In a recent case - T (A Child) [2017] EWFC 19 – Mr Justice Holman highlighted the previously unrecognised value of Facebook as a tool for tracing birth parents. The case involved the adoption application of a young boy; his birth father was aware of the proceedings and present in court, but the child's birth mother had not been made aware of the proceedings as she's a foreign national and was believed to be living abroad somewhere.

However, the birth mother was traced just a few days prior to the hearing by way of a very simple search of profiles on Facebook. The birth father's partner was able to identify the profile as belonging to the birth mother and duly called her and informed her of the proceedings; the birth mother was of the belief that the child had actually already been adopted.

As the birth mother had now been located, Mr Justice Holman had to abandon the hearing so that the birth mother could be served and given a proper opportunity to participate in the proceedings. As the birth mother had Parental Responsibility she needed to be served with notice of the proceedings and given the opportunity to respond, as set out in the Family Procedure Rules 2010.

However, as for the tracing of the mother, he said:

"I do wish to highlight by this short judgment that, in the modern era, Facebook may well be a route to somebody such as a birth parent whose whereabouts are unknown and who requires to be served with notice of adoption proceedings. I do not for one moment suggest that Facebook should be the first method used, but it does seem to be a useful tool in the armoury which can certainly be resorted to long before a conclusion is reached that it is impossible to locate the whereabouts of a birth parent. Of course, not everyone is on Facebook but, in this particular case, a relatively socially disadvantaged young mother in […] has been found very rapidly by that means."

New technology, age-old difficulties

There are no rules or protocols that would prevent CAFCASS officers, social workers or guardians from being able to search for and subsequently contact a birth parent via social media in respect of proceedings such as these. Indeed, it may well – as in this case – alert an estranged parent that their child is the subject of adoption proceedings and allow them to be duly and correctly served and in turn to participate in the proceedings.

The High Court judge also said it was ‘‘very depressing'' that despite statutory and rule changes it remains largely as difficult to serve notice to birth parents as it did when he began practice 45 years ago.

Mr Justice Holman said he would have to abandon the present hearing, and as he was only sitting temporarily in Manchester, the case would have to be started from scratch before another judge. The little boy has been in the care of Manchester Social Services for just over a year, and is currently placed with a foster family.

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