A peculiar case where the parents were agreeing to adopt their child and the fight was about whether that would be in the UK or Hungary.
Hence the title. And not by any stretch of the imagination, a cheap opportunity for a Jennifer Lawrence photo. Goodness looking through those photos to find a decent one was a terrible hardship.
Re AO (Care proceedings) 2016
And yes, this Judge was setting me up for an A-O Let’s Go, Ramones * title, and I spurned it. I feel bad and all, but c’mon. J Law!
(*yes I lost my mind in first draft and put the Buzzocks)
In this case then, the parents were both Hungarian, but had been living in England for some time. They had a baby and didn’t feel able to care for the baby, so they contacted the Local Authority to say that they wanted to relinquish the baby for adoption. They understood what was involved and freely agreed to it. The LA felt that the baby should really grow up in Hungary, to be in touch with the parents culture. The parents were adamantly against this. That argument meant that the only way the baby could be adopted in Hungary would be if the LA obtained a Placement Order. And in order to do that, they would need to prove that the section 31 Children Act threshold criteria were met – that the child was suffering significant harm, or likely to do so.
Tricky to do.
Let us see how the LA argued that threshold was met.
- In this case, the local authority’s case was that, by failing to care for AO themselves and by relinquishing her to be looked after by the local authority, the parents had caused her to suffer significant emotional harm and to be likely to suffer further such harm, that harm being attributable to the care given to her not being what it would be reasonable to expect a parent to provide. The local authority further contended that the fact that the parents said that they were content for AO to be placed for adoption in England did not reduce the harm in question because the harm and likelihood of harm arose from AO
(a) having to be permanently removed from her mother at birth;
(b) having to be cared for by a foster carer, however caring and competent, rather than her own parents;
(c) having in due course to be moved to another carer, whether in England or in Hungary;
(d) being deprived of any relationship with her birth parents and possibly with their extended family;
(e) being deprived in her early weeks and months of experiences consistent with her Hungarian culture and heritage;
(f) being likely to become an adopted person rather than being brought up by her birth family, and having in due course to learn that her parents chose not to bring her up themselves.
- In oral submissions, Mr Stuart Fuller on behalf of the local authority conceded that not every case where a child is given up for adoption would satisfy the threshold criteria. He submitted that in this case, however, the parents’ actions in not only giving AO up but also insisting that she should not be placed in Hungary either with her birth family or with adoptive parents was unreasonable and was causing, or likely to cause, harm to AO in depriving her of the opportunity to live with her birth family and/or in her birth culture.
This position was supported by the children’s guardian. He submitted that neither parent had in fact provided AO with any care at all. He concluded that it was in her best interests to live in Hungary. The parents’ withholding of information concerning the family would prevent her having a complete understanding of her background and history and would impinge on her emotional welfare
I think this is skilfully put together, but it is nowhere near establishing threshold.
Unusually, the parents here shared the same silk, Frank Feehan QC, but each had their own junior counsel. I haven’t ever come across that before. But if you think that Frank Feehan QC (of Re B fame) was going to swallow that threshold, you haven’t been paying attention.
- On behalf of the parents, Mr Frank Feehan QC, leading Ms Grainne Mellon for the mother and Ms Katherine Dunseath for the father, submitted that the threshold criteria were not satisfied in this case. They reminded me of the definition of “harm” in section 31 (9), and also reminded me of the provisions of section 31(10):
“where the question of whether harm suffered by a child is significant turns on the chart’s health or development, his health or development shall be compared with that which could reasonably be expected of a similar child”.
Mr Feehan and the juniors representing the parents further cited the well-known observation of Hedley J in Re L (Care: Threshold Criteria)  1 FLR 2050 at para 70:
“society must be willing to tolerate very diverse standards of parenting, including the eccentric, the barely adequate and the inconsistent. It follows too that children will inevitably have both very different experiences of parenting and very unequal consequences flowing from it. It means that some children will experience disadvantage and harm, while others flourish in atmospheres of loving security and emotional stability. These are the consequences of our fallible humanity and it is not the provenance of the state to spare children all the consequences of defective parenting. In any event, it simply could not be done.”
- The core submission made on behalf of the parents was that the factual assertions made by the local authority and accepted by the mother did not amount to a finding of significant harm. It was submitted that to find that, as a relinquished child born in this country and now highly adoptable, AO would suffer significant harm as a result of growing up English rather than Hungarian would be a distortion of the statutory criteria. These parents took a decision as to the future of their child which many do not take: that they are simply not ready and not able to care for her and others should do so. They were in early contact with the authorities and fully cooperated with arrangements to ensure more than adequate care. In addition, it was submitted that, contrary to the suggestion that no information had been given by the parents as to AO’s background, the parents had in fact given brief but full details of their own families and background and upbringing.
The Judge, Mr Justice Baker, was also mindful of public policy issues – if you make it too difficult and too onerous and too intrusive for a parent who wants to give their child up for adoption to do so, well then you’ll return to the days of children being left in wicker baskets on the doorsteps of hospitals and police stations. There has to be a balance
- In my earlier judgement, I considered earlier reported cases in which a child had been given up by parents for adoption. In particular, I cited the observations of Holman J in Z County Council v R  1 FLR 365 :
“Adoption exists to serve many social needs. But high among them has been, historically, the desire or need of some mothers to be able to conceal from their own family and friends, the fact of the pregnancy and birth. So far as I know, it has not previously been suggested, nor judicially determined, that that confidentiality of the mother cannot be respected and maintained. If it is now to be eroded, there is, in my judgment, a real risk that more pregnant women would seek abortions or give birth secretly, to the risk of both themselves and their babies …. There is, in my judgment, a strong social need, if it is lawful, to continue to enable some mothers, such as this mother, to make discreet, dignified and humane arrangements for the birth and subsequent adoption of their babies, without their families knowing anything about it, if the mother, for good reason, so wishes.”
I observed (at para 47 of Re JL, Re AO)):
“It might be thought that giving up a baby for adoption is a dereliction of responsibility. In many such cases – perhaps most – the truth will be very different. Anyone who has read the accounts of persons who have given up a baby in those circumstances will soon come to see that it is usually a decision taken only after a great deal of thought and anguish, by parents who realise that they cannot look after the baby and wish to give the baby the best opportunity to grow up in a loving home.”
- As I pointed out in the earlier judgment, very few babies nowadays are given up for adoption at birth. In the first half of the 20th century, when illegitimacy still carried great social stigma, the numbers of babies adopted at birth were very much greater. As the stigma has evaporated, so the numbers of deduction so the numbers of babies relinquished for adoption have dwindled. New techniques for reproduction have provided different ways of meeting the requirements of couples who are unable to have children themselves. But there remain a few isolated cases where a mother concludes that she is unable to look after her child. It may be because her past history demonstrates that she is incapable of caring for a child. Or it may be that she feels that she cannot keep the baby for other reasons. A civilised society must accommodate such feelings and decisions, as societies always have. These feelings and decisions come within the range of diverse parenting to which Hedley J was referring in Re L. If society does not tolerate and facilitate such decisions, mothers who feel that they cannot keep them babies will be driven to take other measures.
- It follows, therefore, that the fact that the mother has given up her baby does not by itself satisfy the threshold criteria under section 31. When a baby has been simply abandoned on a doorstep, it is likely that criteria will be satisfied – each case will, as always, turn on its own facts. In cases where the mother has reached the difficult decision that she cannot keep the baby, notified the local authority in advance, and made responsible plans for the relinquishment of the baby in a way which minimises the risk of harm, it is in my judgment unlikely to be the case that the threshold criteria will be satisfied. It is likely that a baby deprived of her mother’s care will suffer some form of harm but that will be diminished if the baby is swiftly moved to another carer in a planned way. Even when a baby suffers harm from being deprived of her mother’s care, it does not follow in these circumstances that the harm can be described as being attributable to the care given to the child not being what it would be reasonable to expect a parent to give. A mother who concludes that she cannot care for her baby, and who notifies the authorities and makes responsible plans for relinquished in the baby at birth, is not, in my judgment, acting unreasonably.
- The local authority argued that, in this case, the relinquishment has been accompanied by an insistence on the baby being placed in England, and a reluctance to co-operate with attempts to contact the Hungarian extended family or place the child in that country. As a result, A had suffered harm through being deprived of links with her extended family and culture. I agree that on one view this could be considered detrimental, but it is doubtful that it can be regarded as significant harm and, even if it can, I do not consider that the parents can be said to be acting unreasonably. It is not unreasonable for them to want the baby to be placed for adoption in this country. Such views also fall within the range of diverse parenting identified by Hedley J. Unless society tolerates and facilitates such decisions, mothers who want their children to be placed in this country will be driven to take other steps.
- Accordingly, I concluded that the local authority has failed to prove the threshold criteria for making a care order under section 31 in this case.
As it was not possible to make a Placement Order without either parental consent or satisfying the threshold criteria, it wasn’t NECESSARY for the Judge to rule whether it might be better for the child to grow up in Hungary rather than England – but Baker J made it plain that he would not have done so in any event
- In the light of my decision as to the threshold criteria, it was strictly speaking unnecessary to determine whether the local authority plan for placing AO in Hungary would be the best outcome for her welfare, having regard to the provisions of section 1 of the Children Act. As I indicated at the conclusion of the hearing, however, it is my view, having considered the arguments, that such a plan would not be in AO’s overall interests, and I here set out the brief reasons for so concluding.
- The local authority’s consistent view throughout these proceedings was that it was in AO’s interests to be brought up in Hungary. She is a Hungarian citizen whose heritage is Hungarian. Other than the place of her birth and placement with her foster carer for the last six months, she has no connection with this country. She has no extended family here. In addition, the local authority submitted that, were she to be adopted here, she would in due course be told of her background and would learn that she has Hungarian parents and extended family. It was argued that, were she then to learn that she had been “turned into” an English child because that was what her Hungarian parents wanted, she would be likely to suffer identity confusion which in turn could lead to emotional harm and stress within her adoptive family. In addition, if she is brought up in England, by the time she learns of a Hungarian background it will be extremely difficult if not impossible for her to make any meaningful connection with her heritage.
- In reply, the parents’ consistent view throughout these proceedings has been that it would be better for AO to be brought up in this country. In addition, she was by the date of the hearing nearly seven months old and settled with her English carer. If she was moved to Hungary, she would move to a country where she is unfamiliar with the surroundings and language. In addition, if placed in Hungary, she would be subjected to at least two further moves of family – an initial preliminary foster placement to be followed by a move to a permanent family. In contrast, if she remained in this country, she would stay with the current carers until such time as an adoptive placement has been found.
- The children’s guardian supported the local authority’s plan for moving AO to Hungary. He attached particular importance to her cultural heritage which would not be sustained if she was placed with an English family. A further concern highlighted by the guardian was that Hungary would be unlikely to recognise the adoption in England of a Hungarian child. This could create difficulties were AO to visit Hungary. Her ability to get to know Hungarian culture and background would therefore be impeded. The guardian feared that this might impinge adversely on her ability to gain a true sense of her identity, which in turn could lead to a sense of injustice with adverse consequences for her self-esteem, development and behaviour.
- Set against that, however, the guardian expressed concern that with every passing week AO was becoming more attached to her current placement. He also pointed out that, if she was to be adopted here, a transition plan would be formulated involving both carers offering reassurance to help her with the change of primary care. In contrast, if she were to be placed in Hungary, the transition timespan would inevitably be much shorter which might cause difficulties in adjustment. Although it had been agreed that her carer and social worker would take AO to Hungary and take part in the transition arrangements, that process would, as the guardian identified, inevitably take place over a shorter period of time than in England. While supporting the local authority’s plan, the guardian was concerned that the details of how a Hungarian adoption would be arranged remained unclear, in contrast to the clarity of the process by which an adoption would be arranged in this country.
- I accept that, other things being equal, it would be in AO’s advantage to grow up in her own culture. However, other things are not equal. AO is settled with her English foster carer and a move to Hungary would in my judgment be far more disruptive and damaging than an adoptive placement in this country which will involve only one change of carer, no language difficulties, and a transition that can be arranged at a pace and in a way that best meets AO’s needs. It is, of course, very important that AO should be brought up with an awareness of her cultural background, but in my judgment this can be addressed by carefully selecting adopters who are able and willing to accept that she has such needs which they as her permanent parents will have to meet. I acknowledge the potential difficulties if Hungary refuses to recognise an English adoption of a child that it regards as Hungarian, but in my judgment this factor, and the others identified by the local authority, do not outweigh the clear benefits of proceeding to place her for adoption in this country. Accordingly, had I been required to do so, I would not have accepted the local authority care plan as being the right option to meet AO’s needs.
A good decision, in my book. And it clarifies the position for other Local Authorities, and indeed parents.
Sometimes the law can be fair and kind, despite all the complex language and mystique.
Oh boy, did someone say “Mystique?”