You might remember the Re W case – in which the Court of Appeal surprised most family lawyers by saying that in care/adoption there was no presumption in favour of the birth family – maybe you remember the situation in which some of the brightest minds in the country talked vividly about see-saws for what seemed like an eternity. You might also remember it as the case where one of the plans for moving the child from prospective adopters to grandparents was to engineer a chance meeting in a park and just have the grandparents leave the park with the child and the adopter leave without the child ? Oh yeah, that one.
This time round it is Re Adoption : Contact 2016 (which is a pithy title, but it is rather like Orson Welles calling his film “Citizen Kane – it’s a sledge” or M Night Shyamalan calling his “The Sixth Sense – Bruce is a ghost”. I mean, it’s really obviously not called Re A : Return to grandparents 2016, so the judgment lacks that vital component of suspense)
The fulcrum is positioned dead centre – no party starts with any advantage before the evidence is heard (either the family on “nothing else will do” OR the prospective adopters on “status quo”) [At least, that’s the position in law TODAY…. over the last three years adoption law has developed a habit of tilting this way and that like well a see-saw]
18.There is no presumption in this case one way or the other; the fulcrum is positioned dead centre. I apply a straight welfare test. Significantly, I note that there is no right or presumption in favour of a placement of A within her natural family; at  of  EWCA Civ 793 McFarlane LJ said:
“The only ‘right’ is for the arrangements for the child to be determined by affording paramount consideration to her welfare throughout her life (in an adoption case) in a manner which is proportionate and compatible with the need to respect any ECHR Art 8 rights which are engaged.”
He added at  that the phrase “nothing else will do” (from Re B  UKSC 33):
“… does not establish a presumption or right in favour of the natural family; what it does do, most importantly, is to require the welfare balance for the child to be undertaken, after considering the pros and cons of each of the realistic options, in such a manner that adoption is only chosen as the route for the child if that outcome is necessary to meet the child’s welfare needs and it is proportionate to those welfare needs”.
19.Equally, there is no presumption in favour of a ‘status quo’, notwithstanding the powerful words of Ormrod LJ in D v M (Minor: Custody Appeal)  3 All ER 897, recently cited in Re M’P-P  EWCA Civ 584 at . That said, important in the welfare evaluation is the fact that A has been in her prospective adoptive home for approximately 4/5ths of her life. As the Court of Appeal said at  ( EWCA Civ 793), the welfare balance to be struck must inevitably reflect these particular circumstances, which of course are different from the circumstances when the placement order was made. The balance at the placement stage naturally would have tilted towards a family placement if relatives had been assessed, as these grandparents would probably have been, as being able to provide good, long term care for a child within their family.
You may recall that this was the case where the Court of Appeal expressed hope that the case might not be an ‘all or nothing’ and that the child might have a relationship with both sets of important people, so contact was an important aspect (again you’ve guessed that from the “Rocky – he wins in the end” title * – actually Rocky doesn’t win at the end of the first movie, common misconception. Even now, many of you are saying “Of course he does, he wins the title” – nope, he wins in Rocky 2. All he really wanted to do was go the distance with Apollo Creed – the Master of Disaster, which nobody else had ever done. And he did that. But lost on points. Nobody remembers that)
From the first four Rocky movies (I cannot accept the later ones as part of canon), the fights we actually see Rocky have, his record is Loss, Win, Draw (with Hulk Hogan), Loss (Clubber Lang), Win (Clubber Lang), Win (Ivan Drago). It’s not that great. His win rate is 1:1. He won 1 fight for every fight that he didn’t win. To put that in context, Herbie Hide won ELEVEN times as many fights as he lost. Yes, I am claiming here that Herbie Hide would have had a chance against Rocky. Even Audley Harrison had a win rate of 5:1.
I’ve digressed. Back to law.
46.Direct and indirect contact: When they first made their application, Mr. and Mrs X had agreed to indirect contact taking place between A and the birth parents once per year, albeit not to include photographs, gifts or celebration cards. This stance was, at least in part, attributed to the standard preparatory pre-adoption training which they had received, where this is described (according to Mrs. Gaskin) as the ‘norm’. Over the course of this protracted litigation, and particularly recently, their position has changed in significant respects. They told the adoption social worker:
“When we first thought about the adoption process, we did not envisage direct contact with any birth family. However, with circumstances as they are, we see the advantages of contact with siblings. We think the challenges are the emotional aspect but in time [this] will get easier”.
And more recently still in their written evidence:
“We are also very aware of the importance of [A] having some knowledge of her birth family and importantly some relationship with her siblings. Whilst we have acknowledged to the experts our commitment to some level of direct contact if that is felt in the best interests of [A], we do not wish such contact to be disruptive to her continued placement with us, or confusing to her in her development and security. The purpose of the direct contact needs to be carefully considered and the contact tailored to that end”.
Mr. X augmented this in his oral evidence, speaking for himself and his wife:
“We would like A to have contact with the [birth] family if possible… We do genuinely understand the pain… If the chance of contact is available, then this needs to be explored for us and for A so that she can have the right to know her birth family and have a good life.… It’s not about the adults, it is about the children. We have to put her needs first. Happy to do the contact; it would be great for A and her brothers; hopefully we can have a bond (with the paternal grandparents); we can ask them for advice and go to birthday parties…”.
47.I was quite particular in my attempts to establish whether Mr. and Mrs. X felt pressurised by their rather vulnerable situation to agree an arrangement with which they did not feel entirely comfortable; having listened to Mr. X in his oral evidence, and having read and heard the evidence of those with whom they have spoken frankly about this issue away from the court room, I was satisfied that he and his wife genuinely had come to appreciate the benefit to A in there being direct contact between A and her birth family. Mrs. Gaskin spoke of them as people with integrity (see below); from all that I could see and read of them, I concur.
The ISW, Ms Gaskin said this on the issue of contact :-
“Mr. and Mrs. X have suggested that initially they feel they could cope with four times per year, rising to six times in the light of positive progress. Of course in time, Mr. and Mrs. X would be the final arbiters of the frequency and duration of contact, and they would make this decision on the basis of [A]’s needs. I am of the view that they are people of integrity and truly want what is best for [A]. They are very clear that they believe that [A] should have a relationship with her birth family and this is something that they have always considered to be the case… They believe that it is important for [A]’s emotional well-being in the long term that she has a relationship with her brothers and paternal family.”
61.The obligation on me to consider “whether there should be arrangements for allowing any person contact with the child” (section 46(6) of ACA 2002) is accentuated in this case by the real prospect (accepted by the prospective adopters, as in A’s interests) of direct contact between A and her birth family post-adoption. This indeed adds a new and important dimension to this difficult case. The proposal to introduce a relationship between an adopted child and her birth family after adoption by way of direct contact is in my own experience unique. I was not at all surprised to hear from the adoption team manager that it was unprecedented in this authority’s experience, and in the experience of Barnardo’s (with their wealth of adoption knowledge) whom they consulted on the issue. This proposal reflects the resourcefulness of all those involved – coupled with the creativity of the professionals, and the selflessness of the proposed adopters – to divine an outcome for A which best meets her needs. As I have indicated above, if contact were to happen in the way proposed, it would be likely to play a highly material part in neutralising A’s possible sense of rejection by her birth family, while remaining in the Xs care, at the stage of her development when she is considering more maturely the difficult issues around her identity.
That is a very unusual amount of contact for prospective adopters to be proposing, and it was clear that everyone had taken on board the hope of the Court of Appeal, which is good to see. (
Discussion and Conclusion
52.No one can doubt the colossal pressure which this litigation has heaped on the prospective adopters and the paternal grandparents over a sustained period of time, and through two rounds of litigation; while commendably uncomplaining about the legal process, it is reasonable to conclude that they have found the repeated forensic scrutiny of their lives unacceptably intrusive, and the uncertainty as to the outcome unbearable. Doubtless each of them has had to develop strategies of self-preservation to protect themselves from the outcome that A is not ultimately to be in their care. All the adults will have found it hard to be assessed and reassessed, but I sensed that each recognised why this needed to happen; to their great credit, and I believe A’s ultimate benefit, they have all engaged fully.
53.I have listened with great care to the evidence. I was impressed by the ability of Mr. X and the paternal grandmother to reflect generously and sincerely their concern for the other in these difficult circumstances; they all strike me as people of integrity with a deep respect for family. I have been struck by the thoughtfulness of those professionals who have endeavoured to chart these very uncertain waters. I was greatly assisted by the high quality of professional expertise in this case, in a way which, it is clear, Bodey J was not. Mrs. Gaskin described how she had “agonised” over the assessment – “this has been one of the most difficult cases I have had to deal with”. Dr. Young offered appropriate and helpful expert advice; the Children’s Guardian’s report was one of the best of its kind I have seen. She for her part observed that “this has been one of the most testing and difficult cases that I have been asked to report on in my 29 years of practice as a Social Worker…”.
54.A is, and has been, at the centre of my decision-making. I do not propose to repeat my description of her set out above; it is sufficient for me to record at this point that she has in my judgment had her global needs met in a safe and secure way for the whole of her life thus far; her security and her attachments have enabled her to explore, socialise, and master developmental stages confidently and appropriately. A has attached to Mr. and Mrs. X whom, according to Dr. Young, she identifies as her secure attachment figures.
55.I am satisfied that both sets of applicants have something genuine and valuable to offer A now and throughout her life. I am of course influenced in reaching my conclusion by the fact that A is securely attached to Mr. and Mrs. X, whom she regards as her parents, and is embedded in their family whom she has come to know as her natural relations. She will have little knowledge or recollection of any life which is different; the continuity and high level of care which she has received has nurtured a strong sense of security with these primary attachment figures. I am influenced too by the knowledge that the paternal grandparents, rightly described by the Guardian as “child-centred people”, are currently raising their grandson with evident love and skill; that they would – I accept – have been more than likely to have been favourably assessed to care for A had they been considered over two years ago, and had that been so, then A would be living with them now. Their belief that A would be best placed in their care is both sincere and passionately held. If A is placed with the grandparents, she would have the considerable additional benefit of being raised in a household with one of her siblings, and in close proximity to the other.
56.I am equally satisfied that risks are attached to each outcome for A. In evaluating the respective cases, it has been necessary to make some informed predictions about the future, conscious of my obligations to consider the issues by reference to A’s whole future life. In the home of the Xs, there is a clear and identifiable risk that A will feel, perhaps strongly, a sense of rejection when she comes in due course to realise that her brothers are cared for within the birth family, and she is not. This may have significant implications for her sense of identity and self-esteem. This risk, if it materialises, will not arise for a number of years. If it does, it is likely to be moderated by a number of factors, including:
- i) That A and the Xs have developed a secure attachment over the last 24 months, which it is reasonable to expect will continue to grow and consolidate; this will operate as an inherent protective defence against disruption of placement;
- ii) The ability and willingness of the Xs to be open with A about her adoptive status as she is growing up; Dr Young believed that the “key” is in how Mr. and Mrs. X support A to make sense of her status, and advocated adoption ‘talk’ with her from an early age;
iii) The introduction and maintenance of a direct relationship between A and her birth family, namely siblings and other relatives, through contact.
57.The risks of medium-term or long-term damage to A by her making her primary home with the paternal grandparents flow directly from the consequences of a move. No question is raised about short-term harm; it is assessed as being inevitable. The professionals spoke of the serious possibility of medium-term and long-term emotional and psychological damage to A by the traumatic severing of the secure attachments which she has formed with the Xs, with the consequent risk of disruption to her placement if these risks materialise and are not adequately addressed. Dr. Young opined that “a significant move such as this at this stage of her development will have a significant detrimental impact on her, of which the long term consequences would be uncertain, and thus any decision must proceed with this knowledge in mind” (emphasis by underlining added). While I am satisfied that there would be no shortage of love, and willingness on the part of the paternal grandparents to assuage the evident hurt for A in the event of a move, which may help A to some extent, the ability (or inability) of the adults around A to address the risk of deeper damage would be affected by a combination of the following factors:
- i) A real possibility that A simply does not forge attachments, let alone secure attachments, with new carers, having suffered the traumatic severance of secure attachments with the Xs; there is limited optimism that she will be able to deploy her “an internalised blueprint” (see  above);
- ii) Helplessness on the part of any of the adults around her to explain, in language which a 2½ year old will understand, why this change has been foisted upon her;
iii) The lack of experience on the part of the paternal grandparents to deal with the sophisticated and complex challenges facing A in these circumstances, and the evidence, which I accept, that they somewhat underestimate those challenges;
- iv) A possible adverse reaction by J to the arrival into the family home of A, and by A who would no longer be an only child in placement, and the risk that the grandparents may be overwhelmed by having to cope with challenging behaviour from A and/or J, or that A will become withdrawn and this will not be detected.
The risks of long-term damage are likely to be exacerbated (though in what ways, and to what extent it is difficult to assess confidently) by the fact that none of the transition plans are deemed by the experts to be in A’s best interests. The least bad alternative, which the experts reluctantly favoured among them, would involve summary (and so far as A is concerned unplanned) removal from the Xs care. It is hard to imagine, as Mr. Richardson emphasised, how an infant will react to having lost all her emotional and practical reference points overnight.
58.I should say at this stage, that I was extremely impressed with the way in which the Xs have already displayed many of the qualities which the professionals would advocate in order to mitigate the risk of harm if A were to remain with them; they have prepared a thoughtful, child-friendly, life-story book for A which I have seen, which identifies honestly and in age-appropriate terms who are the key people in her life – birth parents, foster parents and prospective adopters all featuring with explanations of their roles and importance to A. They have maintained contact with the foster carers who looked after A for her first seven months, allowing A to develop a real appreciation of her life-journey; I felt that this ability to embrace wider aspects of A’s life would be likely to carry through into an ability to involve the birth family in A’s life. They have developed in their own adoption ‘journey’ to a position of accepting direct contact between A and her birth family. The risk that A may develop a sense of rejection may be further mitigated by it being explained to her as she grows older – when the language would then be available to explain what has happened to her in a way which an adolescent will understand – that the difference between her situation and her brothers is not about her, but about the context and circumstances in which they each respectively began their lives.
64.In reviewing the competing options for A I have of course considered the proportionality of the outcomes proposed, particularly where one outcome, namely adoption, involves the creation of a new legal identity for A, and the court’s affirmation of a permanent, enduring relationship between her and a couple with whom she has no blood ties. Drawing all of these powerful factors together, I have reached the clear conclusion that it is in A’s best interests that she should live with Mr. and Mrs. X, where she has established solid, loving, and secure emotional foundations; from that ‘secure base’ she will be able in a wider and more general sense (as she did in a more limited and specific sense when Dr. Young visited her home earlier this year) to explore the world, and importantly with confidence explore and embrace new relationships, including those with her birth family. This outcome is the one which, looked at in the round, is most likely to contain and mitigate the risk of harm which is feared (section 1(4)(e)), and permit A to preserve and enjoy all of the important relationships in her life, including those with the people who she has come to know as her parents, and her birth grandparents and siblings. This outcome most faithfully promotes “the likelihood of” the continuation of important relationships for A and the “value to [A] of [them] doing so” (section 1(4)(f)(i) ACA 2002).
The Judge decided that there should be contact at least twice per year but that given that the prospective adopters were in agreement, there should not be an order.