Information about a person's adoption

Adoption and Children Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 5:45 pm ar 21 Tachwedd 2001.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

We are shocked to discover that clauses 53-62 and 76 propose fundamental changes to the way in which adopted people are currently able to access essential information about themselves: their identity, birth origins and other information. These provisions are new and the Department of Health is interested to ascertain whether they strike the right balance. It is our view that they do not and that further, within the balance of rights of all parties involved in the adoption process, they are disproportionate to the evidence from research and practice that informed the Houghton Committee's recommendations and that have been developed since. These clauses are inordinately complex and provide for an extremely prescriptive framework, which will almost certainly result in a return to secretive and restrictive adoption practice. The Committee needs to consider the likely effect of these provisions and weigh this against any evidence and research into adverse effects of the current provisions. We are unaware of such evidence.

In 1997 The Children's Society undertook the first major British study to compare the characteristics and experiences of adopted people who search for birth relatives (searchers) with those who do not (non-searchers) but where birth relatives have made an enquiry about them . The study involved nearly 500 adopted people (394 searchers and 78 non-searchers) and was of a quantitative and qualitative nature. More detailed information about the findings of the research can be found at Appendix 1. The main findings that we would draw to the Committee's attention in considering these new proposals are:

The search and reunion process does not threaten the relationships developed in childhood with the adoptive parents: they remain strong and durable.

There is a widespread need for many adopted adults to access this information about their origins and background. The main reasons given for seeking information included a long standing curiosity about origins (82 per cent.) and needing to know more about oneself (77 per cent.), background information (69%).

Just 7 per cent. of birth mothers refused contact with the adopted person however some were still willing to answer questions from the adopted person via an intermediary and some sent photos. So whilst they reject contact they had an understanding about the need for adopted people to access important information.

Over 80% of both searchers and non-searchers said that the contact had answered important questions about their origins and background.

When the law changed in 1975 there was considerable debate about the introduction of the right of adopted people to access identifying information. Fears were expressed that birth parents would suffer distress and embarrassment if their adopted children suddenly approached them. In practice, these fears appear not to have been realised. Research by The Children's Society (see Appendix 1) and others has shown that adopted adults have valued the fact that they can obtain information about their origins, and, where they have made approaches to their birth parents, have generally done so in a sensitive manner. The Bill does not take into account that most children being placed for adoption today come with a very different scenario from the babies placed for adoption in the 1940s to 1970s. Many of them may have lived with their birth families for several years and therefore already have access to identifying information.

The Secretary of State for Health has made a statement as required by the Human Rights Act 1998 that this Bill is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. We believe that these new provisions and in particular clause 58, represent a breach with the convention right enshrined in Article 8 which includes the right to access to information about a person's own identity. This principle is also enshrined within Article 9 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. We will be seeking further legal opinion on this issue. It seems incomprehensible that a Bill, which is supposed to ensure that the welfare of the child is given paramount consideration throughout his or her life, should propose curtailing an adopted person's rights in this way.

We, like many others are unsure as to the motivation behind these retrograde provisions. We are concerned about the following specific matters:

1. That clause 58 will make it impossible for adoption agencies to disclose to an adopted adult the information needed to enable him or her to obtain a copy of the original birth certificate. This would also make it impossible for the adopted person to have their name entered on the Adoption Contact Register as clause 77(3)[c] stipulates that the Registrar General must be satisfied that the adopted person has such information as is necessary to obtain a copy of his birth certificate.

2. That access to birth records will only be available to the adopted person through the adoption agency and not through a direct approach to the Registrar General as is currently provided for by section 51 of The Adoption Act 1976.

3. That unless consent has been obtained from the birth parents seemingly at the time of the adoption no identifying information can be given to an adopted person or the adoptive parents.

4. That clause 56 introduces an offence on the part of the adoption agency if they disclose of identifying information where consent has not been obtained.

We believe that these provisions discriminate against adopted people; the statutory register of births is a public document to which most people have access and are entitled to obtain a copy of the register of entry relating to their birth. The difficulty for some adopted people is that they do not have the information about their original name. This Bill proposes that such people should be discriminated against in terms of information relating to their own identity. Current adoption practice is framed within the principle of openness and building upon research and practice learning that has demonstrated how fundamental this is to an adopted person's feeling of identity, self-worth and overall mental health. We are also concerned that 57(1) requires that information about a child is to be given to the adopters after the adoption order is made. This is too late. In order to consider whether they are able to care properly for a child, adopters must have all the necessary information about the child at the outset of the placement so that they can made an informed decision about whether to proceed. A finding of many disruption meetings is that a contributory factor to the breakdown of a placement is the lack of information given to adopters at an early stage. Anything that can be done to prevent the damaging effects of disruption on young people must be pursued. We had hoped to engage with this new bill on the basis of moving these issues forward to create a modern and relevant adoption process. Instead we find ourselves having to defend a principle that we thought had already been established

In its memorandum to the Committee, the Department of Health refers to the case of R v. Registrar General, ex partie Smith as evidence of the need to change the law on the issue of access to information. Far from providing evidence in support of the proposals before the Committee we feel that this case demonstrates how well the current system is working and further that the decision by the Court of Appeal in this particular case was the right one. If the new provisions were enforced the Government would seem to be making a blanket provision that will affect all adopted people both directly and indirectly on the basis of a handful of cases that are best dealt with in the courts. We would draw the Committee's attention to the case of Ms Gunn-Russo who won her challenge to the decision of the Nugent Care Society to refuse her access to its relevant records about her adoption in July this year. This was on the basis that the Society was imposing a blanket restriction on access to information that was not proportionate. In our evidence in April 2001 we outlined the need to ensure that access to information is standardised across all adoption agencies to bring it into line with those organisations like ourselves who are currently operating good policies and working to guidelines.