Solomon’s judgement

Peter Beresford welcomes the government’s
commitment to “put the needs of children at the heart of the
adoption process”. Even so, the ambiguities remain in this most
delicate of care policies.

Adoption is probably the closest that public
policy comes to having to make the judgement of Solomon. But
whatever wisdom adoption policy makers can bring to bear, they must
also reconcile the pressures of politics, ideology and policy
process. These rarely sit comfortably with the meeting of human
rights and needs and frequently compromise the capacity of
provision to prioritise them. Of course, the same pressures apply
in all areas of social policy, but in few cases can they have the
same immediate, lifelong, cataclysmic effects on individual lives
and relationships as can policy and practice relating to

Few people would oppose the government’s
commitment in the Adoption Bill to “put the needs of children at
the heart of the adoption process”. But the problem of social
policy in non-totalitarian societies is generally not the one of
crude social engineering where the “end” is used to justify the
“means”, but rather of how to find the right means to bring about
the most humanitarian ends. Life is messy and so is public policy,
but in very different ways – and that perhaps is the problem.

My first contact with care and adoption policy
and practice came 20 years ago. I was fortunate enough to be
involved in the In Care in North Battersea Project, a rare attempt
in a committed department to find out the views of children in
care, their families, workers and foster parents in order to
improve services at a local level. What was striking was the part
that poverty and lack of support played in many children coming
into care. I shall never forget some of the things people said. “I
try my best with my kids. When they were small they tangled my
feet. Now they’re grown, they tangle my heart.” “When they’d gone,
I realised it was probably for the best, because at least that way
they’d get three square meals a day.”

Service users had some positive as well as
critical things to say about social services and social workers.
But this was when the Conservative government was encouraging
councils to close children’s homes to save money, use family
placements to keep with “traditional family values”, and to save on
grants and allowances by shifting from fostering to adoption. This
was when the focus was rightly moving to “same race” fostering and
adoption, but we were still seeing African-Caribbean children
separated from their birth parents simply because they were too
poor to keep them.”

Now adoption policy says much more about
listening to the voices of children, about post-adoption support
and national standards. But the ambiguities and complexities
remain. The upside of standards is making explicit the terms and
conditions we all have a right to expect. The downside is to
overlay the subtleties and nuances of individual situations with
bureaucratic prescriptions. It’s no surprise that when children and
young people were consulted about standards, one of the three key
issues they highlighted was that while there should be timescales
that avoided unnecessary delay, they must take into account
individual need. Children’s views, they said, must be

We now know some fundamentals about adoption.
That children must be the top priority, that sometimes children
cannot live with their birth parents, the damage done by being cut
off from our roots. That age, impairment, sexuality and marital
status should never be used as general arguments against adopting.
That adoption must never be at the expense of disadvantaged
individuals or societies. We know that mental health service users
are still more likely to lose their children than to have
sufficient support to keep them – and that they may be denied the
right to adopt, however long ago their experience of psychiatric
services was. We also know that power plays its part: that in terms
of lobbying power, birth parents and children are still

As I write this, there is a story about two
parents with learning difficulties fleeing abroad to try to keep
their unborn baby, of being searched, arrested, the mother given a
Caesarean and a week on, feeling sure they have lost their

This is the challenging context of the
government’s aim for a 40 per cent increase in adoptions from care.
We remember King Solomon’s judgement, thousands of years on,
because his preoccupation with the child’s well-being still defines
wisdom for us. Hopefully the government will regularly reconvene
consultations with children and young people to judge progress on
its adoption policy. Adoption is too important an issue to be left
to adults.  

Peter Beresford is professor of social
policy, Brunel University, and actively involved in the psychiatric
system survivor movement.

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