I attended the FJC debate at the Strand Palace hotel on November 24th. I will write a longer article for Jordans Family Law, to do justice to the full range of opinions expressed, but I will set out the highlights here for those who I know were keen to come, but couldn’t make it.
The debate was chaired by Sir James Munby, the President of the Family Division. Speaking for the motion were journalist Louise Tickle and comparative lawyer Dr Claire Fenton-Glynn; opposing the motion were Sir Martin Narey and Professor Julie Selwyn of the University of Bristol.
The Family Justice Council was established in March 2002; its primary role is to promote an interdisciplinary approach to family justice and to monitor the system. It provides guidance and best practice documents and responds to government consultation papers. Sir James Munby opened by recognising that this was a more than usually provocative topic to get an important debate going.
Louise Tickle spoke about how reporting family cases is the hardest work she has ever done, causing her sleepness nights as she was well aware how important it was to represent people’s views accurately. When cases went wrong the harm they caused went far beyond the immediate family but caused horror and distrust for all parents. The Hampshire case which has been widely discussed on the internet was a clear example of that. If social workers are prepared to fabricate evidence and lie, who can we trust.
Rates of child abuse in the UK are comparatively low – we are the 3rd or 4th lowest of 21 European countries – and the majority of parents in care proceedings are damaged, frightened people who often had appalling childhoods themselves. We could not frame this debate in terms of ‘monster parents’.
The media are picking up on the extensive human fall out of adoption without consent. It seems that the orthodoxy in this country is that ‘forced adoption’ has been actively promoted in past 15 years. It is scarey to challenge that but we have to ask ourselves as a society what do we value – society is human communities, made up of families. What costs are we prepared to ask others to bear to keep children safe? Should this really be at any cost. What do we believe about identity and relationships with siblings and extended family?
Louise Tickle’s conclusion was in effect that keeping children safe is a goal, not a value. We can keep children safe by less drastic means than adoption without consent. In Holland only 28 children adopted in one year; they have found other ways to keep children safe. She was not arguing that children should never be removed and not arguing for parents’ rights – but arguing from the perspective – what kind of society should we aim to be.
We can’t pretend to be anything other than we are. We are the child of that mother and that father. Adoption can cause psychological violence to our sense of self. She quoted Lucy Reed at Pink Tape that the drive for more adoptions was ‘legally wrong, morally bankrupt, economically stupid and socially catastrophic’
Louise concluded by saying:
Children suffering should have a chance to live with someone else. It may be difficult if sustaining legal links with birth family. But why can’t we promote the concept of more than one parent? This more difficult path for professionals is better one to tread.
Sir Martin Narey agreed that he had never met a ‘monster parent’ but it had to be accepted that some parents can’t parent decently or satisfactorily. He became more and more alarmed that previous reluctance to intervene meant we returned children to neglectful homes. The research of Professor Elaine Farmer – 138 children in care and returned home. 2 years later 59% had been abused or neglected once again. I reminded ministers that about 66K care population was not a record number. In 1981 92K in care more than a third higher. Has quality of parenting so improved?
People rejected adoption because they believed that 25% broke down but Professor Selwyn’s research says its only 3%. Adoptions were further held back because of restrictive view of matching, freezing white adopters out of even applying to adopt. Insanity of our approach re black or EM children. Condemned to wait in care a year longer than white children because of conviction that transracial adoptions would break down, for which no evidence.
Most of us would accept that there are children who have to be removed from parents and can’t go home. We could look at open adoptions but before doing that they will need to understand the evidence on contact. It can be good, but hugely damaging.
Sir Martin Narey pointed out that the true number of non consensual adoptions was about 2,500 per year. He did not believe that adoption was suitable for all children – this was ‘nonsense’. But more children should be adopted; it offers more certainty than other options.
There should be no targets for adoption and I regret some of the rhetoric. But actually I have seen in politicians … never seen any demonstration they think adoption is the only answer. They want to see more adoptions. Should absolutely be no targets for adoption. But its unique permanence and helping children catch up with peers, if we are really serious about the primacy of the interest of the child and really serious about taking dutiful approach to rescue children from damage and neglect we need to ensure that as many children as require it get the chance to transform their life.
Dr Fenton Glynn wanted to look at three issues: how to balance the conflict between children’s rights and parents’ issues; is adoption the best option; and who is recognised as a parent and when is their consent needed?
She pointed out that the question who must consent to adoption is crucial for child and that unmarried fathers are often deprived of the ability to have a say about the adoption of their child. This relies on outdated assumptions relating to unmarried fathers. It assumes mothers are the primary carers and fathers play little or no role and don’t deserve to. Having the right to consent is only effective when you are recognised as a parent in the first place.
Dr Claire Fenton-Glynn’s conclusion was that to talk about adoption without parental consent being wrong in principle isn’t just concerned with when we dispense with consent. It goes to heart of how we recognise someone as a parent. We have to look at whole system. Take child centred approach. Right to identity and gender equality. Fathers are of equal value and importance.
Professor Julie Selwyn spoke about her research findings and how the focus should be on children and their outcomes. The debate so far had been about adults and parents.
What we needed to bear in mind is that being adopted is the children’s best chance for developmental recovery after abuse and neglect in birth families. There is a great deal of evidence to support that.
There is a significant proportion of parents who abandon their children and no longer want a relationship with them. Maltreated children find world a frightening place. On entering care they have little language, don’t know how to play, hyper vigilant. Trouble making friends. Disrupts every area. And continues into adulthood – look at the Adverse Childhood Experiences studies in the US.
Need sensitive parents and carers to put themselves in child’s shoes. Stress response is partly believed to be responsible for disruptions in development. Need to be committed to child’s welfare in the long term. Therefore, adoptive parents need full parental responsibility. Why should these very vulnerable children get less than their welfare demands?
Foster care won’t do. Primary reason is lack of stability. They need to feel secure. Bowlby – it is the world in feeling not as it is. Physical and emotional security. 1 in 4 experience 2 or more moves every year. Every group of care leavers will tell you about their disrupted lives. Children lose sense of who they are. Their possessions. Their anecdotes. Sense of identity….
… Children bear the brunt of abuse and neglect. Children have a right to a family life and be free of abuse and neglect. The Children Act 1989 was a ground breaking shift from ‘owning children’ to thinking about responsibilities. The commitment that adoptive parents make, their ability through adoption order to act as parents NOT carers. Relationship that for vast majority lasts for life makes a difference. Nothing else will do for maltreated children. Its not forced adoption but protective adoption.
QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS then followed….