Has adoption become a runaway train?

The 2018 report of the British Association of Social Workers’s (BASW) into adoption law

According to an independent enquiry into adoption law in the UK by the British Association of Social Workers’s (BASW), adoption has become a “runaway train,” almost impossible to stop.

The two-year enquiry, led by Professors Brid Featherstone and Anna Gupta, gathered evidence from over 300 social workers, legal professionals, adults who were adopted as children, adoptive parents and birth parents across the UK.

The BASW enquiry was prompted by the trend in recent years of politicising adoption, making it a highly contentious area of public policy, affecting legal frameworks, the culture of practice and the use of resources.  The enquiry stated that the tendency in England, in recent years, of politicians & policy makers to promote adoption as risk free, with adopted children living a ‘happily ever after’ narrative was ‘unhelpful’. Adoption has been promoted by government policy in England in recent years as the best solution for children from vulnerable families. The former prime minister, David Cameron, and the current environment secretary, Michael Gove, have both publicly supported adoption as a public good and the best decision for children. The Enquiry heard from a range of respondents across the UK that this tendency to view adoption as risk free led to the silencing of adopted children and adults, who struggle to manage the contradictory emotions of grief & loss, joy & happiness. Too often those affected felt shame & sadness, the report said, making it unlikely they would access the help they need.

One of the key findings of the Adoption Enquiry Report, published on 18.1.18, was that current practice favoured adoption over other alternative care options, which seek to help children stay with their birth parents or extended family.  The report called for a significant rethink and a review of adoption law to challenge the status quo.

The enquiry also found that austerity was adding to the considerable difficulties faced by many families in poverty, as they seek to care for their children safely. Welfare and legal aid cuts had reduced the financial resources available, the enquiry report said, while services designed to help families stay together and prevent children being taken into care had also been cut back. The enquiry, supported by experts, expressed concern that the impact of austerity on wider social policies has directly led to increased rates of adoption among already disadvantaged families. Cuts to family support and social work services were a recurring theme, with less available for earlier interventions that could support children to stay at home safely.

The painful, traumatic and long-lasting impacts of losing a child of the family to adoption were repeatedly stressed by birth families. The enquiry found that post-adoption support for both birth families and adoptive families, was “inadequate”, and depended heavily on the quality of the relationship between social workers and the families. The UK is the only country to have an Adoption Support Fund, the enquiry said, unfortunately this is insufficiently resourced, Some birth parents feared their children would be taken into care if they sought help, whilst some adoptive parents had been left caring for traumatised children without adequate help.

Contact between adopted children and their birth families post-adoption was under resourced, the report said, with little follow up from services if “letterbox contact” was ended unilaterally.

The enquiry investigated the role of social workers in the adoption process using an approach which enabled people from different perspectives to speak & listen to each other safely. The enquiry found the human rights of the children and birth parents and the professional ethics of social workers were not routinely or transparently used to inform adoption practice. Birth mothers with mental health or learning difficulties and young parents who grew up in care were particularly vulnerable to both losing their children and not having their human rights respected.

The UK has the highest number of adoptions in Europe, and is one of only three EU countries that allow forced or non-consensual adoptions, where children are adopted against the wishes of their birth parents, but the UK is the only country in Europe to have a uniform rule forbidding any contact post-adoption, between adopted children and their birth and foster families.

The BASW enquiry acknowledged that adoption could be highly successful, providing children with stable, loving homes and adoptive parents with the experience of creating the family they want.  Some birth parents consent to adoption, recognising the value to their children.  However, the complex realities of adoption for many people, particularly in non-consensual adoption, reveal mixed outcomes and experiences for all involved.

The enquiry called for the government to not only fund the system properly but to be more open about its data.  Currently very little information is collected or known about the social and economic circumstances, the lifetime costs and benefits, and long-term outcomes of the promotion of adoption of children from care.  The enquiry called on the government to supply a breakdown of figures so we can see how many children who are adopted then go back into the care system because of a breakdown with the adoptive family, often through financially senseless lack of post-adoption support.

One senior social worker said that adoption had been hijacked from being one permanent solution for the child, to being the child’s ‘right’ to adoption. Adoption becomes a ‘runaway train,’ impossible for individual social workers to stop, whilst Court proceedings felt like a ‘fait accompli’ for birth families.  This means the rights of children and their parents are being breached thanks to austerity measures in public services, which continue to undermine preventive and supportive services for families.

Ruth Allen, the CEO of the BASW questioned the grounds for government’s promotion of adoption above other care options. “There is a dearth of information and meaningful longitudinal research to inform policy and social work practice on adoption,” she said. “Without this information, the arguments made for adoption in its current form and current policy are insufficiently evidenced.”