Adoption: making or breaking families?

Sunday 14 October, 10:0011:30, Frobisher 1-3Modern family

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Adoption is a practice with a long and ancient history. By uniting children in need of a permanent home with adults desperate to become parents, adoption is accepted as an unalloyed social good. Yet it also seems beleaguered by a continual stream of controversies. Popular TV programmes like Long Lost Family and the drama Kiri have probed the meaning of family in the public imagination, raising questions about the strength of physical or blood ties as compared to adopted family bonds.

The ‘happy ever after’ adoption story is under siege. Long Lost Family portrays emotional reunions of adopted adults with their bereft birth mothers and of ‘severed’ brothers and sisters who rediscover one another in later life. But is this an overly simplistic view of adoption as a ‘wrong’ enacted by a heavy-handed system? Social workers complained bitterly about being misrepresented in Kiri, in which a child who is due to be adopted by her foster parents disappears after a contact visit with her birth father, an ex-convict. Breaking a natural family and making a social one certainly requires the most severe exercise of state authority, but is this not justified when birth parents have failed to take care of their children? Don’t children deserve the permanence of a ‘forever family’ rather than the possible instability of continued state care and the prospect of having no family at all as they head into adulthood?

Adoption has become a highly politicised issue since 2000 as successive governments have sought to reverse the long-term decline in the number of children being adopted from the care system. The prioritising of adoption, particularly by Michael Gove (who was himself adopted at four months old) as the ‘gold standard’ option for children in care has provoked much criticism from social workers, lawyers and even High Court judges, including the president of the Family Division, Sir James Munby. So-called ‘adoption targets’ and the fact that most domestic adoptions are ‘non-consensual’ – that is, they happen without the permission of birth parents – have also become a focal point for parents’ rights advocates.

Suspicions abound that austerity has led to adoption being pushed as a cheaper alternative to family support services, foster care or much-maligned children’s residential homes and that certain families (single mothers, the economically disadvantaged, those with mental health problems or mental disabilities) are experiencing grave injustices as their children are permanently removed via a speeded-up system. The British system has also been criticised by other members of the European Union as being unusually punitive and of removing children who have been born in the UK from their European migrant parents.

How do we balance the rights of children and birth parents? Has adoption become a cost-cutting measure or are recent changes in policy motivated by finding new opportunities to provide a stable family life for children? Do we give enough weight in policy to the confusing consequences of adoption for children’s sense of identity? What is the proper place of adoption in modern society?