Must Adoption be Such an Ordeal?

You may already have a general suspicion that adoption is an emotionally draining, intellectually frustrating, bureaucratic obstacle course. From my own experience, I can say that the process is usually worse than that. Of all the areas where the Left has achieved ascendancy, one of the most disturbing is the way it has politicised the issue of who may or may not adopt children. The once-radical notions put forward on sociology courses at polytechnics in the 1980s might sound dated now, but they are still dominant in the field of social work. These put up so many barriers to ordinary couples adopting that many are turned down, and children are left in a care system that often represents a conveyor belt to failure at school, unemployment and even prison.

I am a local councillor in the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham and I sit on my local authority’s adoption panel. Every council has an adoption panel. They rubber-stamp (or occasionally refuse to rubber-stamp) recommendations coming from the social workers. Before each fortnightly meeting, a telephone directory-sized report on each adoption case arrives for me to plough through. (Social workers are given endless training but writing with brevity is not one of the topics.)

Each case will have complications although many of the characteristics of the children being placed for adoption are depressingly repetitive. Often my fellow panel members serve on panels in other authorities. One joked of being in danger of becoming a “professional panel member” in the manner of those who keep popping up on Radio Four quiz shows.

So far as I can make comparisons, both anecdotal and statistical, the evidence suggests that the social workers employed by my council are more practical and less ideological than most. We have succeeded in reducing the number of “looked-after children” from 390 in 2006 to fewer than 300 and falling. The government has commended us for producing the best results in Britain in placing more children for adoption. But while offering encouragement to reach targets, the government simultaneously upholds the ideological barriers that thwart progress in meeting them. The government is dragging us in two opposite directions – urging us to place more children for adoption but retaining barriers of bureaucratic delay and political correctness that scupper progress.

For the children and couples to make it to the panel on which I sit means they are the lucky ones. They have succeeded. They come before us with the endorsement of the social workers – although ratification by the courts is still to come. We must approve a child as suitable for adoption, a couple as suitable to adopt and a match between the two.

In theory, we can also provide an appeal system for those turned down for adoption but this scarcely ever happens. Few couples who have been turned down have the emotional energy for yet further ritual humiliation and soul-baring – and who can blame them? Those attending panel meetings are invariably asked, as a sort of ice-breaker, how they have found the assessment process. “Um, well it’s been very thorough,” they might say, while their eyes say: “We’ve been to Hell and back.” The high turnover of social workers doesn’t help. Halfway through the process, couples find they are being assessed by a new social worker and have to start again.

Adoption applicants never seem to be thanked. The whole rigmarole has the added stress that the state appears to think it is doing the couple a huge favour by giving them a child. There is little or no gratitude shown towards people contemplating taking on such a responsibility, with the almost incalculable benefit it could bring to the child in question, not to mention society as a whole.

Outsiders might often blame the social workers, but while there are bad social workers and good ones, I blame the system. The social workers have to accept the parameters within which they operate. When it comes to all the form-filling they are the greatest victims. I have seen social workers in tears over having to tell a couple they face an unexpected further delay because of some administrative technicality. So much of the pressure on them comes in the wrong direction-to make adopting harder rather than easier.

For example, the only real power an adoption panel has is to throw a spanner in the works. Generally, this is the last thing they should want to do. A more useful role for such a panel would be to look at all the children who aren’t being recommended for placement and all the couples who have been turned down.

Best known are the constraints on would-be adopters on the basis of who they are – for instance, they might be white. A particularly perverse result is that it is often black children who are denied loving homes in the name of political correctness. Often the delay means they will never be adopted even when this is the plan, but leave the care system aged 18 never having had a family they can call their own. This is because the social workers have delayed placing a child for years in pursuit of the right ethnic match. They eventually decide the child is “too old” to adopt – perhaps at the age of eight. After a traumatic start in life from their birth parents (for example, a heroin addict birth mother, the birth father having long scarpered), their troubles are compounded by being shunted around foster placements and children’s homes. Often by this point their behaviour would be “challenging” for prospective adopters. So we have a grotesque self-fulfilling prophesy. The child can’t be placed for adoption for years on end until all the boxes can be ticked for the prospective adopter. By the time such a figure emerges, the child is deemed too far gone.

So would-be adopters can be turned down because they are white and the child is black – or because the couple smoke or are fat. Sometimes they are turned down for being too old – or at least they are deemed too old by the time the interminable assessments are completed. My father was 55 when I was born and I still like to feel he did a better job than if I had been brought up in the care system.

Rather less well understood but all the more insidious is the way that good people are prevented from adopting not because of who they are but because of what they think. The thought control aspect is terrifying to behold. In order to be approved, applicants need to agree – or at least to pretend to agree – to an entire lexicon voiced by the social workers. All the pieties must be observed. Would they be pleased if the child they adopted grows up to be gay? Would they discourage “gender specific” activity – girls playing with dolls, boys playing with toy soldiers? Would they ever smack a child? If your reply is: “I always say, spare the rod, spoil the child,” then go to the back of the queue.

Do the applicants “recognise” the benefits of counselling? Often people trying to adopt have experienced a miscarriage. If their response is that they prefer to come to terms with their own grief privately rather than with the benefit of strangers, should this view not be accepted? Apparently not. It doesn’t tick the box.

Are they “positive” about the adopted child having “contact” with the birth parents? (Such contact might be a good thing but it can also be disastrous.) If they already have a child of their own, is the motivation in wanting to adopt to provide a sibling for their child? (“Yes” is the wrong answer.) “If the child you adopted scratched your car with a coin what would you do about it?” is a standard question to applicants in another authority. Careful how you answer.

How risk averse are the applicants when it comes to health and safety issues? How does the home shape up under a risk assessment? What if the prospective father says he won’t share in nappy changing as he is rather traditional and will concentrate on being the breadwinner? He had better remain reticent about such a view even if his wife agrees with him. Applicants are quizzed on what “role models” would be available to the adoptive child and what sort of people are in the “support network”. Your families and friends should be well versed in political correctness as they may be quizzed. There can be second chances for those producing ideologically deviant answers but only if you are prepared to undertake training courses to be re-educated to a more enlightened viewpoint.

There are issues that are “not allowed” to be considered. For instance, common sense might indicate that a married couple, having demonstrated a commitment to each other, would offer a better prospect for a permanent loving home than a couple who are merely cohabiting – but questions on marital status are deemed inappropriate.

Current social work ideology is to keep children with birth parents at all costs because that represents an “ethnic match”. Social workers dislike the “social engineering” aspect of children from poor backgrounds being placed with affluent couples wishing to adopt. The greatest crime – confusing, given that it is professional graduates sitting in judgment – is to be middle class. The social work mission is broadly to replicate the type of upbringing children would have had if they had been left in the mess into which they were born. With this mentality, potential advantages become disadvantages – too big a garden, too many books.

There are plenty of conservative criteria to judge applicants on which never get included. Do they “recognise” the importance of communal meal times? Of diction? Of posture? Of saying “please” and “thank you”? Of saying prayers before bedtime? Of nursery rhymes and bedtime stories and visits to the countryside? Of making sure the child gets into a good school? Such matters are rather more pertinent to successful child-rearing than a lot of the sociological guff that the social workers are told to use. But each child is different and so ultimately all these formulas break down because they have to be adjusted to individual circumstances. My concern is to remove barriers to adoption-not to replace left-wing ones with right-wing ones.

As of 1 April last year there were 81,620 “looked-after children” in the UK. These are children being raised by the state, either placed with foster carers or in children’s homes. Each “looked-after” child will have its own heartrending story of how it got to that status. Many, probably most, of those 81,620 could and should be adopted.

There is no independent body to offer a check on the established orthodoxy. The British Association for Adoption and Fostering is heavily dependent on funding from the state and offers no challenge to officialdom. Its guidelines include a tendentious list of “myths” and “facts”. The following is described in bold type as a “myth”: “Children need a mother and a father in order to have proper male and female role models.” In response comes the “fact”: “Children get their role models from many people besides their parents.”

Politicians need to address what is happening rather than ignoring it. If war is too important to be left to the generals, then surely children are too important to be left to the social workers. Paradoxically, many social workers themselves would welcome more children being liberated from their visits and placed as part of a family in permanent loving homes.

“Letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.” That could be the motto of many social services departments when it comes to deciding whether or not couples should be allowed to adopt children. There is no “right” to have children but far too many prospective adopters are turned away. Often this rejection leaves them in a state of despair or anger. But the unseen victims are the children who have missed the chance to have their lives transformed.

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