Highlighting concerns over Williamson’s adoption speech

Robin Sen
Friday, October 30, 2020

Gavin Williamson’s recent speech on adoption gave rise to two key concerns.

The first was around the manner of his narrow focus on particular parts of the adoption system, the second was around the neglect of other parts of the care system. 

The headline takeaway from Williamson’s speech – emotive claims local authorities were making ‘lifestyle judgements’ discriminating against prospective adopters who are single, from working class backgrounds or who live in rented accommodation - was, it turned out, based on hearsay. 

Adoption is a complex topic that needs a sensitive approach. 

The UK is one of the few countries to use non-consensual adoption to the extent it does. 

Adoption’s stability as a placement is positive and, welcomely, a number of adopted children fare well. 

However, the cost for birth family members of permanent separation is huge, and there can be life-long feelings of loss and yearning for both adoptees and birth family members. 

Over the years, a number of colleagues within social work have attempted to shift the conversation on adoption to consideration of greater use of open adoption, and an end to the legacy of the clean break philosophies of the past. 

Professor Beth Neil’s extensive and painstaking longitudinal research in England has illustrated that more open adoptions can work well and very few people in the adoption triangle find that infrequent ‘letterbox contact’ works well. 

The minister’s speech gave no indication of an interest in tackling these – or other issues – relating to adoption reform. Instead it appeared to signal a regrettable return to the gung-ho child rescue approach characteristic of the Gove/Narey era.

The second issue relates to the neglect of other areas of the care system. Nearly a year after the Tory party election manifesto pledge to hold an English Care Review, the sector is still awaiting further news on the review from Gavin Williamson and there was only a glancing reference to it in Williamson’s speech. There have been no concrete details about the proposed review and, critically, no detail about how it proposes to meaningfully include a range of voices from the care sector. 

There are a number of pressing issues for the review to consider including: the continuing rise in care numbers in England – a good proportion of whom are older children, for whom adoption is not an option; the rise in private sector provision, including in some cases providers backed by private equity firms who appear to extract large profits from such provision; the relative lack of support for formal and informal kinship carers; and the government’s own commitment to supporting the rights and protections of children in the care system given their introduction of Statutory Instrument 445. 

Adoption is not an option for the majority of children in care. It must therefore be questioned why there has been radio silence on these other issues which do affect the vast majority of children in care. 

It is to be hoped this imbalance will shortly be rectified. An important first step will be the overdue appointment of a chair to head the Care Review: the sector is watching closely to see if this is someone capable of commanding the respect and confidence of the care sector, in particular those with care experience. It will be an important early indicator of whether or not the government intends to approach this review in good faith.

Robin Sen is a lecturer in social work at the University of Dundee and an honorary research fellow at the University of Sheffield.

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