Adopting an obsession with lifestyle

Local authorities should do everything to find children secure homes, not fret about parents’ personal habits.

With the seemingly endless coverage of the Baby P tragedy in the UK over the past week or so, you’d be forgiven for not noticing National Adoption Week (10-18 November), a time when the authorities go on a recruitment drive to find new homes for ‘unwanted’, neglected or abused children.

National Adoption Week coincided with the suspension of Jon Gaunt, radio presenter on Talksport, for calling a councillor at the London Borough of Redbridge a ‘Nazi’. The borough has decided to ban smokers from fostering children, thus reducing the supply of potential foster parents and enraging Gaunt who spent part of his childhood in care. Gaunt has since been sacked, despite apologising for his comments.

So, while the media and political figures were calling for something to be done in the wake of Baby P to stop another child dying at the hands of its supposed carers, the authorities were protecting children from a very different set of threats: secondhand smoke in Redbridge’s case, parents who smack their children, or potential carers who happen not to ‘match’ an adoptive child’s cultural heritage. The events of the last couple of weeks have been enough to test anybody’s sense of perspective.

The changing state of care and adoption

Despite the Daily Mail’s sometimes hysterical coverage of so-called ‘child snatching’ social workers, it is increasingly the case that local authorities are very reluctant to take children into care, particularly into residential care, whether on the grounds of cost or out of a recognition of the damage done by the care system itself.

In England, there are approximately 60,000 children in the care system at any one time, about 70 per cent of whom are living with foster carers. Some will remain in the care system for a number of years, others will only be accommodated short-term and will return to their families. Though the majority of adopted children have previously been in care – mostly as a result of parental neglect, some experiencing family breakdown and a few abuse – only a small proportion of these children are in fact adopted. Last year, for example,  while just 2,600 children - four per cent of the care population - were placed for adoption, nearly twice that number were placed with their own parents.

The place of adoption in British society has changed considerably over the decades. The liberalising trends that culminated in the legalisation of abortion in 1967 and the fading of the stigma of illegitimacy have had a profound impact. The number of adoptions fell rapidly in the 1970s and the rate has continued to fall ever since to a fraction of what it used to be. While adoption is increasingly favoured today – as the best way of achieving permanence for children in care – this downward trend has continued.

Barriers to adoption

However, some children are left rattling around in the care system for longer than others. There are a number of so-called ‘difficult to place’ children waiting to be adopted – children with disabilities, siblings, older children (particularly boys), as well as children with complex problems that can make them less attractive to potential adopters. This is sometimes cited as a reason why people who want to adopt go abroad to places like China where babies are more readily available.

This option creates difficulties of its own. In an understandable attempt to grapple with the confusion, guilt and anxieties sometimes provoked in well-to-do Westerners seeking to adopt overseas, there is a tendency for adoptive parents to try to protect the cultural heritage of their children for fear that they might otherwise lose their sense of identity. But what might make sense – rightly or wrongly – for individual adopters abroad becomes a barrier to adoption in the UK.

While local authorities will use adoption week to try to recruit more prospective parents, restrictions imposed by these authorities also exacerbate the problem of finding suitable adopters. The National Minimum Standards for Adoption say that in order to secure and promote their welfare, adoption agencies must ensure that children are ‘matched with adopters who best meet their assessed needs’; and those assessed needs must reflect the child’s ‘ethnic origin, cultural background, religion and language’. The ‘matching’ process is – to put it bluntly – driven by the expectation that white carers are just not appropriate when it comes to adopting black or minority ethnic children.

Though arguably the most controversial, culture and heritage are not the only problematic criteria used to assess potential carers with regards their suitability to adopt (or indeed, foster) a child. The authorities also consider the lifestyles of prospective carers and how these might impact on the welfare of the child. It may no longer be the case that people living on their own, or in gay or lesbian relationships, are barred from adopting a child – but other categories of people are. Despite apparently liberalising reforms, the moralising around people’s lifestyles and attitudes to child-rearing has never been more apparent.

Recent newspaper headlines have featured numerous accounts of people denied the opportunity to foster or adopt a child on the grounds that they are too white, too fat, ‘too posh’ or just too fond of smacking their own children to look after somebody else’s. David Holmes, chief executive of the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF) has, rightly in my view, argued that ‘there are no blanket bans’ on who can and who cannot adopt a child. Or at least that was the case until Redbridge announced its ban on recruiting foster carers who smoke on the grounds that they have a ‘duty of care’ to the child.

A perverse emphasis on lifestyle

Given the circumstances of these most vulnerable children and their past experience of abuse, neglect or family breakdown - not to mention the often dire prospects for those spending a prolonged period in public care - it seems peculiar that it is the lifestyle choices and parenting styles of potential carers that seem to preoccupy the responsible authorities. On its progress through Parliament last month, a group of MPs tabled an amendment to the Children and Young Person’s Bill, in an attempt to outlaw smacking. Though they failed, their view that smacking is just common assault, or lies somewhere on a continuum of abuse, is one that is widely held in the liberal establishment, of which the children’s social care sector is a part.

But the notion that everything from smoking to smacking poses a risk to adopted children is a myth. Yes, there may be instances where a child has a particular health condition that would make it unwise to place them in a smoking household, or where their experience of physical abuse would call for sensitive handling by their adoptive carer. But these are likely to be the exception, not the rule. These issues could be negotiated easily without resorting to what amount to virtual bans and denying perfectly good carers the opportunity to look after a child.

Are these really the sorts of criteria that adoption agencies should be using when determining whether somebody should be allowed to adopt a child or not? Every good social worker (even some bad ones) will tell you that it is the welfare of the child that is the ‘paramount consideration’ when making decisions about children’s care. But it seems to me that it is an official distaste for certain lifestyles and particular child-rearing methods, as well as the orthodoxy of protecting children’s cultural heritage, that is really paramount for the adoption authorities.

They are imposing a set of criteria that actively discriminate against both potential adopters and against children themselves, who are needlessly denied a loving home as a result. Surely it is the role of the adoption agency to facilitate the adoption process, not to place barriers in front of people who desperately want to adopt? The adoption process needs to be opened up to wide-ranging debate. We need to return to first principles. For me, the liberalising reforms of the adoption process are not nearly liberal enough. A truly liberal approach to adoption would mean asking searching questions about the kinds of criteria used to decide whether somebody should adopt a child or not.

These should be no different to the kinds of criteria society uses to decide what makes a ‘good parent’, or when it is legitimate for the state to remove a child from their parents in the first place. It is only by situating the adoption discussion in this wider debate about the vulnerability of children, the supposed inadequacy of parents, and about the role of the state in family life that we can begin to improve the experience of all those caught up in the adoption process.

Dave Clements works in children’s social care, writes on social policy issues, and is co-editor of The Future of Community: Reports of a Death Greatly Exagerrated published by Pluto Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

This article is an updated version of a speech given at a Battle of Ideas festival debate on 2 November at the Royal College of Art in London. You can view the debate here.

Previously on spiked David Clements argued that Every Child Matters, but so does our privacy and accused the government of reducing parents to ‘partners’ in child rearing. Helene Guldberg dismissed the idea that we are determined by our childhood experiences. Stuart Waiton challenged the idea that families are an abusive nightmare. Or read more at spiked issues Parents and kids.

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