Social security for kids

Adoption and the Care of Children
April 17, 1998

A child welfare system must put children first," writes Patricia Morgan, senior research fellow in the family at the Institute of Economic Affairs. And who would disagree with that? Or, indeed, with any of the other homilies to stable childhood with which this book is packed. There is much to agree with here. My problem with the book is chiefly to do with tone rather than substance. Arguments attempting to prove that adoption is better even than "permanent" fostering lose credibility when followed by sentences such as: "Claims that permanent fostering will be as good as adoption, because it is the 'sense of permanence', not the legal status that is important, are very similar to those equating cohabitation with marriage."

Nor does the author endear herself by her outrage that adoption "tends to be excluded from the list of possibilities" presented to women with problem pregnancies (in a study done in Illinois in the mid-1980s). Morgan says adoption is under attack by a "powerful alliance" that includes feminists: "the easier it is for women to prevent and terminate pregnancies and the higher the welfare payments for lone parents, the smaller the supply of babies for adoption will be."

Morgan's other main targets are the "racial awareness campaigners" who have led local authority social services departments to seek black, Asian or mixed-race families for, respectively, black, Asian or mixed-race children. As most would-be adopters are white, this cuts off one route for them. Her refusal to understand why this is happening presents the reader with a false and pernicious question: which is more important, race or love?

Those who attempt to find parents whose race matches that of the adopted children's are themselves accused of racism, Morgan says. "If language like 'racial pride' were used in respect of white children, how would this be received? White children are expected to be 'colour-blind', while black children are expected to be obsessed with race."

As a "client" on the receiving end of various social services departments involved in adoption work I can testify to the accuracy of Morgan's criticisms of their slowness. Some have been downright inept. Children can wait for years in children's homes, being shunted back and forth between these and different foster carers, or even between their care families and their birth families in the vain hope that they may be able to go back to their natural parents. Often children who reach a prospective adopter are institutionalised, disturbed, violent and in need of psychiatric care. Small wonder that people of all political persuasions want change.

Being in a stable, permanent family seems to be the answer. And these days adoption can be very different from in the past. Once the desire for contact between would-be adoptee and birth family precluded adoption and meant (less stable) fostering at best. Nowadays, with the 1989 Children Act, so-called "open" adoptions are encouraged, which retain contact with the birth family. So why are there not more of them?

Apart from the disappearing babies caused by easier abortion, two of the main reasons, according to Morgan, were the 1975 Children and 1976 Adoption Acts, after which the number of voluntary societies offering adoption services started to shrink and with them the number of adoptions. In 1975 there were 21,299 adoptions of children from all ages in England and Wales, and by 1995, the last year she cites, only 5,797. Adoption is now mainly the preserve of hard-pressed social services departments.

As the book points out, this means that once a child has been placed in a children's home or with foster parents and is "technically safe" he or she is often forgotten, as there is pressure to move on to more urgent child abuse cases. As one social worker puts it: "Something may not be more important than adoption but it may be more immediate. Adoption can always wait for another day."

However, these figures refer to all adoptions, including adoptions by step-parents, which Morgan says she is not interested in. The figures she quotes of the number and the percentages of children leaving the care system via adoption go back only to 1981, and the big fall has come since 1991, when 9 per cent of children leaving care were adopted. In 1996 the figure was 5 per cent, so the Children Act, with its emphasis on trying to keep families together, has had its effect.

The act emphasises partnership with biological parents and the need to exhaust all possibilities of getting children back home before thinking about alternatives. While this may seem reasonable, it slows things and Morgan blames the process for imposing unnecessary delays while all avenues to rehabilitation with birth parents are exhausted.

It also means that social services departments have to wear two hats - starting by working with biological parents, later going to court to take their child away. As Morgan writes: "Except for the child, all of the parties involved (social workers fearful of getting things wrong, biological parents, legal representatives) have incentives to slow up proceedings."

Her solutions are twofold. The first I agree with: remove adoption work from social services departments and return it to independent adoption agencies. I find less palatable her idea of giving biological parents much shorter deadlines to prove their fitness to keep their children, and making it far harder for them to withhold consent for adoption.

Also suspect are the sources Morgan cites, which are a bit of a ragbag. "Adoption is 'widely believed to be of only marginal significance in social policy'," is how chapter 15 begins. Yet this quote comes from a book written in 1977. Could she not find a 1990s social worker who agrees?

With mainly older children seeking new families, there is surely an argument for a range of ways of giving children stable families while preserving some links with their past. Open adoption is one possibility, and can include face-to-face contact if everyone is happy with the idea. "Permanent fostering" is another way, a more secure form of long-term fostering which gives birth parents more influence than open adoption. Morgan does not say how many children are now leaving care via permanent fostering, but it would make sense to think that the shortfall after 1991 was being made up in this way.

The little bit of paper that says "married" may be important to some people; but others can cohabit happily without needing a certificate. Likewise some families and children will want the more absolute security of adoption; others will be happier without it. So long as more children find secure families, and quickly, what does it matter?

Vicky Hutchings is a freelance journalist and foster mother.

Adoption and the Care of Children: The British and American Experience

Author - Patricia Morgan
ISBN - 0 255 36434 2
Publisher - Institute of Economic Affairs
Price - £9.00
Pages - 210

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