Our rotten adoption system no longer serves children - just the prejudice of social workers
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By Harriet Sergeant
January 25, 2011 / dailymail.co.uk
Our adoption system is a mess. It is not a mess from a lack of money nor even from a lack of families eager to adopt. It is a mess for one reason only. Adoption rates have collapsed.
The figures are damning. Last year, only 70 babies were adopted. In 1976, it was 4,000. So who is to blame?
Martin Narey, the outgoing chief executive of Barnardo’s in his final speech last week, pointed the finger at local authorities and social workers. And he should know.
Is he being unfair?
No one would dispute the State’s right to scrutinise someone who wants to adopt a child. But do they know something we don’t?
Well, actually no. It’s a shock to discover our adoption system is not run for the benefit of the child, but to satisfy the weird prejudices and fantasies of our social workers.
The latest ideological fad to seize social services — one for which there is no evidence, in fact quite the opposite — is that adoption is Not A Good Thing. As Martin Narey said: ‘The sad truth is that adoption has gone out of fashion.’
This fashion is responsible for much heartbreak, as I heard first-hand when I wrote a major report on the care system.
Young people denied the chance of adoption find themselves shunted from foster family to foster family, and subjected to endless changes of school.
The figures for 2009 are damning. Two thousand seven hundred white children were adopted from care in that year, compared to 410 mixed-race children and just 90 black children.
The lack of a loving family which adoption might have provided has blighted their lives. Nearly every one of the young people in care I interviewed was on drugs, depressed, lonely, desperate, on the streets, or in prison.
Faced with that evidence, Martin Narey is clear. ‘Adoption is by far and away the most effective intervention we can make for a child.’
The problem, as one social worker admitted to me, is that ‘social workers are distrustful and hostile to the whole idea of adoption’.
One of the main reasons for this — which I will return to later — is that many of them develop what I would regard as an unhealthy bond with the birth mother of any child they are dealing with.
But there are other ways their prejudice manifests itself — all of which are detrimental to the child in care.
The majority of people who want to adopt commit, in the eyes of social workers, an unforgiveable crime. They are white and middle-class.
Take race first. The law on this is clear. Social workers must give ‘due consideration’ to a child’s religious, cultural and racial background.
It is not meant to be their only consideration. It is not meant to trump a child’s chance to find a happy and secure family. But that is exactly what happens.
Black, Asian and mixed race children, already over-represented in the care system, wait three times longer than white children to be adopted; the majority are never adopted at all.
The figures from the department of education for 2009 are damning. Two thousand seven hundred white children were adopted from care in that year, compared to 410 mixed-race children and just 90 black children.
This is because social workers insist black and mixed-race children are adopted by black couples — and such couples are in short supply.
One lawyer, who is mixed-race himself, pointed out the lunacy of this policy. The majority of mixed-race children have a white mother and a black father. Most of them live with their white mother or her white family.
So why, asked the lawyer, do social workers insist mixed-race children can only be adopted by black families?
One mixed-race girl I interviewed complained she found her black foster family very strict and traditional, saying: ‘My mother is white and I had a very different upbringing.’
The placement broke down. She was moved many times. She left school with no qualifications and, at the age of 16, is now on benefits and pregnant.
The second problem is class. One social worker admitted to me that the matching process between child and prospective parents is ‘outdated and too dependent upon the individual prejudice of a social worker’.
Why, I asked, when an adopted child’s future is so much better than that of a child abandoned to the wasteland of our care system? She looked astonished. I had obviously missed the point.
‘But the majority of people seeking to adopt are middle-class,’ she said. ‘Some of them have even gone to boarding school!’
Another social worker explained: ‘We just do not feel comfortable removing a child from a poor, single mother and putting it into a middle-class family.’
In the eyes of these social workers, being white and middle class is the ultimate crime.
This attitude has been revealed further in a damning survey carried out by Adoption UK, a charity for prospective adopters and adoptive parents.
Far from social services seeking recruits to take on children, it revealed that one in four families who want to adopt are turned away — thousands at their first inquiry. At the same time, there are 4,000 children waiting to be adopted.
The charity carried out the survey because so many members complained of their treatment by social workers.
This attitude pervades every aspect of the process.
On an online forum, a white middle-class couple trying to adopt complained social services ‘are very disorganised at sending out invitations to crucial events’.
They penalise parents who cannot come, and then ‘cancel at the last moment’.
After a year of this treatment, the couple complained: ‘We’re feeling very upset and let down by the process.’ Another couple said: ‘We just want to love, help and support a child who hasn’t had the best start in life. Social Services don’t seem to get it!’
So if social workers are not putting adoptive parents or the child first, who are they favouring? The answer, disturbingly, is the natural mother. Too many social workers try to balance the rights of the natural parents against the rights of the child.
In fact, as Martin Narey points out, the law on this is clear. The rights of the child come first.
So why is this happening? One social worker explained: ‘Who do we know best? Not the child or the adoptive parents, but the often single and very young mum who we are visiting and trying to support. We don’t like telling her: “We are taking your child away for good.” ’
'We just want to love, help and support a child who hasn’t had the best start in life. Social Services don’t seem to get it!'
In other words, while local authorities might reject adoption, they pour resources into ensuring children in their care have contact with their birth families.
Of course everyone wants a child to get on well with its parents. But as one social worker remarked ‘it’s a crazy system. One moment the child is in such peril we have to remove them from their parents. The next we are arranging contact.’
The point of course is that once a child is adopted the door slams on contact with the birth parents, whereas while they are being fostered, meetings can continue to take place.
A number of foster parents complained to me how contact with these abusive mothers upset the children they are looking after.
After seeing his birth mother, one little boy bit and kicked his carer and urinated over the carpet. He threw a tantrum before each visit, but was still dragged along by a social worker.
The boy finally confided to his foster mother that his mum made him play a game which ended in him touching ‘her boobs’. No one from social services had noticed the mother was sexually abusing her child right under their noses. And that story was by no means a one-off.
One worker whose job it is to arrange contact meetings like this complains that social services refuse to describe what they hope to achieve from them. She says: ‘It just drags on and on and is awful for the children.’
And all the while, the thousands of couples desperate to adopt these vulnerable youngsters are left out in the cold, demoralised and humiliated.
It is high time social workers stopped basing policy on fashionable social dogma, and started looking at what might actually turn a child into a happy and successful adult.
Handle With Care: An Investigation Into The Care System, by Harriet Sergeant, is published by the Centre For Policy Studies.