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12 APR 2013

Kirsty Richards: The UK Care System - Does it conflict with the Government’s drive for a faster Adoption process?

Kirsty RichardsSince I wrote my last opinion piece on 5 October 2012, I continue to practice in children law proceedings (both private and public) and have recently read the BBC Article Stripping Council's Adoption Role ‘a reckless gamble',  dated 4 April 2013.

Whilst the BBC article sets out some valid considerations for anyone involved in the Adoption Process post care proceedings; it continues to concern me that the current pressures from our Government to find suitable adopters quickly - conflicts with the care process, in some cases. I say that in the context of the need for Parallel planning at the outset of any care proceedings and the pressures the Local Authorities seem to be under from their Service Managers to conclude proceedings swiftly, often recommending that parents and families get ruled out as suitable carers without any real period of testing a parent's ability to change and/or parent effectively having engaged with the proceedings.

One of the most difficult aspects of my job at the moment is advising parents at the pre-proceedings stage as I am finding some Local Authorities (not all), either do not reply at all to correspondence or continually state they are awaiting instructions from their client (the allocated social worker to the family).

The benefit of having a solicitor involved at the pre-proceedings stage is that it provides the parents with independent advice as to the concerns raised by the Local Authority. Having received some legal advice, the parents can then offer concessions as to the issues they accept and show insight for. When the pre-proceedings stage works well, the areas of concern are reduced and often the need to issue proceedings is avoided. (Saving huge costs to the public purse).

Conversely, when a solicitor does not receive any substantive response from the Local Authority's Legal Department, the parents are left frustrated with the system and the relationship between the social worker and parents can deteriorate, with more issues arising as a result of that poor working relationship.

An example I can provide has arisen only today. An existing client of mine has complained previously that when in hospital for a check-up following tummy pains, a social worker and nurse allegedly appeared at her bed saying "We know who you are... We know all about you... We are going to take your baby from you".

I have been assisting those parents since February 2013 and to date I have not received any substantive response from the Local Authority and my repeated requests for a meeting at Social Services have gone unanswered. Now, some 3 months later, the Local Authority is still working on the basis of its own (currently bias) information about my client and her Husband.

This same family then received a call from a new social worker yesterday allegedly stating "I am not letting {Mum} leave the hospital with that baby. I am taking that baby from you" and then mentioned emergency protection proceedings. This new social worker reportedly left no name and both parents are understandably distraught by the comments made, just weeks before the birth of their first child.

The worrying trend for me is that when expecting parents have any detail in their background which, on paper, raises serious concern, it is almost as though you can hear some (and I stress some, not all) social workers clapping their hands and expressing delight at the prospect of having an unborn baby they can start lining up for the Adoption process.

By the time a solicitor gets involved in those cases, you often find the social work team has already prejudged the outcome for the family and are unwilling/not prepared to entertain any option other than separation of a baby from its family, at birth.

The Children Act 1989 is very clear in its premise and understanding that removal of a child should be the absolute last resort as it is one of the most draconian steps our Family Court can take. Why then, if our law clearly states removal should be the consideration of last resort, are some social workers telling parents in early stages of pregnancy they know all about their history and will not be keeping their baby?

In keeping a close eye on how all the local Authorities I work with are handling these cases at the pre-proceedings stage, it does seem to suggest there is an Adoption Drive that is putting the wrong pressures on our already stressed social work teams.

Having a flawless and efficient Adoption process for children who really have no other viable option available save for adoption outside their family is one thing; running around and clapping hands at any expectant mother with a previous history is quite another.

During the pre-proceedings stage, every effort should be made with the expectant Mother to see if she (a) has insight into the concerns raised by the Local Authority; (b) is able and willing to change and address those issues and (c) whether those new skills can be put into practice in a timeframe suitable to the child's needs.

Sadly, more often than not, I do not see evidence that any of the above has been attempted with expectant mothers over the recent years.

So, whilst I agree with the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives' (Solace) and the Association of Directors of Children's Services' (ADCS) proposals to "significantly increase" the number of adoptive parents recruited and speed up the process of finding new homes for children in care; I worry how that is impacting on the rights of the families involved in the initial care proceedings.

My clients certainly seem to be reporting to me that the pre-proceedings stage is ineffective, with (some) social workers rubbing their hands together at the thought of having a baby they can place for adoption. I would like to see articles drafted in a wider sense so the public are aware that care proceedings are not rushed for a good reason. Article 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998 determines that every person has the right to a family life and that means in balancing the need for a speedy resolution of any care and subsequent placement proceedings; we can not afford to lose sight of the child at the heart of the proceedings who should be given the opportunity to live with their birth family if it is in any way possible.

Kirsty Richards is a Senior Family Solicitor at GT Stewart Solicitors in London.

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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