On July 10th the Family Rights Group launched their report ‘Co-operation or Coercion? Children coming into the care system under voluntary arrangements’ .
I wrote a brief summary of the speakers’ contributions and the report’s recommendations for The Transparency Project.
I commented that this was a very important report, with very sobering findings and it demanded an immediate call to action. It was very clear that parents were finding themselves subject to ‘soft coercion’ when agreeing to have their children accommodated under section 20; that no one took the time to explain to them what was going on and they didn’t realise that they kept their parental responsibility and could remove their children at any time.
This is a particular problem when looking at ‘foster to adopt’ placements. The aim of such placements is to ensure that more children are placed with their permanent carers as soon as possible on a fostering basis while the LA seeks a placement order from the courts. This is a key example of the tensions inherent in protecting both parents’ and children’s rights.
Parents have a ‘right’ to a fair hearing under both Articles 6 and 8 of the ECHR; an opportunity to make their case and show evidence to the court that they can parent their child. But children have a ‘right’ not to suffer the harm that almost inevitably follows frequent placement between parents, foster carers and adoptive parents.
How do we balance those rights? I agree, to ask parents to ‘give up’ their babies via section 20 into a foster to adopt placement means they are signing up for something very significant, at a time when they are very vulnerable and without any scrutiny from the court or any real access to legal help. It may well be very difficult to ‘unpick’ such a placement as the months go by.
Parents who are involved in care proceedings have autotmatic access to fully funded legal representation, regardless of their wealth or the perceived merits of their case – which is absolutely how it should be. Parents whose children are accommodated under section 20 however, are most likely to only get independent legal advice if they can afford to pay for it, or if they can access help from a charity such as the Family Rights Group. Sometimes a LA can be prevailed upon to pay for a few hours chat with a solicitor but its easy to see how this could be insufficient as a real help to parents. The courts have been quick to condemn what they see as abuse and bad practice around use of section 20 as it removes decisions about where children live from any kind of court scrutiny.
Thus, the lack of understanding about section 20 is clearly a real and significant problem, as detailed by the report’s findings. Articles published in the Guardian on the day of the launch categorised this as ‘adoption by stealth’ and that parents were ‘tricked’ into handing over their children.
I understand that this is the reality of the problem as many parents will see it. I appreciate that journalists have to write in compelling and punchy language to engage their readers. But this rhetoric around such a sensitive issue troubles me.
What is the law about making an adoption order?
The articles did not make any mention of section 21 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 which sets out clearly that ‘adoption by stealth’ is not a creature known to our law. A child cannot be placed for adoption unless a placement order is made. There must be court scrutiny of this process and the parents will be involved in this court scrutiny.
The court cannot make a placement order unless:
- the child is subject to a care order OR
- the court is satisfied that the conditions in section 31(2) of the Children Act 1989 are met OR
- the child has no parent or guardian
The conditions set out in section 31(2) are those required to exist before a court can make a care or supervision order:
- that the child concerned is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm; and
- that the harm, or likelihood of harm, is attributable to—
- the care given to the child, or likely to be given to him if the order were not made, not being what it would be reasonable to expect a parent to give to him; or
- the child’s being beyond parental control.
This is a high threshold – for obvious reasons. Taking children away from their families is recognised as the most serious interference with people’s family and private lives; it has life long consequences for all concerned.
Section 22 of the Adoption and Children Act sets out that a local authority must apply to the court for a placement order in respect of a child if:
- the child is placed for adoption by them or is being provided with accommodation by them,
- no adoption agency is authorised to place the child for adoption,
- the child has no parent or guardian or the authority consider that the conditions in section 31(2) of the 1989 Act are met, and
- the authority are satisfied that the child ought to be placed for adoption.
EDIT 13/07/17 – I am grateful for the contributions of Tom Perkins, via Twitter
And its not just the ACA that operates as a fetter to arbitrary State interference or ‘stealthy’ social workers. As Tom points out, the SW profession itself is very alive to these issues of concern :
I feel the FRG review was a missed opportunity to promote the growing movement toward ‘Co Design + Co Production with young people and their parents … I was disappointed there was no reference in the FRG report to the DFE funded Guidance produced by BAAF in June 2013 http://www.coram.org.uk/sites/default/files/resource_files/46%20Fostering%20for%20Adoption%20Guidance_2013.pdf … which provides a very clear and easy to understand guide to the entire Foster to Adopt process. For example, compare P 9 of the FRG report and P8 of the BAAF guidance…..there is a world of difference.
Tom points out that there is now a ‘very high level’ of scrutiny around section 20 which makes it very difficult for social workers to act ‘dishonestly’. Not only have individual Judges issued guidance on these of section 20 in their areas (see for e.g HHJ Bellamy and HHJ Wildblood QC) some have gone even further and have requested information about the LA’s section 20 population. Tom comments:
[The Judges] demanded and have been given access to the entire S20 population and demanded the following: Details of all new S20 admissions; what are the LA plans at 6 weeks? A detailed report from the LA if there is not a plan to come to Court. A detailed plan for each child who has been S20 longer than 6 weeks.
This has forced those LAs to look hard and long at their S20 population and the reasons for the original admission. It would be hard to imagine that all aspects of the S20 admission – placement – assessment – outcome – long term plan – parental involvement / agreement / permissions etc., have not been scrutinised. Similarly, a number of LA’s have been revoking PO’s that have reached 12 months and the child not placed for adoption. The Care Plan has been changed to CO + LTF. Similarly, OFSTED routinely examine the S20 population during their monitoring visits / inspections. There is no mention within OFSTED reports of any concerns about parents not knowing / not signing S20 agreements….
For further discussion about the law and practice around adoption see these posts about when adoption is considered necessary.
Why do I worry?
It would have been reassuring to have had at least some recognition of and discussion of this legal framework in both the Guardian articles and in discussions at the launch of the FRG report. Because without it, and resorting to such phrases as ‘adoption by stealth’ and ‘tricked’, there is a risk that the very dangerous narrative promoted by John Hemming and others gains traction and parents continue to be vulnerable to the bad (and expensive) advice they offer.
Hemming and his acolytes routinely dismiss family lawyers as ‘legal aid losers’ or ‘in the pocket of the LA’ and parents are advised (quite literally) to ‘flee’ the country rather than engage, thus ensuring they are denied access to help and representation that could keep their families intact.
The Family Rights Group is to be applauded for the work they have done and continue to do for parents and children. However, they cannot take the place – and I imagine would never suggest they could – of fully instructed, fully funded lawyers for whom the court arena is a second home.
I am glad that such issues are being discussed, that a brighter light is being shone on bad practice and historic failings. I hope to encourage these kind of discussions with the event on September 23rd at the Arnolfini in Bristol ‘Happy Families – the conversations we are not having about adoption’
But it would be an enormous shame if one unintended consequence of this debate was to create even deeper distrust and fear of the legal system which remains the only true safeguard against the arbitrary interference of the State.
As Sir James Munby commented at the launch of the report on July 10th
Ultimate safeguard for families are 'tough lawyers prepared to argue cases on their behalf'.
— Sarah Phillimore (@SVPhillimore) July 10, 2017