Why are people so suspicious about adoption?

John Simmonds looks at the prevailing narrative surrounding adoption to see if it's fair

Photo: M-SUR/Fotolia

by John Simmonds

Recently there have been several critical, if not condemning, articles published about adoption. Louise Tickle’s piece in the Guardian was headlined ‘Children should not be adopted to meet municipal targets’ and Andy Bilson’s recent piece in Community Care argues that there needs to be a change of policy direction from a dominant focus on blaming individuals/parents to effectively supporting them including addressing poverty and inequality.

There are more examples of recent news coverage being negative about adoption. The Telegraph: ‘There can be few more heart-rending images than that of a new baby being wrenched from its mother’s arms.’ The Sun: ‘Mum who let her two kids sleep in her bed has them taken away and put up for adoption.’

BASW have raised related issues in questioning the ethical position of social workers when it comes to non-consensual adoption.

Disturbing image

The one issue that is not raised in these powerfully questioning pieces is the position of children. There is a disturbing image of a powerful State apparatus driven by government targets and incentives unquestioningly removing children and then placing them for adoption.

Nothing in that argument suggests that ethics and values play a part, evidence is always required or that the law drives process and outcomes. Adoption, it is argued, is driven by compliance with targets and tick boxes with real people, particularly highly vulnerable children, having little to do with it.

Children’s social work is positioned between competing perspectives – a commitment to parents who seriously struggle in their lives with a belief that by establishing professional relationships with them and providing services, we can help.

At the same time, we can be seen to be the source of people’s problems – by withholding services and resources, setting impossible standards of behaviour and interfering with the choices that people make in bringing up their children.

Investigating child protection concerns and/or taking children into care undoubtedly can reinforce this profound sense of distrust. Add in the courts and any sense of hope is almost certain to evaporate to be replaced by a trap door through which everybody descends.


Social work and social workers are aligned and committed to a value base rooted in equality, diversity and inclusion at an individual and societal level. But this cannot be easily actioned when there is a conflict between the needs of one person and another, which is hugely amplified when this involves parents and their children.

There are no easy solutions to this fundamental dilemma. But when it comes to children there is an absolute duty to protect and to provide.

Where children cannot be protected or provided for by their parents or family, then it is duty to provide an alternative family life – children require no less. This is not and cannot be about social engineering – the position of the children we are talking about is at the extreme end of the spectrum of abuse and neglect.

The law sets out the framework for addressing these complex issues with the welfare of the child being identified as paramount.

Over a period of 50 years, we have established a robust framework for adoption. This is rights driven and where ‘nothing else will do’ the legal test of proportionality. This framework focusses on the most challenging of societal and professional questions but we abandon it at the peril of children who are and must continue to be its focus.

We cannot be naïve in asserting the achievements of the system we have developed. Resources are significantly stretched with a crisis in the family court system alongside that of local authorities.  The professional challenge is huge when we are torn between parents and their children but children come first. Adoption must continue to play its proper part, even with the suspicion and powerful feelings that it stirs up.

John Simmonds is Director of Policy, Research and Development at CoramBAAF

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14 Responses to Why are people so suspicious about adoption?

  1. John Hemming March 7, 2017 at 6:35 pm #

    Look at the outcomes for children leaving care aged 1-5. About 60% are adopted.

    Is that realistically what would happen if the decision was made in the best interests of the child?

    • Ian March 8, 2017 at 12:25 pm #


    • Jo Ward March 8, 2017 at 2:47 pm #

      This is factually incorrect. Of children leaving care in any one year, approximately 15% leave care to adoption (D f E, Children Looked After in England year ending 31st March 2016, http://www.gov.uk)

  2. Hilary Searing March 8, 2017 at 11:44 am #

    In too many authorities the system is not working well. Social workers make fine judgements about complex situations where issues are fiercely contested but there are not enough mature people doing this work on the front line. There are too many young graduates who are intellectually over-developed and emotionally under-developed and do not have the experience and training for managing their apparently contradictory duties and working with complex human beings. They are often uncertain of their role and may draw on their own childhood experiences and act on them without ever having examined these feelings in any depth. This is when the romantic idea of the ‘forever’ family seems to provide the solution.

    We need more social workers with the energy, confidence and stamina to do the very challenging work with children on the borderline of care and their families. This will only happen when leaders value front line social workers more highly and give them the necessary support.

    • Stuart March 8, 2017 at 9:06 pm #

      This is quite true, unfortunately though we (social workers) all had to start somewhere.

      It would be great if front line staff were more valued (financially and in other ways) but it’s not really going to happen. Better management and supervision of less experienced staff though, should be perfectly possible in most cases.

    • Ryan Wisev March 10, 2017 at 4:26 pm #

      As a young graduate in practice I find your comments unhelpful. Maturity does not always necessarily come with age and I think it is quite the generalisation to say that inexperience and youth equates to poorly equipped practitioners. I find the comments judgemental, out of touch and demonstrates a complete lack of insight and appreciation of difference much needed in the profession. The comments are stereotyping and insulting. Used terms such as ’emotionally under developed’ one prime example. The key tools are emotional intelligence, confidence and reflexive practice to name only a few. Youth and being a recent graduate does not prevent one having these key skills. The focus should be on developing skills in practitioners. The reality is there are ‘mature older experienced workers’ who lack these much needed skills. And there will be practitoners of all ages and backgrounds who need to work on their practice. Not just the young recently graduated SW!

      • Hilary Searing March 11, 2017 at 5:06 pm #

        As someone who did not become a statutory children’s social worker until I was in my forties, I disagree with you. Throughout my social work career I have always felt that social workers carry a heavy burden of responsibility. They have a pivotal role in assessing risk and in decision-making that can lead to adoption. Therefore, they should have the necessary maturity, as well as the experience and training, for this important work – which is often highly contested and requires sound judgement.

    • sandy beach March 11, 2017 at 10:35 pm #

      Thank you Hilary
      some good comments, to Ryan who noted that they felt this was a critical aspect directed at them it isnt.
      But people who have seen a decade or two of practise remember the days when you wouldnt have so many newly qualified staff in a team that you had only two people in the office with more than 2 years experience outside the manager, and they are only four years qualifed!
      We have with the lower age limit, SW’s who have not experienced living outside of the family home visiting parents – again this is due to the issues around loans for education and the difficulties of working part time whilst undertaking a SW degree with placements and the cost against overall take home pay of housing.
      Workers would not be given as complex tasks as they are now previously without more mileage and general support in the team. It is not a criticism it is a question
      Where has all the experience gone
      Where has the skills and knowledge gone that would be passed to new staff
      Where has the working respect gone for the profession

      • Hilary Searing March 13, 2017 at 4:38 pm #

        This is interesting (and links in with the CC article on what Judge McFarlane said about borderline decisions in adoption work). I should make clear that my concerns about poor social work practice refer to authorities where there is a high turnover of staff and the newly qualified quickly move on to other areas of practice. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it is now more difficult to appoint experienced staff and that the majority of newly qualified social workers go into child and family work. Where the workforce is largely stable and the number of newly qualified front line workers is small this is not a problem. However, the big issue is what should be done in authorities without a stable workforce ….

  3. Anon March 8, 2017 at 9:16 pm #

    What about the injustice kinship carers I. E family or friend carer. My fight is still on going for my 2 nieces, they have been freed WRONGFULLY for adoption. I wasnt approved as I was told that I have no insight into parenting children??? I passed my medical for fostering and doctor had no concerns. I believe due to their age they have been earmarked for adoption from the beginning…

    I am disgusted to my core by how the courts allow the local authority to get away with falsifying and exaggerated info in order to have freeing orders Granted!

  4. Thomas March 8, 2017 at 10:18 pm #

    In my view it is closed adoption that is the issue and urgently needs looking at. To completely end the relationship between a child and their birth parent other than a letter once a year, if that, is devastating. I understand perfectly well that there is a concern around allowing children to settle with adoptive parents but in this day and age with social media to deny direct contact is counter productive. Open up adoptions, let children know their birth parents and support them with contact and it may just may lead to less adoption breakdowns and positive outcomes for children. The current system isn’t working and navel gazing articles like this do little to change a system in desperate need of reform.

    In my opinion.

    • Ryan March 9, 2017 at 5:04 pm #

      Completely agree Thomas. I am told that there is research to suggest open adoptions can improve wellbeing of children which is, I suppose, common sense. Often children adopted and adopters struggle to manage the complex emotions heightened by draconian contact rules. Each childs’ situation is unique and open adoption should be considered in every case especially with adoptions against parents wishes and for older children

  5. Londonboy March 15, 2017 at 1:22 pm #

    Adoption brings many compromises and causes a lot of collateral damage for all involved.

    I’ve talked to some mothers who have lost their children after Care proceedings. Most acknowledged a large part (addiction, abusive relationships) in this but many felt manipulated, pre-judged as unfit (eg care-experienced and young or with learning disabilities) and powerless (how can a parent fix their own mental health problems?) Many simply did not understand the legal process and that should not be a surprise but no-one seemed to guide them through it – certainly not SWs who were interested in the child’s welfare not theirs. (Are the two not interlinked when mum has a very strong bond with her child?)

    I also know losing my own child to Care (s20) that the ripples of trauma spread outwards, from child to parents to families. Losses are generational – families ( cousins for example ) will still be scarred decades later by the loss of a cousin to the ‘void’ that is the closed adoption system.

    . I know from my life experience that people go through very bad times and come out the other side with a bit of help. The language surrounding parents who lose children makes me very uneasy – sometimes very vulnerable and in situations they cannot change.

    Also what of a child that has been adopted – how do they make sense of their own identity as they grow up?

    I dont’ believe forced adoption is a good thing – It may sometimes be necessary. It may often be expedient – but it is not a good thing.