After the Adoption…

This is a post by Sarah Phillimore

What are the legal options or implications for an adopted child who wishes to spend more time living with their natural parents?

I read recently a very interesting post on the MummyTigerBlog about ‘When is a mum not a mum?’

The blogger adopted two girls and managed to forge a relationship with their natural mother – ‘mummy Jo’. She writes of the importance of that relationship for the girls and the questions they now ask:

The trauma of separation from natural family, their experience of foster care and subsequent adoption has had a lasting impact on my children, an impact that, despite rebuilding the severed natural family relationships that are so important to them, continues to hurt for both girls, although in very different ways. For both girls the re-established relationships with their natural family has been a huge help in their healing process and for their identity as they approach adolescence and the teen years but still brings up many questions of why? Why me? Why weren’t we kept together? Why weren’t we allowed to see our brother?  And more recently why can’t I live with Mummy Jo?

The emotional and legal implications for children in this situation are likely to be complicated. I cannot speak to the emotions, other than to agree that the importance of relationships with birth parents and siblings can be positive and significant and we need urgently to reconsider our historical clinging to adoption as ‘a closed shop’ – I have written about this in more detail in this post, Contact Post Adoption – Time for a new Default Position?

However, I thought it might be helpful for other families in this position to consider what are the legal implications of an adopted child wishing to spend more time with his or her family of birth – or even move to live with them.

The starting point is to remember the consequences of an adoption order – this removes parental responsibility from birth parents and the adopted child becomes the child of the adoptive parents. If the adoptive placement breaks down, this does not restore the parental responsibility of the birth parents. Some judges have gone so far as to say that adoption destroys ANY consideration of an Article 8 right between parent and birth child. Given that Article 8 protects psychological integrity, I have always doubted that this could be correct in law, but so far as I am aware there is no case that has looked at this point in the Court of Appeal or beyond.

Can adoption orders be overturned? Yes, but it is rare.

It is possible for the court to revoke an adoption order – i.e. discharge/end that order –  using its ‘inherent jurisdiction’ but this is a very exceptional and very rare step for the court to take given that ‘adoption’ is a statutory process that is supposed to facilitate the creation of the new ‘forever’ family.

The case of PK v Mr and Mrs K [2015] EWCH 2316 is one of the rare examples in case law where an adoption order was revoked – it highlights how exceptional this is. PK was nearly 4 when she was adopted by Mr and Mrs K in May 2004. However in 2006 Mr and Mrs K sent her to live with other family members in Ghana where she was subjected to significant abuse. In mid July 2014 PK returned to England and was reunited with her biological mother and grandmother. She became a ward of court on her own application and her mother was granted full care and control. PK was very clear she wanted to revoke the adoption, live with her mother and change her name. The court had no doubt that this was the right outcome for PK.

An adoption order was also revoked in the case of Re J (Adoption: Appeal) [2018] EWFC 8 but again, the circumstances of this were unusual; the child had been adopted by his stepfather and his mother had lied about the father’s whereabouts. When the father found out he applied for the adoption order to be revoked and the court agreed – but it made no difference to the child’s day to day life as he remained living with his mother.

But does the adoption order need to be revoked?

The situation described by the blogger is not one where the child is reacting against an adoptive placement where she has been mistreated – rather the child, now a teenager is expressing a wish to live with her natural mother. It’s interesting to speculate what the court might do if the child did want the adoption order revoked in these circumstances – but I am not aware of any similar reported case.

This is unsurprising, given how rare it is for an adoptive and birth mother to be able to work together in the way that the blogger and Mummy Jo have been able to do. But it may well become a more usual situation; and I hope it does. For a long time now I and others have thought that the ‘closed shop’ model of adoption does not serve children well.

However, this puts the blogger in the uncomfortable position of trail blazer. I am not aware of this situation ever coming before the courts before. What are the legal options or implications for an adopted child who wishes to spend more time living with their natural parents?

This does need to be thought about. A weekend here and there is unlikely to cause many problems – but if a child spends many months or moves permanently to live with a person who does not have parental responsibilty for them, this has the potential to cause problems.

There is a limited form of parental responsibility under section 3(5) of the Children Act 1989 which states that someone who has the care of a child but no PR may (subject to the provisions of this Act) do what is reasonable in all the circumstances of the case for the purpose of safeguarding or promoting the child’s welfare.

But this may not be sufficient to allow the carer to make decisions for the child that the child needs to be made – particularly if the child isn’t Gillick competent.

Could this situation be a private fostering arrangement? This is an arrangement whereby a child under the age of 16 (or 18 if the child has a disability) is placed for 28 days or more in the care of someone who is not the child’s parent(s) or a ‘connected person’. A connected person is defined as a ‘relative, friend or other person connected with a child’. A relative under the Children Act 1989 is defined as a ‘grandparent, brother, sister, uncle or aunt (whether full blood or half blood or by marriage or civil partnership) or step-parent’. The blogger writes:

Mummy Jo is very much a parent, blood relation and a ‘connected person’, the girls were connected to her via the umbilical cord however does this stand up legally? Currently she has no legal connection. What if the girls stay for over the 28 days, a month? the six weeks of the summer holidays? is this a ‘private fostering’ arrangement or just the girls staying with their Mum, because that’s who she is in their eyes, but not the eyes of the law. Any private fostering arrangement needs to be reported to the Local Authority to assess and monitor… an option none of us would relish!

I don’t think this is a private fostering arrangement – I agree that Mummy Jo is a ‘connected person’ – simply by virtue of her friendship with the adoptive mother or by her biological connection.

How should – or could – this situation be regulated?

So how could or should this situation be regulated? I discussed this with a newly qualified social worker and her reaction was very interesting – one of great concern for the emotional welfare of the child and what would happen if the living arrangements with her birth mum broke down. We discussed whether any local authority should get involved and whether the child’s school might want to refer it on. In this particular case, there seems little doubt that Mummy Jo is a tried and tested ‘safe parent’ – but what of cases where there is more doubt?

We batted back and forth the question of whether this kind of situation requires professional intervention. I argued that an adoptive parent has been assessed as able to be a child’s parent and should be allowed to get on and do what they think is right for their child – the state should not intervene without evidence of significant harm.

The social worker responded that I could not treat an adopted child in the same way as a biological child, as it was inevitable by the very fact that the child had been adopted that there had been significant trauma in that child’s life and there ought to be some professional oversight of any such move.

I can see the force in that argument. There is no doubt in my mind that social media has made it very easy for children to find their biological parents. I have no doubt that situations are going to arise where there is not the good working relationship between adoptive and birth parent that we see in this situation. We need to start thinking more about the legal framework whereby a child moves from adoptive to birth parent.

We ended our discussion by thinking that the solution here was a child arrangements order. That would provide a legal framework for the birth mother and also some oversight of the process by way of a section 7 report.

However – as the blogger comments, this route does not solve all the problems

Do we go to court to get a Child Arrangement Order (previously residence Order)? A child arrangement order would only last until the girls were 16 and they still wouldn’t have the legal ties to their natural family. Can an adoption order be dissolved in the UK? Where would that leave the girls if one wants to stay with me and another return to Josephine, their relationship with each other and their big sister legally severed if the adoption is no longer in place? What about visits, if they want to come back to stay with me for 28 days or more, or come abroad on holiday with me and their sisters, would we have the same issues? Wherever the girls live, they will always be family, we’ve shared good times and bad, learned from each other, laughed and cried together, and as long as any of my children want I will always be there for them, severing the adoption would allow them back to where they belong but in my heart, as with Mummy Jo, the girls will always be ‘our girls’, unfortunately legally it isn’t so easy!

In the end – is the only solution for the adoption order to be revoked and the birth mother to then apply to adopt her own child? This cannot have been a situation envisaged by any of those drafting the Adoption and Children Act! Although at para 20 of the PK case the court comments:

PK has extremely strong feelings about her legal status. It is very important to her that the court takes account of her wishes and firm views which are that she should no longer be the adopted child of Mr and Mrs K but instead revert to having legal status as a member of her biological family.

I do not know what the court meant by ‘revert to having legal status as a member of her biological family’ as revocation of the adoption order does not – so far as I know – restore the PR of the birth parents. So what is meant here by ‘legal status’ ? Am I wrong about revocation of an adoption order not restoring a natural parents’ PR? Or presumably, the powers under the inherent jurisdiction being theoretically limitless, the High Court could restore PR?

Maybe someone has to volunteer to be a test case.

I would be very interested to hear other’s views – particularly if there are any reported cases I have missed which deal with this situation. I am pretty confident that this will not be the first or last example of the complexities that can follow the ‘happy ever after’ adoption order.

2 thoughts on “After the Adoption…

  1. Catherine Jenkins

    Hello – this is very interesting. I’m aware of a couple of situations where adopted children have returned to live with birth parents but these were in an overseas context where the immigration route dictated the family law order (i.e. the relatives would have sought special guardianship or child arrangements orders of living in the UK).
    Could you say where does ‘connected person’ (as removing an arrangement from private fostering) come from please? I’m not in practice now but I’ve looked at s.66 Children Act and it doesn’t seem to have changed to include other than parents, those with parental responsibility, or certain relatives?

Comments are closed.