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Family Law

The leading authority on all aspects of family law

05 NOV 2012

Beyond the Nuclear: The Face of Modern Adoption (Ulster Style)

Duncan RantonA Judge in Belfast's High Court decided last month that unmarried and same-sex couples in Northern Ireland should be allowed to adopt children. In so doing, Mr Justice Seamus Treacy ruled that an adoption law from 1987 that discriminated against both groups was unlawful and amounted to a breach of human rights.

Prior to this decision, only married couples and single adults were eligible to adopt in Northern Ireland. This was despite there being 2,500 children there in State care awaiting placement with loving families - irrespective of the adults' sexual orientation.

This change was intended to bring Northern Ireland's adoption policy into line with the rest of the United Kingdom, where gay and unmarried heterosexual couples have been recognised as perfectly suitable adoptive parents for many years now.

But any reservations that Northern Ireland's adoption practices might be about to enter the 21st Century were, it seems, premature. Treacy J's triumph of common-sense was short-lived...

The very day after the Judgment, Northern Ireland's Health Minister, Edwin Poots, confirmed his department intended to appeal the decision.

The Health Minister is quoted as follows:

"I am not convinced that today's judgment is ultimately in the best interests of some of the most vulnerable children in Northern Ireland. It is my intention to urgently appeal this judgment and I am taking this action with a heavy heart."

Seeing a bandwagon on the move, Jim Allister, leader of political party Traditional Unionist Voice, said this: 

"There was, in my view, inadequate attention to the paramount benefit to the child of adoption within a regular family unit of a father and a mother and unwarranted equivalence of such to the unnatural setting of a same-sex relationship".  

"Once more, we see the human rights mantra being exploited to further divorce the law from the moral expectations and norms of the society it exists to serve."

And from a spokesman for the Presbyterian Church came this pearl:

"The Presbyterian Church believes in the Christian ideal that children should be brought up in a family with male and female married parents and that adoption practices should mirror this as closely as possible to provide what the Church believes is best for children and society."

It is no small irony that this declaration of intent from Northern Ireland's Health Minister (spurred on by his well-wishers) came on the same day as the results of a study were published by psychologists from the University of Central Los Angeles on outcomes depending on whether adopted children were placed with gay, lesbian or heterosexual parents.

The study involved a cohort of 82 vulnerable children from foster care in Los Angeles County. Of those children, 60 were placed with heterosexual parents and 22 were placed with gay or lesbian parents (15 with gay male parents and seven with lesbian parents). The children ranged in age from 4 months to 8 years, with an average age of 4. They presented with multiple risk factors at the time of adoption, including premature birth, prenatal substance exposure, abuse or neglect, and multiple prior placements.

Psychologists studied the children two months, one year and two years after they were placed with a family. They found very few differences among the children at any of the assessments over the two-year period following placement. All children achieved significant gains in their cognitive development, and their levels of behaviour problems remained stable. This was despite the fact that the children adopted by gay and lesbian families had more risk factors at the time of their placement; out of nine risk factors, they averaged one additional risk factor, compared with the children adopted by heterosexual parents.

"The children adopted by gay and lesbian parents had more challenges before they were adopted and yet they end up in the same place, which is impressive", said Letitia Anne Peplau, research professor of psychology at UCLA and co-author of the study.

The results of this latest study will come as no surprise whatever to those with even a passing interest in evidence-based child health and welfare. The results echo similar studies conducted around the globe. Outcomes are consistent. Sexual orientation of adoptive or foster parents makes precisely no difference to the quality of parenting provided. Senior author Jill Waterman, a UCLA adjunct professor of psychology, nailed it when she said: "Children need people who love them, regardless of the gender of their parents".

That is the evidence-led conclusion that we see time and again. It is a conclusion with which Edwin Poots (et. al.) disagrees. That he does can only be the result of a desire to enshrine his personal prejudices against gays and lesbians in legislation. What is most shameful about that is his willingness to deny vulnerable children a chance to thrive in a loving family unit to do so.

The Judgment of Mr Justice Treacy is now available online, and I'd recommend reading it in full.

If that seems too onerous, the final paragraph captures the overall tenor of the decision:

"[82] Adopting a child is no small undertaking. This is even more so nowadays when the profile of children who need adoptive families has changed dramatically. Baroness Hale pointed out in Re P that the adoption of healthy babies (the traditional adoption) and adoption by step-parents are both becoming less common, while adoption of 'looked after' children is a more pressing need. Looked after children who require permanent adoptive homes tend to be older and often have special needs. They also often retain some links with their biological families. A loving, permanent, stable home is infinitely preferable to growing up in care. The potential benefit to a child adopted in such circumstances is immeasurable. As well as a huge benefit to the child, these adopters also provide an invaluable service to the State. No relationship is perfect and while there are benefits to an adopted child in entering a relationship where a web of legal rights exists between the parents, that web is no guarantee of a lifelong, stable, committed relationship. The most important consideration is that decisions are made in the best interests of the child. As the First Division of the Court of Session observed in T there can be no more fundamental principle in adoption cases than that it is the duty of the court to safeguard and promote the interests of the child. Issues relating to the sexual orientation, lifestyle, race, religion or other characteristics of the parties involved must of course be taken into account as part of the circumstances. But they cannot be allowed to prevail over what is in the best interests of the child."

In other words, his Lordship held that the sexual orientation of adoptive parents ought to be taken into account with all other factors. At the heart of the enquiry would always remain the best interests of the particular child, and whether the adoptive parents could meet his or her unique needs. Those needs, rather than some arbitrary and irrational preconception about whether individuals from particular backgrounds and of particular persuasions could meet them, must always dictate the outcome.

This is the statement of principle that so offended Northern Ireland's Health Minister that he declared within twenty-four hours of the Judgment his Department's intention to appeal. And at the expense of the public purse, no less...

Is it just me, or does it feel like the Inquisition is alive and well?

Duncan Ranton is a Senior Associate at Russell Jones & Walker (part of Slater & Gordon Lawyers), part of the specialist childcare team based in the London office. 

He works exclusively in the field of family law, and with a particular emphasis on cases involving children. His expertise ranges from domestic cases involving disputes as to residence, contact and/or the attribution and exercise of parental responsibility all the way through to transnational cases that have raise extremely complex issues of private international law. 

Duncan is dual qualified in Australia, and is a member of Resolution's International Committee.

The views expressed by contributing authors are not necessarily those of Family Law or Jordan Publishing and should not be considered as legal advice.

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