I was recently in the UK and had a disturbing conversation with a colleague. His story described a child protection system out of control, a system driven by the wrong reasons – a system driven by adoption.
I will call this family the Smiths. Mr and Mrs. Smith have been parenting two siblings from birth, one child with a disability. After some years, Mr. and Mrs. Smith were delivered an ultimatum – adopt the children or we will remove them from your care. There were many reasons why this was not a good option for these children and this family. One of them was that after an adoption, all health and education costs would be transferred to the adoptive parents, diminishing their ability to provide the best health and educational opportunities for both children into adulthood. Professional assessment, bonded and attached relationships, considering a range of alternatives including the best way to meet these children’s interests did not seem to be part of this story. Instead, there was one over-riding goal – adoption.
Adoption itself is not a problem, but adoption-driven systems are. The Smith’s story led me to reflect on whether a shared understanding of “adoption-driven” exists and what adoption-driven systems actually look like, particularly in Australia, the UK and North America where market-driven, neoliberal and neoconservative governments with particular views on welfare, charity and “the poor” are radically changing approaches to child welfare. So what constitutes an adoption-driven system and why is it a problem? The following characteristics of de-professionalised, adoption-driven systems provide clues and send strong warnings about how child welfare can be practiced and driven by politics.
The measurement of success
1. Success is measured by the numbers of adoptions achieved.
2. Managerial operations outweigh guiding philosophies and best practice, measuring success in short-term, fiscal terms.
3. Where adoption is privatized and business models drive a service.
Political and legal systems
4. Adoption is forced or “mandated” by law or other coercive practices are used.
5. Adoption is broadly perceived as a “welfare solution.” Adoption is believed to be the best solution for social problems and the protection of children. Therefore adoption is promoted as the first and desired course of action.
6. Foster care is bypassed in law or unrealistic time frames e.g. a six month period prior to non-consenting adoption.
7. Parents and families in child welfare systems are seen as ‘bad’ particularly when limited resources exist or professional interventions are not focused on addressing the problems faced by the child’s family. Services that help families or focus on prevention are cut and sole responsibility rests on the individual in the absence of adequate external support.
8. One size-fits-all approaches are promoted.
9. Disproportionate influence of lobbyists that represent one perspective on political decisions and welfare policy.
10. Disregard for professional expertise by politicians developing policy and legislation.
11. When a system seeks to meet the demand for children as a priority.
12. Where political ideology is paternalistic and acts as society’s moral compass guiding what is, in effect, social re-engineering.
13. Foster care including permanent care is perceived as a lesser option rather than part of a range of possible options for individual children and professional interventions for families. Limited support for long and short-term foster parents.
14. No resources are allocated to changing problems in systems.
15. Overseas parents and families are invisible.
16. A lack of cultural sensitivity and understanding.
17. Limited attention or importance is given to maintaining all relationships in a child’s life.
18. The de-professionalization of services or an absence of professional development opportunities and professional supervision.
19. Research-poor environments. Comments like “we have no choice because the system is broken” or “research tells us children do better in adoptive families”. Research tells us that the children studied do well in stable environments but says very little about adoption as the best solution. Skilled and supported parenting provides emotional and physical stability – not the legal act of adoption. We must always be careful to not overstate or generalize.
20. Where the avoidance of risk and adverse publicity over-rides ethical practice.
21. Where confusion exists about who the ‘client” is.
22. Where rhetoric does not match practices.
23. Where conflicts of interest exist and where decisions are made about children and families by those with stakeholder interests.
24. Broader political perspectives are adopted uncritically and professional practice becomes mechanistic.
This post raises a number of serious issues that are not criticisms of adoption, child welfare practitioners, adoptive parents or foster parents although cases like the Smith’s are not one-offs. It is critical of systems that are taking or have taken an alarming turn in countries like Australia and governments that harbour a ‘deep distrust” of welfare and the work of social workers and ignore the complexities of child welfare. These alarm bells raise points for serious reflection, potential research areas, transparency and discussion about these issues. The safety and best interests of children are always paramount and legislation already exists to manage them but services are poorly resourced (and it is not a question of working smarter). There are problems with “adoption-driven” systems not adoption. Child welfare has always been resource poor and professional autonomy, hiring appropriately-educated professionals, ridiculous caseloads, an emphasis on policing, and bureaucratic and political agendas have over a long period of time eroded the capacity of child welfare agencies to do their jobs. Comedian, Jo Brand, has noticed we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Adoption-driven systems are not the answer for world poverty or child protection. There is only the best course of action (usually multi-faceted) for each individual child and family and their unique circumstances. We only have to look at past practices to know that adoption-driven systems have never been the answer and never should be.
Written By Patricia Fronek