We are a new peer led voluntary organisation seeking to work together with others, to bring about positive change for our children and families. We bring together the voices of adopters and special guardians aiming to provide an authentic collective voice for these communities. As such we see the perspective of birth families as well as the adopter’s perspective, and provide a forum for these differing perspectives on adoption and kinship care to come together. We also advocate for our children, many of whom are unable to speak for themselves, or do not wish to be involved with what they see as adult concerns – complex problems that overwhelm them easily because speaking of lost family or trauma may trigger painful feelings. Inevitably such things may carry an emotional charge for them, and may be very hard – and they rely on us to give them a voice.
We welcome this much needed research into ethics and human rights issues around adoption – and this is our considered response to the report. We commend the researchers on their enquiry, which has been rigorously conducted, and commend the BASW for commissioning and funding this important research.
In total 313 individuals across the four nations of the UK participated in this enquiry, which used a variety of research methods to capture their views and experiences. The report is divided into sections. We offer a summary of our views and comments, followed by our thought and views about each section:
Serious ethical concerns about modern adoption are raised by the BASW enquiry into the role of the social worker, in the light of austerity. The research has revealed how economically disadvantaged families where there are complex social problems are losing their children to relatively more affluent adoptive families in a system that disempowers parents and the wider family, with links and ties totally severed. This happens in a way that can seem punitive, and has lasting consequences for all involved.
Austerity also impacts on adoptive families who need help and support to care for some of the UK’s most vulnerable children: children who may, in some cases have suffered extreme abuse, or neglect and have already suffered huge losses before they arrive into their new family. The impact of such losses throughout the life span is now well known, through research into Adverse Childhood Experiences, conducted in the 1990s. These adoptive families will struggle to receive empathetic support when they are viewed through a ‘prism of risk’, and may not receive timely needs-based services and support at all with austerity measures and service cuts. Although the enquiry, which suggested post adoption support was inadequate, did not fully describe the outcomes of this austerity on the adoptive family, we know that its impact can be returns to care. Actual figures for returns to care are unreliable when data about the legal status for nearly 4k children entering care is not reported/missing (Source SDDA 903). A return to care is, according to Selwyn et al (2014), most often in the difficult years of adolescence, and it occurs in a system that evidently does not value parental commitment and love, as it sees these adoptive families unsupported during emotionally challenging care separations. These families are treated in the same way as those whose parenting was considered problematic. The parenting from a distance role is not well supported. The focus is solely on the child that has re-entered care – and not on the whole family. Terminology such as ‘failure’ ‘disruption’ (post the Adoption Order), ‘breakdown’, and families described as ‘placements’ emphatically undermines the permanence of adoption. Such terms can make adoptive parents feel like professionals view them as a ‘failed care option’ instead of a real and permanent family, and prevent dialogue about reunification for the child who wishes and longs for it, or work being done to achieve this as an ultimate goal. Communication can be broken, and misunderstandings may prevail with the ‘prism of risk’. Children, especially ours, need families, with all their vulnerabilities, particularly as they transition to adulthood – but the system can thrust them into independence when their neurodevelopment, because of adverse early life losses and experiences, sees them responding to life in survival mode.
The concept of moral distress is introduced by BASW researchers as distinct from ethical dilemma. From our perspective, moral distress is important to ethical decision making. This distress acts as a signal and provides individuals with a moral compass that can be lost when decisions are made by groups and organisations, where role limitations mean all involved are ‘doing their job’, whilst those the the ‘intervention’ is supposed to help, fall through the widening gaps that result from austerity. Legal inequities in the courts, and legislation that is not adapted to social change, mean natural justice can sometimes fall by the wayside.
To make modern adoption an ethical and humane social policy we need to work together. Legislators and policymakers must listen, respond quickly with positive action, and evaluate whether the action has worked.
As a group that brings together the perspectives of birth families and adoptive families we wish to be heard – and to work together positively with researchers, other voluntary organisations, education, health and social care professionals, legal professionals, members of the judiciary, as well as policy makers and legislators, to build a better system, within which our most vulnerable children can grow and develop into confident adults, whilst being supported, as much as possible, by their own loving birth and/or adoptive families.
Section 1 – The use of adoption
The enquiry usefully highlights the profoundly problematic nature of a ‘happy ever after’ narrative, and raises the very serious ethical and moral concerns when children are removed from economically and socially deprived families to be cared for by families that are relatively more affluent, instead of supporting the child within the family of origin. What is missing from the narrative, perhaps because this was not uncovered by the research, is the economic and social impact of adoption on adoptive and special guardian families, many of whom rely on statutory allowances and benefits to survive, or they become economically disadvantaged by the adoption or their special guardian role, which is totally life changing. Many have to give up work to care for their children – especially if the child cannot cope with school or mainstream education, which is not uncommon, especially in the teenage years. Achieving an EHC plan is not always straighforwards for adopted/special guardian children with social emotional behavioural problems, and hidden or less obvious disabilities/learning difficulties, and the process takes a minimum of 20 weeks. This may be 20 weeks or more of a child not receiving education and it is us that have to give up work when our children cannot access suitable education – this is tough for any family, especially single parent adopters or special guardians.
The fact is that many adopted/special guardian children have disabilities and poor mental health – they have already suffered huge losses, which are known to have a detrimental impact on health and wellbeing, and may foreshorten life considerably – according to the ACE research (Adverse Childhood Experiences) conducted by Kaiser Permanente in the 1990s. Caring for these vulnerable children requires a level of commitment that is not always appreciated, and that does not end when children’s services are no longer involved.
The enquiry, which is focused on the role of the social worker, does not fully consider the impact on birth families of removing children, which inevitably creates huge trauma and may have devastating consequences on mental and emotional health, particularly of mothers – leading to ruined lives. The loss of a child is something no loving parent can ever recover from. This context issue is an important ethical one. The long term costs of adoption to society as a whole may be significant when birth mothers are institutionalised for mental health problems exacerbated by the removal of a child, or resort to damaging, self destructive and even illegal coping strategies to deal with their despair. It will be family members that must deal with the fall out of a painful removal, and it will be their lives that change utterly if they take on the care of any child as a special guardian or kinship carer.
The enquiry also does not consider the ethics of removing children from adoptive parents or special guardians when they seek help to care for them. We become deeply bonded with our children offering parental love and family, which the State can never provide, yet sometimes it can feel we are better off being replaced by foster carers or residential care, when our parenting capacity is called into question through the problematic threshold of ‘Beyond Parental Control’ and adopters are viewed, as researchers later observe, through the ‘prism of risk’.
Serious consideration needs to be given to the ethics of social workers viewing a help seeking adoptive parent, under great pressure because of austerity and service cut backs, through the ‘prism of risk’. There are grave risks attached to such an approach, as relational trust can be eroded. This issue is discussed later in the post in the relevant section.
The enquiry could have looked at the impact of policy change on the role of the social worker including policies such as Foster to Adopt, which puts great pressure on the birth family, and the Adoption Support Fund, which was extended to include special guardians in addition to adopters but with little increase in the fund. Such policy changes do need proper evaluation and consideration if adoption is to be an ethical and humane social policy.
Social workers are frontline workers and they cannot be expected to intervene in ways that are fundamentally inhumane, when there is a duty of care for vulnerable children and supported families.
Section 2 Listening to social workers
A number of ethical concerns were highlighted by the researchers. The impact of austerity; a rushed process with fixed timescales; frustrations around adopters; fragmentation of roles and services, and lack of post adoption support. These are all very important issues. Social workers, however, do not work alone and may have limited decision making autonomy, and what does not emerge from the research is an appreciation of how potential disagreements with the approach taken, or decisions made, are being resolved by organisations. These decisions may impact considerably on social workers directly dealing with the family and child and if they are not in agreement with decisions then this will lead to great stress, and may be a factor in professional burn out, and secondary trauma.
The degree to which participants felt restricted to freely criticise the organisations they worked for in this research was not reflected on by the researchers.
The issue of being ‘role focused’ rather than ‘task focused’ and working in partnership with adopters and birth family members/special guardians, towards common goals, is also not considered by researchers but has important ethical ramifications. Under austerity the gaps which all our children fall through can become very large when an organisation and social care professional decides that the remit of their role or service does not cover whatever it is that the child or parent or carer needs. The fact is that it is parents and families who bear the most pressure when services are cut, and their children fall through gaps, far more than any social worker, or service manager – who at the end of the day’s work, goes home.
Section 3 Listening to those who experience social work services
The researchers have successfully captured many important concerns for families and children. This research is very much welcomed by us. The misuse of power and ‘fait accompli’ nature of care proceedings are hugely important from an ethical stance, especially when adopted children are removed from their families, although these removals were not something that emerged from the research, or covered in the report.
The quality of relationship between service users and social care professionals is rightly considered by researchers as being of central importance and we were surprised in this context that there was no consideration given to the concept of ‘relational trust’, which is essential to optimise positive and beneficial outcomes. Confidence in support professionals is vital and without any real sense of trust in organisations and professionals that support us, which will naturally be deeply affected if decisions are being made on the basis of short term cost savings, in a climate of austerity, it seems likely that relationships between service user and professionals will be unduly compromised – and this will have a serious impact. We do need to be able to trust those that support us, the organisations they work for, and especially our courts. We need these professionals, organisations and institutions, as well as government, to appreciate the challenges of our caring role.
Further research is needed to consider the experiences of adopters and special guardians who have been involved in court proceedings after an Adoption or Special Guardian Order was made – which were not covered in this report.
The impact of austerity and lack of support can have far reaching consequences for all our children, and all those who parent or care for them. Ethical concerns are far broader than removing children from their birth families.
It is disappointing that there was no mention of the parenting from a distance role in this research, which is a role that many adopters can find themselves in, after seeking help or having it denied for too long. There is very little appreciation of the commitment of adoptive parents to their children when the child has re-entered care and it can lead to the view that we ‘hand our kids back’.
We also do not like it when adoptive families are described as ‘placements’ by researchers or members of the judiciary after an Adoption Order is made, and our experience is the terms ‘disruption’ and ‘breakdown’, when used post an Adoption Order being made, can be undermining of potential future reunifactions, and of the parenting from a distance role. These terms can be hurtful and make grieving families feel a sense of failure – as well as confering a finality that can mislead. A recommendation of the Selwyn report (2014), is that reunification should never be ruled out and we are finding that the use of such negative and loaded words is unhelpful for us, in this regard. We respectfully ask the research team and the BASW to consider the more neutral term ‘child re-enters care’ and be sensitive to the very difficult scenario when our families need space to live apart, often in the difficult teenage years. Family life can be very intense when children have suffered early life losses, abuse and neglect.
The research sample may not have included any positive adoptee narratives, but being adopted may be a life transforming positive experience for many adoptees, and it is a shame, in this research into the ethics of adoption, that only more negative views from adoptees were presented in the final report – of a match being felt to be wrong by the child, or being made to feel they did not fit in with the adoptive family. This is not the whole picture.
Section 4 Other professionals and organisations
Local authorities work together with other services, and with voluntary agencies and the researchers have highlighted areas of good practice that seem to offer benefits. However, the dynamics of groups in decision making where collective responsibility may reduce an individual’s sense of personal responsibility, and can thus, potentially, lead to more unethical or inhumane decisions, is something that needs careful consideration – particularly in the context of removing children from families. Researchers and policy makers alike need to consider the fact that the more serious the decision in terms of its financial implications and long term consequences, and especially where there may be court involvement, the more likely it will be made by more senior managers, who have never met the child. Advocates will represent these parties but the parents are not always able to access legal representation, and the child’s feelings and wishes can be put to one side very easily by local authorities and Cafcass Guardians if they believe that a child is better off in care. This is what we have been discovering as adopters in court, with our children being removed after we have sought help. These are important ethical context issues that need very careful consideration, particularly when adopters and special guardians, who have been unable to achieve the support they need in a timely or effective manner, find that they are no longer valued by the social worker/local authority.
The shared decision making makes it very hard to ascertain who is responsible for decisions and the opinions of professionals are beyond the remit of the Local Government Ombudsman, or the Cafcass complaints service. These are important ethical issues for children and families, which arise out of the social workers role with their collaboration with other professionals and organisations.
Section 5 Ethical and human rights implications for social workers involved in adoption
The concept of ‘moral distress’ as distinct from ‘ethical dilemma’ is very helpful. It is not however the presence of moral distress that is the only concern, but rather the apparent absence of it, in certain situations. Reasons for this need to be considered because without moral distress unethical decisions may made by organisations and individuals with lifelong consequences for those they are made about.
Overstretched workers who are stressed, exhausted and frustrated are not likely to make the best, most ethical decisions, but this is a system where there is no room for error, and where blame inevitably gets passed down – onto the most vulnerable, which in this instance is the children and families for whom the State has a duty of care. We have found that rather than admit errors and failings, in these difficult times of austerity and service cuts, organisations will spend vast amounts of money to protect their interests and money seems to be no object when it comes to removing a child from their family, particularly an adoptive family, and then, if a Care Order is made, trying to keep control and keep the adopted child in care, even if this is against the child’s and parents’ wishes. These cases, where the parental capacities of adoptive parents and special guardians facing the most difficult of challenges, with inadequate support, are called into question by local authorities in our courts of law, do raise serious ethical concerns for all involved in adoption work and it is disappointing that these very difficult cases, which are also a result of austerity, have not fully emerged from this research – little is said about them, or about the UK’s adopted children re-entering care.
This is a system where there is poor and limited accountability, and where the consequences of help seeking are too drastic and in some cases may be punitive and dreadful to birth families and adoptive families alike.
Recommendations of the Enquiry
We agree with the recommendations of the enquiry, which are very broad, but feel that there needs to be greater consideration of the impact of austerity on the care system as a whole, with the permanence of adoption, and special guardianship, potentially being eroded when support for these families is insufficient. Clearly this makes adoption an ethically questionable social policy, and the answer is not necessarily to abandon or degrade adoption in favour of other care options because of its problematic ethical challenges – especially when there is a national shortage of foster carers. We need to bolster post adoption support, in addition to opening up adoption so that in modern UK adoption, positive links with the child’s birth family can be better supported, and birth families, including the wider family and kinship carers, and special guardians, might also be much better supported.
We are concerned that the parenting from a distance role that many adopters can find themselves in, does not seem particularly well served by the enquiry or its recommendations. This role is a reality of modern adoption that needs consideration, acceptance, understanding and to be well supported by social workers, legislators, and policy makers.
We do agree with the recommendation of the enquiry, and the BASW, for the necessity of more comprehensive data on adopted and special guardian children that re-enter care. The reasons for these children re-entering care, and what happens to them in care, needs further investigation. Modern adoption is in crisis when a third of the 3k adopters that responded to the recent BBC survey suggested their children were at serious risk of re-entering care. Whilst the Department of Education’s statistics indicate that 200 adopted children re-entered care in the year ending 2017, and 240 children cared for by special guardians, the fact is that many local authorities do not even submit data about children in their care to the Department of Education and there were 4k children entering care, where their origins were unknown. This compromises the reliability of the figures and having such a large number of children unaccounted for by those responsible, is completely unacceptable from any ethical or social care stand point.
Working together to find ethical solutions to complex social problems
We are extremely grateful to the researchers and the BASW calling for more dialogue between all those involved in adoption. We believe that when there is dialogue and high quality research that empowers those being helped and served, as this enquiry does, there can there be improved shared understanding about the impact of social policy. We hope that future researchers, government and policy makers pay heed to to this research and our comments about it, and work together with us, and with all involved, to bring to light the problems we face as adoptive families and special guardians, and assist us, to try to create a system that is more ethical and humane for our most vulnerable children.