The prime minister has set out his view of the Catholic position on the Equality Act but social care bodies have been more reluctant to speak out. Helen McCormack and Derren Hayes report
If there is one thing that all sides agree on in the row over the threatened closure of Catholic adoption agencies it is the valuable contribution its workers have made to the sector.
The agencies make up a significant section of the voluntary adoption agencies market, finding homes for about 200 children in England and Wales last year, 4 per cent of overall placements, and including one-third of those children falling into the hard to place category.
At present the agencies are able to refer gay couples to other adoption agencies. But the Equality Act, which comes into effect in April and will outlaw discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities and services on the basis of sexual orientation, will make it illegal for agencies to refuse to place children with gay couples.
The ultimatum issued by Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Birmingham and the Catholic church’s spokesperson on child policy, that Catholic adoption agencies should be given an exemption from the Act has prompted furious debate over how children and families will be affected.
This week prime minister Tony Blair said that there would be no exemption to the new laws for Catholic adoption agencies. But he has given the bodies a transition period to get ready for the changes which will not come fully into force until the end of 2008 for existing agencies.
The social care sector has hesitated over expressing strong support for either side of the debate.
All the charities and agencies contacted by Community Care emphasised the importance of placing the welfare of the child first.
But the British Association of Social Workers has a more robust position. Chair of the standards and ethics board Felicity Collier, says it is “wrong” to allow exemptions and points to the apparent anomalies in the Catholic position, whereby single gay adopters, providing they are not sexually active, are acceptable, but an established gay couple are not.
Collier, who weathered the storm as chief executive of the British Association of Adoption and Fostering (Baaf) during the passing of equal rights for gay couples to adopt in 2002, stresses her views have no connection to those of Baaf.
When the story broke, Baaf, which counts the Catholic agencies among its membership, sounded a note of caution, saying there were “many examples” of successful adoptions by gay couples, and that it would be “concerned” if the issue caused the agencies to close.
But as opposition to the Catholic agencies’ stance has gathered pace, Baaf has strengthened its position, saying that gay couples made a “vital” contribution to the pool of adopters which still needs widening.
David Holmes, chief executive of Baaf, says there should not be any sudden “overnight” closures of agencies come April. “A lot of people are going to be affected and it is really important to think through the consequences so that the policy can be implemented smoothly,” he says.
Jonathan Ewen, Barnardo’s lead on adoption, says the closure of any agencies would be a “great shame” and would create a gap, something “that the system can ill afford”. No Catholic agency Community Care contacted would discuss how likely closures would be.
Several charities we approached were prescriptive about the areas of the debate they would discuss, while The Children’s Society would not discuss the issue at all. One charity voiced a fear of creating divisions among voluntary agencies at a time when they are coming together to lobby on removing obstacles to relieve a logjam in placements, reported this week to be affecting up to 1,500 children (see “Level playing field?”, above).
North of the border
The storm has made its way across the border to Scotland. The Adoption and Children (Scotland) Act, passed last year, gives Catholic agencies the right to refer homosexual couples to other agencies, but this would be overridden by the Equality Act.
There are only three independent adoption agencies operating in Scotland, two of which – St Margaret’s Children’s Society and St Andrew’s Children’s Society – are Catholic. The two agencies are thought to have placed around 40 children last year – 10 per cent of overall placements.
Leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland Archbishop Mario Conti has written to the prime minister warning him of the difficulties the legislation would place on Catholic adoption agencies and citing verbal pledges from Scottish ministers that they would not be forced to place children with same-sex couples.
But there is some hope that solutions for the agencies might yet be reached. Maureen McEvoy, chair of St Andrew’s management committee has not ruled out continuing to place children under the new laws, but says the decision over which direction to take was being given “very serious” consideration.
Barbara Hudson, director of Baaf Scotland, says there is support for the phased transition announced by Blair, adding: “I hope that rather than shutting up shop we want to find a way through so that they can meet the spirit of the legislation.”
Anthony Douglas, chief executive of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, says that while gay adoption rights have monopolised the debate so far, a wider issue yet to be addressed is the way in which the Equality Act will affect faith-based family support services. He adds that a number of such groups would “struggle” to implement the legislation.
Level playing field?
“Misconception” over cost of placing children with voluntary sector agencies hamstring bid to find families
Community Care has been told that a major report commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills and due to be published soon has found that up to 40 per cent of looked-after children in England who are being considered for adoption have not been placed.
A source who has seen a draft version of the report claims the failure to place children is partly because of a “misconception” that voluntary adoption agencies are a more expensive option than using in-house services.
They say the report sets out how authorities assess the cost of placement on the number of social workers’ hours required to work on a placement, but are not obliged to take into account all the other costs which are incurred before the social worker can do their job. However, voluntary agencies have to show the total costs, but are then not being used because they are considered too expensive.
The draft report was finalised in October. Although it is not clear how many councils it was based on, it is understood that the publication has been delayed to allow councils to respond to its findings. The DfES says it will be publishing the report “within weeks”.
Ewen says the problem is a concern for Barnardo’s.
“It may not be intentional but the result is that agencies who could help with placing a child are not, and in the meantime the child who could be placed with a family remains in care,” he adds.
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