Adoption and Children Bill

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Liz Blackman (Erewash): To a degree, Sue Gourvish has just answered my question. I was going to ask whether there are good models of post-adoption support currently in practice, but certain local authorities in certain areas must be better than others. You must have drawn some conclusions about what works. Would like to share them with us?

Sue Gourvish: There are. I suppose that I started off speaking about foster care, which is our particular area of expertise. Certainly, there are models of good practice known to the Department of Health. There is a whole range of research studies and standards, and there will be an inspection against the standards from next April, as you know. That will also provide data about the level and nature of support that is being provided to foster carers and hopefully that will, in turn, become a usable, working model for adoption. Of course, among post-adoption services, there are good models of practice too, but the most important thing to remember is that support for foster carers has been funded—I am not sure that it has been properly funded, but it has been funded. The situation for post-adoption support is a different kettle of fish in terms of the resource available.

Liz Blackman: In the field of adoption, as opposed to fostering, are there good working models that are practised well at the moment? Can you say that one area is definitely ahead of another in the way in which it structures support and works? Does anyone have a take on that?

Robert Tapsfield (Chief Executive, Family Rights Group): We have not talked about the support services for birth parents. There are certainly examples, although they are very few and far between, of effective, usually self-help groups for birth parents who have lost children to adoption.

Liz Blackman: I was speaking about children and adopters. I am sure that we will discuss birth parents, but my question related to adopters and adopted children.

Pauline Dancyger: Yes, is the answer, but they are extremely variable and that is the difficulty that we struggle with. What is not recognised is that it is a lifelong commitment on the part of the family and, indeed, of the child. Although there are certainly good models where agencies will commit to funding a package of post-adoption support for a year or two, it needs to go beyond that and there needs to be recognition that a child is for life.

Liz Blackman: But we can learn a great deal from those good models.

Pauline Dancyger: That is where we can begin to learn, yes. Fundamentally, there is some good practice around.

The Chairman: Can we turn to the issue of the child's access to their birth certificate and information about themselves? It is interesting to see some distinction between the witnesses who have been before us today. I would like to start with you, Miss Gourvish. Fostering Network's evidence says:

    ``The rights of the child and the adult should be finely balanced. In some circumstances it may be important for the identity of the birth parents to remain undisclosed.''

I think that NORCAP may take a different view, so I am interested as to how you came to your view.

Sue Gourvish: I am afraid that I am going to disappoint you. We are going to backtrack on that.

The Chairman: This is the second time that that has happened today, which is interesting. Go ahead and backtrack.

Sue Gourvish: In fact, the backtrack is pretty final and in reverse. We would like to say that we believe that all adopted children have a right to see their original birth certificate. We feel that strongly, and I am sorry about the way that it came out in the evidence. We are also anxious about some of the arrangements that have recently been introduced into the Bill to limit the right of access to birth records. We wonder why it is not possible to put the onus on the person who is anxious to preserve their privacy. They have, after all, until the child is 18 to think about their position. It seems to us that the onus should be put upon them to approach the adoption agency and say, ``Various things have happened in my life. It would not be desirable for me to be known to this child who was adopted.''

It seems that there could not be a worse time for someone to decide whether they need privacy or not than after a child has been placed for adoption. All sorts of emotions must be there and to decide that is not a good idea. Things will happen, too, as part of developments during the years until the child is 18, that will enable the birth parents and birth relations of the child to decide whether it is a good idea for them to retain their privacy or not and come to some conclusions as to why.

4.15 pm

The Chairman: Miss Hodgkins, I am interested to learn your views on what you have just heard and on why there has been a change in the Government's approach in this key area.

Pam Hodgkins: In relation to why there has been a change, I wish that you could tell me because I have absolutely no idea. I was one of the people who gave evidence to the Select Committee in April or May. There was also a comment in a judgment from a High Court judge, there has been a lot of publicity, and there is practice evidence and research evidence. All of that is pushing the direction of access to information in the opposite direction: it is pushing towards more openness and more opportunities. For a Bill to be produced this autumn that takes us back to where we were pre-1975, I am absolutely taken aback. I just wish I knew where it had come from because I cannot see where it has come from. If it is based on any representations, they must be ones that the Department has not disclosed, because it is not in anything that we have been able to read and it is definitely not in any statistical information that came out from previous deliberations. So I cannot help you with that.

In terms of what the Fostering Network has said, we would not want anyone vetoing release of information at the time of adoption. That is a very bad time for anyone to be making decisions about what will happen in the future. We do not consider it necessary for anyone to be able to deprive the adopted child of the identity of their birth mother, which will definitely be known, nor of their father, where that is known.

We do accept that there may well be circumstances and situations where the birth parent may not wish to be contacted, and we think that there are very useful models in a number of jurisdictions overseas where people are entitled to the information but it is conditional on their accepting that they must not use it to make contact. That we would consider to be an appropriate step forward, if that is what a number of people have made representations about. But there are two pieces of information that are so profound that no third party should be able to deprive a person of it. For the adopted person it is the identity of their birth parents, and for the birth parents it is the information of whether their son or daughter is alive or dead.

The Chairman: We have a number of people wanting to come in.

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Jacqui Smith): I want to pursue the model that Miss Gourvish seemed to be suggesting was appropriate. Am I right that you were saying that you could see a position in which it would be right for an adoption agency, perhaps within some appeal framework, to decide that it would not be appropriate for the adopted person to be able to identify their birth parents, and that the adoption agency might have a role there?

Pam Hodgkins: No.

Jacqui Smith: I am sorry, I was not asking you.

Miss Gourvish: First of all, I should say that our view would be that adopted people have a right to all information about them. I was suggesting a compromise position, I suppose. In very rare cases—people paint them as being very rare cases—I cannot imagine the circumstances, I have to say, but maybe there are some, where the privacy of birth parents or a birth parent should be preserved.

If that is the case, I think the proposals currently in this Bill are the wrong way round, in that if there were to be a suggestion; if a birth parent says, ``I wish to retain my privacy: I do not wish this child to know who I am'', just after an adoption order, I think that is a bad thing: they have until the child is 18 to decide that that is the case. I think that birth parents should know when their children are adopted that there is a presumption that all children have a right to access their birth records. If something happens in the birth parent's life which means that that becomes a problem for them, then before that child is 18—perhaps one should say within a year of their being 18; I have to say that I have not thought this through fully—they should approach the adoption agency and say, ``I believe that things have happened to me which mean that my privacy should be protected and that this child should not get access to their birth records''. Then the process that is outlined in the Bill and the way that the adoption agency then goes about it and the possibility of independent review will be the same.

I have to say, though, that that is a compromise position as far as we are concerned.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): I am interested in the model of giving the information on conviction that the birth parent is not contacted. I am not sure how it works. Is there any research to show the number of times that contact breaks down where it is made? What sanctions, if any, exist if that agreement is broken?

Pam Hodgkins: I do not know what the precise sanctions are, but my professional experience is of its operating in British Columbia. It has been operational there for about three years. There have been no complaints of a request for no contact being broken. We do know that in New Zealand there were vetoes on actual gaining of information for a number of years, but in fact on many occasions those vetoes were broken and again, no complaints were received. I understand that the sanctions available are similar to those for contempt of court. The weight of the undertaking given by the person receiving the information in those circumstances is that onerous. But I do not know exactly what they would be.

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Prepared 21 November 2001