The Role of the Social Worker in Adoption


The social work profession has shown itself willing to grapple with the issues of concern arising out of current practices around adoption and its consequences.

The British Association of Social Workers launched the results of its Enquiry into the role of the social worker in Adoption on January 18th 2018.

BASW set the parameters of its enquiry in this way:

  • As the professional association representing social work and social workers it is incumbent on us to ask how should our professional values and ethics guide us in this work? How should our understanding of the unique and equal worth and human rights of everyone involved in an adoption guide us in working in an area where rights are contested and perhaps in conflict?
  • This enquiry will examine the role of the social worker in adoption, with a particular focus on how ethical issues and human rights legislation are understood and inform practice, and how these relate to pursuing good long-term outcomes for children and their families. It will gather evidence from families and young people involved in the adoption process, social workers and managers, family justice professionals, policy makers and academics using a variety of methods.
  • The enquiry is about ensuring the best outcomes and experiences for children in care and their families, not just today, but for generations to come.


The findings of the Enquiry were presented by Professor Brid Featherstone and Anna Gupta followed by a response from Ruth Allen of BASW and Martha Cover of Coram Chambers. A panel discussion followed including representatives from parents, adopters and adoptive children. Have a look at the hashtags #adoptionEnquiry and #adoption to see some of the discussions on Twitter that night.

The Enquiry made 6 recommendations

  • The use of adoption needs to be located and discussed in the context of wider social policies relating to poverty and inequality
  • UK Governments should collect and publish data on the economic and social circumstances of families affected by adoption
  • The current model of adoption should be reviewed and the potential for a more open approach considered
  • There needs to be further debate about the status of adoption and its relation to other permanence options
  • BASW should develop further work on the role of the social worker in adoption and human rights and the ethics involved.

In essence, the Enquiry noted that although it was clear social workers tried to operate within an ethical framework, there was a question mark over whether or not they had the time and space to do so. Codes of Ethics that sit on a bookshelf are little use; ethics must be incorporated into a day to day value system of ‘ethical literacy’. However, many elements of the current system were operating to impede this – the ‘runaway train’ of care proceedings where adoption considered the best outcome at an early stage; the fixing of the child protection social worker as ‘here for the child’, thus losing sight of the fact that children are located in families.

Martha Cover reflected on her 25 years of practice and found much that resonated with her. She gave probably the most well received comment of the night when asking herself if she had a magic wand – what would she do? Give social workers their job back. Give them the time, space and support to do what they want to do – which is help people.

There were powerful contributions from birth parents, adopted parents and an adult adopted child. The issue of contact came up repeatedly. The adopted child posed the question – would it be ethical to suddenly remove from any of us in the audience, everyone we had ever known? Why do we support this sudden and stark severance of the child from his or her past? Why couldn’t she still write to her foster carers and why couldn’t they tell her they loved her?

She worried that there was a feeling that by controlling the words that could be used to a child, this would mean the child’s thinking and understanding could be similarly controlled – which is of course a nonsense. The child is left alone and confused – along with the adults.

The tweet below was probably the key point of the night. Adoption is a massive issue, with life long consequences for all involved. It was sobering to hear again that social workers are not supported or encouraged to attend events like this – those who do come often have to take annual leave and fund their own transport. The culture of ‘blame and shame’ around social work that has arisen over the years seems to have only entrenched more hunkering down into silo working and not being able to engage openly with the necessary debate.

I hope that the BASW Enquiry can shine more light on these very important issues which have been obscured for far too long.

48 thoughts on “The Role of the Social Worker in Adoption

  1. Angelo Granda

    A Parent’s View

    The findings of the enquiry discussed above appear to be broadly in line with recent views expressed in the CPR comments.
    However , the summary does not appear to mention the fact that there is no shortage of funds,apparently,to splash out on other permanence plans such as long-term fostering and private residential homes which is a big bone of contention for children and parents.Those care-plans are just as inhumane as enforced adoption.
    As family preservation plans are actually the least costly option or so it seems to parents,it makes the austerity arguments illogical.Which is why when they are also faced with dishonest court representations and rules breaches by LA’s parents point to illegitimate aims. In my opinion ,honest SW’s have more of a fight on their hands against the LA management and lawyers than so-called austerity.Let’s be clear! Practitioners have to act with professionalism and detach themselves from LA policy imperatives based on financial expediency.
    What would happen to an architect who went all with highly dangerous cladding ,for example,because it was cheaper for the Council?

  2. HelenSparkles

    I am not going to take a particular slant myself, but I do know that social workers didn’t contribute to this enquiry because of the perceived bias of those conducting it, who are powerful voices in SW. I have a view o adoption & generally that is more open when it is needed & not using it unless all else is not viable. I don’t think translating children is positive for them, except in cases where risk dictates that is.

    In response to Angelo, I would once again urge for people to vote for a different party, early intervention saves £ long term but this is not politically expedient unless you vote for socialist. Angelo – I would also say that cuts and austerity have a significant impact on what I can do and my LA can do. These factors are not unrelated.

    1. HelenSparkles

      Ok so there was a bit of autocorrect going on there that I didn’t notice

      Translating = transplanting

    2. Sarah Phillimore Post author

      O for goodness sake. If people wont speak up, then how do they ever expect to be heard? If there is a groundswell of worry that this Enquiry was biased or had any kind of unhelpful narrative, then to deal with this issue, people need to engage.

      No wonder nothing changes, if that is a common attitude.

      1. HelenSparkles

        Because they have tried 50 million times before and their voices were drowned out.

        Instead they look to change in other fora, and in other ways, there isn’t just one platform.

    3. Angelo Granda

      I understand what you are saying about austerity, Helen and everyone knows that cuts impact on what you can do especially on your ability to implement family preservation plans . Everyone wants more money spent on these than on foster-carers and with private care contractors.

      It seems logical that if we can afford to pay £ 700 per week to foster carers PER CHILD plus a good amount to their agencies, we cannot really blame shortage of funds for not opting for home support. The Authorities are not cutting down on that, are they?

      Does a social worker get £700 per week PER CHILD on his or her list who remains on a care-plan at home or does a home support worker who calls to a house for an hour or two a day get £700 a week for each family?
      Does a Family Centre charge £700 pound a week for each child and parent who attends?
      If they do or if they are paid more then I shall think again!

      As always, I emphasise with social workers but I think that , as professional practitioners , they should insist on advising what is best for each child when in a court setting without consideration of LA policy imperatives. Then the Court can decide what is best for the child without finance entering the equation. The LA will have to match its budgetary cuts and spending to the care-orders you recommend not the other way round.

      1. HelenSparkles

        Not many foster carers are paid that, the ones that are will have teenagers mainly, who are out of school (excluded) involved with other agencies like CAMHS and youth offending, so basically a high level of need which means a carer can’t do anything else. There is a payment for the carer which is a fee, most of those children are in care under S20, so parents have asked the LA to accommodate. LAs don’t do that very often because it doesn’t make things better, but there are schemes which support rehabilitation home whilst work is done, when family relationships have broken down or they are in crisis. The rest of the payment is to cover expenses, so carers should not be out of pocket, and they do need to provide everything for the child/young person placed with them. This is not a defence of foster care but most carers are paid an awful lot less than that, the carers you are talking about should be paid, because they are professionals doing a child care job which is very challenging. Oddly, placements for babies barely cover the costs, despite those carers also needing to be available 24/7.

      2. HelenSparkles

        BWT, LA policy imperatives don’t enter the court arena, it is I believe enshrined in law that LAs have to provide support (regardless of cost) if that support is in the best interests of the child. The court can order the LA to provide a certain kind of support, if it is identified. The court has no regard for the budget and neither do social workers.

        My point was really that, if the government fully funded LAs, services and support might be more available to some families who would avoid LA involvement/CP/court because they wouldn’t hit their crisis point with that help. For example, parents whose own childhood was traumatic and abusive might not develop mental health problems that they self medicate with drugs or alcohol if there was a pathway for them to follow for support within health services.

        1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

          I am dealing with a case at the moment where the LA cancelled a Family Group Conference because it didn’t fit with their care plan. And ISW assessment opined that assessment of what the family could offer was ‘vital’. Of course policy imperatives impact on decision making at every level. The LA didn’t want to consider the issue of supporting the family so simply cancelled the conference, thus depriving the court and the guardian of necessary evidence. This happens frequently and I can understand parents’ frustration. It is asking too much of SW to expect them both to investigate risk to children and need to remove while at the same time investigating the support that could be offered.

          1. HelenSparkles

            Not really. Were it to be a different worker, they would have to report any safeguarding concerns anyway, so that ‘other’ SW would then be in the same position as the ‘investigating’ SW. SW practice in CP is balancing risk/protective factors. That is support vs investigation sometimes, if I can find enough safety, that will mitigate the risks. I’d expect the AD to come to court if policy imperatives affected care planning.

  3. Angelo Granda

    QUOTE: As the professional association representing social work and social workers it is incumbent on us to ask how should our professional values and ethics guide us in this work? How should our understanding of the unique and equal worth and human rights of everyone involved in an adoption guide us in working in an area where rights are contested and perhaps in conflict? : UNQUOTE.

    Regarding these two questions :-

    Let your ethics be guided by this advice which will remind you all about the ethics and story of the Good Samaritan who did not hesitate or count the cost………………Mutual fears and prejudices between diverse members of the community , especially those human beings different or less fortunate than ourselves, are understandable, but must not “compromise respect and generosity”.
    ” Having doubts and fears is not a sin,” ” The sin is to allow fears to determine our responses.”

  4. looked_after_child

    I would also say that there is ALWAYS a real risk that others control our narratives. I’m aware of this. It is life. It is about power dynamics, stigma, prevailing views about who need to be listened to and objectives of those in control of any inquiry. We’d all retreat to our respective bunkers if could’ent contribute because of our fears around this and I have to say Helen, you should try being a parent of a child that entered Care if you are fearful of being misrepresented as a SW by other SWs!

    1. HelenSparkles

      I’m not fearful or fearful of being misrepresented, not sure what made you think that. There was just no point. The debate around adoption is complex and nuanced, the polarisation in that debate is unhelpful. People have their own agenda, people have influence, people have platforms. I have none of that. I am writing something but have had to stop because of workload issues.

  5. looked_after_child

    Apologies if that sounded a bit fierce Helen. You are contributing here ( and it is much appreciated) so this should’ent be taken personally !..

  6. Angelo Granda

    Reading Helen’s comment, I agree with her in more ways than one.I don’t think contributors on this resource are very far apart at all.
    Ordinary front line SW’s should be the first ones to have their voices heard when changes to frontline practices and policies are considered.Very often,the powerful voices in social work are more politically aware and masters of circumlocution.They appear always to support continuation of the existing political preferences and status quo. They hold enquiry after enquiry,year after year.They usually end by calling for more research into topics which were fully investigated years ago.If these people are the powerful voices ,are they actually holding us back ,paddling against the tide deliberately.By avoiding calling a spade a spade they don’t get far do they? The art of it is to hold out the prospect of change in front of everyone’s nose whilst holding it just out of reach and never really trying to make it attainable! Even the president of the lawyers,Mumby ,quoted at the beginning,is a master of it.Why put so much stress on adoption,all permanence plans are disproportionate?
    It’s been happening for years.As usual they blame austerity.I think I have already given the precise answer to that problem.SW’s must be reformed into a body totally independent of the LA.

  7. looked_after_child

    ‘Social work with families’ sometimes seems to have been re-purposed as something entirely different to what it says on the tin.

    Some social workers seem not to understand why to many vulnerable people they are seen as the family police, the last people you would willingly invite into your home if you have a choice. I’ve never been afraid of any of ‘the arms of the state’ including social workers but truly, I’d be a lot more careful now than I ever would have been before about engagement with family social workers. They may be nice people but sometimes they do things that are not very nice at all.

    Most family children’s social workers call themselves children’s social workers and that is a clue as to the problem from a parent’s perspective – their training is around spotting parental deficits and they seem to have little in the way of tools to help when there might be an unrelated problem affecting a family. The system they work within seems to place little value on families either – no statutory responsibilities to families it seems although there are to children.

    I’ve made difficult decisions in my life and I’ve had to live with the consequences.
    I wonder if when I asked social workers ‘’what keeps you awake at night?’’ how often the answer would be ‘’the fear that I failed to protect a child that needed protection’’. I’m guessing fear that ‘’I removed a child from a family causing harm to all concerned’’ is low down the list of worries.

    For me, if I’m correct, that is a problem and if it comes to that I would’ent recommend making decisions based on fears but on evidence. That is just an observation but it is not unrelated to social justice. It is an unequal battle between the state and a family or parent that needs support. The state will always win and if those that control the state have no interest in social justice then the weakest pay a very high price.

    Is that happening day in, day out when it comes to non-consensual adoption? Others affected know the answers, not me.

    1. HelenSparkles

      Nobody wants to remove a child from their family unless it is necessary, that is equally high on the list for all those SW I know as worrying about protecting a child who might come to harm.

      Even if you just took it down to how reality operates, it wouldn’t be sanctioned by the courts.

    2. looked_after_child

      ”I recently heard a SW say that ”SW s need time with families because there may be neglect and it may take time to collect evidence of this”. Is that really what SW’s see their job as? ..Collecting evidence of neglect? ..and then just following the PLO ..shipping babies out like commodities on a conveyor belt to waiting ‘happy ever after, miserable at the moment’ families’??

      1. HelenSparkles

        Most of the work I do doesn’t go anywhere near a court and only about 50% PLO.

        I wouldn’t quite use those words but neglect and the cumulative impact is devastating for children.

    1. HelenSparkles

      What about the fathers?

      There should be more help for families, there isn’t, vote for a party that won’t cut it all to shreds.

  8. looked_after_child

    There is more going on than that.

    Child protection systems between professional cooperation and trustful relationships: A comparison of professional practical and ethical dilemmas in England/Wales, Germany, Portugal, and Slovenia

    “In England/Wales, formal guidelines acted as a primary and foremost frame of reference. Information sharing between professionals was a priority in measures to secure protection. The importance of intuition, ethical implications, and the involvement of family members were only referred to occasionally. Relationships and conversations between professionals, at times, seemed to supersede engagement with children and parents. Preventing the worst became the primary consideration in this guideline‐driven system. Partly, it seemed as if the heart of social work had atrophied.”

  9. looked_after_child

    I really cannot improve on that summation. Social Work with families does not exist except in small pockets here and there. Professionals sense something is wrong – hence listening to ‘the voice of the child’ but this light years away from engagement with people who NEED services to work.

    1. HelenSparkles

      Once again I can say that just isn’t my world, whilst you were writing that comment, I was in a family led meeting with professionals from various teams including CSE and youth offending, making a plan of support which was broader than the CP plan, with specific tasks for specific teams, to avoid overlap and over social working the children. This is routine in my LA.

      1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

        So what we need to concentrate on is how to bridge the gap between these two perspectives and experiences. Why are they so polarised? Is provision of good services really so patchy or are parents seeing things through a particular lens? Equally are social workers?

        this is horribly reminiscent of the polarised position between mothers and fathers in hostile contact disputes. Both will claim that the court is biased against them and will routinely make decisions to support the ‘other’ side. Both, of course, cannot be right. But the fact that their positions are so strongly and passionately held suggests that something is going very wrong with a particular system – either in its actual operation or in its ability to explain its operation.

        1. Angelo Granda

          My suggestion is that lawyers concentrate on the legal process. Have children been removed following legal process or have they been removed unlawfully ? Helen has told us all about routine correct process followed in her experience of social work but why is it that other departments routinely fail?
          It is obvious to parents and children who suffer for the failures. They act unlawfully when they have illegitimate aims on the balance of possibilities . For example , if they want to remove children in order to get them in care, isolate them and sexually abuse them as we know is ‘cultural’ in some departments then they will not act openly and candidly or keep to legal process. Likewise ,if they want to remove them because of disproportionate ‘fears’ for the safety of children or because the LA wants to fill the care system because of budgetary reasons. They are likely on the balance of probabilities to act unlawfully when they choose to not by mistake or through lack of time to act correctly as lawyers seem to think. In my opinion the crucial test of honesty and proportionality is scrupulous regard to fair process and safeguards laid down.

          Lots of parents ( not only those like Sam) refer to deliberately dishonest assessments and statements. They would not need to make things up were they honest, would they? Think about why they ‘might’ be dishonest and why they ‘might’ give false evidence before you put it down to a mere difference of opinion between parents and the LA.
          Lawyers have the power to put a stop to it. The law says that the welfare of children is paramount and that working together frameworks and procedures must be followed to ensure it. Hence, the law includes a ‘no order’ principle.
          Maybe if this rule were enforced , these rogue authorities will start to act correctly.
          Of course, it is also true that even when they are not deliberately acting incorrectly, the principle should be applied whether or not. They are still incompetent and a court cannot rely on reckless evidence from incompetent professionals.
          I would also like to make a point again which I made on another thread. If there is any doubt at all that the particular LA is corrupt then it is removed if the official complaints are flouted. For example, if it takes six months rather than 28 days to complete part one .Its so easy to sort the rogues from the honest professionals but solicitors ‘appear’ not to be acting mainly for parents. I blame them and I suggest they fail in their duties more often than not and misinform barristers.

          1. Angelo Granda

            Sam, I am not familiar with the phrase ‘chocolate teapot solicitors’ which is what you likened yours to. Please explain.
            I think we ought to hear a little more about these people and ease off on SW’s . SW’s are either good or bad ones and it is the Court process which should sort it out. It is their job.

  10. looked_after_child

    Personally I think the system is collapsing in on itself and it was the wrong system to begin with. You cannot ‘do’ social work ‘to’ people – that is oppression.
    There are some LAs getting it right.

    1. looked_after_child

      Helen referred to ‘family led’ work ..that it is the clue in what makes a difference.
      I have a family member who has a child in another European country. The child was born with quite subtle differences for which she received therapy once it was picked up by professionals. Services have stayed very close to the family , assessing and anticipating, stepping in and stepping back at just the right time to ensure that there are no crises and explaining all the time why and letting parents make the decisions AND there is a social worker and therapists in the child’s primary school. Primary school children can pop into their offices for a chat – no stigma there.
      If social workers want to be loved ( and it seems quite a lot do seem to have a very high need to be loved )
      then I suggest this model or something close to it and I see no parallels with warring parents whatsoever just lots of oppressive practice..but I have never stood up in court so you could be right in some regards.
      I do think the state has to be trusted by people within the state..It is pretty fundamental.

        1. looked_after_child

          We agree on that but the whole ‘saviour sw’ narrative from some sws who say they are working with ‘demon families’ seems to feed a need for praise and adulation/love . People like that cannot be trusted…..

          The NSPCC has a lot to answer for with its horrible, money making ads that come from the perspective that all parents in poverty experiencing difficulties are abusers of one kind or another. Feeling unloved?, then go rescue a child and they WILL love you for it or there is something wrong with them.

          I’m not saying all Children’s and Families SWs are like that but….

      1. Angelo Granda

        Let us hope ,Sam,that one of the professionals submits a post entitled ‘The Role of the lawyer in Child Protection Proceedings and Who Guards Children Against Abuse of their Human Rights due to Wrongly Conducted Cases’.
        The LA’s only follow the left hand path because they ‘can’. Good,honest,compassionate SW’s entering the profession seeking to be loved and liked by children will be sidelined and feel obliged to resign by the powerful voices and all those with the false ideology that they are somehow ‘helping’ children by confiscating them like they would chattels from parents and taking them into a never-never land occupied by ‘rescued’ children who will suffer degradation and life-membership of an LA created underclass. All this to keep them ‘safe’ from monstrous parents at the whim of idiot SW’s such as have been discussed on this resource.Unfortunately it is donkeys like SWT who rise to the top in rogue LA’s.
        I agree with you and Helen,the bad ones must be identified and Court is the place for lawyers to call them out.
        It is a good idea about a book,Sam.I have tried several times to contribute to your blog but can’t seem to get through.It would have to be nonfiction though because you can ‘t use real names.

        1. Sam

          Hi Angelo
          I have wondered about a book , I believe they are easy enough to publish, with various experiences. You should be able to comment as the comments are enabled from what I can see .

  11. looked_after_child

    If if people think oppression is something that happens say in China, they are probably the same people who thought the Empire was a good thing and that legacy of a particular way of thinking about how to do things is informing how we do things here when it comes to the Care system.
    Ask people subject to the care system what they think and listen to the answers – why is that such a challenge if it is not oppressive?

  12. looked_after_child

    PS – I dont expect anyone to apologise for the sins of history ( the Empire was brutal and loathed by the subject nations, actually it still is..) but I would expect people and the like of Barnardoes etc to be learning lessons.

  13. HelenSparkles

    After being here for a while, I don’t have a polarised position, but I recognise there is a polarisation and a gulf to bridge.

    1. looked_after_child

      To be honest, with a few exceptions, I believe that we have a ‘child protection’ system that you might reasonably expect to want to protect yourself from unless you are very desperate and then you take your chances.

  14. Sam

    I think there are areas of good and bad practice, just as there are in the court system. For example in Bristol you have strived to make the family court more accessible to LIP’s and encouraged debate about family court. In contrast where I am, there is a rack of leaflets to help LIP’s and that has only been a fairly recent addition . Maybe it something to do with the stress senior managers are under or even whether they see those in the system in a humane way.

    1. HelenSparkles

      LiPs are generally private law cases rather than public law, everyone in care proceedings is entitled to free legal advice. Private law orders are used in public law (it might be the best outcome for a child to have a child arrangements order for example) and SW are sometimes involved in private law cases (with a report for e.g. when there are allegations re safeguarding issues). There are sometimes parents without legal reps in public law but this is rare, those I have met have gone through a lot of solicitors and are not behaving well – but that is anecdotal.

      1. Sam

        I was really just using that as an example of the postcode lottery that is influenced by local conditions. As you know those who most need support in deprived areas are those most unlikely to receive it. Also attitudes to service users whether court or childrens services vary so very much.

  15. Angelo Grandai

    Just a point but not everyone involved in care proceedings is entitled to free legal representation.
    It is not only anecdotal but well-known amongst leading members of the Bar Council that solicitors do not behave well and supply substandard service which often leads to miscarriage of justice.The Council wrote to the Secretary of State to inform him of the position .The second-class representation complained about is not universal to all their clients,obviously.Indeed ,LA’s seem happy enough.94% of its cases(my estimate) are successful.
    All comments welcome

  16. Angelo Grandai

    In public law family court cases,it is the task of the LA to put all the facts.Allegations as to safeguarding issues are to be investigated as to factuality first in order to ensure well-informed,fair appraisals.Allegations and unvouched reports are not facts on which a Court can make decisions.

  17. Angelo Grandai

    One more comment if I may. Children are subjected to institutional DEGRADATION legally in so much as they have their absolute right to the protection of their parents with full responsibility taken away from them and given up into the hands of CAFFCASS. Children are entitled to free representation in all care proceedings but parents are unable to act for them (even before an ICO is issued.
    I feel it contravenes article 3.No matter what the treatment imposed upon children, parents have no legal recourse.Why can’t they act for their own children?

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