Select Committee on Adoption and Children Bill Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200 - 219)




  200. You are implying that social workers are so bogged down by the role they have got now; and I recognise that since 1989 the sort of legalisms they are concerned with in respect of whether a child has been abused or not often means they do befriending aspects. So you feel social workers should be removed from Social Services? There is an argument they should be employed directly, nationally, by some body, the Home Office or whoever. Is that something you feel?
  (Ms James) No, I do not think that. I think there should be much more of a partnership. As a foster carer, it is very hard for you to make sure the child's views are known and accepted. It is hard for the independent visitor. The overall person in charge of the case has the power; they can invite into the child's review, say, whoever they want. The social worker has to invite in the teacher from the school; they have to invite in the psychiatrist. I think that is an imbalance. They can not invite them if they do not want them. The same with the independent visitor. I have never met the social worker of the child to whom I am an independent visitor.

Mr Brazier

  201. Just to pursue this point on the independent visitors. We had an interesting debate on this on the Standing Committee on the recent Care Standards Bill. We more or less reached a consensus around the committee that there were several very good contributions from both sides on the subject, that this was a much under-rated area. The problem is what does one actually do about it? There is a legal requirement on local authorities now to provide these visitors, and yet I had never even heard of them until one of your Adoption Forum meetings pointed out that there was this legal requirement. Most local authorities are doing nothing at all about it. What sort of teeth do you think need to be given? Perhaps a statutory requirement to invite lay visitors to review meetings; but what else would you like to see? Do you think they should automatically be given a right to appeal to whoever this new appeal body is on behalf of the child? How do you see it boosting them?
  (Ms James) It is almost a change of attitude really. A social worker really has to welcome in these outsiders, and they are not at the moment. I do not know how you change that attitude. Giving them statutory teeth might help. I do not know if any local authority has ever recruited an independent visitor. They farm that out to, in my case, the National Children's Home. I do not think they have recruited their own; they give it to the voluntary agencies to do. They still hold the final decision as to whether this independent visitor does visit this child, and I do not think that should be the case. I think the voluntary agency should decide the matching, as it were. That is not the case at the moment.

  202. Just to come a little further away from the adoption issue—one of the things that is very clear is that there have been whistle-blowers—I heard a presentation by one of the ladies who pulled the plug on what was happening in Clwyd—and it has very often resulted in professionals losing the rest of their career. The great thing about the independent visitor is they have no career; they are just there as an outsider. The problem is, how do you plug that into the system without it then becoming part of the system, and people turn into professionals and the whole thing being back to square one? That is really what I am trying to press you on.
  (Ms James) You are only an independent visitor with one child, so you are not going to have the same sort of exposure to all the other people that councils regularly have on regulator adoption panels. I do not think you meet them in an office anywhere. You do not have that sort of official contact really.

Ms Taylor

  203. Are you suggesting to us that there should be an independent appeals process which is outside the local authority?
  (Ms James) Yes.

  204. That begins to define. You have said statutory rights may not be strong enough, is there any other reservation you have about being part of a local authority appeals process? Your argument for an independent one I can hear and I can see, but I am still finding your concerns about that appeals process being within the local authority difficult to totally understand.
  (Ms O'Hanlon) It does not really function if it is in the local authority appeal process. There is already a local authority ombudsman but have you ever tried to complain to anybody like that? What you first of all get is a bunch of paper saying, stage one, stage two, stage three and stage four, and you end up with ten stages; and you really are so befuddled by what this process has got to be. It is all about going back to the same people who made the decision in the first place. There is never anybody truly independent who reviews the situation. What we see essentially is you get a system of checks and balances; so that here is a local authority doing its work, and here is a social worker doing his work; but we all know the social work departments have problems of staffing and continuation; and you know that 1 per cent. of children in the care system do not even have a named social worker and there is a constant turnover of staff. What an independent visitor does from another body altogether is provide a different sort of level of perhaps more friendship for the child and a cosier arrangement for the child. You get two completely separate strands really for the child. The child will always feel if they cannot talk to one, they can talk to the other. It is that which we find very important.

  205. I understand that. It is actually asking the question: who has authority to make a decision here. I think that is a scramble for us. We have a local authority who know what the statutory rights are but we have not got this independent body. How authoritative is it; and how do we make it authoritative within the structure?
  (Ms O'Hanlon) If we work within the system as it is—and I know the Government is very against taking the whole child care system out of local government, so let us stick with what we have got in the meantime—if you have got that system and you know that a child is progressing through that system and decisions are being made about that child's life, and there is a court process and all the rest of it, at the moment for example, let us take an adoption case, of somebody who applies to adopt a child and a child is refused for various reasons, there is no route of appeal for that adopter over and above going to the chief executive of that local authority to overturn the decision made at ground level on refusing that adoption. Here is the adopter who can go to the chief executive, but all that can happen is the chief executive looks at the case and says, "Oh, there's nothing wrong there, nothing wrong at all". There is nowhere else to go except judicial review. Judicial review is a very difficult thing, a very expensive thing, unfunded and all the rest of it. There should be some body to which that adopter can go, which can then look at those papers again and say, "Well, was that really a sensible judgement? Was that a good judgment, given there is no other family that has come forward for that child?" Is that child going to remain there forever and ever, even though there was an offer, so to speak? At the moment not even the Minister of State can overturn that decision. Nobody can look at that case again. That can lead, I think, to children disappearing in the state system. That may sound a bit exaggerated but it can happen, and it has happened. It is that sort of lack of control over who can review that is a problem. That is what we see as one of the prime roles of an independent authority; that they are there as a review body to look at what we might call a "bad judgment" which can happen; they may not be very frequent, but they can happen. I think it is one of the questions that has come up here before and it is a worry, that this cannot be done.

Mrs Spelman

  206. You have described the ombudsman system working very imperfectly. As Members of Parliament we know that only too well, because people arrive in our surgeries and they have usually had the kind of experiences you are describing. Have you thought about the role here for the Independent Children's Commissioner or the equivalent (although it is not quite the equivalent) in England of the Children's Rights Director; whether that structure at the very heart of government might provide the teeth you have descried to ensure that there is a safe mechanism so that children are not lost in care in the way you have described?
  (Ms O'Hanlon) In a sense we are not worried what kind of model it takes, other than we believe it must be independent. There are all sorts of difficulties: if people know each other; or people working in the same field; or a Chinese wall between organisations. There needs to be a real sense that an organisation which can review, and which does review, is absolutely independent. If the public do not see a serious independence in all of these, where is their confidence going to be placed? I think that this is at the heart of one of the huge difficulties about the adoption system right now, and the care system, that people simply do not feel confident about it. There is a crisis within adoption and fostering partly because of that.


  207. Do you share this broad view?
  (Ms Wilkins) I think the straight answer is: I do not know, I would have to refer to my colleagues. On the first point where it started, about social workers, maybe having somebody coming in externally is possibly one option; but actually training social workers better is certainly an issue that needs to be addressed; and I think is accepted by social workers, and is accepted very broadly. They do have the best interests of the child at heart; they may not have enough information; and they may be not acting in a way that people might like for those reasons. It is very much a training issue.

  Chairman: One of the issues certainly raised in the second reading debate was the need to offer additional three-year training. By the end the Minister was passing a note around announcing it the following day!

Mr Shaw

  208. In your opening statement, and also subsequently scanning, there are some broad brushes, some very big broad brushes. Statements such as, you have been talking about assessment saying: "When children enter care it is often unplanned and indeed an emergency. The child goes to the first foster home available—there are no fancy matching procedures". I think on some occasions that does happen; but on many other occasions that does not happen. You are saying pre-school children are being placed with troublesome adolescents. My experience is that the teams have specific foster carers for younger children and specific foster carers for older children. I think that is not only a correct picture of how fostering operates—I think it is a broad brush thing. When talking about confidence in the system, if you make those broad brushes I think it has a negative effect that you are referring to. I think the other thing you say about foster carers is that they are not professionals. "However kindly, they are at best gifted amateurs. Again, foster carers can vary enormously from perhaps the more easier to care for younger children on short-term placement to the very complex cases. Indeed, they go through the court process and there is matching and, indeed, many of them do have training. I think that broad brush charge is not an accurate reflection of what many foster carers do today. In your opening statement there are many broad brushes talking about technology, huge initiatives, redirecting funding to a centralised system, and more assessments and more independent visitors. It feels to me that we are adding more bureaucracy, more delays, centralised budgets, removing local autonomy and no acknowledgement I can see that actually we are seeing some genuine progress to adoption. It is not all chaos and doom and gloom. I think many local authorities and agencies recognise that performance has not been what it should have been but, indeed, it is improving significantly. I wonder if you could put some meat on the bones in terms of future initiatives and, also, perhaps, comment on some of my criticisms, which are meant to be constructive and not personal.
  (Ms O'Hanlon) Our information is not something that has come to us out of the air or is solely based on personal experience. Our information is backed up by evidence from many other sources and one of our prime supporters on this is, in fact, the Tavistock Institute which is very experienced in what happens to children and the complexity of their difficulties when they come into the system. Of course, there are many good foster carers but many of them feel completely unsupported and are, indeed, pretty much unsupported. They are not professionals, obviously, because they are not trained in that way. They are not given a huge amount of training and they are often left with children who are extremely difficult. As for emergency placements, this happens. Children are placed in a wrong placement, it happens continuously. One of our members who was due to be here today is a senior social worker at one of the Inner London boroughs and has been working in this field for 25 years. She is not without her experience of the foster care system, obviously, as well as the adoption system. So these are the sorts of sources that we take our information from. Yes, of course, our thoughts are broad brush but that is part of the reason that we are here. What is wrong with a broad brush thought?

Mrs Blackman

  209. Just turning to Philly Morrall. You raised this area of information given to adopters, and that is in your paperwork, and it was something I actually raised during second reading because it is very important that prospective adopters have good information so that they can be part of the process and can, also, say "no" at any time, if they feel that is appropriate. In previous sessions of this Committee it has become evident that this whole area will be dealt with through regulation and code of conduct. As it is an area you have flagged up I wonder what you would like to see in the regulations specifically and in the code of conduct so that this area is strengthened?
  (Ms Morrall) I think the thing that is really important is that it is consistent, because at the moment the Bill is saying one thing and the draft standards are saying something else. That is going to cause a lot of confusion. My feeling is that we have to be sensitive to people's human rights and to data protection, but that if you are asking an adoptive family to take on a child or children for life they must have the information about those children (that child) that makes it possible for them to do that. It is a fairly straightforward request, actually, that the information should be gathered appropriately through a proper assessment of the child by people who understand what we are looking at, and that the information about the child's own history is very full because that is absolutely crucial to how the adoption works out. As I have said in some of our evidence, disruption meetings almost always reveal that one of the problems has been that the adopters did not have all the information about the child. That information should be made available to people when they are thinking about—when they have been matched with a child—whether they are right for that child. The bit that I think is very worrying—and maybe we have misunderstood it because it does seem a bit legalistic—is this business where it says somewhere in the Bill that adopted young people will be given information at 18, some of which may have been information that was not given to their adopters in the first instance. That seems very worrying to me, because at 18 you are pretty vulnerable anyway, and to be given some information that your parents do not have but which we wanted to support you through managing seems to me to be very topsy-turvy with this business about needing to be clear. We must have consistency, however.

  210. What about updating information? A local authority can receive a child into care at two months old and then that child might not actually go into an adoptive family for several years—certainly a year or two—in which time—
  (Ms Morrall) Further information must be gathered.

  211. It is quite prescriptive the way information is obtained.
  (Ms Morrall) I think it is absolutely crucial that this is carried through into this whole issue of maintaining links with the birth family for the adopted family because there is going to be information that comes up as the years go by that that family will need to know for their young person as they grow up. So that kind of link must not be lost. I do not know whether it has to be in the legislation for it to happen, and I am not suggesting that every single adopted child needs to have face-to-face contact with their birth family; that is not the issue, the issue is maintaining links in order to be able to have information in the first instance to make the decision and throughout the child's life for that child.

Mrs Golding

  212. The question I want to ask is, who assesses the volunteer?
  (Ms James) The voluntary agency.

  213. How is the voluntary agency going to do the assessment to make certain the family and child are comfortable with the volunteer? Is it going to be any different from the Court Welfare Officers? You have great difficulty in altering the Court Welfare Officer for a child if it was not working out. How are you going to do it for a volunteer to make certain that the child's interests—
  (Ms James) I think that is not addressed enough at the moment because, certainly when I became an independent visitor, I asked if the child had a choice of independent visitors. Children do not get choices half the time. My story book went forward to the local authority and they would either reject or accept it. In fact, I was rejected first of all because one of the jokes in my book was inappropriate, and I still, to this day, do not know which one. That is what I mean, the local authority rejected me without meeting me, but I had been through an extremely rigorous—I am an adoptive mother and it was every bit as rigorous—

  214. It is not the question I am asking. I understand all that. The question is who assesses the volunteer? If the volunteer does not feel comfortable how does it change? If the family or the child do not feel comfortable how does it change?
  (Ms James) I do not think that is a problem so much with a voluntary agency. The child, surely, can say "I do not want this woman, or this man, coming any more" and they can ask if they want an alternative independent visitor.

  215. So it should be the child.
  (Ms James) I think the charity, yes, because at the moment that is not a funding issue for the local authority. I do not think they pay the charity to find an independent visitor. The charity bears the cost.

Sandra Gidley

  216. This is a question going back a hop, if you like. You have talked about assessments and the information that adoptive parents are given, which is all very well. However, the concern has also been raised that there does not seem to be, on the face of the Bill, any compulsion on local authorities to fund this, and when it comes to a health or an education involvement that compulsion seems to be even less. I was initially quite attracted by the idea of a central fund but it strikes me that it would be bureaucratic possibly. I would be interested to know what Adoption UK thinks about that? Have you done any assessments yourself as to how much you think this would cost? You say that you are astonished the Minister says it does not cost anything. What proportion of adoptive families actually have the sort of problems that need on-going help at some stage, so that we can begin to get a picture of the financial input necessary? Unless we have that information we cannot do the sums.
  (Ms Gilbert) I think one key figure we need to think about is something that is in the White Paper, which says that 67 per cent of looked-after children have an identifiable mental health problem. Those children do not suddenly lose those needs once they are adopted, those needs are still there and those needs need addressing. It raises all sorts of issues for adoptive families and children themselves have acknowledged that education is a key area in this. If education works for children a lot of other things work for children too. So I cannot say that we have any information on how much it would cost but we have got to bear in mind that the numbers of children adopted annually are really quite small—we are not talking massive figures—and I think probably it is hard to say how many would need support which would be very costly. Very often, the support that is needed is very much the sort of support that we as an organisation provide, and that is not terribly costly. However, it needs to be provided for and it needs to be a right; it needs to be mandatory, it cannot be "Yes, we will assess you for support and then we will think about whether we will give it to you". The other issue there is that there is a huge pool of adopters out there who might come back for second, third or even fourth time adoptions, but they will not do that if the support framework is not there for the first or second child. They will come back, and these are experienced people who can do a really expert job with some very damaged children. If they are to be encouraged to come back they need to know the support is there.
  (Ms Wilkins) Can I add to what Lynda said? In our evidence we have talked about it being based on the fact that many of the children who are adopted from the care system have had very difficult experiences in their early lives; they have had a number of different traumatic events and traumatic experiences which will have damaged them. Very often the extent of the damage is difficult to tell on first placement, and that is one of the aspects of actually being able to assess the children properly. As part of our evidence we submitted the "Effects of Early Trauma ", which if you get a moment you could get some more information from, and that is incorporated into the view that we take.

Ann Coffey

  217. Focusing on adoption, specifically, and the process of adoption, and the child's wishes being taken into account, clearly what you are saying is that there is a role for the independent visitor. We had a guardian ad litem service come to give evidence. What I am not clear about is what would an independent visitor do in that specific process that is different from the role of the guardian ad litem who is appointed, to a certain extent, to be the advocate of the child?
  (Ms James) I think when a guardian ad litem is involved in a case the independent visitor has no place at all, just maybe to continue taking the child out bowling, or whatever. The guardian ad litem has professional expertise in court work which certainly an independent visitor would not. I do not see it clashing at all.

  218. Do you think that the guardian ad litem is there as providing an independent voice for the child about adoption.
  (Ms James) In a court situation, but there are many children in foster care who never go back to court for years, or ever. So they do not ever have access to a guardian ad litem; nobody reviews their case at a court level because there is not a point in there care at which they go back to court.

  219. Do you think, then, you are looking at how that could be built into the system as a case for widening the rules of the guardian ad litem service?
  (Ms James) I think there could be in the adoption situation. If the time-scales are all tightened up adoption, really, should take 18 months, and I do not see any reason why the guardian ad litem should not stay present throughout those 18 months. I think it would be very helpful even to beyond the actual adoption order, just to make sure that the legal side of it has all gone through. By that time I would see the independent visitor dropped off if this child had come from the foster care system, except as maybe a friend. I do not see there is a role for the independent visitor any more at all.

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