Court of Appeal upholds damages for parents in ‘adoption from hell’ case

Appeal judges ruled in the case of A & Anor v Essex County Council that a couple should be compensated by Essex County Council for the upheaval and depression caused after the boy and his sister were placed in their care. The Court of Appeal dismissed the defendant local authority adoption agency’s appeal against the ruling, holding it liable to the adoptive parents for failing to provide all relevant information about the two children. It also rejected the cross-appeal that the council was not liable for any losses caused after the boy was adopted.

The case was the first time adoptive parents had sought damages against an adoption agency for injuries and damage to their home, life and health. The boy, given the name William for the purposes of the hearing, who was then five, and his two-year- old sister, known as Kate, moved in with the couple in 1996 and were adopted by them in the spring of 1997. The couple’s own daughter was born in 1998. The court heard how disruptive the two children were, and in particular how William threatened to kill his unborn sister and assaulted his adoptive mother. The adoptive parents subsequently received a Barnardo’s worker’s summary of the information available in the child care files. The parents said this came as “a bombshell” to them.

Lady Justice Hale, who gave the ruling, said that if the couple had known the full extent of the behavioural problems of the child they were adopting, they would not have taken him on. But once the couple had seen the child for themselves during his placement in their home prior to adoption, they knew enough about him to be able to make up their minds about adoption.

“Adoption is not a commercial transaction. It cannot be likened to the sale of goods or even the supply of services. Writing reports about a child is not like writing financial references and reports. The whole process is about doing the best one can for children who have not had the start in life which most of us take for granted,” Hale said. “…The long-term calculation of gains and losses involved in this delicate piece of social engineering cannot be done on the cold computer programme of the law.”

Felicity Collier, chief executive of the British Association for Adoption & Fostering, called it “a sensible judgment” that drew on a distinction between an adoption agency’s responsibility to ensure that prospective adopters are given written information about a child and the agency’s responsibility for how the child’s early experiences may later affect their behaviour. “Anyone who is considering adopting a child needs to understand that the emotional and behavioural effects of a child’s early experiences, which often include abuse or neglect, cannot be predicted reliably,” she said. “Adopters need to accept that there is a degree of uncertainty.”