The ethics of keeping a child from its parents

A child is removed after its parents are accused of abuse. The child is adopted and settles with a new family. If the parents are then cleared, should the child be returned, ask ethicists Rebecca Roache and Barbro Bjorkman.

16 February 2009 / BBC News

Mark and Nicky Webster have lost a bid to overturn adoption orders on three of their children.

Judges said the Websters may have suffered a miscarriage of justice

The children were removed in 2005, following concerns over injuries incurred to one of the children.

Subsequent investigations revealed that the injuries may have resulted from a medical condition, and that the Websters may not have harmed the child after all.

However, with the children now settled with their adoptive families, senior appeal court judges have ruled that while the Websters may have suffered a miscarriage of justice, it is not in the children's interests to overturn the adoption orders.

Assuming that the Websters are indeed innocent of harming their child, has the court made the right decision?

Different case

One reason to answer "no" is that, in most cases where the state removes a child from its parents, consideration of the child's interests overrides consideration of the parents' interests. This is what has happened in this case, too.

But this case differs in an important way from other cases of state intervention. When a child is removed from abusive parents, we generally think that by abusing their child, the parents lose their claim to have their own interests considered.

However, without reason to believe that the Websters have harmed their child, they can demand that their interests are considered alongside those of their children.

But this may not be enough to warrant overturning the adoption orders. The demand that the children are returned to their parents may be motivated by the belief that doing so would "undo" the wrong committed when the children were removed.

Not all wrongs can be undone, however, and reuniting the Websters with their children would not put things right in the way that returning a stolen item to its owner would. It could cause great distress both to the children and to their adoptive parents. <!-- S IBOX --><!-- E IBOX -->

In this case, perhaps the best that can be done is to compensate the Websters financially. While this would not solve the problem, it is a symbol of recognition that a serious wrong has been committed.

Even so, paying compensation does not excuse the state from making the right decision about whether to reunite the Websters with their children.

Is the court right that the interests of the children are best served by upholding the adoption orders?

Distress and disruption

Removing them from their adoptive parents would almost certainly distress and disrupt the children - but, except in extreme cases, we do not generally view distress and disruption as reason to keep children from their parents.

Children are distressed and disrupted when their parents divorce, when they are forced to change schools, when their parents prevent them from keeping certain company, and so on.

Most would agree that the benefits to children of living with their biological parents outweigh the distress and disruption that they sometimes suffer at the hands of their parents.

In the case of the Websters' children, even if the distress and disruption of removing them from their adoptive parents is significant, it is not obvious that it would outweigh the benefits of reuniting them with their biological parents.

Rebecca Roache is James Martin Research Fellow at Oxford's Faculty of Philosophy. Barbro Björkman is Marie Curie Postdoc Fellow at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics.

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