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.
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.
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.