Here we look at the concept of ‘forced adoption’
I am a passionate believer in the value of adoption in appropriate circumstances… But I fear that, in making all those orders, I never gave much attention to the emotional repercussions of them. In particular I fear that I failed fully to appreciate that an adoption order is not just a necessary arrangement for the upbringing of some children… the order is an act of surgery which cuts deep into the hearts and minds of at least four people and will effect them, to a greater or lesser extent, every day of their lives…
Lord Wilson Denning Society Lecture 13th November 2014
‘Forced adoption’ is a phrase we often hear used by people like Ian Josephs and the former MP John Hemming We have provided links to their sites under their names – but we hope that if you visit their sites, you will also stay here and read what we have to say.
See this post for discussion of the case law which judges have to consider before agreeing to any care plan for adoption. See this post for general discussion of the law around adoption and placement orders.
The debate begins
The historical development of adoption in England and Wales
Adoption is the means by which a child’s legal relationship with his birth parents is eliminated and the child becomes a legal member of a new family. Adoption did not become law in England and Wales until the Adoption Act 1926; some time after the USA, Australia and Canada. Many babies born out of marriage in the Victorian era were ‘farmed out’ or placed with married couples who would pretend the baby was their own. There were increasing concerns about the lack of regulation of this private adoption industry which led to statutory intervention. Under the Local Government Act 1929, local authorities (LA) were given powers to remove children from parents, if the LA decided they could not care for them.
See this post from the Guardian giving a time line of the history of child protection.
In 1968, 25,000 adoption orders were made, reflecting a society where illegitimacy was still stigmatised, birth control less reliable and welfare benefits less accessible. In 2014 only about 5000 adoption orders were made. Adoptions now rarely involve babies.
As the President of the Family Division commented at para 15 in the case of N (Children) (Adoption: Jurisdiction) :
It is important to acknowledge, however, that, whatever the legal theory, practice has changed dramatically over the 89 years we have had adoption in England. Non- consensual adoption used to be rare, but the position has changed radically. Initially, the courts took a very narrow view indeed of the final limb of section 2(3) of the 1926 Act: see Re JM Caroll  1 KB 317 and contrast H v H  KB 463. Much more important, the entire focus of adoption has changed dramatically in recent decades. Until the late 1960s, the typical adoption was of an illegitimate child born to a single mother who, however reluctantly, consented to the adoption of her child. Non-consensual adoption was comparatively rare. A combination of dramatic changes in the 1960s – the ready availability of the contraceptive pill, the legalisation of abortion, the relaxation of the divorce laws and a sea-change in society’s attitudes to illegitimacy – led to a drastic reduction in the number of adoptions of the traditional type. The result of various changes in the system of public childcare, culminating in the implementation in October 1991 of the 1989 Act, has led in recent decades to a correspondingly dramatic increase in the number of non-consensual adoptions. The typical adoption today is of a child who has been made the subject of a care order under the 1989 Act and where parental consent has been dispensed with in accordance with section 52(1)(b) of the 2002 Act.
The often highly polarised debate about ‘forced adoption’ and what this means for child protection work, gained increased traction around 2007 and became the focus of renewed attention towards the end of 2013. This followed discussion of Alessandra Pacchieri (the ‘forced caesarean case’ ) and media interest in reports of parents wrongly suspected of abusing their children who were actually suffering from various medical conditions.
You can read comment on Ms Pacchieri’s case and the judgment here. The court made an adoption order in relation to her child in April 2014. The case is here. For an explanation of what sparked John Hemming’s interest in the child protection system, see ‘Hemming’s Way’ the article by Jonathan Gornall in 2007.
The Conspiracy Theory and allegations of systemic corruption
However, despite the enormous reduction in adoption orders over 40 years, the debate about the entire concept of adoption continues to grow. There have been serious concerns about the child protection system for many years. Those unhappy with the UK’s approach to ‘forced adoption’ raised their concerns in November 2014 with the European Parliament’s Petition Committee.
In fact, it was this 2013 ‘forced adoption’ debate that encouraged us to set up this resource as we were concerned that a lot of justifiable criticism about the system was getting lost or taken over by those who wanted to believe the more extreme ‘conspiracy theories’ – i.e. that the entire system was corrupt and that social workers are paid bonuses to snatch babies from loving homes.
For a sad example of the damage that can be done to a parent’s chances of keeping their family together, by a ‘siege mentality’ and belief that concerns about their parenting are fuelled by a conspiracy, see Hertfordshire County Council v F & Others  EWHC 2159.
We have attempted to debunk some of the more specific myths here and in particular the frequently made assertion that adoption targets exist to take babies away, rather than to promote finding adoptive families for children who have already been through care proceedings and don’t have a permanent home.
People who are unhappy with the current child protection system often refer to it as a system of ‘forced adoption’ which is almost unique in Europe.
However, this assertion is not supported by the 2015 Report by the Committee on Social Affairs, Health and Sustainable Development from the Council of Europe which notes that adoptions without parental consent are possible in Andorra, Croatia, Estonia, Georgia, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Montenegro, Norway, Poland, Slovenia, Sweden and Turkey. A further 7 countries permit adoption without parental consent in ‘rare’ circumstances. See further, this post from the Transparency Project. See also this post from Claire Fenton-Glynn confirming that EVERY European country has a mechanism to provide for adoption without parental consent.
They say that children are taken from parents for no good reason in order to meet LA’s ‘adoption targets’ set by various Governments and this is shown by the increased numbers of children being taken into care.
It is further alleged that family courts are secret and people who try to speak out will be sent to prison. Parents aren’t allowed to see the evidence against them and lawyers, experts and Judges are all in each other’s pockets and just rubber stamp the decisions made by the LA and social workers.
There are many on line groups for parents who are convinced that their children were removed on the basis of deliberate lies. The view expressed here is typical:
UK Social Services/CAFCASS are the most prolific and serious perpetrators of Domestic Violence in the country. UK Family Law Courts a close second. One day, history lessons will describe the horrific details of what is happening to families all across the country. The descendants of those who have perpetrated this abuse, will be ashamed of their ancestors and try to distance themselves from them….
The Rotherham report suggests, as June and I suggested 34 years ago, that social workers excel at empathy but lack the ability to carry out ‘coherently planned action’. Social work with troubled teenagers is doubtless even more challenging today than it was in the 1980s, yet the report’s conclusions reveal many of the unhelpful institutional and ideological features that we identified are still with us…
It seems these were not just individual failures, occasional and regrettable exceptions in a generally efficient professional culture, but a persistent feature of a profession that emphasises doing good rather than doing it efficiently. This happens despite the fact that social workers have relatively modest case loads, especially compared with doctors.
These are not fanciful concerns. We should all be interested in the state of our child protection services. However, while we accept that sadly there have been serious examples of injustice we don’t accept that this is a result of deliberate corruption within the system itself, or chasing after ‘adoption targets’.
What is clear is that a growing number of people DO believe exactly that. We need to understand why and what we can do about it.
Adoption Targets: How did this belief take hold? do they exist, and what impact do they have?
In 2000, the government introduced a national target to increase the number of children adopted from care by at least 40% between 1999-2000 and 2004-5. Tony Blair had been horrified by the numbers of children who remained in care for long periods of time without a permanent home.
Therefore, these were not targets to take children from their homes in order to get them adopted but a well intentioned attempt to help children who were already in the care system and hadn’t been found a permanent home.
Claire Fenton-Glynn describes the situation in her study on the UK system, presented to the European Parliament in June 2015:
The Prime Minister’s Review of Adoption in 2000 put forward the belief that the system was not delivering the best for children, as decisions about how to provide a secure, stable and permanent family were not addressed early enough. As such, it advocated an increase in the use of adoption to provide children with permanency at an earlier stage. The Review gave the opinion that there was too great a focus on rehabilitation with the birth family, at the expense of the child’s welfare. It emphasised that the first choice should always be a return to the birth family, but where this was clearly not an option, adoption should be seen as a key means of providing permanence. Foster care, on the other hand, was viewed as a transitional measure, which should be used only as a temporary option.
Following on from this, the government produced a White Paper entitled Adoption: A New Approach, which outlined the government’s plan to promote the wider use of adoption for looked after children, establishing the target of increasing adoption by 40-50 per cent by 2004-2005.39 The White Paper also announced that the government would require local authorities to make a plan for permanence – returning home, placement for adoption, or special guardianship40 – for a child within 6 months of being continuously looked after.
It was in this context that the Adoption and Children Act 2002 was introduced, with the explicit aim of promoting the greater use of adoption. The Act changed the process of adoption itself, by making the welfare of the child the paramount consideration for courts and adoption agencies in all decisions relating to adoption, including in deciding whether to dispense with the birth parents’ consent to adoption.
The Government’s official position about targets to get children taken into care is clear: they don’t exist. Matthew Dalby of the Ministerial and Public Communications Division of the Department of Education said in October 2014, in response to an email from a parent:
I must explain that there are no targets on the numbers of children in care. In fact the law is clear in that children should live with their parents wherever possible and that families should be given extra support to help keep them together. In most cases, support from the local authority (LA) enables concerns to be addressed and children to remain with their families.
The Transparency Project responded in September 2015 to John Hemming’s assertion that the London Borough of Merton has ‘targets’ to take children from their birth families. There are certainly concerns that ‘key performance indicators’ promoting adoption could risk impacting on the integrity of decision making for individual children. This was analysed in more detail after receiving responses to FOI requests to councils in England and Wales – see the report of the Transparency Project in November 2016. Some of the responses raised concern that reliance on ‘adoption targets’ by some councils in England, could lead decisions being made about children to meet targets, rather than promote their welfare.
Judicial response to allegations of systemic corruption
John Hemming raised very specific allegations about the corruption in the family courts in the case of RP v Nottingham  which were rejected by Wall LJ as being without evidence:
97. It is plain to me from these documents, that in addition to the allegations set out above, Mr. Hemming believes that HJ was in the pay of the local authority and thus was “the local authority’s expert”. For good measure, he asserts that the system is “evil” and that “there does seem to be little concern in the legal profession about the reliability of opinion offered in court.”. The clear implication behind the “witch findings” items on the website set out at paragraph 95 above is that “experts” like HJ are in it for the money; that they are happy to “manufacture ‘evidence'”; and that they are in receipt of “phoney” letters of instruction. The result, Mr Hemming asserts is a “disaster”.
98. In my judgment, these comments are not only wrong and ill-informed; the simple fact remains that they have no foundation in the evidence presented either to the Nottingham County Court or to this court. That they are made publicly by Mr Hemming once again strikes me as an abuse of his position.
Wall LJ went on to say at para 127:
In my judgment, the arguments advanced by Mr Hemming in this case are ill-informed and tendentious. They are contradicted by the evidence, and must be rejected. I think this most unfortunate. Nobody who works in the Family Justice System regards it as perfect: most of us see it as under-resourced and struggling to deal with the work loads thrust upon it. Constructive criticism, particularly from those in a position to bring about change, is to be welcomed. I am myself in no doubt that the system must change and adapt, and I have spoken many times in public in support of my belief that there needs to be greater transparency in order to combat the partial, tendentious and inaccurate criticisms made against the system. I therefore welcome the opportunity provided by this case to demonstrate that the system has operated properly, and that the criticisms made are unfounded.
The Law of Unintended Consequences – Campaigners reject the ‘official’ position
However, following the introduction of targets to speed up finding a home for children in care, some then argue that the ‘law of unintended consequences’ came into play and these targets acted to promote undesirable behaviour from those in the child protection system.
John Hemming has argued that these targets did little to help the older children already in care but rather had the effect of encouraging local authorities to issue care proceedings with regard to more ‘adoptable’ children so they would filter through the system, end up adopted quickly and improve the adoption rates.
This was denied at the time; see this report from BBC News On Line in 2008:
The Children’s Minister Kevin Brennan has denied claims that young children are being taken into care by local authorities to meet adoption targets. Mr Brennan has written to two national newspapers to say there has never been any financial incentive for councils to meet national adoption targets. The claims surfaced over the case of a baby in Nottingham placed into care just hours after being born. Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming has accused the council of baby-stealing.
In a letter to The Times and The Daily Mail, Mr Brennan says there were national adoption targets designed to place more children in care into loving, family homes. But, he writes, “they ended in 2006; and there was never a financial incentive for local authorities to meet these national targets.”
The belief that children are removed from loving homes in order for LA’s to meet their ‘adoption targets’ persists to date. There is no doubt that this version of events feels very ‘right’ to a significant number of people.
As Claire Fenton-Glynn comments:
While national adoption targets were set for some years, these ceased in 2006. The government emphasised that targets were intended to make sure more children who had been adjudged to need an adoptive placement were found permanent homes. They were not intended to affect the judgment of whether the child was in need of an adoption. However, despite the government’s statements, there is a danger that such targets do impact on such an evaluation, or at the very least, create the perception that they do so. Moreover, the government’s focus on adoption risks disadvantaging those children in care for whom adoption is not suitable. In the year ending 31 March 2014, only 16% of children who left the English care system were adopted, with others returning home, being placed with relatives, or with a special guardian, among other options. As such, an excessive focus on adoptive placements can mean that these others do not receive sufficient attention.
So what is really going on?
There are a number of elements we need to look at to try and work out whether assertions about a deliberately corrupt system contain any truth. Without doubt, the child protection system is not working well. We need to think more deeply why that is.
- The continuing and repeating pressures on the child protection system which lead to growing distrust between parents and professionals;
- The cost of care proceedings – why would a LA bear these costs without very good reason?
- What do the statistics tell us about adoption rates for babies or very young children?
- Adoption rates are now set to fall in the aftermath of the judgment in Re B-S.
A system under pressure
Helping children is a human process. When the bureaucratic aspects of work become too dominant, the heart of the work is lost.
We consider the history of concerns about the child protection system in more detail in this post. In brief, it seems that for very many years the system has become overwhelmed by the demands placed upon it. Excessive bureaucracy, dangerously high caseloads and low morale amongst social workers combine to work against good decision making and protecting children.
Some argue that it is the Children Act 1989 itself that has contributed to the problems, as it has pushed the law into ever less measurable levels of ‘abuse’ rather than setting out realistically measurable standards to govern the protection of children.
The fact that the system is under considerable strain and pressure is a serious problem for us all – but it is not evidence of deliberate malignity on the part of those decision makers.
The cost of care proceedings
It seems odd to suggest that LA deliberately set out to target children to adopt to ‘make money’ when you consider just how much care proceedings will cost them. Research from the University of Bristol in 2011 said this:
Bringing care proceedings is a costly and time consuming business for local authorities. It has been estimated that each care case takes up 20 per cent of a full-time social worker’s working hours for a year (Plowden 2009). In addition, the local authority will have to contribute towards independent assessments ordered by the court and may need to instruct barristers (counsel) to represent it at court. In order to ensure that proceedings are used only where the local authority can prove its case and court orders are required, as well as to control expenditure, local authorities have established internal procedures for approving court applications. Legal advice and senior management approval are generally required even where an application if made for an order to remove or detain a child in an emergency (Masson et al 2007; DCSF 2008, para 3.3).
However, some will assert that the cost of care proceedings is actually an illustration of the problem – it’s a ‘gravy train’, keeping lawyers, social workers and experts in employment. So if the financial burden on the LA does not reassure people that care proceedings are not taken lightly, what can we see from the statistics about children taken into care?
If Hemming and others are right, we should see a clear rise from 2000 in the number of babies or very young children taken into care and then adopted.
Lies, damned lies and statistics
We argue that the statistics do NOT support an argument that more babies and young ‘adoptable’ children have been targeted since 2000, although it is clear that the number of children being adopted has been rising. However, we agree that there are reasons for concern over a general ‘push’ for adoption as a ‘good thing’ that may lead to compromising the integrity of decisions made about children.
There is now considerable interest in the statistics around adoption and placement orders, so we consider this in detail in another post.
Why we reject the allegation of systemic corruption
The court judgments, culminating in Re B-S that have so concerned Martin Narey were right to point out the dangers of sloppy analysis. But why had some cases got into such a mess? Because the system was ‘evil’, the social workers were telling lies to get their bonuses and that all the lawyers and judges closed their eyes to this because its actually a government policy?
Or is it more likely , that what we have is a child protection system that is often inefficient and/or overwhelmed by case loads? where mistakes are made, but rarely due to deliberate malice?
The conspiracy theories take hold because they feel ‘right’ to a lot of people who may have good cause to feel that they have not been listened to or treated fairly. This can lead people to be unable or unwilling to consider a reality which does not accord with their strongly held perceptions:
People say: “Let the facts speak for themselves”; they forget that the speech of facts is real only if it is heard and understood. It is thought to be an easy matter to distinguish between fact and theory, between perception and interpretation. In truth, it is extremely difficult.
For further fascinating discussion about the impact of cognitive bias and how hard it is to get people to abandon their narratives, even if they are based on a false premise, see this article ‘Your Brain is Primed to Reach False Conclusions’.
What is our reality?
We have not been able to find evidence to support the assertion that the child protection system is designed and maintained deliberately to be corrupt or ‘evil’. Recent research from Cafcass says that LAs were right to make applications for care orders in 80% of cases they reviewed.
But that of course does not mean the system is perfect. Far from it. If 80% of cases are ‘right’ we still have 20% which are not and that is worrying. There are also serious concerns that an ideological ‘push’ for adoption is masking proper consideration of statistical trends.
We agree with that justice needs to be seen to be done and there should be as much openness as possible about such serious matters.
- We accept that there can be serious consequences when a system is overwhelmed by cases; individual practitioners may lack support, and there is a risk of bad or even no decisions getting made. There is a particularly sad example of that in the case of A and S in 2012 where the boys’ Independent Reviewing Officer had a case load three times in excess of that recommended by good practice.
- Sometimes mistakes are made because lawyers and doctors got it wrong about the medical evidence. Here is an example of a case where the court decided there wasn’t enough evidence to conclude that a child suffered non accidental injuries as this child also had rickets due to Vitamin D deficiency.
- There is no doubt that the Government wishes to speed up the adoption process and there are legitimate concerns about how the new Children and Families Act 2014 will operate. See further this article by Cathy Ashley of the Family Rights Group and here for the views of Barnados on the need to speed up adoptions.
- We note the conclusions of the the Report of the Committee on Social Affairs, Health and Sustainable Development of the Council of Europe which was concerned by the high numbers of children in England and Wales who were adopted without parental consent, and commented (see para 74) that the UK’s refusal to reverse adoption orders where there had been a miscarriage of justice was a ‘misunderstanding’ of the best interests of the child, who had a right to return to his birth family.
- Possibly the most serious problem is that social workers in child protection work are asked to wear ‘two hats’ at the same time – they are tasked with supporting families at the same time as they are gathering evidence against them. The tension and difficulties inherent in this dual role are obvious. See Wrennall, L. 2004 Miscarriages of Justice in Child Protection: a brief history and proposals for change.
But what we don’t accept is that these problems – as serious as they undoubtedly are – can legitimately lead to a conclusion that the whole system is corrupt and operating to ‘steal children’ to meet government endorsed targets.
We think it would be a great shame for children and parents if legitimate debate about problems in the system is overwhelmed by allegations that have no basis in fact and which serve only to make parents even more worried and frightened about what the system might ‘do’ to them and their children.
The Way Forward.
However, we accept that it is odd, if adoption really is the ‘gold standard’ for children that other jurisdictions do not seem to share the UK’s enthusiasm for adoption without the parents’ consent.
We should always be open to more discussion and debate about what we should be doing to secure the welfare of children.
You may be interested in this post describing the different approach in Finland, where children who are taken into care will Iive with foster families or in institutional care.
You may also be interested in this article by an adoptive parent in the Guardian from 2012, discussing the difficulties caused by lack of post adoption support.
There are also concerns expressed by adoptive parents that they haven’t been given the full picture about their children’s backgrounds and this has caused enormous problems for the family.
- We agree that everyone who works in the system should be aware of the dangers of an insular or paternalistic approach to child protection issues.
- We agree that adoption may not be the best plan for every child and there should not be an automatic assumption that adoption is best. There is an interesting article criticising ‘adoption driven systems’ here.
- However, we think for many children subject to a final care order, it will represent their best chance of achieving a stable and loving home throughout their childhood.
- We agree that placements with family members should continue to be investigated thoroughly.
- We also agree that we need more consideration to how we support adoptive placements after an order is made as studies show the breakdown rates for adoptions can be as high as 25%. There is interesting research from the US here which looks at rates of adoption disruption and why they break down. Research published on April 9th 2014 by the University of Bristol offers another perspective on adoption disruption rates, concluding that they are low but emphasising the importance of post adoption support, particularly for older and more challenging children.
- Social workers need more help to deal with the bureaucracy of their job, so they can focus on working with and supporting families – the ‘reclaiming social work’ model needs wider implementation.
- What we don’t agree with is a debate that polarises around the term ‘forced adoption’ and politicians who advise parents to leave the country rather than engage with social workers.
- Where we all hopefully agree is that every child has the right to grow up in a safe home and that any child protection investigation must be carried out quickly and fairly.
We hope this site can be part of sharing resources and information to promote open and honest debate about the child protection system.
- You can read here about government sponsored research into the reasons why people are motivated to adopt or foster.
- You may also be interested in what we say about post adoption contact.
- Read the transcript of the 9th Annual Debate of the Family Justice Council; Adoption without consent is wrong in principle. November 24th 2015.
- The debate in Westminster Hall on 25th November 2015 about Forced Adoption.
- Excellent article from the New Yorker magazine about the history of child protection in the USA.
- Heads Must Roll? Emotional Politics, the Press and the Death of Baby P Article by Dr Jo Warner, Senior Lecturer in Social Work, School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research, University of Kent.
- Silent crisis of inadequate councils caring for thousands of children The Guardian 18th August 2018
- Revealed: cash crisis pushing child services to tipping point The Observer 1st Sep 2018
- Born into care: Newborns in Care Proceedings in England The Nuffield Family Justice Observatory October 2018
- Tortoise Media have considered and discussed the child protection system in a variety of pieces in 2019. See for example ‘I refused to say goodbye’ which examines some of the stressors on the system and the impact this has on parents.
Key Messages from the Department of Education Research
The Department of Education published ‘Adoption Cases Reviewed: an indicative study of process and practice’ in 2013 which provides a comprehensive review of contested adoption proceedings. Its key messages are set out below. While the review certainly did not find that everything was perfect, it did not conclude there was any evidence of systemic corruption or orders made for trivial reasons:
- The study confirmed routine local authority and judicial compliance with the required procedural and legal framework for adoption. Parents’ rights to due process in contesting and opposing care, placement and adoption applications were ensured. Decisions were taken by the court in an appropriate way, following the full testing of evidence.
- Local authority practice in the study cases pre-dated current statutory guidance, in which permanence is required to provide the framework for all social work with children and families. Where it lacked this perspective, social work intervention could not be relied upon to pursue effectively the protection and care planning that might have secured child safety on a permanent basis at home.
- In addition, quality assurance of child protection and care planning was insufficiently robust.
- Where risk assessment and protection and care planning lacked confidence and decisiveness, the right of the child to have a safe and permanent family life secured in a timely way could be compromised. Similarly, the right of parents to effective intervention to help them make necessary changes could be neglected where permanence principles were not applied equally to the process of rehabilitation.
- While no clear pattern of contestation emerged in these cases parents often argued that the local authority had sought merely to gather evidence to make the case against them, rather than intervene purposefully to support the changes required to keep the child safely at home.
- Extensive use of independent expert evidence and advice provided a guarantee that harm and risk had been assessed fully and decisions appropriately informed, once the case was in proceedings. However, the use of experts also caused duplication and delay. Current proposals for reform will need to ensure such evidence is deployed effectively within the sharper case management regime.
- This study suggests that the enhancement and quality assurance of the expertise and effectiveness of social work within the inter-agency system should attract policy attention. Timely and proportionate decision making is undermined as much by lack of case management continuity and of grip in making a judgement about parents’ capacity to change in the local authority as it is in the court.
- The reform process should be underpinned by a review of the philosophy, organisation and support of local authority case management in protection and care planning, to ensure reliability of compliance with current statutory guidance that a permanence perspective is employed as a matter of routine.
- The reform process should also include a review of the availability and effectiveness of post-placement support for birth parents in all forms of permanent placement, including placement at home.