Adoption and Children Bill

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Moira Gibb: I have no responsibility there.

I think that it is very important to note that the Children Act report pointed out that half the children in stable placements were insecurely attached. It is very important that we do not simply see an adoptive family—or a foster family, for that matter—as the answer to children's problems. As Meg says, the services are absolutely vital. We do not understand enough about how to create that attachment, but we need to ensure that we learn from what does work and pass that on.

Felicity Collier: It is also very important to prepare children for placement properly, and to have the social work expertise and multi-disciplinary resources to help children move on from a very troubled past. Also, we should not push out too far the barriers for the sorts of children whom adopters who are proved suitable for adopting are interested in adopting. Adopters who make excellent adoptive parents to very young children may find very difficult the challenge of older children with more distressing pasts. Where you push the barriers and persuade people to take children outside their original choice, there is some evidence that those placements can fail.

Also, there should be a realistic understanding of, and information on, the past of that child; their birth families, the baggage that they bring with them, their need to know, and contact issues. I sometimes think that adoptive parents have to be saints to be able to cope with all those issues, and we owe them our enormous respect and gratitude.

Kevin Brennan: I wish to return to the rights of non-married couples to adopt, and to the points made by you, Mr. Chairman, by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) and by Andrew Christie. We should consider—and not just in respect of inheritance—that where an unmarried couple are not allowed to adopt and, sadly, their relationship breaks up, the child is denied the right to express a preference as to which parent to stay with. Is that not a further denial of the right of the adopted child?

Andrew Christie: I would agree. A question was asked about the risks in terms of the stability of relationships that are not underpinned by the marriage contract. The reality is that when we undertake any assessment of prospective adopters, married or otherwise, we have to give consideration to the potential for such things happening. God forbid—it is obviously something that we seek to minimise—but we must have in mind the potential consequences in circumstances where, married or otherwise, the two parents are no longer able to live together.

Felicity Collier: Could I just add one point about the commitment of the extended family on both sides? We want both sets of grandparents—the families of both parents or of both pseudo-adoptive parents—to accept the child as a member of their family. These children need a network of family members around them to promote their security.

Mr. Shaw: I want to bring us back to the issue of private fostering. First, I have a question for BAAF. At the beginning of Terry Philpott's report there is a dedication to Victoria Climbie, of whose tragic case we are all doubtless aware. It states:

    ``This tragic case may yet provoke a change in the law to offer greater protection to all those children who find themselves similarly cared for.''

Is it not true that the problem was not just that Victoria was privately fostered, but that, as the inquiry revealed, the services failed? Is not to attribute the problem to private fostering alone to play on the emotions of the issue?

Felicity Collier: I want to make it really clear that this was not cheap sensationalism. It was a very thought-out and considered response. We are not saying, and have never said, that proper approval and registration of private foster carers would have saved Victoria Climbie's life. We know that it was not apparent until after her death that she was not the daughter of the woman caring for her, who was convicted of her murder. That will probably emerge from the inquiry.

She was being cared for by a distant relative, however, who within the Children Act 1989 would not have been counted as a relative, so, ipso facto, she was privately fostered. I might add that the woman was a virtual stranger to Victoria.

Why we make such comparisons is because the reasons the Climbies gave to the Laming inquiry for making such private arrangements are very typical of birth parents who have their children privately fostered. They believed that their child would have a better life, education and opportunities in the future. They believed that the carer—the great aunt—was suitable because she was well educated, had travelled and been overseas, and had money and credit cards. That may sound incredibly naive, but it demonstrates why so many west African birth parents genuinely believe, from the bottom of their hearts, that they are giving their children a better chance.

Mr. Shaw: So what Victoria's parents could have done, had there been a registration scheme, was ring up the local authority and say, ``Are these people okay? We've never heard of them and they could be paedophiles for all we know.'' How would a registration scheme work?

Felicity Collier: The issue of registration is that people with the same motivation of wanting their children cared for—so that the children can have such opportunities—would then know that there was a register available from which they could choose somebody. Admittedly, it is more difficult when they live in other countries. At the moment, they have to go into the marketplace and identify people through word of mouth, through people who we know are brokers or through strangers. In the past, there have even been adverts in shop windows and Nursery World. If I want my child childminded, I ask the local authority for a register of approved and suitable people, and then choose one. All we want is for birth parents who make that choice to have the opportunity of knowing that someone has been checked out—they cannot do it themselves.

Mr. Shaw: You are a British organisation so you cover all countries in the UK. I understand that in Scotland, under the parallel Bill to the Care Standards Act 2000, the Scottish Parliament made provisions to register private foster carers.

Felicity Collier: Yes, it did.

Mr. Shaw: Can you tell the Committee how that is working? Is it social services or the national—

Felicity Collier: I need to be clear. Scotland is not currently setting up a register. What is happening is that the National Care Standards Commission has to inspect private fostering arrangements and local authorities' supervision of those arrangements. That is a significant improvement on what we currently have in England.

Mr. Shaw: Parliament provides social services departments with the enormous task of implementing various legislation. If this legislation were passed, do you, Mr. Christie, see the measure requiring social services departments to set up a register as insurmountable?

Andrew Christie: No, I do not. Fairly recently, the chief inspector sent us a letter, which set out expectations in respect of private fostering. They were, to keep a record—we are about to be inspected, so I am sure that that will be looked at—and to promote publicity. We undertook those responsibilities and, frankly, the response was disappointing. We publicised it through health visitors to school, and so on.

My view is that, in addition to having a requirement to register, there has to be some kind of notion of enforcement and penalty, which would apply if one did not do that. That still would not mean that everybody would come forward, but I think that it would increase the likelihood that people would, which minimises risk. That is essentially our responsibility.

Mr. Shaw: Is that your view, or that of the ADSS?

Andrew Christie: It is my personal view as well.

The Chairman: Do you believe that, if there were penalties there, you would have had a much bigger response than you got to the advertisements?

Andrew Christie: I think that it is quite possible. Sad to relate, we have an opportunity coming up, with the publication of the Climbie inquiry, for these matters to be more in the public mind. That may be an opportunity that we should consider taking advantage of.

Mr. Shaw: Does the ADSS have a view?

Moira Gibb: We support the development of a register, and see this as an important gap in current protection. Obviously, we would always want to add that any new service has to be resourced, because it will fall disproportionately on a number of authorities where there has been a practice of private fostering.

Mr. Shaw: Has the ADSS had any discussion with the Department of Health since 1993 that you are aware of? Lord Laming was the chief inspector at that time. Has there been any further discussion about the possibility of a registration scheme, how it would work and who should do it?

Moira Gibb: I would have to check with my colleagues who lead on children and families, but I could not say that we had had discussions specifically on that point.

Jacqui Smith: I think that there is a general consensus that this is a problem that needs addressing. Where there may not be consensus is on what will make a practical difference. Referring back to our earlier evidence, a fundamental question is, why, in your experience, do people not notify about private fostering arrangements, despite the extra attempts that have been made to raise awareness? What can we do differently, in terms of registration, that would make people more likely to notify? There is a problem if we do not know where people are, and part of the argument is whether people are willing to register. What must happen to make people more willing to notify and then to comply with the registration scheme?

We have talked about enforcement and penalty. Presumably, one reason why people do not notify is that, in an unregulated system, they are rightly concerned about what will happen if they come to the authorities' attention. Is there a risk that if we regulated the system and enforced it in the way that you mentioned, it might make people less willing to come forward? How would we overcome that?

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