Regulations introduced to protect children from abuse at the hands of foster parents state that any prospective parent who has been convicted of a crime against a child cannot even be assessed, whatever the nature of the crime and however old the conviction. Adoption agencies are now lobbying for the right to use discretion in these cases, after a series of cases emerged in which "otherwise suitable" parents have been barred.
In one case, a Teesside couple in their mid-30s have been told they cannot adopt because the prospective mother shot one of her friends with an air rifle 20 years ago, when she was 15. The incident happened when Andrea Kelly and her friends were playing in local woods. She caused a minor injury, was convicted of assault and charged pounds 25.
Susan Rayner, director of Durham Family Welfare (the agency assessing the couple's application) has drawn the Department of Health's attention to the case. "You could say [she] was careless or even reckless of her friend's welfare," she says in a letter to the department. "She could hardly, however, be described as a child abuser. It does not seem fair or just that she should be arbitrarily prevented from becoming an adoptive parent."
The Protection from Offenders regulations were introduced in 1997 after the conviction of Roger Saint for the abuse of children in his care between 1976 and 1989. Saint sat on South Clwyd's foster care panel, despite a conviction for child abuse in 1972.
The regulations state that if an applicant or a child in his/her care has been convicted of a specific offence against someone under the age of 16, he/she cannot adopt. Ten similar instances have come to light and the Conservative MP Julian Brazier wants the issue examined within an adjournment debate.
Other cases include a Nottingham couple who were barred despite having fostered many children before. One of the children was accused of causing actual bodily harm and cautioned after pushing another child into a hedge. In Derbyshire, another couple were barred because their son, then 14, had been in a fight and was convicted of actual bodily harm four years earlier.
Miss Kelly, 35, and her partner, Nigel Turner, 34, had been through three courses of IVF treatment over six years before deciding to adopt. After four one-day preparation groups they received their first home visit from assessors at Durham Family Welfare.
"They said something had come up on the police check and looked a bit worried," said Miss Kelly. "When we filled in the application form, it mentioned convictions and I thought `surely they can't mean that'. I telephoned the local police station and they said that under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act we didn't have to disclose it."
On the day in question in 1979, said Miss Kelly, she and other children were shooting with air rifles. "I saw one of the boys climbing a tree and aimed at him," she said. "It broke the skin and caused a bruise and his mother pressed charges. It's difficult to comprehend. If I had been taking pot shots at old ladies I would have been all right."
Now the couple are resigned to having no children unless the regulations can be changed.
In her letter, Ms Rayner states: "The issue for us is that this couple are being denied even an assessment of their suitability. While I accept the intention of the regulations is to protect children from abuse, in not allowing discretion they are preventing otherwise suitable people from becoming parents."
Mr Brazier, MP for Canterbury, said: "It is important to have statutory curbs on those involved in child abuse but juvenile pranks should not be caught up in that, especially since we hear there is a lack of suitable parents."