When should a child be adopted, and should it be an open adoption?
Well that’s a big question. Perfect for someone as unqualified and self-interested as myself. In fact I’ve rewritten this post a couple of times as I keep going round in circles! In the UK at least, you have two competing ideals: the traditional (some might say sacrosanct) Victorian Western idea of a nuclear biological family as a solid institution, versus the occasional necessity for a 21st century liberal society to intervene to halt cases of abuse, toxic attachment and toxic dependency. How you make that intervention is of course where the debate mostly lies, with the role of adoption, or at least closed adoption, under question.
We’ve come a long way in our understanding of adult domestic abuse, and realise that just because someone expresses a need to stay with or see their abuser doesn’t necessarily mean that it is good idea. We recognise that the main reason they want to stay is because of dependency. They literally have nowhere else to turn. We try to persuade the victim (nearly always women) to leave that environment, have created refuges and therapeutic support, even allowing identity change and helping victims to move to new cities in extreme cases. One of my friends sadly had to go through it. We’ve prevented the abuser from contacting the woman. On balance it is felt in the woman’s best interest to do that, despite any psychological difficulties that might result from suddenly removing her from all she knows. But of course she is an adult and it still ultimately needs her consent to do so. We just give her the opportunity.
However as a society we still have a blind spot on child abuse, maybe because it is so difficult to imagine a parent deliberately hurting their own children, and because we collectively seem to believe that neglect — criminal neglect — is just character-forming rather than being a major issue (most adopters I am sure would say it was the worst form of abuse and most permanent in effect). We still have that quasi-religious cultural sense that blood and genes transcend everything; telling children that in books, TV, film and general conversation and making them yearn for a mythical sense of belonging and identity that even most happy birth families would struggle to provide. The idea that ‘blood is thicker than water’ is seemingly a major cause of mental health issues generally actually, not just in adoptees. We teach parents that their family rights are far more important than their family responsibilities. We speak to birth parents in gentle euphemisms about ‘struggling to cope’ and ‘risk of future harm’ rather than simply stating the terrible and permanent consequences of what they did; this certainly doesn’t improve their sense of victimhood if their children are removed by the state.
So although child and adult abuse are essentially the same thing in all practical senses, collectively we feel differently about them. And of course children don’t get to consent to being removed from the home, and don’t get to decide whether it is in their best interests. Because they can’t. But it is that lack of consent that moves a lot of people to believe it is wrong. Birth parents rather emotively call it ‘forced adoption’ (meaning that they feel that they are the ones being forced) but it is more commonly known as nonconsensual adoption, because the person who is being removed is not able to consent to it.
So what are the kinds of cases that lead to a child being adopted in the UK? Well for confidentiality reasons it is hard to find newspaper stories that illustrate, but while we were waiting to adopt we were short-listed for several children. I’m obviously not going to tell you their stories, but this BBC article is about a very similar case to all of them we were matched with. Sadly a case where it was too late to intervene.
Or was it too late? It is recorded that the mother had committed multiple cases of abandonment in the past, with the same child, and with no apparent ‘mitigating’ circumstances like drugs, mental health issues etc. So the fact that was known means social services were aware of the family. Was anything done to help her or was she just tutted at and left to it? We obviously don’t know much from the story but she appeared to have family support and some social services help. She was only a child herself when she had the baby, and had literally only just turned 18 when the case in the story happened. The piece is fairly neutral in tone, but it reports it in the same way as if she was as an experienced adult which colours our opinion of her. She is in prison now and when she gets out will probably struggle to get back to anything like a normal life. She’ll probably have to move and maybe change her name to avoid problems in the community.
This is the kind of case where it is easy to become judgmental, and indeed I probably was myself before I became an adopter. But she is human, and a young one at that. The default assumption that society in general makes is that she didn’t really want the child and that it is best for both mother and child that it is taken away, perhaps never to be seen again. But is it really that simple? Of course not. Obviously at that time she was incapable of looking after the child because of a lack of maturity and understanding about her responsibility. But what about once she grows up herself? With this event, if her child had been found and taken into foster care in time she would obviously still go to jail. But not for 9 years, maybe only 2 or 3 which is the typical sentence for child neglect and cruelty. Would she regret what she’d done later in life? Almost certainly, she is human. Would the mother have been able to make the changes necessary within the childhood of her child to allow that child back into her care once she was out of jail? At present this is the point where a decision has to be made, could she, or couldn’t she? How long would it take? Our current orthodoxy is that a child needs a stable family, and in a case like this it is unlikely that any kind of positive parental bond would have been formed with the birth mum at this point in the child’s life. Indeed possibly the opposite, where the child may learn to not trust or rely on any adult. Psychologically a child needs a safe, secure environment, and needs it for all their childhood. If the parent is not there and not interested then it is not going to happen with them, and indeed intermittent contact with the child could well be harmful emotionally and hinder creating that safe, secure environment.
You could keep the child in care, which means that the ‘legal’ parent remains the same and will often still have some contact with the child (whether it is good for the child or not). Sometimes a child will be in care without having contact with the birth parents, especially if they are witnesses, so they can’t be ‘got at’. I did write a massive digression about the care system here but decided to cut it out; it doesn’t have the best press but I think it and the fosterers who work in it are amazing. However one thing that everyone seems to agree on — care doesn’t have great outcomes. It is the minimum to keep that child safe and off the streets but the instances of adult mental illness, time in prison, drug use, lack of qualifications, homelessness etc increase massively among those who are care experienced. Obviously we should be trying to make that better. But it still won’t replace a parent for young children and it is not really intended to. You can also look for guardians, and lots of children are placed with other members of the family instead of care or adoption. This has many advantages and disadvantages, which I won’t go into here as that would be another massive digression, but it is not always considered sensible to leave a child with close family members, for hopefully obvious reasons.
So who can provide care if fosterers and guardians are ruled out? This is when adoption is looked at. That is the policy, but how is it implemented in practice? There are two different types of adoption, open and closed. By some other countries’ standards (e.g. US), all UK adoption is open in the sense that the children will always have some form of communication (usually asynchronous, often mediated when young) with the birth parents, will know who the parents are, will have medical records and birth certificate, and will usually see other members of the birth family, like siblings, in person. They will also start ‘reunion’ with birth parents in their teens should they want to. But despite that it is usually called closed. Open adoption (common in Australia and New Zealand) is relatively rare in the UK and this is where there is lots of unsupervised direct communication between adopters, adopted children, and the birth parents. From the child’s point of view for all practical purposes open adoption is the same as a guardianship. From the adults’ point of view you get a few more rights, such as the ability to go on holiday abroad and authorise medication without permission from birth parent. And you get to call yourself Mum and Dad, for life.
Below is a link to a podcast that describes an open adoption in the UK, indeed the only one I’ve ever heard of. I have to say, just like in most of the ‘conversations’ podcasts I’ve heard by this team there is a frustrating lack of detail. They present the subjects as they want to be presented, and it does leave lots of things unchallenged and/or unstated which isn’t enough for me so I’ve stopped listening to most of the episodes now. In some ways it is about as informative as a Facebook profile really. But they are not interviewers, just providing a platform, so perhaps I shouldn’t expect much. However, this one piqued my interest because of the subject matter.
The case is 15 or 16 years old, but to me it sounds like open adoption is a response in adoption practice to a large backward step in policy. If this podcast is to be believed a young teenage girl was struggling to look after her child, with no family support. The child gets injured — apparently no fault of the mother — and social services step in and almost immediately place the child for adoption. The decision would have been made before the child’s first birthday. There are so many questions here, such as where was the social services support for the birth mum? This seems to have been a one-off event, so why was the child not kept in care for a while to see if the birth mum could change whatever was of concern? If contact with the mother was not considered a risk of physical or emotional harm to the child then why was the child placed for adoption in the first place? Just so another ‘more suitable’ mum could be found who could show the teenager how it was done? That sounds rather old-fashioned, to put it politely. And it sounds like social services knew there was a cock-up and were rather relieved when the adopter suggested more direct contact, even at a young age.
However unusual that scenario (hopefully), there are advocates for applying open adoption in all cases of closed adoption, whereas up until now at least it has been thought that the whole point of making it closed was because continued direct contact with the birth parent would set the young child back emotionally and psychologically. At least until they are old enough to develop their resilience and understanding of their specific circumstances. Part of the evidence of open adoption appears to stem from this 2013 academic paper (https://ueaeprints.uea.ac.uk/id/eprint/50763/1/Neil_et_al_2013_contact_after_adoption_full_report.pdf) which made a study of the contact arrangements of 28 birth families and 45 adoptive families, with the adopted people involved being teenagers or young adults and a third being unusual in that they were relinquished or ‘preferentially rejected’ (i.e. rejection because of disability or gender — not a great advert for the Great British public but thankfully not common). The adoptees questioned would have been placed last century so in a slightly different system than we have now. Of the 17 (out of 52) adopted people that reported being satisfied with their contact arrangements, they had had the same arrangements all their life, and 5 had had a form of direct contact. The ones who weren’t satisfied had changing contact arrangements, which is actually considered best practice at present. The point of the report being that you need a stable, certain contact arrangement. Of course with up to 40000 adopted children under 18 in the UK at the moment this report probably is not considered that representative (I’m not a stats expert though!), and it is actually quite old now, but it is worth thinking about — you might well need to get it right first time rather than changing later in life, and if so really the only thing you can do is open adoption.
For me I’d need quite a bit more evidence that this is the case before advocating open adoption though. It seems the people who shout the loudest for it are birth parents, and well, they would, wouldn’t they? In a sense it is too late for my son anyway as we are a long way down the road of ‘standard’ adoption practice now — his reunion isn’t long off. But I think all future adopters need to consider the evidence about it, to make sure you are happy that at this point in time at least, your values align with the government’s currently stated reasons for adoption policy and practice.
A few years before we applied to adopt (and a number of years before that report came out) we’d actually gone to an open evening for potential adopters and fosterers, but were put off by a social worker who in hindsight probably worked in the fostering side of things. She insisted that all placed children were simply ‘other people’s children’ and adopters were just looking after them until they were 18. This is obviously not true — an adopted child is both your own and the birth parents’, and you remain a parent even if you are not ‘looking after’ them, but it does make me wonder what the true agenda behind open adoption is. She might have been a fostering social worker but do most social workers actually believe in adoption? Do they perhaps think all children should be in long-term foster care really, but as the care system is not up to it then make adoption more like a free version of it? The nature of open adoption necessitates more social services oversight, just to make sure that direct contact is working for the child, and of course makes it less like a parenting role and more of a guardian and mentoring role. I have to say that when we did apply we had to speak to 2 more adoption agencies before we found one where a worker was happy to say that we would be the parent, rather than ‘just’ a carer. If the agenda is to do this then it needs to be stated, and made official, rather than allowing the current uncertainty to continue or pulling the wool over potential adopter’s eyes. People wonder why there has been a huge drop in the number of people applying to adopt. There are lots of reasons, but you need to know that social services and society in general is going to support you for 10–15 years to come at least, and this uncertainty about the future of adoption is almost certainly one of those reasons.