Adoption and Children Bill

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Ms Munn: On the relationship between voluntary agencies and local authorities when people's home studies are done and approved, and the subsequent monitoring when a child first comes into the country, what does your organisation feel about the current arrangements? Should they change?

Naomi Angell: With regard to pre-adoption procedures, we are concerned that it is difficult to get a home study at the moment. There are considerable time delays, and we are concerned that the duty to provide an inter-country adoption service should be a real duty that is fulfilled. At the moment, the voluntary adoption agencies have quite long waiting lists, and local authorities are saying the same. Local authorities are tackling that problem by setting up consortiums. There is one in west London and one in north London, and one hopes that those will tackle some of the issues. However, I think that there are real problems at the moment in terms of obtaining a home study and juggling that against the increased duties on local authorities with regard to domestic adoption assessment and the time limits under the standards. That needs to be looked at.

In terms of the position afterwards, the regulations will enable voluntary agencies to be able to charge for post-placement reports. That will certainly be necessary; Jacky Gordon raised earlier the point that the voluntary agencies will be in difficulty in terms of resources if they cannot obtain finance for post-placement duties.

Ms Munn: Are there any other issues about inter-country adoption that you do not feel have been tackled by the proposals?

Naomi Angell: There is the issue in clause 12 of the proposed review of decisions made by the agency decision-maker. We feel that there also needs to be a review process of central authority decision-making. As it stands, the home study report goes to the Department of Health after decisions made by the agency decision-maker, which then has a decision-making role in relation to that. The criteria that they use to make that decision are not clear, and there is no review process other than judicial review, which is expensive, time-consuming and inaccessible. We feel that there needs to be transparency and accountability.

Ms Munn: To bring that into line.

Naomi Angell: To bring that into line. Another issue is the registration of overseas adoptions. It will be possible, under schedule 1, to register overseas adoptions—designated country adoptions—on the adopted children's register. That will enable people to get the equivalent of a birth certificate; a document that a child can produce throughout their adult life whenever they are asked for a birth certificate. At the moment, it is not possible for those adoptions to be registered. It will be fine for children adopted after the Act, but it should have a retrospective effect. For example, in a family that has two adopted children from China, one of whom was adopted before the Act and the other after it, those two children will have two different records. It is very difficult to have to produce a record or a birth certificate, or whatever one is asked for officially, that states that an individual is abandoned or parentless, or that is just based on the Chinese information. That can be very difficult for the child.

There is also the general issue about the facilitation of inter-country adoption. There are certainly welcome provisions that introduce controls against cases such as the Kilshaw case. Facilitation, encouragement and help should be given to people so that they can adopt properly. At the moment, it is very difficult for families to do that. They may be able to obtain a home study report from a voluntary agency or a local authority, but after that they are on their own. They have to make contact with the foreign country, seek information on that country, and meet all the legal procedures in their country and in the child's country. They must ensure that the child is eligible for adoption. Many of the best-organised countries will not deal with British families, because they prefer to deal with linking agencies rather than individuals who are learning the system for the first time. There are no linking or full-service agencies in this country. British families use American full-service agencies, adding another complex component to an already complex situation.

British families need to be put on a level playing field. We need funding to start up linking, mediation and full-service inter-country adoption agencies to ensure fairness for British families. At the moment, the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999 allows a country to register an inter-country adoption agency only if it is also registered as a domestic adoption agency. That gives quite a difficult set of procedures for them to achieve, particularly if they are attempting to set up a smaller operation, although we totally accept that it has to be properly regulated.

The Chairman: We have two other areas to cover before we conclude, but there is another question from Mr. Bellingham.

Mr. Bellingham: May I go back to the pre-adoption situation? You mentioned home studies. I have been briefed in detail by the director of social services in Norfolk, whose department experiences a great deal of pressure on resources, manning and so on. Taking over home studies in the country of adoption would be an additional strain. On the one hand, there is that situation; on the other hand, there are independent, experienced social workers, who have been doing private home studies. How do you harness that resource? Do you do it through a voluntary agency, through a consortium, or do the social workers work for local authorities? Are they licensed by local authorities? Would you comment on that?

Naomi Angell: My experience is that local authorities and voluntary agencies use self-employed social workers to do the work. They do it for the agency and, as the agencies are able to charge fees for the reports, it should not result in a financial loss to the agency. That gives flexibility in providing services to the agency.

11 am

Mr. Djanogly: Do you agree with the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering regarding placement orders? It has said that if the parents do not consent, the Bill should use the words

    ``adoption would be so significantly better for the child than any other option as to justify overriding the parents' wishes.''

Will the Bill make it too easy for placement orders to be made against parents' wishes?

Jim Richards: I agree that there must be a higher threshold than just the welfare of the child. It has been argued that if you go through the steps in clause 1 of the Bill, it will ensure that the various thresholds will have been jumped over. However, I would still point to that and urge the need to look at a phrase such as ``is significantly better.''

Mr. Dawson: During any court appearance surrounding placement orders, should children of sufficient age and understanding have the ability to refuse consent to adoption?

Jim Richards: The Bill says that the wishes and feelings of the child, given the age and understanding of the child, should be taken into consideration. That is sufficient, as long as it is clearly recorded in any reports going to the court, and as long as the child is properly represented, which means having a good children's guardian service and legal representation. It is too much to expect a child to take on the burden of making the decision, ``Yes, I want to be adopted'' or ``No, I do not''. We are talking about children and there needs to be a legitimate amount of paternalism and maternalism in looking after a child. We should take the child's views and record them, but take into account age and understanding.

Mr. Brazier: I congratulate Norwood Ravenswood on gaining the contract to run the national register. It is good news that an experienced voluntary adoption agency has won that contract. Is the organisation satisfied that the Bill has a sufficient element of compulsion to ensure that it creates a true national register? Some local authorities—I do not want to pick out individual ones—have a poor adoption record.

Vivienne Reed: There have been meetings with local authorities throughout the country in the last two months. The feedback that we received is that all local authorities and agencies feel able to comply with the register. There is no evidence to say that any local authorities will not comply.

Mr. Brazier: Are you satisfied that authorities will give you all the names that they should, and that children will not be lost in the system? Parents who have passed may not be pushed forward. Often, agencies have a financial interest in keeping parents to themselves in order to take an expensive child off their hands.

Vivienne Reed: The feedback that we have had is that some local authorities may feel that it is yet another burden on them to have to do that, but I have no feedback to say that they will not do it. They have embraced the concept of the register.

Mr. Brazier: Thank you. I move on to another subject that all three groups may want to comment on. Yesterday, we had a long session with the Local Government Association and Department of Health officials to discuss the regulation of small self-help groups, which several of us are concerned about. Do you have any views on that? Margaret Dight mentioned the idea of sending people for counselling to a self-help group run by doctors. The Bill will regulate all but a small group of people who are active in the adoption field. Can we exempt from legislation groups that are wholly or mainly run by doctors?

Margaret Dight: There are two slightly separate issues here that overlap. Anyone who provides a professional service in the adoption arena and is seen by prospective recipients of those services as being a professional body should definitely be the subject of regulation. I have no hesitation in saying that whatsoever. There are a number of support groups that are often established and through agencies—buddy networks, friendship groups—that are less formal, and give support when individuals require it. There is less need to make that sort of organisation subject to regulation. That is a very heavy-handed method of regulating something that, in a sense, cannot be regulated because it is about meeting the needs of particular individuals at the particular time that they approach a particular group. For professional services, yes, absolutely; for non-professional, friendship services, no. That is too heavy.

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