This is a very unusual case where the maternal grandmother sought an adoption order to replace a special guardianship order made in 2017, in respect of her young grandson.
The child’s mother suffered from mental health problems. She had a long history of drug abuse and had criminal convictions for violent offences. She had had no contact with the child since his birth. Care proceedings had been started and the child had been placed with the appellants in August 2016, when he was two. The first appellant was the child’s maternal grandmother and the second appellant was her husband, but was not biologically related to the child. In late 2016, the mother was convicted of harassment after making threats to kill the grandmother. She was sentenced to imprisonment and an indefinite restraining order was imposed, preventing her from contacting the grandmother. In February 2017, the care proceedings concluded with a special guardianship order being made in the grandparents’ favour. Since March 2017, the mother had been convicted of breaching the restraining order several times, including incidents where she was verbally aggressive and abusive, and one occasion when she smashed windows in the family home and car. Since June 2018, the mother had either been a serving prisoner or had been detained in a psychiatric hospital.
The mother opposed the making of an adoption order. The trial judge acknowledged that the child’s needs were being met by the grandparents, but concluded that an adoption order was not necessary or proportionate because the special guardianship order was working well and she was not satisfied that nothing else would do.
The decision of the Court of Appeal
The Court of Appeal decided that in the most unusual and grave circumstances of the case, the child’s welfare required him to be afforded the greatest possible security in his placement with his grandparents. Only an adoption order would provide that. An adoption order was unlikely to prevent abusive, aggressive and threatening future conduct by the mother, but the disinhibited and dangerous behaviour exhibited by the mother as a consequence of her mental illness represented a long-term continuing risk to both the child and the grandparents, making it an absolute priority to provide them with as much legal and psychological security as possible. The superior benefits of an adoption order as opposed to a special guardianship order were that it would:
- reflect the reality of the child’s life with his grandparents now and throughout the whole of his life;
- provide the child and grandparents with the security and reassurance that the child’s future life was securely and permanently with them in fact and in law;
- sever the mother’s legal relationship with the child, which would remove the mother’s ability to interfere in his life whether by making court applications and/or requiring and demanding information about his life;
- remove the obligation on the grandparents to seek the mother’s consent for certain steps to be taken in the child’s life;
- enable the step-grandfather to be the child’s legal father in circumstances where the identity of his biological father was unknown; and
- send the clear message to the wider world that the child was lawfully the grandparents’ child (paras 57-58, 60).
Although a special guardianship order is usually appropriate where there is a family placement, so as to avoid skewing family relationships and ensuring that the basic legal links between the child and his birth family are preserved, this is a useful example of the court concluding that the balancing act may tip in favour of adoption in cases where, in particular, the long-term security and permanence of the placement may be in jeopardy.
Here is the report on Bailii (02 July 2020)