Select Committee on Select Committee on the Adoption and Children Bill Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by ATD Fourth World



    "Whether you're rich or poor, the thing is your children are your children. We always say there's one law for the rich and there's one law for the poor." [10]

  ATD Fourth World has 25 years of experience of family support in the UK. We work specifically with families living in persistent poverty, most of whom are dealing with Social Services intervention. The majority of the adults with whom we work have been in care as children and many have themselves been adopted. As parents, they are suffering the involuntary removal of their own children into care and, far worse, adoption. Over the past four years, through regular policy forums, ATD Fourth World has been empowering families and individuals living in long-term poverty to bring their experiences directly to policy makers whose decisions profoundly affect all aspects of their family life.

  Birth families seriously disadvantaged by poverty are the least likely to be heard and the least likely to be able to fight for their rights and the rights of their children. This is compounded by the false but widespread assumption that birth parents are—at best—socially inadequate and unfit to parent their children, and—at worst—people who have been cruel and abusive. This assumption of guilt creates shame for parents who have lost children through lack of parenting skills, insecure housing and the many other devastating effects of a lifetime of poverty and social exclusion. The following response to the Adoption and Children Bill comes from the perspective of birth parents living in poverty and their adopted children. The political voice of birth parents, relative to adoptive parents, is weak due to their lack of personal and financial resources.

    "For people like us, help comes too little, too late. It's always a reaction—never what we need, when we need it."

  The Adoption and Children Bill assumes that Social Services are being adequately resourced to carry out the necessary preventative family support work and therefore that the children who are in long-term care are categorically unable to return home. However, the reality on the ground to which the Bill will apply is one of a general lack of family support services. Due to a massive lack of financial and human resources, Social Services are currently budget-led not needs-led. The result is that a majority of Children and Family cases are crisis-driven as opposed to the ideal of preventative family support. Indeed, this state of affairs contravenes Article 18(2) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child: "States Parties shall render appropriate assistance to parents and legal guardians in the performance of their child-rearing responsibilities and shall ensure the development of institutions, facilities and services for the care of children". Therefore, many looked after children who could have remained with their family given the right support at the appropriate time, will be at risk of being adopted under this Bill.

  Adoption is a drastic measure with far-reaching, lifelong implications for the adopted child and the birth parents. We do not believe that adoption as it currently stands is in the best interest of the child except in very exceptional circumstances. Equally, adoption should never happen without the birth parents' consent except in very exceptional circumstances. For the child, it is a right to know and be cared for by his or her parents under Article 7(1) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. For the birth parents, the right to marry and found a family is a human right under Article 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Moreover, Article 8 states "everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence".

    "What the adopters have is a desire for your child. That desire cannot be called a "right". It is a wish for something not naturally theirs."

  We shall further argue that in the best interest of the adopted child full contact with the entire birth family should always be maintained—except with individual perpetrators of sexual abuse and/or when the child expressly wishes not to have contact with a person.



    "We lost our child to adoption, and that child was never ever harmed, they actually decided to take her away before the child was born, and that's completely unacceptable. Under the 1989 Children's Act you must have an investigation of the child's circumstances before they are taken away."

  It is important for society to guard against the possibility of social engineering through adoption of children from families living in persistent poverty into middle class adoptive families. This is particularly important given the statistics[11] on the types of employment or indeed unemployment of birth parents and adoptive parents. Eighty nine per cent of birth mothers and 68 per cent of birth fathers are unemployed. Less than 2 per cent of birth parents are employed in professional, managerial or technical positions whilst 57 per cent of adopters in full time employment hold such posts. If such social engineering were to occur, it would be in contravention of the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 14, which protects against discrimination on any ground, including social origin, property, birth or other status and Article 8, the right to respect for private and family life.

  We are concerned that section 44(2), which allows for the court to dispense with parental consent to placement or adoption based on the welfare of the child, does not refer back, on the face of the Bill to the welfare checklist in section 1(4), and in particular to subsection (e): the need to consider any harm which the child has suffered or is at risk of suffering. Explicit reference to the threshold criteria of harm should be made on the face of the Bill in section 44(2) on dispensation of parental consent, not left to the explanatory notes.

  The threshold test of harm should be carried out before a decision of non-restoration to the family is taken. Birth parents' experience of current practice is that adoption is in effect decided upon long before any court hearing. Social Services start to reduce the length of access visits and eventually stop contact to prepare the looked after child for adoption. The level of support to the birth family is also reduced once social workers have decided that adoption is the plan for the child. Such decisions on contact and non-restoration should only be taken by a judge in court. This is in accordance with the right to a fair hearing under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

  Under the new Bill the process of deciding for adoption is further speeded up, thereby hindering parents access to the legal system and justice. Poverty prevents birth parents from accessing the best legal representation to fight losing their child to adoption. Legal services provided under the Legal Aid Scheme, despite the theoretical quality checks of the solicitors' franchising process, are not always of the best quality and the poorest families in the most difficult situations often suffer most from this. Where a family have no telephone and sometimes no fixed address, or where under the stress surrounding them it is difficult to find the courage to return phone calls or answer letters, or have faith in any professionals, it can take enormous dedication on the part of individual lawyers to see that a client's prospects of a fair hearing do not simply fall through the net. Moreover, the experience of birth parents is that there is a tendency amongst solicitors to refuse to take the case, as they feel sure that adoption will go ahead anyway so there is little point fighting it.

  We oppose the use of the words freely and unconditionally to define "consent" in section 44(3)(a). The White Paper indicated that the wording of the adoption consent form would be changed to better reflect the birth parents' feelings. Many birth parents although able to recognise their own inability to parent their children, find it impossible to sign a form which states that their consent is given "freely and unconditionally". Consent forms should be worded so that the birth parents can make a statement about not agreeing to the adoption whilst still having their child's best interests at heart. This should be included in the definition of consent in the Bill so that the form of consent can reflect this.

  We endorse BAAF's recommendation that the word "freely" be replaced by "without improper duress or inducement". Being pressured to sign is presently a common experience of birth parents living in poverty. Experiences of inducement include: Social Services tricking the parent into signing by offering services; telling the parent that their child will be far better off with wealthier adoptive parents. Experiences of duress include: Social Services making threats of keeping the child in care permanently, never to be returned home; daily pressure before and directly after giving birth; pressure on a mother who has post-natal depression. The six weeks' grace given to mothers after giving birth in section 44(1) does not sufficiently protect them from improper duress at a very vulnerable time, which may continue for months after the birth. We recommend that section 44(1) read "Any consent given by the mother to the making of an adoption order is ineffective if it is given less than three months after the child's birth."

  We are concerned that targets to increase the number and speed of adoptions, mentioned in the White Paper, will increase the chance of inappropriately and unjustly placing children for adoption. Targets to increase the number and speed of adoptions may counter the best interests of children. Real success of legislation to improve the welfare of children would be measured by targets to reduce the number of children at risk of harm through the provision of support services best suited to each child's individual circumstances.

  We welcome Section 1(4)(a), which states that the court or adoption agency must have regard to the child's ascertainable wishes and feelings regarding the decision. However, we are disappointed that the views of the child are not given higher regard throughout the rest of the Bill. Birth parents' with whom we work have suggested that the views of their child have not been taken into account and that guardians ad litem do not always give the views of the child, but what they perceive to be in the child's best interests.

  We endorse the wish of the child over the wish of the parents at every stage of the proceedings. Decisions are being made concerning the entire lifetime of the child; the child's views should be of prime importance. The Bill should therefore reflect this by making statutory the mechanisms for ascertaining the child's views and ensuring that they are taken into account. The Bill omits to refer to the consent of the child concerned. If a child above age 10[12] expressly states that she or he does not want to be adopted then there should be no adoption.


  The right to identity is an extremely important issue central to the debate on the child's welfare under adoption. According to Article 8.1 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, States parties should undertake to respect the right of the child to preserve his or her identity, including nationality, name and family relations as recognised by law without unlawful interference. It is therefore vitally important that courts and adoption agencies have regard to this.

  Our experience working with people who have been adopted as children and have since tried to find out about their birth parents is that they are extremely ill prepared to confront their past. Not knowing their background causes psychological difficulties and lack of self worth. Adopted children are often denied access to their origins, and therefore a large part of their identity. Such a denial of a basic right will cause trauma at some stage in that person's life. If trauma results whilst still a child, the stability of the adoptive placement may be threatened. However, if an adopted child has immediate and ongoing access to his or her origins, the process of coming to terms with who they are and where they come from will help to promote the child's self esteem and positive identity. Knowing his or her roots does not lessen the love of the adopted child for his or her adopted parents. The Bill should serve to challenge this common misconception by making access to a child's origins statutory, even in cases of closed adoption where the child is not able to maintain contact with his or her birth family.

  Section 51 of the Bill states that an adopted person is to be treated in law as if the person had been born as a child of the marriage of the adopter or adopters. The wording as it stands serves to continue the myth that the adoptive parents are the actual birth parents. It should be worded "adopted children are to be treated in law in the same way as a child born of the marriage."

  To preserve identity, an adopted child should not be issued with what is in effect a new birth certificate (as set out in Section 61(4)) but with a certificate of adoption in addition to his or her original birth certificate. This would be more in line with Article 7.1 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child whereby the child shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have the right from birth to a name, nationality, and as far as possible, the right to know and be cared for by his or her parents. The child should also be allowed to keep their birth surname (jointly with the adoptive surname) if desired. These measures would go some way toward fully upholding the right of adopted children to know who they are and where they come from.


    "You hear about brothers and sisters having to search for each other or be reunited after years. For us we don't have to go around looking for one another. That is one good thing about it all, being together."

  The deep psychological effects on the identity and self-esteem of a child subjected to a closed, non-contact adoption, which severs all ties with birth family and therefore origin, must be recognised. Current "open" adoptions do not go far enough to alleviate this traumatic experience. Children feel rejected, and patterns of rejection often continue throughout their lives. Adoption attempts to create a new history and can bring children into conflict with their past and cause problems of personal identity. Fully-open adoption[13] is a means to countering the conflict and trauma by supporting children in understanding their lives in a way that is respectful and non-judgemental of background and heritage. Children should not be made to feel ashamed of their backgrounds and should not be denied the right to ongoing contact with their birth family and support to establish or maintain positive relationships with them. Simply because it has been decided that adoption is in the best interests of the child, does not mean that it is contrary to the best interests of the child to maintain contact with his or her birth family. This is also his or her right under Article 9 of The Convention on the Rights of the Child: "States Parties shall respect the right of the child who is separated from one or both parents to maintain personal relations and direct contact with both parents on a regular basis, except if it is contrary to the child's best interests." Fully-open adoption is a better means of supporting both the adopted child and the birth family in coping with the complex psychological trauma of adoption.

    "If prospective adopters are resistant to any information or contact that would benefit the child, then they are adopting for themselves because they want the love of that child exclusively. They're not the people we should be letting have children anyway."

  Research[14] has shown that: maintaining contact can contribute to the stability of placements; children can maintain attachments to a number of adult/parental figures; and security and positive sense of identity for children in long term care does not necessarily lie in the severing of connections and placement for adoption.

  Currently, the Bill leaves provision for contact following a placement order to the courts' discretion (Section 23(5)) and makes no reference to contact following an adoption order (Sections 38 to 49). The Adoption Contact Register under Section 65 is only for adopted persons who have reached the age of 18, not adopted children. The Bill has omitted to recognise the enormous benefits of contact for adopted children and in so doing is denying them access to the lifelong resource that their birth family represents.

  In the best interests of the child, the Bill should make specific provision for contact following adoption and placement orders. In the best interests of the child, there should be a presumption in all cases of fully open adoption.

  Complete severing of all links to a member of the birth family should only happen when he or she has been the perpetrator of sexual abuse, or when the child so wishes. Contact with the rest of the birth family should not be affected. Children should not be denied contact with other members of their family due to one member having committed abuse.

  In the best interests of the child, contact must be supported and maintained between siblings where their separation has been unavoidable. Contact between adopted siblings and siblings left in the birth family or born after the adoption must also be fully supported—as should attempts by children to find their siblings later in life.

  Approval of prospective adopters should require their commitment to maintain the level of contact between child and birth family required by fully-open adoption. Adoptive parents should be given support to ensure that they are able to carry out the contact arrangements made. There should be a statutory annual review of contact arrangements both to ensure that adoptive parents and Social Services are fulfilling their obligation to facilitate contact between birth families and adopted children, and to establish the changing wishes to the child with regard to the degree of contact they desire with their birth family.

  To facilitate adopted children's access to their origins and identity, we recommend that an independent National Contact Agency for processing letters and presents be set up. When a child clearly expresses the wish for the birth parents to be given information, support should be provided for this and the child should be updated at all times. At the very least, adopted children and birth parents have the right to be informed if one of them dies, even in the case of closed adoptions, and this should be legislated for. Birth parents and adopted children have said "The most vital piece of information is—are they alive?" Birth parents should be informed if their child dies and adopted children should be informed if a birth parent or sibling dies.


  "She has survived three attempts at suicide. What do they expect when you have your children taken away?"

  The following recommendation was made in the Department of Health's own Review of Adoption Law[15]:

    ". . . agencies should have a statutory duty to ensure parents of a child, whom it is proposed to place for adoption, are offered full opportunities to receive advice and counselling. This should be provided by a social worker who is not involved in the adoption plan if the birth parent so wishes." (para 28:6).

  Section 3 of the Bill makes statutory the maintenance of services (counselling, advice and information in connection with adoption) for children, their birth parents, prospective adopters and adoptive parents. However, the Bill (Section 4) only places a duty on local authorities to carry out an assessment of a person's need for adoption support services. There is no duty to actually provide these services once it has been decided that a person has needs for them. Section 4 (4) only places a duty on local authorities to decide whether to provide any such services to that person. It is recognised by all parties, including the Department of Health, that adopted children, birth parents and adoptive parents all need support. Support services should be on offer to everyone involved who can take them up as they see fit for their own individual circumstances.

  The provision of—not the assessment for—adoption support services should be a statutory duty on local authorities and therefore included in the Bill. Details of the provision of adoption support services should be included on the face of the Bill, not left completely to regulations and guidance.

  Adoption support is necessary and should be statutory for children who may be or are adopted, birth parents and extended birth family (including siblings), prospective adopters with whom a child is placed and, adoptive parents. We are concerned here with the support of birth families.

  It is important that this support is adequately funded to ensure access and delivery to all birth families nationally. Post adoptive support for birth parents must not be given less priority than services for adopted children and adoptive parents.

  The Review of Adoption Law further advocated a role for independent counselling and advice to be made available (para 28:5). Advice and counselling for birth parents should be from the time that adoption becomes the plan and should always be provided free of charge to families on low income. This is necessary to help them make a decision based on a full understanding of the legal, and possible psychological and emotional implications of adoption for themselves and their child and, to be in accordance with Article 21 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child: State Parties shall ensure that (. . .) if required, the persons concerned have given their informed consent to the adoption on the basis of such counselling as may be necessary. Counselling is also necessary to prevent the distress, anger and hurt being aimed at the social worker or judge in charge of the case and this being held against the birth parents in the proceedings, possibly causing unnecessary delays. Counselling for the birth family (parents and siblings) should continue after the child has been adopted to prevent trauma leading to, or exacerbating any of: depression, suicide, addiction, unemployment, or homelessness. These are serious problems that will have a detrimental effect on the birth parents' ability to be a lifelong resource for their child through contact and into adulthood.

  Families experiencing persistent poverty are not used to working with professionals. To redress the power imbalance between families and professionals it should be recognised that there is a need for additional time and extra support, specifically adapted to the vulnerability of the families' situation. The support worker should be independent, able to be objective, explain things to the birth parents and help them to present their views. Because the system is adversarial and intimidating there is a need for someone to be alongside the birth parents to hep them to better express themselves. An advocate should be available in specific cases, such as where the parents have learning difficulties, literacy problems and difficulty in expressing themselves.

  It must be recognised that, even when their skills are inadequate, most birth parents still deeply love their children and that they can change and improve their parenting skills. Correspondingly, agencies and support workers should continue to work with birth families post-adoption to improve their situation and parenting skills for the benefit of both their adopted children during contact visits and future children born into the birth family.

    "Going to court you are made to feel like you committed a crime."

    "If you are prosecuted under criminal law you are innocent until proven guilty. In care proceedings you are guilty until proven innocent."

    "We all feel sidelined when it comes to giving evidence."

  It is the experience of birth parents living in persistent poverty that defence evidence in contested cases is not given fair weight or sufficient resources relative to evidence from Social Services. Yet the right to a fair hearing implies a right to equality of arms. The quality of representation is often a factor of the level of funding which is permitted by the Community Legal Service Fund. Equality of arms demands that solicitors in publicly funded cases should be allowed to spend more time and money on case preparation. Proper resources must therefore be made available to birth family's lawyers so that the issues can be fairly determined. Resources applied to the determination of vital issues should not be stacked on the side of the public authorities. Under Article 6 of The European Convention on Human Rights everyone charged with a criminal offence is entitled to a fair hearing and shall be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to the law. In adoption proceedings Social Services effectively act as prosecution. Even if adoption proceedings are not a criminal prosecution, the consequences for the birth parents are extremely serious. Article 6 also provides for a fair hearing for civil obligations and therefore birth parents deserve the right to have better representation and present evidence whether or not they are contesting the adoption.

  At present many Local Authority Social Service departments looking after children also act as adoption agencies and this creates a perceived conflict of interest both financially and ethically. Detailed consideration should be given to whether Social Services should act as adoption agencies or whether alternative local and national arrangements should be made.


    "When children go to a family that provides more for them in terms of material things it makes it harder to meet or go back to the birth parents. It also makes it difficult to maintain contact and come to terms with their birth heritage."

  Section 1(5) states that in placing the child for adoption, the adoption agency must give due consideration to the child's religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background. We welcome this, but would like the duty of responsibility to be extended also to the courts. We also welcome attempts to extend opportunities for adopting children to a wider spectrum of society to meet the diverse needs of children. However socio-economic class should also be recognised as an important part of birth heritage and identity. As much as possible children should be matched with adoptive parents of similar socio-economic class to their birth families. The systematic use of Family Group Conferences (as advocated by Family Rights Group[16]) to look for permanent solutions within the extended family and people of significance to the child would facilitate this.


  We greatly welcome the new legal option of special guardianship. We would like to see included in the Bill a more comprehensive description of special guardianship and how this will be resourced. Given adequate contact arrangements, a special guardianship order would provide an option to fully respect the child's right to his or her origins and identity. We therefore recommend the specific inclusion of contact arrangements that are as open as possible in Section 94 of the Bill.


  There is an overall lack of resources to fund Adoption. The £66 million announced over three years under Quality Protects is not anywhere near sufficient to fund the reformed adoption measures and rectify the acute shortage of qualified staff. We would like to see more on resourcing included on the face of the Bill.

  It is clear that this Bill has progressed rapidly. Adoption exerts far-reaching effects on the lives of children and their families. It is of vital importance that this once-in-a-generation reform of adoption law guarantees the fulfilment of children's needs and rights. This can only be achieved through the full participation of all groups who have a stake in adoption (including the least heard group—the birth parents). This requires sufficient time and willingness to be fully inclusive in the law reform process. The amount of important detail left to regulations and guidance in this Bill is of concern. The timetable for consultation on the regulations and guidance should be made public, and be of a sufficient length of time to allow for real participation.


  For a copy of ATD Fourth World's Consultation Response to the National Adoption Standards and further information please contact:

  John Penet, National Coordinator, ATD Fourth World, 48 Addington Square, London SE5 7LB.

May 2001

10   Passages in italics are the words of birth parents and children with first hand experience of adoption. Back

11   BAAF Surveying Adoption, A comprehensive analysis of local authority adoptions 1998-99. Back

12   In a fully supported environment, a child should be able to make a decision from around this age. Back

13   Fully open adoption should entail access visits and days out (unsupervised by social services but supported by other agencies where necessary); unlimited correspondence (including presents) by direct mail or through a National Contact Agency where appropriate; regular telephone contact; and exchange of photographs. Contact should not just be with birth parents but siblings, grandparents, extended family and people of significance to the child, in accordance with the child's changing wishes. In the case of a child being adopted due to sexual abuse in the birth family, the perpetrator/s should not be allowed contact but contact with the rest of the birth family should not be affected. Back

14   Quoted in: Working with children and "Lost" parents: Putting partnership into practice, by Judith Masson et al 1997 York Publishing. Back

15   Department of Health, Review of Adoption Law, HMSO, 1992. Back

16   Family Group Conferences: Family Decision Making; Family Rights Group. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 11 May 2001