Adoption and Children Bill

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Professor Jackson: Yes.

Kevin Brennan: Are either of you aware of any academic or organisation involved in adoption—apart from the Department of Health—that thinks it is a good idea to change the current provisions enabling adopted children to have access to their birth certificates?

Professor Jackson: As I understand it, all voluntary organisations are in agreement that that would be a retrograde step and are opposed to it.

Professor Triseliotis: To my knowledge, I know of no one who is really for the proposal. Scotland has reduced to 16 the age at which adopted people can have access because it has caused no problems for 70 years.

Professor Jackson: There is a much better understanding now of the importance of identity to children who have to live away from their own families.

Mr. Djanogly: Regarding birth parents contacting adopted children, is it not important to distinguish between pre-1976 cases and post-1976 cases? For example, in pre-1976 cases, it is possible—indeed, it is frequently the case—that a lot of the children do not even know that they were adopted, so to have a birth parent contact them could lead to a significant change in their lives that would be less likely in a post-1976 case.

Professor Triseliotis: I do not really support the view of keeping secrets because the adoptive parents chose not to tell. It is regrettable if any parents are still doing so, but I would not be surprised. Eventually, it will come out—it is unlikely that it will be kept a secret—but the longer that it is kept a secret, the more the trauma will be at the end.

Mr. Djanogly: But at the point at which those parents adopted, they had the right to make that choice. That was the basis on which they adopted.

Professor Triseliotis: Interestingly enough, the study that we are doing now—we rushed to analyse the figures, to provide the Committee with a more objective view—shows that 94 per cent. of birth mothers who have been sought out by their children were pleased or very pleased that they did so. Only an insignificant number have doubts, and 94 per cent. were positive or very positive. In human research, it is rare to get those kinds of percentages.

Professor Jackson: I support that. It is a pity if we get completely stuck on this point, on which there seems to be a wide measure of agreement.

The Chairman: We will move on.

Mr. Brazier: Just before we move on to placement orders, I want to be clear on the current point. Do you both propose that it should be possible for birth parents to signal to children who are under 18 that they wish to contact them?

Professor Triseliotis: We are saying that about children over the age of 17 or 18.

Mr. Brazier: I just wanted to be clear about that.

We heard testimony yesterday from British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering. It said that only a high threshold should be allowed for cases in which children were placed for adoption against the wishes of their parents. Its suggested wording was:

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

Do you feel that the Bill, which makes the child's interests paramount—I am trying to put it in a neutral way—is correctly drafted; or do you support BAAF's call for a much higher hurdle?

Professor Jackson: I would be absolutely opposed to it. There is clear evidence, which is acknowledged by the Government and was repeatedly stated in the Lords debate on 24 October, that the care system has not been a good parent to the children for whom it has been providing substitute care; in particular, it has been unable to provide stability for a high proportion of children who cannot live at home. My research on stability and instability shows—I think that Professor Triseliotis' review would agree with this—that adoption is by far the most stable form of substitute placement. Of course, it is not suitable for all children, but if we put the welfare of children above the interests of the parents, as we should under the Children Act 1989, I do not think that raising the threshold would be a good idea—in fact, it would be a very bad idea.

We still have only 5 per cent. of children being adopted from care, which is a very low proportion, although many of those children will never be able to live with their parents again. The Government's initiative has already had good results—the proportion rose by 40 per cent. between 1998 and the present, which is encouraging—but I still feel that there is enormous scope to raise the number of children adopted from care who cannot live with their parents. Obviously, I want to emphasise that the best thing is for children to live in and grow up with their own families, but we know that many children cannot do so, and adoption is by far the best alternative for them.

Mr. Brazier: In summary, would you say that adopting the BAAF proposal would seriously jeopardise the Government's objective of increasing the number of children being adopted?

Professor Jackson: That is my opinion.

Professor Triseliotis: I said before that I do a fair amount of court work and I see lots of cases involving children of different ages who are subject to different decisions and different judges in all parts of the UK. I agree with Professor Jackson that to raise the level higher would deprive many children of the opportunity of adoption. Usually, two alternatives are put to judges—long-term foster care and a residence order. First, one of our research studies has clearly demonstrated that what children value is when their legal rights are in the hands of their parents or adopted parents. I am publishing an article in next year's Child and Family Social Work journal—I could send an advance copy to the Committee—in which I outline the advantages and disadvantages of those two forms of long-term substitute parenting.

I make no bones that adoption is the preferred option—instead of long-term foster care, with its unpredictabilities and uncertainties. The possibilities of a long-term foster care placement lasting to the age of 16 or 17—it should extend beyond that—are about one in twelve. That is a very low percentage. However, the biggest advantage that we have found in adoption is the emotional and legal security that it provides to children. Before we conducted one of our studies, it never occurred to us that the children themselves would place so much value on legally—as they put it—belonging to their parents. ``By law'', they said, ``they are ours. By law, I can call them mum and dad. By law, I belong here.''

That kind of emotional commitment is the basic difference that we found. Most foster carers are excellent, but they come into fostering with a different kind of commitment. Long-term fostering has an opt-out clause. Adoption can have an opt-out clause, but it is a different one—the commitment is different. That is what we are trying to say: there is that emotional difference, which the children themselves value. Children and adults have known from time immemorial what adoption is about and the kinds of feelings that it raises. They do not understand guardianship orders, long-term permanent fostering, and all that: as we found, those do not convey that kind of emotional security.

Mr. Shaw: With regard to the issue of children living with foster carers, is not a part of the opt-out clause—as you describe it—due to the old legislation, which meant that young people left care at 16 or 17? We have changed that law: young people can stay in care until they 21—and up to the age of 24, if they are in education or training. If that legislation had been introduced, say, 10 years ago, would that have had an effect on the outcome of your study?

Professor Triseliotis: The study by York university projected the kinds of figures that I mentioned earlier. About one in 12, or one in eight—a very small percentage—last as long as they are needed.

What I am trying to say is that, increasingly, you will have more breakdowns in both adoption and fostering because of the kind of child that now goes to either. Nevertheless, we did an analysis by age group, which is an important factor, and even when you do that, there are still higher levels of breakdown within long-term fostering. And nobody knows what will happen after the five years—the period at which most studies stop. Attrition continues up to the ages of 16 and 17. If they last up to 16, they do not need the legislation to tell them that the child becomes almost part of the family.

At the same time, I am saying that there are situations in which long-term fostering is the appropriate solution. I am dealing with such a case at the moment. Two children, aged five and seven, have been living with their foster parents for three or four years. They cannot return to their families. The foster carers cannot adopt them, for several reasons, but they are prepared to make a commitment to keep them. Now, you cannot free those children for adoption under any kind of order. It is unlikely that an uprooting and transplanting of that sort will work. So of course, what you do there is support the fostering arrangement to make life good for the children, to last them to find a social place in their life.

Mr. Dawson: We have heard some powerful evidence today. Could our witnesses give us their ideas about the future of the new concept of special guardianship? With the transfer of parental responsibilities, it will obviously be a new means of securing stability for children in long-term placements.

11.45 am

Professor Jackson: If it is going to work, it will need a great deal of support and explanation, because it seems to be quite close to the concept of custodianship, which you will remember came in under the Children Act 1975 and was never really implemented at all. I think it could suffer the same fate, for the reason that Professor Triseliotis has given—that it is not meaningful to lay people and to children. But I do see that it has a place.

I would like to make another point, which is about the relationship between fostering and adoption. Most older children, if you look at the statistics, are actually adopted by their foster parents; but we know that a lot of local authorities are not at all keen to encourage foster parents to adopt because it means they lose a resource. I do not know if there is some way that the Bill could take account of that and counteract it, because it seems to me that in those cases the local authorities are definitely not acting for the welfare of the children, since they know that adoptions by foster parents of older children are among the most successful—I think they ought to be given every encouragement.

Professor Triseliotis: I agree with a lot what Professor Jackson has said. I hope you do not regard me as cynical, but of course these provisions existed before: we used to call them guardianship in Scotland when you called it custodianship; when you called it custodianship here, we called it guardianship in Scotland—to make sure we were a bit different. It has not been taken up, as many of you know, and residence orders have not been taken up. The main reason is what we found from some of our studies—that there is always the possibility of reversing the arrangement. The new guardianship order has that possibility, too. I hope it works, because in the kind of example I gave before—and there are many like that—it may produce a little more security. If can produce a bit more security, it can go some way, but do not put too many hopes into that.

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