Select Committee on Adoption and Children Bill Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 190 - 199)




  190. Colleagues, could I welcome you to this session of the Committee, and welcome particularly the first group of witnesses this morning. I wonder if I could ask each of the witnesses to briefly introduce themselves, and if one person from each organisation could perhaps sum up what your organisation does.

  (Ms Morrall) I am Philly Morrall, Director of Adoption UK. We are a support and information service for adoptive families before, during and after adoption. We are a network of adoptive families.
  (Ms Gilbert) Lynda Gilbert, Adoption UK.
  (Ms Wilkins) Helen Wilkins, Adoption UK.
  (Ms James) Sue James, the Adoption Forum.
  (Ms O'Hanlon) Liv O'Hanlon, Director of the Adoption Forum. Our organisation really is a pressure group to try and make sure children get a fair chance of being adopted under a proper system.

  191. Can I make a confession: with this Bank Holiday, a number of our members, including the Chairman, have not had a chance to fully digest the evidence submitted by your organisations, for which we are very grateful. Mine has been floating about in the post and arrived in Wakefield this morning. Some of us have had a brief chance to look at what you have sent, but none of us have had a chance to study your evidence. It would be very helpful if I were to begin by asking each of you to briefly summarise the key points of concern from your points of view in respect of the Bill as it stands at the present time.
  (Ms O'Hanlon) I think ours really is a plea for a rather more radical approach. We are very, very pleased with a huge amount of what is actually in the Bill. We like particularly the whole notion that the child is at the centre of decision-making. We see that as the most crucial factor. I think where we begin to start edging away from what is actually in the Bill is that we can see there are good opportunities for huge initiatives which simply to our view are not there. One of the things we are disappointed with a lack of—and I do not know how you legislate for it—we are surprised that the whole essence of technology is not at the centre of it. We feel it could make such a huge difference to the number of children who get a good service. This is not simply about adoption; this is about a really good, clean, honest and transparent service for children. I think without that we are going to find ourselves in a situation which is going to fail children again. I think that is what scares us most. Going on from the technology, we do not really see how a system can work without the technology, but also without a really new approach to the way children are funded within the system, rather than how the whole system works now financially. Quite clearly what happens under the present system is that a lot of the money seems to go astray and does not go (not deliberately) in the direction of the child and what is appropriate for that child. A constant complaint is that there is not enough money for the child; and yet when you start looking at the end figures for the whole budget for children it seems so colossal it does not seem logical that, in the end, you have not got enough money to give a child decent care. We feel there is a way to re-committing funding which will be a much more direct method; we can perhaps call it "direct funding" of children. This has been supported by many people, and is not exactly an original idea of ours; but it does seem a much more sensible one—that the money is there in a central fund, and anybody who wants to do something for that child has to apply to that central fund for the money. You do not get the situation then where nothing is done, and nobody takes any notice. You actually have to apply and have to do something; because if you do not do something for the child then you are not going to get any money. That is the essence of it. Sue will be much clearer about this than I am. We also feel very strongly that a comprehensive appeal system is vital. As people have said both about the National Health Service and Prison Service, we feel the appeals process is something authorities should welcome. Appeals are about seeing what is wrong with the system and being able to improve it and actually deliver a good service. If that is what we are truly interested in when it comes to children, then that is what there must be there. It is not just about appeals for people who are going forward to adopt; it is about what happens to children still in the system and how you serve their best interests. If you do not have an appeals process, or a process of review—and it does not really matter what you call it—but there has to be a system of independent review for whatever goes on; because we know that things can so easily slip through the net; and if there is not a net there at all it is even easier to slip through. We think all three corners of the adoption triangle should have a means through which to appeal. We can see this perhaps through an independent appeals group outside the Department of Health and outside of local authorities; an independent body which could also provide the whole system of independent visitors (which I know several members here are particularly interested in) which comes as part of the Children Act. We think if they could come from this independent body they could then act not only as a personal friend for the child, but a conduit for the child back into a review system, so you get a circular movement. Also if you tacked into that a requirement on foster carers and residential worker carers to report back to that independent body as a perfectly ordinary part of the system, bi-monthly, quarterly or whatever, then you would also get another safety net which would help. This is obviously quite a complicated diagram and I have not dared draw it, except with lots of arrows and then it looks very complicated; but I do not think in essence it would necessarily be that complicated. There are three other things that matter to us very much. Assessments: the fact is that children at the moment when they go into the care system are not properly assessed all the time. We feel very strongly that they should be, because without this essential piece of information, without a serious multi-disciplinary look at each child coming in, we are not really going to get anywhere. The repercussions of not assessing a child properly at the start mean that way down the line you cannot plan properly for that child. You cannot begin to know what happens to that child if the child is adopted, if the child remains in the care system or if, indeed, the child goes back to their birth family. There is always a slight inclination for all of us to think that if they go back to their birth family everything is going to be fine; that will be the end of that; everything will be hunky-dory and we do not have to worry about them. Of course, we all know that is not really true, that those children are likely to have problems still because they have had these episodes in care. Again, we are talking about something pretty comprehensive and expensive, but we think it would be worthwhile right down the line. There must be, too, a "duty of candour", that you tell the truth about the people who are in the care system; so that, again, you do not have repercussions. I think our final point would be taking us out of domestic adoption into the confused world of inter-country adoption. There is basically no provision on that, and that is a great disappointment. If you are not going to provide for people to do proper inter-country adoption you are going to end up with what we have been seeing a lot of recently.

  192. That is a very helpful summary. Ms Morrall, would you like to give us a brief summary of your concerns.
  (Ms Morrall) We have six key points, but I will focus on three of them particularly—many are similar to one that Liv has already mentioned, particularly the business about assessment of children and I would echo everything she said on that. The other thing we are very concerned about is the information that adopters are given. We want to be absolutely sure that they have a very clear picture of what it is they are being asked to do. If they are not given that information you are setting them up to fail. We are very concerned about how birth families are treated up to the process of adoption and afterwards. We believe if that is not handled sensitively and carefully in relation to their consents and the issue of deciding whether their consent is to be dispensed with or not, if that is not handled sensitively and dealt with properly you are setting up the whole system for the children going into adoption again to be very difficult for adoptive parents. The other issue we are particularly concerned about is the post-placement and post-adoption support issue. The Bill is talking about a right for current new adopters to have an assessment. There is no provision for that assessment to be carried through necessarily; there is a possibility but it is not necessarily so. There is no provision for current adopters to have a right to that assessment. Finally, we are very concerned about resource implications, and the fact that the explanatory notes actually say that the Bill is not expected to place a significant financial burden on local authorities, because we think that is probably not true.

  193. Thank you. That is a very helpful and gives us a basis for our questions. I know a number of you have been here in previous sessions so you are aware of the kind of issues we have been looking at. I would like to ask a brief introductory question. One of the challenges I see every government has had on all child care legislation is achieving a balance between the rights of the child and the welfare principle of the child's wellbeing, and the rights of the child's natural family. Do you feel this legislation as it stands at present has achieved that balance?
  (Ms James) I think the whole system is weighted on the side of the grown-ups so, no, I do not.

  194. When you say "grown-ups" do you mean the natural family, the State or adoptive parents?
  (Ms James) The State really, more. I do not think a child understands any of this.

  195. Which is why you have probably raised the issue of the appeals mechanism and bringing the child more into this?
  (Ms James) Yes.

  196. You are saying that balance has not been achieved?
  (Ms James) No.

  197. And more should be done specifically in respect of the child?
  (Ms James) Yes, which is why we think funding would bring a power, if you like, to the child and redress an imbalance that exists. I do not want one more powerful than the other, but the child has nothing at the moment.
  (Ms Gilbert) I do not think we are talking about the rights either of children or of adults; we are talking about the needs of children and the welfare of a child. That is where all the focus should be—on the needs of the children. That is why we feel it is so important for a thorough assessment and balancing of, not the rights of the birth family, but how the child's needs can be met within the birth family. If the route forward is adoption that is a very big question. If the route forward is that work has to be done, it has to be done very sensitively and very fully and has to be well resourced and well supported to support meeting the needs of the child, because that is what has to be at the centre. In terms of whether the Bill angles that correctly, I would say, not quite.

  198. You are saying, as your colleagues at the other end of the table say this, more emphasis needs to be put on the welfare aspect of the child?
  (Ms Gilbert) Absolutely.

Ann Coffey

  199. I am just trying to explore how that might happen. At the moment, as I understand it and I could be wrong, a social worker that is involved with a family in which the child may be in the care of the local authority, the social worker will still be looking after both the child and the family. How would you see this working if you were going to give a child an independent advocate, which is what you seem to be saying—that the child wants someone to fight for the child within the system? How would you see that working in practical terms? What implications would it have for the way children's services are currently organised, because the local authority discharges that responsibility at the moment?
  (Ms James) I think the job of a social worker has changed a bit. I do not think they are able to champion the child particularly. I think they are very bound up with budgets, their line manager and meetings. I think an independent visitor would help, but they need to be given teeth. I am an independent visitor to a child and I do not think at a review meeting my opinion would count for very much. What can I say? If they are not fulfilling their statutory duties I can point it out but they will not like me very much and probably will not invite me to the next review. It is not a very positive position for independent visitors at the moment. They need to be introduced from an independent section. It is no use having the Social Services producing independent visitors because, frankly, they do not. Only one-third of children in care who are eligible for an independent visitor have an independent visitor. Yet I am with a child who really does not need an independent visitor. I am sure there are many more in the system who could use my services better but they do not obviously want people looking in on cases that are very complicated, or where they have not actually fulfilled the statutory duty and I am going to find that out.

  Ann Coffey: I appreciate the problems, I am just wondering what you feel the solution might be. When a child goes into, for example, the court system, a guardian ad litem may be appointed by the court which is, in a sense, an independent point of view. Where does an independent advocate fit into that process? How would you feel under the present system with the visitors they do not connect with? What way do you think you should be given more teeth? How does that fit in with children's planning? I understand what you are saying but I am trying to see what you think the way forward is?

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