Abuse and neglect are not the norm

When the UK secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, announced that he would be asking Eileen Munro to conduct an independent review of child protection, there was cause for optimism. For Munro is not only a professor at the London School of Economics, she has also been one of the rare critics of the hysteria around child abuse. Maybe this was the person who would challenge those campaigners and policymakers who, in seeing child abuse everywhere, have undermined the fundamental relationship between adults and children.

And, thankfully, there is much to cheer in her initial report. For instance, she wants to redress the imbalance between social work and ‘technical solutions’ where rules, procedures and databases seem to take precedence over the very face-to-face business of good social work. Munro is also critical of the overemphasis on searching for cases of child abuse. Or as she puts it, this is a ‘skewed system that is paying so much attention to identifying cases of abuse and neglect that it is draining time and resources away from families’. And she is keen to see social workers spend more time intervening in the few cases where children are genuinely at risk of harm, rather than being preoccupied by endless investigations into often inappropriate referrals.

The scale of the problem caused by the sheer number of referrals is striking. OFSTED reported an increase in referrals to children’s social services of 11 per cent in 2009/10. That there was only a five per cent increase in child protection plans – and of these the ‘overwhelming majority’ were not even at risk of significant harm, according to Munro – only underlines the point that much of the activity that is overwhelming the social care system is driven by heightened anxieties rather than sound judgments. A parliamentary committee put the increase in cases at 34 per cent following the notorious case of Baby P in 2008. Heavy caseloads and a shortage of social workers cause delays for children caught up in the system, and in the clogged-up family court system, too. In the past year the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) has reported a ‘30 per cent rise in applications for care proceedings’. The National Audit Office (NAO) says that by mid-2010 for every case closed, another five were opened.

‘Protecting children from abuse and neglect has been high on the political agenda for many decades’, Munro says. While there has been a steady rise in referrals, particularly following notorious cases in the 1970s and 1980s, there has been a steeper rise more recently. Munro describes a ‘culture of fear and blame… [that is] undermining… quality of practice and public confidence in the child protection system’. And she criticises the target culture within the social services that has distracted social workers from actually doing social work. Whatever you think of social workers, it is hard to dispute that their time is better spent working with families than sat behind a computer screen.

Munro is good on where social workers get it wrong and why. She explains that where thresholds for child protection interventions are too high, so are the false negatives, which means that abuse is not always spotted. Alternately, where the thresholds are too low – typically in response to a high-profile investigation into the death of a child – there are invariably lots of false positives, that is parents wrongly accused of abusing their children. The point is that this sharp-end of social work is incredibly difficult. There are bound to be mistakes because it is all about ‘working with uncertainty’. But while all of this is undoubtedly true, the ‘damned if they do and damned if they don’t’ stance doesn’t necessarily get us anywhere. It tends to forget that social workers have considerable powers invested in them, which may result (rightly or wrongly) in their removing children from families. It is therefore right that these interventions – or the lack thereof – are subject to the greatest scrutiny.

Moreover, the focus on social work is too narrow to deal with the problem of child protection and the way society as a whole is obsessed with it. Social work doesn’t take place in a vacuum, and child protection has long since burst the banks of children’s social work teams to become a concern of society at large. This is why improving child protection isn’t just about reclaiming social work from the technocrats. Much more important a task is to challenge the preconceptions that make child protection such a defining issue of our age in the first place.

Unfortunately Munro stops short of criticising the mainstreaming of child protection. Instead, the review suggests ‘developing the expertise of universal services to support vulnerable families’ as a solution to the problem of an already overstretched system. The problem, as the review poses it, is simply that the media and public opinion are to blame for overhyping the issue. Yet while there is indeed ‘an all-pervading sense in society that social workers and the system in which they operate can prevent child abuse’, this is hardly a solely media-created phenomenon. In fact, the notion that children are at unprecedented risk, that adults should be on their guard against each others’ malevolent intents, and that the government should ‘do something’ about it, was at the heart of New Labour’s Every Child Matters reforms introduced in 2003 following the death of eight-year-old Victoria Climbié.

The Every Child Matters policy framework has been adopted wholesale by the Lib-Con coalition from their New Labour predecessors. The central problem is that ECM reorients thinking on everything from schools to youth work around the notion that children need protecting like never before from innumerable risks to their wellbeing. The suggestion of some kind of moral equivalence between cases of brutal abuse like those of Victoria Climbié and, more recently, Baby P, and the normal experience of most children and families, is breathtakingly cynical. Not only is such a formulation lacking in any perspective, it also shows the contempt in which parents and adults in general are held by the authorities. It also has very little, if anything, to do with how we might go about dealing with, never mind preventing, such rare occurences.

The answer to the child protection problem is not just better social work (though we’ll need that, too). It must also address the wider pessimism about the alleged prevalence of abuse and parental neglect in society at large. The notion of targeted child protection has given way to an all-encompassing notion of safeguarding all children. This not only generates wrongful accusations of parental child abuse, it also ends up endorsing some peculiar responses when things do go wrong.

The serious case review into the abuse of children at Little Ted’s Nursery, for instance, told us little about how to deal with the likes of the revolting Vanessa George. It did, however, tell us what’s wrong with the response to rare cases such as these. The Local Children’s Safeguarding Board concluded that regulations, training and staff supervision were poor. They questioned whether it was right that anybody should have access on their own to a room in which to change children’s nappies, or whether workers should be allowed to use mobile phones (presumably because, like George, they might use them to share child porn images). That the extreme case of a woman committing unthinkable acts on babies and toddlers has been normalised, as if to suggest that we are all capable of similar acts, is testament to the degraded view of adults held by the authories. It is this kind of mindset, not any failings on the part of the regulators or those running the nursery, that made Little Ted’s into an ‘ideal environment’ for abuse. After all, it had children in it.

One can only hope for a different response to a similar case at the start of the New Year. A former worker at the Little Stars Nursery in Birmingham has been charged with the serious sexual assault of a child in 2009 and 2010. The nursery’s temporary closure in the wake of the suspect’s arrest, and the setting up of a helpline for worried parents, doesn’t bode well.

Child protection is not confined to the world of social work. In a way, of course, it should be: the problem of abuse and neglect is a marginal one that needs targeted intervention by well-trained professionals allowed to use their judgement to respond in the appropriate way. But the bigger problem involves our political culture, a culture in which adults are routinely suspected of being potentially harmful to children. So instead of dealing with rare but often tragic child deaths in their own terms, the authorities tend to treat them as if they are the norm, not the exception. This does nothing for children genuinely at risk of abuse. Instead it diverts resources that could be better spent on supporting families struggling to bring up their children and ends up undermining everybody’s trust in each other when it comes to bringing up and caring for children.

Despite the exceptional horrors encountered by those working in child protection, most of the anxieties about children’s wellbeing are largely misplaced and the risks to their welfare invariably overstated. Ironically, and rather depressingly, it is society’s pessimistic outlook that threatens the very adult-child relationship that does protect children from the potential for harm. Social workers need to make the case for social work, but the rest of us need to make the case for the wider society of adults as the best place for safeguarding children.


Fixing ‘Broken Britain’?

In March this year, Lord Laming reported on the progress made in child protection since his own report into the death of Victoria Climbié, published in 2003. Laming, a former head of the social services inspectorate, was disappointed with the continuing failings of the system, lamenting that ‘it cannot be beyond our wit to put in place ways of identifying early those children at risk of deliberate harm, and to put in place the means of securing their safety and proper development’.

Laming added that society should ‘support children as soon as they are recognised as being “in need”, averting escalation to the point at which families are in crisis’.

Some of this is common sense. Family support is something that social services have been doing for a very long time. How well they do it and how it relates to other aspects of social work such as child protection and taking kids into care is a point for debate.

But early intervention is something else, because it suggests that we can not only foresee the risks children face – whether it be abuse or a life of crime – but that we can act early and decisively to prevent those ‘bad things’ from happening. A letter from assorted ‘experts’, politicians and children’s organisations, for instance, published in the Guardian following the Baby P case, called for a ‘long-term inquiry to examine how we can stop some of today’s children becoming the abusing parents of tomorrow’ (1). The government’s flagship extended schools, which provide additional services on top of regular schooling, and Sure Start children’s centres are built entirely on the notion that by intervening early in children’s and families’ lives, problems (and problem families) can be nipped in the bud.

But we can never intervene early enough or extensively enough to protect all children all of the time. And nor should we. The Guardian‘s Polly Toynbee asks ‘Is every child death preventable?’ She responds to her own question: ‘Possibly. But it would come at a social cost the likes of the Mail and the Sun would certainly not tolerate.’ (2) Minette Marrin, writing in The Times (London), agrees: ‘We could do something, if we as a society would accept some extreme intrusions into our personal freedom. And if we can’t tolerate such measures, then I think we have to accept there is indeed not much we can do to stop something like this happening again’ (3).

To his credit Laming recognises this. It ‘would be unreasonable to expect that the sudden and unpredictable outburst by an adult towards a child can be prevented’, but he argues that this is not the same as the ‘failure to protect a child or young person already identified as being in danger of deliberate harm’. This isn’t the prevailing view amongst the bulk of self-appointed experts in the media, in the child protection industry and in the political class.

For example, Minette Marrin makes the remarkable claim that, ‘the neglect and abuse of babies and children damage them not just in some loose psychological way, as everyone has always assumed. It also damages them physically; it permanently affects the development of their brains, leaving them with cognitive and emotional impairments that will cause grave problems to themselves and others.’

There is a very real danger that such wrong-headed and unfounded views legitimate not only an intrusion into people’s lives, with the ultimate sanction of removing children from their families, but it can also mean giving up prematurely on people with complex problems, that are not necessarily insurmountable (4). The popular notion that the clock is ticking and there is little time to prevent permanent damage creates an unnecessary pressure on social services to act. But for all the messages to the contrary, there is nothing inevitable about the continuation of dependency, or the cyclical hopelessness of apparently ‘chaotic lives’.

Martin Narey, as chief executive of Barnardos (a charity ostensibly lobbying on behalf of disadvantaged children), claimed that ‘It is children like Baby P who, due to disadvantage, neglect and abuse, could grow up to become the troubled youth of today…Had Baby P survived, given his own deprivation, he might have become unruly by the time he had reached the age of 13 or 14, and become the child that so many people refer to as “feral”, “parasites”, “yobs”.’ (5) Marrin concurs, comparing Baby P to the two young boys who tortured, sexually assaulted and left for dead two other youngsters in a quarry near Doncaster earlier this year. ‘Perhaps it might really be best if such babies were compulsorily taken away at birth and adopted. Had Baby Peter survived living with his mother, he might well have grown up to be something like the Doncaster boys, but if he’d been adopted at birth he might have grown up undamaged.’

Narey and Marrin clearly see these cases as unexceptional, but it seems more likely a projection of their own attitudes on to Britain today. As Polly Toynbee argued in the wake of the Baby P case: ‘Everyone finds in this rare horror the “proof” for whatever it is they already think about society.’ The exceedingly rare instances of depravity inflicted on Victoria Climbié, the Soham girls, Baby P, Shannon Matthews and now on the victims of the Doncaster boys are flattered with a significance they simply don’t deserve. They are treated as yet more evidence of just how ‘broken’ Britain really is.

So Narey’s belief that ‘we can’t keep trying to fix families that are completely broken’ is more than a criticism of social workers’ reluctance to ‘call it a day’ and start care proceedings. There is a defeatism about his comments (6) – something that has more do with the profound social pessimism of our times, particularly with regards to the supposedly poor wellbeing of the nation’s children and what that says about the fecklessness of the adults supposed to be looking after them.

In fact, just 55 children ‘were killed by their parents or by someone known to the child’ in 2007/08. Over the past decade, the figures have gone up and down from a low of 35 to a high of 85, bearing little (if any) relation to wider trends in society (7). Of the 11million children in England, the latest figures show there are 235,000 children in need, and in whose families there is consequently some social services involvement; 60,000 children at any one time are in the care system for a variety of reasons, the majority of them living with foster carers, and mostly for relatively short periods; and 29,000 children are subject to child protection plans – in other words, where there is a suspicion of, or thought to be a risk of, abuse or neglect, but no immediate danger to the child.

In other words, just two per cent of all children have on-going contact with social services and 0.2 per cent in families where abuse or neglect is suspected. This rather suggests that the need for early intervention is overstated.

Nevertheless, there are clearly some problems with those services that we expect to protect children and to work with those families who are struggling to look after them. That’s why for all his opportunism and his defeatism, I have some sympathy with Narey’s view that there is too much ‘fixing families that can’t be fixed’. While they are a minority of a minority, there are cases – involving prostitution, violence and drug dependency amongst other things – where the home circumstances are genuinely ‘chaotic’ and potentially very dangerous for a child. In such circumstances, sometimes the best thing to do, for all involved, is to remove the child rather than intervening with ever more intensive packages of family support.

Narey is also right to insist that social workers should be ‘brave’ and ‘courageous’, if they aren’t already, and more decisive in their interventions. It might be easy for armchair critics to say as much, but this is an incredibly important part of social work, and of child protection work in particular, and something that is too often lacking, if the conclusions of numerous investigations into avoidable child deaths are anything to go by.

There is a growing concern about the quality of social work practice itself and not just the structures and systems, and about the ‘services provided for the most vulnerable children and young people’ (8). But the neglect of these things is in large part a consequence of subsuming child protection and social work into a political agenda built on an apparent concern for ‘Every Child’ in the country (all 11million of them), and a commitment to a heavily bureaucratic approach to safeguarding them, something to which Laming, the government and its inspectors are still very much wedded.

But as even Laming acknowledges, ‘ultimately the safety of a child depends on staff having the time, knowledge and skill to understand the child or young person and their family circumstances’ and this ‘too often depends on the commitment of individual staff and sometimes this happens despite, rather than because of, the organisational arrangements’. This is why Children’s Trusts, which integrate all children’s services into one big department and which were introduced on the advice of Lord Laming after the Climbié case as part of the Every Child Matters reforms, have belatedly come in for some serious criticism. A report by the Audit Commission found: ‘On the ground, professionals are working together, often through informal arrangements outside the trust framework. Trusts get in the way.’ (9) Good working relationships across agencies and between professionals are indeed vital, but Balls and Lamings’ insistence on yet another layer of bureaucracy with the requirement to set up local multi-agency Children’s Trust Boards (10) only suggests that they aren’t learning any lessons either.

It is the social work intervention itself, based on the sound judgment of the professional(s) concerned, that is key to protecting children from abuse and neglect, and working with families who need support. As Harry Ferguson argues in the Guardian, ‘before any information can be shared, someone has to find it out. And making such inquiries inevitably pitches social workers into remarkably difficult, unpredictable and often dangerous encounters with parents and carers.’ (11).

Reportedly ‘one in seven social worker posts [are] now vacant across England’ (12). In addition, ‘one-third of those studying social work at university do not go into the profession and a further one-third leave after a year in the job.’ Huge caseloads, low morale, poor training and supervision, insufficient resources – all of these things were a fact of life before Baby P and long before Climbié too. Despite recent efforts to tackle these problems, the political pressure being put on children’s services is likely to make it even harder for social workers to do their job effectively.

The irony is that we’re worrying about what social workers do and don’t do at precisely the time when they are seemingly chained to their desks. They spend typically between 60 per cent and 80 per cent of their time at their computers rather than with their clients. One recent study confirmed the view that the focus on the completion of ‘workflows, “tasks” and forms’ and the meeting of government targets, means that social workers spend more time processing cases than doing social work. The ‘complex sense-making’ that is so important to good social work is easily lost in the churn of information (13).

But even this discussion, while important for those children and families who desperately need social services help, detracts from the probably more important one not being had about the safeguarding role played (or that, at least, ought to be played) by ordinary people in their everyday lives. For safeguarding to be truly effective, it needs to be a part of the social fabric, not an institutional response to referrals or a technical exercise in risk management.

Despite our apparent obsession with child abuse and ‘feral’ children doing unimaginable things to each other, the business of child protection itself is largely conducted behind closed doors. For all the column inches devoted to Baby P and the Doncaster case, serious case reviews – the very investigations that should tell us what goes wrong when children do ‘slip through the net’ – are conducted in private. Since Baby P, the Tories have challenged the government to make their findings publicly available (14). Those cases ‘concerning care, supervision and emergency protection of children’ that don’t reach the criminal courts are also closed to the public, and conducted without a jury. ‘In 2007’, according to the Guardian, ‘the family courts heard 20,000 cases’ (15)[15]. Yet it was only a few months ago that these courts began to open their doors to journalists – never mind the public – and even then with restrictions on what they can and can’t report, and only with the permission of the presiding judge.

This culture of secrecy needs to be challenged so that we can begin to have a sensible conversation about protecting children and promoting their welfare, and about the appropriate role of social services in people’s lives. We also need to challenge the assumptions and prejudices of those who want the state to step in earlier and more often to remove children in a vain, or at least misdirected, effort to mend ‘Broken Britain’.


A crisis of adulthood

The title of this excellent book rather reminds me of the recent Reclaiming Social Work initiative launched by a local authority I used to work for. Whatever the merits of the initiative itself, its title suggested a call to action on the part of a demoralised social work profession apparently reeling from one high-profile child tragedy after another, to rediscover what was so foolishly discarded – in this case, the primacy of good old-fashioned social work as opposed to the managerial target-led approach that famously keeps practitioners confined to their desks.

By contrast, Helene Guldberg attacks the ‘toxic’ interventions of officialdom and ‘experts’ in the children’s lobby, which she says threaten to undermine the nurturing role that adults play in their families and communities. These interventions tend to introduce awkwardness, tentativeness and insecurity into families, she says, and spread distrust and suspicion in communities. For this reason, the ‘army’ of professionals charged with preventing and pre-empting abuse are ‘a part of the problem’ not its solution. It is their failure of ‘compassion and common sense’ that should concern us, not the need to ‘work together’ or to send everybody on courses to spot signs of an allegedly prevalent abuse (as each and every public inquiry seems to conclude ad nauseum).

While the horrific injuries and torturous deaths suffered by a tiny number of children at the hands of their supposed carers are something by which we are all scandalised, the government’s disproportionate response (see its Every Child Matters agenda) has explicitly sought to mainstream official child protection. As Guldberg shows, this is likely to have unintended consequences for all children and families, and for society as a whole. It is also, she argues, likely to mean that professionals don’t see the proverbial wood for the trees so intent are they on identifying the slightest hint of discomfort or disadvantage in Every Child’s life.

And yet, though Guldberg is hostile to the often spurious claims and zealous interventions of those charged with protecting children and promoting their welfare, she shares with my old local authority a wish to redress what has been lost, and to return to first principles in the name of promoting children’s welfare. She also shares what is as much an attempt to reclaim adulthood and the positive role of adults in children’s lives, as it is about reclaiming childhood. The two, says the author, must go together.

While the first parts of the book explode many of the myths of modern childhood – and berate the potential damage done by the myth-makers themselves – in the final part she points the finger at adults. For not letting ‘kids be kids’, ‘parents be parents’, ‘teachers be teachers’ (as opposed to social workers) and, perhaps most importantly of all, for not allowing ‘strangers to be friends’. Our fearful orientation to the world and each other, and our instinct to regulate have ‘narrowed children’s world as surely as it narrows adult’s minds’ to the potential for mutual support, she says.

Guldberg goes beyond the childhood debate to situate it in a broader critique of the doom-laden anti-human outlook of our times. We are, if you like, guilty of projecting our own anxieties about the present and uncertainties about the future onto children. She quotes historian Hugh Cunningham who describes how for our ancestors ‘[c]hildhood was something to be got through on the way, they hoped, to something better’. For me it is that ‘something better’ to look forward to that is missing today. That is why we find it so hard to articulate a positive view of childhood – the next generation.

The notion that obese children will die before their parents, for instance, is not only a grimly fantastical prophecy with not a shred of evidence to support it, as the author rightly points out. It also marks, in my view, a failure of imagination of what a better future might look like for all children. It seems to me that these particular children have come to stand for an illiberal elite’s distaste for what they regard as a degenerate mass culture of consumer greed and a rapacious appetite for ‘junk’. Which is perhaps why the only ‘vision’ for children that our leaders are able to muster up, is apparently based on the rare and tragic case of a child who was tortured to death – Victoria Climbie.

Wallowing in tales of obesity epidemics and child murder, and unable to imagine a better future, there is a tendency to dismiss the view of children as adults-in-waiting. Instead we celebrate children in themselves, in their own right. This might sound like a good thing, reminiscent of Guldberg’s description of the classical notions of childhood inspired by the writings of Locke and Rousseau. But in today’s context it really isn’t. Those who champion children’s ‘rights’ do not embrace the special qualities of childhood but rather express a childish attitude to adulthood, adult society, and all that it represents.

Mixed messages

Indeed, Guldberg describes a ‘screwed-up’ take on children these days. The modern view of childhood is ambiguous to say the least, with children cosseted and fussed over on the one hand, and pathologised and criminalised on the other. Parents are scolded for not letting their children run free in public, while youth workers are charged with clearing them off the streets, she says. All at once parents find themselves scapegoated for not letting their kids out of their sight, while their accusers are busily designing out any hint of risk or challenge in the public environment.

Even the backlash in official circles (touched on by Guldberg), particularly in relation to attitudes to children’s freedom to play outdoors, hasn’t escaped the prism of risk-consciousness. The notion of ‘cushioned’ spaces and ‘positive’ risks only confirms the confusion of policy makers as they chase the illusion of risk rather than embracing its open-ended reality. Its hard not to conclude that the emergence of the ‘hothouse’, ‘captive’ or ‘battery’ child is as much a consequence of supervisory, surveilling, regulatory and risk-averse officialdom, as it is down to over-protective parenting.

To blame parents is to shift the blame from what is the government’s own compulsion to intervene, to monitor, and to attach the greatest significance to the most trivial of matters from gender-appropriate toys to the food that children must eat. Over-protection is very much a hand-me-down from officials and self-appointed experts, with parents constantly playing catch-up desperately wondering what they should be worrying about next. 

Reclaiming adulthood

While the phenomenon of the hyper- and the ‘helicopter’ parent is a problem, this is not to say – as Guldberg makes clear – that children don’t need adult guidance to ‘propel’ them onto new challenges, or conversely to protect them from taking risks or facing challenges for which they are ill-prepared. Childhood has its dark side, but by always protecting children from it we do them no favours, for we make it all the harder for them to confront bullies, busy roads or dodgy strangers when they encounter them. We need to rediscover a positive orientation to children and childhood rather that fretting about it and them.

Perhaps it is our own sensitivity as adults to the ‘rough and tumble’ of everyday life that we are projecting onto children. Bullying is not only exaggerated today, and defined so broadly as to be even more unremarkable than it ever was, as Guldberg explains – the concern has also shifted from the playground to the workplace, with HR managers as much as head teachers developing strategies to deal with it. Reclaiming Childhood confirms that we don’t seem to know what a normal childhood looks like anymore, and are apparently unable to distinguish pretty ordinary if unpleasant experiences, from serious threats to children’s welfare.

It is only through contact with adults that children can learn to ‘read’ them, says Guldberg. What kind of a society requires adults to have a criminal check if they are likely to come into contact with a stranger’s children? Why should adults with nothing but a healthy interest in children feel the need to quicken their pace, should they find themselves outside a school playground? Is it really the case that we can no longer take pleasure in, or accept a sense of responsibility for, what children add to our communities? The fear of what other adults might think, even a distrust of one’s own motives brought on by a pervasive sense of doubt and suspicion about everyday interactions, is not a happy state of affairs (or a safe one).

That these anxieties are endorsed by those who would claim to speak on children’s behalf is no excuse for their poisonous claims and dirty-minded misanthropy. Neither is their apparent obliviousness to the damage done by the speculation of what adults might do if left alone with a child. Despite the hysterical speculations of those who should know better, says Guldberg, ‘[c]hildren do not respond in a uniform way to today’s culture of fear’. While some will internalise adult anxieties, others are ‘coping rather well’ and seem unaffected. Ultimately she is optimistic that children will come to the conclusion that for all the noise to the contrary adults tend to be ‘compassionate and caring rather than cruel and abusing’.

Modern life is bad

The so-called ‘crisis of childhood’ is not a consequence of the modern world, she says, which has in so many ways made children’s lives much better. It is instead the wave of social pessimism and misanthropy that has enveloped our society that is to blame. It inevitably colours our understanding of what children’s lives are like and the world they inhabit. In each and every instance where society stands accused of crimes against childhood, a little interrogation courtesy of Guldberg casts more than a little doubt.

Children are no more captive to popular culture and commercialism than their parents are under siege from their ‘pester power’, for instance. She describes how parents are said to be victims of their children’s financial demands so seduced are they by the hypnotic power of our shopping culture. And yet, I have since heard a spokesperson for the Children’s Society assert that we should be sharing our recession worries (or ‘traumas’ as they put it) with the kids. So, either children are burning a hole in their parents’ pockets with their Oliver-esque demands for more – which is a bad thing – or parents are told to unburden their monetary woes on their children, which is apparently a good thing. So much for protecting them from the horrors of the adult world!

Let’s grow up

It is increasingly apparent that those in the business of advocating on behalf of children, or protecting their welfare, are losing their sense of perspective and getting increasingly hysterical about the ‘state of childhood’ and much else besides. For instance, Guldberg quotes Al Aynsley Green, Children’s Commissioner for England, commenting on the UK’s infamous bottom place in the UNICEF league-table on children’s well-being. Not only was this a problem for children, he said, but it was indicative of ‘a crisis at the heart of our society’. More recently the Good Childhood Inquiry, published by a similarly downbeat Children’s Society, duly confirmed what Guldberg says is the ‘one thing that everyone seems to agree on’. That is ‘that growing up in modern times … is Really Bad’.

Reclaiming Childhood is a plea for all concerned to take a step back from this hysteria, and to have a grown up discussion about the state of society and what this means for our children. As things stand, far from creating a more child-friendly culture, today’s low view of adults, and its exaggerated sense of children’s vulnerabilities, can only deter children from seeking the adult support and guidance they need. For all the talk of protecting children from a risky world, instead of feeling encouraged to ‘safeguard’ children, or step in when they need to, adults are likely to get the message that they should stay well clear of them. Shorn of a sense of responsibility for children in public they will avert their gaze accordingly out of an instinct for self-preservation. This standoff is in nobody’s interests. Actually, putting the myths of the child-worriers aside, this is something about which we really should be worried.


Adopting an obsession with lifestyle

With the seemingly endless coverage of the Baby P tragedy in the UK over the past week or so, you’d be forgiven for not noticing National Adoption Week (10-18 November), a time when the authorities go on a recruitment drive to find new homes for ‘unwanted’, neglected or abused children.

National Adoption Week coincided with the suspension of Jon Gaunt, radio presenter on Talksport, for calling a councillor at the London Borough of Redbridge a ‘Nazi’. The borough has decided to ban smokers from fostering children, thus reducing the supply of potential foster parents and enraging Gaunt who spent part of his childhood in care. Gaunt has since been sacked, despite apologising for his comments.

So, while the media and political figures were calling for something to be done in the wake of Baby P to stop another child dying at the hands of its supposed carers, the authorities were protecting children from a very different set of threats: secondhand smoke in Redbridge’s case, parents who smack their children, or potential carers who happen not to ‘match’ an adoptive child’s cultural heritage. The events of the last couple of weeks have been enough to test anybody’s sense of perspective.

The changing state of care and adoption.

Despite the Daily Mail’s sometimes hysterical coverage of so-called ‘child snatching’ social workers, it is increasingly the case that local authorities are very reluctant to take children into care, particularly into residential care, whether on the grounds of cost or out of a recognition of the damage done by the care system itself.

In England, there are approximately 60,000 children in the care system at any one time, about 70 per cent of whom are living with foster carers. Some will remain in the care system for a number of years, others will only be accommodated short-term and will return to their families. Though the majority of adopted children have previously been in care – mostly as a result of parental neglect, some experiencing family breakdown and a few abuse – only a small proportion of these children are in fact adopted. Last year, for example,  while just 2,600 children – four per cent of the care population – were placed for adoption, nearly twice that number were placed with their own parents.

The place of adoption in British society has changed considerably over the decades. The liberalising trends that culminated in the legalisation of abortion in 1967 and the fading of the stigma of illegitimacy have had a profound impact. The number of adoptions fell rapidly in the 1970s and the rate has continued to fall ever since to a fraction of what it used to be. While adoption is increasingly favoured today – as the best way of achieving permanence for children in care – this downward trend has continued.

Barriers to adoption

However, some children are left rattling around in the care system for longer than others. There are a number of so-called ‘difficult to place’ children waiting to be adopted – children with disabilities, siblings, older children (particularly boys), as well as children with complex problems that can make them less attractive to potential adopters. This is sometimes cited as a reason why people who want to adopt go abroad to places like China where babies are more readily available.

This option creates difficulties of its own. In an understandable attempt to grapple with the confusion, guilt and anxieties sometimes provoked in well-to-do Westerners seeking to adopt overseas, there is a tendency for adoptive parents to try to protect the cultural heritage of their children for fear that they might otherwise lose their sense of identity. But what might make sense – rightly or wrongly – for individual adopters abroad becomes a barrier to adoption in the UK.

While local authorities will use adoption week to try to recruit more prospective parents, restrictions imposed by these authorities also exacerbate the problem of finding suitable adopters. The National Minimum Standards for Adoption say that in order to secure and promote their welfare, adoption agencies must ensure that children are ‘matched with adopters who best meet their assessed needs’; and those assessed needs must reflect the child’s ‘ethnic origin, cultural background, religion and language’. The ‘matching’ process is – to put it bluntly – driven by the expectation that white carers are just not appropriate when it comes to adopting black or minority ethnic children.

Though arguably the most controversial, culture and heritage are not the only problematic criteria used to assess potential carers with regards their suitability to adopt (or indeed, foster) a child. The authorities also consider the lifestyles of prospective carers and how these might impact on the welfare of the child. It may no longer be the case that people living on their own, or in gay or lesbian relationships, are barred from adopting a child – but other categories of people are. Despite apparently liberalising reforms, the moralising around people’s lifestyles and attitudes to child-rearing has never been more apparent.

Recent newspaper headlines have featured numerous accounts of people denied the opportunity to foster or adopt a child on the grounds that they are too white, too fat, ‘too posh’ or just too fond of smacking their own children to look after somebody else’s. David Holmes, chief executive of the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF) has, rightly in my view, argued that ‘there are no blanket bans’ on who can and who cannot adopt a child. Or at least that was the case until Redbridge announced its ban on recruiting foster carers who smoke on the grounds that they have a ‘duty of care’ to the child.

A perverse emphasis on lifestyle

Given the circumstances of these most vulnerable children and their past experience of abuse, neglect or family breakdown – not to mention the often dire prospects for those spending a prolonged period in public care – it seems peculiar that it is the lifestyle choices and parenting styles of potential carers that seem to preoccupy the responsible authorities. On its progress through Parliament last month, a group of MPs tabled an amendment to the Children and Young Person’s Bill, in an attempt to outlaw smacking. Though they failed, their view that smacking is just common assault, or lies somewhere on a continuum of abuse, is one that is widely held in the liberal establishment, of which the children’s social care sector is a part.

But the notion that everything from smoking to smacking poses a risk to adopted children is a myth. Yes, there may be instances where a child has a particular health condition that would make it unwise to place them in a smoking household, or where their experience of physical abuse would call for sensitive handling by their adoptive carer. But these are likely to be the exception, not the rule. These issues could be negotiated easily without resorting to what amount to virtual bans and denying perfectly good carers the opportunity to look after a child.

Are these really the sorts of criteria that adoption agencies should be using when determining whether somebody should be allowed to adopt a child or not? Every good social worker (even some bad ones) will tell you that it is the welfare of the child that is the ‘paramount consideration’ when making decisions about children’s care. But it seems to me that it is an official distaste for certain lifestyles and particular child-rearing methods, as well as the orthodoxy of protecting children’s cultural heritage, that is really paramount for the adoption authorities.

They are imposing a set of criteria that actively discriminate against both potential adopters and against children themselves, who are needlessly denied a loving home as a result. Surely it is the role of the adoption agency to facilitate the adoption process, not to place barriers in front of people who desperately want to adopt? The adoption process needs to be opened up to wide-ranging debate. We need to return to first principles. For me, the liberalising reforms of the adoption process are not nearly liberal enough. A truly liberal approach to adoption would mean asking searching questions about the kinds of criteria used to decide whether somebody should adopt a child or not.

These should be no different to the kinds of criteria society uses to decide what makes a ‘good parent’, or when it is legitimate for the state to remove a child from their parents in the first place. It is only by situating the adoption discussion in this wider debate about the vulnerability of children, the supposed inadequacy of parents, and about the role of the state in family life that we can begin to improve the experience of all those caught up in the adoption process.

This article is an updated version of a speech given at a Battle of Ideas festival debate on 2 November at the Royal College of Art in London. You can view the debate here.


The Culture of Adoption

Oh, wasn’t adoption better than childbirth? More dramatic, more meaningful. Bitsy felt sorry for those poor women who had merely delivered.
(Anne Tyler, Digging to America)

Taking the rhetoric of the UK adoption industry at face value, one would think pretty much anybody, anywhere, anytime, can adopt a child. One adoption agency describes itself as having a ‘flexible approach to what makes a good adoptive family’. The Adoption Information Line explains that ‘married couples, unmarried couples, gay and lesbian couples, and individuals can all adopt a child’. According to the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF), ‘[p]eople from all ethnic origins and religions can adopt’.

However, putting aside the fact that it would be outrageous if they couldn’t, what BAAF don’t explain is that you cannot (as a general rule) adopt a child outside of your assigned religious or ethnic group. The National Minimum Standards for Adoption confirm this. They say that in order to secure and promote their welfare, adoption agencies must ensure that children are ‘matched with adopters who best meet their assessed needs’; and those assessed needs must reflect the child’s ‘ethnic origin, cultural background, religion and language’.

It would seem the social work establishment has embraced the conservatism that Patrick West describes in his excellent The Poverty of Multiculturalism. West shows how the political left have abandoned progressive Enlightenment values and have instead become ‘apologists for ethnic separateness … under the ostensible banner of respecting diversity’. They have, he says, ‘sought intellectual refuge in identity politics’, dividing humanity into groupings that are described ‘almost as quasi-biolgical entitites … akin to endangered species or threatened rainforests’, and that must be ‘cherished, respected and protected at all costs’.

In addition to the institutionalisation of multicultural thinking in adoption policy and practice, the themes of identity and ‘heritage’ are also apparent when it comes to the supposed therapeutic needs of formerly adopted adults (of whatever background). The Adoption and Children Act 2002, for instance, makes it easier for adopted adults to find out about and re-establish contact with their birth families. It also requires that as well as facilitating the adoption process – from assessment to adoptive placement – local authorities must establish adoption ‘support’ services.

Much is made of supporting the relationship between the adopted child and their birth family, in particular. It is often desirable for adopted children to retain, or for adopted adults to re-establish, contact with their ‘natural’ parents – whether out of respect to the birth family and their continued role in the child’s life, or with regards to continuity for the adopted child. However, the reforms also reflect the problematisation of the experience of adoption. Most adopted children will have been removed from their families and will have spent some time in the care system. That this can be traumatising is hardly controversial.

It would be wrong to dispute the legitimacy of anybody’s need for emotional support or counseling, but the stress on adopted adults’ psychological needs is not without its problems. There is a growing expectation that previously unremarkable transitional life events – from going to ‘big’ school to experiencing motherhood for the first time – will be impossible to cope with without help, and will probably affect the individual concerned for the rest of their lives. There is an assumption that people in general are increasingly vulnerable and in need of ‘support’. In this sense, the adoption reforms are a product of a wider ‘cultural’ problem – not in the ethnic or anthropological sense, but with regards our political culture and the ideas that it tends to generate.

Both this therapeutic orientation to the needs of adopted children and adults, and the divisive multicultural outlook that informs (to say the least) the selection criteria for adoptive carers, have acquired the status of orthodoxies today. Perversely, and ostensibly as a correction to both the emotional illiteracy and racism of the past, adoption has come to represent not so much the gaining of a new family for an ‘unwanted’ child, as the potential loss of an individual’s cultural heritage or their sense of self. In my view, whilst some individuals may benefit, this is likely to have implications. On the one hand, it affects the emotional stability of adopted children and adults; and on the other, it is already impacting on outcomes for minority children who are likely to spend longer periods in a care system out of want for want of an ‘appropriate’ carer.

But this irrational turn in adoption policy and practice is not peculiar to the UK. Digging to America, a novel by Anne Tyler, is a an acutely observed and touching story of ‘the arrival’ of adoptive children from Korea, and how their new families deal with the day-to-day challenges of raising them. It is also a biting satire on multiculturalism in the United States. Bitsy, one of the mothers-to-be, is insistent that the families keep in touch not so much out of their shared experience of awaiting their children in the airport lounge, as to ensure that the girls ‘maintain their cultural heritage’. She struggles to attend to what she imagines to be their cultural needs, insisting, for instance, that ordinary milk just won’t do – ‘soy is more culturally appropriate’, she says. Bitsy and her husband read their daughter authentic folk stories and – to the protestations of their eldest, Jin-Ho (or ‘Jo’) – insist on ‘dressing their daughters in something ethnic’ every now and then.

The irony is that it is all-American Bitsy who worries over such things, not Ziba, a second-generation Iranian-American, whose adoptive daughter is named, plain, American ‘Susan’. We learn that Ziba used to be in awe of Bitsy ‘before she fell all over herself apologising for her Americanness and her First Worldness’. She is rather embarassed to find herself ‘granted a kind of authority’ on account of her ‘exotic appearance’. Similarly, Ziba’s mother-in-law, Maryam, is irriateted by Bitsy and her proclivity for ‘manufactured traditions’.

But these ‘traditions’ are no less significant for that. Social workers in the UK, for instance, are expected to engage in ‘identity work’ with minority children. It is widely assumed that not to invent traditions is to risk damaging the child’s self-esteem, or strangely (given that its effect is to differentiate them from the wider community), to undermine their sense of belonging. While ‘life story’ work, something that social workers do with children in care, is important in as far as it is an attempt to counter the disruptions routinely endured by children in the care system; this suggests the question – why should the personal narrative imposed on minority children be any different? This essentialising of their ethnicity or ‘culture’ is as likely to induce the stigma that its privileging is supposed to avoid.

The confusion wrought on adoptive children and families by this cultural relativism – combined with that of the adoption experience itself – is explored insightfully by Tyler. The girls ‘go way back’ according to Bitsy. When Jin-Ho gets older her mother says that she and Susan might want to return to Korea, to trace their biological parents: ‘You could do it! We wouldn’t mind! We would support you and encourage you!’. But she hasn’t a notion of it. In From China with Love, Emily Buchanan – in a very personal account of her own experience of adopting a child from China – expresses similar concerns for her ‘foreign’ daughters. As a Western adoptive parent of a child from the East she is as keen as Bitsy to familiarise her adopted girls with their ‘roots’.

Both are trying to do what they believe to be in their child’s best interests. Both exhibit more than a little self-loathing as wealthy de-spiritualised Westerners; they want to make up for tearing children from their place of birth. But the notion they should have any attachment (from which to be ripped) to a place other than their place of ‘arrival’ makes no sense. What might be an interesting trip, and a place that might mean something to them in the future if they so choose, can only ever be an adopted heritage for them. Whilst they are children, to the extent that it has any meaning at all it is only in as far as the adoptive parent makes it so.

So, though the ‘matching’ process in the UK denies many the opportunity to adopt, and effectively on the grounds of ‘race’; it is also the case that, as Buchanan and the characters in Digging to America demonstrate, the grappling with the ‘cultural’ implications of the adoption process, are even more pronounced (if only because they are longer-lived) with a successful adoption. Either way, the retreat into cul-de-sacs – whether of the personal past of childhood, or the mythical past of ‘cultural’ heritage – is impacting on the political culture of adoption and with very real implications for all those involved. But the yearning for a sense of belonging assumed by the authorities on behalf of vulnerable adopted children and adults, is a political not a cultural problem. This can only be resolved in the here and now, and by establishing what people have in common with each other – what makes them ‘human’ – not what sets them apart.

Of course, none of this is to say that questions of heritage and culture are the only criteria used by adoption agencies when assessing carers and matching them (or rather: not) with children. On everything from smoking to smacking, it is the politics of behaviour and lifestyle as much as identity politics that impact on whether or not a potential adopter is ‘approved’. It is tempting to conclude that in the absence of a better idea of what makes a ‘good parent’ the authorities are employing the most arbitrary criteria to make the most important decisions. But this would be to forget the premise of the Adopting Orthodoxies debate at the Battle of Ideas this year – despite the supposedly liberalising reforms to adoption in the UK, especially with regards sexuality and recognsing the plurality of family forms, the authorities have replaced the old prejudices with a no less illiberal set of criteria for deciding who can and cannot become an adoptive parent.

Importantly, these are not particular to the discussion of adoption but are adopted from the wider political culture. The ever greater involvement of the state in our lives and particularly in our family lives is increasingly regarded as legitimate. The paradox is that in the one instance where the state is divesting itself of the responsibility for the children it is looking after – however, temporarily or badly – that official attitudes and anxieties about parents about the welfare of children are laid bare. Which is why the accounts of Tyler and Buchanan are so important. While drawing our attention to the absurdity of the adoption process and how it impacts on those caught up in it, both make an essentially positive case for adoption. Both are touching in their portrayal of the bonding of parent with child. The lack of a ‘natural’ basis for the adoptive relationship only makes the human capacity for love and intimacy all the more impressive. This is a cause for optimism in the face of the institutionalisation of some very backward and illiberal ideas about what people are like, and what is important when deciding who deserves to be a parent to a child.