Adoption, delays and a moral panic

There is often a phrase used within the court system when talking about adoption. Since the abolition of capital punishment the making of an Adoption Order is the most draconian measure a state can take against an individual, i.e. the removal of their child for ever and from the child’s point of view, the seveing of their relationship for ever.

The following may be of interest:

In Sir James Munby (Family Rights Group, 2006), he notes (page 24) the impact on the decision made in the European Court in Johansen v Norway (1996: 23 EHRR 33) and stated that “the complete severance of the family tie and total deprivation of the parent’s family life, which is brought about by adoption is justified only in ‘exceptional circumstances’ “. He goes on to say that “domestic law is clear enough. I need only to refer to what the Right Hon. Baroness Richmond has said in a number of key decisions: ​

•Any interference with family life must be ‘necessary’.
•‘Proportionality is the key’ and
•Just as Section 1 (5) of the Children Act 1989 does, the ‘no order’ principle in Section 1 (6) ACA – the statutory embodiment of the principle of proportionality – mandates the ‘least interventionist’ approach. “

He later summarises (page 25) that “The court must be vigilant, recognising that:
•It is not enough merely to assert adoption is in the child’s best interests;
•Adoption must be ‘necessary’ or ‘required’ in the child’s best interests; and
•Adoption must be justified only in ‘exceptional circumstances’. “

I find this view a wholly sensible and fair one and one that the courts should and do take into account. When making such significant decisions it is necessary that they are considered fully and with all appropriate information. We cannot return to the days where the adoption of a child was the great and good arranging the removal and adoption of children against what was seen as inadequate parenting. In these circumstances children were a commodity to feel sorry for and were picked like cabbage patch dolls and too often returned when they didn’t live up to expectations. Old local authority records are full of these cases. The concern is that a “crusade” in favour of adoption smacks of this “saving” of children and places them at real risk of poor placement.

Certainly adoption breakdown rates are rarely discussed. The limited research suggests that the break down rates of adoption as opposed to properly matched long term fostering are comparable. But this is rarely discussed with foster care being seen as bad and adoption good. Unfortunately things aren’t that simple. Breakdown rates are a good benchmark and they suggest adoption is no better. Beth Neil at UEA does excellent research on adoption but this is often ignored. It is unfortunate that there is so little effective research into adoption and in particular its relative merits.

In the end we must come back to the strong arguement that adoption should be necessary or required and not just desirable. Such significant decisions should take a great deal of assessment and discussion. It is rarely the case that a local authority turns up to court with all assessments done and more often than not the assessments are either inadequate or not balanced and fair. Instead they try and prove a point, something that is a side affect of an adversarial court system. The lack of any real resources for social workers is also far too often the reason for this. The parent and the child, through a court Guardian, deserve every chance to ensure that these significant decisions are made with ALL evidence discussed fully and gaps assessed or reexamined. This is just a matter of fairness to ensure that it is entirely the right decision to sever these family ties. Any short cutting of this process exponentially increases the risk of the wrong decisions being made and decisions that are irreversible.

Therefore it takes it absolutely necessary that time is taken to make these decisions and is rarely the fact that matters are cut and dry. Unlike the generally held view that parents involved in care proceedings are vicious abusers, the truth is that too often they were children in care themselves, are learning disabled, have mental health issues, are involved in domestic violence or have had very poor parenting/guidance. This does not reflect well on a society that has done little to invest in preventative work or to generally help the most needy. The more recent cuts in budgets has almost decimated such work so be ready for a big increase in care proceedings in the next few years. But in terms of adoption it is apparent to anyone who had or does work in the court system that there is rarely an uncomplex case.

However the courts themselves have been cut significantly over the last few years. Listing for hearings are getting longer and longer. It is now not unusual to wait 9 months to list hearings. So even if a case is ready it is unlikely to be heard for some months. This is to the frustration of all involved, especially the judges. Again with further cuts it will get worse. This is even more so with the cuts in legal aid forcing people to act in person in private law family cases further clogging up the system. Thus each time further hearings are listed the length of time between beginning to end of proceedings carries on increasing. Even what are generally considered straight forward cases where the outcomes appear inescapable are taking a significant amount of time to go through the court process.

Judges making decisions are in the main thoughtful and fair and wish to ensure, rightly so, that every chance is given for a child to live with their natural parents. Judges are not seen as the most liberal or reactionary group of people and always want to make sure that the right decision is made as quickly as possible but unfortunately the court system often doesn’t let them. However the fact they don’t always make Adoption Orders should speak volumes about the number of children where adoption is absolutely necessary.

We cannot assume that adoptions being down is in itself a bad thing. They could be a myriad of positive resonant for this. For instance strong family ties or sibling attachments continuing may make foster care a desirable option. There are many societies that do not view a favourable and in some case will not consider it instead using family and community more significantly. In Europe and in particular Scandinavian countries there is a very different and sometimes extremely effective ways of dealing with the same issues. We should not assume that adoption per se is inevitably the right way forward and perhaps it says a lot more about the reduction in the importance of family and community in the UK. Instead it is state agents who we always turn to and then castigate when it inevitable all goes wrong.

It does seem that their is regularly an anti social work undercurrent to discussions on adoption. This has now made social work risk averse with workers being petrified to make the wrong decision for fear of abuse and castigation. This slows down any process with checking and double checking going on. For adoption social workers this is even more the case. Any wrong move here in assessing potential adopters affects a child’s whole life. It is unfortunate that children do get abused by their carers although reasonably rare remains a risk. Reduction in assessment time increases the risk of abuse and placement breakdown. Social workers would soon be blamed for such events and it is this chance of risk combined with the time needed for assessment which makes the assessment of adopters long and in depth. You can’t have safe and quick. Make your choice.

The term “political correctness” is often used in blaming social workers for refusing some assessments and the pool of adopters. The reason adoption works on occasion is because of careful matching. Breakdown rates remain too high as it is, something rarely mentioned, but they will rise if matching does not happen. However they should not be the be all and end all and cross cultural placements can be extremely successful. In addition health issues must be considered but there should not be fewer bars to adoption and instead people should be taken on their merits as a whole rather than any one issue. Of course significant issues will always cause problems.

In saying this few people appear ready for the in depth nature of the assessment. This is especially so for a society that remains relatively guarded about personal lives. However this deep level of personal assessment is necessary to safeguard the children and far too often potential adopters don’t to see this, instead complaining of intrusive assessments and nosey social workers. Social workers remain in a lose lose situation on this front. More clear preparation for adopters and an fuller understanding of the process is necessary. In addition adopters would benefit from being kept up to date on what is happening with a child if they are matched. Anyone wanting to care for children should be cherished as a vital resource and treated with as much respect as possible. But on the flip side people need to understand the difficulties that social workers have in this emotionally charged and demanding work.

With the raising of threshold criteria for child protection in local authorities, the children coming into the court process often have significant issues. These may include sexual, physical and emotional abuse and in particular attachment issues. It is often the case that child need time and work to overcome this difficulties. These often presents in huge behavioural issues. Unless the work is done, the chance of placement breakdown is high. The time between reception into care and adoption is often a fruitful one for the child. Delay is therefore not always a bad thing.

To clear up the law on adoption. If adoption is seen as the right plan, a Placement Order is made by the court which enables the local authority to place with adopters. The first point is that this placement stage is not always successful for lots reasons but if it is then it is up to the adopters to apply for the Adoption Order. The parents can oppose this and and are very occasionally successful. Just to note that there are recent cases about this very issue. However there can be a big gap between the orders being made and often this is merely the adopters not proactive enough in making their application. Certainly a year between placement and adoption is not unheard of.

As you can see the matter of adoption is an extremely complex one and certainly not one that statistics or simple soundbites can answer. The “crusading” approach that seems to be taken by some at present, significantly simplifying the arguments to political soundbites and self congratulatory remarks. The complexity as noted above still does not take into account the political and societal issues that underpin many of the difficulties and moral issues of which adoption is the tip of the iceberg. However they are an essay in themselves but suffice it to say that people too often have moral outrage about troubles in society that when the issues go out of sight are ignored. Quick fix solutions for wider societal issues never work and it is easier to blame those involved, such as social workers, than blame ourselves or our communities. This has meant that social work and child protection has moved from one quick fix solution to the next moral outrage rather than considering the issue of children, families and community as a whole.

The massive cuts to all those involved in child protection such as police , socials workers and and a myriad of support services both state and voluntary is inevitably going to impact on the quality and level of work in this area. That is until the next child death or moral outrage. The issues that are coming to light in adoption are but a refection on a system that has been creaking at the seems for years and clearly is going to get significantly worse. The whole system relating to children is a hotch potch of ideas that often have no central theme or ethos thus pushing agencies into conflict with each other. This is not only about budget protection but also different agendas. This can be seen clearly in adoption both pre and post placement.

The issue is that the people making decisions have little or no direct knowledge of these problems and see things from an extremely simplistic standpoint. And worse still, this will affect just one part of a system that is their particular moral outrage without considering how this may impinge elsewhere. The puzzle keeps moving and the pieces keep changing and yet social workers get on with it. If the people making policies don’t have a clue what they are doing, how can there be any stability in a system to protect children. We concentrate on adoption one day then child abuse tomorrow then disaffected youth the next day. They are not all unconnected but they seem to be treated as such. Social workers do not try to do things wrong but instead work in an ever moving, ever critical environment where bad decisions are not a loss of profit but a loss of life, both literally and in terms of children’s wellbeing into their maturity.

What children would want to know about decisions being made on their behalf and particularly severing of their family ties through adoption is that they were fair and well informed. They would want to know that they could live with the family, including siblings and extended family where at all possible. If not they would want to know that they were going to a safe and loving family. Nothing about any of those decisions are simple. They take time and need to be fully considered or bad decisions are made. Sir James Munby points these issues out clearly and insightfully in Family Rights Group publication in 2006.

Yes, sometimes this can be done more speedily but that requires investment and joined up thinking. Neither of these currently exist.

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