Child health: Why campaigners are battling the UK’s adoption policy

New research raises concerns about forcible removal of children

James*, 50, a British Army Officer, remembers how adoption affected his sense of belonging: “I joke sometimes about an abandonment syndrome, but I think there is something to it. If I had not known I was adopted I’d really struggle with my sense of identity as I have very little in common with my adoptive parents.”

Losing a child to adoption is a deeply traumatic experience for parents and, often, children too. The UK’s policies on adoption mean that parental consent is not needed — known as non-consensual adoption — and that parents and children may lose contact with each other forever.

Hailed as the gold standard in the UK for children in need of stable homes, adoption has been at the forefront of family intervention and safeguarding in Britain for over twenty years. The drive to set adoption as a priority for vulnerable children came about due to a belief among child welfare professionals that adoptions would provide children with the love and stability they needed.

But new research also tells us that mothers who have children forcibly removed are far more likely to suffer physical and mental health problems, commit suicide, and die from other avoidable causes.

Concerned by these findings, a growing number of British social workers are challenging the status quo and offering pioneering and humane answers to the problems caused by non-consensual adoption. But what are the solutions for better family intervention in child protection and how can the government implement these ideas?

Best interests

Governments around the world place children with adopters when they can no longer be looked after by their own families. Most countries allow children to remain in contact with their biological families throughout their childhood and let the birth parents share decision-making responsibilities with the child’s adoptive parents.

The UK is one of four countries whose adoption policies favour severing the birth family’s bond with their child and stripping mothers and fathers of their legal rights and responsibilities as parents.

The practice, which is sometimes called “forced adoption” by social care reformers, can impact a child’s sense of identity and belonging and lead to feelings of abandonment which last a lifetime.

What works?

Research shows that adoption can be a positive experience for some children, where it provides important support for children suffering with emotional and cognitive delays due to severe abuse or neglect. Policies which reinforce a child’s sense of self could be developed to complement adoption practices in the UK.

A system which focuses on keeping contact alive between children and their birth families would not only be possible in the UK but would be in line with current law and save the government money, Joe Smeeton, Director of Social Work and Social Sciences, at the University of Salford, said.

It is, he argued: “probably a cheaper and more humane way to prevent them entering into other service provision in the future.”

A model which allowed social services to tailor support and services to each child’s needs while leaving room for plans to be adapted throughout childhood is supported by child welfare professionals. Smeeton, whose research challenging non-consensual adoption policies in the UK is the first of its kind, believes a more flexible approach would benefit vulnerable children.


The UK’s adoption policies currently prevent social workers from offering vulnerable children the care plans they need.

A sharp rise in adoption placements breaking down because adoptive families find they can’t cope with vulnerable children’s often complex requirements has left thousands of children bouncing around the care system.

Where adoptive placements may not be appropriate, children sometimes conform to their adoptive families’ expectations out of a fear that their needs won’t be met.

For Emma*, 28, now working as a paralegal, adoption as an experience was about survival: “Though I love my adoptive parents very much, I’m not sure if it’s a genuine love or a love which I developed through a need to survive. I was acutely aware that if I didn’t try to fit in with biological strangers and play my role of daughter, there was every chance that I could be returned to foster care and be without the material and immediate advantages that adoption presented to me.”

Smeeton’s research suggests that providing vulnerable children with professional child welfare teams who regularly meet with them to assess their needs while maintaining contact with their birth families offers the best of all worlds.

While there is confusion among social workers about how best to place vulnerable children, case law now suggests that the child protection sector should use adoption as a method of last resort, following several successful challenges in the European Court of Human Rights.

A significant judgment in 2013 reminded child welfare professionals that family intervention, where appropriate, should always aim to reunite families and that cutting off contact could only be justified if it was truly the right course of action for the child.

Providing children with support that matches their needs at each stage of their development and keeps birth families engaged would revolutionise child welfare in the UK and could ease the enormous pressure on the family justice system, too.

“My reading of the research is that there is none that conclusively proves that adoption provides better outcomes than other forms of placement. While adoption is a good option for a small number of children, moving away from non-consensual adoption could reduce the number of adoption breakdowns, decrease the impact on mental health services and transform the narrative of care from a negative to a positive one,” Smeeton said. — Natasha Phillips

*Names have been changed to protect adoptees’ identities.

(Picture Credit: Pixabay)


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