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Scotland on Sunday

New law allows gays and unmarrieds to adopt

The Scotsman Newspaper, by Eddie Barnes, Political Editor,  April 11, 2004

SCOTLAND's adoption laws are set to be radically overhauled in a bid to cut the record numbers of children currently in foster care who need a permanent home.

Ministers are poised to introduce measures next year which will, for the first time, allow unmarried and same-sex couples to adopt.

Scotland's Justice Minister Cathy Jamieson: new announcement.

They are also expected to make major changes to the law in the hope of streamlining the tortuous adoption process, which is blamed for deterring many parents from signing up.

Scotland on Sunday can reveal that adoption experts have expressed a unanimous vote of no confidence in the complicated web of social work departments, children's panels and sheriff courts which deal with adoption cases. The bureaucracy within the system is actively preventing many children from finding a stable home, they warn.

The moves come as new figures show that there are now nearly 3,468 children in foster care, the highest figure in 20 years. Of these, up to 600 are in need of immediate adoption. However, the statistics show that in 2003 only 373 adoptions took place - a third of the number in 1983.

In England and Wales, new laws are soon to come into power widening the number of people who can adopt to include gay couples and to improve the system.

A report on the Scottish system by adoption experts, led by Sheriff Graham Cox, is soon to be sent to ministers here, and is widely expected to recommend similar sweeping changes. At present in Scotland unmarried people and gay people can adopt but they cannot register a child with their partner.

Adoption experts are now demanding that this barrier be removed so that gay and unmarried couples can adopt jointly.

The move is sure to trigger a furious reaction from church groups, who claim children have the right to be brought up within stable married life. But government chiefs are expected to back the plans, bringing adoption law into line with changes to family law, announced by Justice Minister Cathy Jamieson last week.

Pressure to reform the system is increasing, following the release of the new official figures. They show the time taken to reach an outcome in an adoption case has risen from 109 days in 1999 to 140 days in 2003.

In a paper seen by Scotland on Sunday, the British Association of Adoption and Fostering is calling for the role of Children's Panels to be reduced and for specialist Courts to be set up to deal expertly with cases and speed the process. Spokesman Ian Millar said: "There are cases which are subject to delay. That may be down to the legal system, sometimes down to Social Work departments. There is no doubt that the legal system takes longer than it should.

"BAAF has always believed in widening the number of people able to care for children and this would include single people, unmarried coupes and same-sex couples. The idea that only one half of an unmarried couple should be responsible for a child adds a lot of insecurity to the issue."

Cathy Dewar, chief executive of the Scottish Adoption Association, said: "Unmarried couples and same sex couples should be able to adopt. Society changes. There is quite a lot of drift and delay in the system which means that children who are available for adoption are not dealt with sooner because of such complications."

However, a spokesman for the Catholic Church in Scotland said: "All the evidence shows that co-habiting couples are more likely to split up than married couples and same-sex couples are many Read More ..mes likely to split up.

"With all that in mind, we have to ask whether it is right to place children in potentially very unstable situations."

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Executive said: "The review group is expected to report before the end of the year and ministers will consider it before deciding whether there is a need for the law to be changed."

The expert review group, chaired by Sheriff Graham Cox, is also expected to suggest that birth parents be given greater rights to get back in touch with their adopted children. At present, parents have no such rights. but adoption experts now believe that there should be a right for parents to apply to re-establish contact - although the final say would still remain with the adopted children.

The spokesman for the BAAF said that such reforms were needed.

"In Scotland there is no structure in place and no great support available for such parents. What you get is a postcode lottery."

Adoption experts also said that legislative changes will only improve the system if they are accompanied by a boost in resources for Social Work departments and the court system.

There are currently around 400 unfilled places in Social Work departments, which critics say delays cases for parents and children.