Following National Adoption Week, the movement for change is gathering momentum. Yet following last week’s debate in parliament, I retain my doubts about the direction of travel.
Members from all sides praised the efforts of adopters and for that matter foster carers too. There was cross-party agreement that there were no straightforward answers because the system unavoidably meshes different organisations and professions, such as the court and social services, and to be fair there was little direct criticism of social workers themselves and acknowledgement that they themselves are frustrated with delays in the system.
Speakers from all parties took their cue from the Prime Minister’s comments during questions at the beginning of NAW:
“the Government pledge that we will make the process of adoption and fostering simpler. It has become too bureaucratic and difficult, and the result is that it is putting people off.”
Too much bureaucracy resonates for all of us, not just coalition politicians anxious to push through more cuts under the guise of efficiency or those who revere Jeremy Clarkson as a prophet for our times. No one likes it, least of all me. I am genuinely unable to complete even a single page form without making a mistake and on a good day it takes merely a minute or so before I’m demanding of a piece of paper that it should let me answer a slightly different question from the one it is posing or that there aren’t enough boxes for the letters of my e-mail address.
Yet in rightly acknowledging the complexity of the problem, the parliamentarians and policy makers come up with a simplistic solution that fails to reach to the heart of the matter, namely that assessing adoptive carers and then making a match with a needy, vulnerable and damaged child is one of the most critical and intricate decisions facing any professional in our society. To suggest that streamlining bureaucracy will improve our ability to make the best possible decisions about someone’s life is like saying a car mechanic can fix a jet engine because they have a set of spanners.
Far from finding the answer to their questions, their solution begs a couple more. What does a ‘simple’ adoption assessment comprise, and simpler for who exactly? As I suggested recently, a few pseudo-stats and items of anecdotal evidence carefully selected by policy-makers have been repeated so often that they have been reified as fact and therefore go unchallenged. The ‘3000 babies in care, 60 adopted’ has become a rallying call. Last week’s debate regurgitated another anecdote first mentioned by the adoption czar that ‘one assessment comprised 146 pages’. Those seeking to force through the changes cling to them like a shipwrecked sailor amongst the flotsam of his boat.
And? A good adoptive assessment covers every aspect of the household and those within it: their histories, their hopes and fears, their innermost feelings, then attempts the impossible and tries to make an accurate prediction about the future. Ask any of us how we might react to a potentially life-changing situation, we could take an informed guess but the fact is, ultimately we don’t know until we are in the middle of it. Yet the adoption assessment has to find a way through on behalf of abused, hurt children and young people.
To confront this undeniably difficult question, we are reduced to counting sheets of paper. What’s the optimum number? 50? 100? 145? Would the assessment be improved if you reduced the font? Or do the government wish us to decrease the number of checks that are carried out? Lose a few references maybe. The dog assessment was one such apparently superfluous piece of bureaucracy, but dogs can be dangerous as sadly we know from the news and some children don’t like them. My dog is lovely but would bite a child that it did not know if that child put their hand too close to its mouth. Get to know it, fine, but not straight away. Worth recording that or let everyone take their chances?
Another MP reported his constituent’s ire at having to spend 12 days with the social worker. For a child’s life, to me that’s a blink of an eye. More than that, it could be the most significant investment in that young life even if they live to be a hundred, an example of good practice, of time in a frantic working day jealously protected on behalf of children unknown. In the changing world of modern adoption, it’s become an object of derision.
And who is this change for? Undoubtedly the adoption process requires a close and detailed examination but reducing bureaucracy, even if we could define it precisely, does not automatically mean better decisions on behalf of children. Making this the key factor demeans the entire process. Life and lives are complicated, perplexing and do not lend themselves to straightforward solutions.
Politicians and policy-makers must speak up on behalf of children but the voices we are hearing are those of adults fed up with delays, forms and, they say, a system that dissuades potential adopters. When we hear complaints that families have been rejected because they are too fat, too middle-class, too rich, too nice, too willing to take children from a culture different from their own, as you might believe if you were to read certain newspapers, are we honestly to understand this is the full story? Undoubtedly mistakes and weak assessments are made, and as a social worker no one is more pained by poor practice than I am. However, social work can’t answer back. We can’t share personal information in public because it would break confidentiality, so like ducks in a shooting gallery we parade up and down to be shot at.
The adult lobby, armed with anecdotes, distorted statistics and outrage is shaping the future. The debate is underpinned by an assumption that most families with a bit of experience, knowledge and the right motivation should be welcomed because that’s all you need. Sadly it’s not obvious who can be a decent adoptive parent or foster carer. Being a good parent of your own children is no guarantee that you can care for other people’s children. Adoptive parents face phenomenal and unexpected challenges, often with inadequate or no access to professional support. Adoption is not supposed to be easy.
In my working lifetime, the 1989 Children Act is the seminal moment. Section 1, the child’s interests shall be paramount, a major advance. During my training the words of a lawyer from a children’s rights group said something that has stayed with me. This, she said, should be renamed the Parents Act. We were listening to children but adults were given rights under the law. I fear history may be repeating itself.