Adoption couples to get right of appeal

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Couples who want to adopt a child will now have the right to appeal if they feel they were turned down unfairly or were the victims of political correctness.

The Government is bringing in the new measures after a number of controversial cases where parents were denied the right to adopt on the grounds of education, age or race.

In one case, a Norfolk couple - Jim and Roma Lawrence, from Cromer - were told that they could not adopt a mixed-race child because of their "lack of understanding of racial issues" despite Mrs Lawrence having been born to an Asian family in Guyana.

But social workers' leaders yesterday denied that political correctness could override a child's chance of a stable home, stressing they acted in children's best interests rather than that of potential parents.

The changes, which come into force on 1 April, will ensure that couples will be told when their application is being considered by an adoption panel.

They will receive a copy of their assessment report, which goes to the panel, and have an opportunity to respond to it in writing.

If the panel recommends against allowing the couple to adopt, the pair will be shown the recommendation before it goes to the adoption agency - whether a local authority social services department or a voluntary agency - which makes the final decision.

The couple will then have the right to challenge the recommendation and to have it reviewed by the adoption agency.

Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for Health, said the changes would remove "fashionable theories" from adoption and would make the procedure more independent and transparent.

"Decisions about which parents are able to adopt children should reflect common-sense values that are widely shared throughout society, and shouldn't reflect the rather specialist and fashionable theories of a particular professional group," he said.

The measures also include changes to increase the number of lay members on the panels from two to three - including, wherever possible, one adoptive parent and one person who was adopted.

Membership of a panel will be restricted to a maximum of two consecutive terms of three years with at least three, and no more than four, members appointed each year.

A spokeswoman for the British Association for Adoption and Fostering said that they welcomed the measures: "Anything that makes adoption more open and accountable would be welcomed by BAAF." she said. "Some of the regulation is already taking place with local authorities."

But she defended social workers from charges of "fashionable theories", saying: "We argue that social workers act in the best interests of the child and do not make decisions out of some notion of political correctness. That is unfair, misleading and not borne out by the evidence."

Dave Burchell, assistant director of the British Association of Social Workers, added: "Adoption is an emotive and sensitive area of social work. It is understandable that couples who are turned down should feel hurt and aggrieved, yet it is the best interests of the children that social workers represent not the interests of the adults.

"There are also considerable difficulties to be addressed over the proposals to make the entire application report available to the couple," he said. "What happens for instance in the course of the very detailed assessment process if something is uncovered that only one of the applicants knows about and must remain confidential?"

An Early Day Motion was tabled yesterday calling on the Government to restore funding to the overseas adoption helpline which has assisted 14,000 callers over the last five years.

"The helpline is the only source of accurate, independent information and advice available to would-be adopters, social workers and other professionals struggling through the difficult and complicated procedures ... facing those who wish to adopt from overseas," said Peter Thurnham, MP for Bolton North East.