in such a situation, would the Bill as it stands really not help that child? Or do you feel the guardianship arrangement takes account of that situation and we do not need to worry about the issue of unmarried adoptive applicants?
  (Ms Staples) I think if adoption is right for the child then one should pursue adoption; if it is the special guardianship one, one should pursue special guardianship. I think the perspective needs to be from the child really rather than from the parents. In terms of them being unmarried, they are significantly disadvantaged. In fact, one of the ways they would be disadvantaged if they pursued an adoption application would be that if one of them died, and it was the parent who was the adopter and they had received adoption allowances, the remaining carer would not receive the adoption allowance because they would not have an entitlement.

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