Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200
TUESDAY 8 MAY 2001
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.
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 issueone of the things that is very clear
is that there have been whistle-blowersI heard a presentation
by one of the ladies who pulled the plug on what was happening
in Clwydand 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.
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 isand
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 meantimeif 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.
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!
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 availablethere
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
operatesI 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
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 aboutwhen
they have been matched with a childwhether they are right
for that child. The bit that I think is very worryingand
maybe we have misunderstood it because it does seem a bit legalisticis
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,
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 yearscertainly a year or twoin which
(Ms Morrall) Further information must be gathered.
211. It is quite prescriptive the way information
(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.
212. The question I want to ask is, who assesses
(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
(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 rigorousI
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.
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 smallwe are not talking massive figuresand
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.
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
218. Do you think that the guardian ad litem
is there as providing an independent voice for the child about
(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.