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.
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.”