BASW: ‘Happy ever after’ narrative of adoption is unhelpful

Adoption has been promoted as a risk free ‘happy ever after’ narrative, an enquiry into adoption by BASW has found.

Policy makers’ views on adoption were unhelpful and can lead to the silencing of adopted children, adoptive families and birth parents, the enquiry found.

BASW CEO Ruth Allen, 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.”

The enquiry highlighted how there is a dearth of information and meaningful longitudinal research to inform policy and social work practice on adoption. Very little information is known about the social and economic circumstances, the lifetime costs and benefits, and long-term outcomes of the promotion of adoption of children from care.

There is also no comprehensive data on the number of children who are returned to care after adoption and the reasons why, nor sufficient research into the longitudinal outcomes into adult life of those who are adopted.

Allen says that without this information, the arguments made for adoption in its current form and current policy are insufficiently evidenced. “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.”

The UK-wide enquiry, which was led by Professors Brid Featherstone and Anna Gupta, took evidence from more than 300 individuals and organisations including social workers, birth families, legal professionals, adoptive parents and adults who were adopted as children.

The researchers found austerity was adding to the “considerable adversities” faced by many families in poverty who are seeking to safely care for their children. Welfare and legal aid cuts had reduced the financial resources available to some, while services designed to help more families stay together and prevent children being taken into care had also been stripped back.

Cuts were also impacting on post-adoption support. Provision for both birth families and adoptive families was found to be “inadequate”. Support for post-adoption contact between adopted children and their birth families was under-resourced, with little follow up from services if “letterbox contact” was ended unilaterally by any of the parties.

“There was a consensus that post adoption support needed improving for everyone, with ethical issues raised in relation to adoptive parents being left caring for traumatised children without adequate help. England is the only country to have an Adoption Support Fund, but this was viewed as insufficiently resourced, with the amounts available capped in recent years,” said the report.

The quality of the relationship between social workers and families was “crucial” to pre-and post-adoption support. However, rising caseloads and cuts to services meant many practitioners felt limited in the time and support they could provide and some families feared their children would end up taken into care if they sought help.

The enquiry also found social work’s professional ethics were not routinely or transparently used to inform adoption practice and said this area needed further exploration. It heard groups of parents such as birth mothers with mental health or learning difficulties and young parents who grew up in care were particularly vulnerable to both losing their children and not having their human rights respected.

The enquiry makes five recommendations:

  1. The use of adoption needs to be located and discussed in the context of wider social policies relating to poverty and inequality.
  2. UK governments should collect and publish data on the economic and social circumstances of families affected by adoption.
  3. The current model of adoption should be reviewed, and the potential for a more open approach considered.
  4. There needs to be further debate about the status of adoption and its relationship to other permanence options.
  5. BASW should develop further work on the role of the social worker in adoption and the human rights and ethics involved.

Alison Michalska, President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said: “This report raises some important questions worthy of further debate, not least in relation to the cumulative impact of wider government policies, exacerbated by financial austerity, on our most vulnerable children and families. Since 2010 local government budgets have been reduced by almost half, at the same time demand for costly child protection services has risen significantly. Cuts to vital early help and preventative services have been necessary in order to balance the books which has reduced our ability to work with families at the earliest opportunity to help them build resilience and prevent family breakdowns. ADCS continues to urge the government to urgently address the deepening funding gap facing children’s services, expected to be £2bn by 2020 whilst reaffirming its commitment to preventative services for children, young people and families.

“Finding loving, stable homes for children who cannot live with their birth parents is essential work. Whilst adoption can be the right placement option for some it is not suitable for every child, where it is not in the best interests of the child it will not be pursued. The majority of children and young people who come into our care do so because they have experienced abuse and neglect and will require support to help them overcome early trauma. ADCS members agree that it is unhelpful to present an idealistic narrative of adoption - the vast majority of adoptions are successful over a long period of time however, some can experience real challenges. The narrative of care and all forms of permanence must be more balanced to ensure we are recruiting adopters and carers who can meet the needs of children in care. It is imperative that the Adoption Support Fund is sustainable in the long term to ensure the funding of vital support services to meet the needs of children and their families. The benefits of doing so are twofold, it will help prevent adoption breakdowns, ensuring that children remain with their adoptive families, and the reassurance that support is available if it is needed should also help to bring more potential adopters forward in the future.”

BASW’s Adoption Enquiry

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