Around 18 months ago, I offered some consultation to a small project that planned to set up activity days where children in care met prospective adopters. Last week I saw a DVD of the first event. There was no sense of the controversy that surrounds these so-called adoption parties. Children, their social workers and adopters mingled happily during the course of a day’s outdoor activity and lunchtime entertainment. The adults acknowledged some awkwardness from their respective standpoints but all agreed this was outweighed by the positive experience, not only of meeting children but also of feeling part of something larger and important. All valued the careful preparation that had preceded the event.
Seven children were subsequently matched and two more were in the pipeline. One, a severely disabled young girl, had been waiting almost as long as the project had taken to reach fruition. On the day, some carers met her, a real person now rather than a case or a prognosis, and an emotional bond began to form. In the carer’s words, “We just clicked.”
It’s an innovative approach not without its risks and detractors and it’s not right for everyone, but it worked. Other opportunities could and should exist for finding more carers for siblings, disabled children or black children, where shortages of adopters exist. Or just for children full stop. Yet the government is not supporting such practice-based local measures in favour of grander solutions to address long-standing problems in the adoption system.
There’s no doubt that something has to be done and the government’s drive for action comes from the very top. Michael Gove has taken the lead and adoption reform is one of Cameron’s top ten priorities in the life of his term of office. Those in the profession who are involved can barely keep up with the breakneck pace of consultation meetings and unpredictably changing policy drafts.
The result – everything is going to be quicker, including the point at which children are taken into care. The headline news was one measure in particular, that culture and ethnicity is to be of secondary importance to finding a good home. The announcements were accompanied by powerful and moving testimonies from parents who had successfully adopted children from a culture different from their own. Those who have not had such a positive experience were conspicuous by their absence, although articles did emerge as the days went on.
Whatever your views, it’s disconcertingly easy for the evidence of the lasting effects of culture and background to be shunted into the sidings in favour of the ‘common sense’ conclusion that children are better off in a home than they would be in care, regardless of the consequences later in life. The seductive comfort of common sense in adoption provides a measure of security and sanctity for almost everyone involved in the adoption process, except for the child who has to deal with this, now and for the rest of their life, and has nowhere to hide.
Many decisions about what constitutes a cultural match are absurdly arcane and are based not on a proper understanding of the child’s history and perceptions of their own identity but on a skewed, mechanistic process that equates ‘culture’ to a sum of their parents’ ancestry and distorts complex reality as much as the common sense approach. I’ve come across siblings who waited and waited because their maternal grandparents were Polish and no white family was considered unless that box was ticked, or black prospective adopters rejected because they lived in an area of London that was predominantly white.
Of course there is some truth behind the government’s apparent wish to relegate culture and background to a minor role. The remedy, however, isn’t an arbitrary shift based on ideology and expediency. Rather, it is about better practice, better assessments and a more preceptive insight into the subtleties of identity. This in turn leads to improved matching, including both an acceptance that perfection is not possible every time but also what does and does not constitute an acceptable deviation from the vital principle of a cultural match, what the evidence is for such a conclusion and how this will be handled, now and in future. None of this is encouraged by the proposals.
Which brings me on to two other problems that I have with the government’s suggested reforms. One is that it views carers as static and unchanging, rather than individuals who can learn, develop and grow into the task of being an adoptive parent. How might they develop, what is their potential and how can this be nurtured? And here’s point two, the thorny question of more post-adoption support, which adopters’ organisations will passionately say is the biggest problem we have at the moment, as opposed to dog assessments or paperwork that the government would prefer to focus on. Both these suggestions, extra training and support post-adoption, taken together require considerable extra funding, so they are not a priority.
Of more interest is the idea that children can be placed with their prospective adopters and effectively fostered until the order goes through. This could make transitions easier and create less change for children. However, it is not without its problems. As Adoption UK point out, adopters want to do just that, adopt. The fact that children may have contact with the birth family while they wait or may be removed if the order does not go through could act as a deterrent to carers coming forward.
As I have mentioned in previous posts, the proposals appear to take little account of the court process. Changes are in the pipeline but parents and members of the extended family will still have the opportunity to prove they are a worthy alternative to adoption. These issues and the time-consuming and resource draining assessments that accompany them can delay an adoptive placement extremely effectively.
I desperately want the system to make good placements for children and young people, and to make more of them. It’s needed now more than ever before. My fear is that the complexity of meeting the needs of vulnerable children hopeful for a stable future will become lost amidst the targets, league tables and rhetoric.