Choose your parents: former addict mother - or middle-class academics

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The Independent Online
Appeal judges rejected a middle-class academic couple's hope to adopt the 11-year-old daughter of a former drug addict but gave them care of the girl. The couple insist it's adoption or nothing. Michael Streeter, Legal Affairs Correspondent, says her future is still uncertain.

The young girl had faced an agonising choice - agree to be adopted by a well-off couple who have been helping her, or face being returned, either to her natural mother, who has a history of alcohol and heroin abuse, or to new foster parents.

Now, by joining her mother in rejecting adoption, she may be end up living with her mother - something described in court as potentially catastrophic for her. The girl is now likely to be taken back into care while a new hearing is arranged to settle her fate.

But the academic couple from Oxford, who have refused to keep the girl unless they can adopt her now also face a very painful choice. Should they relent? One of the judges appealed to them to keep her living with them under a half-way-house agreement. Lord Justice Ward told them he expected that "their hearts will compel them out of love to accept this judgement. I refuse to accept that they are so callous as to turn her out. That would betray the humanity of their actions ..."

The case has highlighted the problems involved in reconciling the wishes of natural parents and children and what might be considered the child's "best interests" with more affluent carers. Although all agreed the girl has prospered under her carers' guidance, both she and her real mother have objected to adoption.

The backgrounds of the carer couple and the child hardly be more different. The pair from Oxford, both doctors of philosophy, were described in court as "living in comfortable circumstances" in the north of the town, with access to good schools .

In contrast the girl, now aged 11, was born to a heroin addict, a woman whose upbringing was described by Lord Justice Ward as "tragic". The mother, who lives on a council estate, was sexually abused at the age of five, married at 16, and in a later relationship conceived the girl while addicted to heroin; the child was born weighing five and a half pounds and suffering from withdrawal symptoms.

At the age of seven the girl, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, had to call the emergency services after finding her mother's current partner dead from a drugs overdose - her mother was too intoxicated to help.

Against this backdrop of vivid contrasts, the Court of Appeal yesterday had to decide whether to back a county court judge's decision to allow the academic couple to adopt the girl, who had done well at school since she joined them in December 1994 aged eight.

In a case one of the judges described as "painfully difficult", they were faced with advice on one side that to be returned to her natural mother, especially without a long period of rehabilitation, could be "catastrophic" for the girl though they remain close.

On the other the academic couple, whose care had made a marked improvement in the girl's education, insisted - in theirs and the child's interests - on the certainty of adoption or nothing. Although never promised they could adopt, they had been led to believe it was likely and had married last year to qualify.

By a split two-to-one verdict, the judges rejected adoption but instead recommended a separate option, a residence order allowing the girl to remain with them.

Giving the majority judgement, Lord Justice Ward said he sympathised with the carers' dilemma, and said that their admitted "element of selfishness" in their stance was understandable. But, hoping the couple might change their mind, he said if they rejected the girl it could cause "untold harm to her emotional development".

Lord Justice Judge said the couple had faced the real mother with a stark choice, and some might wonder whether they were not putting their own interests ahead of what might be thought best for the girl. No one doubted that the best interests of the child, who came from a "deprived and disturbed background", lay in staying with an "intelligent and thoughtful couple ... and a happy and settled home".

After the judgement the carers' barrister, Fiona Hay, said the residence order "remains unacceptable" to the couple, and called on the local authority to start a rehabilitation plan for the mother and child. The couple, who refused to comment after the hearing, are believed to want the matter dealt with inside three months. The judges agreed there should be a High Court hearing "of some urgency".

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