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.