Man will sue council that failed to have him adopted

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The Independent Online
A MAN who spent his entire childhood in council care is suing the local authority for failing to have him adopted and depriving him of the chance to grow up in a secure family home.

Paul James's mother put him up for adoption when he was born. But by the time he was 18 he had lived with four sets of foster parents, in two children's homes, an assessment centre, a hostel, and council lodgings.

Although his mother signed the necessary papers the day after he was born, Hammersmith and Fulham council, west London, has conceded that he was not formally assessed for adoption until he was 12. The council has apologised, and offered him a pounds 1,000 ex gratia payment for taking two years to provide him with written records of his early life.

But it has refused him compensation for its contribution to the years of neglect he suffered and the 'arguably avoidable' legal, emotional and financial problems that have come close to wrecking his life.

Now Mr James, 25, has won legal aid to pursue a claim against the council through the courts for damages 'for personal injuries and loss' from 1968-86. In what is thought to be the first case of its kind, Mr James blames alleged negligence by its social services department for the emotional and behavioural disturbance that blighted his childhood from the age of 10.

He says: 'My mother was 15 when she fell pregnant with me. She had no support from the father or her family, so she decided I would have a better chance in life if she had me adopted. In fact I never had any of the love and security that other children take for granted. I have always felt completely alone.'

In his early teens, he was bullied by other children in residential homes, played truant from school, became involved in petty crime and made several suicide attempts. At 13 he nearly died after drinking three bottles of vodka. He left school without any qualifications.

'In the children's homes, one or two of the staff were OK, but they were just papering over the cracks. No one was really interested in helping me plan any kind of future. Mostly, they regarded me as a boisterous child that needed taking down a peg.'

Mr James has spent most of his adult life unemployed and living alone in rented accommodation. He has difficulty sustaining relationships. Two years ago, frustrated at not knowing his father's identity, and by the lack of interest from his mother, he asked the council to give him all the information on file about him.

It was a hard battle. For a year, his attempts to piece together his past brought him little success. Then a solicitor took up his case. Last year, Josephine Kwhali, the council's assistant director for 'quality assurance', concluded that Mr James had not been formally considered for adoption because of 'passive non-intervention rather than any deliberate or negative intent'.

The records showed that his first set of foster parents were willing to adopt him 'once the family's financial position had improved'. It never did. He left his fourth foster home because his carers were on the brink of retirement. He went into residential care at 11, after being expelled from school for disruptive behaviour.

When he was 12, voluntary adoption agencies were approached to try to find a suitable family, but by then his emotional problems made him 'difficult to place'. He remained in care.

In her review of the response to his request for information, Ms Khwali accepted that the council had been 'defensive'. She wrote: 'There was unnecessary delay . . . and a lack of urgency and sensitivity in responding to his needs. As a consequence, Mr James's attempts to find out the circumstances of his early life embroiled him in legal, emotional and financial agendas that arguably could have been avoided.'

The internal review, completed in March, led to changes in council procedures. In a letter to Mr James on 2 March, Geoff Alltimes, deputy director of social services, apologised for the 'considerable delay'.

He offered Mr James counselling and pounds 1,000, to help cover his costs, but added: 'It is the council's view there is not a case for compensation.'

Mr James is determined not to let the matter rest. 'I have probably had hundreds of people caring for me, but never a role model. What I suffered was real negligence. They robbed me of the chance of stability and security. What I need is compensation. I need the money to get a proper education, start my life again.'

(Photograph omitted)

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