Year-long investigation will hear from social workers, birth and adoptive family members and adult adoptees
The prime minister has made it crystal clear in recent months that he wants to see more children adopted, faster. But following two landmark appeal court cases, the brakes are firmly on: family judges are applying the full rigour of statute to local authority evidence when applications are made for adoption placement orders. The result, much to some politicians’ vocal displeasure, is that the number of children placed for adoption has fallen significantly.
Caught between the pressure of ministerial urgings and the stringent demands of adoption law are child protection social workers, who must make finely balanced judgment calls on what option they believe is best for a vulnerable child – with a final court decision now required within 26 weeks of a care application being made. And it is in this uncomfortable, risky space that the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) last week launched a year-long inquiry into the role of the social worker in adoption. The intention is to interrogate the ethical and human rights bases on which recommendations for severing a birth family’s legal bond with a child are made, and lives changed forever.
“We’re interested in hearing what influences social workers’ decision making around adoption, such as how court timescales influence their decision making, and whether adoption practice is affected by the resources available to families under stress – do they find they genuinely have enough resources and time to explore the possibility of a child staying with their family?” says Brid Featherstone, professor of social work at Huddersfield University, who together with independent social worker and Royal Holloway senior lecturer Anna Gupta won the bid to lead the inquiry.
The inquiry comes in the wake of a pointed European Court of Human Rights decision in March, which had a strong message for social workers. Not only did the panel of judges hold that the Portuguese government had violated the Article 8 rights to family life of a mother who had her children removed for adoption solely on the grounds of poverty, but stronger still was the concurring opinion of one judge, who warned social workers that: “Absolutism in the interpretation of the best interests of the child can easily become a source of formalism on the part of social services; that can in turn degenerate into benevolent paternalism of the state ... It is of the utmost importance that child protection services fully respect the fundamental rights of all, including those of parents, even if these benevolent persons are convinced that they are simply promoting the best interests of the child.”
The BASW evidence sessions will be planned by a steering group of adoptive parents, birth parents, adult adoptees and senior law professionals, as well as social work practitioners and academics. Contributions are invited not just from social work professionals – who may give evidence anonymously if they wish – but also from birth and adoptive family members, adult adoptees and others with personal and professional experience of the issues raised. It is a mark of how politically sensitive adoption has become that BASW’s new chief executive, Ruth Allen, takes great pains to emphasise that the inquiry will be an “investigation of the facts: a robust, honest and balanced look at adoption policy and practice as it’s emerging across the UK”.
There is no doubt that while all other European countries allow adoption without the consent of birth parents, England pursues this as an option more vigorously than most of its counterparts; there were around 5,000 adoptions in England last year, of which half were contested all the way to final hearing, compared with a yearly average in the Netherlands of just 28.
“It’s not a road that every country has followed, so we are aware that we are pursuing something that others haven’t in the same way,” says Featherstone.
Because of this, she says, it is critical that the social work profession “takes control of its own professional duty around this issue … and has very serious debates around aspects of our practice and take ownership of the ethics that underpin our work every day. It is important that we don’t just take our mandate from a government, whatever its hue.”
Professional bodies regularly interrogate their members’ views and experiences, and then define a public position on an issue, points out Maggie Mellon, who recently stepped down from her position as vice-chair of BASW. The British Medical Association, for example, regularly investigates members’ views on assisted dying, and votes on the issue are made public.
Mellon initiated the idea for the inquiry after chairing a BASW conference session at which England’s most senior family judge, Sir James Munby, spoke on the culture of family courts, prompting an outpouring of concerned comments from social workers. “We need to hear from all our members,” she says. “We have got an open mind, but we have concerns, and these are legitimate concerns when the government is quite openly at odds with the law.”
Of course, if you take the world as it is, rather than as you’d like it to be, Featherstone observes, there is a very good argument for adoption. But she insists that “a good society has to engage with ethical questions constantly. The debate on adoption has always been about its effectiveness: does it work, rather than is it right. We now also need to be asking about its ethics.”
To find out more about the inquiry and to submit evidence, contact email@example.com