This is a High Court case, decided in April, but the report of judgment has only recently come out. I’m grateful to Celtic Knot for ensuring that it came to my attention
I touched on the (at that time unresolved) issue of whether the raft of jurisprudence on ‘non-consensual adoptions’ also applied to step-parent adoptions and relinquished babies where the mother was giving the child up for adoption but the father was not identified/told.
and this High Court case Coventry City Council and A 2014 deals with the relinquished adoption issue (and my next blog post will deal with the Court of Appeal’s decision on step-parent adoptions)
If you want the Too Long; Didn’t Read version – it is that I would be very cautious about relinquished adoptions particularly if there is any international element. If either parent is from another EU country, I would strongly urge you to read the judgment in Coventry CC and A. I suspect that it will make ‘relinquished adoptions’ considerably more protracted, complicated and expensive.
This case took nearly a year to resolve (with a baby that mother wanted to give up for adoption – so twice as long as fully contested care proceedings are intended to take)
Part of the reason why is that the mother was Romanian, and the High Court embarked on a process of notifying the Romanian authorities about the existence of the child and the potential order that would be made in the UK courts.
Let’s look at what mum had to say about her extended family
The hospital was able to contact the mother through her friend, Z, via a mobile phone and a meeting was arranged with the mother to attend the hospital on 7th June. Initially the mother failed to return but, ultimately, after some persuasion, she did so with her friend Z. She was spoken with through an interpreter speaking Romanian. At this meeting she gave her baby a name after some prompting with the social workers and held the baby for the first time showing some emotion in doing so. The mother gave information about her and her baby’s background. She said that the father was Romanian Roma but she was herself Romanian. She refused to provide the father’s name. She said that her family were not aware of her pregnancy. She had not told them about it or her relationship with the father and she had concealed the pregnancy from them. She said that her family would not approve of the relationship with the father as he was Roma and her mother would disown her if she knew. She wanted the baby to be adopted. She intended to return to Romania as soon as possible after she received her new travel documents.
She said she was from a named village in Romania, that she had two other children residing there, a son aged nine and a daughter aged ten and they were being cared for by their maternal grandparents. She had no money to support a baby. She said the father was aware of the pregnancy but was not interested and he was not aware that the baby had been born. She had come here on holiday to see her friend, Z, who came from the same area as the maternal grandparents. She had not told Z about the pregnancy until her waters broke. She said she had no fixed abode, she moved between the homes of various friends and had been evicted the evening before and was at that time staying with a friend of Z.
That seems, to me, to be a very clear message that the mother did not want her relatives approached or told of the existence of the baby.
Unfortunately, mother did not help herself because she didn’t attend the appointment with a CAFCASS officer to sign the adoption forms. Nor did she attend the second such appointment, and then she vanished.
The baby was thus not, in law, relinquished. Mother had agreed to give the baby up for adoption but had not signed the paperwork that would be a vital part of the process. That meant that rather than being a relinquished baby adoption, this had to go into care proceedings.
And, the case having gone into care proceedings, efforts had to be made to find and serve the mother.
[HUGE LESSON here – if you are dealing with a mother who wants to relinquish her baby, it is vital that she is made to understand that not filling out the forms is going to make life much worse for her. Fine to decide ‘I don’t want to sign them because I want the child back’, but ‘I don’t want to sign the forms because I want to stop thinking about this’ is just going to make things much much worse]
It made things much much worse for this mother here, because a process server was sent out to look for her in a Romanian village near Bucharest
The process server met with the mother’s own mother who is Romanian, who told him she is looking after the children at the family home, that the mother was not in Romania, she had left a few months ago to go to the United Kingdom. She said that the family believed she was working as a prostitute in the United Kingdom and recently had had problems and had been in hospital. The process server was unable to gain any further information but was able to say that the address in Coventry, which the mother had given to the local authority, did not exist.
In the second report, dated 30th November, the process server described the village as being small, about 100 kilometres from Bucharest, with “a majority gypsy population very poor and simple peoples.” He met with the mother’s own mother again who was shown a photograph of the mother. Initially she denied recognising the mother but later produced a copy of the mother’s ID card with a photograph of the mother. Whilst there, a niece of the mother identified the photograph as the mother and a sister of the mother did so as well. The grandmother then returned with a copy of the mother’s ID card and was able to confirm that the photograph with the process server was that of the mother. The process server then showed a photograph of the mother to a village policeman who identified it as that of the mother and said that she had been registered as missing but had returned to the address and was declared not missing. It seems he thought that she was probably in the United Kingdom and said that she did not have a relationship with her family. The local authority have been unable to trace the mother and has no information as to the father’s identity or whereabouts.
Remember, of course, that this mother did not want her family to know anything about the baby or to become involved. So that worked out marvellously for her. (I also dread to think how much Coventry had to pay for the Romanian equivalent of Jim Rockford to go out flashing this photograph of the mother around, including showing it to a village policeman)
The final upshot though, was that the mother was not found, and the care case thus proceeded in the absence of the mother, or a father.
What then happened was that the Court caused the Romanian authorities to be informed of the case. It took a while to get any response out of them, but once they started to respond, they got highly responsive, ultimately saying that they wanted the case transferred to Romania and were wholly opposed to a child of Romanian parents to be adopted, even where the mother herself was not opposing it.
the Romanian authorities have been informed as to the existence of A and the existence of these proceedings and the care plan for adoption. The care proceedings were issued on 9th August last year and the application for the placement order was on 14th October. These applications were transferred from the Coventry Family Proceedings Court to the Coventry County Court on 18th November 2013 due to the complexity of the international aspects. On 20th November her Honour Judge Watson directed that the Romanian central authority be invited to attend the next hearing on 4th December. On 4th December, although the Romanian central authority had been notified, no representatives attended but on 2nd December the Romanian Directorate for International Law and Judicial Cooperation wrote saying that the correspondence had been forwarded to the child protection directorate and that a response was awaited.
On 4th December Judge Watson invited the Romanian central authority to write to the local authority by 23rd December informing the local authority of its position concerning the baby and the substance of any representation or applications that they were intending to make to the court. A further invitation was made to the Romanian central authority to attend at the next hearing on 13th January, it being noted that the court may make such an order on that date in the absence of any representation and the court considered that sufficient notice had been given. Judge Watson also ordered that the local authority do have permission to disclose this order and other relevant documents suitably redacted to the Romanian central authority before forwarding it to the Romanian child protection directorate that a warning of the confidentiality of the court proceedings would need to be maintained until further order.
The local authority was ordered to send a copy of the order to the Romanian central authority under cover of a letter explaining that their attendance is requested at the next hearing when final orders may be made in their absence. Judge Watson ordered that the Romanian authorities should not disclose the birth of the baby to the maternal family without the permission of the court. She gave leave to the Romanian central authority to apply to discharge parts of the order.
The matter was restored to her Honour Judge Watson on 13th January. The Romanian central authority had been invited but made no representations and was not in attendance on that day. However, the court read a letter from the Romanian directorate for International Law and Judicial Cooperation and another letter from the director of the Romanian child protection department and noted that the child protection department was content not to inform the maternal family about the birth of the baby and the judicial proceedings whilst A’s best interests were considered.
The child protection department does not consider the adoption of the child as justifiable and that it seeks the return of the child to Romania. Various directions were made and the matter was transferred to Mrs Justice King to be heard in the Royal Courts of Justice in London on 17th January 2014. The Romanian authorities were invited to make representations to Mrs Justice King. It was noted that such attendance is essential if the court is to consider the Romanian authority’s opposition to the local authority’s application for care and placement orders. By paragraph 4 of the order if the Romanian authorities wish to oppose the local authority’s application for care and placement orders they are invited by the court by 16th January to file and serve a document setting out their case in detail whether questions regarding the child’s welfare are subject to determination under the United Kingdom or the Romanian law; however, the courts in England have powers of jurisdiction to determine the questions relating to the child’s welfare and any points they make in opposition to the local authority’s plans for the child, any points they wish to make in support of a plan for the child to be returned to Romania, and the plan they propose for the child’s care including how her medical needs would be met. The Romanian central authority was to be served forthwith.
The letter of 9th January which was before Judge Watson came from the Directorate of International Law and Judicial Cooperation addressed to Coventry City Council, “Please find attached letter of response from the child protection directorate concerning the child. The Romanian child protection considers that the international adoption of a child is not justified as Romanian national law provides specific and limited situations when international adoption can take place. The child protection directorate requests repatriation of the child to Romania where the local child protection agency will be available to make the necessary investigations and to adopt protective measures for the child.”
The directorate also wrote on 16th January again to the local authority, “Further to your message of 13th January, we are sending you attached the answer provided by the child protection directorate dated 15th January. With regard to the question raised by the Coventry County Court on the question of jurisdiction, it is our opinion that Article 13 of the EC council regulations number 2201 of 2003 is applicable, that the Royal Courts of Justice could also take into consideration and apply the provisions of Article 15 of Brussels II (Revised). As to the question of consent and participation by the Romanian representative at the hearing on 17th January our office cannot confirm that at this time.”
The letter that was enclosed came from the Directorate of Child Protection which is dated 15th January; “Further to your request for an opinion regarding the case of A, we believe that we should make the clarifications below. As you are aware from the information provided by the British authorities, the Romanian side has been asked to observe confidentiality about the situation of the child and the identity of the parents. It has been mentioned in our previous correspondence that there is a complete provision for Romanian local authorities to support and assume repatriation of the child considering that she is a Romanian national. However, given that the British authorities have only provided us with extremely brief information about the situation, we believe that their request dated 4th January that a series of documents should be made available by the 16th which should present a proposed plan for the child including the manner in which her medical situation would be handled and any other arguments meant to challenge the decisions made by the local authority that the child is adopted are unrealistic considering that any serious assessment must be based on documents that affect both the social background and they affect the medical condition of the child and the family environment of the natural extended family of the child in order to make a substantiated decision about setting up a measure of special protection. Under the circumstances in relation to the recent request by the British court we wish to mention that our institution upholds its opinion about the Romanian local authorities assuming the responsibility of repatriating this child to Romania and that the specialised documents will be prepared by the general directorate of social assistance for child protection from the country of domicile after the British Social Services provide us with the documents that describe the current situation. Whether a representative of the Romanian Embassy will appear on 17th January, please be advised that we cannot issue an opinion about the designation of the representative who will participate.” Then it was signed off
Yes, I have left out of my opening remarks that this case is going to involve Brussels II, but sadly it does. I just didn’t want to put you off reading it at the outset, apologies for my deception.
It gets worse, because then the Romanian authorities began to get cold feet about whether the mother was in fact Romanian, and that debate went on for ages and ages. Their position was that IF the baby was Romanian, then they would want the case and would oppose adoption, but in the absence of documentary proof about the mother’s nationality they wanted no part of it (and they weren’t accepting the process server’s detective work at finding family members and a policeman who confirmed that mother was from a village in Romania)
On 13th March the child protection department wrote the following: “Taking into consideration that child citizenship is still to be clarified, we would like to state that if the court would confirm the child is a Romanian citizen, then the Romanian local authorities from the county where the child’s natural family has residence would issue all the required documentation to return the child to Romania specifying also detailed measures and individual protection plan under which the child’s best interests would be protected. We would like to mention that repatriation procedure as well as the background checks are carried out by the Romanian authorities would be based on the government decision number 1443 of 2004 regarding procedures for the repatriation of unaccompanied children providing the child’s best interests would be protected. If, following the assessment made in relation to the child’s extended family or natural parents, it would be decided that the family re-integration is not an option, then a Romanian competent authority would recommend the child be placed in a foster care based on a court order. The child’s placement would be done by the panel for child protection in the county of residence thought necessary by the court depending on the evidence presented if special protection measures are necessary. Taking into consideration the child’s age, the foster care placement would be the solution to be considered by the Romanian authority as under the current Romanian law, a child under the age of two cannot be placed in a residential institution (orphanage). We would like to emphasise that for the moment the Romanian authorities have been unable to identify the child’s extended family members due to the confidentiality of this case. If the citizenship of the child and the mother are established as Romanian then the Romanian authorities will assume true responsibility for its repatriation be handling the case under Romanian laws.”
That was the final word from the Romanian authorities and the note that sets out the general picture, that letter does not give a timescale as to what would be done, when it would be done and when the child could be placed. There is a lacuna as to what actually would be done in fact and the timescale was not set out.
The Court had to consider the factual matrix to decide whether this baby was habitually resident in England, thus giving the English Court jurisdiction, and decided that she was.
I accept that it is likely that the mother and the little girl are both Romanian. I cannot say that I am one hundred per cent certain but the evidence firmly indicates that likelihood. The mother seemed to speak Romanian as her first language. She talked about Romania and said she was returning to Romania. It seems that we have located her family. I am not making a clear finding of that because all I can do is to look at the evidence before me and the mother is not here. The little girl was born here and the mother wanted her to be adopted here. There was no pressure on her to reach this conclusion. It was her conclusion and she gave her reasons. She said that she had no money to support the child; that her family did not approve of her relationship with the father, that they would disown her and they would not support her and that the father himself was not interested. She herself had concealed the pregnancy from her family and from her friend, Z. The mother has effectively abandoned A to her fate here. She wanted her to be adopted in the United Kingdom, hoping that she would find a good home.
Effectively the mother has left her daughter. Since the birth, A has been here, she has never left this country, she has been in hospital for good reasons after her birth and then when she was ill in July. She only left hospital in September when she was placed with her foster carers and she has not left their care since. She looks on them as her carers, as her family, their home is her home, she knows nothing else, she is only ten months old but she is comfortable, seemingly happy and settled in that environment. If she has a language, it is English. It is not Romanian. No doubt she is familiar with the sound of English. She may now be understanding a lot of things, I know not, but if she has a language it is English. Her culture is that of her carers. The environment in which she lives is that of her carers. She has accessed the United Kingdom’s health system. She moves around her carers’ home area with her carers. She will know their friends and her environment is that of her carers who are British, living somewhere in this country, although I am not sure where; that is where she is and that is her environment. She has had no contact with her mother since 7th June when she was still very, very small. It is clear to me that there is a distinct level of integration for this little girl in the social and family environment in this country with these carers. She has no connection from a practical day to day point of view with Romania. It is clear to me that she is habitually resident here and I make that finding.
In that sense, there is no need for me to consider Article 13 and I have jurisdiction because she is habitually resident here but if I am wrong on that, Article 13 would kick in. Where a child’s habitual residence cannot be established and jurisdiction cannot be determined, the courts of the Member State where the child is present shall have jurisdiction. I am saying that Article 8 applies, this child is habitually resident in this country and by that means I have jurisdiction
The next issue, then, was whether the appropriate venue for decisions to be made was England or Romania, applying article 15 of Brussels II
The Court decided not to transfer the proceedings to Romania (and if you are some sort of Brussels II addict, then the specific paragraphs are 44-50.
The NEXT issue was whether there should be an approach made to the extended family in Romania, and HERE for the first time is a live debate between parties to the proceedings. The Local Authority wanted to respect mother’s clear wishes, the Guardian wanted to explore the extended family so that adoption would only be the outcome if it was the last resort.
This has long been a difficult philosophical issue, and it is difficult to ever find a decision on this point that most people would agree on.
The Court here decide that it IS in the child’s interests for that exploration to be made, and place reliance on ‘nothing else will do’ (although it is quoted as ‘nothing less will do’). That, I suspect, is likely to be the conclusion of such debates in the future, unless there are compelling reasons to the contrary.
It does, as the Local Authority submitted, raise the spectre of mothers not coming to Local Authorities to relinquish where they don’t want their family involved or contacted, but going back to the bad old days with babies being left in wicker baskets outside hospitals or police stations.
I move on to the last issue before me which is should enquiries be made of the maternal family in Romania and that this would entail a breach of the mother’s confidentiality. The local authority have said that there should be no more enquiries, that it would not be in A’s best interests. It would delay the proceedings here and it would delay the making of a care order and a placement order. The guardian is of a different view and says that there should be enquiries because it would be in A’s best interests if those enquiries are made.
It is never an easy point to breach the confidentiality of a mother who has given birth in difficult circumstances and I recognise that she does not want her family to know about the child and she has given her reasons. It has been said by the local authority that if it became known by a mother in similar circumstances, and if she felt that her confidentiality would be broken, she may not seek the assistance of medical help in giving birth; she may seek “a back street abortion” or give birth secretly which would endanger the mother and the child. The reality is that each case depends on its own facts. The matter is within my discretion.
Under the Children Act my task is to consider the child’s best interests and that must be my paramount consideration. It then sets out the checklist required by section 3 as to whether I make an order or relating to the welfare and best interests of the child. Under the Adoption of Children Act 2002, section 1(2) the paramount consideration of the court must be the child’s welfare throughout his or her life and I am referred to the checklist and things that I have to consider all relating to the future welfare of the child. The care plan here is for adoption. Romania, I acknowledge, does not have the same rules for adoption and their position for placing children is different from ours. Here, recently adoption has been described as the last resort for a child when all else fails and that was said in Re B  UKSC 803 or, as Lady Hale said, it is “when nothing less would do”.
It is a last resort at the end of the day because it is the curtailment of a child belonging to his or her natural family. By adoption the child legally becomes a member of another family and is incorporated into that family on an everyday basis. She would become a full member of that family legally, practically, and emotionally. It is a change of identity of lifestyle, environment, a change of everything in a child’s life. It is a cutting off for the child from her background or the knowledge of the family and the environment in which she came from and it is a cutting off in law as well. The President in the recent case of Re B indicated that it should only be done on very clear evidence and there must be proper evidence both from the local authority and from the guardian and the evidence must address all issues and must contain an analysis of the arguments for and against each option. There must be clear evidence and proper information or as much as can be garnered. All options must be considered before a care plan for adoption can be accepted, with a placement order being made or an adoption order being made.
The court has a duty to ensure that full and proper enquiries have been made of the child’s family. Herein lies the problem, the tension between the little girl’s interests and rights and those of the mother. The mother is not present because she cannot be found and she is not here to put her view and her voice cannot be heard but she made her wishes and intentions for her daughter clear. She wanted the little girl to be adopted and she wanted full confidentiality and had concealed the pregnancy. It is not known how the maternal family would react or what the consequences might be either within the family or to the mother if it became known by the family that the mother had given birth to this little girl and had effectively abandoned her in a foreign land. That we do not know. All we have is the indications by the mother that the family was disapproving of her relationship with the father and she felt that they would not support her in keeping the baby, that the father was not interested. We do not know the consequences that might arise if the family knew about it. All we know is that she wanted confidentiality for her own reasons.
Against that, the little girl has her rights and rights that should be considered before she is adopted here by her current carers. Enquiries should be made to see if she can be returned to her family, her culture, her birth environment, the country of her origins and those are her rights. Both sides, the mother and the daughter, can claim their right to Article 8 of the Human Rights which is that everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence. There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of respect except such as in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety, and economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. In other words, in a case like this, there is to be respect for the individual’s private and family life and that the court and others should not interfere with that right.
I must also remember that if the information is correct, there are other members of her family, the grandmother, and there may be a grandfather, the half-siblings, and the father himself would have rights to know about this child, to have a voice in that child’s upbringing, if only to say, “We are not interested,” but they have rights.
It is established law that if there are conflicting interests between a child and adults that after careful consideration of all the interests and consequences of any order, and the child’s interests are paramount and they prevail over others.
On the one hand, we have the mother’s position, as she set out and her wishes and her intentions for her daughter. On the other hand, we have the little girl’s interests. Very little is known about her mother or her maternal family or their circumstances and even less about the father who has not been identified. The guardian, on behalf of A, says that it is important to carry out further enquiries and investigations to see if there is a long-term family member available in Romania, if there is a possibility of direct or indirect contact in the future if she is to remain here and to be adopted; and, if she is to be adopted, more information as to her background would be useful as to her family, their background. Such information may be of value to her in the future to know who she is, to know her background and to give her some sense of identity as to where she came from. Her guardian says that eventually if she is to be adopted, she will grow up to know that she has been adopted but she needs to know before she is adopted that everything was done that should have been done before a decision is made and that will be of value to her in her adult life. The guardian accepts that if there are to be further enquiries, there must be no delay.
There was a window of opportunity in February, it has narrowed in the last few weeks and there is very little time left if those enquiries are to be made. If I allow enquiries to be made, they should be strictly time restricted. The local authority say that there is enough information for this court to proceed, that this child needs to be settled quickly, decisions should be made and there should be no more delay given that the mother’s wishes are clear.
I accept, if there is to be further investigation, that delay is an issue. Fortunately she is well placed. If she is to be adopted there will be no move and therefore she herself from a day to day point of view will remain settled until more is known and further decisions can be made but against that, the stress and strain on the carers must be huge. They love her and are committed to her and want to commit to her long term. They need certainty now or very soon from now. It is not fair on them to make them wait for ever. I bear that very much in mind because they are doing a good job and the little girl is benefiting from their care. Anxiety within the home never is good. It will or potentially could impact upon their care and that is what worries me.
I have thought about this and it is not an easy issue but I have come to a decision. I have come to the view that it would be in A’s best interests to make further enquiries in Romania about her family and for the reasons set out by the guardian but those enquiries should be strictly time limited. There should be a strict timetable as to when they should be concluded. If they are not concluded in the timescale because it has not been possible, then decisions will have to be made in this court to conclude these proceedings. I think there should be one last attempt to make further enquiries of the mother’s family and of the father’s if he can be identified and of the provision and systems for child care in the Romanian locality.
As I said at the outset, this was not strictly a relinquish case, because mother didn’t sign the forms, but it is on any reading a case where that was her intent, and the High Court here apply “nothing else will do” as a rationale for not making the order, delaying the proceedings and making further enquiries about family members.