A recent case from the Court of Appeal has raised a number of concerns that we feel need to be thought about in the context of modern adoption/special guardianship and the regulatory and policy infrastructure that currently supports us as families – namely Sections 20 and 31 of the Children Act 1989 and the threshold of Beyond Parental Control.
The case of Re P (A Child) concerns an adoptive family (father, mother and two sisters T and X), where the eldest girl, T, made allegations of sexual abuse about her adoptive father in August 2014. These allegations came when T returned to live with her family, after a respite break during May 2014, where T was cared for by foster carers, and were made, initially, to a CAMHS professional. There was no police prosecution. Care proceedings, filed in April 2016, on the basis of the allegations, led to a fully contested 12 day hearing and resulted in a Care Order on the basis of T meeting the threshold of ‘Beyond Parental Control’. The appeal was made, not to challenge the threshold for the Care Order, but because of the Judge’s failings in respect of the findings of fact (paragraph 28). All parties were in agreement that the appeal must be allowed.
The learned Judge who made the initial judgment appears to have been overstretched in her workload, which is not altogether surprising given the great increases we have seen in cases coming to court in recent years, including, or so we imagine, adoption cases, in regards to Section 31 Care Orders, sought on the basis of the threshold of ‘Beyond Parental Control’.
The Court of Appeal ruled that the findings of fact were to be disregarded and that parents were to be treated by all agencies who have dealings with them or X as if allegations were never made. The Court of Appeal offered an apology to the family (paragraph 41): “a formal apology is owed to all those who have been adversely affected by the failure of the Family Justice system to produce an adequate and supportable determination of the important factual allegations in this case. In particular, such an apology is owed to T, her father and her mother and her younger sister X, whose own everyday life has been adversely affected as a result of professionals justifiably putting in place an intrusive regime to protect her from her father as a result of the statement of the Judge’s conclusions 16 months ago”
Concerns raised for Adoptive and Special Guardianship families
Apologies have been given for the failings of the court and judicial processes in this case, and these matters are not the issues that concern us, for as is pointed out, these failings were a rare occurrence (paragraph 42). What concerns us is that allegations against parents that result from trauma and early life abuse are relatively common in adoption for reasons that are described below, yet there often does not seem to be the sort of expertise and skill amongst the statutory professionals and agencies that work with us, or the motivation, to help us move past them, as a family.
We are not suggesting that T’s very serious allegations should be disregarded or dismissed, or that she and her sister X should be exposed to risk of harm. Far from it. But we would like consideration to be given that the approach taken, especially when the Family Court becomes involved, can be too much of a sledghammer, and it can, because of this, result in collateral damage. It can result in broken families; broken relationships with our children, and broken trust – trust that we have worked hard to gain over many years with our children, whose trust was shattered long before we entered their lives.
Post adoption support is effectively a post code lottery in England which now has a £21 million Adoption Support Fund to cover all adopted and special guardianship children, with the amount per child capped at £5k. Should further monies be required, then LAs must provide match funding – but many LAs provide none. This means the quality of support adoptive and special guardianship children receive, and availability of support, will depend on where the child lives and upon the attitudes and expertise of the professionals that provide support, which can be highly variable in our experience. When understanding is poor, and knowledge of trauma and adoption issues is limited, then our children and families are left at considerable risk. Harm is done when we are supported by professionals who do not sufficiently understand the impact of trauma on family life – but this harm is rarely recognised and goes on, unchecked, because the ‘opinions’ of professionals are not something we can easily challenge. Yet a lack of timely or effective support can mean we are often living on the verge of a crisis or surviving the aftermath of one. This is when we find ourselves confronted with court – at crisis point, or after a care separation has ensued following a crisis. Instead of the assistance we hoped to achieve we end up, especially in court, being viewed through the ‘prism of risk’ (see BASW enquiry), and as potential adversaries to our children. If a Section 31 Care Order is given this situation, of us being viewed as a potential danger, or ‘risk of serious harm’ to our child, will continue until adulthood, which makes it very hard for us to support them in the care system and beyond, when they may badly need our help, love and support. What they learn about us is filtered through professionals and carers that have partial or limited knowledge. Our children can so easily be turned against us by the State, and by professionals that imagine only the worst, and blind themselves and others to the context of our relational difficulties with our children, with very little we can do about this. Our grandchildren may never know us because the approach is not sufficiently holistic, trauma aware, or family centred – and all the good we have tried to do can be undone – by those we sought help from. The judgmental approach taken by the State – with court instead of support – has arguably led to fear of help seeking on the part of adopters and to an even greater extent, special guardians, whose journey to the Special Guardian Order being made may begin with court involvement. See page 47 of our Interim Report on Adopter and Special Guardian stress and wellbeing:
From our perspective, the threshold of ‘Beyond Parental Control’ is deeply problematic for our children, who need to try to control parents and caregivers in order to feel safe – this is the legacy of their past, for which we were supposed to be part of the solution.
The nature of care proceedings means that parents and children are viewed as potential adversaries. Entrenched polarised positions are taken against parents by LAs, and often also Cafcass Guardians, who represent the child.
Where does this leave adopters and special guardians in cases of allegations like this one, which may or may not be false?
Those who work with childhood trauma will appreciate that:
a) Changes in care are destabilising for our children. This makes respite problematic in ways that seem rarely to be considered. Yet we do need a break from the intensity of family life or we may crack under the strain – especially single adopters, with single parents on the increase. Couples do not necessarily have it easier as a traumatised child with Attachment Disorder may try to split their parents – to try to feel safe.
b) Trauma impacts on a child’s perception of time – that is to say that trauma is experienced in the present, regardless of when it happened. The overwhelm of trauma, when it is evoked by triggers, which may be myriad and unknown, is huge, and it can easily distort perceptions in the present – especially with a fragile young mind.
c) There may be confusion on the part of a traumatised child about the past and the present, and about birth parents and parents or carers that take on a parental role. We can, as parents, find ourselves viewed as if it is us that cause the abuse, and there can be sibling trauma bonds – for reasons explained above. Professionals who do not support a child to separate the past from the present, and do not properly support parents and brothers and sisters, do not serve the child’s best interests – no matter where the child lives.
d) Children and parents may not be able to live together safely, especially during the teenage years, because of the child’s problems with emotional dysregulation, when the child has many triggers and struggles to feel safe (because of their past). Home is a child’s safe place, and it is often in the family home that problems that occur outside the home, at school or in respite care for example, get played out.
It is the adoptive parents and siblings in the adoptive family who will bear the brunt of our child’s trauma, not the professionals who only see a snapshot and may not work dyadically, supporting the relationship between parent and child and the child’s attachment – they may only work with the child, especially after a Section 31 Care Order is made. As far as we are aware, no models for the rehabilitation of adopted children with their families exist. The making of a Care Order can see the adoptive parents treated like a failed care option and our children never receiving the help they needed to heal during their childhood years – because the fault was considered to lay with our poor capacity to parent and care. This approach helps no adopted child.
Views expressed in our discussion forum about this case were that it illustrated how a child’s future and family might actually be destroyed because of the complexity of issues pertaining to adoption. So often we find that our families do not survive the teenage years without some sort of collateral damage resulting from our child’s early life trauma and poor mental health as a result of these early life experiences. We emphasis again: this case is not unusual in terms of the issues raised, which affect so many adoptive and special guardianship children and families.
Views were also expressed by our members that the ‘Beyond Parental Control’ Judgment, and the Judgment given that parents should be treated as parents against whom no allegation has been made, do not sit together well. We suspect that the family would be fortunate indeed if the Local Authority do not use the Section 31 Care Order and court hearings as negative facts against them. This will not help T or her younger sister X, in the case above.
Somehow we need, as families, to come through such difficult times as when a child re-enters care and our children must, sadly, live apart from their family but the system and current legal frameworks do not support our children or us, in this stressful scenario. The permanence of adoption is thus undermined.
How can it be in the ‘best interests’ of any child that they must negotiate the tumultuous years of adolescence and challenges of young adulthood without any family to provide a buffer of unconditional love?
How is it in the ‘best interests’ of our children that adopters or special guardians are viewed as a threat or serious ‘risk of harm’ on the basis of them being ‘Beyond Parental Control’, when our children have difficulties to feel safe and trust?
Surely our troubled children will benefit greatly from an appreciation that they are loved and cared about unconditionally by their parents/guardian and their family in the emotionally fraught scenario that living together is just not possible?
Please sign our petition. Please share it widely.
Petition to Government
Changes to Children Act 1989
Urgent action is required to give more rights & protection to parents/carers & also vulnerable children in care
Sections 20 & 31 of Children Act are currently unworkable, resulting in a care crisis. We call on government to take urgent action to make changes to legislation & guidance to protect the parenting/caring role from a distance by:
A more humane ethical family centred approach where birth & adoptive parents & special guardians can be seen as part of the solution & not part of the problem, in striving to do their best caring for their children.
Safeguarding vulnerable children with new legislation & legal frameworks that also supports parents/carers when children are ‘beyond parental control’ which may be related to poor mental health, disabilities, early life trauma, abuse or neglect.