Pump Court Chambers

Adopting a cautious approach

Blog 17th March 2016

Celebratory adoption hearings are, with good reason, joyous occasions. Often, they are the happy ending to a child’s long, arduous and sad journey through the care system. In fairy tale terms, they are the celebration that lasts for three days and three nights, after the dragon has been slain and the hand of the prince(ss) conquered. All that should be left is for them to live happily ever after.

However, as is real life’s wont, that is easier said than done, and the newly minted family will often encounter a range of challenges. Some of these the parents will have reasonably foreseen, but many of them they will not and could not.

It is perhaps an inevitable consequence of the government’s efforts to see more, older, and more challenging children placed for adoption that there seem to be an increasing number of cases where the difficulties encountered reach such a level that the local authority starts care proceedings against the adoptive parents. My own experience is that such cases are amongst the most difficult and heart-breaking a care practitioner is likely to come across and that they need an approach that goes above and beyond what should be best practice in any case.

A recent example that came to the attention of the Court of Appeal is Re M (Children) [2016] EWCA Civ 61. The following words of Lady Justice King at para 5 could, unfortunately, apply to a significant number of cases:

“Sadly for all parties, this case is a paradigm example of where the laudable desire on the part of the local authority to find an adoptive placement for profoundly disturbed and damaged children appears to have led to those children being placed with a couple who, with the benefit of hindsight, it might be thought were unlikely ever to have been able to cope with their […] disturbed and challenging behaviour.”

The Court of Appeal in Re M allowed the parents’ appeal against a care order in respect of one of the two children they had adopted. This was because the judge at first instance had failed to make (sufficiently clear) findings on a number of crucial issues, including the level of support the parents had been given.

Lady Justice King made two important points that, if observed, would go a long way towards helping more adoptive families live happily ever after:

“There is a desperate need for men and women willing to offer adoptive homes to children who have been physically and emotionally damaged by the care they have been given as babies and young children. These altruistic people are owed in exchange, high quality assessment and matching as between the children and them as future parents.” (para 41)

One can only hope that, even in these straightened times in which we live, local authorities appreciate that failure to find the funds necessary to support those who adopt disadvantaged children is all too often a false economy, and ultimately it is the children who pay the price when an adoptive placement breaks down. (para 42)

In other words: Be realistic and careful in matching children and prospective adopters and make sure adoptive placements are properly supported. Sounds deceptively simple…

Bonus point on agreed thresholds

At para 26, the Court of Appeal made another important point of wider application in care proceedings: even where there is an agreed threshold document, certain aspects of the agreed findings may, from time to time, require further exploration. In this case, the parents seemed to move away from their concessions in oral evidence during the hearing and there was a “significant gulf” between the parties as to how the threshold was to be interpreted.

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