‘Forced adoption’ criticism shouldn’t get in the way of helping children

Hugh Thornbery addresses some of the criticism around 'forced adoption'

by Hugh Thornbery

In the UK we adopt more children against the birth parent’s wishes than any other European state.

This partly reflects a shift in government policy. In the 2000s New Labour backed investment in keeping children with birth families. The current approach, initiated by Michael Gove under the coalition and maintained by the Conservatives, is to invest in adoption and not allow children to remain at risk in birth families or linger overly long in care.

This shift is not without controversy. Sections of the media criticise the rise of what they label ‘forced adoption’. The coverage is often sensational and one-sided. It leaves the impression that children are being inappropriately ‘snatched’ from their birth parents by the courts and given to ‘desperate’ adopters.

The reality is more complex. A small minority of children who enter care leave through adoption – now around 8%, compared to 5.2% in 2001. Nearly three-quarters (71%) of those adopted children came into care because of abuse or neglect.

Due process

In every case, social workers should have assessed all realistic options for the child’s future. Adoption remains a last resort. The courts will then have agreed each step of this decision-making process. There are rights to appeal along the way.

This isn’t forcing adoption, it is due process within the law. Yet the ‘forced adoption’ criticism is sticking in some quarters and there are signs it could be changing views on adoption as a route to permanence for the minority of children who come into care.

I fear, based on what we’ve seen at Adoption UK over the past 18 months, there will be a dramatic fall in adoptions this year. My best estimate is the number of children in care will rise again in 2015-16 but the proportion leaving through adoption will be halved from around 8% to 4%.

This is troubling. Some children are so damaged by what has happened to them that they will never be managed effectively in care. Of those children leaving care, those least likely to be able to return home are younger children who have suffered maltreatment.

Adoption without consent can offer the best chance to permanently break a cycle of neglect and abuse and give a child a second chance at fulfilling their potential with the support of a loving family.

‘Draconian step’

There are children for whom only adoption will work. Adoptive parents who are able to provide these children with a forever home have a resilience to parent them through thick-and-thin. We must do everything we can to allow them to continue doing so.

While adoption is a “draconian step” in some eyes it can also transform children’s lives. This is because only a full transfer of parental responsibilities gives the adopter the motivation, the strength and resilience to parent the most difficult to parent children in society.

These placements are remarkably resilient too. We know from research that a quarter of adoptive families are in a state of near crisis when their children are in their teens. Yet only 3% of adoptions break down. Most importantly, evidence points to children who are adopted without consent doing well. They catch up. They do better than their peers who remain in care. They do better than those left at home on the edge of care.

Put simply, this can work. Yet that’s no guarantee it will continue. After all we’ve seen plenty of accepted social care interventions lose the support of society and governments over time. Is adoption without consent next on the list? Will special guardianship orders be the cuckoo that pushes adoption out of the nest?


Look, the adoption system is not perfect. As with anything involving human judgement, human error exists.

There are also a range of issues that urgently need to be addressed. We need to find ways of being more open so we manage better the trauma of unsolicited contact by birth families for adopted children. We must find a way of protecting essential family support services from ideological policy shifts and funding cuts.

We must also get better at supporting mothers who lose children to care or adoption. We need to help them overcome their terrible loss and to better understand, and tackle, the role of fathers who, in too many cases, use serial pregnancies as just another means of coercive control.

So the system must evolve but we must not lose sight of its benefits to children for a small minority of children who come into care.

As long as we fail to protect some children from harm in the first place, we’ll have to take extraordinary steps to help them. These options have to include adoption without birth parent consent, if the needs of the child are to remain paramount. Nothing else is good enough for children who are so damaged by their experiences before coming into care.

Hugh Thornbery is chief executive of Adoption UK. 

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14 Responses to ‘Forced adoption’ criticism shouldn’t get in the way of helping children

  1. LongtimeSW March 9, 2016 at 11:53 am #

    Agree – even now I have e-mails, (years after adoption), from forever parents telling me about first day at school/university – is it too cynical to say this is not newsworthy?


    ‘snatching children from the bosom of thier families’

    sells more than

    ‘rescuing from years of neglect/lifelong abuse and damage’

  2. loiner March 9, 2016 at 4:33 pm #

    it is well known that adopters only want nice little babies, who they believe wont remember their natural parents……………..that is ignoring the research that states babies memories start in the womb, and much is been ignored about the effects of adoption on children………..most adopted children all feel they have missed out knowning their natural families, other problems is that children know they are different far longer than most ppl will admit to…………….forced adoption is the worst thing that can happen to many children, and that is the view not of professionals but of these children who grow up and demand answers that no-one will give them

    • Chris March 10, 2016 at 11:59 am #

      Please can you provide references for the following statements, showing studies which investigate them?

      “it is well known that adopters only want nice little babies, who they believe wont remember their natural parents”

      “most adopted children all feel they have missed out knowning their natural families”

      Re demanding answers that ‘no-one will give them’: when an adopted child turns 18, they are legally entitled (after due counselling) to all the information that Social Services hold on them.

      We are currently progressing as potential adopters, and your comment that “adopters only want nice little babies, who they believe wont remember their natural parents” is hurtful. We have considered this path at very, very great length, and understand the implications of what we are getting into. We recognise that the child who is placed with us will have a history of their own, and we are being encouraged – I’d go so far as ‘told’ – by Social Services that the child’s past is part of who they are, and that we should be open with them.

    • Cathy March 10, 2016 at 6:57 pm #

      What a load of utter tosh. I am adopted myself and was adopted at 9 days old. I respect the reason I was put for adoption. I have no memories of being in the womb. I am also approved to adopt and looking for any ages up to 5/6 . So you talk a load of rubbish about adopters wanting “nice little babies” Very narrow minded and naïve to say most adopted children feel they have missed out.

    • Special Guardian Grandmothe March 30, 2016 at 5:48 pm #

      Tragically all the adults I have known who were adopted feel this terrible loss although it is not true of all. Adoption is not the panacea of all ills. It does not assure the child’s lifelong happiness. Many, like my brother in law, end up depressed as adults. In our case, I put myself forward as my granddaughter’s prospective carer right at the beginning before court proceedings. The birth parents clearly were unable to be parents to their daughter but they loved her very much. The idea of forced adoption terrified me. However, I could see it certainly was not a last resort as has been suggested in the article. It was practically the first thing that was mentioned on my granddaughter’s court papers….

  3. Planet Autism March 9, 2016 at 7:01 pm #

    “Nearly three-quarters (71%) of those adopted children came into care because of abuse or neglect.”

    That should say “purported” abuse or neglect. Don’t forget the exponential rise in “emotional harm” which can be fitted to almost anything and as for “potential for future emotional harm” there are not words.

    Some children taken have their trauma at being wrongly taken attributed to the after-effects of abuse.

    There is an opinion for everything and the terrifying and tragic thing is how often those opinions are wrong. Either through misrepresentation or misunderstanding and the hysterical culture within child protection at the moment.

    It would help social services to remember that a child does not exist as an island, they are an extension of their parents and a unit. Break that unit when it shouldn’t happen and that’s the ruination of lives.

  4. jim blake March 10, 2016 at 12:06 am #

    No mention of the vital role that Cafcass Guardians play in ensuring that a child’s right to family life is upheld when appropriate

  5. Tom J March 10, 2016 at 10:30 am #

    I agree with many points within this article. However, we must call a spade a spade. Forced adoption is what it is, and no amount of flowery language can change this fact.

    Moreover, people are right to be concerned about some of the government’s current narratives around ‘celebrating’ increased adoption figures which come across as being ideological at times and are from the same group of people who can see nothing wrong with the bedroom tax.

    Three final points; 1) All efforts and resources must be available to keep a child with their parents. 2) There is a valid concern that the 26 week court time scale creates a culture whereby procedure is king (this is not to say that cases should go on and on). 3) When the state does forcibly remove a child, there should be absolutely no penny pinching or waiting lists for therapy etc. The child may be physically removed from their abusive parents, but emotionally they are still there- just as a soldier who is back from Iraq is still emotionally there whilst walking around Tesco. There should be an attitude of ‘whatever it takes’ to a) Support that child and get them the help they need b) To acknowledge the severity of the state forcibly removing a child.

  6. Hiplee March 10, 2016 at 10:36 am #

    In response to loiner’s comment, I am an adopter and I’d just like to say that I did not want a nice little baby. I’d also like to say that I don’t want or expect children not to remember their birth parents. In addition adopters are well aware that children have missed out on things with their birth families and that adopted children are likely to feel different.

    • Paul March 10, 2016 at 2:28 pm #

      This article suggests that adopted children do better than their peers who remain in care. It would be helpful to have some academic references so we can judge the accuracy of that claim. In comparing adoption and fostering it is important that we account for things like age at placement amongst other factors.

      • Jo Ward March 16, 2016 at 12:52 pm #

        If you want the academic evidence, a through review was done by Donald Forrester recently: Forrester, D., K. Goodman, C. Cocker, C. Binnie, and G. Jensch. 2009. “What is the
        Impact of Public Care on Children’s Welfare? A Review of Research Findings from
        England and Wales and their Policy Implications.” Journal of Social Policy 38:
        45 439–456.

        Good luck!

  7. Paul March 10, 2016 at 12:26 pm #

    There is a claim in this article that adopted children ‘do better than their peers who remain in care’. It would be helpful to have some academic references to help consider whether this is in fact true.

  8. Catherine March 11, 2016 at 11:59 am #

    My husband and I have always wanted to adopt, but after being foster carers in the UK for a few years, and through coming across various situations of forced adoption, we knew that we could not go through with it. I came across way too many situations where the child was removed with hardly any effort put into finding kinship carers or really supporting birth families. The whole court process is itself completely out of touch with the reality of family’s lives, and still too much power is given to social workers, who often have very strong, biased opinions. I was so disheartened. The “risk of emotional harm” has caused way too many miscarriages of justice. There are however glimmers of hope, such as family group conferences, which give the extended birth family far more empowerment to help and to provide care for the family, so that they can remain in their extended birth family. Not always straight forward, but with the right management it is often possible. We have since moved abroad to a third world country to work with UNICEF and fight for the rights of children to have a loving family.

    • Special Guardian Grandmothe March 30, 2016 at 5:54 pm #

      Catherine, I applaud you. You have insight and intelligence, seeing the terrible injustices in this system that gives social workers so much power over a child’s future. Thank you for acknowledging the failure and unwillingness to look into alternatives to forced adoption, considering or even trying to find relatives who can keep children in their rightful birth families. And as you say there is the terrible reason for removal – risk of future emotional harm 🙁 who could ever prove this or define what it actually involves. I so hope this is removed and this is made law…it is a terrible injustice. Children should only be removed if there is evidence of neglect and abuse, not based on flimsy fortune telling…thus causing heartache to all concerned.