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Adoption and Custody (Suffolk)

Volume 501: debated on Wednesday 25 November 2009

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Steve McCabe.)

I welcome this chance to raise on the Adjournment of the House my deep concerns about the adoption of very young children. In particular, I wish to expose the policy of Suffolk county council in cases where the birth parents do not wish to give up newly born babies for adoption. The council actively seeks opportunities to remove babies from their mothers. Its social work staff do so in a manner that in my view is sometimes tantamount to child kidnapping.

I also wish to raise related concerns about custody decisions in cases where the parents are separated, and about the role of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service. Individual CAFCASS officers exercise substantial influence over the outcome of court hearings. They are often extremely unhelpful, both to birth parents who wish to be able to bring up their own children and to fathers who wish to retain access to children following the breakdown of a relationship.

I have suspected for some time that an explicit if unpublished aim of the staff of Suffolk county council is to remove very young children from the care of their parents wherever possible. My anxiety results from a growing number of families in my constituency who come to me for help when Suffolk county council staff threaten to take away their children. I shall illustrate my concern by describing just one family, whom I have got to know well in the past 18 months. I wish I could believe that their case was exceptional but, alas, I fear that it may be typical of the practices followed by social workers throughout Suffolk, and possibly elsewhere in the country.

For legal reasons, I cannot use the family’s real names. I first met Carissa when she came to my constituency surgery in July 2008, with her partner Jim. At the time, Carissa was seven months’ pregnant. I formed the view, which has been confirmed on every subsequent occasion, that although Carissa had a difficult and unhappy upbringing herself, she is potentially a loving and responsible mother, and that Jim would be a supportive and caring father.

Carissa and Jim were concerned about the threats of Suffolk county council staff to take away their unborn baby soon after its birth. I therefore wrote to the then director for children and young people to ask why her staff had threatened this action, only to be informed that the county council was bound by confidentiality rules that prevented it from disclosing anything about the case. That was despite the fact that both parents had authorised the council, in writing, to disclose all information to me, however damaging it might be to them.

Their daughter Poppy was born early in September last year. Suffolk county council social services monitored Poppy’s progress minutely during the first few weeks of her life. Happily, she prospered at home under the loving care of Carissa and Jim. However, the fact that no fault could be found in the physical and emotional care provided by her natural parents did not deter the council from destroying this fragile family.

On 27 October, the county council staff, having first ensured that Jim would be away from home, arrived unannounced and without warning at Carissa’s home, accompanied by police. They snatched Poppy, then only a few weeks old, from the arms of her distraught mother. I immediately protested to the council about that unjust and cruel act. I received a letter in reply containing the chilling, and completely ungrammatical phrase

“I can confirm that the infant was removed without notice with the assistance of the police however no force was used.”

In the eyes of the council, that apparently made everything all right.

The appalling truth is that, in Suffolk in 2008, social workers and police could burst unannounced into a home to snatch a nine-week-old baby from the arms of her mother—a mother who is not only totally innocent of any offence but who is not even suspected of having harmed her child. Such is the extraordinary power of the social workers that all of that happens in a way that cannot be challenged. When the innocent victim asks her Member of Parliament for help, his inquiries are met with a wall of silence. This wall of silence is said to be in order to protect the privacy of the child. The truth is that it serves to conceal the actions of social workers from public gaze.

It is very probable that if social workers had to operate with the same level of transparency and public scrutiny as every other profession takes for granted, some of the terrible cases where a failure to intervene, as opposed to the problem of unnecessary and unjust intervention in the case that I am describing, would not take place.

To make matters very much worse, the circumstances of the raid were seriously misrepresented when council staff gave evidence in August this year to the adoption panel considering Poppy’s future. Following the removal of Poppy from the care of her parents, a bitter legal battle took place, which continues to this day. Throughout this process Suffolk county council has repeatedly changed the grounds for removing Poppy, alternating between blaming one parent and then the other.

The council’s search for a justification for its cruelty became increasingly frantic as one initial diagnosis was overturned and replaced with another. Numerous contradictions arose which cast serious doubt on the soundness of the case against the couple. The first doctor’s psychological assessment of Carissa declared that she qualified for a diagnosis of factitious disorder. Then a consultant forensic psychiatrist decided after the briefest of assessments that she fulfilled the criteria for the much more catch-all narcissistic personality disorder. The first doctor assessed that Jim was “a pathological liar”. Later, a consultant clinical psychologist

“would not endorse the expression”.

Expert witnesses also expressed misgivings. At a professional meeting on 18 March the doctors wanted to go on record

“as being very concerned about the fragmented process of this case”.

Only Dr. B had seen both parents. Dr. D had only interviewed Jim and Dr. S only Carissa. Dr. B remarked that the fragmented information was a

“disadvantage to the professional assessment as each had only part of the picture”.

Astonishingly, however, at no point has the ability of Carissa and Jim to care for Poppy been questioned. It is acknowledged that in the few weeks in which they were allowed to look after her, they did so in an exemplary manner.

The final favoured rationale given by social services for Poppy’s adoption order was based on nothing more than the possibility of future emotional abuse of her by either Carissa or Jim. The council staff claimed that only if Carissa received two years of therapy, and if Jim received at least six months’, could they become responsible parents. Accepting that advice, and using wording that betrayed his own prejudices, a judge concluded that that would be too long a period to wait and that Poppy should therefore be taken away from her loving parents.

The consistent thread running through this horrifying story has been the evident determination of social services staff to prevent an infant from being brought up in the care of her natural parents. There have been many other contradictions and inconsistencies in the case—far too many to list in this debate. Throughout the process Carissa and Jim have co-operated fully with social services, which is a reflection of how desperate they have been to retain their role as Poppy’s parents. They were often caught in Catch-22 situations. Initially, Carissa was told she would have more chance of keeping Poppy if she separated from Jim. When she reluctantly complied with this suggestion temporarily in order to keep Poppy, however, the alleged instability of their relationship was cited as an additional reason for adoption.

In August this year, when the Suffolk county council adoption panel held its hearing about the case, Jim and Carissa asked me to attend as their McKenzie friend, the first time I have undertaken this role. A kangaroo court would be a better title for the so-called panel. I inquired about its members and was told that they were

“people with an interest in adoption—either adoptive parents themselves or people who had been adopted”.

Put another way, that meant that the panel consisted of people who were emotionally in favour of adoption, regardless of the merits of any individual case. I later learned that the panel almost always recommends that babies are adopted and practically never returns them to their birth parents.

The procedure followed by the panel involves its members meeting first in private to consider the evidence. Neither Carissa nor Jim was permitted to know what information was being considered by the panel at this stage. This was particularly alarming because extensive and detailed notes were regularly written up after various meetings with council staff, CAFCASS employees and so on. Neither Carissa nor Jim ever had an opportunity to see these notes, to check their veracity or to comment on the judgments that they contained.

This process would not, of course, be permitted if Carissa and Jim were facing criminal charges. The panel process equates to trying someone for an offence without giving them the chance to know on what the case against them is based. It is such a flagrant breach of natural justice that it would not be tolerated in any other legal process and should not be tolerated in adoption cases.

Neither Carissa nor Jim stands accused of any offence whatever. The punishment that they face, however, is one of the most terrible any parent can face—the forced removal of their baby. The awful truth is that they would have more legal rights and would be treated more humanely and justly if they were on trial for murdering their child.

It all meant that when Carissa and Jim eventually met the panel, they had no idea what points they should try to make because they did not know what they were accused of. Equally seriously, the accuracy of the allegations put before the panel by council staff is extremely questionable. One allegation, based on evidence from a council staff worker, was that Jim had been present when Poppy was snatched from her mother’s home. It was said that a man’s voice making threatening comments was heard from another room in the flat where Carissa was living with Poppy. That was not just a fabrication but must have been known by council staff to be a fabrication when it was included among the items for consideration by the panel.

I am not qualified to assess the suitability of my constituents to parent their own child, but I am very concerned about the case. In bringing it, Suffolk county council has followed a procedure that should be outlawed in any civilised country. It is a process that denies parents the most basic human and legal rights.

I am also concerned about the apparent contortions that county council social services and their appointed medical practitioners have gone through to justify their intervention and to find grounds for adoption. It is clear that far more accountability and scrutiny are required for social workers, CAFCASS officials, expert witnesses and judges. That is particularly the case when many of the same people are frequently involved. For example, the judge who oversaw a previous private law proceeding relating to Carissa’s former husband also dealt with the case of Poppy. The CAFCASS practitioner who is Poppy's guardian was also involved in a custody dispute about Carissa's first child.

Before concluding, I wish to mention briefly another constituency case involving this same CAFCASS worker. I consider the actions of that worker to be so damaging to the families she is appointed to help that, as soon as I am legally permitted to do so, I shall name her publicly. In the meantime, I strongly advise CAFCASS that she should be suspended.

In that other case, a previously stable relationship between Richard and his partner, who together had a young daughter, broke down in distressing circumstances when his partner’s older daughter physically attacked Richard. Unable to return to the family home, for which he had paid, and unwilling to bring charges against his stepdaughter, Richard moved out.

At first, despite regular threats of violence against Richard and his family from the family of his former partner, threats that were so serious that significant protection measures had to be taken, Richard continued to enjoy almost daily access to his daughter—that is, until this CAFCASS worker arrived on the scene. In flagrant contradiction of the merits of the case and very much against the interests of the young girl concerned, the CAFCASS officer persuaded a court to cut Richard's access to his only daughter to a supervised session of no more than three hours a week. In the process, Richard's personal safety was seriously compromised. The result has been the destruction of the previously close and loving relationship between Richard and his daughter. Great distress has been caused to the whole of his family and Richard's health and well-being have been gravely damaged.

To sum up, I believe that the current procedure for resolving adoption cases when the natural parents wish to retain care and custody of their children is unfair, unjust and should not be tolerated. The secrecy surrounding the process, together with the appalling lack of scrutiny and accountability in the social care and family court system, is made worse by the fact that Members of Parliament are prevented from having proper information in relation to “child protection” cases.

Like other hon. Members, I am daily supporting constituents who have been let down by some branch of the state. Uniquely in the area of child protection, I am expected to trust that public officials are doing everything absolutely correctly. I am not allowed to make an informed judgment about that myself.

Sadly, we know from the terrible baby P case that sometimes social workers make grievous errors. How, therefore, can we believe that every time a child is forcibly removed from a loving home and from his or her natural parents, the judgment of the social workers is so perfect and faultless that it should not be open to any outside scrutiny?

In the case of Poppy it was only in September, after a court had ruled that she should be permanently and forcibly adopted, that I was finally allowed access to the detailed case notes. Poppy's parents themselves are still struggling to see the data held on them despite wanting to mount a private appeal. Once again, the rights of people accused of crimes, however serious, are far greater than those of parents of children whom social workers want to seize for adoption. In criminal cases, defendants have a right to receive copies of case conference notes and all the evidence that is used against them in court.

There are, of course, many cases in which removing a child from the care of its parents is necessary and right, and tragically decisions about whether to return an abused child to abusive parents may literally be a matter of life or death. The category, however, of emotional abuse is more complex, but in any circumstances it is surely true that, if the professionals involved were made more accountable, decisions about permanent removal would be a little easier to justify. The problem of accountability is complex, but as award-winning journalist Camilla Cavendish, who has studied the subject, points out:

“The privacy of the child has become synonymous with the privacy of the professionals.”

The other lesson from the case of Poppy is that the emphasis must shift from removing young children from parents, who may themselves be vulnerable and somewhat inadequate, to providing support for those same parents. If a fraction of the effort, cost and time that Suffolk county council staff spent on trying to justify the removal of Poppy from her parents had, instead, been devoted to helping Carissa and Jim, it would have strengthened a family instead of destroying it. Social workers should provide more supportive parenting help early on. The judge suggested that Jim would require six months to a year of therapy in September 2009, and that did not fit into Poppy’s time scales, but the family were known to social services before her birth, giving them as much as 18 months to work with the couple had they so desired.

Tens of thousands of pounds have been spent on the court process for the case—money that could have been used to help the family and others in their position. I urge the Minister to institute an immediate inquiry into how the adoption process works in the cases of very young babies who have been born to parents who wish to keep them. Some 16 years ago, I was a Minister at the Department of Health, where I had responsibility for adoption and social services policy. I believe that the subject is critical to many families and transcends normal party political boundaries. We should let the case of Poppy be the catalyst that leads to a change in such unfair procedures.

I congratulate the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) on securing this important debate. Like the hon. Gentleman, the Government want the very best for every single child in this country, and that is why we take the safeguarding of children so seriously. I am of course aware of the circumstances to which he refers, and I understand how incredibly difficult and emotionally draining it can be for all concerned in such cases. However, as I am sure he will appreciate, I am unable to comment on, or intervene in, such individual cases.

Before I deal with some of the hon. Gentleman’s points, I shall make it clear that the Government’s policy is that children should live with their parents whenever possible. We have invested huge amounts in early intervention, through Sure Start children’s centres and our Think Family initiatives, and in more intensive support, through family intervention projects, family nurse partnerships and multi-systemic therapy programmes, to support the most vulnerable families with children on the edge of care. The challenge for social workers, and for all of us, is to keep children safe and families together when that is possible, but sadly sometimes it is not.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that the child’s welfare is of paramount importance in all decisions made by local authorities, or by the court, about the care and upbringing of children. Sometimes children have to be taken into care because they cannot live at home in safety, and the Government make no apology for that. Local authorities have powers to apply to the courts for emergency protection orders, and the police have powers to remove children so that they can act immediately to protect the child, but local authorities cannot remove children from their parents’ care without the parents’ consent without first referring the matter to a court. The court may make such an order only if it is satisfied on the evidence provided that the child concerned is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm, and that that is due to the care given to the child by the parents. It is, for the child, better if the order is made than if it is not.

The decision that a child should be adopted is made not by one social worker, but by a group of people who scrutinise the adoption plan—in particular, an adoption panel. In considering the plan, the adoption panel and the local authority must, like the courts that make the final decisions, have regard to the welfare checklist set out in the Adoption and Children Act 2002, and they must consider whether adoption or another permanent option would be better for the child. If the parents do not agree to their child being placed for adoption, the local authority must apply to the court for a placement order. It is then a matter for the court to decide whether to make a placement order and, later, an adoption order. No child is adopted from care without a court deciding that it is in their best interests; this is a fundamental safeguard in the care system. Provisions in the Children, Schools and Families Bill will continue the process of opening up family courts by broadening the amount of information that can be reported by the media, which will be allowed to attend proceedings in staged processes. That is subject to a review following the introduction of the first stage.

Let me turn now to information and support for parents. Parents must have access to court reports and permanence reports, as well as the right to counselling and fully understanding the reasons for decisions being made. They also have the right to an independent support worker as soon as adoption becomes the plan for the child. Adoption records are highly confidential, and it may not be appropriate for a local authority to share certain information with birth parents, particularly if this relates to third parties and if doing so could undermine the security of the adoptive placement or put the child's welfare at risk. However, the child’s permanence report is to be read by the birth parents—it is a key document presented to the adoption panel about the adoption plan for a child. Parents should therefore be aware of information that the panel will take into account in making recommendations regarding the plan for adoption, and the panel will take into account any comments the parents have made on the child’s permanence report.

The local authority must provide a counselling service for parents, who, as I said, also have the right to an independent support worker, whose role is to provide the parents with advice and support. All local authorities should be working in partnership with birth parents, although it is a matter for each authority to decide on the appropriateness of sharing minutes of specific meetings. A new booklet for parents entitled “Your child could be taken into care” has been produced by the Ministry of Justice, with the aim of strengthening and improving the information offered to parents before court proceedings begin; this will be issued in the new year. In addition, since May this year the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service has been sending an information pack about court processes and the role of CAFCASS to all parents and children involved in proceedings.

Government guidance consistently highlights the importance of continuing to work in partnership with parents with a view to the child returning home, even when statutory action is being taken. For example, we recently issued for consultation draft regulations and strengthened guidance, which set out our expectations regarding care planning to ensure that each looked-after child has a thorough assessment of their needs and circumstances. However, a stage may be reached when it is apparent that the child cannot return home. At that stage, the local authority must make alternative plans to provide the child with a permanent family home. Adoption is one way of providing this, and it is appropriate for some children, depending on the facts of each individual case. In such cases, however, the local authority must explain to the parents why the child cannot go home, and why it has been decided that adoption is the plan, as well as the legal implications of placing their child with prospective adopters and the effect of an adoption order.

Before I close, I feel it is worth noting that Ofsted’s last inspection of Suffolk described the authority’s adoption service to children and families as both strong and child-focused, with birth families being involved in adoption plans and invited to attend the adoption panel to give their views. It stated that they can also access independent support and receive help with maintaining indirect and direct contact with their children, and that they are treated with respect.

I reiterate that I am proud of this Government’s record in delivering for families and safeguarding children. There are already extensive checks and balances in the system, including the independent judiciary, publicly funded solicitors for all parties and CAFCASS children’s guardians, which combine to ensure that care and adoption orders are made only after proper scrutiny of local authorities’ work and proposals.

I understand from CAFCASS that it received a letter from the hon. Gentleman on 19 November regarding the actions of a CAFCASS officer and the court’s decision on contact in a specific case. It has assured me that he will receive a reply within 10 working days of receipt of that letter.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.