The UK has a forced adoption problem

Parents should be supported to keep their kids, to free thousands from the trauma of separation

October 22, 2022
Munira Wilson MP has introduced the Kinship Care Bill to support kinship carers. Photo: Tommy London / Alamy Stock Photo
Munira Wilson MP has introduced the Kinship Care Bill to support kinship carers. Photo: Tommy London / Alamy Stock Photo

Between 1949-1976, the UK government took 185,000 babies from their mothers and forced them to be adopted. An inquiry, which ended last month, said the government should finally apologise officially to the thousands of mothers affected—a sign that empathy for their plight has increased. But forced adoptions are not in the past.

The UK is unusual, compared to the rest of Europe, for the frequency of forced adoptions. Exact statistics are difficult to pin down, but data from 2014 suggests that almost half of the 5,050 children adopted in the previous year were given new homes without their parents’ consent. In England alone, 80,000 children were removed from their parents in the year up to March 2021. Of those, 4,600 had a “placement order granted” for their removal. The context behind the removal of the remaining 76,000, is less clear. 

According to Alexandra Conroy Harris, a legal consultant for CoramBAAF, an organisation which supports individuals and organisations working around fostering and adoption, this means the removals “will almost certainly have been made without the consent of the child's parents.” The 2021 data also shows that of 2,270 children “placed in adoption,” only 290, or 13 per cent, were adopted “with consent”.

Andy Bilson, Emeritus Professor of Social Work, Care and Community at the University of Central Lancashire, worries that even if exact data were easier to come by, it would “massively overestimate the number of consensual adoptions, because many people feel overwhelmed by the power of state against them”. They simply “give in”, he says.

This was the case for Angela Frazer-Wicks, who in 2004 had her two sons aged five years and 15 months adopted. Just before the final hearing in her court case, she says she “was coerced into agreeing to the adoption [after being] told if I didn’t I’d have to face my abusive ex-partner in court. I fought it right to the bitter end. Until I couldn’t fight any longer.” 

Just two years earlier, Frazer-Wicks was training to be a solicitor and in the process of buying a house. But she was also addicted to prescription drugs (given to her after the traumatic birth of her first son) and in a relationship with an abusive partner. When this partner began to hide her pain medication, a reliance on hard drugs soon followed.

“This was the point where I thought, ‘This is too much,’” says Frazer-Wicks. She reached out to authorities in the hope of being reconnected with Christine, a family support worker who had helped with things such as applying for benefits after the birth of her first son. Just two years later, “funding cuts meant there were no support workers.” She was provided with a social worker, but their remit was the child, not her, and their approach was different. “Whereas [Christine] said ‘What can I do to help?’, this time it was ‘You need to change.’” Frazer-Wicks knew that was true, but also knew she could not do it alone. She required support from mental health and drug and alcohol services, plus help to escape her partner. Instead, she says, “they piled on the pressure and convinced me to put my sons into care.”

Frazer-Wicks is now chair of trustees for the Family Rights Group and sees this type of scenario “happen all the time… and it has got worse because we’re now removing babies at birth or shortly after, often [due to historic] domestic violence.” 

“Local authorities are faced with a very difficult choice,” she adds. “We can’t leave that child in that environment, but instead of removing all victims [including the mother] we have a system where we pit that victim against the system and their partner.”

Lisa (not her real name) also had her daughter adopted against her will in 2005. Like Frazer-Wicks, Lisa knew she needed support, in her case due to complex needs including mental health issues and physical problems which meant she depended on crutches. She argues that while her mental health was a focal point during assessments of her parenting, her physical health, and the support she needed to cope, were never properly considered. 

After several assessment centres—one where she was advised not to use crutches, later leading to a bad fall—her daughter was eventually placed for adoption aged two-and-a-half. Later, after Lisa was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, she was able to open an out-of-time appeal. “I was diagnosed using the symptoms I had been complaining about [throughout her various assessments]… and it was ruled that social services had acted improperly by not taking my physical needs into account and that if [they had] I may have been able to retain custody.”

The adoption, she adds, was not based on evidence that her daughter had come to harm while in her care, “but the possibility of some form of future mental, physical or emotional harm.” “Many people don’t understand that that’s how children are taken…and it’s not fair—a mother can’t fight that argument because harm has not yet happened,” says Tracey Norton of the Disabled Mothers’ Rights Campaign, of which Lisa is part.

Anne Neale of campaign group Support Not Separation (SNS) adds that “what goes on behind family court doors [where decisions about forced adoptions are made] is secret,” which means there is little understanding on a societal level of the obstacles a parent faces once it has been decided they are unfit to parent. “By the time you get to court and you’ve got… a whole wadge of professionals saying this is what should happen, the odds are stacked against you,” she says. 

The guiding idea that social work is about partnership and support has been lost, replaced with a culture of investigation and blame. Bilson’s research shows that child protection investigations in England began increasing in 2008; by 2017, one in every 16 children under five was investigated for abuse. Numbers have increased further since, he says. “It’s likely one in eight children now, possibly one in four in the poorest areas.” 

The increase in investigations has not resulted in a proportionate increase of child protection plans. “In 2008 about one in every two investigations led to a child protection plan, now it’s one in three.” And this system creates “a self-reinforcing loop,” Bilson adds. “The more we do investigations, the less resources we have to do anything else, when what we should be doing is working with local communities and families to prevent the need to do this work.” 

Social worker Simon (not his real name) agrees that this is “100 per cent” a problem. “An average amount of referrals is 400 per month, but this year it’s been 700-800,” he says. “And with a manager breathing down my neck for assessments [of referrals], that takes priority. The longer-term cases, the people that actually need support, are getting nothing.”

Bilson says his “educated guess” is that social workers have adopted a “back-covering” approach, while Neale feels the system is deeply class- and race-biased. “If you look at the kids being adopted, they’re much more likely to be from single mums, disabled mums, mums of colour, mums who were in care themselves, young mums and victims of domestic violence… there is the view that a child is going to be ‘better off’ in a family who can give them ‘a better life.’” Both agree that the current level of state intervention is unparalleled. 

Children’s social work services were opened up for privatisation in 2014, making children in care “a highly profitable industry”, says Neale. One report revealed that the 10 largest social care providers made more than £300m in profits in 2021. “If mothers had even a fraction of that money,” she argues, “many times their kids would not be taken away.”

Simon, the social worker, describes the cost of foster care as “ludicrous… [in some cases] you could have a professional offering a parent 24/7 care, for less money, while enabling that child to stay at home.” As assistant director for social work in Fife, Bilson reduced the number of children going into care by 70 per cent over three years by instead funding the social workers to directly support their cases.

Neale argues that it was Tony Blair who first began the “downplaying of the bond between mother and child,” with one of his first moves after becoming prime minister being to cut single mothers’ money. Indeed, it was the Blair government which instigated the adoption drive that successive governments have maintained. 

“The Labour government saw a large amount of children spending a long time in care,” says Bilson. By promoting adoption, it perhaps hoped that number would decrease, but “if you look at the statistics, most children adopted are very young, a lot of them are out of care within a week of birth.” We haven’t found new homes for those children in care, says Bilson, but have instead “generated a whole new group of children being adopted.” 

These are largely repeat care orders: the second or third child of a parent who had previous children removed. “Why aren’t we working with parents who had a child taken off them to make sure the second isn’t?” says Bilson. Particularly when, as Simon explains, “it’s acknowledged throughout the profession that if a child has been in care they are likely, once they start having children, to have issues.” In part, that’s because they’ve suffered trauma when with their parents, “but for a lot of them it is the trauma of the separation… a loss of attachment, struggling with a foster placement that they didn’t choose to be in.” On the basis of research carried out in Wales, Bilson calculated that of children taken into care, 42 per cent had a parent who had been in care themselves. “We’re working with a broken system,” he says. 

The Independent Review of Social Care, published in May, argues that the current system of social care is often dysfunctional and that reform is “urgent”. Support Not Separation believes that many of the review’s recommendations however, including to spend £82m to improve foster carer support, could funnel money into expanding the “corporate parent,”—social workers and other professionals—rather than directly benefit actual parents by, for instance, lifting them from poverty. It does, however, support the recommendation to provide extra funding to extended family members who care for a child when their parents no longer can.

There are said to be 180,000 children looked after by extended family—or “kinship carers”—in the UK, and campaigners have for years been asking that they receive the same support as foster and adoptive parents. For some, particularly those living in poverty or already caring for their own children, the arrangement can break down, leading to yet more children being put into care. 

The Kinship Care Bill, which Munira Wilson MP introduced to parliament in July, has the aim of better supporting those kinship carers. “All evidence points to much better outcomes… for those children who grow up with kinship care rather than with people they don’t know,” says Wilson. Estimates suggest that “every child that goes into kinship care instead of local authority care could save the taxpayer £35,000 per year.” She “almost certainly” won’t get any time to debate the Bill in parliament, but hopes to at least use it as “a tool to keep pressure on government”.

Meanwhile, Bilson urges us to look at Leeds and Camden for examples of local authorities that are doing things differently: by reducing investigations they have created a “reverse spiral” in which they now have more time to do preventative work with local families and communities. “It’s important we recognise this, he adds, “otherwise it might seem hopeless.”

Ultimately, says Neale, a change in approach is needed, but it is not a complicated one: “Kids needs mums and mums needs kids.” Recognise this bond, she says, and do everything possible to maintain it, to avoid another government holding another inquiry another 50 years down the line. “The best apology [for forced adoptions],” she says, “would be to put a stop to it, now.”