The Truth About Adoption Is That There Are Many Truths

Last night’s Panorama documentary ‘The Truth About Adoption’ was a vivid, honest portrayal of the heartbreak and joy of fostering and adoption. As the adults, the social workers, carers, adopters, parents, the court, went about their business, it was impossible not to be profoundly moved as the stories of the children unfolded and their hopes and fears revealed.

Despite the setbacks they have faced in their short lives, all were remarkably optimistic about the future. Undeterred by delays and adoption breakdowns, they hoped for the love, care and security that we professionals call permanence. And why not: it’s the least our society should be able to offer.

The adoption process has not one but many ‘truths’ and like the pair of Panoramas on children in care shown last year, the greatest achievement of this fine programme was to lay bare the struggles and dilemmas facing everyone who is involved. The opening sequence framed perspectives on what was to come: why does adoption take so long, followed by a powerful quote from a foster carer regarding the delays along the lines of, ‘social workers and judges think they are protecting children but they’re not, they’re harming them’. The planning got off to a sticky start. I winced as the family finding social workers expressed concerns about potential families because one had no pets (the children liked pets) and in another the male partner would have to take them to school (the girls are used to a woman). Other, more significant elements were part of the match, surely…

However, this was about telling a tale, not preaching. The social worker was diligent and caring, trying single-handedly (it seemed) to find a family whilst at the same time balancing out the children’s needs with those of the parents who as the programme went on became a more significant force, in one case going to court to try to have their children back. The parents genuinely cared about their children, and the children’s touching potential was interspersed with the  tough decisions that are part of the everyday social work life, namely a final contact, siblings split up because of the shortage of placements and, most telling for viewers outside the system, two adoption breakdowns. One placement apparently failed after two weeks, another after three years.

This morning, the question remains the same as the night before: what is to be done? In my last couple of pieces I expressed my concern at the poor quality of the debate, in particular the government’s dogmatic approach and distortion of the available evidence. They appear intent on proving the old dictum:

For every complex, complicated problem there is a simple, straightforward solution.

That is completely and totally wrong.

Twitter is an unreliable medium but it’s the best I have to gauge the public mood. Last night the overwhelming feeling was one of empathy towards the children and amazement at the brilliant work undertaken by carers. Criticism of social workers was present but less than I anticipated, or maybe I’m being generous, and if the government proposed compulsory sterilisation they would be certain of re-election, although perhaps this is a step too far even for them.

I doubt that the programme and the responses this morning will derail the government’s agenda. Having completed a consultation, driven at breakneck speed not by the Department for Education but the Treasury, it’s likely that a Green Paper will be published early in the New Year. The fostering and adoption professionals have succeeded in broadening the agenda – because of fears that by prioritising adoption, the needs of fostering and preventative work in the community have been neglected, the Green Paper will look at the wider issues of planning for children in care.

However, the feeling persists that the key decisions have already been taken. Tim Loughton, the Children’s Minister, have made a sincere effort to understand the needs of children in care and their carers. He’s held the brief since he was a shadow minister and despite being better known for some cringeworthy dad-dancing in the Channel 4 documentary series about MPs experiencing life in a tower block, he’s well-informed and accessible, although he doesn’t acknowledge the contradiction that his desire to improve the system is hampered by his own government’s cuts.

Yet the perception among senior figures in the profession is that he and his department have been sidelined in a programme of change driven by Gove and Cameron. I’ve heard him speak on a few occasions recently and too easily he will slip into the rhetoric that I have previously criticised. The assessment process is ‘too intrusive’ and lengthy. His example? A pet assessment that is 6 pages long. He may be right about the pet but that’s hardly the nub of a Form F and the evidence from fostering and adoption breakdowns consistently shows that in fact the original assessments did not dig deep enough. The Green Paper might have become an ‘action plan’ without anyone in the profession noticing thus, presumably, avoiding the need for further consultation and debate. That’s wrong.

Also on twitter last night was Martin Narey. He wrote:

BBC’s on adoption shows our failure to concentrate on what’s best for children rather than what’s best for birth mothers. It must change.

and

BBC on adoption tonight shows our failure to put children first and not compromise what’s best for them because of undoubted sadness of Mums

Limiting parents’ rights could require a change in the law, the one point that I would have liked Panorama to have developed last night as the (apparently) failing social workers may have been hamstrung by the requirement to consider and assess the parents. It’s a big step and I look forward to him fending off the parents lobby but to put children first there has to be a cut-off and timescale that is weighted in favour of the children.

As ever, let’s learn from the children. The social worker pointed out a truth that we have long known but do not always respond to. Any delay is a significant proportion of a child’s life.  If we as professionals say we are going to do something, the child thinks that we are going to do so straight away, so even putting off a phone call for a few days despite being justifiably busy is doing the child an injustice. We need a system that works on child’s time.

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