Select Committee on Adoption and Children Bill Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240 - 257)



  240. Can I put it to you though, wearing another hat, you may know the Health Committee did an inquiry into British child migrants who were sent through the care system all over the world and a number of the issues you have raised parallel that inquiry. One of the worries I have about how we can in practical terms address what I think are perfectly reasonable points you have made is that so often people in the past were adopted through voluntary organisations whose practices were very different from what they are now. Do you think it is practical to assume we can in law cover all the practices which took place 20 or 30 years ago within the voluntary organisations which were handling the adoptions?
  (Ms Hodgkins) I think it is absolutely vital you do address it.

  241. But how? We need to be specific here. How will this Bill be amended?
  (Ms Hodgkins) In our evidence we have given you two proposals. The one which is our preference is for a clause which would provide for birth relatives of adopted people to be entitled to the information within a framework in the same way that adopted people are entitled to information within a clearly defined framework. We have suggested a number of options within that proposal which could be called safeguards and a range of ways in which you could implement them but fundamentally the right will be there. If you felt unable to take that step, then we would suggest at the very least the guidance which was issued last October by the Department of Health called Intermediary Services for Birth Relatives: Practice Guidance must be given a statutory basis because at the moment it is just guidance, simply that. To the best of my knowledge there is only one local authority which has changed its approach to birth relatives' requests for services as a result of receiving that guidance. Those that were minded to do so felt empowered by it, those who were minded not to, focus on the fact they do not have to.

Ann Coffey

  242. Can I just disentangle things so I can be clear about what you are asking for? I think everyone recognises in the past there were not perhaps the support services for the parents of children who subsequently went on to be adopted, and that is one issue. Clearly you are saying instead of this being provided to new people it also should be provided to existing families who have given their children up for adoption. What I am not so clear about is what you want to build into the Bill in terms of information and I wondered if you could tell me what it is?
  (Ms Hodgkins) We would welcome information that matched the best professional practice which exists today being common across the adoption services throughout the UK. For example, adoptive adults in Scotland are entitled to read the court process, this means they can go to the court office and they can read everything which is in their adoption file. The proposal in the Bill is that certain documents will be specified. We do not know within the regulations whether the intention is that it would be all the documents or perhaps a very few of them, so we are looking for access to the best practice that is available now. Similarly, for information held by adoption agencies. You have, if you like, potential for conflict with the Data Protection Act which is actually mentioned in the Bill but there are ways of dealing with this, and a particular schedule could be drawn up in relation to information in the adoption files. The point we would want to make is that people growing up surrounded by their birth relatives actually take completely for granted information which, if it was written down on paper, could be designated third party information. As a person within a family you know your parents' names, you know your brothers' and sisters' names, you know your parents' birth dates, you know what their health has been like. If you are an adopted person and you are seeking to access that information from a file, it is third party information. Up until now social workers undertaking birth records counselling have used their discretion about the information they can share, they have used professional judgment. If we are expecting them to do a professional job they should make a professional judgment, but the important thing to know is if you have information which you decide to either share or to withhold from people, what that person then does is to make a judgment about what they do next. I think the person who has the information has to realise they must accept responsibility for what they share, on the one hand, because that may well influence what the person then chooses to do, but they also need to accept responsibility for what they choose to withhold, on the other, because that too will influence the decision the person makes.

  243. I understand that. Obviously that is an issue, what information is there for people who may at a later stage wish to trace their own families. I may be wrong but the impression I get, particularly from the letters which have come in, is that you are looking for us to do something which makes it in retrospect easier for those families who were adopted under very different circumstances 20 years ago to now get information.
  (Ms Hodgkins) Absolutely. Access to birth records was retrospective. It was perceived as something which was going to be problematic. The problems did not arise.

  244. But who would you wish it retrospectively for? Both for adults who wish to find their original families and for the families who may have given up children for adoption?
  (Ms Hodgkins) Absolutely.
  (Ms Ward) That is something which happens in a number of other countries, with as few or as many difficulties for the parties concerned as happens regarding the right for adopted people in this country to seek out their birth relatives. A number of countries actually made that legislation retrospective and they did it for both parties at the same time, so birth relatives at the same time as adopted adults had the right to access information so they, through a third party—we would advise through an intermediary third party with a framework of counselling—can start the ball rolling to learn something about the adult son or daughter who they lost through adoption many years before. It is said in the paper, many years on to look back on a time in your life when you were given no choice whatsoever whether or not you could keep your baby and you thought you would never, ever have a chance to know whether that child was alive or dead, is actually a very painful lifetime experience and one that people do not recover from.

  245. Would you see those as being equal rights, both for the person who was adopted to look for their natural parent if they so wish—and I understand still the minority of people do that kind of search—and for those parents who gave their children up to adoption?
  (Ms Ward) Our philosophy is for equal rights but we recognise that we have to be pragmatic, and circumstances may in some ways make that not quite as easy as ideally we would like it to be. We have made suggestions about how that might be done within a limited framework if it was felt that wholesale, open, equal access was not considered acceptable. But we do feel that what is happening at the moment is a great discrepancy between what one agency will do and what another agency will do. It is very difficult for two birth relatives who may meet in a support group setting if one hears that their agency was willing to seek out the adopted family of their adopted son or daughter and as a result they now have information and may even have a reunion, and the other one, sitting next to them, has been told categorically, "No, we will not do that for you and there is no way you can do it for yourself." That discrepancy has to be addressed.

Mr Shaw

  246. We heard earlier, and we all agree, about the importance of prospective adopters having every single piece of information about the child, the birth family, et cetera, and we want to see more children being adopted. Do you think if there is more information and more chance for prospective adopters feeling the birth family, who may be a dangerous family, tracing them, that will put people off coming forward to adopt children?
  (Ms Ward) I think the guidelines we have suggested cover these eventualities. We are not talking about children, we are not talking about children who are damaged and who for many reasons do need protection from their family and the law, we are talking about adults. The majority of adults who are adopted are adults who were adopted at a time when they did not go through the care procedures, they were adopted as babies, and they are the bulk of adopted people today, they are not the minority, they are the majority, and we are talking about thousands and thousands of middle-aged and elderly people possibly getting the right to have some information about the adult they placed for adoption in a very different social climate today. We all recognise the protection young children today need who have been placed in the care system because of damage, and we are not talking about that scenario, we are talking about the adults in adoption.
  (Ms Hodgkins) If you were to use the mechanisms we have suggested, because you would be providing a structured, a staged structure, through which contact could be initiated with adopted adults, the need and the circulation of information about the means of tracing using unauthorised methods would actually diminish considerably. Therefore the children who are being placed at the present time would actually be safer as a consequence, and the steps which may be needed to be taken to protect children would not gain the opposition they might gain from organisations like ourselves when they are also impacting on adults. We too want children to be safe, what we are saying is that when children are adults you need to look at the situation in a far more balanced way.

Ann Coffey

  247. I think it is actually a very difficult issue because there may be out there a very large group of people who we have not heard from who would be very alarmed to feel the decisions they had made 20 years ago and the choices they made might now become subject to a change of law. Obviously that is a group of people we have not heard from and making legislation retrospective is very difficult, whatever the nature of the times. There was an understanding about how the contract was drawn up and I feel a little uneasy about it, partly from personal experience and partly from another situation I have been involved in, that there might be groups of people out there who might not wish this to happen because they might not wish to be contacted, they might wish to be left as they are. To some extent that has to be balanced against the group of people you represent who want those changes to be made.
  (Ms Ward) That was said in 1976.
  (Ms Tanner) In 1976 the same thing was said. There were probably groups of birth relatives in 1976 who were fearful and did not want to be contacted but the adopted adult had the right to information and then to make a choice. We are asking for the same thing.
  (Ms Hodgkins) There is recent research by the Children's Society, a very large study, and the outcome, both in cases where it was the adopted person who initiated the renewed contact and also in those cases where the Children's Society initiated the contact at the request of the birth relative, was that in well over 75 per cent of cases the adopted people who had made no enquiries themselves at all, the non-searchers of their study, said they had no doubt whatsoever the Children's Society was right to make the approach to them, and they had the right to make the choice and be aware that the birth relative was enquiring about them. In terms of actual outcome, there was very, very little difference between those cases where the adopted person initiated the first move and those cases in which the birth relative did.


  248. Can I turn to Ms Webster and the issue of foundlings and your own personal circumstances? How do you see legislation being able to help somebody who is in your situation where, presumably, nobody knows who your parents were?
  (Ms Webster) Exactly. The problem is with the legislation, and it is the 1861 Act which surely in the 21st century needs reviewing.

  249. That legislation still applies?
  (Ms Webster) It is section 27, the abandonment of children.

  250. It still applies?
  (Ms Webster) That is my understanding. There seems to be no process across-the-board for the police and what they do, how they decide to act, because unfortunately that Act covers the whole range of what you call abandonment, not necessarily just foundling children who are not reclaimed. The police in each area act on their own processes, do what they feel fit, and there is no statutory procedures for them to follow. The same goes for social workers. I have had social workers ringing me up saying, "What do you think we should be doing for this baby?" To me that is woeful. It is not necessarily the right thing to do. I can speak for my circumstances and other people I know but there should be statutory processes to deal with these issues, perhaps by a central body. I do not know how it would work in legislation but it does seem to me there should be some provision now. As an adult surely it is my human right to be able to find out who I am, where I came from, my medical background, my genetic background. In the 21st century we have everything now for these things to come more on board—DNA testing for instance. We are not able to register on the National Contact Register, for instance, because we have to provide information of who we are. My birth relatives need to know who we are. If we were purely talking about a birth mother who left their child, it might be you may feel it is not appropriate for somebody who left their baby in dubious circumstances, but I and others like me may have brothers and sisters out there who are part of my genetic heritage and I would strongly ask that you consider ways forward for us. NORCAP will take registration from adult foundlings. We have not as yet been able to link anybody, although we have had one or two dubious phone calls when there has been something in the press, and people ring up saying, "What do you do for somebody who has been abandoned?" It seems to me morally wrong that people like myself need to use the press and the media to emphasise publicly our personal situation, talk about personal things which are very deep-rooted in order to gain perhaps that person out there who might look like us, who may be our family. That to me is morally wrong.

  251. You are concerned with looking at the practical aspects of the situation where a child is abandoned and how that might be proved from the word go, but also the situation of someone like yourself being in a position to make it known you would like to find out who your blood relatives are relatives or vice versa. They should be able to come forward without fear of prosecution. At the moment, my understanding is because they left a baby under two they could be prosecuted, that is nonsense. What public interest would there be to prosecute if my mother was 70 and she had left a baby. It is absolute nonsense. The other side of the coin is the distress. It causes me distress to think that somebody could have left me and that they themselves might have been distressed. It is the same for other families, we have heard the distress of birth relatives of birth mothers of today who have children who knowingly gave them up, even though they may have not given their consent. For people in my circumstances we have nothing.


  252. Does the 1861 Act make it a criminal offence still? Technically that would apply.
  (Ms Webster) Technically that would apply, but who would want to prosecute. It may be that I might be so angry if my mother came forward, I might think you should be prosecuted, it would be a private matter. I do not think most of us think like that. The majority of us were left to be found. Today the majority of children are left to be found, left in safe circumstances and, surely, you know, there should be some provision to support anybody who did come forward.

  253. In your own circumstances are you in a position if you went on a register to actually give enough information that would identify you from what you know from your circumstances?
  (Ms Webster) Yes, because what I have been able to glean, and I say "glean" from the information I have been able to get, which is quite limited, because records were not kept properly, which again harks back to records being kept today. I know where I was left, I know approximately what time I was found. I do say to people who contact me, "Try and keep back one small thing about yourself, however small". It might be what you were dressed in, because that birth relative who left you might remember they left you in that blue cotton dress that had been handed down through the generations. I believe that links could be made.

Mrs Spelman

  254. On that last point, what I was going to ask you is, surely one thing we ought to do is seek to amend whatever guidance is currently available to those agencies that might well be able to discover the family. You said yourself that that would be, perhaps, the police, probably the police and a social worker should be involved. The crucial thing in talking to you and other families is that it is vital in those very first minutes of the discovery that accurate observations are taken. That is an absolutely critical thing.
  (Ms Webster) Absolutely.

  255. I am sure we will do what we can to make sure because that becomes really very important. An example was given through your organisation to us of a gentlemen called Victor Banks who does not know what day is his birthday and does not know what day he was found, except he was found in December. That is very hard, is it not?
  (Ms Webster) He does not now where he was found, I do not think, whereas I know who I was found by. I have to say, in my records it has one name and on my original registration I have another. I was given conflicting advice from that. There is nothing that seems to be standard. I do not know what happens so much today, I hope more care is taken but it is very easy with a slip of the pen. Anything is vital. I do not know my birthday. I do not know what star sign I am. I do not know anything. I am the person I am today because of my adoption, I have been through the adoption process, but I know nothing. That is now quite difficult for my children and their genetic heritage.


  256. Any points you want to add before we conclude the session?
  (Ms Hodgkins) The only thing we want to add is that you have asked other people about whether you have the balance right in this proposed Bill. We do not think the balance is right. We think that the issue of human rights, the fact that adoption is for life as opposed to special guardianship, which can be terminated, is a reason for you to look again at the question of dispensation with consent and the fact that chance welfare is really not a sufficient test.

Ann Coffey

  257. How do you mean it is not sufficient?

  (Ms Hodgkins) We think it does infringe human rights. There was an article in The Guardian about 10 days ago by Alan Levy actually questioning whether this was a step too far and NORCAP would endorse that it is a step too far as it is written. We would very much support the dispensation with consent test that was in the report from 1994, "The consent of the birth parent may be dispensed with only if the advantage to the child of being adopted is so significantly greater than any other option as to justify dispensing with the parents' consent".

  Chairman: Can I thank you for the very helpful session. We are most grateful to you. Thank you.

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