Category Archives: Fostering and adoption

Sometimes it`s a pain being an advocate.


I go to court a lot in my capacity as an advocate.  Most commonly the hearing will be related to child protection proceedings and my job is to support parents who are trying their best to understand what is happening.

Imagine yourself sitting in a court room surrounded by at least thirty people in suits, most of whom you don`t know and you certainly don`t understand what their role is.  You believe you are in trouble of some kind and worry about the judge and what they will think of you.  Your learning disability means that it is really hard to follow the proceedings, the barristers are talking too fast and they are using big words like `redacted` and `Residence Order` and `interim` and `Special Guardianship` and you are thinking, “What on earth does that mean – I haven`t got a clue.”

It is a really scary time for any parent and particularly so for those who have a learning disability.  It is why advocates are so important because they play such a vital role in assisting parents to understand what is going on and why and the changes they need to make in order to be the best parents they can possibly be.

Time and again in court, I have been personally thanked by judges for my contribution to the proceedings.  Removing children in to care is one of the most serious decisions a judge can possibly make, with far reaching consequences for the child and their birth parents.  Judges are extremely careful to ensure that anyone with a learning difficulty has received appropriate support and more often than not, too late in the proceedings the judge will be made aware that they haven`t.   Child Protection proceedings can often be delayed for months while judges ensure that parents have had appropriate assessments so that paperwork and court hearings are especially geared for parents` particular levels of understanding.  These delays hurt the children.

Why is it then that social workers and other professionals do not always make the same efforts on behalf of their clients?  It makes me so cross!  Here at Solihull Advocacy it is not unheard of to receive referrals for advocacy a few days before the baby is due to be born, or the day of the final hearing.  It is much too late for us to work effectively with those parents and so the whole episode becomes a tragic, hand holding exercise as we sit with parents while babies are removed into foster placements.  It saddens and disappoints me because many of those mums and dads would be doing so much better if only children`s services had introduced an advocate to the case much earlier.

This week, I went to a Residential Review at an assessment centre where parents live with their children for up to 12 weeks, sometimes longer.  I commented that I hadn`t had sight of the report prior to the meeting which is pretty poor show and I was handed a 30 page report at the start.  I was given little opportunity (e.g. would you like to spend five minutes with Helen before we start?) to properly go through the report with my client and the result was that she became upset, angry and defensive, none of which would help her case. It is just so thoughtless.

It is also common for social workers not to get back to our e-mails and telephone calls which is not only rude and unprofessional but also frustrating for advocates and very unhelpful and disrespectful to the people we support. Not to put too fine a point on it – it is BAD PRACTICE.  Hey you there – social worker – we all have busy schedules you know!  If I didn`t return calls or e mails then my manager would be asking me why?

If you are a social worker or any other professional working with parents who have a learning disability, do me a favour would you, keep me in the loop, the earlier the better!



Nothing Else Will Do……


In 2004, Brenda Hale became the first woman to sit in Britain’s Supreme Court and the first family lawyer to have ever been appointed to such heights.

She began her career as a professor of law at Manchester University and was appointed to the Law Commission in 1984 where she spent ten years working in the arena of family law. She was made a Queen`s Counsel in 1989 and a High Court judge in 1994.

Baroness Hale has made herself unpopular in some quarters by criticising judicial appointments`panels.  Her issue is that the panels often appoint mostly white men from similar economic and academic backgrounds, into positions of judiciary power.   The Baroness believes that diversity is not only fair, it is also essential in order to ethically reflect the UK`s diverse communities.

In 2013 while Baroness Hale was overseeing a complicated family law case, she made the following comments which the Court of Appeal has summarised thus:

“The language used by Baroness Hale is striking. Different words and phrases are used, but the message is clear. Orders contemplating non-consensual adoption – care orders with a plan for adoption, placement orders and adoption orders – are  “a very extreme thing, a last resort”,  where  “no other course is possible in the child’s interests”,  they are “the most extreme option”,  a  ” when all else fails”,  to be made,  “only in exceptional circumstances and where motivated by overriding requirements pertaining to the child’s welfare, in short, where nothing else will do”

Because of her “nothing else will do” comment Baroness Hale has forever changed the way family law is reviewed and reflected upon in the courts and has facilitated much debate amongst lawyers and other practitioners, including children`s social workers involved in family law cases.  Her comments influence the courts massively because now whenever family proceedings go as far as children being placed for (non-consensual or forced) adoption in the UK, professionals must reflect on the good judge`s comments.

Andrew Pack is a care lawyer at Brighton and Hove City Council and their in-house advocate. He has also represented parents in care proceedings. He is the creator and author of the Suesspicious Minds child law blog, which deals with public law, private law, social work, serious case reviews and Court of Protection cases.    In a recent blog he wrote about the “nothing else will do” comment and ponders how it may be interpreted in many ways.  Here are some of his thoughts…..

Nothing else will do if…..

There is genuinely, literally, no other option that could be conceived of.

The other options available are appreciably worse for the child than adoption would be.

There are other options, but they require a degree of intervention by the local authority (LA)  that would in effect be unworkable.

There are other options, but they require a degree of intervention by the LA that the LA says is disproportionate 

There are other options, but in order to make use of them, the court would not be able to make a final decision within the 26-week court timetable.

There are other options, but in order to make use of them, the court would be extending the decision-making process to a point where the delay would be harmful for the child and the harm cannot be justified.

Any of the other options would cause harm to the child or carry with it a significant risk of harm to the child, and weighing up the options, adoption is the least harmful of all of the options available.

I work in the West Midlands borough of Solihull.  This is all very interesting for me in my position as Parents` Advocate to parents who have a learning difficulty.  I am currently working with three families where the LA plan for the children is to put them forward for adoption.  It is also important to note that local authorities have adoption targets to meet each year which places undue pressure on childrens` services to get children adopted quickly, within the fourteen month period designated as time enough by our government.

The well-known Lib-Dem MP John Hemming, who vehemently opposes forced adoption stated in a recent newspaper article,

“The government target is to increase adoptions of children in care. Children who go back to their parents or to loving grandparents do not meet the target. Thus in 1995 the number of children under five adopted in England was a mere 560, while children under five whose care ceased (a term that includes those who go back to live with their families) was double this.

By 2012, the number whose care ceased was much the same, while adoptions had more than quadrupled: of these a staggering 1,100 were ominously described as ‘consent dispensed with’.  The obsession with adoption is splitting up many families merely because of government diktat.”  (John Hemming is chairman of Families for Justice which fights for those who suffer at the courts’ hands.)

Many of my colleagues, including some who work for social services, are concerned about this alarming increase in children being placed for adoption when we already know how damaging to a child both in the near and the long term, adoption can be.  In a recent poll, 69% of social workers did not agree with the government targets.

On 24 December 2013,  the government announced:

£50 million for councils as they prepare to implement reforms and work with voluntary adoption agencies and each other to recruit more adopters for the 6,000 children waiting for a loving home.  This provides a financial incentive for placing children for adoption.

A new Adoption Leadership Board supporting local authorities to drive through the reforms in the Children and Families Bill, and help adoption agencies stay on track recruiting more adoptive parents.

John Hemmings has said,  “I expect in years to come the government will apologise to the children for what is being done to them today. In particular, the system ignores grandparents.  For children to be taken into care is often a traumatic step.  Staying with grandparents can mean a normal life for children who can then remain in touch with their birth parents.  This is a far better option than foster care however, grandparents, uncles and aunts have no right to be heard by the court.”

In my opinion, our children have become a commodity, to satisfy the wants and needs of successive governments who do not wish to put in place services to support parents with life challenges and learning disabilities.  They cost too much however, our precious children are expendable aren`t they?

(The author e mailed Andrew Pack to obtain permission to quote him here but he didn`t get back to me.  Andrew should you read this and if you have any objections, please let me know and I will take down the blog immediately.)

It`ll be lonely this Christmas.


Christmas is a particularly difficult time of the year for those parents who do not have their children with them.  At the charity I work for, Solihull Action through Advocacy, for many of the parents we support it may be that the children are in foster care, or waiting for a family to adopt them and whichever way you look at it, whether parents haven`t done a very good job of parenting or whether they just haven`t had the right kind of help that they need, Christmas can be a very lonely time and a time when many tears are shed behind closed doors.
I was thinking today of a family I supported a few years ago whose child had been adopted.  Unusually, the family were given leave by the court to see their child once a year.  This is hardly ever an arrangement which the courts agree to and for most children who are forcibly adopted in the UK, once the paperwork is signed that`s it, they don`t get to keep in touch with their birth parents at all other than through letter box contact.   Letter box contact means you get to write to your child perhaps once or twice a year and so long as you don`t write things like,  “me and dad love you so much”   or,   “we miss you very much,”   (because such sentences are immediately censored,)  then letter box contact is entirely at the discretion of the adoptive parents.   In other words, you can write to your child and the adoptive parents can just put your card or letter straight into the bin.
For the family I am talking about here, there were always issues over contact which happened to be at Christmas.  It was often not arranged for all kinds of reasons, the adoptive parents were too busy, the person supervising the contact could not make it, the children`s social worker was too busy to co-ordinate the contact and so on.  It was a bitter blow to the family when this happened and they generally had to wait until the new year, for their contact to take place.
There were other issues too that were perennial, mostly relating to the way the professionals spoke to the birth mum and dad.  They always felt that they were being spoken down to and belittled which is of course why advocacy is of such importance.  One of the most upsetting things for the family was that during meetings, the adoptive parents always referred to themselves as their child`s mum and dad.  Quite understandably, the birth mum and dad would become distressed about this and open mouthed, say to me, “But they are not their mum and dad – we are!”  When you have a learning disability, it`s very hard to understand what the law says and how it is applied.
One Christmas a contact meeting had been set up which was a Christmas miracle for this family.  I telephoned the social worker and asked,  just as a modest suggestion,   “Do you think that the adoptive parents might call themselves that very thing during the contact meeting, just for the purpose of the meeting?  It would help lessen the distress the family feel when the adopters call themselves mum and dad.”
Back came the response which I felt was sadly lacking in compassion,  “Certainly not, these parents have been made mum and dad legally, in a court of law.  We would not expect them to call themselves adoptive parents under any circumstances.”  So that told me then.

I thought,   “boy, you`re all heart.”  but of course I am highly professional so I wouldn`t dream of actually saying this aloud.

It just made me think, the recent Equalities Act in the UK asks for people to make reasonable adjustments for anyone with a learning disability, so that they are better able to accept and deal with whatever life may throw at them and so that they are treated fairly and justly.  I would have hoped that this small and unobtrusive request could have been interpreted as a `reasonable adjustment,` for a one hour meeting once a year.
But sigh……   who am I?  Just a foolish advocate who doesn`t know the law and has to have it explained to them by a social worker who is much more clever than I.   And another thing –
Bah Christmas humbug!

Why do troubled families keep on having children?


Many of the parents I support with advocacy have very large families.  As the children are taken one by one or sometimes all at once in to foster care or for adoption, it is difficult to understand why it is that families let further pregnancies happen over and over again.  I have worked with people who have had as many as ten children and have not been allowed to keep any of them.  The suffering and grief that families experience when their children are removed from them is very painful to witness, not just for the families, all of the people working around the family feel the upset and the loss.  Mums and dads usually understand how their decisions can impact on so many people, the ripples go on and on.

So why oh why do mums from troubled families keep on getting pregnant?

I was at a conference some years ago and spoke to a woman who like me, works with parents who have a learning disability.  She was at that time supporting a mother who was expecting her fourteenth child.  This tragic mum whose poor body must have been weary to say the least, told the worker that she would,  “just keep on having babies, until social services let me keep one.”

One of the mothers I used to work with, moved away from Solihull to live in another area.  She`d had six children removed into foster care when I last saw her in 2010.  She`d delivered a seventh baby that year which she had been allowed to keep and when I bumped into her in 2012, she`d had another two.  Miraculously they were all three still living with her but it was hard for me to understand her reasons for having so many more children so quickly and increasing the risk that they too, would go into foster care.

My brother Al` was a team manager in children`s services in Birmingham for around twenty years until his retirement.  I was talking to him recently about this subject and he said that he thought women got pregnant so many times because often it was the only thing they could do that they were good at, especially women who have a learning disability.  For a whole nine months while they are pregnant no-one can touch them.  The baby is safely inside them, warm and nurtured and they are able to relax in the knowledge that until the child is born, no-one can do anything about it.  The mum feels in a sense that she is in control, sometimes for the first time in her life.  I don`t know if my brother is right but if he is, it must be a pretty powerful feeling for those mums who mostly feel invisible, marginalised, put down and disrespected.

Parents often say to me,  “we just want a chance to show that we can do it and be good parents, just one chance.”

I wish that there was more support in place for families who need that help.  I wish that judges would be more compassionate in their summing up in court and offer more parents that one chance.  I wish I had a shed load of money and could open up a home where entire families could come and live with the support already in place – now wouldn`t that be wonderful!