Adoption and Children Bill

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Tim Loughton: It would be useful to have some more statistics. How many foster parents later became adoptive parents of the children placed with them? The shortage of willing foster parents is obviously a key resource problem, and what Professor Jackson said about local authorities wanting to keep them is true. What is the proportion of mixed foster and adoptive parents—parents who have adopted children that they had previously fostered but who still act as foster parents for other children? Is that unusual? Should it be encouraged?

Professor Triseliotis: It is not unusual, but I could not really give you exact figures. We know that some 13 per cent. of foster carers each year adopt their foster children, but how many of those continue? I certainly know in our—I should go back perhaps. We did a survey of 1,000 foster carers in Scotland. I know that a number of them left, but they came into fostering with that explicit purpose: they would foster and if they adopted the child, that is what they were going to do. But quite a number of others did not stop fostering.

There can be issues, and one of the issues that we have come across is when a foster family adopts one child that is fostered but does not adopt another. There can be feelings between the children when this happens. It is not as clear as that, but I would like to see, like the example before, more foster parents being allowed to adopt, simply because it is not good for children to be moved from one family to another; children themselves do not like it, and the older they are the less they like the idea of being moved.

Tim Loughton: Are you saying that ideally there should be a system whereby there is a probationary fostering period that becomes an adoptive period? Is that an ideal that we should try to achieve? Is there empirical evidence to support the stability of such a rite of passage, compared with cases in which people have adopted someone whom they did not know so well before?

Professor Triseliotis: I wrote in one of my articles that for some of the more difficult children and when neither side is ready to make a commitment, an arrangement can be made for fostering that could be developed into adoption. Some children are themselves cautious about that, and some carers are cautious. There is no harm in allowing for that possibility, when both sides may become more certain that that is what they want.

Professor Jackson: I would like to see a position in which, when children are being looked after and there is no realistic possibility of their returning to their families, adoption is considered as a contingency plan right from the beginning, not as a last resort. In the past 20 years or so, there has been a negative culture in social work in relation to adoption, which has been unfortunate. One of the things that I have heard over and over again from young people who have grown up in care is, ``Why wasn't I adopted?''

The Chairman: Presumably, you would share the view that recently, and in particular since the Children Act 1989, social workers have placed too much emphasis on supporting contact with the natural family and restoring the child to the natural family, rather than on moving away from the natural family and making a clean break?

Professor Jackson: Restoring to the natural family is one thing, and contact can mean a lot of different things. From the point of view of identity, it is important that children should be allowed to preserve a connection with their birth family, but not necessarily face-to-face contact. The 1989 Act has been misinterpreted by many social workers to mean that they are obliged to keep trying to return children to parents who are not able to look after them and may, indeed, abuse or neglect them.

Professor Triseliotis: May I qualify that slightly? There are two aspects. One is that of generational continuity, which we have been talking about in relation to access to records. The other one, which is new in the past 10 to 15 years, is that of emotional continuity. Some of the children adopted now are older and have emotional links with a mother, grandparent or an uncle. You cannot excise those links from a four-year-old, five-year-old, six-year-old or seven-year-old. We know that some children need to maintain that link, and it may have to involve face-to-face contact periodically—maybe three or four times a year. That is not the same as share parenting. Contact of that sort does not damage the placement or the relationship. Children are aware of the differences between different types of relationships.

Professor Jackson: I agree with that.

Mr. Dawson: The vast majority of children who come into care are fostered, and the vast majority of children who come into care return home after a short period. Are there dangers in giving foster carers the idea that fostering can lead to adoption, when in fact what we might want those foster carers to do is work actively with the child, the family and the social worker to ensure a safe and secure return to the natural parents?

Professor Jackson: We are now distinguishing much more clearly between short-term placements of the kind that you are describing, and situations in which it is clear that the child will not be able to return safely to the birth family.

Professor Triseliotis: That kind of possibility can arise, but strangely enough it is the foster carers who adopt their foster children who run the most open forms of adoption and are prepared to see what is best for the child. They are much more prepared to accommodate a member of the birth family, for example, if it is important to the child. Thus, it can go either way.

Professor Jackson: May I reinforce John's point about contact? It is not only the mother or father who may be emotionally important to the child. There is a wide range of other relations and friends.

Professor Triseliotis: This is for those who want to change section 51 of the Adoption Act 1976. A survey by Lowe and Murch found that 80 per cent. of the children adopted in the middle 1990s had had some form of contact with members of their birth family. Many had indirect contact, through letters and so on, but a high proportion had direct contact with mothers and siblings. Many siblings had each other's addresses; they knew where each one was. To try to police an area such as that, under the current adoption system, would be a nightmare, and it would be unnecessary policing.

Mr. Brazier: I entirely take the point about grandparents and, critically, sibling contact. However, unless I misunderstood you, the logical progression of face-to-face contact with birth parents would be to end up eventually with the Australian system, which was referred to earlier. They have virtually open adoption. The effect has been a complete collapse of adoption numbers, because adoptive parents, already taking on a difficult role by adopting abused and damaged children, also have to take on the idea of occasional face-to-face contact with the birth parents. The latest figures that I have for Australia indicate that the entire number of children adopted in the past year was less than 500.

Professor Jackson: With respect, that has much more to do with the ``stolen generation'' and the relationship with the Aboriginal population. That is a large issue that we should perhaps not get into.

I see that we are running out of time. I wanted to make a point about post-adoption services.

The Chairman: By all means, lead us in to it.

Professor Triseliotis: May I just say that I warned the Australians in 1989, when I was there, that an anti-adoption attitude was developing in government circles; however, that was different from the situation that we have in Britain. We must not confuse the two. I regret what happened in Australia; I warned them.

The Chairman: Professor Jackson, you mentioned support services.

Professor Jackson: I want to make a point about clause 4. As so often happens with anything from a social services perspective, education is sidelined, whereas it is absolutely crucial to the success of adoption and fostering, too. If children are not settled and doing well in school, that has an impact on their home life, particularly if they are excluded from school and no placement is found quickly for them, or if they are relegated to a substandard kind of education—pupil referral units and that kind of thing. That puts a strain on the adoptive relationship, which it sometimes is not able to withstand. That is partly to blame for the relatively high—although still quite low; I think that it is about 8 per cent.—level of placements that do not proceed to adoption.

If we want adoption to succeed, it is essential to include education personnel—teachers—in the post-adoption support service. I do not think that they will be included unless something stronger is added to clause 4.

Tim Loughton: Education is a good example. Many of the witnesses discussed a multi-agency approach to support services. What other support services would you advocate? We use the great phrase ``support services'' when we place obligations on local authorities to provide support services after doing an assessment. What does that mean in practical terms?

Professor Jackson: The most glaring gap is in psychiatric services. I have just published a comparative study of the health of looked-after children in care and of children who are living at home. What shouts at one from the study is the desperate need for psychological services for children who would not necessarily be diagnosed as mentally ill using strictly psychiatric criteria, but whose behaviour is very disturbed and where it is far beyond the capacity of parents to deal with that behaviour without help and support. The problem is that those services are not currently available. I know that the Government are trying to do something about that, but the impact on children who are placed for adoption is probably much greater than on children who are living with their own families. The risk to adopted children is much greater.

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With regard to education, the big problem is that children who come from care to be adopted bring with them a range of educational problems, especially a reputation that makes them unacceptable to schools. That reputation may be completely undeserved. They may be of normal intelligence and behaviour, but simply the fact that they have been in care stigmatises them and makes schools reluctant to accept them.

A useful example from New South Wales is that a child who has been in care must be given preference for a school place over a child who lives in their own family. That is a legal requirement and it would be useful to introduce that in this country.

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