Birth Parents

Has the child’s welfare pendulum swung too far – are Parents’ rights disregarded?

We are grateful for this guest post by contributor and parent Maya Birdwood-Hedger.

The current state of the law is probably best summed up by Re B (A child) [2009] UKSC . In summary, the court held that it is only as a contributor to the child’s welfare that parenthood assumes any significance. Have we gone too far in our focus on the welfare of the child and the child alone as the issue of paramount concern? Can the interests of parents and children be so easily distinguished?

Introduction – what is meant by parental rights and responsibility?

Lord Steyn, writing extra-judicially, said: “A constitutional democracy must protect fundamental rights. It is morally right that the state, and all who act on its behalf in a broad functional sense, should respect the fundamental rights of individuals. Without such a moral compass the state is bound to treat individuals arbitrarily and unjustly.” [Lord Steyn – quoted in Brayne and Carr. Law for social workers/ 10th edition/ Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, 75]
Bainham and Gilmore ask two separate (albeit connected) questions:

  • is it possible to identify independent interests which parents have in relation to their children?
  • If so, should the law recognise and accommodate these? [Bainham and Gilmore/ Children – the Modern Law/ Fourth edition/ Bristol: Jordan Publishing Limited, 2013, 328]

To answer the first question, they quote philosopher David Archard:

Being a parent is extremely important to a person. Even if a child is not thought of as the property or even an extension of the parent, the shared life of a parent and child involves an adult’s purposes and aims at the deepest level… parents have an interest in parenting – that is, in sharing a life with, and directing the development of their child. It is not enough to discount the interests of a parent in a moral theory of parenthood. What must merit full and proper consideration is the interest of someone in being a parent.[ Archard/ Children, Family and the State/ Ashgate 2003, 94]

Although the second question is more difficult to answer, given the current commitment of the law to the welfare of children, Bainham and Gilmore say that there are at least two good reasons why the law should recognise the interests of parents:

  • once parentage is established, very wide-ranging and extensive burdens are placed by the law on the parents – financial, emotional and practical. Moreover, these responsibilities last for 18 years and longer than that if more than one child is involved.
  • Secondly, the law needs to reflect the reality of everyday life.

The honest position is that parents do not, and are not required, to act at all times with their children’s interests paramount in their minds. It would be far better for this to be transparently and openly acknowledged rather than to act out a pretence that only children’s interests count.[ Bainham and Gilmore/ Children – the Modern Law/ Fourth edition/ Bristol: Jordan Publishing Limited, 2013, 329-330]

Herring distinguishes three different forms of parental rights:

  • Parents’ human rights, the rights that parents have as human beings, e.g. a right to free speech. These rights include those protected by the Human Rights Act 1988.
  • Parents’ child-centred rights. These are the rights that are given to parents in order to carry out their parental obligations, e.g. to clothe, feed and house the child.
  • Parents’ parent-central rights. Here Herring refers to law professor and author Alexander McCall Smith who explains that parent-centred rights are given to parents not specifically to further the welfare of the child but to reflect the interests that parents have in bringing up their children in the way they wish. An example of this may be religious upbringing. Here it may be impossible to prove that one particular form of religious upbringing promotes a child’s welfare better than any other or no religious upbringing. The right of a parent to involve their child in religious practices does not necessarily reflect the welfare of a child, but rather promotes the interests of the parent to raise the child in accordance with the parent’s religious beliefs. These parent-centred rights could be said to further society’s interests as well in that children are brought up to have different beliefs, interests and lifestyles, thus contributing to a culturally diverse and rich society[Herring, Jonathan / Family Law/ London: Routledge, 2012, 145; McCall Smith, Alexander (1990). Is anything left of parental rights? In Sutherland and McCall Smith Family Rights: Family Law and Medical Ethics/ Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.]

Historic developments

As Sawyer explains, “children were historically useful as labour or as a source of income by being hired elsewhere” [Sawyer, Caroline/ Children’s Representation by Their Parents/ in Responsible Parents and Parental Responsibility/ Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2009: 228] but gradually a growing perception that parents did not always know or do what was good for their children did lead to the idea of children having their own place in the legal process.

According to Hendrick (2005), the Children Act 1948 heralded a new approach to parent-child relationships, which encouraged the newly established Children’s Departments “to view children with individual human beings with both shared and individualised needs, rather than an indistinct mass.” Thereafter the parents did not formally appear during care proceedings, but effectively exercised their legal right of representing their children in the proceedings. Soon after the Adoption Act 1949 allowed adopting children without their parents’ consent on the basis that the parents were unreasonably withholding their consent. [Adoption of Children Act 1949, s.3 (1)]

The further shift appears to have happened with the death of Maria Colwell in 1973: her mother and stepfather successfully argued she should return home to them, and then the stepfather killed her. Following that case, section 64 of the Children Act 1975 provided that children in care would be represented by professional Guardians ad Litem – trained social workers. Further on, the 1989 Children Act provided that the court should appoint a guardian ad litem for the child in all “specified” (broadly speaking, public law) proceedings unless it was satisfied that the child’s welfare would be adequately safeguarded without one [Children Act 1989, s 41].

The duty of the social worker to balance between children’s and parents’ rights was established even more firmly in the report by Martin Narey for the Times newspaper: it was proposed to give greater prominence to adoption in social work training so that social workers’ role is seen as unequivocally that of protector of the child rather than friend of the family [The Narey Report on Adoption: Our Blueprint for Britain’s Lost Children. /The Times. July 5, 2011.]

The Children Act 1989

There is recognition that The Children Act 1989 represents the philosophy of its time, i.e. it “ostensibly put the child at the centre of all proceedings about the family”. [Sawyer, Caroline/ Children’s Representation by Their Parents/ in Responsible Parents and Parental Responsibility Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2009: 228.]

Section 1(1) of the Children Act provides that “the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration.” Bainham and Gilmore question if paramountcy can actually survive the Human Rights Act 1988. [EDIT – It has: see this article by Claire Fenton Glynn] They reiterate that adult rights to respect for private and family life must be respected and must not be interfered with unless the specific justifications envisaged by Article 8(2) exist and only when they are necessary and proportionate to a legitimate aim. [Bainham and Gilmore/ Children – the Modern Law/ Fourth edition/ Bristol: Jordan Publishing Limited, 2013, 62-63]

Below we will consider some situations where courts can interfere in family life.

Private law orders

According to Wallbank (who used the 2004 data), only 10% of parents sought help from the courts to resolve issues regarding post-separation arrangements concerning children. [Wallbank, Julie/ Parental Responsibility and the Responsible Parent: Managing the ‘Problem’ of Contact/ in Responsible Parents and Parental Responsibility Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2009: 304] The numbers may have plummeted further, following the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 removing legal aid for most private law cases. [Baksi, Catherine/ Family lawyers sound alarm on separating parents/ The Law Society Gazette, 14.08.14]

Section 8 of the Children Act 1989 sets out and defines three orders, known as “s 8 orders” and regulating the exercise of particular aspects of parental responsibility while leaving parental responsibility itself intact. The “child arrangements order” replaces the old ‘residence’ and ‘contact’ orders following the 2014 Children and Families Act. This allows the courts to address the practicalities of with whom the children will live or have contact. A “prohibited steps order” allows the court to prohibit the exercise of certain aspects of parental responsibility while a “specific issue order” to determine a specific question.

Section 11 of the Children and Families Act 2014 provides a presumption that the involvement of a parent in a child’s life will further the child’s welfare, unless the contrary is shown. ‘Involvement’ means ‘involvement of some kind, either direct or indirect, but not any particular division of the child’s time’ [CFA 2014 s 11(2)(2B)]

The extent to which the legal system should promote shared parenting has been the subject of considerable debate. Fathers’ rights organisations have been campaigning against the “social catastrophe” of fathers not being allowed access to their children. [Fathers4Justice campaigner jailed for defacing Queen’s portrait. The Guardian, 05.02.14] There is, however, some evidence that shared parenting may be an independent risk factor for younger children as well as those who become caught between parents in high conflict. [Bainham and Gilmore/ Children – the Modern Law/ Fourth edition/ Bristol: Jordan Publishing Limited, 2013, 224.]

 

Commonly used orders in public law

This section looks at the range of orders the court can make in the course of care proceedings.

Emergency protection order

Under this order the court may remove a child from the household if there is reasonable cause to believe that the child is likely to suffer significant harm if—

(a) (i) He is not removed to accommodation provided by or on behalf of the applicant; or

(ii) He does not remain in the place in which he is then being accommodated;

(b) (In the case of an application made by a local authority—

(i) Enquiries are being made with respect to the child under section 47(1) (b); and

(ii) Those enquiries are being frustrated by access to the child being unreasonably refused to a person authorised to seek access and that the applicant has reasonable cause to believe that access to the child is required as a matter of urgency. [Children Act 1989, 44(1)]

In X Council v B (Emergency Protection Orders) [2004] EWHC 2015 (Fam), [2005] 1 FLR 342 Munby J (as he then was) reiterated the stringent nature of the obligation on the local authority when considering protective measures to comply with the obligation for procedural fairness and to respect the Article 8 right of the family generally and the parents in particular. The guidelines are that “save in wholly exceptional cases, parents must be given adequate prior notice of the date, time and place of any application by a local authority for an EPO. [X Council v B (Emergency Protection Orders) [2004] EWHC 2015 (Fam), [2005] 1 FLR 342]

Care and Supervision Orders

On the application of the Local Authority or the NSPCC the court can consider making either order if the provisions of section 31 of the Children Act 1989 are made out. This requires the judge to be satisfied that a child has suffered or is at risk of significant harm. Under the Care Order the Local Authority obtains parental responsibility for the child. [Children Act 1989, 33 (3)] Although de jure the parents also retain parental responsibility, in reality it allows them little more than the right of consultation.

While a supervision order is in place, it allows the Local Authority “to advise, assist and befriend the supervised child”. [Ibid. 35 (1) (a)] However, if the parents refuse to comply with the supervision order, the Local Authority is likely to apply for a care order, even if the parents maintain that they are capable to look after their children without supervision or support. That becomes apparent in the judgement by Mrs Justice Parker:

Throughout these proceedings it has been the father’s view that he can cope; he can be trusted; in deciding to make sure the support is there. He is opposed to the role of the local authority; and he says that their anxiety to check that all is well with the children is misplaced because it is totally unnecessary. But the local authority has statutory duties in respect of all children in need and particularly children who are the subject of proceedings. [Hertfordshire County Council v F & Others [2014] EWHC 2159 (Fam) (23 May 2014), para 9]

In this case the application to remove the child was made because the Local Authority was concerned about the father preventing them from supervising the child. One can then argue that the needs of the child to be supervised by the Local Authority were viewed by the court as superior to the parents’ right to care for their own children.

In the case above the child was placed in the care of the Local Authority. The family then had another baby who was taken into care on the interim care order shortly after birth. The father was later criticised by the judge for not having given the baby a first name. The judge believed it was emotionally harmful not to give a child a name. The father is this case is a British Indian and a devout Hindu. The parents were anxious to have their child named according to Hindu tradition, which involves a temple ceremony, Namakarana, which only the parents, close family and friends can attend. But the social workers insisted that they be present, lest the family “abduct” the child. [Booker, Christopher. The real story of the ‘baby with no name’/ In The Telegraph, 31.05.14]

Here one can see an apparent conflict between the rights of the parents and the rights of the child: the child has a right to be named. The parents have the parental duty to name their child, but also the right to name him in a ceremony, compatible with their religious and cultural beliefs. In this case they were not allowed to exercise that right, but the judge was more concerned with their failure to fulfil their parental responsibility.

The Placement Order

This order allows the Local Authority to place a child for adoption with potential adopters chosen by them. After the placement order is made, the Local Authority will implement a gradual reduction in contact between the parents and the child. Once a placement has been identified, the birth parents will usually be offered a final contact with the child, sometimes euphemistically described as a “wishing you well” contact and sometimes more accurately described as a “goodbye” contact. The majority of parents can expect no more than “letterbox” contact once the child has been placed. [Bainham and Gilmore/ Children – the Modern Law/ Fourth edition/ Bristol: Jordan Publishing Limited, 2013, 677.]

The “goodbye” contact is understandably traumatising to both parents and children, but, when the parents cry, they can get criticised for “emotional abuse”. [Craig, Olga. Stolen by the state: A story of love and loss that’ll make you seethe – a mother falsely accused of abuse reveals her relentless hunt for her three babies. In the Mail on Sunday, 06.06.15]

Once the child has been placed with the prospective adopters and lived there for at least ten weeks, they can apply for the Adoption Order to be made. One of three conditions under section 47 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 must be satisfied before the court may make an adoption order.

The first condition is that, in the case of each parent or guardian of the child, the court is satisfied—
(a) that the parent or guardian consents to the making of the adoption order,
(b) that the parent or guardian has consented under section 20 (and has not withdrawn the consent) and does not oppose the making of the adoption order, or
(c) That the parent’s or guardian’s consent should be dispensed with.
(3)A parent or guardian may not oppose the making of an adoption order under subsection (2) (b) without the court’s leave.

(4)The second condition is that—
(a) the child has been placed for adoption by an adoption agency with the prospective adopters in whose favour the order is proposed to be made,
(b) Either—
(i) the child was placed for adoption with the consent of each parent or guardian and the consent of the mother was given when the child was at least six weeks old, or
(ii) The child was placed for adoption under a placement order, and
(d) No parent or guardian opposes the making of the adoption order.

The question of dispensing with parental consent has been at the heart of the conflict between what professionals view as “the best interests of the child” and the fundamental rights attached to the relationship of parent and child. While parents might understand that they are unable to look after a child themselves and may be prepared to have the child looked after by other people, they might not be willing to accept the complete termination of their legal relationship with the child. Traditionally English law has viewed this as a question which involves the rights of parents and has made provisions, through the statutory consent requirements, for the proper accommodation of those rights. The major change brought about by the 2002 Act is that the welfare of the child has, controversially, been put centre stage. This has led to legitimate concerns about what has happened to the rights of parents and may give rise to challenges under the ECHR. [Bainham and Gilmore/ Children – the Modern Law/ Fourth edition/ Bristol: Jordan Publishing Limited, 2013, 688.]

Section 52 (1) of the Adoption Act 2002 has abolished all the previous grounds for dispensing with parental consent except for one and has replaced them with the welfare principle:
The court cannot dispense with the consent of any parent or guardian of a child to the child being placed for adoption or to the making of an adoption order in respect of the child unless the court is satisfied that—

  • the parent or guardian cannot be found or is incapable of giving consent, or
  • the welfare of the child requires the consent to be dispensed with.

The second condition is now the major ground for dispensing with parental consent. It raises the serious question of what weight, if any, is to be given to parental interests or rights in preserving their legal relationship with the child. It becomes clear that if the court’s view is that adoption is in the child’s best interests, then whether or not the parent is behaving reasonably in objecting to this will have no bearing on the decision. [Bainham and Gilmore/ Children – the Modern Law/ Fourth edition/ Bristol: Jordan Publishing Limited, 2013, 689]

When a parent endeavours to oppose the making of the adoption order at that stage, they have to clear three fences which can be seen to be progressively higher fences. The first is to establish the necessary change of circumstances. The second is then to satisfy the court that, in the exercise of discretion, it would be right to grant permission. The third and final stage would of course be to persuade the court at the opposed hearing to refuse the adoption order and to reverse the direction in which the child’s life has travelled since the inception of the original public law care proceedings. [Borough of Poole v W & another [2014] EWHC 1777 (Fam), para 8]

In paragraph 24 of the judgement quoted above the judge recognised that the parents had demonstrated “a commitment to the child which entitles them to have their wishes and feelings considered” yet was concerned whether the child in question would “survive the process of rehabilitation” to her parents’ care. On balance, the judge decided to make the adoption order, concluding:

In making the order which, in my judgment, promotes the welfare of SR, I fully recognise the grief of the parents who do not share my view and I recognise that I have no comfort to offer them, beyond letterbox contact. If ever an example was needed of how legitimate and heartfelt aspirations of parents can be trumped by the welfare needs of the child, this surely is it.

Adoption order

Section 67 (1) of the Adoption Act 2002 provides that “an adopted person is to be treated in law as the child of the adopters or adopter”. Adoption thus terminates existing parental responsibility and transfers it to the adoptive parents; it also terminates the very legal relationship of parent and child. The effect of adoption was recently described by a Supreme Court Judge Lord Wilson as “an act of surgery which cuts deep into the hearts and minds of at least four people and which will affect them, to a greater or lesser extent, every day of their lives” (Wilson, 2014, 19 Denning Society Lecture at Lincoln’s Inn: Adoption: Complexities beyond the Law, 13 November 2014, The Supreme Court)

As the purpose of adoption is to effect a permanent change of family, the making of an adoption order is seen as final, and it is thus very rare for an adoption order to be put aside, even where natural parents have suffered a serious injustice. In Webster v Norfolk County Council and the Children/ by Their Children’s Guardian [Webster v Norfolk County Council and the Children/ by Their Children’s Guardian [2009] EWCA Civ 59] three children were adopted without parental consent because of what was thought to be non-accidental injury to one of the children who had suffered fractures. Later on expert evidence suggested that the fractures had been caused by a rare case of scurvy as a result of the child’s diet which had been recommended by doctors.

The Court of Appeal refused the parents leave to appeal out of time to have the adoptions set aside, having regard to the public policy considerations regarding adoptions as well as interests of the children: they were settled with their adoptive parents. The adoptive parents argued that overturning the adoptions would “cause enormous stress, anxiety, disruption and emotional / psychological harm, particularly to the children” (para 92).

Wilson LJ concluded that it was too late to set aside the adoption orders, considering the interests of the children: “almost four years ago they moved into alternative homes which they were told would be permanent and of which they would be full, legal members; and at that time they ceased even to see the applicants.” (para 204). Thus, the interests of the children prevailed to the extent that the Court effectively decided to leave the children in their “alternative homes”. The parents, on the other hand, are determined to remain living in the same house until their children are old enough to come and find them. “When she knocks on our door, we will be here with all the love and the kisses and the memories and hugs that we have all missed. I pray for that every night”, the mother said in a recent newspaper interview. [Craig, Olga. Stolen by the state: A story of love and loss that’ll make you seethe – a mother falsely accused of abuse reveals her relentless hunt for her three babies. In the Mail on Sunday, 06.06.15]

The Children and Families Act 2014

The Children and Families Act 2014 came into force in April last year. Most practitioners agree that its main reform was at section 14, to introduce a time limit of 26 weeks for care and supervision proceedings, although the court can extend that period, but “only if the court considers that the extension is necessary to enable the court to resolve the proceedings justly”. The main reason for the reform was the view that delays in care and supervision proceedings were harmful to children. “These family justice reforms put children clearly at the heart of the family justice system and focus on children’s needs rather than what parents see as their own ‘rights’”, announced Simon Hughes, the then Justice Minister. [Family Justice Reforms to Benefit Children – Press release – GOV.UK/ 22.04.14].

Many judges, on the other hand, are concerned that the imposed time limit could be in conflict with the court’s aim to determine the right outcome in the proceedings: “Where the proposal before the court is for non-consensual adoption, the issues are too grave, the stakes for all are too high, for the outcome to be determined by rigorous adherence to an inflexible timetable and justice thereby potentially denied.” [Re B-S (Children) [2013] EWCA Civ 1146, para 49]

Concern about the time limit has been expressed by other professionals: for example, a study by the Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC) concluded:

The government’s agenda for adoption reform places emphasis on speeding up decisions and action in placing babies and young children with potential adoptive parents. When combined with the push to complete care proceedings within 26 weeks, and the research evidence about the fragility of reunification in some circumstances, this could serve to heighten doubts about the value of FDAC’s focus on supporting reunification in cases where that is appropriate. [Hayes, Derren. 26-week target ‘could limit help for substance misusing parents’  [Children & Young People Now, 01.05.14]

Reporting restrictions and transparency – a glimmer of hope?

There are long-standing and well-established “automatic restraints” on the publication of information relating to proceedings under the Children Act 1989. Section 97 of the Act provides that:
(2) No person shall publish [F3to the public at large or any section of the public] any material which is intended, or likely, to identify
(a) any child as being involved in any proceedings before [F4the High Court, a county court or] a magistrates’ court in which any power under this Act [F2or the Adoption and Children Act 2002] may be exercised by the court with respect to that or any other child; or
(b) An address or school as being that of a child involved in any such proceedings.

In addition to the “automatic restraints” courts can make injunctions preventing parents from discussing their legal cases with other parties even after the proceedings have been completed. However, parents who have lost confidence in the English family court system often turn to other organisations for support. A potential conflict thus arises between the parents’ rights for free speech and the child’s life to a private life, and numerous authorities have grappled with this issue in recent times. For example, in November 2014 the EU parliament’s Petitions Committee condemned “unacceptable” moves to pressure people from giving evidence to MEPs at a time when most complaints about forced adoption or the unjust loss of children to social services are coming from Britain. “In my experience, the UK is unique in Europe for the secrecy of its family courts and for the threats and bullying by authorities of parents who want to speak out about their treatment,” said Tatiana Zdanoka, a Latvian MEP [Waterfield, Parents fight British social services ‘gag’ to petition European Parliament. In The Telegraph, 12.11.14]

In Re J  [Re J (A Child) [2013] EWHC 2694 (Fam)] the father of four children, all of whom had been the subject of care proceedings, posted a film of the execution of the emergency protection order in respect of his youngest child. The film was shared on Facebook and YouTube. The issue for the court was whether or not there was justification for extending J’s anonymity after the care proceedings were over. The President of the Family Division agreed that the case raised “important questions about the extent to which the public should be able to read and see what disgruntled parents say when they speak out about what they see as deficiencies in the family justice system”. He made an order contra mundum, but the restriction was only against the publication of J’s name, not his image, largely because internet viewers are unlikely to be able to identify a one day old baby.

The President expressed his view at paragraph 71 of his judgment:

The father wishes to share such information with others and, so long as he keeps within the confines of section 12 of the 1960 Act, why should he not be able to do so? And why should those who may wish to hear his views not be permitted to approach him?

Conclusion

Having considered orders frequently made in private and public law, it is my view that parents’ rights are often disregarded in favour of children’s rights.

Choudhry and Herring attempt to answer the question: why is it that children’s interests should be seen as being particularly important as compared to the interests of an adult? They suggest that an order which is interfering in a child’s right to private or family life is likely to be “far more of a blight” than an identical order on an adult’s life. This is because the child is less equipped to deal with setbacks in their interests and life changes. They lack practical possibilities of remaking life plans, experience, maturity and even intelligence to develop alternatives. Moving them from a place where they have an established set of friends would be particularly disturbing for a child. [Choudhry and Herring/ European Human Rights and Family Law/ Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2010, 234.]

This is, of course, true – but the result of the current policy of intervention is exactly that: many children are moved from their homes, parents, friends, siblings. Two younger children in the Webster family, for example, have never even met their siblings.

At a Multi-Disciplinary Conference “Is the child protection system fit for purpose?” (01.06.2015) recently retired High Court Judge Sir Mark Hedley suggested that children who have been removed from their parents may grow up and challenge the Local Authority: “What have you done to keep me in my family?”

Bibliography

Books:
Bainham, Andrew, and Gilmore, Stephen/ Children – the Modern Law/ Fourth edition/ Bristol: Jordan Publishing Limited, 2013.
Choudhry, Shazia and Herring, Jonathan (2010)/ European Human Rights and Family Law/ Oxford: Hart Publishing
Gilbert, Neil; Parton, Nigel and Skivens, Marit/ Child Protection Systems: International Trades and Orientations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Hendrick, Judith (2005.) Law and Ethics in Nursing and Health Care/ New York: Nelson Thornes Ltd.
Herring, Jonathan (2012.) Family Law/ London: Routledge.
McCall Smith, Alexander (1990). Is anything left of parental rights? In Sutherland and McCall Smith Family Rights: Family Law and Medical Ethics/ Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Sawyer, Caroline (2009.) Children’s Representation by Their Parents/ in Responsible Parents and Parental Responsibility. Oxford: Hart Publishing, 215-235.

Periodical articles:

Baksi, Catherine/ Family lawyers sound alarm on separating parents/ The Law Society Gazette, 14.08.14

Booker, Christopher. The real story of the ‘baby with no name’/ In the Telegraph, 31.05.14

Craig, Olga. Stolen by the state: A story of love and loss that’ll make you seethe – a mother falsely accused of abuse reveals her relentless hunt for her three babies. In the Mail on Sunday, 06.06.15

Family Justice Reforms to Benefit Children – Press release – GOV.UK/ 22.04.14

Fathers4Justice campaigner jailed for defacing Queen’s portrait. The Guardian, 05.02.14

Hayes, Derren. 26-week target ‘could limit help for substance misusing parents’ | Children &
Young People Now, 01.05.14

Lord Wilson gives the Denning Society Lecture at Lincoln’s Inn: Adoption: Complexities beyond the Law, 13 November 2014, The Supreme Court.

The Narey Report on Adoption: Our Blueprint for Britain’s Lost Children. /The Times. July 5, 2011

Waterfield, Bruno (2014.) Parents fight British social services ‘gag’ to petition European Parliament. In The Telegraph, 12.11.14

Statutes:

Adoption Act 2002
The Children Act 1989
The Children and Families Act 2014

Cases:

Borough of Poole v W & another [2014] EWHC 1777 (Fam)
Hertfordshire County Council v F & Others [2014] EWHC 2159 (Fam) (23 May 2014
Re B-S (Children) [2013] EWCA Civ 1146
Re J (A Child) [2013] EWHC 2694 (Fam)
Webster v Norfolk County Council and the Children/ by Their Children’s Guardian [2009] EWCA Civ 59
X Council v B (Emergency Protection Orders) [2004] EWHC 2015 (Fam), [2005] 1 FLR 342

The impact on parents when their children are removed

This is a contribution from a mother who wishes to be anonymous.

What happens to the mother?

The first night I walked, literally just kept walking for hours. I wanted to die.

This is a personal story of instant removal of my children. It is a snapshot, with some details left out to protect the children’s identity. I wanted to write it mainly for other mothers to relate to, but also that professionals may increase their understanding of the effect of removal on a parent.

 

Initial impact

What you would expect, if you have ever seen a distraught mother wailing waiting to see if their child gets pulled out of the rubble of a collapsed building, it was the same level of emotion. The first night I walked, literally just kept walking for hours. I wanted to die.

Why?

When a baby grows within you , you develop a relationship with him or her before they are born. You talk to them, you touch them as a they wriggle around, you get to know them.

When my children were born I was blessed enough to have instant love for them alongside with the need to nurture. For me, it had to be give birth then feed, it was what came naturally. I could not take my eyes off the baby.

When my children were taken this need I had to nurture was disregarded, the bond between myself and my children was hacked through and I could not keep them safe. Apart from the devastation it actually appears so surreal that you can not think straight and get the necessary help, for instance I did not contact a solicitor. My sleep was disturbed, I either did not get to sleep or woke in the middle of the night. I had the most horrrendous nightmares mainly about the children being in danger and not being able to help. I struggled to eat or concentrate. Privately I cried ,screamed, swore. I walked around with my head down. Nobody in my local small community talked to me for months , so I was also isolated. I received no support in the first six weeks then I had a weekly, which soon went to fortnightly talking therapy from the NHS for three months.

I know this is a generalisation but men talk about their jobs and woman talk about their children. If I ever went on a course and had to do one of those dreadful ice breaking exercises I would say I was a mum first. When your children are taken your identity is stolen also. I have discussed this with mums who have been bereaved and it is the same experience, some people who knew that you had children will cross the road rather than speak to you, others will not mention it.

What is different, is that some people tried to be helpful and said that you may have a relationship when the children are adults. It is not helpful.

It is unnatural not to be able to care for your children if they are ill, I had an instance when one of my children needed hospital treatment, I struggled to get anyone to take them and eventually when they went I was proved right.

A mum has that sixth sense about their child. It is abnormal to be unable to wish your child a happy birthday or know their shoe size and to only see your children for an hour or two supervised by strangers.

Practically speaking I was left in a mess, I obviously lived in a family sized house, I had all the children’s belongings including pets and because like many I had a special needs child, due to lack of support (another article!) I did not have a full time job. So in the midst of care proceedings I had to weed out the children’s belongings and pack to move to a smaller property. It is also of course expensive to move. So stress on top of stress. As care proceedings were on going every slightest moment I put a foot wrong and quite of number of times I didn’t was recorded and used against me in court.

I believe each family effectively has a template for bringing up children. Good or bad you will bring something from your own childhood and you have your own ideas. I had a mum myself who had encouraged me to have interests, she attended school functions and encouraged me to broaden my mind. I carried that on with my children, I had been involved with the school, I encouraged interests,I tried to create memories for them with high days and holidays.

These values have been obliterated and a different template imposed on my children’s lives. It goes against every instinct.

 

Long Term

I think to some extent I have used denial as a tool. I cannot comprehend not living again with my children so I don’t face it as a possibility. I do not think about my children’s futures as it is too bleak. The childhood they are having will not prepare them for a functional adulthood. As a parent it is usual to want the very best for your child, not a backwards step. I am well aware that someone whose child has been adopted does not have this strategy to use.

I have rebuilt my life but it is very different, none of my new friends have children at home. I live a false life, I cannot do the normal motherly stuff like worry about whether they have done their homework or if they are being bullied, bake or even buy clothes for them. I have nothing to do with children and it has affected my employability as well as previously I worked with children.

Some days I feel old before my time, I’m sure this amount of stress will later on come out in physical illness . Most days I cope well, I am kind to myself on the bad days. I can not talk about my children except to those who know me well. Sometimes I think I have spotted my child on the street and there is an incredible sadness when I realise it is a child that looks like mine. I can no longer say I am a mum if I meet someone new, that major part of me has been taken.

Parents’ views of the proceedings – we have lost faith in the process

 I find it almost impossible to believe that justice will prevail. 

This is a contribution from one of our readers ‘M’ about how her partner saw the system unfolding around then and how it made them lose faith in the proceedings and to feel very unfairly treated.  It is very sad to read this, as a lawyer and wonder why these parents felt so unsupported by their own legal team. What should parents’ lawyers be doing differently or better, to have a positive impact for these parents?

 

Support for Parents in Care Proceedings

When a child is taken into care the parents are often left completely in the dark as to where they should go and who they should approach. The only thing you are told is that you should get legal representation as soon as you can.

 

Emergency Protection Order

In the case where your child is taken on an Emergency Protection Order you have less than a week to organise any legal representation. Additionally on an EPO the first hearing for an Interim Care Order it seems is often heard at a magistrates court which means you have no chance of getting the order reversed. If you are lucky enough to find a good solicitor in the few days it still seems to make no difference. As in our case the ICO hearing was scheduled in a magistrate’s court and was given enough time only for the ICO to be granted stopping us from challenging the order. We then find that we can only contest the ICO at a hearing at the end of August some 6 weeks after M’s son was taken into care. Even then the hearing was postponed for a further 2 weeks.

 

Care Proceedings 6 Month Limit

The 6 month limit on care proceedings starts from the moment the child is taken into care. This is clearly grossly unfair in the situation where your child is taken into care on an EPO and you are not allowed to challenge this for 2 months. It is particularly unfair in the situation where the child is taken into care in July as the 6 month period would end late December / early January and it was clear in our case that there was no intention and that finishing the case within 5 months became the target. Given the late start due to the summer and wanting to finish within 6 months we had barely 2 months to go through any assessment’s or possible solutions. It is hardly surprising the local authority took the “easy” approach and stuck with their original plan to keep M’s son in care and seek a placement order.

 

No-Win For Parents

Everything you say during the period you are in proceedings is used against you no matter what it is. If you are emotional when seeing your child then you are deemed to be harming them and if you are not then you are uncaring. It seems that once a decision has been made by Social Services to pursue a course of action you have almost no chance of getting a fair hearing. I can barely believe that we were not allowed to challenge much of the case that Social Services put forward. It may be that we were poorly represented in court – I cannot be sure as I only have this experience to go on. M was criticised for considering a move to B as if B was somehow an inappropriate place to live and yet M’s son is placed in G where Primary school education is one of the poorest in the UK.

 

The Basic Fault in the System

The underlying fault in the system as it stands is that you are assumed to be “guilty” unless you can prove you are innocent. Justice has been turned on its head in the drive to protect children and can only lead to many miscarriages. Considering the damage taking a child into care can do to the child and to the parents it should very much be a last resort. However I believe our case demonstrates that it is being used as anything but a last resort and possibly in […] in particular is being used to excess as can be seen by the Local Authority now finding it has neither the finances nor the numbers of foster parents needed. I don’t believe there is any independence in the courts as M’s son was taken on an EPO on two grounds which we proved were incorrect. There seems to be no restraint on the Local Authority if it decides to pursue parents. Documents were presented in court with outright lies in them and M was told several times that the Local Authority have to put these statements in even though they know them to be “untrue” because they would otherwise “weaken” the Local Authority case.

 

Aggressive Questioning in the Final Hearing

During the Final Hearing I was subjected to the most aggressive questioning I’ve ever witnessed. I have twice done Jury service and have never seen such questioning used in the criminal cases there. I felt I was being attacked as if I was somehow guilty of some serious offence like murder. I had previously made it quite clear to the Social Services that I wouldn’t put myself forward to care for M’s son unless I honestly believed I could do this. The people that know me know that I am a very honest person. I produced a couple of witness statements from people I know and have worked with to this effect. Before this hearing I had believed that justice would prevail but I find this almost impossible to believe now.

 

Local Authority Policy on Keeping Children in Care

I had thought the Local Authority would take a realistic look at the options for returning M’s son but instead they’ve taken a hard line attitude which seems to be at odds with the stated objectives of keeping families together. Given M’s sons cultural background they should have made efforts to keep up his language skills which would have put him ahead of his peers at school. Instead they seem to have made a conscious effort to remove this heritage and made no effort to keep his language skills. M was banned from speaking to him in anything other than English during our contact sessions.

 

Missed Contact Sessions

We missed 2 contact sessions in August last year as I had to be in E for work. I know M could have stayed in K and gone to the contact sessions but she was not coping well at the time and also the contact locations were far away in G.

 

Placement of M’s Son in Foster Care in far away location

We were told that G was the only place that M’s son could be placed but from our conversations with the contact supervisors it seems to have been an unusual foster placement. How many other children in care are placed an hour’s drive away or 2 hours by public transport? It may be that the foster placement was the only choice but along with the later statements and lack of support from Social Services it’s hard not to believe that the intention was to make things as hard as possible for M. Applying extra pressure to both M and me while we were already under pressure is completely immoral and has destroyed my trust in Social Services. All along it seems the actions of Social Services have been aimed at justifying taking M’s son into care and making life as difficult as possible for both of us in the hope we would give up. I can no longer believe they have the best interests of children at heart but are pursuing their own targets and objectives. Speaking as an honest person who finds lying virtually impossible I cannot understand how the Social Worker can stand in court and say that M’s son has suffered “emotional harm” when there is nothing to suggest this. All along the “expert” legal advice has been to accept the findings and agree a plan with Social Services to return M’s son but following this got us nowhere as at no time would Social Services offer us any credible option.

 

God like Powers Granted to Social Services without any Checks

It seems we have given God like powers to Social Services but without any checks or balances. Reliance on the courts to provide this is clearly not working and especially so when the system of Guardians is clearly not providing any independence. Considering the cases one reads about and which I have more recently heard about from M’s contacts in Facebook our case seems very unusual and our treatment exceptionally severe.

 

Current Situation

We are still awaiting the Court’s response to our appeal. Lamentably, the LA solicitor has written to the Royal Court of Justice, submitting that the permission to appeal should be refused. There is obviously no requirement for the Local Authority to provide a response to our Appellant’s Notice, so their attempt to “expedite matters” can be viewed as their attempt to infringe upon our right to a fair and public hearing, guaranteed by Article 6 of the ECHR.

Answering birth parents’ questions about adoption

Answering questions about adoption (by an adoptive parent)

A bit of background about me first – I’m a single mum, with three children, all of whom are adopted. Two of my children are now adults; the third is still in primary school. I spend a lot of time online nowadays, and I’ve been really privileged in the last few years to be able to talk with several birth mums about their experiences, and answer some of their questions about adoption and adoptive parents.

I could never truly know what it’s like to lose your child to adoption. But talking to mothers whose children have been adopted, has shown me that it’s often really confusing. They had a huge number of questions about adoption and adoptive parents, and no answers. They didn’t know any adoptive parents themselves, or at least none they felt comfortable asking their questions to.

I think these mothers were incredibly brave to ask me to answer their questions – they didn’t know me, I was just a random adoptive mum. They must have been worried that I would be judgemental or unkind. However it doesn’t matter to me whether someone is an adoptive parent or a birth parent or an adoptee. I hope I can find a way to support everyone who asks me to.

But I strongly feel that these mothers should have had an opportunity somewhere in the process to have all these questions answered, without having to reach out to a stranger on the internet. I am also sure that if these mums I talked to had questions, then there must be a lot more parents/grandparents (and other family) who also have the same questions about adoptive parents and adoption. So I’ve made a list of the questions I’ve been asked the most often by birth parents, and here are my answers. I’ve also included questions I’ve seen online which I haven’t been personally asked.

If you are a mother or father (or grandparent, sibling etc.) whose child (or grandchild, or sibling) is being adopted, then firstly I am sorry you are going through this. I hope you find these answers helpful. If you have any more questions you want to know about adoption that you think I could answer, please comment on this post, and I’ll try my best to answer for you.

And finally, from the bottom of my heart, thank you to the mums who asked me these questions first, who opened my eyes to how the process worked for them and who will remain in my thoughts always, as very courageous people who wanted the best for their children.

………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Why do adoptive parents want to adopt?

Adoptive parents have very different reasons for adopting. Many come to adoption following infertility, but quite a few of us don’t. For me, adoption was my first choice because above all, I wanted to become a mum and love a child with all my heart. I was a single lesbian woman and no other method of becoming a mother felt like the right thing for me to do. I felt that there were so many older children in care that I wasn’t comfortable creating a new life instead of becoming a mum to a child who was already here.

One thing all adoptive parents have in common is that we ALL adopt because we want to experience parenthood, in the same way that people who give birth to their children want to experience parenthood. I’ve seen a couple of people suggest that we want children as “accessories”, but nothing could be further from the truth. I want to reassure families of children in care, that with every adoptive family I’ve ever met, we love our children in exactly the same way as we would love a child born to us, and we would never treat a child any differently because they were adopted.

How does being approved as an adoptive parent work? Is it hard? Do they check up on you thoroughly?

It’s a long process, and it is definitely very thorough. It’s changed now from when I was approved to adopt, but the basics of it are the same. There are several key parts of it. Firstly, there are the basic checks – every adoptive parent will have a criminal records check (certain criminal offences bar you from ever adopting, including any offence against a child) and a medical check to make sure they are well enough to parent a child into adulthood. Social services will also check on prospective parent’s finances, inspect their home and make sure it’s safe for a child, and also get references from family, friends and others. For instance, my employer had to give a reference for me when I adopted the first time.

Secondly, there is a “preparation group”, which all prospective parents will attend at some point during the process. The point of this is to educate, and prospective parents will be taught about the legal process of adoption, why children are available for adoption, about parenting adopted children, and so on.

Thirdly, there are the homestudy visits. This is where a social worker visits the parent/s in their home and talks to them in huge depth about their life and about adoption. For instance, in my homestudies, we talked about my childhood, my family, what support I have around me, my beliefs, my previous relationships (including my sex life), how I would support and parent my adopted child, and about what kind of a child I would be adopting. We basically give social services our life story! A social worker even interviewed one of my ex-partners as part of my assessment.

The social worker who is assessing us will write all this information into a big report. Lastly, the report goes to an Adoption Panel, who review it all, and then recommend whether a parent should be approved to adopt or not.

So it is definitely a thorough process, and whoever adopts your child, will have been checked, questioned and scrutinised as far as possible to make sure they are up to the task.

Do you pay social services to adopt a child?

If we are adopting a child in the UK care system, no we don’t, absolutely not. Not even one pence! You might see people at some point claiming that we pay social services for a child, but this is not true at all. I think some of this confusion is because people see American adoption sites online, and over there, they also have a private adoption system for babies where money is paid by adoptive parents to the adoption agencies. This just doesn’t exist in the UK, so don’t let those sites worry you.

Do you pay any money to anyone else to adopt?

All adoptive parents have to have a (thorough) medical check. Doctor’s surgeries will usually charge for this, in the same way as they might charge for holiday vaccinations or some medical letters.

At the final part of the process, when you apply to the court to legally adopt your child, the court charges a fee. Some adoptive parents have to pay the fee themselves, but sometimes social services pay it for them. I have never paid for the court application for instance; the council have always paid it for me.

There is no other money paid to anyone in the adoption process.

Do you get paid to adopt?

No. Adoption is very different from foster care. Foster carers get paid a weekly allowance to foster. But when you adopt a child, they become your child (legally the same as if you gave birth to them) and so you are entitled to the same as birth parents get for their children (child benefit for instance).

What information do you get given about a child by social services, and what makes you “make your mind up” to adopt that child?

We get a lot of information. The very first thing we see is usually a short profile with just a little bit about the child, and if we are interested, we would get a lot more, in a report which is now called a CPR (Child Permanence Report). The information would include – about the child’s background, their birth family, why the child is in care and being adopted, the child’s personality, interests, behaviours, their health and medical information, their development, if they have any ongoing difficulties or need to be parented a bit differently to other children, about school and friends. It will also say what the plan is for contact after adoption with birth family.

After that, if you are still interested in adopting that child, the child’s social worker reviews your homestudy report and interviews you. Then they (and other members of their adoption team) come to a decision about whether they want to take things further. So it’s not just about you, as a parent, picking out a child. We adoptive parents do not just select a child to adopt like how it was decades ago. Social services have to choose you, based on whether they think you are the best possible parent for this child, and whether you can give this child everything they need.

If social services choose you, you then get even more information. You will meet the foster carer/s, and a medical advisor/paediatrician to get as much information as possible about the child and get all your questions answered. Finally after this, another ‘panel’ approve the match. This whole process of ‘matching’ lasts several months.

Making up your mind that you would like social services to choose you for a certain child, is really different for different people. Some parents ‘just know’ as soon as they read the CPR report, but others don’t and need more time.

When I read my eldest daughter’s information, I felt a strong connection to her, and I felt once I’d read her reports that she was most likely my daughter. I can’t tell you why I felt such a strong connection, it just happened! But we always use the huge amount of information we have to make up our minds as well. We have to be certain we can be the parent this child needs, and that we are comfortable with the child’s behaviour and their needs.

Whoever your child/relatives adoptive parents are, they will have put a huge amount of thought into whether or not to adopt your child/relative, and considered really carefully whether they are the right parents for this child.

Does eye and hair colour come into it?

No! I’ve seen birth parents being told that adoptive parents want children with blonde hair and blue eyes. Actually, we generally couldn’t care less what our child will look like! I’ve certainly never met any adoptive parent who cared whether their child was a blonde, or a brunette, or whatever. We view our children the same as we would a birth child. We wouldn’t care what our birth child looked like, and we don’t care what our adoptive child looks like. We just love them for who they are on the inside.

Personally, I thought it might be helpful for my children, if they looked like I could have given birth to them, because then my children could have privacy – they’d never have nosy strangers thinking ‘ooh, she/he must be adopted!’ based on their appearance. So for me, it was all about the child, and what I thought would be good for my child. It was not about me. As it happens, all my children look quite different, even the two who are birth half siblings!

Do you meet the child before you’ve decided 100% [if you want to adopt them]?

No. Being introduced to the child you are adopting is the very last stage. It’s called “introductions” and it’s where you and the child get to know each other before the child moves in. Before that happens, you’ve had all the information, made up your mind 100%, and been to the panel that’ve approve the match (and of course you’ve bought furniture and decorated etc.!) At this stage, everything is set. Once you’ve read the CPR and been to panel etc., you can’t meet the child and then decide if you want to adopt them. That would be very unfair and wrong for the child. As far as I was concerned, as soon as my children were told about me for the first time (by their foster carers and social worker) then I was absolutely 100% committed to them.

Do you “have” to tell the child that they are adopted? Could it happen that an adoptive family wouldn’t tell the child?

You don’t “have” to tell, because there is no law about it. We have the same freedom as birth parents to tell or not to tell our children about their early lives.

However, it is very rare nowadays for a child not be told they are adopted. Right from day one, we are told how important it is for children to know their story. Social workers and other adoptive parents, we are all very clear to prospective parents about how important it is for children to know about their adoption in an age appropriate way. Parents can access a lot of advice and tips about how best to do this. So whilst it could be that a child wouldn’t be told, it’s very unlikely. I’ve only come across a couple of people in about 18 years who haven’t told their children (and this includes online as well), as opposed to hundreds and hundreds who have.

At what age do you ‘tell’? And how?

Obviously with an older child, they know what’s happening. With a baby or toddler who is too young to understand, the way most adoptive parents try and ‘tell’, is in a way which means the child ‘always knows’. When they are older, they shouldn’t be able to remember a time when they didn’t know they were adopted. This means that for most children adopted as babies, they’ll be having little conversations about adoption by the age of 4 at the latest, but most usually a bit younger than that.

I told my youngest child the story of “the day we met” from when he was 2 years old (and he was 23 months old when we met), and I was also mentioning the word ‘adoption’ from that age. I didn’t bombard him with information; I just dropped in little things here and there. For instance, I remember when at age 3, a neighbour of ours was pregnant, and he pointed at her because she was getting so big. I said that yes, babies grow in the womb which is down in your tummy area, and you grew in X’s womb before you came to live with me. And he repeated that back to me.

All children who are adopted now are supposed to have life story books. These books, which as the name suggests, tell the child’s life story, might help parents to explain to the child the basics.

What are the options for any contact with birth mum? What’s the “norm”?

The norm in my experience is letterbox contact, which means letters going between you and the adoptive parents. This is normally either once or twice a year. It isn’t so common for there to be visits, but if there are, it will most likely be either once or twice a year. I’ve personally done both letters and visits.

For other adult family members, there might also be letterbox or, less commonly, visits.

The plan for contact should be mostly decided on before the child moves into their adoptive home, although it isn’t always. There may be a letterbox agreement which you sign and the adoptive parents sign. This agreement would say when the letters are being sent, to whom, how they are signed, and so on.

As the child gets older, they can have their own say in contact. For instance, my youngest child has asked for all letters to be stopped, so I stopped them. On the other hand, if my child had wanted the opposite and wanted more letters, I would have tried my best to add in another couple of letters a year. For adoptive parents, it’s about supporting our kids and helping them process everything.

What are the options for any contact with siblings? What’s the “norm”?

It definitely depends on where the siblings are living, whether they’ve lived together before and how close their bond is. But in my experience, visits with siblings are much more common than visits with any other members of the child’s birth family, especially if the siblings are also adopted or in long term foster care. I’ve supported my kids through a whole lot of sibling visits over the years. However, if there are no visits, letterbox contact is very often in place for the siblings, usually 1-3 times a year.

Will my child be told that I love them?

I realise how desperately you want your child to know that you love them. Every adoptive parent speaks to their children differently about their past, but most parents, when talking about their (young) child’s birth family, choose to say something along the lines of “your birth mum loves you very much, but can’t look after you”. As our children get older, we add in more about the ‘why’. I certainly have told my children that they are loved, and all the other adoptive parents I’ve met, tell their children the same. I want my children to know that they are loveable people, were the most loveable babies in the world, and that nothing that happened is their fault. I certainly want them to feel loved, and that’s something that all adoptive parents want for their children.

Will my child’s name be changed?

This is something I can’t give an answer to, because every situation is different. I can only say that in nearly all situations, the surname will be changed. Some children have their first names changed, but others don’t. Some of the things that may go into the decision are – whether there is a security risk (whether the child is likely to be recognised), how unusual the name is, its meaning and how old the child is.

I can give you my situation as an example – two of my children were older children when they came to live with me, hence it was entirely up to them what they did with their names. My eldest literally waltzed downstairs one morning and informed me that she was dropping both of her middle names, and had picked two new middle names for herself instead, which were x and y! And that was that, as far as she was concerned. My middle child on the other hand, only ever changed surname, and has kept all her other names as they always have been.

However my youngest child has been entirely named by me (and themselves!). I changed my child’s first name for many reasons, chief among them a security risk from a few people. I kept the old first name as a middle name, because I couldn’t take that away from my child. However, recently my child asked for that (original first) name to go entirely, and to pick a new middle name instead. So I went with my child’s choice, and we picked a new name together, which we are in the process of making legal now.

We are just one family, and every adoptive family will have a different story. So I can’t say whether or not your child will be given a new first or a new middle name. However I can say that if your child’s name is changed, they will at some point be told about it. My youngest always knew which name was originally the first name.

Again, if you have any more questions you want to know about adoptive parents/adoption that you think an adoptive parent could answer, please comment on this post, and I’ll try my best to answer for you.

Words don’t come easy

This contribution is from a group of ‘birth’ and ‘adoptive’ parents who started discussing this issue on Twitter. What is the impact of the words we use to talk about people in the care and adoption process?

Do we need to be more considerate of or more challenging about the terms we use? 

You may also be interested in this blog post from an adoptive parent. 

 

Does the terminology associated with adoption need to be challenged?

The current adoption climate in the UK has seen the use of many terminologies being uttered that evoke negative emotions for all involved. Adoption in itself is very emotive for all involved especially where consent has been dispensed with.  So can the use of some of these terms be considered as  “hate speech”? Possibly, possibly not, but what is clear is that we need to remove the use of some of these terms as it builds an even greater divide between the “birth family” and the “adoptive family”.

Whichever side you find yourself on, it is the child at the end of the day that is most affected by whichever term is used.  Some can denote that the one family is either lesser or even better than the other family, leaving the child in the middle feeling they are being torn in two having to choose sides. This has a devastating and lasting effect on the child’s identity, self worth, emotions and psychology not to mention a test on their loyalty to the families involved.

So let’s look at some of the terms and the emotive relationships associated to them:

Birth Parent

Person who gave birth is nothing more than a ‘surrogate’ or ‘breeder’. Denotes derogatory connotations. If an adopter has a blood child and an adopted child, it segregates the two making the adopted child always feel isolated.

Genetic Parent

Person is nothing more than a donor of an egg or sperm

First / Second Family

Renders the essence of a family unit moot. Undermines the role of permanence and stability. Suggests families can be discarded summarily and breeds lack of respect.

Forever Family

This is considered one of the most offensive terms in adoption. There is not such thing as a ‘forever family’ as the whole process of adoption contradicts the entire term. It is also suggestive to children in families who have not been separated by adoption, that their place in the family is temporary which has devastating consequences in terms of building trust, relationship alienation etc.

Natural Parent

Who will carry this term (adopter or other?) and is being a parent a ‘natural’ thing so that assistance is never required at any point? Everyone needs help and guidance as children do not come with manuals and no two children are alike. Whoever coins their family as ‘natural’ will them imply that the other family is ‘unnatural’.”

Real Mother/Father

Adopters are made to feel they are artificial parents

Mother/Father

The use of this term for adoptive parent dismisses the emotional and psychological link the ‘biological’ parent has and will always have, with a child who has been adopted.

Family

Many adopters feel they should have the use of this term as opposed to the inclusion of the ‘birth’ family within the term, but is a ‘family’ simply all who love and care for the child and can simply be seen as a ‘cohesive family’ ?

Adoptee

Denotes that the child is ‘different’ and unloved by those who gave birth to them. In the UK, this term is becoming synonymous with having come from an abusive home, hence they were removed for adoption. Not all children are removed from abusive or neglectful homes and parents who did not love them. Many parents who have lost their child to adoption will go to extra-ordinary lengths to fight for their child’s return. Another obvious observation is that if ‘birth’ parent is used does that make this child a ‘birth’ child?

Parent

Not everyone can parent. This applies to ‘birth’ parents as well as ‘adoptive’ parents. So do we keep the term parent for both?

 

The  impact of terminology

The emotive responses can either have positive or negative connotations and more suitable terminology must begin to be accepted, especially amongst the legal fraternity and social care societies as it is from there that the initial steps can be introduced.  So what do we use? There is much debate around this very subject with no definitive conclusion.

Do we start referring to “birth” parents as the “Alpha” parent/family while “Beta” is used for extended families, “Gamma” for Step families and “Delta” for the adoptive family? Does this make one again lesser than the other or is it simply a matter of numeric’s. After all, without the “birth” family coming first, there would be no adoption?

Literature and research accepts that the majority of ‘adoptees’ will at some point seek out their ‘birth’ family. How reunions turn out often depends on how the child, adopter and ‘birth parent’ have associated each other’s role based on the terminology that each has grown accustomed to or been offended by.  If the reunion is a success, the adoptive family, especially the parent, will often feel sidelined and abandoned whilst the adoptee reconnects with the biological ties that will forever bind them to their ‘birth’ family.

We need to be realistic and frank if we are ever to get to the bottom of all this, despite everyone’s sensitivities. Adoption is nothing more than giving a child which is not your own, a potentially safe environment to grow up in, but how is this different to growing up with grandparents or extended families? Would you raise an eyebrow if a child referred to their  grandparents as ‘my adoptive mom’? So is the use of Adopter still appropriate and should this term perhaps be replace with “Guardian”?

As adoption can be cross-cultural, do we also need to consider religion and culture in the terminology as translations can change an entire meaning? Or do we stick with the English speaking populous and leave the rest to be interpreted as each culture and religion sees fit?

Will changing the terminology go a long way to building a more constructive framework and solid foundation for the child involved and even possibly lead towards successful open adoptions?

What if we used similar words with similar meanings but either spelt or pronounced differently?

We call two grandmothers in a family different things so that we can distinguish them e.g. grandma, nan etc.., and one is not loved more or less than the other.  The same can be done for mothers for example, so that the child knows the difference but the terminology would be different for every family.

Some possible suggestions are:

Female Carers: Mom, mommy, mother, mama, mammy, mum, ma, mummy, etc.

Male Carers: Dad, Father, Pops, pappy, daddy, papa, pa, etc.

It has to be argued that this has to be the better option for all involved but more so, for the child. If you accept that, then why not go the extra step when referring to ‘Birth’ and ‘Adoptive’ parents both  as ‘Parents’? Similarly, both sides can be referred to as ‘Families’ because that is pure and simply what they are and will always be to the child.

Removing the adjectives and verbs will improve long term outcomes for the child and that dear reader, has to be what is in every child’s best interest.

 

Lawyers need to see it through the parents’ eyes

This is a guest post from Jacque Courtnage founder of the TaKen UK website. She has the perspective of not only being a parent who went through the system but she is also a lay advisor to other parents in family proceedings. 

Here she describes some of the frustrations and difficulties she has encountered concerning the parent/lawyer relationship. We agree that it is important for professionals to always be aware of how confusing proceedings can seem to their lay clients and just how anxious and afraid their clients can be. 

 

The importance of clear explanations

One of the problems we are finding is that some of the legal aid solicitors appear to only be going through the motions and tend to forget they are dealing with people who do not know their rights, the legal system or the practices and expectations of social care. I have taken on cases where some of the basics of the legal process is little, if not at all understood. From many of those whom I have assisted, they have often come back saying to me “why did my lawyer not tell me that” or “if only someone had explained that to me”.  Whilst an explanation of lack of time, high case loads and resources can often be blamed, an excuse already used by social care, it is but yet just another nail in the coffin of the family facing forced permanent separation.

Some of the lawyers I have spoken to about this have admitted they tend to forget they are dealing with laymen not to mention most of these families are traumatised and can barely see the wood for the trees.

So how do you fix this? I do not know, but what I can say is the role I often fulfil in these cases, is acting as an intermediate between client and solicitor. Whilst this is unique and I do not know how many do what I do, it works and alleviates the solicitor having to deal with incessant queries. To make the relationship work, there has to be a good understanding and working relationship between myself and the solicitor. We each know each other’s boundaries and we keep each other in check whilst the client benefits knowing that all areas are covered and their best interests are always put first. Whether this can be allowed as an extension of the role of a Mackenzie Friend is something only the relevant law firm and courts can consider.

 

The benefits of working with a lay advisor

There are many benefits in pursuing this course of action. Just some pluses is that not only does the MF learn more about the system the correct way to help those who cannot afford representation, but the solicitor gets a different set of eyes as well as the benefit of having someone help weed out the irrelevant and highlight pertinent stuff that may otherwise be missed or dismissed by the carer.

Whilst many solicitors will cringe at the very thought of the aforementioned suggestion, it must be remembered that whilst solicitors have long fought for individuals in court, the majority will never have had the experience of being the subject to care proceedings and all that that entails, whilst many MF on the other hand have and can be considered experts in their own rights.  Please do not mistake this for plugging MF’s but would it not be beneficial to gain access to ALL experts in the field to help your client case? I am by no means challenging the role of solicitors, what I am challenging is the very real perception of an invisible insurmountable wall between client and their family law solicitors.

Simple things like, open communication, access to information or at least be informed that there is information and support out there and where to find it.

The biggest of them all is building a trusting relationship with their client because let’s face it, whilst many consider this as just their job and yet another case, for the client it is their worst nightmare come true and they are terrified.

 

Access to counselling

All I can further add is that it would be very helpful to families who are the subjects of care proceedings to ensure they have access to counselling as PTSD is very seldom considered, if at all. All we are asking from solicitors is for just a few minutes to consider what they would want if they found themselves in unfamiliar surrounding fighting for their and their families lives and then use that list to help their clients.

 

 

 

 

Recording interactions between social worker and parents

Is this becoming the norm? And if so, what are the consequences?

What is the impact of this practice on the working relationship between parents and social workers? Is this a good thing or do you find it concerning?

You may also be interested in this blog post by suesspiciousminds on the subject.

 

Section 36 Data Protection Act

The Data Protection Act makes it clear that individuals do not need the consent of professionals to record meetings/visits, as the information being discussed in that situation is personal to them and therefore exempt from the data protection principles. There may be problems if the meeting is going to deal with issues relating to a third party.

 

Update – Louise Tickle writes in the Guardian on 17th June 2015.

Louise Tickle, who attended the Child Protection Conference on 1st June, organised by the Transparency Project, was interested to hear comments from the parents about recording their meetings with social workers. This prompted comments from the lawyers present that they could see no objections to this practice. You can read her article here.

 

Recording and more specifically covertly recording

This is a guest post by Jacque Courtnage who runs the TaKen UK website which campaigns against the wrongful removal of children by the State. She has experience of the system both as a parent and a lay advisor to other parents in the family court.  Here are her views about what appears to be the growing practice of parents recording their interactions with social workers.

is becoming the norm and in some cases is being accepted as evidence by the courts. This is matter that does need further consideration and exploration by more of the courts.

I say this for a number of reasons as I have been present on many occasions where professionals, and in particular – social workers, have relayed pertinent information to the parents/carers and have then denied all knowledge of having said these things whilst giving evidence. I refer to conversations where either social workers have given the carers reassurance that no action will be taken or they have no concerns, and then when their witness statement has been produced, the complete opposite is stated. Because many of these parents all come before the courts disadvantaged, they are considered to be lying.

On the opposite side, we have also had social workers being aggressive and intimidating to carers and indeed some of the children involved, and when complaints are lodged, the parent is considered to only be doing so for vindictive reasons. Again the same with telephone calls. A lot of misinformation is being populated to parents by some social workers to ensure they either miss contacts or behave in certain ways that can then later be used against the parents in court.

I have attended many meetings as a mediator where communications have broken down between parents and LA. I have challenged where things were stated as fact but the professional would not go on record with their statement. I have challenged some of these individuals when they were giving evidence and their uncanny manner to feign amnesia is laughable. Had some of these things been recorded, many cases would perhaps be less detrimental to families involved.

Having said all of that, many parents also do lie. If recordings became the accepted norm, it would ensure there is no miscommunication or fabrication of events and that everyone involved will be forced to take responsibility for their actions and accountability will be able to become part of the transparency needed. If the individuals have nothing to hide and are behaving in a manner they would consider to be lawful, then there should not be any problem. The UK is full of CCTV that records everyone’s movements without the public going on a full riot, so why can this not then be rolled out to include public law areas?

Simply put, it protects everyone from unsavoury behaviour and starts to help making the system work the way it was meant to. There is just too much suppositions, speculations and individual personal perspectives involved in family law. Taking this to the next level, recordings will also help diffuse a problem as emotions are always heightened at times of intervention, and much is either misunderstood or misinterpreted. The recordings will allow for the individual who is aggrieved at the time, the opportunity to review the recording and see if they had perhaps initially overreacted.

The other matter is the recording of hearings and judgments. Whilst there must be legislation as to the use and availability of the recordings, the issue of getting transcripts is a rather problematic.  Despite Munby’s PD on judgment transcripts, these are still not being produced many weeks and months later. Many families involved in care cases do not have the finances to afford the exorbitant costs of transcribing 3 to 5 days Fact Finding hearings let alone a judgment. Recordings of hearings can be used to help progress cases for the Court of Appeal or indeed when they carer acts as as litigant in person because they do not qualify for funding.

 

A view from a family barrister

For discussions about the pros and cons of recording interactions from the family bar, please see this useful post on Pink Tape.  There are serious concerns about recording children and a warning that this can often back fire on the person responsible for the recording, particularly if the child is distressed. But with regard to recording interactions between parents and professionals, this has the potential to be helpful:

There are lots of reasons why a parent’s understanding, experience or perspective of a meeting might be very different from the professional – they may well not be a “reliable” historian in any forensic sense simply by virtue of the fact that emotions are high and the stakes are high also. But the truth of the matter is that sometimes social workers are also less than reliable – sometimes even untruthful.

I know that many parents would suggest that social workers are routinely and regularly untruthful, such is their desire to meet their targets to have children removed and secure their adoption bonus. Leaving that aside for one minute (I don’t think that is really what happens) I have met plenty of social workers who are just not great with detail, who don’t recognise their own emotional involvement and how it alters their own perspective and responses to a situation, and who are see, record and retell the history in an overly negative light. I have met social workers who seem to be prepared to gloss over the specifics of a particular conversation for the “greater good”, which is to secure the outcome that they genuinely think is best for the child.

I have sometimes suspected dishonesty on the part of a social worker but have rarely proved it. There are cases in which social workers have been caught out lying, but they are infrequent. Here is a notorious example of a case where the honesty of a social worker became a really big issue : Bath & North East Somerset Council v A Mother & Ors [2008] EWHC B10 (Fam) (22 December 2008). Here is one recent example of where a recording was crucial : Man Wins Compensation After Recording Saves Him From Prison.

The view from CAFCASS

See para 2.27 from the Cafcass Operating Framework

We should have nothing to fear from covert recording. Our attitude should be, “I am doing my job and I have nothing to hide. I can explain why I said what I said or why I did what I did”. This is within the spirit of transparency in the family courts. We should always be transparent in our work, to meet contemporary expectations, including being able to defend whatever we say or write in a court under cross-examination, because we are working to a professional standard on behalf of a child. In this sense, we should expect that everything we say or write could become public knowledge

Some service users ask in advance of an interview whether it can be recorded. Advice on handling advance requests from service users to record interviews is available on the Cafcass Legal intranet page. In cases where no advance request has been made and the practitioner subsequently becomes aware that they have been recorded without their knowledge, they should tell the court. In some cases, however, the practitioner may not become aware of the recording until the service user presents the recording, or a transcript of it, at court. In such situations, the practitioner should make clear to the court that the recording was made without their knowledge. The practitioner may ask for the opportunity to listen to the recording or read the transcript before it is admitted into evidence, if the court is minded to take this step. It is a matter for the court to decide whether the recording or transcript can be included in evidence.

Be ALERT!

One of our contributors suggested ALERT would be a good acronym for us to use

I thought of the acronym ALERT standing for.

Attention
Listen
Engage
Respond
Trust

Attention draw Social Services attention if you feel that there are children at risk or who need additional support.

Listen If the Social Worker is telling you something no matter how hard it is to hear, try to really listen and take in what is being said.

Engage  Always attend meetings, allow Social Workers access to you and the child/ren involved. Show you realise how serious it is and engage with each step of the process.

Respond  If you are asked to do something then act on it. If Social Services raise concerns about the state of your house, clean-up. Your drinking, seek help. A violent relationship, make steps towards ending it etc etc.

Trust  trust that Social Workers aren’t involved as they want to steal your child, trust that they are working within a legal framework and most importantly trust that they are working in the best interest of your child, even if you disagree on what that is.

Blogs from Birth Parents

We are very grateful to the birth parents who have agreed to share their stories with us. We hope that their insights and experiences will be valuable for everyone who works in or alongside the system.

Here you will find a blog from a birth parent who was not able to keep her child.

She agreed to share with us some of her experiences of losing her child.

I am 32, and my birth daughter, who is now 7, was adopted a year ago. She was taken into care after 3 reported incidences of being drunk in charge of a child. I got her home 6 months later, but then it happened again. She never spent another night in my care, or even another hour unsupervised in my company. I continued with drinking binges after she was removed, until I conceded defeat and that I couldn’t get well for her, that Social Services should do as they were planning, which was that for her own best interests she should be placed with adoptive parents. Each of the initial incidences was reported to Social Services by my family members.

I am an alcoholic. I never signed up for alcoholism, in my life as a single parent with a successful professional career. Alcoholism is no respecter of gender, ethnicity, social class, education level or religion. It affects the way that you think. You think it won’t be that bad. This time I’ll be able to stop. It’ll never really happen to me. I’m in control, I’m not that bad, I can still take care of my child, no-one will find out. Lies, all lies, to justify that the drink is ok, and pretend that it hasn’t taken that primary place in my life above my girl, my career, my health, my finances, my God, and my self respect. I couldn’t even stop for my beautiful, creative, loving, and very special daughter. It is a madness of the mind, the emotions, the body and most importantly the soul. This is what proves incontrovertibly to me that I had become powerless to stop in my own strength.

This is the worst grief I have ever experienced. I was 9 months sober by the time she was placed. I never stopped loving her, and I have never stopped missing her, and longing that things could have been different, that my recovery could have started sooner, that I could have been the best person for her to be with. I have had to admit that, for her own best interests, it was better for her to be adopted and settled with loving and secure parents, than remain in the care system in the hope that I got well. Except that then, I did get well, and have faced losing her, in sobriety.

If I want peace, for and within myself, I must learn to live with the inconsistencies of Social Services. I know many women who are alcoholics who have done what I did who still have their children, either because Social Services never found out, or because they decided that despite the problems the children were still better off with their parents than removed from them. When I am crying “it’s not fair” I am trying to wriggle out from what I have done – and what I have done is extremely wrong and damaging to a young child who was powerless to escape from it. Children cannot and should not have to wait until their parents get well. This is the spirit of the law in this area of child protection and it is true and it was true for my daughter. However I do want to also highlight that she never missed school, was always fed and clean and bathed and we read stories, we spent endless hours making things, and there had been no other concerns at any times, Social Services could find no emotional or psychological problems, apart from the normal distress caused by separation from her mother. There is an assumption that children who are removed are unclean, unfed, absent from school, and there are concerns from all who encounter them. Not always.

And I must grieve in silence and in private. The world does not want to hear of my grief, the primal wound that results from a mother forcibly separated from her child, because it is an unpleasant story, and I am the villain in it. And yet I must grieve. In the midst of all this, I am hurting and I have relinquished the way I had learned to cope with pain, in substances. I miss her and I love her and this hurts every part of me and some days I feel like it will consume me. I cry out to God that I am hurting and that I am grieving in the midst of terrible guilt and shame and I can’t sort all this mess out. This isn’t clean grief – having lost my mum almost 3 years ago, I know that grief too – but that is right, in the natural order of things, because children at some stage should lose their parents. My mum was young, but still, it is a clean and acceptable grief. For my daughter these feelings are complicated. I love my little girl, and I miss her with a pain that is physical, in the way it eats me up, she is lost and she is gone. I am joining one of society’s most unwanted and disliked groups, but giving this process a voice, to bring my shame and grief and hurt out of the dark where it cannot resolve, into the light might help someone else, perhaps who is facing this threat. And as I continue to cry out in pain, in prayer, for my daughter, that she will grow up loved, and if at all possible secure, and healed.

Advice from birth parents

In this post, a number of birth parents share their views on how they made it through the stress of a child protection investigation and offer insights and advice to those in a similar position. Most of the contributors to this section have shared their stories on parenting forums such as www.mumsnet.co.uk

Relationships with Social Workers

It IS hard to see the wood for the trees, and I think one thing that Social Workers don’t seem to realise is that when you add in the stress of a CIN [Child in Need] case, where you are at risk of losing your DC’s, it puts so much added pressure on a parent that is already under pressure and a victim of DV [Domestic Violence] too, and often EA [Emotional Abuse] that they haven’t yet realised, that it becomes almost impossible for the parent to stop being fearful and stressed for ling enough to see the truth of their situation. I DO feel that a gentler approach from SS would actually in the majority of cases like the OP’s resolve the CIN concerns much faster.”

Need for clear communication about what is meant by ‘abuse’ and why it is harmful

Clearly setting out what constitutes EA [Emotional Abuse} and DV  [Domestic Violence] for the parent would open their eyes to things that they have often been minimising. With examples of each thing that can constitute abuse – including financial. Also stating clearly about the long term effects on a child of living in a DV situation, with possible issues it can cause for the children – NOT everyone knows this, it’s NOT taught about in schools.

Ask them to look at the list, and to answer it honestly, while the SW isn’t present, and going back for a second session with them, being clear about what they need done would also help.

It isn’t easy, as a parent who still loves their partner, to truly see an abusive situation for what it is. And it’s even less easy to know without being told, what you are meant to do to fix it.

It’s very easy for me now, as a 30-something adult, who has BEEN in a previous abusive relationship, to see what you are meant to do.

As a teenage parent, or a young parent, who has no experience of this, how in the name of hell are you meant to GUESS what you are meant to do??!!

And this is, I feel, where SS goes wrong, and stops putting the DC’s first. If SS were clear right from the beginning with handouts that explained everything that constitutes abuse, with examples, it would be far easier to spot when you are being abused. If they also gave clear directions on what is expected in that situation to protect the DC’s, many more DC’s would be protected from living in an environment with DV MUCH FASTER.

And parents who are in an abusive relationship would not feel so confused, fearful, and would be far less ‘obstructive’ in many cases, towards the SW’s attempts at helping.

It’s not always possible to find the time for navel gazing personal reflection to attempt to work out that you are in an abusive relationship andthat you need to get out of it pdq when you are actually coping with being in an abusive relationship, dealing with the day-to-day stuff that comes with having DC’s, AND are fearful of losing your children and not knowing why or how to fix it!

I think that a clearer picture from SS would actually PROTECT far more DC’s from living in a situation with abuse present.