by Sophie Ayers
The subject of adoption is one of the most contentious issues within social work. It is crystalized in mystique due to the unspoken nature of care proceedings and the uncomfortable subject matter that leads to a care plan of adoption being proposed.
The Transparency Project has recently identified that local authorities do set adoption targets. They provide a detailed analysis of their findings and are not suggesting that social workers who propose plans of adoption are doing so to meet government targets.
However, there does appear be frustration regarding local authorities’ unwillingness to have a clear and frank discussion regarding why the targets are set.
I am concerned that some people’s interpretation of adoption targets reinforces the view that social workers hold infinite power when planning for a child’s permanence and that a form of social engineering is taking place.
Based on my own practice experience, I believe that the targets are in place to ensure that children who cannot return to the care of their birth family have the opportunity to exist in a permanent, secure setting and be part of a family without the potential instability of foster care.
Most members of the public could not begin to contemplate the complex situations that lead to a local authority issuing care proceedings and requesting that a child no longer resides with their birth family. Within every application to the court: clear, cohesive and evidence based assessments must be completed.
Confidentiality around decision making within the family courts is essential for the rights of a child. It is vital that a child retains anonymity to ensure their very personal information can be shared at a time that is right for their individual needs and also protect their right to a private and family life.
Even as an adult, the prospect of details relating to your personal life being shared in the media would fill most people with a sense of dread.
However, the need for confidentiality appears to have become interchangeable with the word ‘secrecy’. There continues to be countless headlines indicating that decision making within the family court is shrouded in secrecy to prevent justice.
I do not believe that secrecy indicates corruption or poor decisions being made.
Social workers are generally reluctant to discuss their role in the family court due to risk of hostility and abuse. Adoption and care proceedings are such emotive words that it is frightening to even discuss these issue in a public forum.
In addition, social workers are often restricted in the way in which they can express their views by the local authorities that they work for. I believe that these conditions lead to information being tightly controlled and the sense of secrecy and injustice exacerbated.
There are a number of public figures that are proponents of the ‘forced adoption” movement. It appears that supporters are vehemently opposed to the country’s use of adoption as a means of permanence.
The widely held view of this movement is that injustices occur on a frequent basis within the family court and corruption is taking place at the highest level.
The adoption process
Clear legislation is in place with regards to the decision making process in adoption. I have summarised the process in generic terms but all local authorities have idiosyncrasies in terms of practice:
- A decision is made by senior manager to make an application to court. The application will be considered in a legal planning meeting attended by senior manager manager, social worker and solicitor for the local authority. It often comes following a significant period of involvement through a child in need plan, child protection plan and the public law outline process. A family group conference should routinely be held prior to an application being made to the court to explore all family options for the children. The local authority has a duty to explore all family members and favour a family placement over foster care if this is the right option for the child.
- If a viable family member is identified through the family group conference process or other discussions a full viability and sometimes regulation 24 kinship foster carers assessment is completed. A kinship foster placement will enable a child to remain with their family, but their family carers will be supported by the local authority. This will be a short term family placement whilst the child’s permanence is determined.
- If a local authority is on the cusp of issuing proceedings, a Public Law Outline meeting will take place. The family will be provided with a formal letter prior to the meeting setting out why the local authority is concerned and what the family can do to reduce the concerns. The family will be invited to attend the meeting with a legal representative and public funding for legal representation is available for all families.
- If the local authority is planning to make an application to the court, it is usual for a meeting with parent’s legal representatives to take place so that they are aware of the local authority’s intentions. Sometimes it is not possible to hold a meeting to discuss the local authority’s intentions if an urgent matter arises such as serious concerns regarding non accidental injury or sexual abuse.
- If the matter is listed on a non urgent basis, parents will be served with the local authority’s evidence including a statement, care plan and any supporting documents prior to the hearing.
- Parents have the ability to contest the local authority’s plans at many junctures. This can be through their legal representatives or a contested hearing. In the contested hearing parents and other parties are entitled to cross examine professionals such as the social worker or guardian.
- Prior to the first hearing a guardian from Cafcass will be appointed. Cafcass states that “when a local authority applies to take a child into care, Cafcass’ job is to ensure that decisions are made in the child’s best interest. … The court will then usually request for Cafcass to become involved in the case. When working on care cases the Cafcass worker is known as a ‘children’s guardian”.
- It is expected that care proceedings should be concluded within 26 weeks. It is usual for the local authority to use ‘parallel planning’ during care proceedings. This means that the local authority must be open to a range of options for a child’s permanence including rehabilitation into a parent’s care; placement with a family member or adoption.
- At the first hearing a date for a case management hearing is set. Within the case management hearing a timetable will be drawn, identifying what evidence is required to determine the child’s permanence plan, whether independent professionals are required to assist the judiciary in making their final decision, when evidence should be filed to court and when the final hearing will take place.
- If there is an issue relating to the facts of a case such as an injury to a child a fact finding hearing will be scheduled. The burden is upon the local authority to evidence the findings that they seek. However, the ultimate decision regarding the facts is made by the judiciary.
- Throughout the court process, the local authority must continue to assess family members that have been identified. It is usual for viability assessments to be completed and then if the assessment is positive, a full special guardianship assessment of the family member will take place. Family members have the legal right to oppose recommendations by the local authority.
- If there are family members who are clearly able to respond appropriately to the child’s needs throughout their childhood and this is considered the best permanence option for the child, family placements will always be favoured.
- If no viable family placements have been identified, only then will the local authority look at a plan of adoption. The Re B-S children judgment made it exceptionally clear regarding the the situations when adoption can be considered. It stated that “severance of family ties inherent in an adoption without parental consent is an extremely draconian step and one that requires the highest level of evidence”.
- A plan of adoption cannot be considered prior to significant professional oversight within the local authority. A social will always be supervised. During each supervision session the child’s permanence plan will be considered. Only when a team manager agrees that adoption is appropriate will a discussion occur between the team manager and senior manager. A looked after child’s care plan is also overseen by an independent reviewing officer (IRO). Their views are established through a formal looked after review. Legal advice is also sought through the local authority’s own solicitor throughout the course of the proceedings to advise whether correct actions enshrined by the country’s law are being made.
- A child permanence report will be completed. This is an extensive, detailed document and must evidence that there really are no other options for the child. There must be evidence that every family member has been contacted and fairly considered to provide permanent care to the child. There must also be extensive analysis and discussion regarding parents’ ability to safely meet their children’s needs.
- An agency decision maker (usually an assistant director or head of service) will ratify the plan of adoption if appropriate. If the agency decision maker does not ratify the plan of adoption, the local authority is unable to propose a plan of adoption.
- The child’s social worker will provide a final care plan and final evidence document to the court. There are court formats which dictate to local authorities’ information that must be covered. Within this evidence there must be a clear balancing exercise demonstrated where all permanence options have been carefully considered.
- A final hearing will take place. Parents are entitled to robustly challenge the local authority’s evidence. Professionals and parents can face grueling cross examinations to ensure that the evidence is cohesive and sound. The judiciary takes into consideration both the written and oral evidence that they have heard.
- Prior to the final hearing, a child’s guardian will provide their own independent analysis of the situation in written form. A guardian does not always agree with the local authority’s care plan.
- At the final hearing, a judge or magistrates will make a decision about a child’s permanence. The judgement is detailed and provides clarity, detail and furious analysis as to why the decision has been reached. Contrary to popular belief it is not a forgone conclusion that the judiciary will endorse the local authority’s care plan.
- Parents have the opportunity to discuss with their legal representative whether there is a basis for appeal through a higher court if they believe that the law has not been followed correctly during care proceedings.
- If the plan for a child is for adoption, the local authority will have made an application for a care order and placement order. Parents do not lose their parental rights when a placement order is granted. However, it enables a child to be placed with prospective adopters even if parents do not agree. Once the placement order has been granted, the local authority can start the adoption family finding process for a child.
- When a potential match has been identified a ‘matching panel’ will be convened. This panel (members are from a variety of different backgrounds including people who have been adopted) considers whether the prospective adopters identified for the child are suitable and able to meet the child’s individual needs The prospective adopters will need to demonstrate that they understand a child need to understand their history and be aware of their birth family. Every child adopted is provided with a ‘lifestory book’ and ‘later in life letter’ which provides age appropriate information as to why they could not live with their birth family.
- Prospective adopters can only apply for an adoption order, 10 weeks after a child has been placed with them. Birth parents are notified of the prospective adopter’s application for an adoption order and can attend the hearing to oppose the making of the adoption order. If the adoption order is made, birth parents’ parents’ parental responsibility is withdrawn.
- Social workers do not receive financial renumeration or praise when a plan of adoption is proposed. It is simply awful to shatter the hopes and dreams of parents when you tell them that you do not believe that they can provide safe care to their child.
Somehow we need to find a way for honest discussions to take place regarding the process of adoption. I never want to see children’s lives being exposed within the press. However, I do believe that it is important to open a dialogue which provides illumination into this difficult area.
I believe that local authorities have a duty to start this discourse and enable the wider public to understand that social workers who propose adoption, do so on the basis of valid and clear evidence.
With this said, I am concerned that the sensationalist nature of some news outlets are not interested in understanding the nuances of the decision making in adoption. In addition, I believe that the subject matter is not accessible to most because it represents such a painful and uncomfortable area of life.
Most significantly, I believe that the government has a duty to become acquainted with the finely balanced decision making process relating to a child’s permanence. It is imperative that the government understands that adoption is not always the idealist nirvana that some believe it to be.
Sophie Ayers is a children’s social worker. She tweets @sophieayers1982.