by Andrew Matthews
I have worked with families where care proceedings have been initiated through both my training and three-years qualified. I have been responsible for recommending the interim removal of children from their birth families as well as placing children in the care of relatives under the auspices of special guardianship orders (SGOs).
I consider myself to have a sound understanding of care proceedings but one area which leaves me feeling uncomfortable, anxious and unsure of myself as a social worker is adoption.
Adoption in a social work context often occurs without the consent of parents and is often a lengthy, draining approach for all involved; and this does not overshadow the experience of parents who have gone through their children being adopted.
The legal framework around adoption in the UK is interesting, namely around the idea of forced adoption which can be seen as punitive. Recent research from BASW said there was clear evidence that austerity added to the adversities faced by families who seek children to be returned to their care.
Welfare and legal aid cuts had reduced the financial resources available to some and services designed to help more families stay together and prevent children being taken into care had been stripped back.
I am interested in how practitioners navigate adoption when their values shape a professional identity which feels deeply uncomfortable with the state forcibly removing children permanently with closed contact. There are some cases where I believe it is clear the child will be at imminent risk and I agree that action should be taken; I still question the finality of this but again this is a related issue when thinking about contact.
My thinking on this issue has been stimulated by a current family I am working with. The mother has sadly had multiple children removed from her care but is now with a new partner and in terms of presenting risks the parents appear to be doing all they can. I am required to assess the possible risk, which is hard when the child has not yet been born.
I am facing the additional challenge of a risk-averse organisational culture contributing to a narrative that we should discount the parents because of history. The history is deeply concerning and it is recent.
I find my own values leading to anxieties in my practice; I have reflected and realised I do not think history equates to threshold for permanent adoption, which appears to be being advocated by my colleagues and management.
I am not saying I am correct, but the finality of adoption when the stakes are so high is troubling me; both parents have shared they have a willingness to change and learn.
The assessment is based on words and I worry if there is anything they can say to change the predetermined thoughts and wishes of decision makers and the court. If this is predetermined because of a recent history of significant and imminent harm with the mother, am I being dishonest and opaque in my work with the family?
To an extent I feel fraudulent; the parents have a good awareness of the severity of the situation but I can’t help thinking that things have already been decided.
The possible lack of opportunity for the parents to evidence change when thinking about the timescales of the child does not sit well with me. One argument is that pattern and history show that the child will be at risk. But this of course cannot be 100%. The flip side is how can we take a risk with a newborn child when our law enshrines the child be at the forefront of our decision making?
‘I am struggling’
Such conflicts occur day-to-day in practice with families in all matter of contexts such as child in need, child protection and single assessments. Yet in this context, when the decision may be permanent adoption, I am struggling.
Why do I not have the same struggles in the other contexts mentioned? Have I become desensitized, or have I found better strategies for managing those dilemmas? Perhaps the finality of adoption is what was different.
Power permeates the role of the social worker and I attempt to address this in my practice with families. Power in relation to not allowing a child to potentially ever have contact with their birth family is for me something I perhaps cannot agree with. Where does this leave me, how do I reflect on my values but still make recommendations that are best for the child?
How do biases about adoption impact my decision making; is my role as a social worker working in the court arena compromised? I initially had such panics but then thought about what I would do if I were to be advising or supporting a colleague with a similar dilemma. Once I broke it down, I realised like all dilemmas, the decision making and anxieties had to be shared.
Too often social work is focused on the role of practitioners in isolation; not only is safeguarding a multi-agency focus, I have realised that the better social care organisations are the ones with joint working, co working, group supervision and curious practice.
Recommendation and decisions are then made with the input and value of a range of practitioners who bring their own values, beliefs and identities. So, I could talk to a colleague who may be more risk averse and have a different relationship with adoption and one would logically assume there is more balance.
I think the decisions or recommendations social workers must make in sometimes short space of times are scary; this is a more of a worry in the context of increasing care applications and child protection plans.
The 26 weeks makes sense to me, but often complex decisions can be rushed.
Some would disagree with me, like the head of Cafcass, who was recently quoted as suggesting an increase in applications to court is due to the profession improving in identifying abuse and harm.
With the context of austerity, I have been interested in the work of Bywaters et al who have written about ‘social harm’. Are divisions in class, ability and resource being effectively considered? How we see abuse or harm is the point for me; we are quick to act to protect children and adopt where necessary but is this a punishment for those who have suffered and struggled? We say we intervene for the child but is this cruel when considering what families have experienced? Would we see it differently in a family where there was money and opportunity?
It is not to condone abuse or suggest poverty is a cause of abuse; but there is a relationship, there is a correlation which academics are beginning to focus on more.
Is it sustainable and fair to continue to remove children from families who have faced adversity and challenge in nearly every aspect of life, into families of a very different nature and then shut the door on the roots of where they have come from?
Andrew Matthews is a pseudonym. He is a children’s social worker.