Speeding up the adoption process, and increasing the number of children who are adopted, were both priorities of the Conservative-led coalition government. The number of adoptions rose sharply until a landmark court ruling in 2013 forced councils to take a more cautious approach, leading to a rapid fall in adoptions.
The Queen’s Speech included plans to change the law to increase the number of adoptions – to “tip the balance in favour of permanent adoption where that is the right thing for the child – helping to give children stability”, in the words of the government.
Here, someone with recent direct experience of the child protection system warns of the dangers of the new proposals, and the threat they could pose to existing families and to the interests of the children themselves:
The writer wishes to remain anonymous
One aspect of the Queen’s Speech that will probably not make the headlines was a proposal to reform family law. The proposed legislation will make it easier for council social care departments to attempt adoption proceedings in child protection cases, the better (it is claimed) to ensure “stability for the child”.
Be in no doubt – this is one of the most toxic pieces of legislation to emerge from the current government. I have seen first-hand the way that adoption proceedings are used by children and families’ social care departments.
At the end of 2012, my stepdaughter gave custody of her two-year-old son to me and my wife. She was struggling to cope, and her son was on the child protection register. It had always been claimed to us that this was due to malicious reports made against her and that the child protection plan was about to be lifted, but it quickly became clear to us that this was not the case. Things had reached crisis point, and care proceedings were imminent.
The child’s father was a prominent local drug and firearms criminal (and serial domestic violence perpetrator), who is now serving a significant jail sentence for crimes relating to both. He has several children, all by women significantly younger than him, and some less than 24 months over the age of consent at the time they met.
To us he appeared willing and able to act with impunity, frequently issuing semi-public online threats to many different people and publishing photos of himself with weapons, as well as talking about his exploits selling illegal drugs within the local community. We are told that it emerged during his trial that he was a police informant.
His habit was issuing barrages of allegations against my stepdaughter and any other family member involved in the case. The local children’s care department appeared unwilling to consider the vexatious nature of these allegations, only stating that they were obliged to investigate his “concerns”. He would only withdraw these allegations if the family member concerned complied with whatever demand he was making.
My wife and I did not comply.
The father applied through the courts for contact and residence of my wife’s grandson. We made a counter-application for Special Guardianship.
It was around 2am on a Thursday morning when the bricks came through the windows. The youngest of my stepdaughters was sleeping downstairs and it was her screams, along with the smashing sound of the windows, that woke us up. We knew this was not a one-off attack and we fled within 12 hours.
After a few days with a friend, we were accommodated on a temporary basis, three to a room, in an out of town commercial hotel. We were there for three months before we could be housed permanently, and even then only because of very forceful legal advocacy provided pro bono by friends of mine. I had to continue working throughout in my role as a support worker and advocate for the homeless. That might sound horrendous, but as someone with over 10 years’ experience of working in homelessness, I know how lucky we were.
Throughout this period, the Special Guardianship assessment continued, without any apparent regard or consideration for the situation in which we found ourselves. The assessor would question our behaviours and our states of stress etc, as though we were living in a quiet suburban neighbourhood, and not as a couple who were having to check daily whether we were being followed to train stations or back to the hotel. She questioned my wife’s family history, at one point taking her aside out of my earshot and hissing to her that “I wouldn’t have bothered assessing you if you weren’t married”. My lack of parenting skills and apparent “nerves” were highlighted as though I were not a man with no children of my own who had recently been driven out of his home by a criminal.
And at every turn we were reminded that adoption proceedings loomed if we failed the assessment.
It was quite clear to me that there were those in the department who considered an adoption order to be something which would resolve the issue cleanly, and enable them to close a messy case with an outcome. I have no doubt that it would also have been considerably quicker and cheaper. It was the nightmare that haunted us when we were not worrying about possible discovery and intimidation by the child’s father. It was the stress we had when we were not trying to comfort a traumatised child who had no room of his own, and from whose issues we could never have any sense of respite.
Yet rather than provide us with support, the scrutiny and allegations continued.
My wife was falsely called a self-harmer and mentally ill. I was (rather more amusingly) accused of being terminally ill. Given the length of the proceedings, were the latter the case then by the time proceedings concluded the court might have required a ouija board rather than a Bible in order to get my testimony.
Family members were grilled, and prodded, about any issues my wife and I might have had. Suggestions were made that the child might be better off “in a safe place”. Old family disputes reignited. People suggested to my stepdaughter that her child “might be better off in care”. That was nonsense enough in itself. But care wasn’t the alternative, was it? It was adoption. 18 years of prohibition on any form of contact. A new name. A family destroyed.
In our case, we were able to make the council relent. Friends of mine who were family lawyers quickly rallied around us, hired aggressive and experienced counsel, and supported our application. The local authority eventually agreed to pay the full legal costs of our case (we kept the lawyers we had chosen).
We were successful because of support from friends and loyal family, and because I was able to use personal and political connections to ensure that we had the best possible representation in spite of having little money – including at one stage a personal intervention from a council chief executive.
The problem is, most people can’t do that.
It is impossible to convey the abject terror that the prospect of an adoption order struck in us, a traumatised couple who had been driven out of our home and who were being hounded by a drug gang with whom my wife and I had never had a single association. But it was used like the Sword of Damocles. By children’s care professionals.
If this proposed legislation further enables local authorities to weaponise the use of adoption orders in order to “deal” with the issues faced by working class families who have found themselves in difficulty, then I do not call that a benevolent effort to ensure “stability for the child”. I call that a callous disregard for the families and family homes which the government so often pledges itself to protect.
I call that the most toxic law David Cameron has inflicted upon this country yet.