System taking hundreds of babies for adoption
By Andrew Alderson, Ben Leapman and Tom Harper, Sunday Telegraph
Campaigners are to renew an attempt to open up the proceedings of family courts, after figures showed that the number of babies aged less than one week being removed from their mothers has risen almost three-fold in a decade. More than 900 are now being taken and put up for adoption every year.
Until last month, it looked as though the system would undergo a significant overhaul. Ten days ago, however, Lord Falconer, who was then the Lord Chancellor, seemed to have crushed an attempt to make family court hearings less secret.
Now, with Gordon Brown as Prime Minister and Jack Straw as Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, legal campaigners are newly optimistic of forcing a change.
Sarah Harman, a solicitor who has specialised in family law for nearly 30 years, said she would step up her fight to open up proceedings. Ms Harman is the elder sister of Harriet Harman, the new deputy leader of the Labour Party and leader of the Commons. Harriet Harman was Justice Minister until last week's Cabinet reshuffle and has supported her sister's campaign.
The total number of children aged under a year taken into council care in England before being adopted has also risen, by a similar rate, from 970 in 1996 to 2,120 last year, figures obtained by The Sunday Telegraph show.
The increases come after the Government set targets for adoption in order to cut the number of children languishing in foster care.
Family courts in England and Wales hear 400,000 cases a year, mostly divorces and child custody hearings following divorces. In 20,000 cases a year, councils apply to the courts to remove children temporarily from parents who are abusive or neglectful, often because they are addicted to hard drugs.
The courts also rule on bids by councils to put removed children up for adoption, which is irreversible.
Yet, while criminal cases must be proved beyond reasonable doubt, family courts take decisions on the balance of probabilities and unlike criminal courts, cases are heard in strict secrecy. A mother whose child is taken from her commits an offence if she tells anyone outside a tiny, approved list of people.
John Hemming, the Liberal Democrat MP for Birmingham Yardley, who wants more openness in family courts, said of the latest adoption figures: "We are seeing a massive growth in the forced removal of newborns from their natural parents. Babies are being taken into care merely to satisfy government adoption targets."
In 2000, Tony Blair set a target for councils to increase adoptions by 50 per cent. Town halls were Adoptions of very young children spiralled after targets were set
in 2000 promised cash rewards for reaching their goals. Critics claim that the target has given social workers a perverse incentive to break up more families. Mr Hemming said:
"There are clearly masses of miscarriages of justice, but ministers want to prevent parents from campaigning against them by preventing these parents from talking about their children after a case.
"This is fundamentally wrong. The secrecy in the family courts acts generally to protect misbehaviour by some professionals, rather than to protect children."
The new figures show that, while adoptions of the very young have spiralled, those for children aged seven and over have halved in England, from 100 in 1996 to 50 last year.
Figures for Scotland and Wales are not available.
Campaigners were given new ammunition last week by the case of Mark and Nicky Webster, who fled the country to have their fourth baby after they claimed they were wrongly accused of child abuse and had their first three children taken into care four years ago.
Mr Webster, 34, and his wife, 26, from Cromer, Norfolk, were told they could keep their fourth child, Brandon, aged 13 months, after Norfolk County Council withdrew proceedings to take him into care.
The couple had fled to Ireland for Brandon's birth before challenging their county council.
Their other children were taken into care after one of them suffered unexplained leg fractures. The council has now conceded that the injuries might have been caused by vitamin deficiency. It said it was no longer relying on the evidence which had suggested that the fractures were the result of abuse.
The Websters are angry that because of the secrecy surrounding their earlier proceedings, the case would not have become public had it not been for their successful fight to keep Brandon. They accept, however, that they will not get their other children back because they were adopted two years ago.
Under the current law, reporters and members of the public cannot attend family court hearings, see documents, review evidence or obtain copies of judgments.
Sarah Harman said: "Social services are the only department other than MI5 who undertake their work in complete secrecy. It's not the welfare of the child that is being protected, it is the welfare of social workers. This cannot be justified.
"Family courts work for the community and should be more open. Family courts are very reliant on expert witnesses and there have been some real concerns about some of this evidence being poorly researched and unreliable." In 2004, she and others set up Families
Action for Court Transparency and Openness (Facto).
Facto was formed a year before Ms Harman was found guilty of "conduct unbefitting a solicitor" for passing confidential court papers to her sister. She was suspended from practice for three months and resigned as a part-time judge. The papers related to a client whose daughter was taken into care after alleged abuse. Ms Harman had not revealed the identity of the parent or child to her sister but was punished after it was decided she had misled the court.
Others seeking partial reform of the family courts include Sir Mark Potter, the president of the High Court's Family Division, and Mr Justice Munby, a senior judge. Sir Mark said: "I share entirely the concern about complaints of secret justice and lack of openness which I really believe the public would be assisted in forming a view about if there were more publicity available. The press seems to me to be the best safeguard of whether propriety is being observed."
Mr Justice Munby said: "The balance currently held between the confidentiality and privacy interests of the parties and the public interest in open justice, is badly skewed."
Lord Falconer's refusal to lift the secrecy surrounding family courts surprised many when he revealed a new discussion document, "Openness in the Family Courts", on June 20. This proposed tighter restrictions on what can be said about cases. He admitted that there had been a change of mind after consulting many groups, particularly young people. "The clear message was that the media should not be given an automatic right to attend family courts as this could jeopardise children's rights to privacy and anonymity," he said.
David Holmes, the chief executive of the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, said: "Social services do not take children into care to be adopted unnecessarily. It is dangerous to suggest that this is happening.''
Urgent action on recruitment is needed to meet adoption targets
Posted: 27 September 2001 |
Achieving government adoption targets will require more front-line staff and extra funding, a national conference heard last week.
"There isn't long to get the staff," warned British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering chief executive Felicity Collier. "We need action from the government and we need it now," she said at the conference on adoption targets organised by BAAFand Children Law UK.
She welcomed the Department of Health's commitment to a national recruitment campaign for social workers, but cast doubt on its chances of success, especially given the expected adverse publicity during the Victoria Climbie inquiry.
According to BAAF's figures, the government aims to increase the number of adoptions by 40 to 50 per cent by 2005. This translates into 4,050 adoptions for the financial year ending 31 March 2005.
To meet the target, 4,050 children would need to be matched with prospective adopters during 2003 to allow for the 15 months on average that the courts take to grant an adoption order. Because 13 per cent of children approved for adoption do not successfully find matches, a higher number of children would need to be approved for adoption during the preceding year - about 4,650 during 2002, according to BAAF.
"That's quite a task when you look at the current figures," added Collier. She admitted there were some "potential unknowns" which affected BAAF's calculations, including the impact of the recently launched adoption register on finding suitable families and possibly speeding up the process.
But she remained concerned that the targets could skew adoption work from pursuing appropriate rehabilitative measures to return children to their birth families. Councils could also sideline older or damaged children or those with special needs in order to meet targets.
Meanwhile, a leading children and families charity has warned that adoption targets will lead to an "increased fear" of social services departments.
Family Rights Group chief executive Robert Tapsfield told the conference it was an "unintended consequence" of having targets that birth families would be less likely to become involved with social services departments because of fears of the removal of their children.
The targets would inevitably focus a "disproportionate energy on adoption as opposed to family support", added Tapsfield. This would lead to more adoptions which would be "at the expense of some children [who could] be rehabilitated to their birth families".