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Runaway train, never going back

The British Association of Social Workers, BASW, commissioned an independent report to look at adoption. The report has just been published.

There’s a summary piece at the Guardian about it

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jan/18/adoption-has-become-runaway-train-social-workers-cannot-stop

In summary of the summary, concerns about a lack of ethics and human rights approach, concerns that adoption has been politically pushed and dominates thinking, concerns about lack of support for families and adopters, concerns that there’s rigidity in thinking about contact (and the report compares the English approach of an assumption of no direct contact with Northern Ireland where the assumption is that there should be direct contact four to six times per year) and critically that there’s not enough attention being paid to poverty (and austerity) being the driving force behind children being removed from families.

The impact of austerity was raised by all respondents to different extents but was a particular
concern for social workers. Cuts to family support and social work services were a recurring
theme, with the decreasing availability of early help highlighted. Very costly resources are being
used in care proceedings. As a result, less is available for earlier interventions that could support
children to stay at home safely.
Most respondents wanted a better balance between support and assessment, with families
currently too often subject to repeated assessments rather than actually helped. A number felt
social work had become increasingly risk averse and fearful of blame, with the high rates of care
applications one key example given of the impact this has on practice.
A lack of resources once children had come into care or been adopted was similarly seen as
impacting on the effectiveness of services. There were many observations about decision-making
being impacted by the lack of resources and examples given of the results, such as siblings not
being placed together.

Having read the report, I think the summary is a fair one – the report does raise all of those issues. The report is careful to say that just as treating adoption as a perfect solution for all families is not realistic or helpful, demonising all social workers is not realistic or helpful either. Adoption is the right outcome for some children, and some adoptive families thrive and prosper. But there needs to be a genuine debate about whether it is being sought too frequently.

The report is here
http://cdn.basw.co.uk/upload/basw_55841-1.pdf

I’m not going to attempt to critique it or deconstruct it – it’s a long and thoughtful piece, taking on board views of a wide variety of people involved in the process, notably hearing from both birth parents and adoptive parents who had very similar viewpoints on some issues. I have had the opportunity to read it twice, but I honestly feel I want more time with it and to reflect on it. So I don’t know whether I agree with it all, but it says things that I genuinely think needed to be said and need to be discussed and thought about. And I wanted to alert people to its existence and hopefully get people to read it and have those conversations.

Nothing in family justice ever exists in a vacuum though – for every person who reads the report and agrees with it, there will be ten who think it doesn’t go far enough and that adoption should be burned to the ground, and ten who think it is ridiculously anti-adoption and goes far too far. That polarisation about adoption is, itself, part of the problem. The stakes are so high, the emotional devastation caused to those on the wrong side of adoption so great, the political capital invested in it, that it is hard to have the conversations that need to be had.

A particular issue that comes up within the report is the self-labelling by the social work system of social workers being ‘the social worker for the child’ rather than a social worker for the family.

The definition of the social worker role as being ‘the social worker for the child’ was a source of
concern, as it often led to a lack of support for birth parents:
‘Children are part of families – a social worker cannot only be the child’s social worker.’ (birth mother)

A lot of the respondents talked about the importance of the relationship that existed between the social worker and the family – and how the quality of that relationship can transform cases (for good or ill)

Repeatedly, across the range of family members, the importance of the relationship that was
developed with a social worker was stressed.
Birth family members gave accounts of both poor and good relationships. They related experiences of feeling deceived by social workers who they considered had not been honest with them. They described not understanding or being helped to understand why their child(ren) were
permanently removed; being unfairly judged/ labelled (‘the report said I was ‘hostile’ so he could not stay, but I was not hostile – I am ‘loud’’ – birth grandmother from a traveller background); and
generally being treated in what they perceived were inhumane ways.
Birth family members emphasised the importance of social workers listening to their views, being
respectful and honest, recognising strengths and displaying acts of kindness. It was considered
that the nature of the relationship could influence what happened with the child. Examples were
given of differing outcomes for children in the same family (i.e. adoption or remaining with the
parents) and these were, at least in part, attributed to the quality of the relationship with the
individual social worker. It was considered vital that social workers have the time to get to know
and work with the family in non-judgmental ways.

Many of the responses from adoptive parents repeated the themes found in the birth parents’
accounts. The relationship between the social worker and adoptive parents was considered to be
key, with the importance of professional but caring social workers highlighted. Adoptive parents
and adopted people also spoke about the importance of good communication, honesty, being
listened to and treated as an individual human being.

The use and misuse of power was a key issue

Families stressed that social workers have a great deal of power in relation to assessment, the
provision of help and decision-making. There were many examples given by birth families,
adoptive parents and adopted people of how they had experienced the exercise of social workers’
power, both positive and negative.
Birth family members repeatedly mentioned the lack of attention by social workers to the social
contexts in which they lived. A number of respondents reported that housing, or the lack of it,
was used as evidence against them in assessments.
The importance of practical support was stressed; ‘a washing machine for example would have made a big difference’ (birth parent). One birth mother spoke of the lack of adequate interpreting facilities in her contact with social workers and legal professionals. Other birth family members also felt discriminated against because of their cultural practices (e.g. a traveller background) or for being working class or having a lack of secure immigration status.
There were many examples provided by birth parents of feeling powerless in a climate that was
seen as very risk averse. Risk of future emotional harm was described as being frequently used,
and was seen as a particularly unjust basis for permanent separation. Birth mothers reported high
levels of domestic abuse and suggested they were being punished for having a violent partner
and/or having experienced domestic abuse in childhood.
Fear of an unsympathetic and punitive response was seen as inhibiting families from asking for
help when it was needed. Parents with mental and physical health problems and learning
difficulties all reported concerns about asking for help because of the emphasis on risk. They
reported receiving an assessment rather than support and feeling they were being scrutinised
rather than helped.
Being judged and stigmatised simply for having a history of care and/or abuse was an issue. Care
proceedings, involving newborn babies, were identified as being particularly traumatic, with a
lack of attention, in particular, to the impact of having just given birth on the mother. Residential
settings were described as being too often focused on monitoring risk rather than providing help
or therapeutic support. Women with disabilities highlighted the disabling environments in which
assessments were carried out.


The report concludes with recommendations (I suggest reading them in detail, but I’ll just put the bullet points here, for reasons of space)

Recommendation 1: The use of adoption needs to be located and discussed in the context
of wider social policies relating to poverty and inequality
Recommendation 2: UK governments should collect and publish data on the economic
and social circumstances of families affected by adoption
Recommendation 3: The current model of adoption should be reviewed, and the
potential for a more open approach considered
Recommendation 4: There needs to be further debate about the status of adoption and
its relationship to other permanence options.
Recommendation 5: BASW should develop further work on the role of the social worker
in adoption and the human rights and ethics involved

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The Re W rehearing (placement with grandparents versus adoption order)

 

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.

 

https://suesspiciousminds.com/2016/07/29/re-w-no-presumption-for-a-child-to-be-brought-up-by-a-member-of-the-natural-family/

 

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)

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2016/3118.html

 

 

 

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 [71] of [2016] 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 [73] that the phrase “nothing else will do” (from Re B [2013] 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) [1982] 3 All ER 897, recently cited in Re M’P-P [2015] EWCA Civ 584 at [67]. 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 [65] ([2016] 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)

 

Okay, so THIS guy also remembers the result of the fight.

Okay, so THIS guy also remembers the result of the fight.

 

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:

 

 

 

  1. 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;

 

  1. 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;

 

and

 

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:

 

 

 

  1. 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 [27] above);

 

  1. 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;

 

and

 

  1. 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.

Making eye to eye contact (post adoption contact applications, some practical queries)

 

I’ve previously written about the relatively new provisions of the Children and Families Act 2014 that allow a birth parent to apply for direct contact even years after the adoption order was made.

https://suesspiciousminds.com/2014/03/16/applying-for-contact-after-a-child-is-adopted/

 

I’m grateful to regular reader and commenter, Jerry Lonsdale, for posing me some questions that I didn’t know the answers to, and thus for making me go and find unexpected answers.

The provisions are set out in a new clause s51A of the Adoption and Children Act 2002

In order to make the application, a parent would need to obtain leave of the Court, and the Act sets out the things that the Court would need to consider.
S51 (5)In deciding whether to grant leave under subsection (4)(c), the court must consider— .
(a)any risk there might be of the proposed application disrupting the child’s life to such an extent that he or she would be harmed by it (within the meaning of the 1989 Act), .
(b)the applicant’s connection with the child, and .
(c)any representations made to the court by— .
(i)the child, or .
(ii)a person who has applied for the adoption order or in whose favour the adoption order is or has been made.
[It might have been helpful, given the wrangle that has previously taken place about whether leave to oppose adoption or leave to revoke a Placement order applications are applications to which the welfare paramountcy test applies for Parliament to have made that explicit. I think, though I would not put money on it, that when deciding the application for LEAVE, that the welfare of the child is a paramount consideration.]
We are probably getting the first of these applications made at present (and I’m aware that there is one such case in the High Court where the practical issues are becoming exposed)
In terms of practical issues, let’s look at them in turn – this has been a valuable exercise, because one element that looked very problematic when I first considered it has actually resolved on very close inspection. It might save someone else the detective legwork in the future.
1. How does the birth parent serve the adopters?

The birth parent won’t know the adopters address and nobody is going to tell them it. The Court MIGHT know it, if they were the Court who dealt with the adoption and they still have the file; assuming that the adopters have not moved since the adoption order was made. The other option might be for the Court to ask the Local Authority to serve the adopters – assuming that the Local Authority are willing to get involved and that the Local Authority have an address for the adopters. (Adopters aren’t obliged to keep a Local Authority informed of any change of address – they MIGHT, if they have a good relationship with their support worker or if they are receiving financial support)

You can’t go ahead with the application if the adopters aren’t served, because (a) that’s going to result in article 6 breach to the adopters and (b) The Court is obliged to consider the views of the adopters.
So not having a solid practical solution to that aspect is somewhat troubling.

If the adopters happen to have moved overseas since the adoption order was made, it is not at all clear to me that the provision would have any force at all.
2. Who is a party to the application for leave?
Well, the birth parent making the application is a party. The adopters would be a party, as respondents. And erm, that’s it.

The Local Authority are not a party to proceedings. They no longer hold any order in relation to the child, since the making of the Adoption Order ends their Care Order.

These applications are NOT specified proceedings for the purposes of section 41 (6) of the Children Act 1989 , and are thus not proceedings for which a Guardian is automatically appointed.
As we already established that applications under s51A don’t attract public funding (unless the applicant or respondent can convince the Legal Aid agency to give them ‘exceptional’ funding under s10 LASPO, which is as likely as Alex Salmond inviting David Cameron to rule Scotland by his side at the end of the month – perhaps wearing a Darth Vader costume) both the birth parent and the adopter will probably be litigants in person.

As such, neither of them will really fully grasp the test and the nuances and if we ever get any case law on it, won’t know it. Not their fault, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t bright or articulate, just that this whole thing is pretty impenetrable AND brand-new.

Probably neither of them will have a full set of the previous adoption papers and care proceedings – the adopters certainly won’t. The parents might, if they kept hold of them for a few years and ever had a complete set anyway.

So a Judge will be faced with two litigants in person (and a set of litigants who almost certainly won’t want to come into contact with each other), who don’t have the past papers and won’t know the law and process.
2(a) Options to get other people involved

The Court could invite the Local Authority to become a party. That would be an invitation – the LA can’t be forced to become a party. One would hope that the LA take up that invitation, but they might not. They might consider that the adoption was years ago and that everyone who knew the case is long gone, they might think that the adopters are from another part of the country miles away and that it would be better for THAT LA to be involved rather than them, the birth parents and adopters might not be living in that particular Local Authority by the time the application gets made, they might just be short-staffed and poorly funded or bloody minded.

If the Court invites the LA and they decline, I had initially thought that this was the end of it. It is not!

Rule 14.3 Family Procedure Rules 2010 (the section relating to any application under the Adoption and Children Act 2002, which this would be)

14 (3) The court may at any time direct that—
(a) any other person or body be made a respondent to proceedings; or
(b) a party be removed.

The Court therefore has the power to MAKE a Local Authority be a Respondent to such an application. And once they are a Respondent, the Court can make them file documents, skeletons, statements etc.

The application isn’t specified proceedings, but the Court can still appoint a Guardian, by appointing the child as a party under rule 14.2 of the Family Procedure Rules 2010 and then appointing a Guardian to represent the child.
(2) The court may at any time direct that a child, who is not already a respondent to proceedings,
be made a respondent to proceedings where—
(a) the child—
(i) wishes to make an application; or
(ii) has evidence to give to the court or a legal submission to make which has not been
given or made by any other party; or
(b) there are other special circumstances.

[You can’t do it under Rule 16.4, because that expressly excludes doing so in an application under the Adoption and Children Act 2002, so rule 14.2 is the solution]
You can of course still get the difficult situation where Local Authority A dealt with the care proceedings, the child is placed with adopters in Local Authority area B, and by the time of the adoption the birth parents are living in Local Authority area C. Which Local Authority does the Court make a Respondent? Which of the three areas provides a Guardian?

 

3. How does the Court make the enquiries about the risk of the application being disruptive / the benefits of it?

 

Well, it becomes substantially easier if the LA and Guardian are drawn into the mix. The Court can direct that those agencies carry out an assessment and provide a report.

If they are not made parties, the obvious solution that occurred to me was that they be directed prepare a section 7 report, but there is no power to do that on a s51A application for contact.

Section 7 of the Children Act 1989 (the power for the Court to direct that the Local Authority or CAFCASS provide a report to the Court advising on contact) applies to applications made under the Children Act 1989, and s51A applications aren’t.
4. What is the test going to be ?
Historically, the senior Courts have always made heavy weather of “leave” applications – they have always wanted to add gloss to the statute – often so much gloss that the test that one ends up with bears little relationship to the statute itself. You only have to look at the variety of judicial shorthand guidance on “leave to be joined as a party” in care proceedings – we have had everything from ‘arguable case’ to ‘strong arguable case’ to ‘strong prospect of success’ to ‘not vexatious, frivolous or fanciful’ and we now have the Court of Appeal guidance that one has to frankly forget all of the previous shorthand and guidance and just go back to what it says in the statute as factors to be considered and add in the human rights principles of right to family life, proportionality and right to fair trial.

But we do have slightly different tests for “leave to be joined as a party”  (which is the “it’s the Act, stupid” test), “leave to revoke a placement order” (which is still officially Warwickshire, though everyone really thinks it ought to be identical to B-S) and “leave to oppose adoption” (which is B-S)

Which of those tests, if any, is going to apply to these applications?

Does the historical law on making a contact order post adoption still apply? (in essence don’t make a contact order if the adopters are agreeing to the contact and don’t make a contact order in the teeth of opposition from the adopters – leaving only a tiny patch of possible contact orders in wholly exceptional cases)

Is there a presumption that contact is good? Or a presumption that the status quo should prevail? Are either rebuttable presumptions? Or is it a completely blank sheet of paper?

Who the heck knows?

 

Legal aid for section 51 applications – contact post adoption

Forgive me for this, because it is going to be dryer than eating a packet of Jacob’s Cream Crackers in the Gobi desert, but it is potentially important, and might save someone else an hour of slogging through law to find the answer.

 

“Can you, or your clients,  get legal aid to help you make an application for post adoption contact, when the section 51 provisions come into force?”

 

 

If you haven’t read the preceding blog, none of this s51 stuff will make any sense, so you might want to do that first.

 

There’s a bit tucked away in the Children and Families Act 2014, that specifies that there are some changes to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act  2012  (LASPO).

 

Why does that matter? Well, because LASPO is what decides whether a person can get legal aid to make their application 

 

[It also probably has the unique distinction of being a piece of legislation that every English lawyer can agree about hating. Usually, even if an Act comes in that is stupid and frustrating, say the “Hairdryers – Prohibition against making them out of Ice Act 2009”  you can find a couple of lawyers who made some money out of training on it, or suing someone for breaching the Act, or defending someone accused of breaching it.  This one, everyone hates. And you can’t even think – well, I’m diametrically opposed to everything that LASPO stands for, but I can still admire it as a beautifully crafted and mechanically sound piece of drafting. It isn’t that, either]

 

This is what s9 (12) of Children and Families Act 2014 says:-

 

 

(12) In Part 1 of Schedule 1 to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of

Offenders Act 2012 (civil legal services)—

(a) in paragraph 12(9) (victims of domestic violence and family matters), in

the definition of “family enactment” after paragraph (o) insert—

“(p) section 51A of the Adoption and Children Act

2002 (post-adoption contact orders).”, and

(b) in paragraph 13(1) (protection of children and family matters) after

paragraph (f) insert—

“(g) orders under section 51A of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 (post-adoption contact).”

 

[The Children and Families Act 2014 is no Mona Lisa of the drafting world, either, to be frank]

 

Which brings the potential that section 51 applications MIGHT be eligible for legal aid.

 

Under LASPO, there are two distinct categories

 

1)     Cases which are within scope, and will be funded if there is means and merits to the application, but are the SORT of cases that in principle that legal aid can be given for  (those are ones that are contained in Part 1 of Schedule 1 of LASPO, so you can see that there is POTENTIAL for s51 applications

 

2)     Cases that are not within scope, but MIGHT be funded if the Legal Aid agree that there are exceptional circumstances that justify it  (in practice, no chance)

 

 

You find that explicitly in LASPO, though written in oblique language

 

9 General cases

(1)Civil legal services are to be available to an individual under this Part if—

(a)they are civil legal services described in Part 1 of Schedule 1, and

(b)the Director has determined that the individual qualifies for the services in accordance with this Part (and has not withdrawn the determination).

 

10 Exceptional cases

(1)Civil legal services other than services described in Part 1 of Schedule 1 are to be available to an individual under this Part if subsection (2) or (4) is satisfied.

(2)This subsection is satisfied where the Director—

(a)has made an exceptional case determination in relation to the individual and the services, and

(b)has determined that the individual qualifies for the services in accordance with this Part,

(and has not withdrawn either determination).

(3)For the purposes of subsection (2), an exceptional case determination is a determination—

(a)that it is necessary to make the services available to the individual under this Part because failure to do so would be a breach of—

(i)the individual’s Convention rights (within the meaning of the Human Rights Act 1998), or

(ii)any rights of the individual to the provision of legal services that are enforceable EU rights, or

(b)that it is appropriate to do so, in the particular circumstances of the case, having regard to any risk that failure to do so would be such a breach.

 

 

[What section 10 means in practice is “we were obliged to say that this Act was compatible with the Human Rights Act, so we stuck in this exceptional provision for legal aid to be granted in cases where NOT granting it would be a breach of Human Rights, but actually dishing it out to real people, for real cases? I should cocoa”    *]

 

 

*I wish people said “I should cocoa” more often

 

 

Anyway, the addition of s51 applications to Part 1 Schedule 1 means that the applications MIGHT fall within scope for legal aid (and thus be applications which might get legal aid after a means and merit test is applied)

 

However, it is not as simple as that (sorry) because where s51 gets placed in Part 1 Schedule 1 of LASPO means that these applications are only in scope in narrow circumstances, and for all others you are stuck with exceptional (remember, when I say exceptional here, the statutory definition of whether that will actually occur is  “as likely to happen as a comet made of solid gold landing in your back garden and striking oil where it lands”      –    The Let’s Pretend Something is Available when it really isn’t Act  2014 section 1(1) )

 

 

 

So, in Part 1, Schedule 1 of LASPO  (as amended by Children and Families Act 2014),  applications under s51 come in two possible categories where the application can qualify for public funding

 

 

Paragraph 12

 

Civil legal services provided to an adult (“A”) in relation to a matter arising out of a family relationship between A and another individual (“B”) where—

(a)there has been, or is a risk of, domestic violence between A and B, and

(b)A was, or is at risk of being, the victim of that domestic violence.

 

 

So, if you can persuade the Legal Aid Agency that the reason you are applying for an order for post-adoption contact is that you are the victim of domestic violence or are at risk of domestic violence and that the application is in some way a remedy for that, you might get legal aid.

 

[Is it just me, or does that seem inherently unlikely? I mean, I have a creative brain and love thinking up crazy scenarios, but I’m struggling to come up with a set of circumstances that would fit that]

 

I suppose, racking my brain, that given that s51 allows for the Court to make an order that there shall be no contact, there MIGHT, just MIGHT be a conceivable circumstance in which the post-adoption contact order application might be to stop the perpetrator of domestic violence having contact and that would in some way alleviate the risk to the applicant. 

 

 [It is also possible, and perhaps more likely,  that this is referring to the adopters themselves as applicants for an order for NO contact to an individual, though the amount of adopters who would pass the means element of the Legal Aid test is microscopic, I suspect]

 

 

The other category is

 

Paragraph 13

 

Protection of children and family matters

13(1)Civil legal services provided to an adult (“A”) in relation to the following orders and procedures where the child who is or would be the subject of the order is at risk of abuse from an individual other than A

 

 

So the applicant would need to persuade the Legal Aid Agency that the purpose of the application for post-adoption contact is to protect the child from risk of abuse from a named individual  (that individual has to be someone other than the applicant)

 

If you are the biological mother, you MIGHT be able to persuade the Legal Aid Agency that the risk of abuse comes from the child’s father and not yourself, or vice versa.  But I’m struggling to see how you persuade the Legal Aid Agency that the right way to protect the child from the risk of abuse is that you have some post adoption contact.

 

I again think that this is probably aimed more at financially impoverished adopters who meet the means test for Legal Aid, and are saying that contact poses a risk of abuse to the child from the parents.

 

 

I’m afraid that all of that was very long, because it is complicated, but how it ends up, it seems to me, is that section 51 applications aren’t going to be backed by Legal Aid UNLESS the LAA agree that there are exceptional circumstances   [solid gold comet strikes oil – you are now so rich you don’t need Legal Aid]

 

You could argue that if Parliament genuinely intended section 51 applications to be made, and for deserving cases to result in section 51 orders, they could have placed such applications squarely in Part 1 Schedule 1 of LASPO without the bizarre qualifications.  The gatekeeping provision could have been that the Legal Aid Agency would have to determine whether the application had sufficient merits to justify the funding being awarded.

Unless and until either the English Courts or the ECHR give a decision saying that failure to provide funding for such an application is in breach of human rights, it looks as though any parent making such an application would be doing so as a litigant in person.  Good job the legislation is written in such plain English.

Applying for contact AFTER a child is adopted

The family law provisions of the new Children and Families Act 2014 come into force on 22nd April.

The Act itself (as opposed to press releases boasting about how it will solve everything, give us free energy, a perpetual motion machine and bring peace and harmony to both the Middle East and the pro and anti-Europe wings of the Tory party) can be found here

http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2014/6/pdfs/ukpga_20140006_en.pdf

There’s a LOT of it, so am going to try to tackle it in chunks. Today’s topic is going to be the new section 51A of the Adoption and Children Act 2002, which makes provision for applications for contact AFTER an adoption order has been made.

Historically, Courts have been able to consider applications for the contact that a parent would have POST-ADOPTION, but that application and determination of it would have been BEFORE the adoption order was made. Thus, the adoption order would in effect be the last time the child would be the subject of litigation, and the Court’s involvement in their life would end.  (There are exceptions – as we saw in Re W the President was willing to overturn an adoption order to hear an appeal, there are adopters who end up being involved in subsequent care or private law proceedings themselves, but generally, once the adoption order itself was made, the Court were done with the child)

So, what about post 22nd April? Well, s9 of the Children and Families Act 2014 says this :-  [bold bits are mine, for emphasis]  – and it is important to note that this doesn’t just apply to adoption orders made after 22nd April, it applies to ALL adoption orders

9 Contact: post-adoption

(1) After section 51 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 insert—

“Post-adoption contact

51A Post-adoption contact

(1) This section applies where—

(a) an adoption agency has placed or was authorised to place a child for adoption, and

(b) the court is making or has made an adoption order in respect of the child.

(2) When making the adoption order or at any time afterwards, the court may make an order under this section—

(a) requiring the person in whose favour the adoption order is or has been made to allow the child to visit or stay with the person named in the order under this section, or for the person named in that order and the child otherwise to have contact with each other, or

(b) prohibiting the person named in the order under this section from having contact with the child

(3) The following people may be name d in an order under this section—

(a) any person who (but for the child’s adoption) would be related to the child by blood (including

half-blood), marriage or civilpartnership;

(b) any former guardian of the child;

(c) any person who had parental responsibility for the child immediately before the making of the adoption order;

(d) any person who was entitled to make an application for an order under section 26 in respect of the child (contact with

children placed or to be placed for adoption) by virtue of subsection (3)(c), (d) or (e) of that section;

(e) any person with whom the child has lived for a period of at least one year.        [This has a cut-off of not applying if it was more than 5 years ago, but seems to me that it would potentially cover relatives who cared for the child, foster carers, and possibly siblings]

(4) An application for an order under this section may be made by—

(a) a person who has applied for the adoption order or in whose favour the adoption order is or has been made,

(b) the child, or

(c) any person who has obtained the court’s leave to make the application.

(5) In deciding whether to grant leave under subsection (4)(c), the court

must consider—

(a) any risk there might be of the proposed application disrupting

the child’s life to such an extent that he or she would be harmed

by it (within the meaning of the 1989 Act),

(b) the applicant’s connetion with the child, and

(c) any representations made to the court by—

(i) the child, or

(ii) a person who has applied for the adoption order or in whose favour the adoption order is or has been made

Obviously, there’s a lot there, and it is written in Law not English.

The nub of it is, a birth parent, or someone with whom the child has lived for at least a year, can apply for an order for contact with that child, including staying contact, and the application can be made AFTER the adoption order is made.  They will need Leave of the Court to make that application – i.e there is a two stage test – can you persuade a Court to give you permission to make an application for contact, and then the Court deciding whether your application succeeds and you GET contact.

Leave applications are tricky – if you imagine that there’s a high jump bar, and that the parent will get leave if they can jump over it, and won’t get leave if they can’t, that’s a helpful way to look at it. The problem is, making sure that everyone knows exactly how high that bar is set and that a Judge doesn’t end up setting it too high, or too low. (That has been the subject of much of 2013s  law developments, with the Court of Appeal concluding that the bar on leave to oppose adoptions has been set too high for parents and needs to be adjusted to make it a fair test)

This test is contained in s51(5) which says that the Court MUST consider whether granting permission might disrupt the child’s life to such an extent that they would be harmed by it  (note that this is NOT whether contact would cause that harm, but allowing the ARGUMENT about contact would cause that harm). The wording here is strange, in that the reference to ‘harm’ then says in the meaning given in the Children Act 1989.  Does that therefore mean ‘significant harm’?

The Court MUST also consider the applicant’s connection with the child, and any views expressed by the child or the adopters.

You would have to say, in light of Re B-S, Re W et al of 2013, it is at best uncertain as to how any application for leave under s51 to apply for a contact order post adoption order being made would go. What we DO know is that the application would have to be served on the adopters (presumably via the Local Authority, as the parents won’t know the adopters address), and they would be represented in the leave argument hearing.

We don’t know whether public funding would cover a parent making a s51 application – it certainly isn’t automatic, which puts the parents in the hands of the generous discretion of the Legal Aid agency in making that decision. The adopters won’t automatically get legal aid to fund their legal costs either, even if they financially qualify.  That probably leaves the adopters going cap in hand to the Local Authority asking for help with legal fees, or paying out of their own pocket, or trying to represent themselves  (I honestly can’t see how the latter would work, particularly if the parent is representing themselves too)

In reality, a leave application can need the filing of evidence and a few hearings before the fight itself can take place. Note that in this leave requirement (unlike revocation of an SGO or Placement Order or leave to oppose adoption) there’s no requirement on the parent to show change or significant change since the order was made – they can just say that they want to have contact with their child.

The leave application can be a worrying and anxious time. It can potentially unsettle the child.

So my question really is

For a birth parent – is this a power that is potentially going to end up in you being able to get contact with your child post adoption, in which case it would be a good thing for you, or is it a ‘fake’ potential avenue that is actually a dead end just putting you through stress and optimism and then disappointment as each and every application for leave is refused? If it is the latter, why even put it in the Act?

For adopters – how does having this provision, knowing that you could be drawn into court proceedings and having to file statements and have arguments in court about contact, after the adoption order was made, make you feel?  And again, are they applications that have a chance of being made, or are you going through stress and anxiety for nothing?

Unless you are actually going to make s51 contact orders on parents applications after the adoption orders being made, it seems to me to just cause emotional pain to the parents because of false hope, and emotional pain and anxiety to adopters as they go through the process.  Does that then suggest that Parliament envisages that in some cases (not just the exceptionally rare ones) parents will succeed in these applications and get their contact?  And how will that change the character of adoption?

And in a final round-up, what prevents a parent who fails to get leave under s51 making another application next year, or the year after, or the year after that? They may never get their s51 leave, but they could hope to make life awkward and difficult for the adopters, maybe get the adopters worn down to offer a compromise or agree the contact sought.

Well, what “stops” this sort of hopeless, frivolous or vexatious litigation in the Children Act 1989  (and ‘stops’ is a bit strong) is section 91(14) of the Children Act 1989, which gives the Court the power to say to a person who is making those applications, you can’t make them any more – or not without leave of the Court anyway

s91 (14)On disposing of any application for an order under this Act, the court may (whether or not it makes any other order in response to the application) order that no application for an order under this Act of any specified kind may be made with respect to the child concerned by any person named in the order without leave of the court.

Two problems with this

1. s91(14) applies to orders or applications made under the Children Act, whereas a s51 application is made under the Adoption and Children Act 2002 – there’s no provision similar to s91(14) under the Adoption and Children Act  (why would there be? Up until now, all applications ended once the adoption order was made)

2. Even if it did, all it does is turn the 2 stage test?  (May I make the application, can I have contact?) into a 3 stage test (may I ask whether I may make the application, may I make the application, can I have contact?)   And stage 1 still involves the adopters being notified, and having to come to court and fight the first stage, so really, what difference does it make?

So, to stop s51 applications being rained down on the adopters, the only real mechanism is to apply to the High Court to have the applicant declared as a vexatious litigant.  That forbids them from making any Court application without permission of the High Court   (so, we are back to the 3 stage test, with the problems already discussed)

[if you are interested further in the concept of vexatious litigants, this is a good speech on the topic, which gives the history and some projections for the future  http://www.judiciary.gov.uk/media/speeches/2006/speech-mor-30062006 ]

You also need to bear in mind that the current caselaw on making contact orders against adopters is not terribly helpful to parents. It has effectively two strands  – if the contact is agreed don’t make an order, and if the adopters don’t agree the contact there would need to be very compelling reasons to impose it on them.  (Are those guidelines dead in the water now that s51 is upon us? Is there genuinely a different ethos in Parliaments, and thus the laws view on making contact orders against adopters? We’ll have to wait and see how the Court of Appeal views this)    .

 
 
ADDENDUM EDIT
 
 
I am aware that my analysis of this has probably stirred up feelings of hope for birth parents and a degree of anxiety for adoptive parents. I am also aware that the Adoption Tsar, Martin Narey, considers that the provisions of s51 are primarily about allowing adopters to control contact and that there is no need for anxiety. I don’t want to make people worried unnecessarily, I’m not interested in scaremongering.
 
But, the power of the Court to make an order for contact AFTER the adoption order has been made is one that is within the new Act, and the power for a birth parent to seek to make that application is also there.  (I have seen the new application form, and it also makes it clear – there’s a box to fill in if you are a biological parent, and a box to fill in if the adoption order has already been made)
 
For me, the wording in s51A is clear – an order about contact can be made AFTER the adoption order is made, and an application can be made by a parent. The parent needs leave, and we simply don’t know at this point how the Courts will approach that leave decision. Post Re B-S, any application for leave is not as hopeless an application as it would have been a year ago, and the same is possibly true here.
 
For the child, it is certainly the case that contact post adoption won’t be ordered unless the Court look at it carefully and decide that it is in the child’s best interests (and the burden falls on the person seeking that contact). But for the adopters, and the parents, the actual leave application can still be stressful and anxious – both will have to attend Court and won’t be sure of the outcome.
 
As discussed in the blog immediately after this one, it seems highly likely that a biological parent won’t get legal aid to make the application – whether that makes things better or worse from an adopters point of view is hard to call.