Modern adoption is in crisis and we think it is time for legal reform to be considered, to support adoptive children who must re-enter care. Having an adult by a child’s side, looking out for the child, supporting the child and thinking of their future, when they may be feeling rejected and unable to cope with family life – this is what modern adoption should be about. Adoptive parents have years of parental knowledge when their children re-enter care – but can find that this knowledge is not valued and they are blamed for the problems and not treated with respect.
Adoptive parents whose children re enter care are heartbroken. They don’t want to give up on being parents. They love their children and made a lifelong commitment when they became adopters. But sometimes, most often in the years of adolescence, they cannot live with their children because risks are too great. We believe it is time to think about whether the two legal frameworks are really working for adoptive parents who are ‘parenting from a distance’ (the third legal framework of Wardship is very rarely used in adoption and we know of only one case). These frameworks are: Section 20, a voluntary order where parents retain parental responsibility and Section 47, which is a full Care Order where parental responsibility is shared (this is needed if secure accommodation is required).
Are these frameworks truly in the ‘best interests of the child’? Are they protecting adoptive children who must re-enter care?
With only 14 Local Authorities match funding per month since the £5k ASF cap, and more than 90 before this cap, it is clear that Local authorities are not prioritising adoption as they should. Once in care the costs escalate greatly (residential care, often needed for adopted children re entering care, costs nearer to £5k per week than £5k per annum). But once in care again adoptive children can access the sort of support that parents struggled to achieve, in vain, for years.
Is this right that children and young people must potentially lose their family to achieve the care they need?
Perhaps it is time to do adoption differently. It should be noted that these same issues affect many birth families where the child has disability needs, especially less visible disabilities.
Here we present two ‘this should never happen’ adoption cases, which should surely raise serious concerns for legislators and policymakers. The first case was a parent seeking a Section 47 Care Order to protect her child from being targeted by drug gangs through secure accommodation. The second was a single mother whose disabled child was removed when she could not access respite – his disabilities were not recognised by the Local Authority so her son was not viewed as a Child in Need. Anxiety related school refusal on the part of her son led to a Section 47 Care Order as her child was deemed ‘beyond parental control’. In both cases the help seeking mothers were made to feel failures by Local Authorities in harrowing court proceedings. In the second case the mother was depicted as ‘difficult’ to work with and her child was informed he could not come home for this reason. The Judge criticised the Local Authority for doing this. In both cases there was no dispute between parties about the final outcome of the cases – so these cases cannot be learned from – because there is no judgement to be published. Other Local Authorities; Regionalisation Boards; the Adoption leadership Board, and other Courts cannot learn about these cases.
Adoptive mother Claire ‘Parents from a Distance’, after a Section 47 Care Order was made, at her request. This outcome was wanted by both adoptive parents so that their 15 year old son, who had gone missing on a number occasions, could go into secure accommodation and be kept safe. The authority had not wanted to spend money on secure accommodation and were instead willing to see the child, who faced a three year custodial sentence, become criminalised. In this case it was the parents who sought the Care Order, and the Local Authority accepted that the child, who was targeted by violent drug gangs in residential care, was beyond their control. With agreement between parties reached in court no adjudication was required – so the negligence and failures of the local authority responsible will not be a matter of public record. The family continues to suffer the consequences of the help they had sought for years not being provided in a timely and effective manner. The child frequently calls his adoptive mother for connection and comfort, but Social Care tell her that he wants nothing to do with her,
Single adoptive mother Megan, battled for help and understanding from professionals for years before ending up in court, where she faced allegations of child abuse – on the basis of what she had reported to agencies by way of help seeking; mental illness – a personality disorder was specified but Megan has no history of mental illness, and substance abuse – Megan worked in drug and alcohol projects as a therapy provider for 10 years before adopting.. Megan is successfully and very happily reunified with her son for a year, after 3.5 years of separation, and numerous court proceedings – where legal aid restrictions meant she was unable to access legal help. No help is yet forthcoming from the Local Authority following reunification and an application for the Supervision Order the Authority was given to be discharged, was successful. It is considered extremely regrettable by Adopters Together that the Adoption Support Fund has accepted an assessment done without Megan’s or her son’s involvement or consent, instead of the assessment conducted for court by jointly instructed experts.
Megan was not informed on two occasions that her child had tried to take his own life in care by Social Care. One occasion occurred in foster care. The foster carer was not properly informed about her son’s supervision and support needs. Her son was subject to a police investigation at one stage. The second occasion occurred when her son lived in a children’s home. The home manager depicted her son as ‘bright and happy’ and when Megan tried, in vain to, to point out he was far from well. The incident was described as ‘serious self harm’ rather than a suicide attempt, and Megan only learned about it second hand some time later, through being copied into a letter to the GP by a CAMHS psychiatrist. At this juncture, the social worker reprimanded Megan for allowing her child to speak of his depression and despair in the contact sessions and said the contact would be reviewed if this continued. Megan had asked her son to tell his therapist he was suicidal – and it was the therapist’s raising of concerns that triggered a CAMHS psychiatrist visit – after Megan was ignored for months.
During his 3.5 years in care her son had six different allocated social workers and three different service managers. It seemed that none of these professionals had ever achieved a successful adoption reunification. The local authority were quick to remove but provided no whole family support once the removal had happened. With ‘no intention to reunify’, or even discussion about how to achieve reunification possible, Megan could not access the Adoption Support Fund to achieve appropriate therapy to meet her son’s needs as an adopted child. Megan was made to feel like a failed care option by the Local Authority whose negligence and misunderstanding had led to care proceedings, instead of help.
A European Council report on Social Services in Europe (Doc. 13730, 13 March 2015), outlined how the application and practice of concept of ‘the best interests of the child’ is one of the most widely abused by governments. Observations were made that the UK has by far the largest number of consensual adoptions (in 2013 there were 3020 non consensual adoptions in the UK), and concerns were raised by the author of the report, who visited the UK, about our overstretched services: “A persistent problem in all countries I visited – and, I assume, in most, if not all member States – seems to be case overload. For example, one social worker in England has between 16 to 45 families to assess at any one time depending on the area. The pay structure in England also does not encourage social workers to stay on the job, so that many social services are understaffed or staffed with short-term agency staff to a significant degree. This has an effect on the system: It appears that threshold levels at which children are deemed to be at risk of significant harm can also vary based on workload and staff shortages in the child protection services”.
We believe that austerity is putting professionals under too much pressure. When they fail our children we can find ourselves viewed and treated as part of the problem instead of part of the solution – perhaps, in part, because of the desire to avoid the sort of scrutiny and calling to account that a loving parent will fight for. We see harm being done, and our children suffer, but with current legislation we feel powerless to help them. This sort of scenario puts enormous strain on a child and family, and we think it is time to develop more supportive legal frameworks that work better for our families, when our children re-enter care