Once upon a time a long long time ago I wrote a blog post about a report written by Mr Narey. Mr Narey was a naughty man who wanted to take lots of babies away from their mummies. I wrote a story telling all the people about why Mr Narey’s naughty report said lots of things it shouldn’t. But it was such a long story that I had to stop for a little sleep. And although I promised to finish my blog post another day I never did. And now another very important man called Mr Loughton might do all the things that Mr Narey tells him. And all because I forgot to finish my story. Oh dear!
Oh for the love of god I can’t keep it up: And then the wolf gobbled them up. The end.
But seriously, I notice today that the Narey report remains on the agenda, and that the Government, through Mr Loughton, is due to respond shortly and it has prompted me to complete the task begun in July.
Narey Report: A Blueprint for the Nation’s Lost Children – Part II
In part I of this blog post I dealt primarily with the *cough* provenance of the report, and with rigour of the referencing and the source material that Martin Narey relied upon in his report.
I had intended in July to carry out a full and rather detailed analysis of the report. I’m not going to do that now. I’m going to look at things in a rather more broad brush way. The Community Care article referred to above reports Tim Loughton as telling us we have all the ingredients for a “perfect adoption system”. Now that is not Martin Narey’s phrase, but it is a good illustration of the upside down approach to adoption. What can ever be perfect about severing a child’s relationship with her parents and transplanting her with a new family with whom she has no connection? For the record, I’m not anti-adoption and neither do I favour children languishing* in care for years on end, or endorse them remaining in abusive homes – but there is a concerning tendency in some circles to view adoption as a “good thing”, as a success story. And concomitantly, a tendency to see low adoption figures as a failure – when the most recent batch of adoption statistics were published a month or so ago there was a lot of press coverage about the fact that only 60 babies were adopted in year to end Mar 2011 (No mention was made of the 3000 other over 1s who were also adopted or of those who were the subject of placement orders, or who were matched but not yet adopted).
From the perspective of those who wish to have children but who cannot, for whatever reason, become biological parents: of course adoption is a wonderful opportunity for them; although the romanticised picture of adopters taking home a newborn bundle is no longer realistic since the eradication of the social stigma associated with bearing children out of wedlock has radically affected the numbers of so-called “voluntary” adoption and the numbers of babies available for placement. That some blameless couples (or individuals) would otherwise be unable to become parents themselves is not a reason to promote more and faster adoption. Biological parents are themselves often the victim of cruel circumstance that has impaired their ability to parent, albeit in very different ways. If they can be helped to parent well they should be so helped. IF.
Adoptions can be successful, they can be the best (or at least the least worst) option for individual children. But the only “perfect” solution is to – somehow – enable a child to be safely and adequately parented by her own parents, or perhaps by her own extended family. Why do we find that aspect so easy to leave out of discussion about adoption? Because we know that sadly, today’s “lost children” are tomorrow’s are tomorrow’s inadequate parents. And today’s inadequate parents are yesterday’s lost children. And that is a story of failure that is quite hard to think about. Because it feels so inevitable, so immutable, so desperate.
Adoptions by their very nature are necessary because something has gone very wrong (excluding perhaps a small group of voluntary adoptions which fall into a rather different category). Sometimes that is the “fault” of the parent, for example because they perpetrate abuse on their children. Sometimes it is because, through no fault of their own they are unable to parent, or they are inadequate. Much of what people like Mr Narey tell us about adoption is all happy ending and no story. For most adopted children their life is not in any sense a fairy story.
Nobody would argue with the proposition that where children cannot return to their families adoption ought to be pursued as swiftly as possible. And we have to find ways to avoid delay. But the whole thrust of both the report and much of what one can read in the press rests upon the base assumption that more adoption is a good thing. Actually more adoption means that we have failed on more occasions to successfully support parents and families to stay together. It means that we have abandoned the task of improving the parenting capacity of parents, apparently oblivious to the inevitability that they will fall pregnant again and the cycle will be repeated.
There is a lot of talk about family intervention projects but nominal support for them by the Government. Those are where we should be targeting resources. District Judge Crichton of the Inner London FPC this week won an award for his outstanding contribution to family law in the shape of the successful and innovative Family Drug and Alcohol Court which supports parents to make the changes necessary to enable the courts to avoid draconian solutions like adoption (he got a rapturous applause from the audience and rightly so). That kind of project is where we should be targeting resources.
That is particularly so when the Government itself recognises the inadequacy of evidence about the breakdown rates of adoptions (even if Martin Narey does not). More adoption does not necessarily equate to more happy endings – even in what could properly be called a successful adoption an adult will be profoundly effected by the fact of their adoption and their experience and knowledge of the circumstances surrounding it. We have to be more creative about breaking these cycles and about investing efforts in making families functional, and we should be very anxious about approaches which encourage us to rush to judgment on the capacity of parents to do a good enough job. It was under Martin Narey’s stewardship remember that Barnardos proposed a timescale for the completion of an entire set of proceedings (12 weeks) that is shorter than the generally recommended time for residential assessment of learning disabled parents (16 weeks) that is required in order to properly establish their ability to parent and – crucially – their capacity to learn and change. Of course there are some who would say that the court’s role should be minimal in any event (the views of Family Justice Review Panel Member John Coughlan deserve a whole blog post in themselves, suffice to say he appears to be saying the exact same things that he said when I gave evidence to the panel last July).
We can never achieve perfect parenting. I can’t achieve it. My clients can’t achieve it. Those members of the judiciary, social work and other professions who have children don’t achieve it. Adoptive parents don’t achieve it. We all bumble along doing our best. Sometimes we fail to put the children first, make a textbook mistake. And some parents really do fail and fail irredeemably. But except at the extremes it is essentially a matter of degree, a spectrum. You can’t identify a hopeless parent by checking behind their ear for a label – you have to look carefully at the complexities, the details, the background. Adoption is and should be a draconian state intervention of last resort, not a quick fix or an aspiration. By all means speed up care proceedings where possible, improve adoption practice, do more robust research on adoption breakdown so that we can give children the best possible chances….But do not make adoption an end in itself. The only target we should have is to reduce the numbers of adoptions which become necessary at all.
* NB it is compulsory pursuant to s1 of the Emotive Language Act 1999 to describe all periods of accommodation by way of foster care as periods spent “languishing”. It is an offence punishable by a sentence of up to six months imprisonment (in a cell with Christopher Booker) not to employ the use of this term.