Tomorrow a judge will make a decision about what will happen next for NB. I don't know what that decision will be, but his particular circumstances have got me thinking that in all the writing, talking and comment (informed and otherwise) about adoption and child protection procedures, there is one role that seems to be ignored far too often: that of the birth parent.
The types of neglect and abuse that can lead to a child being taken into care are manifold. It is easy to demonise the birth parents whose children end up in care, but in reality their circumstances are often complex and threaded through with tragedy. Media concentration on extreme cases like that of Baby P certainly focuses the public's attention, but tends to allow us to forget that many parents who find their children being taken into care are not actually dreadful monsters, but perhaps people whose own lives have been blighted by a terrible upbringing, or who are trapped by long-standing addictions, or who struggle to care for their children competently because they have learning disabilities and no family to support them.
A recent report called for social services to act more quickly to remove children, and to offer birth families fewer chances to get their children back. It seems that too many children are waiting for neglectful parents to make improvements that never seem to actually happen. It is hard to disagree with their assessment that children's needs must be put before the needs of the parents. But at the same time, if a parent could make the necessary changes with the proper support, is it not right to allow them time to attempt it? And if so, how long do we wait? How long do the children wait?
It's a hard balance.
Once children are in care, the role of the birth parent is still a significant one. Birth parents share parental responsibility with social services as long as the child is being looked after on a court order. This means that foster carers must seek permission from the parents for all sorts of things, including taking a holiday and getting a new hairstyle.
When a child becomes 'looked-after', and whole series of events are triggered. Assessments are carried out on birth parents to determine their potential ability to provide adequate parenting for the child. If these assessments look likely to be negative, further assessments are carried out on other family members. Only if all of these assessments are negative is the child considered for adoption.
And throughout this process, birth parents are given legal representation to enable them to put their case at the many court appearances. So, all along the way, birth families have the power to significantly delay the process. In all the talk about cutting red tape and getting social services to be more efficient, nothing is ever said about the power of birth families to cause delays time and time again.
In NB's case, after his first set of assessments were negative, his birth mother's solicitor successfully challenged the assessment process itself, causing the judge to determine that it should be carried out again. These assessments take place over a number of weeks, after which a care plan is drawn up and presented at court. Re-doing the assessment has added months to NB's time in care.
During the second round of the assessment, social services decided to 'double-track' NB in an attempt to expedite matters. While re-doing the assessment on his birth mother, they also carried out family assessments in case his mother's assessment was negative again. They also carried out pre-adoption preparation (e.g. medicals, paperwork and searching the databases for potential matches) in case all assessments were negative. Just the sort of efficiency we should be looking for you might think!
And yet, the decision we are waiting for tomorrow is still a delayed one. Everybody prepared for court last week, expecting a decision to be made that day, but just a few days before they were due in court, NB's birth father, who had previously refused to be assessed and hasn't seen NB for months, suddenly contacted social services and requested an assessment.
I don't go to court and I'm not privy to the details of what passes there, but when I heard that the judge had decided to delay a week before approving or rejecting social service's new care plan for NB (which is for adoption) I couldn't help thinking that his father's request was at the bottom of it.
I won't go into details, but NB's father claims that he's started a new life and is now in a position to care for NB. Is it true? I don't know. Nobody knows. And that's the point. The choice is between dismissing the father's request out-of-hand and destroying any chance for NB to grow up with his own blood family, or allowing the assessment, delaying NB's progress again, and risk it all being for nothing in the end.
I've written many times about the complexities involved in settling the futures of individual children, and I may be getting boring, but the longer I spend in this job the more I realise that there are no quick fixes or easy ways out, despite what some might lead you to believe.