I am pleased to have been able to secure this debate to consider the rights of adoptive parents. In respect of the adoption of children, we hear a great deal about the children involved, about what is best for them, and about how to provide them with stable and happy upbringing. Given the need to protect such children, who are often very vulnerable, it is right and proper that they should remain the main focus of attention. We also hear a great deal about the rights of the birth parents, particularly when they wish to have access to those children, but we hear rather less about the parents who adopt such children. They are often people who have given up a substantial proportion of their lives to provide a stable home and family background to children who are in desperate need of love and support. We must not forget that group of people and the unique set of challenges that they face.
I hope to raise a number of the issues that affect adoptive parents. These include: the confidentiality of information relating to adoption; the way in which a birth parent, often years after an adoption has taken place, is able to challenge terms of contact; and the lack of support available to adoptive parents in difficult circumstances. As with many issues raised in the House, I learned about this subject when I was visited by a constituent at one of my surgeries, a lady whose family is engaged in a complex legal case involving her adopted daughter.
The Minister and I have already corresponded about this case, and I have similarly contacted the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend Mr Djanogly in respect of matters relating to legal aid that I shall talk about in a moment. Following the family’s wishes, they will remain anonymous in the debate. I will do my best to explain the elements of this rather complicated case, which raises a number of issues.
The first issue relates to the security of data in matters of adoption. In the case to which I am referring, the birth mother was just 13 years old when she gave birth to her child. Both mother and child—the mother came from London—were put into care in London with the original ambition of finding a foster placement for them both. However, professionals in the field at the time quite reasonably decided that, given the mother’s age, the best long-term interests for both lay in putting the child up for adoption. The birth mother, despite her very young age, was reluctant to go ahead with the adoption and wished to keep the child. This wish to retain and gain access to the child has led to many of the difficulties facing my constituent and her family.
In 2001, my constituent and her family successfully adopted the child, who was just 23 months old at the time; she is now 12. They carried on with family life, and adopted a further child. During these years—pretty happy years from what I understand—the family were keen to do what was right for the child. The contact agreement, which was to facilitate indirect contact with the birth mother through letters a couple of times a year, was honoured; and it continued quite successfully through to 2008. The birth mother’s reluctance to part with the child led to concerns that she might attempt an abduction, so the indirect contact did not include the ability to send photographs to the birth mother.
Given that distance between the birth mother and the parent, one can imagine the adoptive parents’ concern when, seven years after the adoption, when the child was nine, the birth mother arrived unannounced at the family’s home. The question is how the birth mother was able to locate the family. The mother is and was resident in London, and this was an out-of-area adoption, with the child resident some 80 miles away. Clearly, the birth mother should not have been able to find out the name and address of the adopting family without their consent. This was the first of things to go wrong for my constituent and her family.
This matter also raises questions about the very objective of adoption legislation. As the Minister has confirmed in his recent response to me, adoption legislation is there to provide a framework for protecting confidential information, such as the names and addresses of the individuals involved. That requires local authorities to obtain the consent of the individuals if disclosure is requested. The individuals might be concerned that disclosure could lead to them being identified. In this case, the adopting family had specifically not given such consent. I hope that the Minister will be able to give some guidance in his comments about the security of information in such cases.
Seeing the birth mother on her doorstep, my constituent attempted to make the best of what was then a difficult situation and sought to avoid a distressing scene in front of the child. She invited the birth mother into her home. She did so on the basis that the birth mother had seen her daughter and that it might affect her adversely if further contact was denied. The adopting family reluctantly felt that they had no choice but to permit ongoing and regular contact. That happened for a couple of years, although it proved extremely difficult when, over time, the birth mother became increasingly aggressive and confrontational about access.
After a period, the mother’s behaviour became such that the family felt obliged to contact the police, leading to the birth mother receiving a police caution for harassment. With that in mind, the family quite reasonably requested that direct contact should be stopped, as it was starting to have serious consequences on the child who had become afraid of being abducted. The matter became so serious that at one stage the police provided both child and adoptive mother with alarms in case of an attack. One can only imagine the family’s horror when, a few months after contact was stopped, the family received a court summons through the post, advising them that the birth mother was attempting to force direct contact once again. Even more than that, the birth mother had secured legal aid in order to do so.
That brings us to the issue of the ability of a birth parent to challenge an adoption order. Unfortunately, under the existing rules my constituent and her family—the adopting family—are not eligible for legal aid, but they are also not sufficiently wealthy to afford expensive legal representation. They have been given an estimate of a cost of some £6,000 to fight the case in court, and they have no access to such a sum. I believe that the case raises serious issues about the rights of adoptive parents compared with those of birth parents, and about access to legal representation in such circumstances.
According to the Adoption and Children Act 2002, the effect of an adoption order is to give parental responsibility to the adopters. It refers to the extinguishing of parental responsibility from those who had it previously. Once an adoption order has been made, birth parents cease to have any legal rights over the child, and therefore cannot simply claim him or her back. As I explained earlier, a particular cause for anxiety is the fact that the direct contact came about not as a result of the wishes of the adoptive family, but because the birth mother had somehow managed to locate them.
Where does that leave the adopting family? They are left feeling that the birth mother has more rights than they have. It surely cannot be right for a birth parent who has breached the agreements of a contact order to be allowed to take the adoptive parents to court in order to make contact. I think most people would feel that in such circumstances the rules seem to be loaded in favour of the birth parents, with a lack of regard for the feelings and treatment of the adoptive family.
The availability of legal aid to the birth mother has become a matter of real concern to my constituent and her family. I am aware that the Government are currently undertaking a review of legal aid, and have presented proposals that will result in 500,000 fewer instances of legal help and 45,000 fewer instances of legal representation being funded by legal aid annually. I am also aware that family law is the single most expensive area of legal aid. In 2009-10, the most recent year for which figures are available, it cost the taxpayer £597 million. It is therefore understandable that the Government wish to make changes.
The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon, has confirmed to me that legal aid is granted on the strength of information provided by applicants and their solicitors. I realise that it is calculated on a means-tested basis and takes no account of previous behaviour, but while I also understand the importance of safeguarding access to legal advice, I feel that in a case such as this the existence of legal aid complicates matters unnecessarily. I therefore welcome the Government’s measures to restrict it, especially in cases such as this in which it pitches one person unfairly against another, and especially when options such as mediation may be more effective. It seems fundamentally unfair that in the case that I have raised, legal aid is available to the birth mother but not to the adoptive parents. I realise that this issue is not within the Minister’s portfolio, but perhaps he will clarify the effect that changes to legal aid provisions will have on cases involving adoption.
Finally, I want to draw attention to the apparent lack of support measures for adoptive parents. My constituent and her family have been subjected to the behaviour of an aggressive birth mother, and must now deal with a complex legal case without the funds that would enable them to instruct a lawyer. They feel that throughout this time little or no support has been available to them. My constituent feels that she has been left with no choice but to trawl the internet to search actively for advice and guidance from adoption charities. That situation cannot be right, so will the Minister take the opportunity to advise us on what system of support and guidance exists for parents of adoptive children?
In highlighting this case and the cause of adoptive parents, I wish to make it clear that I do not expect the Minister to comment on this particular case and I simply seek his views on the broader issue of policy. I join my constituent in making the point that the legal importance of adoption orders often seems worthless if birth parents are able to take adopting families to court simply because they decide that they want to have more or full access. I fully appreciate the difficulties facing birth parents, particularly those who may not have wished to give up their child for adoption in the first place, but they should not be allowed to force legal proceedings and wreak havoc on new families who will have worked so hard to provide stability and security for the children they are adopting. If moves are made to encourage more direct contact, more guidance ought to be available for adoptive parents and more support measures must be established for them. I recognise that the law involved in this case is complex and that it is further complicated by the Government’s review of legal aid. They must do all they can to educate both adoption agencies and adoptive families to understand what their position is. However, I accept that the most important factor throughout all these cases is the requirement to facilitate happy and successful adoptions for years to come.
The case I have described has been most distressing to my constituent and her family. For 10 years they have brought up an adopted child as their own in a happy and stable environment, but it is now one where both they and the child are extremely uncertain about their future together. I recognise that much of this unfortunate situation cannot be changed and that the clock cannot be turned back, but I wish my constituent and her family every success in their legal battle, and the best and happiest future for them and their adopted daughter.