Independent Safeguards

Adoption and Children Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at on 21 November 2001.

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There is general agreement, eloquently restated by the Secretary of State himself during the Second Reading of the Bill, that there needs to be `fundamental' and `cultural' change in the system in order for improvements to be achieved. There is agreement too that potential adopters need to feel confidence in the system if they are to participate—and without them, of course, there will be no adoption.

The Secretary of State went on to say:

``It is right that we build in independent review throughout the system, whether of the provision of information to adopted children about their birth families, or of decisions to place a child with a particular family...The issues are difficult and emotionally fraught. Not only must we get the process—and the law in regard to who should or should not be adopted—right, we must build in independent safeguards throughout the system.''

Clause 12 introduces into the system of adoption and permanence a new and very welcome element—that of appeals for prospective adopters who are turned down by adoption panels. This will go some way to establishing confidence but we believe more could be done to instil confidence.

There is no provision for appeal against any other decision made along the adoption trail, no independent scrutiny of, or appeal against, bad or unjust decisions.

Mr and Mrs PJ, living in Central London, would have liked to appeal on several grounds. Their case in short:

``We live in a very mixed area racially speaking. Our circle of friends and acquaintances is also mixed. We adopted a 7 year old boy from our local authority in 1996 and, with the usual ups and downs, it is a stable and happy relationship for my husband, me and our boy. In 1999, we applied to adopt his older half-sister, then 13. We had grown to very fond of her after regular contact ordered by our local authority and she had been moved several times in foster care and expressed a desire to live with us. Our local authority refused the placement on the grounds that she was of mixed race and we were not. We did our utmost to try to persuade them but nothing was achieved. We still abide by the contact order and the girl is still in foster-care (she has been in several placements) which we all value. But we believe our relationship with the girl—and inevitably our son too—has been ill-served by the decision not to allow the placement as, of course, has the relationship between them.''

There is only the old system of local authority complaints, and, as the Secretary of State said himself, they are often inadequate and long-winded.

—it is, after all, difficult to complain to the very authority who has made the decision that you are complaining about.

—given the power of insurance companies (as we saw in Clywd) which discourage local authorities from admitting any form of liability for fear of compensation claims, it is quite understandable that apologies, self-criticism or punishment are unlikely to result. This of course militates against learning from complaints, a vital factor if systems are to improve

—dissatisfaction with a local authority's complaints procedure can be taken up with the Ombudsman or the Social Services Inspectorate but neither will examine a case unless the complainant has already been through all levels of the LA's complaints procedure. Neither has the remit or the resources to go beyond identifying maladministration.

—some matters can be examined through Judicial Review, but these are very narrow and it is extremely expensive and thus limited to very few.

We believe that an ombudsman for children in care would be a valuable introduction. We understand, however, that this would not be possible within the remit of this Bill.

We understand also that adoption agencies must not and cannot be beleaguered with requests and rights of review from every case because it would inhibit too greatly their valuable work. However, we believe it is perfectly possible for gate-keeping mechanisms to be introduced to preclude vexatious or inappropriate requests for review. However, given the importance of the decisions with the life-long implications that are made, we believe there must be a right for those affected to be heard.

With this in mind, we would like to suggest that the following safeguards are included:

Clause 4(7): could include a right to review if a person/family is turned down for adoption support.

Clause 12(1): could include that all determinations made by adoption agencies with regard to children in care are subject to review.

Clause 12(4): could include the word `independent' alongside `organisation'.

Clause 14(1): could include provision for an individual to be able to put their case to the Minister.

Clause 16: could include specifically that the Minister may cause an inquiry into individual cases and overturn adoption agency decisions if necessary (this power already exists in intercountry adoption applications although there is no appeal mechanism for the applicant).

Clauses 53 to 62: could include a provision for arbitration and/or review on the withholding of information.