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"The privacy of the child has become synonymous with the privacy of the professionals."
The other lesson from the case of Poppy is that the emphasis must shift from removing young children from parents, who may themselves be vulnerable and somewhat inadequate, to providing support for those same parents. If a fraction of the effort, cost and time that Suffolk county council staff spent on trying to justify the removal of Poppy from her parents had, instead, been devoted to helping Carissa and Jim, it would have strengthened a family instead of destroying it. Social workers should provide more supportive parenting help early on. The judge suggested that Jim would require six months to a year of therapy in September 2009, and that did not fit into Poppy's time scales, but the family were known to social services before her birth, giving them as much as 18 months to work with the couple had they so desired.
Tens of thousands of pounds have been spent on the court process for the case-money that could have been used to help the family and others in their position. I urge the Minister to institute an immediate inquiry into how the adoption process works in the cases of very young babies who have been born to parents who wish to keep them. Some 16 years ago, I was a Minister at the Department of Health, where I had responsibility for adoption and social services policy. I believe that the subject is critical to many families and transcends normal party political boundaries. We should let the case of Poppy be the catalyst that leads to a change in such unfair procedures.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ms Diana R. Johnson): I congratulate the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) on securing this important debate. Like the hon. Gentleman, the Government want the very best for every single child in this country, and that is why we take the safeguarding of children so seriously. I am of course aware of the circumstances to which he refers, and I understand how incredibly difficult and emotionally draining it can be for all concerned in such cases. However, as I am sure he will appreciate, I am unable to comment on, or intervene in, such individual cases.
Before I deal with some of the hon. Gentleman's points, I shall make it clear that the Government's policy is that children should live with their parents whenever possible. We have invested huge amounts in early intervention, through Sure Start children's centres and our Think Family initiatives, and in more intensive support, through family intervention projects, family nurse partnerships and multi-systemic therapy programmes, to support the most vulnerable families with children on the edge of care. The challenge for social workers, and for all of us, is to keep children safe and families together when that is possible, but sadly sometimes it is not.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that the child's welfare is of paramount importance in all decisions made by local authorities, or by the court, about the care and upbringing of children. Sometimes children have to be taken into care because they cannot live at home in safety, and the Government make no apology for that. Local authorities have powers to apply to the courts for emergency protection orders, and the police have powers to remove children so that they can act immediately to protect the child, but local authorities cannot remove children from their parents' care without the parents' consent without first referring the matter to a court. The court may make such an order only if it is satisfied on the evidence provided that the child concerned is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm, and that that is due to the care given to the child by the parents. It is, for the child, better if the order is made than if it is not.
The decision that a child should be adopted is made not by one social worker, but by a group of people who scrutinise the adoption plan-in particular, an adoption panel. In considering the plan, the adoption panel and the local authority must, like the courts that make the final decisions, have regard to the welfare checklist set out in the Adoption and Children Act 2002, and they
must consider whether adoption or another permanent option would be better for the child. If the parents do not agree to their child being placed for adoption, the local authority must apply to the court for a placement order. It is then a matter for the court to decide whether to make a placement order and, later, an adoption order. No child is adopted from care without a court deciding that it is in their best interests; this is a fundamental safeguard in the care system. Provisions in the Children, Schools and Families Bill will continue the process of opening up family courts by broadening the amount of information that can be reported by the media, which will be allowed to attend proceedings in staged processes. That is subject to a review following the introduction of the first stage.
Let me turn now to information and support for parents. Parents must have access to court reports and permanence reports, as well as the right to counselling and fully understanding the reasons for decisions being made. They also have the right to an independent support worker as soon as adoption becomes the plan for the child. Adoption records are highly confidential, and it may not be appropriate for a local authority to share certain information with birth parents, particularly if this relates to third parties and if doing so could undermine the security of the adoptive placement or put the child's welfare at risk. However, the child's permanence report is to be read by the birth parents-it is a key document presented to the adoption panel about the adoption plan for a child. Parents should therefore be aware of information that the panel will take into account in making recommendations regarding the plan for adoption, and the panel will take into account any comments the parents have made on the child's permanence report.
The local authority must provide a counselling service for parents, who, as I said, also have the right to an independent support worker, whose role is to provide the parents with advice and support. All local authorities should be working in partnership with birth parents, although it is a matter for each authority to decide on the appropriateness of sharing minutes of specific meetings. A new booklet for parents entitled "Your child could be taken into care" has been produced by the Ministry of Justice, with the aim of strengthening and improving the information offered to parents before court proceedings begin; this will be issued in the new year. In addition, since May this year the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service has been sending an information pack about court processes and the role of CAFCASS to all parents and children involved in proceedings.
Government guidance consistently highlights the importance of continuing to work in partnership with parents with a view to the child returning home, even when statutory action is being taken. For example, we recently issued for consultation draft regulations and strengthened guidance, which set out our expectations regarding care planning to ensure that each looked-after child has a thorough assessment of their needs and circumstances. However, a stage may be reached when it is apparent that the child cannot return home. At that stage, the local authority must make alternative plans to provide the child with a permanent family home. Adoption is one way of providing this, and it is appropriate for some children, depending on the facts of each individual case. In such cases, however, the local authority must
explain to the parents why the child cannot go home, and why it has been decided that adoption is the plan, as well as the legal implications of placing their child with prospective adopters and the effect of an adoption order.
Before I close, I feel it is worth noting that Ofsted's last inspection of Suffolk described the authority's adoption service to children and families as both strong and child-focused, with birth families being involved in adoption plans and invited to attend the adoption panel to give their views. It stated that they can also access independent support and receive help with maintaining indirect and direct contact with their children, and that they are treated with respect.
I reiterate that I am proud of this Government's record in delivering for families and safeguarding children. There are already extensive checks and balances in the
system, including the independent judiciary, publicly funded solicitors for all parties and CAFCASS children's guardians, which combine to ensure that care and adoption orders are made only after proper scrutiny of local authorities' work and proposals.
I understand from CAFCASS that it received a letter from the hon. Gentleman on 19 November regarding the actions of a CAFCASS officer and the court's decision on contact in a specific case. It has assured me that he will receive a reply within 10 working days of receipt of that letter.
That this House, at its rising on Wednesday 16 December 2009, do adjourn till Tuesday 5 January 2010.