Tag Archives: The Open Nest

Human Rights and Adoption

This is a post by Sarah Phillimore

It’s what we don’t know we don’t know that gets us every time

I was asked to speak at the recent Open Nest Collaborative Conference on Monday 14th October in York – just five minutes on human rights. O easy I thought, just a quick chat about Article 8, job done.

But then Amanda Boorman, founder of the Open Nest Charity showed me what she had written down as important to get across to the audience.

Protocol 1 Article 1 of the ECHR provides

Every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions. No one shall be deprived of his possessions except in the public interest and subject to the conditions provided for by law and by the general principles of international law.

Amanda, rightly, thought this was very important from the perspective of the child in the care system, who finds their treasured possessions lost or thrown away as they are moved about from placement to placement.

She also wanted to talk about Article 14 

The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this European Convention on Human Rights shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.

This was clearly very important in light of the growing concern about the impact of poverty on how likely it was to find yourself referred for a child protection concern.

I was shocked to consider that it had simply not occurred to me – the lawyer – to discuss either of those two issues. I was content to trot out our old favourite Article 8 – the right to a family and private life, to psychological integrity – but the right that cuts both ways for the child in the care system; their ‘right’ to retain some kind of link with their birth family, considered of less or even no importance when balanced against their need for a ‘warm, loving forever family’.

So I had to confess my embarrassment that it had not even occurred to me to examine either of these rights, despite the impact both had on children and families in care and adoption proceedings.

I recalled earlier unease when I discussed  the ECHR with social workers on Twitter and found that they did not seem aware of the importance of such rights- I wrote about that here. 

This concern had also been stated by Brid Featherstone that day, in her talk about the BASW Inquiry into the role of the social worker in adoption

She asked the audience what do YOU think we need in this framework? At every stage of process, to ask – what should social workers be doing?

Andy Bilson then raised the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child -this has has 54 articles setting out the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights that all children everywhere are entitled to.  It is ‘the most complete statement of children’s rights ever produced and is the most widely-ratified international human rights treaty in history’ . The Social Services and Well Being (Wales) Act 2014 makes specific reference to the UN Convention in its ‘overriding duties’ at Part 7 –   a person exercising functions under this Act in relation to a child falling within section 6(1)(a), (b) or (c) must have due regard to Part 1 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child adopted and opened for signature, ratification and accession by General Assembly resolution 44/25 of 20 November 1989 (“the Convention”).

However I don’t think I have ever made reference to the UN Convention in any English case in my now 20 years of practice.  Hopefully the consideration by BASW of a new framework for social work education about human rights can bring the UN Convention more sharply into focus.


Why are Human Rights important?

But if I , the lawyer, couldn’t see the importance of Protocol 1 and Article 14 in the context of adoption,  without it being pointed out to me – how can I criticise social workers for not being as alive to the ECHR and its implications as I would wish?

So I thought it worth a reminder of why the human rights framework is so important when looking at State intervention in family life – particularly when the State intervenes to remove children permanently from their family of origin on a low standard of proof.

The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)

The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) protects the human rights of people in countries that belong to the Council of Europe – this is separate from the European Union and is larger, it has 47 members as opposed to the EU’s 28 (or shortly 27). Therefore it will NOT disappear if  Brexit actually happens.  This may be a disappointment to those who scoff at human rights as some kind of namby pamby pandering to snowflakes, but anyone who takes that view is revealing a disturbing ignorance about events still in living memory – when a European nation, home to great literature, music and scientific discovery, decided that it would categorise a number of its own citizens as ‘untermensch’, round them up, send them to concentration camps and kill them.

The ECHR was the response to the horrors of the German ‘Final Solution’ to eradicate the Jewish  people. It was largely drafted by British lawyers and came into force in 1953.

The Convention guarantees specific rights and freedoms and prohibits unfair and harmful practices.

  • the right to life (Article 2)
  • freedom from torture (Article 3)
  • freedom from slavery (Article 4)
  • the right to liberty (Article 5)
  • the right to a fair trial (Article 6)
  • the right not to be punished for something that wasn’t against the law at the time (Article 7)
  • the right to respect for family and private life (Article 8)
  • freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Article 9)
  • freedom of expression (Article 10)
  • freedom of assembly (Article 11)
  • the right to marry and start a family (Article 12)
  • the right not to be discriminated against in respect of these rights (Article 14)
  • the right to protection of property (Protocol 1, Article 1)
  • the right to education (Protocol 1, Article 2)
  • the right to participate in free elections (Protocol 1, Article 3)
  • the abolition of the death penalty (Protocol 13)

Although Article 6 and Article 8 will continue to be the rights of overarching importance in care and adoption proceedings, all of us who work in this field have an obligation to become familiar with ALL the rights and freedoms protected.  I note for example the right to education and the negative impact that care proceedings often bring to a child’s continuing education, ending up in a foster placement far from a much loved school.

As Elie Wiesel said, having survived the Holocaust – it is by denying our essential humanity that makes it easy to destroy another.   Taking someone’s child away is an act that strikes against the psychological integrity of both parent and child. That child may urgently need taking away, the sooner the better; but if we persist in mechanisms of removal that deny both parents and child their fundamental human dignity, then we do great harm.

We don’t fight to preserve the human rights of others simply for their sake – it is also for our own.


Further reading/listening

An interesting roundup of the day from the Adoption and Fostering Podcast. 

Myths and Monsters of Child Protection


On Monday October 16th I attended the conference organised by the charity The Open Nest at the Foundling Museum in London, which had invited a group of speakers to investigate the ‘myths and monsters’ around child protection.

For more of the discussion on the day, follow the Twitter hashtags #NAW2017 and #mythsandmonsters.

The speakers were:

  • Lemn Sissay: Poet, writer, speaker, actor.
  • Professor Brigid Featherstone: Author of The Adoption Enquiry BASW
  • Professor Anna Gupta: Author of The Adoption Enquiry BASW
  • Footsteps Group: Birth Mums peer support group, Leeds
  • Catt Peace: Social enterprise manager, advocate, blogger, adopted person
  • Anneghem Wall: Therapist, writer, adopted person
  • Rebekah Ubuntu: Musician, multi media performance artist, care leaver.
  • Dr Sue Robson: Special Guardian, community development practitioner.
  • Fran Proctor: Life coach, writer, adopted person
  • Ali Redford: Author, Adoptive parent
  • Amanda Boorman: Founder of The Open Nest Charity, adoptive parent.
  • Georgia Cooper: Therapist, artist, charity professional.
  • Lizzie Coombes: Photographer, community arts.

A key theme of the conference was how in general the reporting about child protection issues had become divorced from the realities – in particular the danger of the opinion that hardens into ‘fact’, recorded in professional records that then becomes the story of a child for the rest of their lives.  As the organisers commented:

Without due care and attention the information given and held on file about a families history can give a ‘fake news’ version of the bigger picture around events that caused child protection interventions. This in turn may hamper an individual’s human rights to accurate life story, individual and family identity and the maintaining of important connections and relationships.

Many speakers showed the importance of poetry in delivering a message far more effectively and powerfully than can ever be achieved by a dry lecture and a powerpoint. Those who illuminated their own childhood experiences echoed the uncomfortable discussions at the recent Nagalro conference ‘What about the children’, which highlighted the invisibility of children in the child protection system, even when it is ostensibly designed for their benefit.

Professor Bridgid Featherstone acknowledged the importance of stories and how we needed to now be taking control of the narrative – sadly, merely holding out ‘facts’ for inspection has historically made little impact.  Both she and Anna Gupta are concerned by what research reveals about the impact of poverty and social inequality on decisions made in child protection, although this is rarely acknowledged as a reason children are taken into care.  Hopefully the conclusions of their recent Inquiry into Adoption will be released shortly and will make for interesting and probably sobering reading.

Again, the importance of siblings was emphasised. This is the problem with a system of child protection that focuses on the rescue of the individual child and thus sees them in isolation from their families and communities.

Siblings become the ‘collateral damage’ of the child protection process. Fran Proctor spoke about being removed from her mother but her sister was returned and was killed. She was made to feel a ‘nuisance’ for wanting to know about her sister, for wanting to know her own story.


Both adopted children and adoptive parents spoke of one of the most pernicious myths of the whole system – that a ‘loving family’ is all that is needed to heal the trauma of a troubled child.

Sue Robson – now the Special Guardian of her grandson – praised the work of The Open Nest in providing a therapeutic space to heal her family’s trauma and loss which had lain there for 25 years. She felt that asking for help from Social Services had been one of the worst decisions she had ever made. There was nothing she could do to prove she wasn’t a ‘bad mother’ – if she was compliant she was deemed passive, if she was assertive, she was deemed aggressive.


Another theme was the need for professionals to remember that they are human beings, to talk to parents and children and recognise their humanity.  I have considered the dangers of jargon and cliche in a previous post here.

Lemn Sissay reminded us that the first thing he needed when he went into care, was the last thing he got – ‘a hug’. Children need to be touched. To ban touching out of fear that adults would sexually abuse children, Lemn Sissay reminded us, is a complete nonsense. Abusers will abuse anyway – that is what they do, they break the rules. To deprive a child of human touch is a terrible thing and he reminded us just how resilient children in care have to be to endure this.


But not only is the child deprived of physical comfort, they are denied the truth of their own history. The importance of family is that we share memories or we argue over who is right! Lemn Sissay realised when he left care that he now knew nobody who had known him for more than a year. The name he had grown up with was a lie, so to the story that his mother hadn’t cared. He finally got to read the letters she had written when he was a child and knew that he had been loved.


But the speakers also recognised that some children do need to be ‘rescued’ from their birth families. And for some, being adopted will indeed be the best thing that happened, But the theme running through the conference was a plea for truth  – even painful truths can be comforting, once we are allowed to know and tell our own stories.

I was very grateful to Amanda Boorman for letting me speak for 5 minutes about my performance on October 28th. The themes of that performance are echoed so strongly by what the speakers said at this conference. There is never anything dangerous or unsatisfying about being closer to the truth.