Narey: Contact with birth parents harms children too often

The government is seeking views on contact arrangements for children in care and the placing of sibling groups for adoption

Looked-after and adopted children are too often harmed by contact with their birth parents, according to the government’s adoption adviser Martin Narey.

Narey said he is concerned that contact, although well intentioned, too often harms children and should happen “much less frequently” once a placement order has been made.

“Most children who come into care enter for short periods and are soon reunited with their families,” Narey said. “I am not remotely suggesting that contact should not take place in these circumstances. Even when children are in care for longer periods, and before it is clear adoption is the right path, I expect contact to be the norm.”

“But I do argue that such contact should be agreed only when it is in the best interests of the child. The current legislative presumption in favour of contact, and which sometimes leads to contact being seen as inevitable, needs re-examination.”

Consultation papers

His research has informed a consultation on the subject, launched today along with a consultation on the placing of sibling groups for adoption. Both consultations will run until August 31 and proposed action will be outlined in the autumn.

The government is seeking views on whether the presumption in favour of contact should be rebalanced and, similarly, whether the current policy that dictates brothers and sisters should be adopted together needs to be questioned.

Narey said: “Contact should happen only when it is, demonstrably, in the child’s interests. And after adoption, birth family contact, including letterbox contact, should only take place when the adoptive parents are satisfied that it continues to be in the interests of their child.

“Although the legal position on this is clear I hear from too many adopters who feel informally bound to allow contact despite their grave reservations.”

Narey said he had also become troubled “by the extent to which the strong presumption that sibling groups are kept intact may disadvantage children”.

More needs to be done to recruit adopters who will take on siblings, but this alone will not close the “immense” gap between siblings in care and willing adopters, he said.

Support for social workers

Siblings, who are often older and have more complex needs, wait on average a year longer to secure an adoptive family than individual children.

Social workers need more support to strike an appropriate balance between the advantages of placing siblings together and the disadvantages of any delay or negative impacts of a sibling placement, Narey said.

“Sibling relationships are important and I am not suggesting that we should not do what we can to keep siblings together,” he said. “But the presumption to keep siblings together needs to be tested in each instance and we need to be certain that we do not relegate the interests of one sibling to the interests of another.”

He conceded both subjects are “difficult and emotive” and said he hopes everyone involved in adoption will respond to the consultation papers. Responses should be sent to by Friday 31 August.

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