Yesterday I participated in the Adoption Debate at the Bristol Civil & Family Justice Centre, hosted and chaired by His Honour Judge Wildblood QC, Designated Family Judge for the Bristol area. You can see a few tweets on #adoptiondebate, although in fact, due to Olympic tweeter Sarah Phillimore's absence (stuck in distant court) there was less twitter frenzy than usual.
The speakers were randomly selected to speak for or against the motion : Kathryn Skellorn QC and Zahid Hussain spoke for non-consensual adoption (10m then 5 m speeches), and Frances Judd QC and myself spoke against. Then there were contributions from a pretty amazing panel including journalist Louise Tickle, Annie of Surviving Safeguarding, a representative of The Potato Group June, who spoke both as an adoptive parent and who read contributions from adopted young people, and Alistair Crine a local Guardian from CAFCASS. We also heard briefly from visiting Danish judges about how things operate there (very very little adoption, although from discussions with them after the event it seems pretty clear that their version of foster care, which is quite common, is much closer to adoption than ours).
The debate was well attended by a mix of journalists, parents, campaigners, lawyers, social workers and guardians, students, judges and academics - and contributions from the floor and panel were respectful, varied, heartfelt and listened to with respect. It was a genuinely interesting discussion, and I only wish we could have arranged a little more time for contributions from the floor, (this is difficult because of the time the court building has to close). There were a lot of points raised, particularly about post-adoption contact, that warrant a whole event of their own.
Although it was of course a bit artificial to call for a vote on non-consensual adoption or none at all, because of course this does not capture the complexity and difficulty of the issue - we did hold a vote. The vote was about 2/3 "for" non-consensual adoption - as an option to be available to the court, whilst about 1/3 said no to non-consensual adoption at all. When the audience were asked (at my suggestion) whether they thought adoption orders were made too easily the overwhelming majority of attendees raised their hands.
I'm really proud to have participated in this event, which in spite of the difficult subject matter, was good fun and thought provoking. Although it does not represent entirely my personal view, I thought you'd like to see the notes of my speech against non-consensual adoption (not quite as delivered, not least because I got cut off in my prime by the ruthless chair at the 5 minute mark!). The other three speeches were really excellent (Kathryn pulled no punches and wiggled her glasses impressively, Zahid and Frances were models of calm, measured delivery), whilst I'm just glad I didn't fall off the dais in a Lemsip induced stupor - but for what it's worth, here is my bit :
Junior speech AGAINST
When children are adopted, a life story book is often prepared for them : An account of why they could not live with their birth family and how they came to live with their forever family. Naturally such narratives are made manageable – to protect a child against upsetting information, information that may make them wonder if they are like the parents who hurt them?
Whatever a life story book tells a child, that child – later adult - will imagine, hope, worry and wonder about who and where they came from. They may build their own story. And we know that parents whose children have been removed have their own narratives.
All of us have a profound need for a story that explains things in a manageable way. A narrative arc, with structure and resolution. A tidy, palatable version of a messy and complicated world. This is how we process events and survive in the world – we repeat our stories for comfort and by repeating them, reinforce and adjust them.
So I want to look at the narratives around non-consensual adoption. We can use this debate as a metaphor. Kathryn and Zahid give you one narrative : Frances and I another. We are pitted against one another in a classic adversarial contest. One or the other. You choose. We all know life is more complicated than those simplified, black and white stories– but we are suckers for easy choices between a good thing and a bad thing: inadequate, neglectful and abusive parents are bad, adoption is good. But of course even abusive parents are still part of the story of an adopted child.
I want to suggest that when we talk about non-consensual adoption in this country we struggle to acknowledge and keep hold of the fact that adoption is not easy. That the stories don’t all end happily and that they neither begin nor end at the point of adoption – they continue. In our impoverished public debate and in government announcements adoption is talked of as if it is in itself A GOOD THING. There is official dismay when absolute numbers of adoptions fall. Why? What if the numbers have fallen because less children needed to taken away from their birth families forever – because we are getting better at supporting parents to develop their skills and resilience? The child rescue narrative is really powerful, and there are a number of prominent happily adopted ministers and leaders in the FJS who push it hard to motivate child protection professionals. Because professionals also need a narrative to help us feel that we are morally justified – that we are helping children.
For example : in Nov 2015 David Cameron said this (I’ve edited it but you can view the whole speech on conservative home website): I’m a huge fan of adoption…we’ve had some good successes. The number of children adopted is up 72%... … at the moment LAs haven’t got enough choice of children to be adopted…I’m a great fan of adoption and this government has big ambitions to help make sure we adopt more children.
You can see in this Cameron extract the easy slippage between an ambition to do adoption better, faster, more successfully where it is the only option into too-easy over simplifications : adoption as a good thing and stops being merely a means to an end and becomes an end in itself. In that speech David Cameron categorically says adoption is better than foster care. But other countries don’t have these narratives about adoption – for example they use foster care with or without contact.
So the way we frame it matters a lot. As the Court of Appeal reminded us in Re B-S it’s NOT just about ruling out the parents and going straight to adoption – the court AND PROFS must holistically evaluate all the other realistic options in between – foster care, SGO, really supporting parents to make change over time to prevent the cycle of repeat removals and intergenerational adoption.
This is human nature. Debate becomes polarized, stripped of nuance. Newspapers do it. Professionals do it. Parents do it. Children do it. And courts were doing it too – hence B-S.
The danger of our rosy narratives about the unmitigated positives of adoption is that we don’t explore or appreciate the potential of other options to be chapters in the complicated stories we construct for children – and we don’t invest in them. And if we don’t invest in fixing and supporting families or alternative care options like stable long term foster care, they wither as realistic options for children.
In his inaugural speech this month the new President of ADCS, Dave Hill said this: “There remains effectively an underclass of families often repeating intergenerational cycles of deprivation, lack of opportunity and poor outcomes and we need to focus harder and do better,” he said. “Improving outcomes for children means breaking the cycle of adult disadvantage. Good social work for adults also helps children.”
Adoption is no solution to this. Our focus on adoption and the comforting idea of a forever family, distracts us from the real and bigger social problem – and for as long as we allow ourselves to be distracted from tackling those intergenerational cycles we are driving up adoption numbers sibling after sibling - not rescuing children but condemning them. Our child rescue narrative is a false narrative.
And so I would urge you to vote against non-consensual adoption – in order that we may refocus on options for children that allow them to build a rich but coherent, complicated but real story to take forward as adults – a story that combines both stability and the continued link with their birth family to which they are entitled.