I’m a huge fan of the Adoption and Fostering Podcast, hosted by Al Coates and Scott Casson-Rennie. One of the things I like most about it is the way it makes space for a wide range of voices and perspectives, reflecting how complex adoption is and how practically everyone involved has a different point of view. That was particularly apparent in their discussion this week of the recent call for the UK government to apologise to the many women who lost their children to adoption between the 1950s and the late 1970s. This is often referred to as the era of ‘classic’ adoption, when young unmarried women gave up their babies shortly after birth, and it shaped the lives of thousands of people: in 1968, the peak year for adoption in the UK, over 24,000 children were adopted.
I used the expression ‘gave up’ in that last sentence, and of course it’s not that simple. There are appalling accounts of women who were coerced into giving up their babies; teenage girls told that they had brought shame upon their families and women who were abused and insulted while they were in labour. ‘Giving up’ implies freedom of choice, and it’s clear that many women were given no choice whatsoever.
Al and Scott raise the point, very sensitively, of what it is that the Government would be apologising for. In Ireland, an apology was made earlier this year by the Taoiseach, Michéal Martin, and by Eamon Martin, the Catholic primate of all Ireland, expressing remorse for the role played by the church and state in running the network of mother and baby homes to which unmarried mother were consigned for most of the twentieth century. In the UK, where mother and baby homes were run by churches or charities, there was no such state-organised network. What about the role played by these churches and charities? What about the parents who were complicit in sending their daughters to these institutions? What about the extended families, the neighbours, the people behind the networks of whispers and gossip? Can a government apologise on behalf of a whole society?
The podcast also touches on the expression ‘forced adoption’ and the way it has become a rallying-cry for opponents of adoption. Over the past few decades, these opponents have become increasingly vocal. But as Al and Scott point out, this often silences those voices that raise alternative points of view. I’ve been thinking, during these recent debates, about the women for whom giving up their babies was a free choice: the women who, in the days before free contraception and legalised abortion, welcomed adoption as the only way out of the circumstances in which they found themselves. I’ve also been thinking about the way that ‘forced adoption’ is used to describe the contemporary adoption system in the UK, where voluntary relinquishment is now extremely rare. ‘Cruel forced adoptions are still happening today,’ says a correspondent in the Guardian, and I don’t doubt that to birth families facing the removal of a child, involuntary adoption will seem appallingly cruel. Not for nothing has adoption been described as the most draconian measure a court can impose, short of the death penalty.
But. Neglect and abuse do happen. Some families do not engage with the support that’s offered, and do not make the changes that need to be made in order for their children to live with them safely. The timescales involved have to be tight. Six months might not seem long enough to recover from addiction, or break a pattern of abusive relationships, but it’s a long time in the life of a toddler, and huge amounts of developmental damage can take place during that time.
Adoption always involves loss. The birth family loses a child, or even multiple children. The children lose their ties to their biological family. Ongoing contact and life story work can help with this, but adoption still means growing up in a different family and being legally separated from the one into which you were born. In many cases, there are losses of culture and heritage. The ways in which these losses are felt will vary from one child to another, and from one stage of life to another. We can’t pretend that they don’t exist. But neither can we claim that every child can remain with his or her birth family.
It’s often difficult, as an adopter, to write about the ethics of adoption. After all, we’re the ones who get to make choices. We decide to adopt: nobody forces us to do so. We get to be parents, and that’s something that many of us might be unable to achieve otherwise. As adopters, we’re in a privileged position. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like that: when we’re struggling to access the support that our children need, or coping with disordered behaviour, or helping our children to negotiate difficult aspects of their life stories. But we do need to recognise this position, and grapple with the ethical issues it involves.
Social workers have taken a hammering too, this week, as a result of the recent review of children’s social care in England and Wales, which claimed that social services were overly focused on investigating allegations of abuse and neglect at the expense of supporting struggling families. It’s a scandal that social workers do not have the time, or the resources, to support families in need. But it’s absolutely right that allegations should be investigated, because while some allegations may be vexatious, and others unfounded, there will be children who need the state to step in. The hashtag #SocialWorkAtItsBest has been trending on Twitter today, with people sharing examples of the ways in which social workers have supported children and families, and I think it’s about time this kind of practice was shared more widely, to counter the narrative of bonus-chasing social workers snatching babies on demand.
Adoption, eh? It’s a massively complicated thing. All power to Al and Scott, who have been podcasting for over four years now, and to everyone who’s trying to raise these issues and do justice to the nuances involved.