Adoption is a subject that can never be debated dispassionately.
On the one hand it triggers deep, primeval fears about loss,
safety, blood ties, child-parent bonding and social expectations.
Most of us have imbibed myths and fables about cruel step-parents
and ill-intentioned strangers which adds to the anxiety that
adoption may expose a child to dangers. On the other hand optimists
have a more fairy-tale version in which, once rescued from “bad”
parents, a child does live happily ever after. The people who adopt
are seen as generous, immensely altruistic. The villains are all
those damned social workers who keep the cherubs locked up in
Except for those who are practically involved in fostering and
adoption, it is difficult to get a grip on the complexities and
range of emotions and rights which play out even in the most
straightforward cases. Innovative ideas are needed in this area of
social policy – too many questionable traditions, rules and
regulations have held back progress – but these must take these
factors into account.
Concurrent planning is one of these newish ideas which on the
evidence available so far seems to work for the child. As a model
it is obviously appealing as it reduces so much of the passing
around of children from carer to carer to parent, each move adding
further damage to an already fragile inner life. The child is
placed not with conventional foster carers but parents seeking
permanent adoptees. At present it is used for children where it
seems unlikely they can return to the birth parents. The timescale
is less than a year and birth parents feel the odds are stacked
There are other issues which arise. In effect, a competition is set
up over the period between adoptive parents and birth parents. Both
are being assessed and both will probably give an unrealistically
perfect image of themselves. On the whole, foster carers tend to be
more focused on the child than their own wants. Most adoptive
parents, of course, care about the interests of the children but
they also have their own strong desires and needs to satisfy. Only
a minority can truthfully claim that they are choosing adoption
solely for the sake of the child.
This must create extraordinary emotional demands on adoptive
parents who are on the concurrent planning programmes. Is there a
danger that they might influence the child unduly – because they
may be desperate – or that they will use the time to win over
social workers which they can do because they are in a more
I can see some iniquities developing when birth parents come from
poorer backgrounds and adoptive parents are articulate and middle
class. In some ways the child is being handed over to reside in a
different world which may later become a trauma.
We now know enough from the US, Australia and this country that
do-good rescues of black, Aboriginal and native American children
into white, middle-class bliss have rebounded tragically on all
parties. With public opinion and populist politicians demanding
more adoptions, these important lessons may well be
But on balance – notwithstanding these reservations and questions –
I think concurrent planning is an important development. Too many
birth parents whose children are in care live in a state of flux,
“borrowing” their children back and then having them taken in again
with no closure for years.
Professionals on these schemes work hard with birth parents who may
feel more secure letting go (legally at least) because they have a
relationship with the foster and adoptive parents. To be able to
see the child settle and flourish with other people may at first be
difficult emotionally but in the end the interests of the child
would prevail. These are high-risk children who are not best served
by practitioners who feel too attached to the idea of parental
rights above all else. It is not fair to any child to be sent back
to parents who cannot or will not provide a safe environment.
We need proper evaluations after a settled period post-adoption.
How many have failed and how many have been successfully embedded
after, say, three years will show us whether these schemes should
be taken up nationally. It is to be hoped that we will have good
qualitative studies to reveal how all the parents and children feel
by this time.
These successes and failures will need to be compared with
conventional placements and routes too. But it is a worthy idea for
now with much in it for vulnerable children.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a journalist and