The vast majority of adoptions in England and Wales are ‘non-consensual’ or ‘forced’ i.e. the parents did not agree this was the right thing for their child. Adoption is famously the last resort – ‘when nothing else will do’ and parents are given every opportunity to argue for some other outcome.
There remain however cases where mothers want to give up their babies at birth – a case of ‘relinquishment’. What happens when the mother has not told the baby’s father, and does not wish to? There can be a variety of reasons for this decision and the court will have to think carefully about what to do. It’s often likely that family secrets cannot be kept over time
Adoption is really important and significant for the child and for other family members. Therefore a mother cannot by herself take a unilateral decision to keep the adoption a secret – the court must ask what the child would think later in life if he or she found out the other relatives weren’t told.
The LA should make an application as soon as possible under Part 19 of the Family Procedure Rules for the court to determine if attempts should be made to identify the father or other family members and assess them as prospective carers.
The recent case of A, B And C (Adoption: Notification of Fathers And Relatives)  EWCA Civ 41 (29 January 2020) examined the relevant principles. The Court of Appeal heard appeals from three separate cases, commenting:
For social workers and courts these are not easy decisions. They have to be made without delay, on incomplete information, and in the knowledge of the profound consequences for everyone concerned. The law aims to distinguish those cases where a ‘fast-track’ adoption without notification of relatives is lawful from the majority of cases where the profound significance of the decision for the child demands that any realistic alternatives to adoption are given proper consideration. But in the end each case is unique and the outcome must depend on the facts.
The court must first establish the facts as clearly as possible, which is not always easy when the available information inevitably going to be one sided. Once the facts have been investigated the court has to strike a balance between the various issues. The child’s welfare is important but NOT paramount, as is the case in other decisions about the child’s upbringing.
Para 87 of the judgment sets out agreed ‘best practice’ guidance about the extent and nature of the inquiries the LA should make when a parent wishes to relinquish a baby for adoption.
It isn’t possible to devise a ‘test’ to decide who gets notified but the relevant case law shows that the following factors are likely to be relevant. This list is of course, not exhaustive – every case is different.
- If the father has parental responsibility for the child, he is automatically a party to the proceedings and very compelling reasons are needed to say that he can’t be told about the plans for adoption
- If the father or other relatives have an established family life with the mother or child then their Article 8 rights are engaged, and again very good reasons will be needed not to tell them.
- The court must look at the substance of the relationship between the parents and the significance of the relatives. For example – were the parents in a long relationship? Or more fleeting? Was the child conceived in circumstances where the mother did not give consent?
- Is a family placement a realistic alternative to adoption? If a family placement isn’t likely to be worth investigating or notification may cause significant harm, this operates in favour of maintaining confidentiality.
- the impact on the mother or others – if the child was conceived as a result of a rape then there could be very serious consequences. But excessive weight shouldn’t be given to short term difficulties of embarrassment or ‘social unpleasantness’.
- Cultural and religious factors – these could increase the risks of notification but also under pin the importance of the child being in a family placement.
- Does the court know who the father/family members are? Notification can only take place if there is someone to notify. It is difficult to see how a mother can be forced to give up this information if she refuses. But in some cases it maybe worth trying to find out.
- The impact of delay – investigation of other family members will inevitably take time and the court needs to consider what impact that might have on the child, such as losing a particularly suitable adoptive placement.
Reasons given not to inform the father
- She has a history of depression for which she takes medication and did not feel physically or emotionally capable of caring for him.
- The father has also suffered with mental health issues.
- She had terminated two previous pregnancies, both by A’s father, with his agreement.
- He would agree with the decision for A to be adopted as he would not want to be involved in the child’s life.
- Her own mother would agree with the decision to adopt A. She too has mental health issues and her brother has learning difficulties. Other maternal family members are too old to care for A.
- If she cannot look after B herself, she would rather she was adopted than be placed in the care of her family, so that B should not experience the abuse she herself suffered.
- She is scared of her family’s reaction if they found out that she had a child outside wedlock with someone of a difference race and cultural heritage.
- The family would therefore be unlikely to respond positively to being told of B’s existence, and it would cause them needless upset and distress.
- An assessment of her family would be likely to be negative and little benefit would be gained.
- The father (the first man so named) did not want to play any part in the baby’s life and even booked a termination for the mother. He was violent towards her while she was pregnant. He is involved with drugs and gangs and is currently serving a long prison sentence. She is scared of what he would do if she shared information about him with the local authority.
Mother C – who said her child had been conceived by rape
- Caring for C would remind her of the rapes.
- She and the father have an unconventional relationship. Although they are married he works away, was infrequently at home and rarely provided care for the children. They permanently separated in September 2018, following the rapes, but the father visits the home to see the children.
- The father has a bad temper and on one occasion punched and damaged a door. He has been intimidating and controlling. She is scared that he would assault her if he found out that she had kept C’s birth a secret.
- He would humiliate her by informing members of the local community. She would then have to leave the area with all her children.
- He would not be willing or able to care for C.
- There is no other maternal or paternal family member who would be willing or able to care for C.
The Court decided that other relatives must be told in all cases – despite the very distressing circumstances of C’s conception, her father had parental responsibility for her. This indicates that very serious reasons are necessary to justify not informing other relatives – the mother’s desire not to tell anyone is important, but it can rarely be determinative.