Social work ethics ‘not routinely used’ to inform adoption practice, enquiry suggests

Two-year enquiry calls for a review of the current model of adoption

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An enquiry into the social worker role in adoption has said the profession is not routinely using ethics to inform practice.

The study, commissioned by the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), concluded that “a human rights discourse in social work in relation to adoption is under-developed”.

“The term ethics was used by social workers in a general sense to refer to whether a policy or practice was considered right or not,” the report said.

“Codes of ethics, such as the BASW Code of Ethics based on international standards for social workers, and other professional organisations, were not explicitly referred to.”

It concluded: “Social work’s professional ethics are not routinely and transparently
used to inform adoption practice.”


The enquiry was commissioned in 2016 and carried out by Brid Featherstone (University of Huddersfield), Anna Gupta (Royal Holloway, University of London) and supported by Sue Mills (University of Leeds). It was launched on the back of the adoption being a promoted model of permanence in England and rising numbers of adoptions.

In total, 300 people were spoken to for the enquiry, 105 of which were social workers.

The report said social workers “explicitly named the fragmentation of services as an ethical concern in relation to the implications for children”.

“Structures within organisations mean it is difficult for one person to really get to know the child. It was suggested that social workers should follow the child rather than being system-led. The level of specialism and the splitting between adult and children’s services means different workers are engaging different parts of the family often with different service priorities,” the enquiry said.

It added: “In general, social workers did not report many opportunities within their organisations to challenge or question whether a policy was right or wrong.”

‘Significant rethink on contact approaches’

There needs to be a “significant rethink” of approaches to contact for adopted children and their birth families, the report said.

“Even where birth relatives pose no risk, direct contact is not normally considered. For example, grandparents who have not been involved in harming children are often not offered direct contact,” it found.

“The enquiry heard letterbox contact is often poorly supported with resources. A lack of resourcing can mean that if either adoptive families or birth families stop letterbox contact unilaterally there is no follow up to ascertain why.”

The enquiry made five recommendations:

  • The use of adoption needs to be located and discussed in the context of wider social policies relating to poverty and inequality
  • The collection of publication of data by UK governments on the economic and social circumstances of families affected by adoption
  • A review of the current model of adoption, and consider what a more open model of adoption could look like
  • Further debate about the status of adoption and its relationship to other permanence options
  • Further work by BASW on the role of the social worker in adoption and human rights and ethics involved.

‘Holistic approach’

Responding to the findings, BASW said social work practice in adoption cases needs a more holistic approach.

“’Adoption work’ with children is often in isolation from any contact with the birth family, or knowledge of understanding of the social and material circumstances of the child’s birth family.”

“The social worker who is introduced after a child has been put forward for adoption may never have met the birth family or any previous carers, nor been involved in decisions until that point. In the discussions that took place during the enquiry, social workers were only able to describe and to feel accountable and responsible for their ‘bit’ of the process,” the association said.

BASW pledged to take forward the recommendations by promoting social work practice capabilities “to alleviate the impact of poverty and inequality alongside other skills”.

It called on national and local government to “commit to the principle that no child should be in care or adopted primarily because of the poverty of their parents or family”.

‘Happy ever after’ narrative

Ruth Allen, BASW chief executive, said: “Adoption can be highly successful, providing children with stable, loving homes and adoptive parents with the experience of creating the family they want. Birth families may consent to adoption and recognise the value to their biological child.

“However, the enquiry explores the complex realities of adoption for many people, particularly in non-consensual adoption, with mixed outcomes and experiences for all involved, which raise questions about what the report calls a dominant ‘happy ever after’ narrative.”

She said the arguments made in favour of adoption in its current form were “insufficiently evidenced” without information about the social and economic circumstances of the children and families currently experiencing adoption.

“Therefore, we are urging government and key stakeholders to urgently discuss the use of adoption in the context of wider social policies, specifically relating to poverty and inequality.”

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11 Responses to Social work ethics ‘not routinely used’ to inform adoption practice, enquiry suggests

  1. londonboy January 19, 2018 at 12:09 pm #

    “The social worker who is introduced after a child has been put forward for adoption may never have met the birth family or any previous carers, nor been involved in decisions until that point. In the discussions that took place during the enquiry, social workers were only able to describe and to feel accountable and responsible for their ‘bit’ of the process,” the association said.

    I’d hazard a guess that this is deliberate – all about a ‘fresh start’ for a child and looking forward not back. It is too late for questions so why encourage anyone to have them? I think this is likely to be the single biggest issue that will prove to be a source of shame about current policies.. wilful denial of identity and complexity and long term impacts.
    I’m not impacted by adoption personally so I’d be interested in viewpoints of those that have been as perhaps I’ve misunderstood something.

  2. Paul January 19, 2018 at 2:45 pm #

    CoramBAAF publish a good practice guide to ‘Planning for Contact in Permanent Placements’ ( This discusses ‘openness’ in relation to contact, and encourages social work practice that is very different to that described in this article.

  3. Hilton Dawson January 19, 2018 at 7:12 pm #

    Hmmm pulls its punches, misses some big points & conclusions too abstruse to have an impact – but thank goodness for BASW – the only strong, independent, brave voice in social work.

    • Sharon Hunter January 21, 2018 at 5:56 pm #

      Some interesting points although I would question children being adopted because their birth parents are experiencing poverty. It may be a factor but on it’s own would never meet the threshold for a placement order being granted.

  4. londonboy January 23, 2018 at 3:25 pm #

    It depends how you view poverty I think. If say, you are a young mother and in an abusive relationship you may have few options on how to deal with this – if you need a refuge or a different place to live and there is nothing available then choices are very stark so I think poverty is a very big factor in women losing babies – not just in terms of what is in the fridge – but how much control they have over your life. Poverty undermines agency and so on. It is unlikely to make it into a list of parental deficits but it is a very real factor or so I believe.

    • Stuart January 26, 2018 at 9:09 am #

      I work in an adoption service and I agree that poverty underlies or exacerbates the unsatisfactory parenting that almost every child experiences before coming to my service but poverty isn’t going to go away and certainly isn’t going to be eliminated by shifting social worker effort from ‘child care’ to ‘economic regeneration’.

      If you get a puncture by driving your car into a pot hole, do you first change your tyre or do you get on to the highways authority and fetch some tar and rocks to fill the hole?

    • Stuart January 26, 2018 at 9:13 am #

      oh and p.s. Don’t misinterpret my previous comment as meaning that poverty is the biggest single cause of children coming to adoption. My guess is that parental use of drugs and neglectful and abusive parenting vie for that inauspicious title and there is plenty of evidence that people from all walks of life and all economic circumstances are more than capable of both of those things.

      • londonboy January 26, 2018 at 1:00 pm #

        I’d be very concerned if the state thought the first stop remedy for ‘unsatisfactory parenting’ should be adoption. I understand that parents with addictions make bad parents, but if you are from a social class with some financial stability I think the chances are a member of your family will step in in some capacity. This is a lot harder in ‘stressed families’ where everybody has problems, often around money and life chances.

        • londonboy January 26, 2018 at 2:14 pm #

          Plus on the subject of neglect..Mothers who have never had a chance to parent because their baby was removed within days of birth cannot be said to have neglected their child..and that really should be cause to question the ethics of this practice.

  5. Ann McCabe January 28, 2018 at 12:55 pm #

    all professionals make assumptions about families, in many cases it is wrong. When a family appears to distrust professionals, find out the real reasons why not assume that the family wont co-operate. Too many professionals instead of looking for the reason why individuals are angry say they have mental health problems. l work in adult mental health, and have found that far too many forget the confronatial attitude simlpy doesn’t work. adult mental health many years ago dropped the way children’s services have the top down approach, instead we use the person-centred care approach with much success. It is all about the first approach, and this approach always stays with service users.

  6. Jayne January 29, 2018 at 10:53 pm #

    I have to agree that SW taking over at point of placement order is at a disadvantage having never met the birth family, caters or child so identifying and matching to prospective adopters is always going to be difficult. Coming from a team that has gone through countless restructures including passing over at PO and keeping it until adoption has been finalised there are pros and cons for both, not least trying to complete life story work which is often put in the todo list due to pressures of court timescales. There is definitely a role for existing SW who should be responsible for family finding following which cases should be passed over at matching phase.