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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 24 November 2020

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Covid-19, Supply and Demand for Medicines, Business Motion, Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill, Business Motion, Decision Time, National Adoption Week 2020


Contents


National Adoption Week 2020

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-22736, in the name of Rona Mackay, on national adoption week 2020. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament acknowledges National Adoption Week 2020, which runs from 14 to 20 October; understands that there are a range of events being held online, including fun family activities, as well as information sessions on foetal alcohol spectrum disorder and sibling relationships; commends the organisers for raising awareness of the benefits of adoption, including Adoption UK, which recently published the results of its April 2020 survey into the effects of lockdown on care experienced children, which highlighted that young people are experiencing increased anxiety and emotional distress, while many families reported enjoying spending more time together and some children appearing calmer than when attending school; acknowledges other research that highlighted that adopted children are 20 times more likely to be excluded than their peers, and notes the importance of these findings in tackling this inequality so that all children may have an equal start in life.

18:11  

What a privilege it is to follow such a great debate on history-making legislation. Well done to Monica Lennon and everyone else who was involved in getting the Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill passed.

Virtual participation is not the ideal way to lead a members’ business debate, but we are living in extraordinary times and needs must, given that I live in a level 4 area.

I am delighted to be able to lead—[Inaudible.]—and I thank members on all sides of the chamber who signed my motion on national adoption week. It is never too late to highlight the amazing work that is done by the adoption organisations and charities—[Inaudible.]—when Scottish adoption week was celebrated last week. As well as providing information on adopting, the themes this year focused on—[Inaudible.]—therapeutic parenting and foetal alcohol spectrum disorder—[Inaudible.]

Activities and events for Scottish adoption week had to be planned and held online, but huge congratulations must go to the organisers in the Adoption and Fostering Alliance Scotland, who worked their socks off to make the programme enjoyable—[Inaudible.].

We seem to have a problem with Rona Mackay’s connection. I will suspend the meeting for a moment and see whether we can sort it.

18:13 Meeting suspended.  

18:17 On resuming—  

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I am informed that Rona Mackay may now be in a position to recommence her speech.

Rona Mackay

Can you hear me, Presiding Officer?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I am assured that the connection is now good. I ask you to start again, if you do not mind—I will give you the full time for your speech.

Members probably heard the first few paragraphs, so I will go back just a few lines, to save time.

Like everything else this year, activities and events for Scottish adoption week had to be planned and held online, but huge congratulations must go to the organisers in the Adoption and Fostering Alliance Scotland, who worked their socks off to make the programme as enjoyable and informative as always, despite the unusual circumstances.

There was a week of fantastic virtual events, which included a question-and-answer session with ministers Maree Todd and Joe FitzPatrick, a special message from the First Minister, and legal advice from Rhona Pollock. Great fun was had at the family events, which included a magic show and gymnastics, information sessions, a do-it-yourself tea party kit for hosting your own celebration, and much more.

There were sessions on attachment and relationship trauma, webinars on FASD and siblings, and podcasts on adoption and fostering, among other things. In fact, I cannot believe how much was packed into just one week, and it continues—members can look on the Adoption UK in Scotland website to see what is happening over the next few weeks. I do not have time to detail the terrific podcasts that are available online, but I urge members to visit the site and listen to some heart-warming and realistic no-holds-barred accounts from some amazing adopters.

Talking of amazing adopters, I would like to highlight the personal story of a friend and member of my staff team, whom many people in Parliament know. He and his—[Inaudible.]—18 weeks old—[Inaudible.]—interaction skills. Around one month later, I saw him again. Even in that short time, he was a different little boy, responding to his name, coming over for cuddles and doing all the things that children do. Right in front of me, I saw proof of the difference that attachment and nurture make.

Shortly afterwards, the couple found out that the birth parents were pregnant with their second child and they decided to adopt their son’s sister from birth to enable the siblings to be together. Sure, there were hiccups along the way—they were initially turned down because that was not the policy and that had not been done before—but, thankfully, a few months’ later it was agreed that they could be approved as foster carers and they brought the little girl home to be with her brother. They tell me that that is a first for Glasgow adoptees.

If we fast-forward to today, they are progressing with the adoption. They are a loving family unit who are devoted to their two healthy, happy children. As if there was not enough toilet training to contend with, they have even added an adorable puppy to their family.

Apart from the obvious joy of that story, I tell it to illustrate that adoption can be an unpredictable and bumpy journey and that of course it is possible to keep siblings together. The one thing to remember is that professional and friendly support is always there for any situation that arises.

Children who are placed away from their home require high-quality care that addresses their emotional and wellbeing needs. Matching children to families who can provide that care is essential to supporting improved outcomes for children. Every child deserves a secure and happy home.

Foster care and adoption services are vital in assessing, improving and supporting foster carers and prospective adoptive parents to care for some of our most vulnerable children. On-going assessment and planning are crucial for the child and for the families.

The Care Inspectorate statistical bulletin, “Fostering and adoption 2018–19”, states:

“There were 3,758 approved foster care households at”

the end of 2018,

“a total which has gradually decreased from 4,414 in 2015.”

It continues:

“In 2018, 286 children and young people were legally adopted, down from 328 in 2017. ... There were 280 new adoptive households approved in 2018, down from 317 in 2017 ... Of the new adoptive households, 28% were approved to adopt sibling groups of two, 2% were approved for sibling groups of three, and none were approved to adopt sibling groups of four or more.”

Adoption can be a long process, but that is for good reason. However, I believe that there are ways in which it could be better streamlined, and a national framework might be the starting point for that. The minister might want to allude to that when winding up.

There is a wealth of information on the process online, including many documented statistics on adoption and fostering. However, the message is clear: children need a loving home. Fostering can provide that temporarily, but there is a desperate need for more foster families.

Adoption is a longer route that is not without its challenges, but the rewards far outweigh them, because people know that their love and nurture have helped a child to flourish. Who does not believe that every child should have the best chance in life and that every child deserves love and support, regardless of their background?

I look forward to hearing members’ speeches, and I thank everyone again for supporting the motion. I apologise for the technical problems that we appear to be having.

18:23  

I congratulate Rona Mackay on bringing the debate to the chamber following an important week that allows us to reflect on the work of a range of bodies that support children, as well as the work of adoptive parents and of the children who are adopted.

As it has done for so many other services, this year has created additional problems for individuals and organisations. The pandemic is far reaching, as Rona Mackay’s motion suggests. It is right that we use this time not only to consider challenges, but to celebrate the good work that has taken place and encourage more people to consider whether adoption might be the right choice for them.

Many of the measures that benefit the system today are still relatively new. It is only in this century that statutory adoption leave has found its place alongside statutory maternity leave and, following that, statutory paternity leave. It was only in this decade that a Government-supported Scotland-wide adoption register emerged.

Many negative practices remain in place for looked-after children. The Education and Skills Committee has only recently been looking at redress for survivors of abuse, a great many of whom were left in the care of institutions that simply did not address their needs, failed to protect them and would not listen to them.

Too often, we see a high cost in lives for the failures of the past. Many looked-after children and adopted children have faced far too many negative experiences at a young age. Increasingly, we have recognised that adoption can be only the beginning of providing a stable home environment and taking care of the needs of the child.

As this year’s adoption week recognises, sibling groups are still split up by these processes. Since April 2018, at least 1,300 children across the United Kingdom have suffered that heartbreaking fate. We now rightly see that it is in the best interests of those family groups to enable them to stay together. Sadly, too often, that appears not to be seen as a viable option.

Adoption can be a difficult process for prospective parents, too. For many, becoming an adoptive parent is the end of a long period of preparation and engagement with local services. From assessment to matching, the process can be a tough, and sometimes disheartening, path.

I hope, and believe, that ministers are mindful of those issues. There is undoubtedly a need for a strong balance between finding the right people to adopt and matching them appropriately, and ensuring that, at all stages, the appropriate safeguarding takes place to protect the child’s best interests. However, there are all too many cases in which people have faced unnecessary delays, which are often administrative. If anything, the timescales are even more important to the child, who stands at the centre of the process. Few would doubt the positive effects of the stability and permanence that adoption can bring.

The cliché that is often heard from parents that children grow up too fast is as true for looked-after children as it is for any other child. Their development is important, and past trauma can be compounded by a system that is slow moving, or where there are simply not enough families willing and ready to adopt. That would be true for any child, but, as we know, looked-after children are more likely to have faced trauma or to require additional support, love and care. As we heard, Adoption UK in Scotland has focused this year on foetal alcohol syndrome—a condition that can cause a range of learning difficulties, damage to a child’s body and on-going additional needs throughout life on a broad spectrum of disability.

The adoption process is another problem that is faced by children who are already struggling with a wide range of challenges, and it can follow long periods in which their needs have often not been met. For children who have multiple support needs, the task of helping them can be difficult and expensive. Nonetheless, we should, when faced with the consequences where those needs go unmet, surely be driven to redouble our efforts to ensure that every child in Scotland receives the type of support that they need.

18:27  

I congratulate my colleague Rona Mackay on lodging her motion and bringing this important debate to the chamber.

Adoption is a huge decision for a family, couple or individual to make. However, the work that is done by all those who are involved in the organisation of adoption week 2020 does so much to demystify the process.

All children deserve the best possible start in life. Through continued efforts to support adopters and to encourage more people to consider adoption, we can ensure that children receive the care and support that they need to achieve their full potential. In 2018, 286 children and young people were legally adopted across Scotland, with a further 194 approved for adoption and waiting to be matched with an adoptive household. Every successful adoption requires a great deal of work from adoption services and adopters, and that deserves to be acknowledged and celebrated.

The Scottish Government is committed to continually improving the services, procedures and support that are available. Since 2011, it has funded Scotland’s Adoption Register, which works with and supports agencies around Scotland to give children the best chance of being matched with a family. Its aim is to speed up, and ultimately increase, the number of adoptions in Scotland. In March this year, it celebrated the 600th match made through the register. The register has now been implemented by all local authorities, and since April 2016, all adoption agencies in Scotland use it to refer children and potential adopters.

A report that was published in July 2019 found that 90 per cent of fostering services and 95 per cent of adoption services were evaluated as “good” or “better” by inspectors. By celebrating those successes and listening to suggestions on where we can improve, we must continue to strive for a modern, responsive and child-centred adoption system that works for Scotland.

Adoption can be a rewarding experience for children and young people and for their adoptive families. That said, there are unique challenges that come with it. As part of adoption week, organisers from Adoption UK in Scotland and the Adoption and Fostering Alliance put together a range of information sessions. The week also featured fun family-focused events such as a virtual family disco and story-telling sessions. Such a wide range of events not only provides support for those who are navigating the long and often emotional process of adoption—it certainly does that—but is an unrivalled opportunity for children and families at all stages of their adoption journey to get to know each other.

The formal and informal support networks that arise from the events are a vital part of making the adoption process easier and more accessible, whether through learning from those who have been through the process, or through giving advice to others who are just starting off. They can even just be about someone letting off steam to people who know what they are going through. Those informal networks and events have helped many people through the hardest parts of a deeply—and necessarily—formalised process.

Having worked to increase awareness of foetal alcohol spectrum disorders through my members’ business debate in September, I am pleased that FASD was one of this year’s themes for adoption week. FASD is by no means unique to care-experienced or adopted children, but looked-after and adopted children are at a significantly increased risk, with 75 per cent of children who are referred for adoption having a history of alcohol exposure during pregnancy.

FASD has profound and lifelong effects on sufferers, with an estimated 90 per cent of them suffering mental health problems, 79 per cent experiencing unemployment and 60 per cent experiencing significant disruption to their school life. Inadequate support and misdiagnosis further increase the impact of FASD. Incredibly, people who are cognitively impaired to the degree of a formal learning disability often have better outcomes than those with less severe symptoms, as their needs are identified earlier. It is, therefore, hugely encouraging that FASD awareness is taking centre stage.

Adoption week featured specific events for professionals and prospective parents and offered insight into FASD from social work, education and parental perspectives. Bringing FASD into the conversations around adopting and raising children means that potential parents, professionals and the wider community are being given the tools to recognise its signs. That gives those who need it the opportunity to seek support and diagnosis, which have been so sorely lacking in the past.

I again thank Rona Mackay for bringing the debate to the chamber.

18:31  

I thank Rona Mackay for securing this important debate. Adoption week gives us a unique opportunity to celebrate and strengthen the adoption service in Scotland.

I am sure that all members in the chamber agree that there can never be too many adoptions; it can certainly be argued that there are too few. There are so many families that are desperate to open their hearts and homes to children.

The pandemic has had an impact on adoption, with the process taking much longer than before. Adoption is a long and emotionally difficult experience for parents, too, as they make the necessary adaptations to their lives in order to complete the process. I hope that we all agree that the adoption service should be a top priority as we recover our services after the pandemic.

Parents who choose to adopt often take on an incredibly difficult task, as more than 70 per cent of children who are adopted have experienced abuse, neglect or trauma. Parents need all the support that we can offer to them, and organisations such as Adoption UK in Scotland do excellent work to provide resources and help.

Adoption is very rewarding. When parents are loving and nurturing and use techniques such as therapeutic reparenting, children can begin to recover from their experiences and go on to live happy and stable lives.

I want to talk about the adoption of older children. Statistics from the 2019 Care Inspectorate report highlight that, in 2017-18, of the 280 households that were approved for adoption, only 1 per cent were approved to adopt children who were older than 11, and fewer than five children older than 11 were adopted.

We know from evidence that children who are adopted experience far more positive health, education and wellbeing outcomes. Children who are not adopted usually spend the rest of their childhood in care, which can be tumultuous for them. The transition from being in care to being an independent person is incredibly difficult—and has been even more so during the past eight months.

Who Cares? Scotland has been carrying out invaluable work during the pandemic. Its most recent report makes for uncomfortable reading. There has been an increase in the number of care-experienced individuals using its advocacy services over lockdown, with many struggling with poverty as they made the transition into independent adulthood. We must ensure that more financial and emotional support and education is provided to care-experienced individuals as we come out of the pandemic.

I commend all parents of adoptive children, the organisations that work so hard to sustain the adoption service and support its users, and organisations such as Who Cares? Scotland that provide support to young people in care and to children who use many of its services. I hope that we can continue to strengthen the adoption service and celebrate the ways in which it radically changes children’s lives for the better.

18:35  

I thank Rona Mackay for securing the debate, and I welcome the opportunity to make the closing remarks.

In her speech, Rona Mackay mentioned a framework, but I could not hear her terribly clearly. I would be grateful if she would write to me, as I will be happy to explore the issue with stakeholders.

However, I did hear Rona when she mentioned the family of her employee, and I was delighted that she raised the landmark process whereby her employee was able to take care of his wee boy’s baby sister from birth and to keep the two siblings together. That was an excellent story to hear as part of the debate.

The adoption sector, like all parts of our society, has been challenged by the pandemic, but adoptive children, parents, foster carers and social workers have been inspiring in the way that they have risen to the challenge.

I thank Adoption UK in Scotland and the Adoption and Fostering Alliance Scotland for the wonderful timetable of events that they delivered last week. The purpose of the week is to raise awareness of adoption and the difference that it makes to the lives of thousands of people around the country. I congratulate everyone who was involved in making it a success.

This evening, we have heard discussion of Adoption UK’s “Return to School Survey Report”. Recognising the challenges that many care-experienced children and young people have faced over recent months, our return-to-school guidance prioritised young people’s wellbeing as part of the plans to ensure that appropriate support was in place. We have allocated a further £135 million over the next two years to tackle the impact of coronavirus on our schools, which will include investment in teaching resources, and other work to support children and young people’s health, wellbeing and attainment.

That funding is in addition to the £33 million that will be provided over this parliamentary session via the care-experienced children and young people fund. The fund supports initiatives and interventions that are aimed at improving educational outcomes for care-experienced children and young people. We know that some local authorities are using the funding to develop inclusion services and to reduce the number of exclusions. Other local authorities are using it to deliver mentoring programmes, alongside targeted and individualised support for children and young people and their families at the right time from the right person.

The debate provides a welcome opportunity to raise awareness of the challenges that many adoptive families face and to highlight the work that is under way in relation to the three main themes of adoption week, which are foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, therapeutic parenting and siblings.

Foetal alcohol spectrum disorder is a lifelong neurodevelopmental condition, which is caused by prenatal alcohol exposure and affects the development of the brain and body. It is estimated that 3 per cent of the population are affected, yet awareness of the condition remains low. That is why we recently launched an NHS Education for Scotland resource to support practitioners’ understanding.

Last Wednesday, along with the Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing, I took part in an adoption week event that focused on important issues for families, including FASD. It was a powerful session that raised issues that lots of families are facing, and it highlighted the need for families to get the right support at the right time. That is why our support for the Adoption UK in Scotland FASD hub is so important. The hub is a tiered support service for all parents and carers of children and young people who have been, or might have been, affected by prenatal alcohol exposure.

The Scottish Government is committed to preventing and mitigating the impact of childhood adversity and trauma, which is an issue that Mary Fee has pursued throughout her time in Parliament. We are developing a trauma-informed and trauma-responsive workforce right across Scotland that can help to minimise distress, overcome barriers and build trust. Since 2018, we have invested more than £1.5 million in a national trauma training programme to support all sectors of the workforce and train and support staff in trauma-informed practice, as well as to embed and sustain that model of working.

Supporting brothers and sisters to maintain relationships is a key priority for the Scottish Government. That is why I was so pleased to hear Rona Mackay raise that story. The Children (Scotland) Act 2020 imposes a duty on local authorities to promote personal relationships between a child who has been taken into care and their siblings where that is in their best interest. Work to commence those provisions of the 2020 act is under way, as are preparations to create a new statutory provision in favour of brothers and sisters who are taken into care being placed together where that is in their best interest.

Although great progress has been made in adoption services in Scotland, we are aware of the challenges that remain. Research studies such as “Permanently Progressing?” and the adoption barometer have shown that there is drift and delay in our systems. We are absolutely clear that, when a child is not able to remain with their birth parents decisions on permanence should be made as quickly as possible and always with the best interests of the child at their heart. Prospective adopters rightly go through a rigorous assessment that can take time, but we need to make sure that the assessment is both robust and timely so that children are placed in the security of their adoptive families without delay.

Adoptive families across Scotland are providing the love and security that children deserve and it is important that they receive the support that they need, when they need it most. The report of the independent care review made it clear that adoption has an important role in providing permanent, loving and nurturing homes and that adoption must continue to be supported in policy and planning. Part of that report, “The Promise”, specified that an adoption placement should not be the conclusion of the support offered to adoptive families and, importantly, that the burden of obtaining support must not be placed primarily on adopting parents. They should be able to be part of reflective practices, supervision and peer support.

In accepting the conclusions that were contained in “The Promise”, the First Minister committed the Government to work with all its energy and focus alongside partners and stakeholders to make the changes that the review considered necessary. This year’s programme for government outlined the early steps that we are taking to ensure that we keep our promise to those people with lived experience. In closing, I reiterate our commitment to delivering the promise alongside incorporation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child to ensure a rights-based approach to meeting the needs of all young people.

Meeting closed at 18:43.