Skip to content | Skip to navigation

Adoption: Abandoning Principles of Life in Law

11th Nov 2008 | in Legal, Justice & Court

Public Family Law in England is, arguably, home to some of Europe’s most complex pieces of legislation, but for all their potential, they remain largely unused and out of touch with the problems faced in the family courts. The law was always intended to act as an invisible shield offering protection from harm, but today it is a rusting resource with more than just a couple of dents in its ego.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, three types of adoption were widely used and these became the motivating factors in addressing the concept of adoption; the first related to children who were taken into a household and brought up as the child of the adopter; the second was known as Poor Law Adoption, where guardians would assume parental rights and responsibilities and arrange for the child to be adopted and last but by no means least, there were simulated adoptions where unmarried pregnant women delivered their babies in private lying-in houses and the owner would then get paid to take the babies away to farming houses where the newborns would be neglected and left to die.

The law is often slow to react to change, but with the diverse ways in which adoption was being used and the increase in demand from childless families to adopt and an obvious surge in illegitimate children being given up, there was pressure on the government to recognise this aspect of family life. In 1926, the Adoption of Children Act created the concept of legal adoption in England but it was not until 1949 that the Adoption Act came into force and with it came the acceptance of the principle that an adopted child was legally a child of the adoptive parents. In reality, early legislation did little to change the face of adoption and illustrates well how law and real life often miss each other. Yet, the law was clearly beginning to understand that adoption was in itself, a very sophisticated state of affairs.

Perhaps the most radical shift which would affect how adoption was to be handled in the future can be traced as far back as 1948 when the Children Act, for the first time, gave local authorities extensive duties not only to care for children but also to assume parental rights over children in care. It was at this time that adoption began to be viewed as a major solution to removing children from the care system. The intention was clear; to give children in care a long term and loving environment to grow up in. The outcome was very different and even in 2008, the poignant stories of Victoria Climbie and most recently Baby P are stark reminders of how law can get lost in translation.

The good intentions of the policy makers and the legal drafters amount to nothing if the organisations intended for those procedures do not use them. As contraception became readily available in the last quarter of the twentieth century, the number of ‘healthy’ babies that could be adopted began to fall dramatically. Demand for such babies was high and although England looked overseas to satisfy the large pool of adoption requests, by the end of the twentieth century, almost half of all adoptions were of children in the care system. Today, in its haste to encourage adoption, the government has once again fallen prey to the pitfalls of knee-jerk responses; the incentivisation of adoption, which saw the government offer local authorities large sums of money to meet adoption targets was tasteless at best and immoral at worst. The end result was observed by a nation in disbelief; local authorities being less than fastidious in order to meet the business-like proposals, running their departments like mini corporations and pushing children into homes which had not been properly vetted or approved. On the 3rd July of this year, a committee for the Children and Young Persons Bill gathered to address this point and thankfully logic prevailed and the incentivisation scheme was scrapped; a great example of how the law can protect, if backed up with a morally sound ethos and a deft political hand.

To the casual observer, the concept of financial reward for the placement of a child seems unthinkable. Yet, in a world where the law and real life have little to do with each other anymore, fact is more shocking than fiction as what starts out as a rationalised policy decision finds itself faltering in light of the pragmatic realities that get missed in the small print that comes with the family unit and with the legacy of a life. The end result is an outcome that looks very much like the product of foul play.

It is very easy to believe that these decisions are based on some kind of insidious conspiracy theory but what really seems to be happening is perhaps less sensationalist: the creation of policy is being left to those with little experience and even less common sense. 
With more and more issues arising out of adoption, the government’s answer in the 1950’s was to get the local authorities more involved with a view to protecting children in the adoption process from being mistreated. The mishandling of the notion of informed consent began to play out in the adoption process and the 1926 Act found itself at odds with adoption agencies (which were the private adoption agencies as opposed to the local authorities) who wanted the identity of adoptive parents to be kept a secret. The House of Lords at the time saw no need to keep these identities hidden and through the Adoption Rules allowed for the name and address of adoptive parents to be placed on the form for parental consent. The effect of this was that many adopters ignored the procedures in the 1926 Act leaving their identity hidden within the adoption agency.  People bypassed The Act constantly and many even advertised the ‘supply’ and ‘demand’ for adoption in the newspapers, a practice that echoes the callous contractual feel of the more recent incentivisation policies used in England over the last eight years.

It was not until the Hurst Report in 1954 that the welfare of the child rather than the reasonableness of the parent, became a focus in adoption proceedings but at this point, the local authorities were to be given a truly diverse range of roles to cope with as the rate of children in care soared. The local authorities would now be responsible for emotional and psychological assessments, medical care, providing advice for parents and even putting together workshops. The Committee also had another much larger issue to address; there was severe discrimination against unhealthy children and some agencies were even refusing to place such children. The courts also refused to sanction adoption for children who were not healthy in every way. Much to its credit, the Committee went against the prevailing view of the day and established formally that all children were to have the opportunity to be placed in homes that would love and care for them.

More complications were to follow as problems inherent with biological parents and long term foster parents surfaced. In July of 1969 the Home Secretary James Callaghan set up another committee which was to create the Houghton Report with the main consideration being the position of the long term foster carer who wanted, against the will of the parents, to keep the child permanently. This is a difficulty that is still very much a part of the adoption process in 2008; the government’s latest solution? Dehumanise the process, of course! It is now considered bad practice for foster parents to call themselves parents, they are merely carers, homes are no longer homes but placements and children are no longer children, they are “Young Persons with Bionic Hearts and Tectonic Heads” (Okay, that last bit isn’t quite true, but it’s not far off).

The Houghton Report was by and large a positive effort in that it actively promoted the welfare of children in a broad and rational sense and was powerful in that it emphasised that adopted children should have the same rights as natural born children. It was also wary of incentives for adoption and believed that adoption was not the only solution but one of many. Its balanced views mixed with its radical but flexible approach proved to be a progressive combination and the Houghton Report’s spirit is perhaps what is needed today.

In 2008, Coram, an adoption agency, was given the awesome responsibility of working with CAFCASS, which oversees the interests of children in the family courts. Yes, an adoption agency. The conflict of interest is glaringly obvious, even after the post-work glass of wine. Drafting policy for Family Law is an unenviable task but begs the question: after all the mistakes that have been made and all the mistakes that continue to be made, what is it going to take to protect the Young Persons with Bionic Heads and Tectonic Hearts?


  • On 17th Nov 2008 at 11:40 PM Diane said...

    Meanwhile it goes on.

    I know of a young woman with very mild learning difficulties who was herself brought up in care(adopted)now aged 21 whos child now aged nearly 3 was taken from her at 2 weeks old because she strayed away from her ‘home’ looking for someone who had aboadoned her - the babies father. Was this done in a bid to meet adoption targets.

    In 1980 a sinister experience happenned when social workers decended on a 23 yr old mother of a 3 month old baby and removed the grandmother thus leaving the mother who had had mental health problems very vulnerable. This was the start of a series of events that led to the babies adoption at the age of 5 on the grounds that the mother had not maintained contact despite the fact she had not been allowed suffient visits by the social worker or even the judge at the preliminary hearing.

    I know of many others and it has not got better. Mistakes are happening continually and we are not learning from them. Those responsible are able to dodge accepting accountability. The responsibility for our children is shared by all of us so none of us must allow anyone to take severe staeps that are detrimental to the welbeing of children or their parents.

    I am the mother of the 3 month old baby in 1980. My social worker was Christine Johnson and it happened in Norfolk. I would also like to know how Prof Rutter felt able to give expert evidence about my lack of suitablity to parent my own child when he never met me.

  • On 18th Nov 2008 at 10:18 AM Natasha said...

    Dear Diane,

    Your experience must have been and continues to be horrendous. We are living in a world where family law is considered secondary to other types of law and as a result we have very few good minds in both the social service sectors and the court sectors.

    The irony of course is that family issues are far more complex than most and require the greatest minds to deal with these matters effectively. I would not like to be a law drafter or policy maker in this arena;  but we need people to try and we need these people to be on the ball.

    Nevertheless, with just a little care and some common sense, the system at ground zero could work in a pragmatic and careful way which would tend towards keeping the family unit together as opposed to over-reacting and splitting up families instead.

    The balance between protecting a child and protecting his or her right to grow and flourish amongst family is a delicate one, but your case shows clearly that small mistakes, simple oversights and lack of care can mean the difference between upholding and ignoring a child’s best interests.

    I hope that things improve for you; if you need any help, Teresa is wonderful and I am always happy to help.

  • On 7th Dec 2008 at 05:23 PM Richard said...

    Unfortunately these experiences are standard to the system and been used for years.

    It has been standard from the early ‘70’s, when forced adoption was invented, to deliberately break or restrict contact of the mother to the child. then it is claimed in court that contact and attachment has failed, abd the child can be adopted.

    Secret Court judges invariably go along with it.

    It is also standard for the dodgey witness who supports the SS’s theories to give evidence even though he has never met the family and receive a large sum for it. This has never been challenged by the courts and the Secret Court since it has been set up

  • On 7th Dec 2008 at 09:45 PM Natasha said...

    Hi Richard,

    The concept that professionals are allowed to make observations on issues at hand without even having met some or all of the relevant parties involved is a major issue and runs at the heart of some of the most serious problems the family courts face.

    I would very much like to see a change in thia area, hand in hand with a much higher standard of competence for social workers and CAFCASS officers alike.

  • On 7th Dec 2008 at 10:30 PM Richard said...

    “CAFCASS officers” ie Guardians see themselves as freelances acting as the advocates for the children and are worse than the SS as they impose their own schemes and interests on the situation as well as acting as cheerleaders for the SS.
    Seen it first hand.

    But the Secret Court judges pay enormous weight to their reports as they see them as court officers and do not see they are not independent.

    The SS staff need to be educated inthe concept of perjury .

    However even more amazing is the development of the idea of the expert witness report purely on reports supplied about someone.

    However I believe the Secret Court should be disbanded it is so bad and a return to magistrates courts made or the Scottish system.

    There is unlikely to be change whilst the secrecy persists.

  • On 8th Dec 2008 at 11:51 AM Natasha said...

    I agree with what you say about CAFCASS; having personally experienced the mavericks in the system, some have god complexes and some have misplaced faith in politically motivated professionals, coupled with their anxiety over losing their jobs if they don’t comply, it is no wonder that the system is unable to create pragmatic solutions for the families who need support.

    I know it’s subtle, but my tone in this response shows just a little frustration for this organisation wink

    However, there are some genuinely good guardians and they are an asset in the project towards reform.

  • On 31st Dec 2008 at 01:00 PM not a MP said...

    I am disgusted at what I have seen and heard in the so-called family courts.

    Far to many so-called professionals simply with their noses in the trough!

    It has absolutely nothing what so ever to do with ‘the best interests of the children’ who would be better cared for within their extended family unit rather than remaining in fostercare with strangers (where they should not have been placed in the first place).Much more to do with creating non-jobs and people being paid money for ‘old rope’and making money out of childrens misery.

  • On 1st Jan 2009 at 02:22 AM Natasha said...

    Dear ‘Not an MP’,
    One of the things I have observed about the system is the overlap between conflicts of interest and bad policy decisions which when looked at from the end point appears to suggest that people in the system have a personal motive to cause heartache and misery to vulnerable families.

    Whilst the financial incentives may push heads of organisations to work less than ethically, the other levels within these organisations are just working on a salary and some very bad assumptions which they are just refusing to question - the cosy salary is a huge incentive to put up and shut up.

    We need to bring back the art of questioning in our work culture - getting people in the workplace to challenge policy and regulations if they appear to be doing more harm than good. This could be one of the ways the system could receive and internal re-haul at little expense to the tax payer.

  • On 2nd Jan 2009 at 08:22 PM not a MP said...


    I couldn’t agree more - take the money away
    or better still the absolute power that goes with it - council tax would come down as the majority goes on the social services budget - spend more wisely

    result - happier families with more support offered where needed and far less back covering

    The trouble is the authorities are frightened by people they cannot buy and whose GOD is not money or power

  • On 6th Feb 2009 at 07:35 AM Emelie-New York said...

    Really its is nice post, The post is clearly highlighting the values of law. It is now being necessary for all of us to understand law and its values.

  • On 6th Feb 2009 at 03:01 PM Natasha said...

    Thank you Emelie, the value of law and its reason for being is also a question that I hope we can make fashionable again.

  • On 26th Feb 2009 at 10:24 AM Divorce Lawyers in York said...

    Nice article.The concept that professionals are allowed to make observations on issues at hand without even having met some or all of the relevant parties involved is a major issue and runs at the heart of some of the most serious problems the family courts face.

    Divorce Lawyers in York

  • On 26th Feb 2009 at 11:16 PM Natasha said...

    Thank you Divorce Lawyers in York.

  • On 13th Jan 2014 at 11:59 PM sally goult said...

    My children were removed in 2010. After leaving a violent marriage’ me and my son were hurt. My husband procecuted for what he did to me. £100 for my injuries 80 ours community service and indefinet injunction. Social services become involved. Even those I left my husband straight away. And pressed charges. Police come took photos .it social workers never procequted my husband for what he did to my son. I moved away from married home and was eligally evicted by landlord 6 months later. I went to council and social for help. They placed me and my children in one room. After finding out from my solicitor that they promised not to place us in one room, we was quickly moved to a three bed temporary flat. 5 days of being there social informed my husband of our where about. This was distressing and we were placed in a women’s refuge. My son was attacked by a women living there. And when I got police involved. We were both told to leave. Yet they allowed the attacker of my son to return once we left. My children needed theropy and after a year. Received it. But social services went to court and told me if I wanted to ever see my children again to sign a section 20. Frightened I did as I was told. My children were removed from the school that afternoon in front of everyone. Two years later I had a baby with my long term partner. Crab checked on his request. never gave us a chance. We lived desperate me and my partner. No assessments or birth plan carried out. Nothing. I gave birth on the Saturday. The Tuesday , a contract of expectations was drawn up and signed by both me and my partner for baby to go live with her dad. I had not been given a second thought. Even those midwife, hospital and ward had no concerns of my care during and after my pregnancy. I was under the impression my baby was allowed to go live with her dad. The Wednesday after, I was told the social had applied to court to have my baby placed in care. While assessments were carried out on babies dad. Why ? He brought up his ex girlfriends daughter. And an assessment is not carried out on new parents or fathers. No explanation given. Thursday court agreed my baby should go into care. Assessments to be carried out. Over six weeks. Social were told I would get two hours three times a week contact. And to see me about any time I would be willing to give up so assessments could be carried out quicker. I was told I would get to have my first contact the Friday. The day after they took my baby. Social came to collect my baby and told me I won’t get contact as arranged by the judge, they would allow once a week for two hours starting the following Thursday. I was feeding my baby breast milk,and this was arranged for three times 2 hourly for express reasons. Social refused and instead brought me freezer bag and express bags. Yet never collected my efforts to continue feeding myself. I was in a state of I’ll mind, desperate to be with my baby. That next contact my partner had with our baby he took off with her. We attempted to flee the country , and was caught trying to board a ferry to Ireland. We were arrested and social once again took my baby. I have never seen her since. 18 months since. I was refused contact with my other three children. And only allowed to have contact reassumed once agreeing to sign a intrem . I was given a 8 months suspended sentence for two years . For child abduction. And my baby was adopted 3rd of January this month. I was not allowed to say goodbye. Social said they done a DVD to say goodbye. Yet I am not allowed it as it may give information to my daughters where about. I Am only allowed to see my children 12weeks apart. They are in long term foster care. Social allow their dad two hours every 12 weeks. I am only allowed one hour. Punishment. Yet my time is spent, I’ve been punished. Why are social punishing me twice ? Would they punish a child twice. Their father beat my son, but he’s allowed two hours.

  • On 4th Feb 2014 at 03:14 PM family law attorney spanish fork said...

    children needs a lot of attention, love and care. We need to protect and take good care of them.

  • On 18th Jun 2014 at 08:50 AM Annuaire professionnel maroc said...

    Hello ;
    thank you very much for your article. Can I translate it into Frensh and post it on my blog? and I quote your blog as a reference

Add a comment

Submit the word you see below:

Next entry: 80% Children Seriously Injured or Killed are Missed by the National Child Protection Register

Previous entry: Lord Laming Not Suitable to Review the Death of Baby P and Haringey’s failures