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FACE THE FACTS
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Face the Facts
Transcript : Face the Facts - 24 August 2007
FACE THE FACTS

Forced Adoptions

Presenter: John Waite

TRANSMISSION: Friday 24th August 2007 1230-1300 BBC RADIO 4
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Waite
This week we investigate so called "forced adoptions" - part of the child protection system that exists for all the right reasons. But one that's having all the wrong results according to parents who say their children have been taken from them unjustly.

Joy
It's knocked me for six. I don't know what to do anymore. I know I've got to fight for her but it's scaring me because I know if she gets adopted that's it, that's the end, until she comes to find us.

Chris
I spend all my life thinking about what they're doing where they are, what they're up to, what their favourite colour is, favourite TV programme, what they're into, what they like, everyday and I wonder what's going through their mind - what they're thinking about. And I hope that one day they will come and find me but I have no guarantees on that.

Waite
Joy and Chris - two parents - one of whom is likely to lose her child, the other whose children have already been forcibly adopted. When the state intervenes in family life and removes children thought to be at risk of harm.

Changes to adoption policies were first introduced in 2000. There were concerns that children were languishing in care for too long, and with a shortage of babies, older children, who are less appealing to adopters, were remaining stuck in the system. Tony Blair himself chaired the review. He had a personal interest as his father, Leo, was an adopted child.

And Alan Milburn, the then health secretary, announced the changes to the Commons in December that year.

Milburn speaking in Parliament
The White Paper - this forth sets a new national target to deliver a minimum 40% increase in lasting adoptions by the year 2005. Although I hope that the measures I've outlined today will help us achieve a 50% increase over that period.

Waite
And speeding up adoptions and achieving adoption targets came coupled with financial incentives. Currently an English local authority that chooses to sign up could benefit from payments of more than £2 million. But, right from the start, the idea of adoption "targets" - though undoubtedly well intentioned - caused some unease. With the Local Government Association, for example, warning:

Local Government Association warning
There are real concerns about targets which may rush agencies into placing children for adoption when the best plan, in accordance with the wishes of the child, may be to work with the birth family to enable them to care for their child.

Waite
A warning that's turned out to be true, according to parents, even some social workers and campaigners like Jean Robinson from the Association for Improvements in Maternity Services, AIMS.

Robinson
The government set a dangerously simplistic target. This resulted in social workers targeting not the children who were already in care but babies which are the easiest most desirable fodder for adoption.

Waite
So how does the adoption process work? Adoptions where parents decide that they cannot look after their child are straightforward, but it's when parents contest an adoption recommended by the authorities that problems can arise. If social workers suspect a child is being abused, or is at some risk of harm from its parents, either now or in the future, they begin an assessment process to scrutinise the family. If there's thought to be an imminent risk, an emergency or interim care order is sought, and a child can be removed from the family home while an investigation takes place. Once it gets to this stage, the family courts are involved, as well as the Child and Family Court Advisory and Support Service which appoints a guardian for the child.

Social workers dealing with a case have to assess the family, the possible problems and whether it is suitable for a child to remain with its parents. And once an investigation has passed the four months stage, so-called "twin tracking" takes place. Where a plan is put together for a child to return home - while a second plan is drawn up for if the child stays in care.

John and Joy, not their real names, are parents who are experiencing the reality of twin tracking. Two years ago their newborn baby was taken into care by social services, and even though they are still trying to prove that they are fit parents, the twin track of the adoption process to find their child new parents is also well under way.

Joy told me what happened the day her baby was taken.

Joy
There was a knock on the door and it was two policemen and two social workers. They came in, held me back, took my daughter away in her baby cot and that was it.

Waite
By law, Joy cannot see her child now, and last had contact last November. But she sees photographs of her daughter, with her Christian name clearly displayed, all the time - in publications advertising her for adoptive parents.

Joy
Seeing a child on the internet or in an adoption magazine is very distressing because you know that's your child and that child is going to be parented by somebody else. Total strangers. And you never get to see the child because they stop contact altogether.

Waite
Everyone is agreed that Joy, as a parent, has done nothing wrong. But her baby was taken away from her because of something that John, the man she married, may have done in the past when he came to the attention of child protection officials in his previous marriage.

John
Ten years ago I had a baby daughter, she was fine, two years later we had a son, eight weeks old he started fitting and at the time I had to go to work but by the time I got to work somebody had already phoned work and said that my son's in hospital and put him on a life support machine. They got him stabilise after a few weeks and then a doctor comes into the room and says it's shaken baby syndrome.

Waite
And had you shaken your son?

John
No I hadn't.

Waite
Had your wife shaken your son?

John
No, no. None of us have ever been charged for we've never done anything.

Waite
John and his first wife were investigated by social services, and court proceedings took place to decide whether they were indeed guilty of harming their son.

John
In the final hearing they said that me or my ex-wife were guilty of shaking our son so violently to cause him brain damage.

Waite
And that you have always denied?

John
Well I've never done it but the social services want me to - they say it would look better if I admit to it but how can you admit to something you've never done?

Waite
Did they take that baby of yours away?

John
No, he was returned home - unsupervised, no interference - with the full knowledge of social services.

Waite
So now we have a situation where an incident occurred, still not completely explained, but in the past and no direct action was taken - no child of yours was removed from your care - but you have another child with a new wife and that's the child that is removed even though there's no evidence whatsoever that there was any harm done to it?

John
Absolutely.

Waite
Cases where the system is removing children rather than supporting parents worry Jean Robinson from AIMS. She recalls one case involving a mother with severe postnatal depression. She'd brought up her other children with absolutely no problems, but, because of her depression, her new baby had been placed with foster parents - and she was warned that she may well lose her.

Robinson
I was actually with her when the social worker said your baby is doing very well with the foster carers, they want to adopt it, unless you are better in two months we shall seriously be putting it up for adoption. We got the mother into a mother and baby unit where she could be with her baby while she got better. The social worker fought right up to the steps of the court against her going. That baby was booked for adoption.

Waite
And it does seem to be that more babies are being brought into the adoption system, when in fact adoption targets were aimed at older children or those already in the care system. Figures show that, for the over sevens, adoption has decreased or remained static, while the number of babies and younger children being taken into care has been rising. In the mid 1990's around 500 babies under one month old were being taken into care and then adopted every year. Latest figures show this has increased to 1300. While the number of children under the age of one year, taken from their families on the grounds of alleged abuse or neglect, has also more than doubled - from 1,300 10 years ago to 2,800 last year.

So are more children being abused by their parents; are we simply more vigilant, or could it be - as Jean Robinson believes - that all too many babies are being wrongly removed?

Robinson
We have had well over a hundred cases. We are getting women coming to us who are pregnant and already fear that their babies will be taken for adoption. Women who are threatened with having their babies taken. Women whose babies have been taken into care and are put on a fast adoption track.

Waite
So fast, at times, that a baby has barely been born before it's removed by the authorities. That's what happened to Amanda, again not her real name, who was of interest to social services because she has older children who've been in the care system. But, she says, nothing prepared her for the trauma of what happened when she was in hospital in Scotland about to deliver her latest child.

Amanda
Just as I was about to give birth to my child and her head was just about to come out when the sheriff officers and the social worker walked into the birthing suite, the doctor took the baby. I tried to get up but I was bleeding. I remember him putting his hand on me and trying to push me back down because he said that the placenta hadn't been delivered yet. And they just took the baby and it was very, very, very quick. I just felt like I wanted to die really.

Waite
Amanda, eventually, had her baby returned to her and received apologies from the authorities. But it took more than six months. Her story yet another example, according to its critics, of the errors that can occur with an adoption system that now places so much emphasis on speed and targets.

Critics like "James", a former social work manager, whose career has been in child protection for the last 25 years. But who resigned last year. In his words - voiced by an actor - not only because the system is wrong, but so - all too often - is the lack of proper training in assessing family behaviour among some of the social workers who have to implement that system.

James
What you are going to get inevitably are situations where the social worker goes out, sees what's happening misinterprets it, writes the report accordingly, carry out assessments accordingly and you have a family that's presented in a skewed manner. And if the child is removed it becomes far more likely that the child could be freed for adoption than if the child had been allowed to remain in the family home.

Waite
Jean Robinson agrees. She's seen at first hand many social work assessments, she says, that were far from accurate.

Robinson
The most shocking thing to me is to see the reports of meetings in a mother's home, at which I was present, or review meetings in a local authority at which I was present and then wonder were we in the same place at the same time? And then I realised how inaccurate and in some cases dishonest is the information that the family court is seeing and which forms the basis of these absolutely draconian decisions.

Waite
"Draconian" because, once adoption proceedings have started, it can prove extremely difficult for the small number of parents who are falsely accused to stop the process.
Parents like "Sue". Her baby had been vomiting and losing weight. So, of course, she took her to hospital for tests. Where, unbeknownst to her, a doctor became suspicious. So, instead of receiving the test results, Sue received a call from the authorities.

Sue
This doctor had been in contact with them and told them that there was no medical reason for my daughter's weight loss and he was very concerned and he wanted them to look into it. They sought an interim care order, we had to go to court and they said they were concerned for her health, they didn't want her discharged back to my care until they'd investigated her weight loss. Obviously they believed the doctor, they didn't believe me. She was taken into care a week before Christmas. I couldn't understand why she'd been taken off us because actually with the foster carer she continued to vomit and continued to be ill. There was nothing I could do, it was out of my hands. They have a protocol that they follow, procedure, and once you're in that procedure it's very difficult to get out of it.

Waite
Sue was determined to get out of it , however. And she didn't rest until she'd got her daughter back. It took seven months. Months in which she and her husband combed each and every court paper until they discovered the evidence that proved their baby had a medical condition that explained her symptoms.

Sue was lucky. According to social work manager, James, parents that protest, particularly if they get angry at what's happening to them during a home assessment, can find themselves "labelled" by the visiting social workers.

James
They'll return to their office and write up the interaction as being an aggressive one. The parent will then have a label attached to them and very often with a red flag on the file. If you've developed in the first encounter a reputation for being dangerous or aggressive the expectation of every individual who's read the file following is going to be that you are going to be aggressive.

Waite
Chris says he was labelled by his social workers whilst fighting to prevent his children from being adopted without his consent. He'd split up from his partner, who was suffering a mental illness. As they weren't married, however, Chris had few parental rights. And despite insisting that he wanted to look after the children, they were taken into care by social services with Chris being branded as "difficult" and "untruthful". He made an official complaint, and asked to see all the files, and eventually received a letter of apology from the local authority concerned. But, even though investigations ruled that Chris had been truthful, and that official assessments of him had not been accurate, it remained a Pyrrhic victory. The speed of the adoption system had overtaken him, and he will never get his children back.

Chris
You either get a very, very, very small window of appeal when children are being put forward for a full care order to be adopted and it's only normally about six weeks. So here we are 18 months later and we've only just get the evidence that could prove that the case was completely flawed. But it's too late - the children have moved on, they've been adopted, they're in a new home, everything's hunky-dory, except for the fact that the children aren't being brought up by one of their natural birth parents.

Waite
According to social work manager, James, a momentum is built up in forced adoption cases which can be very hard to halt. Once adoption has been recommended by child protection professionals, and the case comes to the family court.

James
The chances of parents having a hearing which overthrows that decision or that recommendation are slim. People will find that their children have been removed and freed for adoption without them having had a proper chance to defend themselves and their families and their children. There are some adoptions that go through which should not have.

Waite
And, it seems, the secretiveness of the family courts themselves is yet another part of the problem. So as to avoid this programme being in contempt of court, we've had to change names and leave out details. Proceedings involving contested adoptions in the family court are virtually always closed with no juries, no public gallery, no journalists allowed. A shroud of secrecy that must be lifted - according to Sarah Harman, a solicitor with 25 years experience of family law and who's represented parents, sat as a judge and campaigned for fair and open justice in the family courts.

Harman
Once you have secrecy, secrecy breeds bad practice, it breeds suspicion, it feeds parents' sense of injustice when they have their children removed that they're not able to talk about it, they not able to air their grievances.

Waite
A concern that seems to be spreading even to the courts themselves, where, in the view of one prominent family court judge, Mr Justice Munby:

Mr Justice Mumby quote
We cannot afford to proceed on the blinkered assumption that there have been no miscarriages of justice in the family justice system. Open and public debate in the media is essential.

Harman
Children have been removed from their families unjustly, there's no two ways about that.

Waite
Solicitor Sarah Harman again:

Harman
The recent figures on adoptions show the increasing number of adoptions of very young children. I think we ought to know the reasons why. I think we ought to know why the court is intervening in families' lives and I think that's a matter of real concern, I think we need more information so that we can judge how well the courts are dealing with adoption.

Waite
Equally adamant that the current forced adoption process is resulting in miscarriages of justice is the MP for Birmingham Yardley, John Hemming.

Hemming
There are clearly a large number of cases where the system is going wrong and they can range from ones where children should not be taken into care, also through to ones in which kinship caring - that is the uncles and aunts should be caring for the children or the grandparents should be caring for the children - but instead they're adopted. We're seeing perhaps three or four new cases referred to us every day. We've looked at over a hundred where there seem to be clearly problems. So it's a substantial minority of cases where things are going wrong.

Waite
MPs have called for a public inquiry into the present system. A matter which Mr Hemming and other members are planning to take up with Jack Straw, the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, in the autumn.

But is it true that there's cause for concern in perhaps as many as a hundred cases of forced adoptions? A point I put to the joint President of the Association of Directors of Children's services for England, John Coughlan.

Coughlan
Well I simply don't accept that broad language I have to say, I simply don't accept it.

Waite
We've heard too from solicitor Sarah Harman who says children have been removed from their families unjustly, there is no two ways about it.

Coughlan
We have something in the region of 60,000 children in the care system at any one time and the majority of those are there through care orders where there has been very careful consideration of the facts. Inevitably those decisions involve ultimately through the courts a judgement of the findings, sometimes based upon a degree of subjective evidence but always evidence which is very, very thoroughly tested through the courts.

Waite
It doesn't mean though that those unjust decisions aren't being taken. I mean a social worker we've spoken to with 25 years experience says there are adoptions that go through which should not.

Coughlan
We are talking about the gravest form of decision and we all understand and recognise that and we do have a thorough process which tests those decisions. These are human decisions and inevitably there is the potential for human error which is why we have a process which is so thorough and so prolonged.

Waite
What about the point that's been made to us in the programme though that in reaching these targets social services, child protection agencies, whatever, have become over zealous, over likely to take children away from their parents unjustifiably?

Coughlan
The single issue has not been about government targets to do with adoption, it has been about the national reaction to the Lord Laming report into the death of Victoria Climbie which led to a slight increase in the numbers of children who were subject to care proceedings and certainly contributed to authorities acting earlier than they might have done before.

Waite
Well we've heard from another mother who was actually giving birth when officials arrived - now isn't that a perfect example of this over protectiveness?

Coughlan
Those are rare circumstances but frankly yes they do happen. We know through all of the research and all of the evidence that in most circumstances the welfare of the child can best be guaranteed by staying within a family and ideally within their own family. And a huge amount of work does go on to try to ensure that. But ultimately you have to take a decision about where the safeguards need to lean towards and yes those safeguards lean towards the protection of the child.

Waite
We've also heard there's great concern over the high secrecy of the family courts - no public, no media - we've heard from Sarah Harman that cannot be good for justice, it breeds bad practice, it can hide errors and causes suspicion.

Coughlan
As directors of children services we've been carefully supporting the government in considering ways in which we can make the family courts more open. There's an issue of public confidence and public awareness and that's one of the reasons why we would support a very cautious approach to opening these proceedings more carefully. One of the things that's influenced government decision making and has pulled them back a little bit from the approach to further openness has been the views of children and young people within the system. And in the consultation that they've just gone through children and young people themselves are saying we do not trust the way this process can be made more open, our right to privacy - not secrecy - is more important than that openness.

Waite
Well as you know, as well as I do, there are a number of parents very concerned about this issue, a number of campaigners, who say they've got scores of examples of where the system isn't working. An MP we've heard from says he has a hundred cases where he thinks things are going wrong. Are you saying, Mr Coughlan, they're all wrong?

Coughlan
No. What I'm saying is we are working with circumstances which are highly emotive and go to the core of human rights and juxtapose the rights of children to be safe and to be well cared for versus the rights of adults to have a family life and to parent. I am not saying the system we have is perfect, I'm not saying it's not open for improvement, I certainly think it is open for improvement. But I also do know that we have a system which works well and is thoroughly checked and involves a range of processes to scrutinise and objectively assess the decisions that are taken to ensure that we achieve what's most important - namely that children's welfare is protected and safeguarded.

Waite
John Coughlan. There is, we discovered, one area, however, where the system may be changing, over the strict secrecy of the family courts. In a statement from the Ministry of Justice we were told:

Ministry of Justice statement
We have developed a new approach based not on who will be allowed into family courts, but on the information coming out of them. As part of this new approach we will be piloting providing more information in particular cases where there is a significant public interest . At the conclusion of such cases, the court will decide whether to produce either a transcript of the judgement or a decision summary. This will be given to the people involved in proceedings and retained for children who were subject to proceedings as children. It will also be anonymised and the reasons for the decision will be made available online for public scrutiny.

Waite
As for the government's Department for Children, Schools and Families, however, things don't look likely to change.

Department for Children, Schools and Families statement
There is not, and never has been, a target to take children from their birth parents to meet adoption targets.

It may still be appropriate for local authorities to set themselves targets to place children for adoption more quickly, once a decision has been made that adoption is in the child's best interests.

Waite
But how can it be in the child's best interests to be adopted - an irreversible decision - if its parents have done nothing wrong? Parents, as we've heard, like Joy - a woman who everyone agrees has never done anything to harm her baby daughter. Even so, that child is well advanced now in the process of being adopted - while Joy can only fight frantically to win her back before she loses her forever.

Joy
I'm getting more panicky. I mean every day is really hard. I've lost my only child, she's my only child I'm ever going to have because my husband's got MS and he can't have anymore children. She hasn't been adopted yet but there's still that chance.

Waite
Can I be blunt Joy? It would seem surely you're not going to get your daughter back?

Joy
There's a possibility of that yeah.

Waite
If that happens what will the effect be on you?

Joy
It'll probably kill me.
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