I called a debate on the unique Newcastle charity Families in Care who offer support for birth parents through the adoption process. I asked Government t to work with them so more areas can benefit from their model. Demand is not confined to our city.
Chi’s Adjournment Debate Speech on Support for Birth Families through Adoption Process: https://youtu.be/1eIHYM46EUA
I recognise that the headlines from the House today will be about the Chancellor’s autumn statement, but I am afraid that he has only made things worse for those whose lives are the subject of my Adjournment debate. Nevertheless, I am pleased to have secured this debate on a subject that is often overlooked by Chancellors, Prime Ministers and many others. I am talking about the adoption process by which children are removed from their birth parents and placed in the care of, and ultimately adopted by, parents other than their birth parents.
This year’s John Lewis Christmas advert gives a moving and positive representation of the adoption and care sector, and has brought welcome attention to the topic. I am not ashamed to say that it also brought tears to my eyes when I watched it on the train to the north- east last week. I commend the work of John Lewis and Action for Children on the advert.
Children are the most vulnerable in our society, so it is imperative that the child’s interest is first and foremost in the care and adoption process. Indeed, I would go further and say that the care and adoption process can be successful only if it is child-centred and everyone involved upholds that principle.
That does not mean, however, that birth parents should go without support. For every child adopted, there is a parent or parents who have to go through the process of losing their child. They are often parents in challenging and difficult circumstances, some of whom may not have the social or educational skills to easily navigate the complex adoption process, which is traumatic for many. It is not in the child’s interest to leave their parents without help, for the sake of the parents and the child, because a child placed in care and/or adopted may one day want to make contact with their parents, as is their right.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and commend the work of the APPG. I called this debate to give more exposure and a greater voice to birth parents, because she is absolutely right that the subject is not discussed enough. She talks about the contact between children and their birth parents, which is likely to be more constructive if birth parents have been supported through the adoption process and beyond.
That is why I want to bring the House’s attention to the work of a unique local charity in my constituency that provides invaluable support to birth parents. It is unique because Families in Care is a charity for birth parents that was set up by birth parents. To my knowledge, it is the only charity in the country that offers the services that it offers. It was originally set up in 1986 by birth parents of adopted children as a parent-led support group. It became a charity in 1992 and employed its first part-time worker. Since its beginning, the delivery model has been nurturing, non-judgmental, holistic and, most importantly, done in partnership with birth parents. My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) had a university placement with this charity. She is unable to be here this evening, but wanted me to pass on that she gained invaluable experience from her time with Families in Care.
Before I say more about Families in Care, I want to discuss the difficult climate in which it operates. Removing a child from their parents should be a last resort, but that last resort is necessary—all too necessary—and it happens all too often. Over 80,000 children are currently in care in England. This is an all-time high, and it means more children who need our support and more birth parents who need support. The erosion in early help for vulnerable families in recent years, particularly since the Conservative Government came into office in 2010, has been shocking. More than 1,300 Sure Start centres across the UK have closed since 2010, a loss that is not nearly matched by the paltry commitment to open family hubs in just 75 locations. I hope the Minister recognises the impact of that on the adoption and care system.
My constituency in Newcastle has been hit particularly hard. Newcastle saw a 20% increase in the number of looked-after children between 2018 and 2021 alone. The North East Child Poverty Commission’s report this year shows that the north-east has the highest proportion of looked-after children in England, at 108 per 10,000 children. According to the directors of north-east children’s services, this means:
“The North East is in a vicious cycle with levels of demand causing pressure across the system and spiralling costs.”
Analysis from the University of Liverpool shows that the rise in cared-for children has coincided with rising child poverty. Given that, under the Conservatives, the north-east has become the child poverty capital of the country, this is particularly concerning for us. We are once again, after today’s announcements, faced with real-terms public sector cuts, and local authorities—already under enormous pressure—and working people are being expected to bear the burden. Newcastle City Council will have to make the £25 million it spends on children in care go further, placing yet more pressure on the care system and the parents themselves.
However, this is not the only issue. There are inequalities in adoption rates and the number of children coming into care, both in levels of deprivation and ethnicity. In 2020 in Newcastle, white children left social care settings for adoption at double the rate at which non-white children left social care settings for adoption. Gypsy, Roma and Traveller groups are also over-represented in the care system, and are more likely to experience low rates of adoption and fostering compared with national averages.
It is for this reason that the work of Families in Care is so important. The charity provides free, independent and specialist advocacy support, counselling and education for birth parents who are involved in child protection and care or adoption proceedings in Newcastle. Families in Care has been supported since its establishment by Newcastle City Council. However, it remains independent of the local authority, working in collaboration with the council’s children’s services to provide an invaluable mediating service.
I visited Families in Care in October this year, and I was struck by the atmosphere of support, welcome and warmth. I learned of the bespoke care, mediation, wellbeing support and counselling that families receive during all stages of the adoption process before, during and well beyond court proceedings. This bespoke care includes Len, its therapy dog, who I was fortunate to meet. I am told his nickname is Red Len, which is a reference to his beautiful ginger coat and apparently also to his politics, but as I do not speak Husky, I was unable to verify that.
Families in Care also offers learning and development sessions, mediations, therapeutic art, meditation and weekly mental health drop-ins over a cup of tea for parents. I saw one poignant and beautiful work of art, a bright collage of art and craft materials coming together to create a tree wrapped in a rainbow. It carried a powerful message to parents:
“Nothing is impossible, the word itself says I’m possible.”
Through being rooted in the community, and having been established by parents going through the adoption process, the charity is well placed to speak up for birth parents.
Let me share with the House some of the experiences of birth parents, to give them a greater voice. The first story comes from a constituent—a mother, and a survivor of domestic violence and coercive control during pregnancy. I heard how in her case, social workers did not help her mental wellbeing, as she had to re-explain her situation to six different social workers, which she said was retraumatising. She told me how the situation was totally transformed by Families in Care, and said:
“I felt totally alone before meeting Families in Care.”
I was also contacted by another mother who felt overwhelmed by the shame and guilt associated with going to court. She felt ostracised even by her own family, but Families in Care gave her someone she could cry with or lean on for support, and someone she felt was truly in her corner.
Parents journey together with Families in Care, and they work on a peer-to-peer basis. Parents who have come through Families in Care often stay and help other parents who are going through the same situation that they were in previously. That is because, as my constituent put it,
“sometimes a social worker doesn’t look at things from the same perspective as a parent does.”
Families in Care epitomises the value of peer-to-peer mentoring, but much more can still be done to support victims, particularly victims of domestic abuse, through the adoption and care process. One constituent told me that she was refused a picture of her child once the adoption process had been completed. Will the Minister explain why that would be the case, especially when the parent had been subject to domestic abuse and was a victim of coercive behaviour?
What support are the Government planning to introduce to support birth parents through the adoption process? Families in Care provides a unique and vital service to birth parents in Newcastle, and not surprisingly it is overwhelmed by demand in Newcastle and far beyond. Its funding and support is confined to the city of Newcastle, but the demand is not. I know work has been done to explore sharing the expertise of Families in Care with other local authority areas, and it has also been working with a family court judge, Stephen Wildblood, in Avon, North Somerset and Gloucestershire, to see where that model may be best placed to succeed elsewhere, as well as in Newcastle. Families in Care receives consistent and growing demand for its services from across the country. Given the trends in child social care, which I have outlined, will the Minister work proactively with it to identify and assess areas of the UK where its model can be used or adapted to make a real difference to parents? Will her Department work with Families in Care to assess the value of peer-to-peer mentoring for the birth parents of children in care, and take that assessment forward to share across Departments?
When researching for this debate, I found it hard to find robust and nationwide data on birth parents, for example when trying to assess the average education status, or whether the impression that adoptive parents tend to come from the middle classes but birth parents come from the working class has robust data beneath it. I found it hard to find that data. In responding, will the Minister let me know whether that data is available? If it is not, will she put a programme in place to collect it? We need to know more about the reasons for and the likelihood of parents giving up their children or having them taken away from them to be adopted. Most importantly, will she assure me that she will put a support plan in place to ensure that birth parents, wherever they are in our country, receive the peer-to-peer support that they need?