The Family Justice Council (FJC) hosted a series of conferences last week which appeared to lean in favour of returning to adoptions as the first choice for placements in child protection cases.
The four-day event, entitled “Adoption in the 21st Century”, hosted by the Family Justice Council — an advisory non-departmental public body, sponsored by the Ministry of Justice — was described in the invitation as a series of seminars that “explore adoption, not only in England and Wales but across Europe and wider.”
The seminars included a review of Special Guardianship Orders; adoption trends; tracing family members and contact with birth parents; a discussion of the Wales Adoption Cohort Study on early placement success and; testimony from one adoptive parent and one adopted child about their adoption experience.
The conference featured a presentation from Judge Anni Højmark on non-consensual adoption in Denmark, whose government recently announced that it would be prioritising adoption in the country, and that children should be placed in care at an earlier age. As part of that policy, Denmark is now actively trying to increase the number of adoptions within the country.
No standalone presentation looking at consensual adoption, fully open adoption practices or holistic alternatives to adoption implemented in other European states or countries worldwide was offered during the conference, though these issues were touched upon by some panellists who also discussed the tensions between forced and consensual adoptions as part of broader topics involving human rights and adoption trends.
Non consensual adoptions, or forced adoptions are only used by a small minority of countries, while the majority of states implement open or consensual adoptions, and some countries even offer several adoption pathways for families to choose from.
A growing body of research has begun to shed light on the negative long term effects of forced adoptions, and consensual adoptions, on children, their birth families and adoptive families. That understanding led to a gradual shift away from adoption as a perceived ‘gold standard’ in child protection cases in the UK, after landmark judgments and case precedent made in part by Lady Hale clarified that adoption orders in law were a ‘draconian’ measure which should always be a last resort.
If the FJC is pushing for a return to adoptions as the ‘norm’ in child welfare cases, it would make sense.
The conference coincides with ongoing budget cuts to the sector, and a long-established awareness among local authority bosses that children’s services within councils are expensive. Fostering services, in-home support and state-run care homes, while offering children very little in terms of support and protection (another story for another day), have cost the government billions, and councils are now looking for ways to cut back on their outgoings.
With minimal costs attached in relative terms, adoption provides the government with the most cost-effective solution, as the ‘burden’ of looking after a child is placed on the shoulders of adopters.
This is of course, a short sighted view. Adoption placements very rarely work for children, and we also know that adoptions break down too. All of this creates a long-term problem for the government, which will then have to pay for life-long medical and psychiatric support for a significant portion of the population who went through Britain’s broken child protection system.
Perhaps the most disappointing feature of the conference was Baroness Hale’s contribution. Hale, whose pioneering Children Act and progressive judgments helped to broaden understanding about how our current child welfare policies often fell dangerously short, was widely admired for her outspoken views and evidence-based approach to child welfare.
But Hale’s speech, dedicated to Bridget Lindley — a groundbreaking family lawyer who believed strongly that the law was a tool for social change — was uncharacteristically weak, only offering a summary of how family has been perceived inside the child welfare sector, and did not once, mention forced adoption and the very real damage it has done, and will continue to do, if the government does push ahead with a drive to adopt.