Adoption and Children Bill

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The Chairman: I welcome our next group of witnesses. I thank you for attending and for your co-operation with our short inquiry. Divisions in the House may be called shortly. If so, we shall suspend the sitting immediately. I ask hon. Members to return as soon as possible. Once we have a quorum, we shall resume our hearing.

I ask the witnesses to introduce themselves briefly, starting with Ms Abrahams.

Caroline Abrahams: I am director of public policy at National Children's Homes.

Christine Atkinson: I am a policy adviser with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Ann Haigh: I am project leader of counselling services with Barnardo's and a guardian.

Liz Garrett: I am head of policy at Barnardo's.

Julia Feast: I am the project manager for the post-adoption care project at the Children's Society, but I have also done some research into the search for identity and reunion of those involved in adoption with Professor David Howe and currently with Professor Triseliotis.

Kathy Evans: I am the head of social policy at the Children's Society.

The Chairman: We want to cover a number of areas. One is special guardianship.

Mr. Shaw: You will have heard me ask the foster care association its view on special guardianship. Barnardo's has expressed some concern about the words ``may'' and ``duty'' in clause 14. You have the opportunity to flesh your argument out a little.

Ann Haigh: We welcome it as an option for children, but we feel that it is important, if this is going to be considered either by foster carers or members of the child's family, and particularly if we are looking at older children who have on-going relationships with their parents—these children may have particular needs and they may be significant—that they can be sure of getting good support, including financial support. I know when I have acted as a guardian and a child was in long-term foster care and they were considering a residence order, something that gave me concern for the child was whether there would be a continuing commitment to education for the child. I think these sorts of areas need to be addressed when people are making the decision whether they are going to go forward.

One of the other things we would like to say in relation to special guardianship is that we do welcome the fact that it would allow people who are not married to apply, because we do feel, listening to the evidence—

6 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

6.11 pm

On resuming—

The Chairman: Miss Haigh, you were interrupted by the bell. Had you completed your answer?

Ann Haigh: I think I was speaking about my concerns in relation to education and that there would be a commitment for that to be supported, because we know that children in care are disadvantaged educationally. If it is an older child that is going to be placed under special guardianship, I would hope that there would be financial support for that child.

The Chairman: Do any other witnesses have thoughts on the points raised earlier by Mr. Shaw?

Kathy Evans: We raised a similar point in our memorandum to reiterate the point that we felt there was a need for a slightly stronger statement, which may include financial support. We feel there is a need to standardise allowances for adoption and also then to consider special guardianship in the same way.

Mr. Shaw: That is fine.

The Chairman: I am conscious that Margaret Moran wants to comment on child contact.

Margaret Moran (Luton, South): Part 2 of the Bill extends the right of contact to unmarried parents. There have been some concerns that that could cause greater access for children to abusive parents. What do the children's charities feel about child safety in respect of child contact orders?

Christine Atkinson: Children's charities are concerned that children remain at risk from unsupervised contact arrangements with abuses in private proceedings. The Children Act at present fails to provide adequate protection. I think we would recognise that the Government have introduced a range of measures to protect children from sex and violent offenders, including schedule 1 offenders who have offences for neglect, physical injury or sexual harm to a child. Examples include the Sex Offenders Act 1997, which requires sex and violent offenders to register their name. The Government have also introduced other measures to ensure that unsuitable people, including schedule 1 offenders, are unable to gain unsupervised contact with children. But problems still remain, and the children's charities are concerned that children are not protected from contact with a sex or violent offender consistently by the law and the child protection system.

The tragic death of Victoria Climbie last year illustrated that our child protection system still has serious flaws. Unfortunately, Victoria's death was not an isolated example. At the NSPCC, we know that one to two children die each week from abuse and neglect. The lessons have not yet been learned. We are aware that a public inquiry is currently looking into the circumstances of Victoria Climbie to determine what would prevent such a death from occurring in future.

Over recent years, the media have reported a number of cases in which children have been murdered in the context of contact. They include Daniel, aged 7, and Jordan, aged 3, who were killed by their father during a contact visit. Unsupervised contact had been granted, even though the father was facing charges of threatening to kill his former partner and of causing her actual bodily harm. Imtiaz Begum was stabbed to death at a railway station, where she was collecting her son after a contact visit in 1996. Her son was found strangled in her husband's car, and her three daughters were found dead in their beds with their throats cut.

However, public inquiries have not been set up to investigate the circumstances of the deaths of any of these children or to question the agencies involved or identify lessons to be learned to ensure that children are not put at risk in contact arrangements. The children's charities recommend that urgent action is required to address the continual risk to children in cases in which the courts grant unsupervised contact with the person who has abused them. We believe that the Bill provides an opportunity to address the issue of child protection.

6.16 pm

Margaret Moran: It would perhaps—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

6.24 pm

On resuming—

The Chairman: Christine Atkinson, would you like to say anything more?

Christine Atkinson: I have one further point. We acknowledge that there have been attempts to improve the legal protection of children in contact arrangements, including some recent good practice guidelines for judges. However, we are concerned that the guidelines are not good enough on their own. Since they were introduced in June 2001, NSPCC and NCH projects working with children have reported little change in court practice. Children are still being placed at risk by courts that grant unsupervised contact with the parent who has abused them. The judicial statistics for England and Wales also suggest that there has been little change in court practice. If there were greater emphasis on child protection as a result of the guidelines, we would expect to see an increase in cases where the courts refused contact. However, the number of cases in which contact is refused has decreased.

Margaret Moran: It would be helpful to know the extent to which children's charities feel the same way. Could you say why you think that a change in the Children Act 1989 is necessary?

Caroline Abrahams: Undoubtedly there have been steps forward. However, at the National Children's Homes we remain concerned that in recent years there have been 14 deaths of children during contact disputes, which suggests that we have not got it right yet. We run a number of contact centres and mediation projects, and I have been talking to them about what impact the guidelines have had. The consensus is that they have not seen an impact. There was one exception that is worth mentioning, and that was on the northern circuit, which is generally viewed—including by the Lord Chancellor's Department—as a stunning example of good practice. Good progress is being made there and that seems to be because there is a judge there who has taken a particular interest and is leading change in a multidisciplinary way. That is feeding through to better outcomes for children.

One argument might be that having guidelines is enough. However, I am afraid that experience from other areas of childcare practice, for example, vulnerable witnesses, suggests that the trouble with guidance is that in areas like the northern circuit where there is someone who is committed and excellent, things get much better but, unfortunately, that is not the picture everywhere. We remain concerned, and a bit perplexed, that there is not more rigorous action in the area, as Christine Atkinson has said, given that there is so much determined action in so many other areas—such as the Criminal Records Bureau—to try to ensure that we do everything that we possibly can to keep children safe. This seems to be a bit of a loophole, which ought to be addressed.

The Chairman: Can I check that the deaths that you have mentioned were in cases in which there were formal contact orders and that we are not referring to instances in which deaths have occurred, tragically, in marital disputes?

Caroline Abrahams: No, these were during contact visits, as I understand it. One of the key factors is that they were unsupervised. The need for more, and better quality, supervised contact is a big issue. It is important for people to understand that we are not trying to stop contact; we want it to work well for the children and for their parents. We have to see it as part of a process and must do more to support parents at the point of breakdown and just after, so that contact can work for them and be part of their carrying out their parental responsibilities to their children.

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