Parenting: no guarantees

spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London).

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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So who can I sue if my children don’t turn out exactly the way that I planned? Who will pay damages if they cause my wife and I some emotional upset and make a mess at home?

Should we sue their nurseries and schools for mis-educating them? Or their grandparents, for passing on dodgy genes? Or the Government, for failing to pass a law against parental stress? After yesterday’s unprecedented events in the High Court, perhaps we should give our solicitors a ring to see where we stand.

The court awarded damages to unnamed adoptive parents who sued Essex County Council, for allegedly failing to tell them about a five-year old’s ‘uncontrollable and vicious’ behaviour before placing the boy with them. The couple claimed that the boy had damaged their ‘home, health and family life’. Their barrister reportedly told the court that, ‘had the couple known how the then five-year-old would turn out, they would never have adopted him’.

‘Had they known how he would turn out’, they would surely have had no need to seek help from Essex County Council, since they would be sitting on heavenly thrones looking down on all of us as Their adopted children. Back here on Planet Earth, however, human parents never know how children will turn out. There is no brochure, no contract, and no recourse to the courts for compensation. At least, not until now.

Few of the messy details have been publicised about the sad Essex case. But whatever the specifics, it has set a legal precedent that reflects badly on a society in which we find it increasingly difficult to act like adults and accept responsibility for raising children.

Of course adoption services must give the full facts to prospective parents. We all know what these jobsworth council agencies can be like. Yet however much information they are given, all parents – natural or adoptive – have to accept that there are no guarantees that their kids will turn out ‘good’. Having children means accepting a risk – something that we find hard to cope with in many walks of life today.

In the Essex case, the boy was placed with the parents for 14 months before they adopted him, during which the judge accepted that they would have learnt all about his behaviour, regardless of any information the council had withheld. It seems clear that they had a hard time with the boy, and no blame need have attached had they decided that things weren’t working out then; apparently one in five prospective adoptions break down at that stage.

But that does not explain why, years later, they have decided to drag their family’s most personal baggage through the High Court, claiming damages for emotional and physical harm. The parents said that the boy’s behaviour had violated their ‘right to respect for their home and family life’ under the Human Rights Act. That law looks more and more like a ‘right not to be unhappy Act’, a way of asking judges to magic away our problems of everyday life.

Who benefits from turning a family crisis into a courtroom drama? It is hard to see how the boy’s troubled life will be improved by hearing his adoptive parents – who claim still to love him – tell the world that he behaved like an animal and made their lives hell.

Meanwhile, the national coverage of the adopted boy who got ‘given back’ into care seems unlikely to make other adopted children feel more secure in their new families. And those awaiting adoption will probably find it harder still to find a home. If prospective parents are not put off by this kind of high-profile horror story, they may well be scared away by councils who now feel obliged to emphasise a child’s every imperfection. That adopted children can be difficult should surely not be news to anybody.

The boy has since been found to be suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and he lives under specialist care and medication. This has been reported as vindicating the parents’ case. Yet the rise and rise of ADHD is itself an illustration of our reluctance to take responsibility. It is not a medical diagnosis, but a poorly defined cluster of symptoms. Looking at lists of these symptoms – ‘they fidget, get easily distracted’ – it seems hard to imagine which child could be judged entirely free of ADHD. Medicalising children’s educational and behavioural problems looks like a handy prescription for letting us all off the hook.

When are we going to tackle the epidemic of buck-passing and bad behaviour by grown-ups, and stop looking for syndromes and scapegoats to blame where our children are concerned? Otherwise I’ll end up suing my little daughters for the emotional stress of Christmas, while they counter-sue for the trauma of not getting the gifts they had a human right to receive.

This article is republished from The Times (London)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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