I write this opinion in response to an article on the BBC website on 25 September 2012, Number of Children in Care in England Rises and the Children's Minister Edward Timpson comment that: "The rise in the number of adoptions and adoption placement orders is extremely welcome, but it still takes too long for those who want to adopt and foster to be approved. The time it takes for a child in care to be adopted can be a significant period in that child's life."
Whilst I appreciate that children need decisions made as to their long term care arrangements as quickly as possible, that has to be balanced with their right to enjoy a family life with their biological family. That means that thorough assessments have to be carried out in respect of parents, family and friends, before the court is in a position to know whether it is in the child's best interests to be placed outside of the family. The decision to place any child with a stranger should not be made lightly and it is concerning that the government message seemingly suggests these very complex proceedings should be concluded more swiftly.
I have recently taken instructions from a new client who now finds himself involved in care proceedings for his young son. He is particularly opposed to his son being placed in either long term foster care and/or up for adoption given his own experiences in care, which he says was an awful time for him. Both the child and parent in that case deserve time to engage with support services to see whether it is possible for him to remain with his parents and/or those proposed by them as being alternative carers.
Children's Minister Edward Timpson further said a government shake-up of the system would cut the time children spent in care before they were adopted. However, the other side of the argument is that Local Authorities should be cautious about removing children from their biological families in the first place and should first explore whether it is possible to put together a robust support package to enable that family to continue working with Social Services until such time any identified risks have been reduced.
I also met a client in March of this year and within hours of taking her initial instructions, I had to race to the Maternity Ward to advise her in preparation for an EPO hearing that had been listed the next morning. The Interim Care Plans were for the baby to be removed at birth. There were no proposals for a Mother and Baby assessment unit, despite the maternity staff commending Mum on her parenting of the baby on the ward. Needless to say, the court found it was too premature to separate mother and baby and the Local Authority was encouraged to serve amended care plans providing for a mother and baby unit. Thankfully, to date that Mother remains with her baby whilst the case is ongoing but it has been a constant battle with the LA to get them to deal with the case reasonably.
It seems to me that the focus of these types of proceedings has gone more towards satisfying government quotas and targets in respect of adopting children more quickly (as promoted by Mr Michael Gove in February 2011). Yet in law, the focus remains on the needs and best interests of the child subject to proceedings. Since when were children's best interests met by being removed from their parents and placed in either long term foster care and/or up for adoption? Yes, in some cases, like with Mr Gove, they have very positive experiences having being adopted but to suggest that care proceedings need to speed up is dangerous and I fear it is putting undue pressure on our already stretched Local Authorities.
I concerned that the current "adoption drive" is causing Local Authorities (various) to effectively push for adoption at the outset and they are failing to parallel plan. This is leading to inadequate care plans being filed at Court. The Children Act 1989 is quite clear that when considering applications under s.33 of the Act, children should be allowed to remain with their natural parents wherever possible and thereafter close family and friends will be assessed before considering either long-term foster care and/or adoption.
Despite that ethos, I am seeing more and more cases where the Local Authority has failed to parallel plan at the outset of the case - seemingly focussing on what they consider will be the most likely outcome i.e. assuming that their Initial Care Plans for separation will be endorsed by the court. Of course, every case is different and each Local Authority approaches these cases slightly differently but the concern for me is that it does appear to be more and more common for inadequate care plans to be provided at the outset of proceedings, causing already anxious parents to be concerned that removal is being sought before any assessments have been carried out.
The care process takes time because it has to. Each child has the right to enjoy a family life with their biological family if possible and it is alarming for Local Authorities to rush through to placement orders without first exploring all options for that child.
To remove a child from his family is not a victory for the Local Authority. There is no winner in these types of cases and all professionals involved in this type of work are specially trained to ensure that the child's needs are properly balanced and met when considering long term arrangements.
Chief executive of British Association for Adoption and Fostering , David Holmes, said: "We know that adoption works and we owe it to every child who has a plan for adoption to realise that plan for them without delay." I say, we owe it to every child to have the chance to remain with their biological family and everyone involved in public law proceedings should focus on whether it is feasible (and in line with the child's timeline) for there to be a series of assessments for the family before tearing any family apart.
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.