“Forced Adoptions”: Necessary evil, or dirty secret?

(Pic : Irish Times)

 

I recently covered a moderately critical report into Bridgend’s Children’s Social Services Department (here). It generated such a strong response I’ve decided to return to one of the more controversial aspects, which is Bridgend’s reported high rate of “forced adoptions”.

There’s currently a campaign against the policy both across the UK and in Bridgend, with at least two protests being held outside the Civic Offices – the latest one on 5th July.

This isn’t an easy subject to cover because people are going to have strong opinions about it either way. For legal reasons, I won’t name names or mention specific cases and this piece shouldn’t be considered either in support or against the policy – I’ll leave you to make your own mind up.

What is a “Forced Adoption”?

A “forced adoption” (also known as a contested adoption) is where a child is removed from the care of their birth parent(s) by social services to be placed permanently with a foster family as the first step towards adoption.

This is done through the courts without the consent of the birth parent(s). You can only appeal the decision in exceptional circumstances. The birth parent(s) – and any siblings, where relevant – can apply to have contact with the child (i.e. birthdays, Christmas) but this is strictly controlled and doesn’t mean they can always meet face-to-face.

In some cases, this process may have the support of the birth parent(s) if they accept they can’t cope. However, when it doesn’t have the support of the birth parent(s), it’ll come with a sense of injustice, as well as anger towards social workers – who are supposed to support the family yet at the same time gather evidence against them, usually backed by the police.

How does it happen?

The following is a simplified version, but there’s a more detailed outline from the Family Rights Group (pdf).

If children’s social services have a reason to believe a child is suffering or likely to suffer harm, they can apply to the Family Court for an order to remove the child from a parent’s care. All proceedings have to be finished within 26 weeks of starting. Until a judgement’s made, an interim/temporary order can place a child with someone else.

The evidence presented in court includes social worker’s assessments, a care plan and the reasons why social services are applying to move the child.

At the end of the process, the Family Court can make several different orders: 

  • A care order means the child is placed in the care of social services (i.e. council-run care home) and the parent loses parental responsibility – but may have a role in the child’s life if social services agree.
  • A placement order means the child is given a temporary foster placement with adoptive parents, which is then formalised with an adoption order. Again, the birth parent loses parental responsibility. This is usually the start of a “forced adoption”.
  • A supervision order means the child can remain with the parent but under supervision by social services.
  • A child arrangements order means the child lives with someone else (usually a family member) until the order expires but without the involvement of social services.

Care orders last until either the court cancels it or the child turns 18 (though, in Wales, support continues until they’re 21). Adoptions are permanent. The other orders can be time-limited by the court.

There are no recent figures, but a Freedom of Information request from 2012 showed that between 2006-07 and 2011-12, Bridgend Council made 103 placement orders – an average of 17 a year.

Why does it happen?

Following high profile cases like Baby P, Shannon Matthews and the Rotherham sex abuse scandal, the first question asked is usually, “If social services knew, why didn’t they do anything about it?”

Social workers are put in a difficult position. Do they give parents the benefit of the doubt and offer close support knowing there’s a risk that something could happen to a child? Or amidst budget cuts that mean they can’t always offer that support, and with the legal options available to them, do they seek a care order from the start?

The state taking children away from their parents without consent sounds like a totalitarian nightmare – and the UK is one of the few places where it’s tolerated – but it’s supposed to be done with good reason and often has the support of major children’s charities like Barnardo’s and the NSPCC.

Section 31 of the Children Act 1989 says an order can only be made if a child under the age of 16 “is suffering, or at risk of suffering, significant harm based on the care given to them or likely to be given to them, and/or is beyond parental control”.

However, there’s no definition of “significant harm” and an order can be made based on a risk of future harm, even if nothing’s actually happened or a parent is willing to work to fix any problems.

A 2012 case which involved a Scottish mother appealing against a “forced adoption” (the law in Scotland is different) went to the UK Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled that “forced adoptions” were compatible with Article 8 (Right to a family life) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and Scottish law sets out in more detail under what grounds a “forced adoption” can take place:

  • The parent’s died.
  • The parent can’t be found or is unable to give consent.
  • The parent is judged by a court to be unable to take parental responsibility for a child and is unlikely to be able to do so in future, and/or an order has been made taking away their parental responsibility.
  • Even if the 3 doesn’t apply, a “forced adoption” can still take place in the interests of the “welfare of the child”.

Again, there’s no legal definition of what counts as “unable to take parental responsibility” and it’s all open to interpretation – one parent’s fixable problem may be social services’ definition of significant harm.

Ultimately, it’s for a judge to decide based on a social worker’s testimony. If the parent(s) are not properly involved in the process, or don’t think they’re getting a fair hearing, they may well – with some justification – believe there’s an organised conspiracy against them.

It’s hard to argue against the idea that this procedure is brutal, but the lack of transparency and anger around it is sometimes mixed with misinformation i.e. that people profit directly from adoption, that social workers have an “adoption quota”.

In reality, the number of adoptions is falling, the only target is for children who’ve been living for a long time in care homes to get adopted (not to increase numbers of children taken into care) and local authorities struggle to recruit foster parents even with financial incentives available because the whole process is expensive.

But then again, you can argue that the existence of a care home adoption target may lead to local authorities making decisions to meet the target, not because it’s in the interests of a child – and that will raise transparency issues elsewhere.

Why is it controversial?

Even if it’s done in the best interests of the child/children, at its most basic level it rips families apart.

Passing a judgement based on something that might happen in the future, but not necessarily will, sounds like profiling.

We don’t tolerate profiling in other walks of life (i.e race or religion), but we have a blind spot when it comes to social class. It’s a racing certainty most children who’ve gone through this process come from families living near or below the poverty line.

Does it work? It counts as a success if it prevents one child being abused (or worse), but it could also mean other children are denied an upbringing with their birth parent(s) based on nothing more than an educated guess.

It may also put struggling parents off seeking help from social services if they think their children might be taken away from them without their say so.

I don’t know whether powers over family law are fully devolved to Wales, but there’s a clear need for this to be looked at again and reformed, both for the sake of parents and social workers. Some of the suggestions – many of which reflect the findings of the CSSIW report (linked earlier) – given to me by someone who’s been through this include: 

  • Better working relationships between social services and parents, including more help and a clear list of what parents need to do to keep their children before care orders are put on the table. There’s a sense that “nothing is ever good enough for them (social services)”.
  • Greater transparency and communication through the process (i.e. being properly informed about things like accessing medical records).
  • Foster parents should be held to the same standards as a parent/parents receiving help from social services. Concerns about the treatment of children in foster placements aren’t properly investigated. There’ve been a number of complaints about this in Bridgend and a social worker was recently struck off for “repeated failures” which may have put children at risk through inappropriate placements.

Owen