I’ve been asked if I would write about the story in the newspapers this week about adoption rates going down and the blame being placed on some high profile case law decisions. This is the first time that I have ever received a request, so I should oblige. [If anyone’s future request is that I write about my love of Jaime Lannister, or that Joe Hill’s Locke and Key is the best comic series since Grant Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol, then for those, it’s on like Donkey Kong]
So, here is the Independent piece – there’s a startlingly similar one in the The Times, but you need to pay Rupert Murdoch money to look at it. The choice is yours.
This piece is very knowledgeable about family law and case law – more than you’d expect from a journalist. The fact that two newspaper articles with the same cases turned up this week makes me suspect a press release was involved. The same piece appears on the BBC website.
Let’s have a look at it bit by bit.
Okay, well firstly, whilst one feels for an adopter who is waiting for a child, the family justice system isn’t, and shouldn’t be, prioritised to deliver children to adopters. The idea is that the family justice system tests fairly whether a parent can be helped to care for their child, with adoption being the last resort. Secondly, “Signed off for adoption” is not only a very ugly expression, it is hard to put a proper meaning on it. Does it mean “The Agency Decision maker decides that adoption is the plan the social worker should recommend to the Court”? or does it mean “A Placement Order is made”?
As the Department for Education hasn’t published (yet) the statistics that is getting all of these newspapers up in arms, it is a bit difficult to tell. The thrust of the article suggests that the drop in figures is that Local Authorities are too scared to ask for adoption, so the assumption is that the drop here is in the number of APPLICATIONS for Placement Orders (i.e a social worker recommending to the Agency Decision Maker that adoption should be the plan and the ADM agreeing) – that in itself could be that social workers are asking the Agency Decision Maker less often, or that the Agency Decision Maker is saying no more often, or both.
That in turn could be because the thrust of the Re B, Re B-S et al decisions made social workers look harder and more carefully at whether adoption really was the right plan for a child – could more be done to support a parent, could those grandparents who are not ideal be good enough? Really hard to guage that from statistics – you’d need to have a look at a pile of actual cases and compare the sort of cases that were ending up with adoption in 2013 that are now ending up with parents or grandparents. It is also difficult to know whether that’s a bad thing anyway. If the trend is to be more willing to work with parents or grandparents who are not perfect, but could be helped to be good enough, that could be a perfectly laudable aim. We might not know whether that greater willingness to give things a try was a long overdue adjustment or a bad mistake for a few years – the real test will be whether those attempts broke down. At the moment, we can’t even tell if that’s what happened.
Certainly Local Authorities aren’t taking any less care proceedings than they used to. The latest CAFCASS statistics show that the number of applications is continuing to go up – 18% up on this time last year.
I honestly don’t think, and the recent clarifications from the Court of Appeal make this clear, that the caselaw ever meant that children should be “suffering in unsuitable and unsafe homes”. If the Court considers that the alternatives to adoption are unsuitable and unsafe, then adoption is going to be the outcome. Nothing has changed there. I also don’t think that social workers have decided to leave children “suffering in unsuitable and unsafe homes” as a result of Re B, Re B-S et al, rather than asking for adoption as the plan. What might have changed is that it is no longer enough to just assert that an alternative is ‘unsuitable’, but you have to evidence it. I don’t consider that a bad thing.
But in November 2013 the President of the Family Court, Sir James Munby, made a ruling that left many local authorities convinced they must try every extended family member before putting a child up for adoption. The judge said that six-month targets for adoptions should not be allowed to break up families unnecessarily and that grandparents and other extended family members should be considered before placing children for adoption.
It had been hoped that a second ruling last December from the same judge, clarifying he had not changed the law in the original judgment, would curb the freefall in adoption numbers. But instead further rulings from Sir James and other judges have exacerbated the problem.
The first case is Re B-S – and you can read my post about that case here https://suesspiciousminds.com/2013/09/17/this-is-some-serious-b-s/ – it was undoubtedly a big case, telling social workers, Guardians AND Judges that decision-making on adoption cases had gotten very sloppy and that the argument to justify making such a serious order needed to be clearer, stronger and more analytical. It was no longer enough to parrot stock phrases about why a child needed to be adopted – a proper comparison of the pros and cons of EACH option tailored for the individual child needed to take place. It is really hard to see much wrong with Re B-S. If anything, it should have been said years earlier. There’s nothing in it to suggest that a Court should leave a child ‘suffering in an unsafe and unsuitable home’
The scond case is Re R – and you can read my post about that case here https://suesspiciousminds.com/2014/12/18/re-r-is-b-s-dead/ – that clarifies that some of the more outlandish claims that lawyers had pushed to extremes about Re B-S – that it was a “climb every mountain, ford every stream, follow every river – before you make a Placement Order” case was not right, but that everything I just said above was still right, and the Supreme Court’s formulation that “the test for severing the relationship between parent and child is very strict: only in exceptional circumstances and where motivated by overriding requirements pertaining to the child’s welfare, in short, where nothing else will do.” was still bang on right.
Next – let’s have a look at these further confusing rulings
In January Sir James granted an appeal in a case in Liverpool where three children were taken away from a mother with a history of drug and alcohol abuse who was given no opportunity to prepare a case.
The President of the Family Court ruled that the “ruthlessly truncated process” employed by the earlier judge in the case – who had admitted he was motivated by a desire to embrace family justice reforms designed to encourage adoption – was “unprincipled and unfair”.
Well, that’s the His Honour Judge Dodds case, where he made Care Orders at the very first hearing (i.e in week one) in order to beat the week 26 target, even though nobody in the case had asked him to do that and there was no final evidence filed by anyone. That’s not a warning to Judges not to make adoption orders – that’s basic common sense that a Judge who behaves in a way that is utterly unfair is going to get overruled. Nobody with any common sense looked at that case and felt that it had worrying implications for adoption cases, or that it meant that children should be ‘suffering in unsuitable and unsafe homes” – If you read this piece and think “Well, I don’t know why the Court of Appeal had any problem with what the Judge did” then I’m not sure I can help you. https://suesspiciousminds.com/2015/02/02/sentence-first-verdict-afterwards/
What’s the next ‘confusing’ ruling? (I wasn’t in any way confused by the last one) – this one apparently had a “similar chilling effect on Local Authorities desire to expedite adoption cases” as the His Honour Judge Dodds one did. (not that it should have done – the Dodds one wasn’t even about adoption)
Another case decided in January is understood to have had a similar chilling effect on local authorities’ desire to expedite adoption cases. Mr Justice Keehan ruled that Northamptonshire County Council had made “egregious failures” in its handling of the case of a baby taken into care without proper assessments of the mother or the maternal grandparents in Latvia. The baby was eventually placed with his maternal grandparents.
I wrote about that one too – you may pick up a slightly different tone from the title of the piece https://suesspiciousminds.com/2015/02/03/unfortunate-and-woeful-local-authority-failings/
This was just an old-fashioned Local Authority f**k-up. Sorry to anyone involved, but that’s what it was. This wasn’t a case where Local Authorities read it and it had a chilling effect on them, making them think “gosh, if social workers are getting told off for this exemplary work, then we may as well pack it in and let children suffer in unsuitable and unsafe homes” – it was one that you read and thought “If you f**ked up as royally as that, you are going to get the judicial ass-whupping that they got”. There’s nothing in that case that would make anyone think “well, I really think in my heart of hearts that this child should be adopted, but because the law has done something weird and stupid, I guess I’ll have to leave the child to suffer in an unsuitable and unsafe home”
[Yes, I’m hammering home that phrase, because I think it is seriously misleading]
If there are Local Authorities, or social workers (and I really doubt it) that took the His Honour Judge Dodds decision and the Northamptonshire decision and interpreted them as ‘adoption is even harder to get now’ rather than ‘if you really screw something up, expect not to get away with it” then these articles are doing a great public service in correcting that total misapprehension and interpretation of the law.
No, there are no other “chilling” or “confusing” cases cited. That’s a shame, because one could make a case for the President’s decision in Re A fits the bill far better than the two examples they have chosen. https://suesspiciousminds.com/2015/02/17/a-tottering-edifice-built-on-inadequate-foundations/
For a start, it is a case where a Local Authority asked for adoption and didn’t get it – and walked away with nothing but a flea in their ear. More than that, it is a case where what looked like perfectly decent threshold criteria (the concerns that a Local Authority have to prove exist in order to get an order) was torn to bits by the Judge. And finally, it had principles and issues which affected all cases, not just the particular one being decided (unlike the two examples that were used), and there is a distinct possibility that that bar was raised, making Care Orders (and hence indirectly Placement Orders and hence adoptions) more difficult to obtain, since it is now harder to prove that the threshold is met.
But once again, the law is not saying that children ought to suffer in unsuitable and unsafe homes. It is saying that where a Local Authority says that a child should live somewhere else, they need to produce proper evidence and analysis to show WHY their home would be unsuitable and unsafe. Re B-S and Re A are not saying that adoption isn’t the right outcome for some children, but they are saying that where the State (whether that be a social worker or a Judge) is taking a child permanently away from a parent, the least that society can expect is that they both work very hard and have proper evidence and reasons for why that has to happen.
Perhaps when the stats do come out, the adoption figures really will have ‘fallen off a cliff’, just as the article claims. Perhaps that is because social workers, lawyers, Agency Decision Makers and Judges are paralysed by chilling and confusing case law. But it might be that the numbers were too high before, and proper scrutiny of the evidence and proper analysis of what is really involved has meant that we aren’t placing children for adoption unless the proper tests are met.
Sometimes, an initial look at something can make you chilled and scared, and even want to throw stones. But a longer more detailed careful consideration can make you realise that Jaime Lannister kicks ass y’all, and that a Lannister always pays his debts.