Adoption and Children Bill

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The Chairman: I welcome colleagues to this sitting and, in particular, I welcome our witnesses. I should point out that our proceedings could be interrupted by Divisions of the House. If the Division Bell rings, we will adjourn immediately for 15 minutes. If there is a second Division straight away, our adjournment will last a further 15 minutes. In that event, I ask the witnesses to remain and, hopefully, the Members will return at some point. We are time-limited, so I am hoping that my colleagues will be fairly sharp in their questioning; we would appreciate reasonably brief answers. May I also ask everyone to speak up, as it is not particularly easy to hear people in here?

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): We have had an almost universally favourable response to the extension of support services to people involved in adoption. There is the question of how much goes into assessment, as opposed to how much goes into providing the services for which people are assessed. What is your reaction to the necessity to impose a duty on local authorities in respect of support services, rather than assessment, and what should those services involve in practical terms?

Philly Morrall (Director, Adoption UK): Support services are absolutely essential to ensure that adoptions stick, given the range of children who are placed. The sort of support we are talking about is not just social work support, although that is essential. One thing that needs to be clarified most quickly is whose responsibility it is to provide support, particularly in the case of interagency placements when children are placed from one area to another. We have many examples of families who are struggling to find support—not that there is necessarily any dispute about the need for it, but there is always a problem about who will pay for it. Independent peer support is crucial to many adoptive families. We need a visible presence in every authority for people to go back to in order to obtain the support that they want.

The whole issue of support really starts from the moment that adoption is thought about. People should not have to wait until they are in crisis. If we could have a visible presence and a clear road to independent, peer group support, it would be much easier for people to access it. The most crucial thing is getting different agencies to work together. In particular, education, child mental health services, adoption services and social work organisations need to be helped and encouraged, and perhaps have a duty placed upon them to work together to provide those services. It really is incredibly difficult for families to access those services, and we get different agencies playing one off against another as to who should pay. That just does not work. It just does not help.

Tim Loughton: On the point about assessment as opposed to support, a lot of emphasis is placed on the right to, or duty for, assessment. If that is taken too far, there is a danger of existing short-staffed social work departments and people involved in child care matters concentrating their time on assessments and not being available to organise the support that is deemed to be needed. Do you think the assessment needs to be simplified, and should there be a time limit on applying for an assessment, obtaining it and then getting the goods at the end of it, for example?

Philly Morrall: In our view, no child should be placed for adoption without a full assessment of their emotional, physical and educational needs. That should happen as a matter of course at the moment a child agrees that he or she should be placed for adoption.

I do not think I have any more to say about that. I just think it is essential that the assessment is made and that the child should not be placed without a full assessment. Whatever is deemed to be the need should be there.

Pam Hodgkins (NORCAP): If a family comes back asking for assistance, it is generally in crisis at the moment it asks for assistance, so any delay is likely to exacerbate the situation. If a great deal of time is spent on a very thorough assessment and if the family is getting no help alongside that assessment, the situation may deteriorate further to the point of disruption, which, clearly, is not in the interests of the child or the family. There needs to be an emphasis on a speedy and appropriate response and ensuring that some key services can be provided without delay if problems are to be diminished and the family healed and able to continue.

Tim Loughton: We also heard evidence this morning that children as young as five should be able to instigate adoption support services. Do you have any views on that?

Pam Hodgkins: If they have a question, they need an answer. Why not is probably the simple answer, but there must be a different level of approach. A five-year-old would not be expected to go to the phone book and find the social services number. However, if a child wants help with an issue relating to their adoption, they most definitely need to be given that help.

Tim Loughton: What are we talking about in practical terms? I do not refute what you say, but, practically, what sort of support should be made available, even to children of that age?

Pam Hodgkins: Simply underpinning the services that are provided and enabling them to be made more extensively available would be a help. There is a national telephone service for children called TALKadoption. Clearly, if that number were far more widely publicised, so children who were adopted were as aware of it as children in general are of the ChildLine number and it had the same capacity to take calls, that would be a support for children affected by adoption.

Tim Loughton: Could I finally ask about support services provided by voluntary bodies, such as small, informal family-oriented groups? Are you concerned that the regulatory requirements that are placed on them might regulate them out of sight?

4 pm

Pam Hodgkins: At the moment, we are being asked to take everything on trust, because we do not know what will be in the regulations. The principle of anyone working in such a sensitive field as adoption being subject to inspection and regulation is something that I and, I am sure, all my colleagues welcome, because we realise just how much damage can be done by inappropriate or dangerous people engaging in it.

Clearly, agencies that are faced with a burden of regulation will need financial support and assistance to enable them to cope with that and probably some resources to provide training and additional infrastructures that are needed to meet the requirements. However, as I say, we do not yet know what those requirements will be. In principle, they are welcome.

Sandra Gidley (Romsey): One of the aspects of the Bill that struck me was that it allows for health assessments, among other kinds of assessments, but it contains no provision for giving any help that is identified as necessary. The unseemly haggling that goes on between departments has already been mentioned. What would you like to be put in place to ensure that once all the needs of an adopted child have been identified, the necessary help is provided?

Philly Morrall: Children need to be able to access appropriate therapeutic help if that is deemed to be needed. In many cases it is, because some of these children have tremendous histories of neglect and abuse. We hear an awful lot about health in terms of physical health, but there does not seem to be a huge recognition of the long-term emotional damage that can be caused to a child and the long-term impact of that on the new adoptive family.

The sorts of support services that families have found helpful have provided therapeutic help that understands the level of damage that the early abuse and neglect have caused. It is those sorts of things that we need quick access to. When people get referred to child and family guidance, there is very often a long waiting list and it is not terribly appropriate because that does not necessarily deal with the sorts of families that we are talking about. There are some small pockets of expertise around the country that perhaps we need to mirror in other places.

Sandra Gidley: Would it be fair to say that the sort of help that you are describing falls between two stools? The help is not immediately recognisable as ``health'', although many of us would probably agree that it is, and it is not immediately recognisable as ``social services''. It falls somewhere between the two.

Philly Morrall: Probably. I think it is mostly a question of mental health in the end, but there are not enough people around who seem to be able to help appropriately.

Pam Hodgkins: The mental health issue is one that clearly needs to be addressed. It goes right through life and it can affect all the parties to adoption. The mental health needs of parents who relinquished babies for adoption in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as the mental health of families losing children to adoption nowadays, is something that has not been addressed and is rarely seen as a key issue to be addressed. All the symptoms that are present are tackled in a piecemeal way, but the fundamental thing is the profound loss that has impacted on the adopted child and, in many cases, on the adopters. The adopters have experienced loss: the loss of an ideal, the loss of hopes and the loss of expectations. That theme runs through.

The Committee needs to be aware that the incidence of suicide and accidental death—accidental in the sense of ``When is an accident not an accident?''—among young men who have been adopted is frightening. There is only anecdotal evidence to date because collecting the statistics is extremely difficult. In practice, it is a worrying finding.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): Adoption is obviously a challenging and anxiety-provoking aspect of life, but perhaps the worst thing is adoption breakdown. How can we minimise the distressingly high number of adoption breakdowns?

Pauline Dancyger (Deputy Director, The Adoption Forum): Could I respond to that and add something about post-placement support? I have two perspectives in my current post. I am working as a post-adoption adviser and I have many families coming back to me to request post-adoption support. I have come to understand that what is essential for families is that they have that information at the point of placement; it is not always directly a service for the child. That is where my other perspective comes in. I have begun to understand, as a result of working with the Adoption Forum, that it is as much about the families—the adults—in this situation knowing where to get access to support at the right time. You need to equip people at the beginning of the placement, rather than waiting for them to be at a point of crisis when it is often too late.

Philly Morrall: On adoption breakdown, almost every bit of evidence that I hear about a disruption meeting following an adoption breakdown points to the fact that the adoptive parents did not have enough information about that child prior to placement. I think that information prior to placement is really important. Having a package of information at time of the adoption order, or when the child is 18, is too late. You need the information before you make the decision. You need it at the point of matching. As a prospective adopter, you need to have full information about that child. You are making a life-long commitment to that child. You would not get married to somebody without knowing a lot about them; you would not make that decision after 24 hours or less. The form Es on children are just not broad enough. They were created for a different purpose, and they are not adequate. It is the lack of information that often leads to adoption disruption. I think that that is proof incontrovertible as to why we need the information prior to placement.

Sue Gourvish (Head of Services, Fostering Network): Long-term foster care provides a model for the kind of support packages that need to be put in place. Children in that position must have a package of care in place that goes on over a number of years. There are standards by which local authorities must abide in order to deliver services to children and their foster carers. That probably deserves further recognition because the best practice in long-term foster care certainly provides a model for what could happen in support services for adoption.

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Prepared 21 November 2001