Ending the ‘Cruel Rationing of Human Love’? Adoption Politics and Neo-Liberal Rationality

Ending the ‘Cruel Rationing of Human Love’? Adoption Politics and Neo-Liberal Rationality Abstract This critical discussion examines the evolution of adoption politics in England and Wales with the main focus on how policy has been shaped during the period of the Coalition and Conservative governments from 2010. Whilst suggesting that concern about ‘race’ is recurrent, it is maintained that it is possible to decipher a number of other core aspects to policy making: first, the ruling administrations’ attempts to ‘reform’ the welfare state alongside a pervasive scepticism that local authority social workers are sufficiently committed to neoliberal remaking practices; second, the emphasis on the reported ‘real world’, lived experience of adoption familiar to many of those now defining policy; third, the influence of US policy and practice; finally, the substantial amplification of neoliberal discourses on consumption. Indeed, this facet will be dwelt on in more detail because it perhaps highlights the truly innovative – and unwelcome – tonality of neoliberal policy making in this sphere. Child adoption, neo-liberal rationality, ‘race’, ‘customers’ Introduction In May 2016, the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) instigated an enquiry on child adoption. It stated: There has been a relative absence of discussion within the profession of the issues of rights and ethics, in what is an increasingly contested and complex area of work…In most cases today, adoption is non-consensual and involves removing the rights and responsibilities of birth parents, and severing the relationship of a child with his or her birth parents and families, most of whom are among the most disadvantaged people in society (BASW, 2016). This critical commentary seeks to engage with some of the concerns alluded to in the important and timely BASW enquiry statement. It begins by referring to the historical context and furnishes a necessarily truncated account of how practices connected to adoption have changed since the early 1970s. The focal interest will then be on how policy has been shaped during the period of the Coalition and Conservative governments from 2010. This will be followed by a short exploration of how the issue of ‘race’ has featured within the discourse of adoption in recent years (Ali, 2014a; Kirton, 2016). The discussion aims to analyse and interpret the contemporary politics of adoption and it will be suggested that four dimensions are, to differing degrees, significant. First, there is the current government’s antipathy towards the welfare state and a rooted scepticism that social workers are sufficiently committed to the neoliberal policy agenda. Second, in terms of the public presentation and ‘selling’ of evolving policies, there is a detectable emphasis on the ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ experiences of those politicians who have encountered child adoption in their personal and family lives. Third, as was the case during the New Labour period, the impact of US policy and practice remains influential. Fourth, the chief aspiration of the article will be to illuminate how, both implicitly and explicitly, neo-liberal discourses on consumption are increasingly mimicked and risk becoming embedded. Clearly, domestic adopters in England and Wales do not literally purchase children as commodities. Yet the pervasive incursion of market rationality reflects Wendy Brown’s (2015, p. 10) understanding that neoliberal imperatives transmogrify ‘every human domain and endeavour, along with humans themselves according to a specific image of the economic’. Relatedly, there should be attentiveness to how there is an associated, yet intense, often stealthy, endeavour to adjust or recalibrate the ‘semantic order of things’ (Brown, 2015, p. 27). This can be observed, it is argued, in the reconfiguring of the potential adopter as the ‘customer’ with the child as the ‘product’. Changing adoption practices The legal adoption of children was introduced, in England and Wales, in 1926. Northern Ireland followed in 1929 and Scotland in 1930 (Teague, 1989). Over the past four decades, significant changes have taken place in relation to the dynamics of the adoption process. First, on account of the contraceptive pill, social liberalisation and the waning in stigma associated with unmarried births, the numbers of children adopted in England and Wales radically diminished during the final thirty years of the twentieth century from approximately 20,000 each year in 1970 to 41,000 in 1999 (Performance and Innovation Unit, 2000, p. 10). The most drastic decline related to the numbers of babies adopted. In 2012, Michael Gove, then Secretary of State for Education in the UK Coalition government, reported that only ‘60 babies were adopted’ that year (Gove, 2012, p. 3). Adoption is now more likely to involve children in public care—or ‘looked after’ under the 1989 Children Act—that are older, have been at the centre of child protection concerns, or have disabilities or other special or complex needs. Many of these children will have been removed, on a compulsory basis, from their parent(s). Second, there is now greater openness in the adoption process (Department of Health, 1999, Chapter 5). Over the past twenty-five years, adoption has ‘moved progressively from the “clean break” philosophy and its lifelong impact’ has tended to be recognised (Kirton, 2013, p. 102). A more ‘open’ approach results, in some instances, in ‘contact arrangements’ between the child and their family of origin after adoption has taken place (Sales, 2015). Birth mothers have pressed for greater openness in adoption (Howe et al., 1992). Such changes were also prompted by the gradual acknowledgement, on the part of mainstream professional opinion, that some form of contact or at least awareness of one’s origins is important in relation to the ‘identity needs of adoptees’ (Kirton, 2000, p. 108). The retreat from the secrecy surrounding adoption was partly driven by the demands of adoptees themselves who wanted to discover more about their birth families (Feast and Howe, 1997). In England and Wales, the 1976 Adoption Act, as amended by the 1989 Children Act, required the Registrar General to set up an Adoption Contact Register to enable adopted people to contact their birth parents and other relatives. Related to these developments is an awareness of the significance (and inadequacy) of post-adoption services (Expert Working Group on Adoption, 2012). Third, there is more willingness to recognise the abuse associated with adoption practices in the past. This is not universally accepted and, in the late-1990s, it was charged that ‘tormented birth mothers describing their regrets’ had become—‘along with sexual and reproductive peculiarities’—the ‘stock-in-trade of television talk shows’ (Morgan, 1998, p. 7). The Natural Parents Support Group has lobbied the UK parliament for a public inquiry to examine the injustices occurring during the years of mass adoption in the 1950s and 1960s. The Movement for an Adoption Apology (2011) has called for an official political statement expressing regret for policies and practices coercing women, often in fraught situations, to relinquish children. In November 2016, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, apologised for its part in the ‘hurt’ caused to young unmarried women pressured into ‘handing over their babies for adoption in the 1950s, 60s and 70s’ (Sherwood, 2016, p. 3). Beyond the UK, the Australian prime minister issued a state apology in Parliament House in Canberra on 22 March 2013 (Gillard, 2013). In terms of research agendas, in the 1990s, some attention also began to be paid to the marginalisation of birth fathers within adoption processes (Clapton, 1997). Fourth, the globalisation of adoption—reflected in intercountry adoption (ICA)—was a significant phenomenon stretching from the Second World War, with the 1990s and early years of the new century being the peak period (Bartholet, 2007). For example, the numbers of adopted children from other countries arriving in the USA ballooned from 8,333 in 1994 to 22,884 in 2004 (Bartholet, 2007, Appendix A). Children move from ‘south to north, east to west, poor to rich, brown to white. Over 50 per cent of them end up in one country alone: the United States’ (Dubinsky, 2008, p. 340). Even the most strident supporters of ICA concede that this is not simply attributable to the ‘objective needs of children for homes or the desire of prospective parents for children’ because fluctuations in the flow of children are inseparable from ‘political attitudes within both sending and receiving countries, and the international community’ (Bartholet, 2007, p. 159). ICA is, in fact, invariably connected, even if only implicitly, to inequalities pertaining to states, classes, ethnicities and genders. Abuses and exploitation have been widespread (Oreskovic and Maskew, 2008). In 2001, for example, Romania headed the list of countries having children adopted by US parents and every discussion on ICA circulated around commercial terms, such as ‘auction’, ‘market’ and ‘price’ (Corbett, 2002). Since 1 May 1995, the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption (Hague Adoption Convention, 1993) has functioned as a form of global governance regulating ICA practices. Relatedly, concerns have been expressed about globalised practices of commercial surrogacy impacting on countries such as India (Pande, 2016). Finally, sexual orientation forms a part of debates on child adoption. Controversy resulted following a late amendment to New Labour’s 2002 Adoption and Children Act permitting adoption by unmarried (including same-sex) couples. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people are now invited to ‘step forward’ to adopt and the adverts targeted at potential adopters are now pictorially reflecting this invitation (Williams, 2015). New Family Social is the UK network for LGBT adoptive and foster families, and it has initiated an annual LGBT Adoption Week taking place in March each year. The Department for Education (2015) reported, in March 2015, that the number of children adopted by LGBT couples and individuals had ‘reached record highs over the last 12 months, with over 280 children placed in loving stable homes’. The ‘best permanent option for more children’: adoption and the Coalition and Conservative governments The policy of both the Coalition and Conservative governments is nestled within the hegemonic framing which Blair and New Labour put in place (Kirton, 2013). However, more recently, adoption policy has been somewhat redefined and has been apparent, for example, in the detectable scepticism towards notions of ‘openness’. Although ‘much more familiar with the prison service than social services’ (Butler, 2014, p. 491), Martin Narey was appointed the Coalition government’s ‘adoption tsar’. Earlier, his views had been prominently aired in the media which reported him calling for less efforts directed at ‘fixing families that can’t fixed’ with more ‘children being taken away as babies’ and adopted (in McVeigh, 2009). His Our Blueprint for Lost Children, although somewhat hastily assembled and anecdotal, furnished part of the foundation for significant policy departures. Narey chose to ignore or criticise open adoption and enquired why adopters cannot be regarded as the ‘real and only’ parents (in Kirton, 2013, p. 99). Such views are likely to be well received in some quarters. In spring 2012, for example, an article in the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper focused on a series of problems which were, readers were advised, acting as obstacles preventing children being adopted (Gallagher, 2012). Purportedly a member of an adoption board that approves adoptive parents, the author—using a pseudonym—maintained that one such obstacle was the professional understanding that an adopted child needed to keep in contact with or have some sense of their ‘roots’ and familial heritage. Adoptive parents often think they will get a few pages about the child they are being offered, covering basic information. Instead they get a file the size of the Yellow Pages, full of details that would make your hair stand on end…A typical example might read: ‘Chrystal-Mai suffered from nits for 18 months and was excluded from nursery. She misses her daddy who is in jail serving 15 years for distributing paedophile images.’ Clearly, this newspaper article belittles, degrades and disregards families of origin. Moreover, such perceptions would seem to be ‘very much at odds with those of adopted children themselves’ whose families of origin remain in varying ways of real and continuing significance (Kirton, 2013, p. 99). It might be contended that Gallagher's piece, so suffused with class loathing and contempt, merits little consideration and that, unsurprisingly, it is entirely aligned with the world view and attitudes of The Daily Mail. However, even if the tonality is somewhat different, the views expressed reflect something of the drift of more mainstream opinion and policy on child adoption practices. These too appear to hanker for a return to a type of adoption which evolved until the early 1970s when there was greater availability of babies and adoption was conceived as a neat and tidy ‘secret’ event, resulting in the definitive rupturing of the adopted child’s relationship with her/his birth mother and family of origin. Gove (2012), seeking to garner the support of child welfare professionals, in the ministerial foreword to An Action Plan for Adoption: Tackling Delay, indicated his awareness of how adoption had changed and was less ‘straightforward’ than when he was a child in the late-1960s and early 1970s. Babies, for example, were only ‘rarely relinquished’ by their birth mothers and adoption was now more likely to follow a period of ‘neglect or abuse and time in care’ (Gove, 2012, p. 3). His main intention was to ensure that the present adoption system promoted ‘successful and early adoptions and does not thwart them’ (Gove, 2012, p. 3). Despite the ‘major overhaul’ of legislation and practice, triggered by the Blair governments, adoption and its associated practices had, claimed Gove, ‘slipped back down the agenda’ (Department for Education, 2012, p. 11): … there are many more than just the three thousand or so adopted last year, who need, and deserve, all that being adopted by a loving and caring family means. That adoptions are at their lowest point for a decade means a cruel rationing of human love for those most in need (Gove, 2012, p. 3, emphasis added). Within the official literature un-named adopters proclaimed that the adoption system empowered them to make ‘confident little people’ (Department for Education, 2012, p. 13). Even those ‘fortunate children’ who were eventually adopted waited ‘too long’ given that the ‘average wait between their coming into care and being united with their adoptive parents was twenty-one months’ (Gove, 2012, p. 3). Dangers inherent in delay were potentially disastrously deleterious for children: attachment problems resulted and evolving discoveries in neuroscience stressed the risks associated with delay (Department for Education, 2012, p. 14). More generally, it was claimed it was ‘too simplistic’ to assume that ‘speedier adoption’ would prompt more adoption breakdowns (Department for Education, 2012, p. 17, emphasis added). The Gove ‘plan’ hinged, therefore, on commitments to: legislate to ‘reduce the number of adoptions delayed in order to achieve a perfect or near ethnic match between adoptive parents and the adoptive child’ (Gove, 2012, p. 3); require swifter use of the national Adoption Register in order to find the right adopters for a child wherever they might live; encourage all local authorities to seek to place children with their potential adopters in anticipation of the court’s placement order; radically speed up the adopter assessment process; introduce a ‘fast-track’ process for those who have adopted before or who are foster-carers wanting to adopt a child in their care (Gove, 2012, p. 4, emphasis added); develop a ‘national Gateway to adoption’ as a consistent source of advice and information for those thinking about adoption (Gove, 2012, p. 4); introduce, as ‘part of a new tougher approach to addressing underperformance in the adoption system’, a ‘new performance scorecard’ (Department for Education, 2012, p. 41). The following year, the Coalition government returned to dwell on the same preoccupations in Further Action on Adoption: Finding More Loving Homes (Department for Education, 2013). The 2013 report stressed that the evolving ‘vision’ was one of a regional ‘system with fewer adoption agencies operating at larger scale with clear incentives to respond to the needs of all children waiting for adoption’ (Timpson, 2013, p. 3). The government was also to take powers enabling it to ‘require some or all local authorities to outsource adopter recruitment and assessment’ (Department for Education, 2013, p. 21). A national ‘Gateway’ to adoption was reported to be up and running with a full online service to be available by 2014. A consortium, First4Adoption, was to provide the service which would serve as an information portal or hub for potential adopters (Department for Education, 2013, p. 9). According to the government, the focal obstacle was that the system did ‘not treat and value adopters as it should’ (Department for Education, 2013, p. 13). One additional new innovation, therefore, would be to symbolically allocate to every adopter an ‘adoption passport’ providing speedier access to a range of universal and specialist post-adoption support services (Department for Education, 2013, p. 36). The 2014 Children and Families Act made the adoption process easier and swifter. Importantly, under the terms of the Adoption Reform Grant, annual funding in excess of £100 million was to be made available to local authorities. Alongside monies associated with the Troubled Families Programme (TFP), this would enable the government to exercise financial and policy leverage given local authorities were ‘still having to manage significant reductions in their overall budgets’ (Butler, 2014, p. 421). In 2016, with an aspiration to ‘revolutionise support for the most vulnerable children’ and to free the process of adoption from the ‘shackles of council red tape’, a ‘brand-new’ four-year adoption strategy was ‘unveiled’ by the Education Secretary Nicky Morgan (Department for Education, 2016c). Described as a ‘watershed moment—a new line in the sand’, the aim is to provide every child adopted from care with a designated teacher and ‘virtual school head’ (Department for Education, 2016a). In addition, ‘therapeutic services’ are to be made available for adopted children and the ‘selfless’ families caring for them (Department for Education, 2016a). Towards the end of his prime ministership, in May 2016, David Cameron announced that his government were to introduce yet another parliamentary Bill to ensure that children can be adopted by ‘new’ families without delay. It has been asserted that delay is interconnected with the issue of ‘race’ and placements (Department for Education, 2012, pp. 21–3). Indeed, the ‘concept of delay itself has been deeply racialized’ with the notion of proposing a ‘ban’ on transracial adoption dominating ‘debate, policy documents and ministerial pronouncements’ (Kirton, 2013, p. 101). This can be interpreted as an ‘attempted “final push” to remove barriers to transracial adoption, long a cause célèbre for both the media and the politicians’ (Kirton, 2013, p. 101). An exhaustive exploration of this topic lies beyond the scope of this article. Nevertheless, prior to seeking to identify key facets of contemporary adoption policy in England and Wales, it is important to briefly highlight how ‘race’ has featured as a major element in policy debates. ‘Much more active, muscular liberalism’: ‘race’ and adoption In 2016, it was estimated that the cost of raising a child to the age of twenty-one is £230,000—more than the ‘price of a semi-detached house in Britain’ (Collinson, 2016). Unsurprisingly, therefore, it is largely financially comfortable, white, middle-class couples, who are able to afford such costs and they constitute the ‘majority adopters both domestically and transnationally’ (Ali, 2014a, p. 93). Yet it is this group, often belligerently aggrieved, which has frequently featured prominently within adoption ‘stories’ and related feature articles. Oftentimes, but not always, the grievances aired are of prospective adopters seeking to gain approval and complaining about how, what might be termed, the ‘weight of whiteness’ affects child adoption assessment (Doughty, 2012; Harley, 2015). Such is the burden of people who perceive—often because of alleged institutionalised ‘political correctness’—that their whiteness is hampering their opportunities to access, extract and legally relocate the biological children of others within their own family units (Woods, 2011). A more recent and politically pervasive emphasis on the ‘failures or excesses of multiculturalism’ appears to signal a return to the assimilationist policy of previous decades (Ali, 2014b, p. 69). A recalibration of policy and rhetoric was illustrated by the speech of Coalition prime minister, David Cameron (2011), to an international security conference in Munich in February 2011, where he castigated the ‘doctrine of state multiculturalism’ for encouraging ‘different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream … We’ve even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values’ (Cameron, 2011, emphasis added). What was required, Cameron (2011) asserted, was a ‘much more active, muscular liberalism’. Importantly, this ‘common sense’ which the Conservatives, and others, continue to promote around issues of ‘race’ and culture now informs debates on adoption (GOV.UK, 2010). Two factors are often disregarded when this matter is placed in the wider public domain by primary definers such as Gove. The first is the reasons why a disproportionate number of black and minority ethnic children are in care (Ali, 2014b). This omission replicates a similar lack of curiosity in US discourses (Roberts, 2014). On account of this, issues related to questions of ‘race’, class and power are eased from the analytical frame. Second, the dominant tendency of ‘invoking a singular category of “race” cannot provide a full picture’ (Ali, 2014b, p. 71). Drawing on a welter of research literature, Ali (2014b, p. 71) usefully articulates some of the complexities which come to light if the category ‘black and minority’ is unpacked given the somewhat different care dynamics relating to black African and black Caribbean, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian children. Nevertheless, the Department for Education’s (2012, p. 21) An Action Plan for Adoption: Tackling Delay starkly asserts that the ‘delay faced by black children … needs particular attention’, challenging the belief ‘in some parts of the system … that ensuring a perfect or near perfect match based on the child’s ethnicity … automatically outweighs other considerations’ (Department for Education, 2012, p. 21). In England—but not in Wales—the Children and Families Act 2014 marks a ‘crucial symbolic landmark’ in repealing the ‘ethnicity clause’ featured in the New Labour Adoption and Children Act 2002 (Kirton, 2016, p. 2). The intention, therefore, is clearly to promote the transracial adoption of black and minority ethnic children. More fundamentally, the current Conservative government is ideologically committed to minimising the relevance of ‘race’ and ethnicity, grossly over-simplifying both the ‘processes and experiences of adoption’ (Ali, 2014b, p. 68; see also Sissay, 2012). Discussion: assessing contemporary adoption politics The evolving politics of child adoption should be situated alongside a range of contextual issues and themes. These include the continuing ramifications of the death of Peter Connelly in 2007 (‘Baby P’), which appeared to reveal, certainly according to potent media forces, that social workers were tardy in removing children from damaging and potential lethal familial circumstances (Bilson, 2017; see also Jones, 2014; Shoesmith, 2016). Alternatively, having been removed, children were, according to dominant accounts, carelessly restored to manifestly dangerous environments. The political and media preoccupation with so-called ‘troubled families’ is significant (Crossley, 2016). In the 1970s, a not ‘dissimilar interest in “problem families” went hand-in-hand with a rapid rise in the number of children in public care in the context of an ideological preference for “rescue” rather than rehabilitation’ (Butler, 2014, p. 420). Perhaps also, developments in neuroscience and brain imaging technology are serving to reinforce the vital importance of a child's early years and are providing an impetus to embed latently punitive processes of ‘early intervention’ and the swift removal of children from families perceived to be harmful (Macvarish, 2016; Garrett, 2017). In a society perpetually fractured by class inequalities, such practices disproportionally impact on families subject to processes of ‘advanced marginality’ and ‘territorial stigmatization’ (Wacquant, 2007; see also Bywaters et al., 2015, 2016). At this particular historical juncture, there are at least four distinctive strands helping to constitute Conservative politics on adoption. The fourth of these, it will be argued, is especially significant and it will, therefore, be more expansively explored. First, there is the encompassing project to ‘reform’ the welfare state and this is coupled to the understanding that public sector workers are insufficiently committed to the type of neo-liberal ‘transformation’ perceived as vital. Of late, in order to try and win over a fraction of the profession to the Conservative cause, there has been a strategic, tactical and instrumental willingness to recognise and praise social workers. Cameron did so at his party’s conference in 2013 and Gove (2013), almost lachrymose, replicated this with his recognition of ‘just how difficult—how challenging—how important and how inspiring—the role of social workers is’. Nevertheless, those undertaking such roles are mostly perceived as an ideological obstacle to embedding a more pro-active policy of child adoption. Despite this perception, there is no tangible evidence that social workers are guilty of inefficiency and ‘widespread poor practice’ (Kirton, 2013, p. 100). The establishment of ‘Frontline’ as a ‘fast-track’ route into social work for a potential ‘officer class’ furnishes evidence that the political aim is to craft a social work workforce better attuned to the Conservative worldview (Murphy, 2016; see also MacAlister, 2012). Second, a new emphasis is being placed on the reported lived and ‘real-world’ experience of those primary definers mapping out more assertive approaches to adoption. Expressed a little more theoretically, particular actors are bringing very specific types of ‘symbolic capital’ (Bourdieu, 1991) into the policy arena and using it as a political resource in forging a new ‘common sense’ around adoption (Crehan, 2011; Hall and O’Shea, 2015). Like Michael Gove, Edward Timpson, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children and Families (2012–15), had direct experience of the issue in that he has two adopted brothers. A part of a family that fostered eighty-seven children, he claimed to have witnessed ‘babies addicted to heroin go into spasms’ (Timpson, 2015, p. 3). He was, therefore, someone who recognised the ‘enormous benefits that adoption can bring’ (Timpson, 2013, p. 3). A similar rhetorical strategy was apparent in a letter mailed to a national newspaper in January 2011, where the correspondent corroborated Martin Narey’s rather simplistic plans to increase the number of adoptions, castigating the ‘misplaced emphasis’ on ‘political correctness’ in social work. In this instance, not only was the writer able to refer to his ‘Professorship and Directorship of a Centre of Social Work and Social Policy’; he was keen to confide to readers of The Guardian that he was, in fact, an ‘adoptive person’ himself. In each of these instances, the devisers, enunciators and supporters of adoption ‘reform’ deploy autobiographical data, often laden with affect, to try and disarm criticisms. Unlike most of their critics, each of them has ‘been there’, having personally experienced adoption. Here, ‘primary experience, unmediated by theory, reflection, speculation, argument’ is used like a trump card in a game (Hall et al., 1978, p. 152). Related to the discussion below, the interventions of these spokesmen (and they tend to be men) might also be interpreted, having recourse to another register, as the voices of satisfied ‘consumers’ of adoption services. Third, as had been the case during the Blair period, the impact of US policy and practice remains influential even though it tends not to be perceived as such. For example, the US 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) flagged a more directive, assertive and combative engagement with birth parents. Placing a ‘strong emphasis on shortened timeframes for terminating parental rights and on adoption promotion’, the ASFA undercuts the ‘potential for strengthening family preservation services’ (Kelly and Blythe 2000, p. 36). Moreover, US champions of this legislation, essentially a form of top-down, class-driven social engineering, view it as a global template for more proactive and assertive policies (Bartholet, 2007, p. 170). Despite significant differences, which this article lacks the space to explore, policy on adoption in England and Wales can be situated on the same ideological terrain. It is also apparent that policies to ‘speed up’ adoption processes replicate discursive tropes found in the US discourse. Fourth, especially as these relate to the figure of the potential adopter, the rationalities of consumption are percolating into adoption policy language and material practices. Even ‘where money is not at issue’, these individuals are being configured as ‘market actors’ (Brown, 2015, p. 31, emphasis added). What is more, because of their economic and cultural milieu, potential adopters may be responsive to an evolving paradigm in which they are unambiguously assembled as the ‘customer’ (Expert Working Group on Adoption, 2012). In this context, emphasis is placed on the need for radical ‘approaches to improve customer service’ (Expert Working Group on Adoption, 2012). Similarly, there is a keenness to utilise the skills of ‘marketing and customer insight experts’ in luring, winning over and retaining potential adopters (Department for Education, 2013, p. 30). Market logic is revealed in a new attentiveness to the speed of response to these adoption ‘customers’. Historically, within discourses on the placement of children, temporal questions often focused on children ‘drifting’ or ‘waiting’ too long in care on account of inadequate care planning (Brown and Ward, 2012). Alertness to such dangers helps, in fact, to constitute part of the doxic knowledge of the bureaucratic field of child and family social work. Now the issue of time is as likely to focus on the velocity of agency responses to potential adopters. The entire thrust of Gove’s plan hinged, as observed earlier, on creating ‘swifter’ adoption processes and ‘fast tracks’. Likewise, ‘scorecards’ incorporate metrics relating to speed of response to enquiries (Department for Education, 2012, p. 17). Such a valorisation of speed of response chimes, of course, with corporate customer service approaches, with the underlying assumption being that technology can ‘accelerate the delivery of products and solutions’ and ‘welfare solutions’ in the ‘here and now’ (Pithouse, 2008, p. 1545). As one of Suki Ali’s (2014b, p. 77) respondents told her, one of the ‘problems with the government is that they talk about having a John Lewis [an upmarket UK chain of department stores] customer service meaning, you know, the customer being the adopters’. There are also some indications that a muddled understanding of local authorities’ target-driven culture is adversely impacting on the perceptions of parents who have children embroiled in care proceedings (Broadhurst et al., 2015, p. 91). A quicker speed of response may not, of course, always be in the best interest of the children concerned and this has been a criticism levelled at ‘aggressive’ attempts to transform policy from Blair onwards (Bilson, 2017, p. 1). This is because assessment processes are appropriately complex and rightfully time-consuming. Indeed, the emphasis on swiftness, removal and adoption application was criticised by Judge Sir James Munby, president of the High Court family division, who, in the case of Re B-S, complained about the ‘recurrent inadequacy of the analysis and reasoning put forward in support of the case for adoption’ (in Tickle, 2014). There will be instances where it is better for children to remain in foster-care for a lengthy period than to be speeding along on a ‘fast track’ to permanent adoption (Hill, 2012). Noting the increase in the number of adoptions, the vice-chair of the BASW maintains that the ‘policy imperative’ to introduce quicker forced adoptions could mean ‘we may well look back on this period in horror as we do now to the forcible removal of thousands of children to Australia in the 1930s, 40s and 50s without their parents’ knowledge or consent’ (in Tickle, 2015, p. 36). Attention should be accorded to the ways in which children—as the ‘products’—are discursively and materially situated within the evolving politics of adoption. Arguably, the current political lukewarmness towards ‘openness’ can be connected to a desire to reproduce the fixity of contracted ownership for purchased items. Legal adoption wholly and unequivocally transfers parental responsibility to the adoptive parents, so practices of ‘openness’ can be interpreted as rendering fuzzy or ambiguous ‘ownership’ of the child. Perhaps strategies aiming to legally fix and stabilise a child’s status, by extinguishing ‘openness’, provide an illustration of Rancière’s theorisation as to how individuals are situated at specific places inside of ‘police’ orders (Garrett, 2015a, 2015b). Hence, the preoccupation with categorically defining which family a child is a member of eliminates, in some senses, any ambiguity attached to their role and place within a specific grid of class-determined relationships and associated cultural expectations. Following the same line of analysis, the enthusiasm for ‘adoption parties’ may be significant. Such arrangements, popular in the US in states such as Massachusetts, prompt potential adopters to take a ‘much greater role in initiating matches’ with children (Department for Education, 2013, p. 34). On occasions called ‘placement activity days’, these are events designed to provide an opportunity for potential adopters to briefly engage with a number of children prior to making a decision about whether or not they wish to adopt a particular child (Department for Education, 2012). In this way, the ‘customer’ is afforded the opportunity to shop around, to peruse and select from an array of ‘goods’. Referred to as ‘cattle markets for kids’, ‘fashion parties’ or ‘speed dating for toddlers’ (in Moorhead, 2014, p. 1), the ‘adoption party’ innovation has not sat comfortably with many child welfare professionals. Before closing in 2015, partly due to funding difficulties, the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF) was involved in such events. A director of child placement at the association conceded that the ‘parties’ illustrate how ‘we are moving up the tariff of risk in the ways we are being forced to seek out families for these children’ (in Hill, 2009, p. 6). Similarly, Action for Children refers to the ‘high risk’ for the children involved, since they will be ‘aware that they are being picked or not picked at the parties, no matter how sensitive the pre-party preparation has been’ (in Hill, 2009, p. 6). Conclusion Recent figures indicate that the numbers of children adopted are falling and this has, in part, been linked to the Re B-S and Re B court judgements (Department for Education, 2016b, p. 6). In September 2016, it was reported that, although the ‘number and percentage of looked after children placed for adoption rose between 2012 and 2014 … the numbers fell by 9 per cent last year and have fallen by a further 18% this year’ (Department for Education, 2016b, p. 8). Nevertheless, an important and forensic exploration of data by Bilson (2017, p. 3) reveals that: Over the 16-year period from 2001 to 2016, 59,970 children were adopted from care. An estimated 34,000 children would have been adopted between 1985 and 2000. This estimate shows that there was likely to be more than 25,000 extra adoptions of children from care since 2001, an increase of 76%. Certainly, a heightened policy focus on adoption can be interpreted as the neo-liberal state seeking to save money on long-term family interventions in situations where parenting is viewed as problematic. In crude terms, therefore, adoption might be perceived as a form of privatisation in that the public authority withdraws and merely acts as a potent mechanism facilitating the legal transfer of parental responsibility to permanent substitute parents who are perceived as being less likely to need costly assistance. In this discussion, especially the latter portion, the focus has been more on the language used to ‘sell’ adoption. In this sense, it often seems that all ‘conduct is economic conduct; all spheres of existence are framed and measured in economic terms and metrics, even when those spheres are not directly monetized’ (Brown, 2015, p. 10). 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( 2015 ) ‘Common-sense neoliberalism’, in Hall S. , Massey D. , Rustin M. (eds), After Neoliberalism , London, Lawrence and Wishart , pp. 52 – 69 . Hall S. , Critcher C. , Jefferson T. , Clarke J. , Roberts B. ( 1978 ) Policing the Crisis , Houndsmill , MacMillan Education . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Harley N. ( 2015 ) ‘Adopted boy taken off white couple to grow up with black aunt he had never met’, The Daily Telegraph, 1 August, available online at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/11777819/Adopted-boy-taken-off-white-couple-to-grow-up-with-black-aunt-he-had-never-met.html (accessed 13 September 2017). Hill A. ( 2009 ) ‘Foster agency holds parties to adopt a child’, The Observer, 30 September, p. 6 . Hill A. ( 2012 ) ‘Adoption process is being rushed by councils, says judges’, The Guardian, 19 November, p. 10 . Howe D. , Sawbridge P. , Hinings D. ( 1992 ) Half a Million Women , Harmondsworth , Penguin . Jones R. 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Sissay L. ( 2012 ) ‘On inter-racial adoption, Cameron is wrong, colour blindness is a disability’, The Guardian, 13 March, available online at http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/mar/13/inter-racial-adoption-cameron-wrong (accessed 13 September 2017). Teague A. ( 1989 ) Social Change, Social Work and the Adoption of Children , Aldershot , Avebury/Gower . Tickle L. ( 2014 ) ‘Adoption should be the last port of call—even in the storm of local authority funding’, The Guardian, 25 September, available online at https://www.theguardian.com/social-care-network/2014/sep/25/adoption-last-resort-local-authority (accessed 13 September 2017). Tickle L. ( 2015 ) ‘Is pressure to speed up adoptions leaving children out in the cold?’, The Guardian, 15 July, p. 36. Timpson E. ( 2013 ) ‘Foreword’ in Department for Education, Further Action on Adoption, available online at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/219661/Further_20Action_20on_20Adoption.pdf (accessed 13 September 2017). Timpson E. ( 2015 ) ‘I’ve seen babies addicted to heroin go into spasms’, Society Guardian: Fostering and Adoption Supplement, 4 March, p. 3 . Wacquant L. ( 2007 ) ‘ Territorial stigmatization in the age of advanced marginality’, Thesis Eleven , 91 , pp. 66 – 77 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Williams R. ( 2015 ) ‘ Gay, bisexual and transgender foster parents and adopters step forward ’, Society Guardian: Fostering and Adoption Supplement, 4 March, p. 4 . Woods J. ( 2011 ) ‘Adoption: “We don’t need white couples”’, The Daily Telegraph, 25 January, available online at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/mother-tongue/8279525/Adoption-We-dont-need-white-couples.html (accessed 13 September 2017). © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The British Association of Social Workers. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices) http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png The British Journal of Social Work Oxford University Press

Ending the ‘Cruel Rationing of Human Love’? Adoption Politics and Neo-Liberal Rationality

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Abstract

Abstract This critical discussion examines the evolution of adoption politics in England and Wales with the main focus on how policy has been shaped during the period of the Coalition and Conservative governments from 2010. Whilst suggesting that concern about ‘race’ is recurrent, it is maintained that it is possible to decipher a number of other core aspects to policy making: first, the ruling administrations’ attempts to ‘reform’ the welfare state alongside a pervasive scepticism that local authority social workers are sufficiently committed to neoliberal remaking practices; second, the emphasis on the reported ‘real world’, lived experience of adoption familiar to many of those now defining policy; third, the influence of US policy and practice; finally, the substantial amplification of neoliberal discourses on consumption. Indeed, this facet will be dwelt on in more detail because it perhaps highlights the truly innovative – and unwelcome – tonality of neoliberal policy making in this sphere. Child adoption, neo-liberal rationality, ‘race’, ‘customers’ Introduction In May 2016, the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) instigated an enquiry on child adoption. It stated: There has been a relative absence of discussion within the profession of the issues of rights and ethics, in what is an increasingly contested and complex area of work…In most cases today, adoption is non-consensual and involves removing the rights and responsibilities of birth parents, and severing the relationship of a child with his or her birth parents and families, most of whom are among the most disadvantaged people in society (BASW, 2016). This critical commentary seeks to engage with some of the concerns alluded to in the important and timely BASW enquiry statement. It begins by referring to the historical context and furnishes a necessarily truncated account of how practices connected to adoption have changed since the early 1970s. The focal interest will then be on how policy has been shaped during the period of the Coalition and Conservative governments from 2010. This will be followed by a short exploration of how the issue of ‘race’ has featured within the discourse of adoption in recent years (Ali, 2014a; Kirton, 2016). The discussion aims to analyse and interpret the contemporary politics of adoption and it will be suggested that four dimensions are, to differing degrees, significant. First, there is the current government’s antipathy towards the welfare state and a rooted scepticism that social workers are sufficiently committed to the neoliberal policy agenda. Second, in terms of the public presentation and ‘selling’ of evolving policies, there is a detectable emphasis on the ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ experiences of those politicians who have encountered child adoption in their personal and family lives. Third, as was the case during the New Labour period, the impact of US policy and practice remains influential. Fourth, the chief aspiration of the article will be to illuminate how, both implicitly and explicitly, neo-liberal discourses on consumption are increasingly mimicked and risk becoming embedded. Clearly, domestic adopters in England and Wales do not literally purchase children as commodities. Yet the pervasive incursion of market rationality reflects Wendy Brown’s (2015, p. 10) understanding that neoliberal imperatives transmogrify ‘every human domain and endeavour, along with humans themselves according to a specific image of the economic’. Relatedly, there should be attentiveness to how there is an associated, yet intense, often stealthy, endeavour to adjust or recalibrate the ‘semantic order of things’ (Brown, 2015, p. 27). This can be observed, it is argued, in the reconfiguring of the potential adopter as the ‘customer’ with the child as the ‘product’. Changing adoption practices The legal adoption of children was introduced, in England and Wales, in 1926. Northern Ireland followed in 1929 and Scotland in 1930 (Teague, 1989). Over the past four decades, significant changes have taken place in relation to the dynamics of the adoption process. First, on account of the contraceptive pill, social liberalisation and the waning in stigma associated with unmarried births, the numbers of children adopted in England and Wales radically diminished during the final thirty years of the twentieth century from approximately 20,000 each year in 1970 to 41,000 in 1999 (Performance and Innovation Unit, 2000, p. 10). The most drastic decline related to the numbers of babies adopted. In 2012, Michael Gove, then Secretary of State for Education in the UK Coalition government, reported that only ‘60 babies were adopted’ that year (Gove, 2012, p. 3). Adoption is now more likely to involve children in public care—or ‘looked after’ under the 1989 Children Act—that are older, have been at the centre of child protection concerns, or have disabilities or other special or complex needs. Many of these children will have been removed, on a compulsory basis, from their parent(s). Second, there is now greater openness in the adoption process (Department of Health, 1999, Chapter 5). Over the past twenty-five years, adoption has ‘moved progressively from the “clean break” philosophy and its lifelong impact’ has tended to be recognised (Kirton, 2013, p. 102). A more ‘open’ approach results, in some instances, in ‘contact arrangements’ between the child and their family of origin after adoption has taken place (Sales, 2015). Birth mothers have pressed for greater openness in adoption (Howe et al., 1992). Such changes were also prompted by the gradual acknowledgement, on the part of mainstream professional opinion, that some form of contact or at least awareness of one’s origins is important in relation to the ‘identity needs of adoptees’ (Kirton, 2000, p. 108). The retreat from the secrecy surrounding adoption was partly driven by the demands of adoptees themselves who wanted to discover more about their birth families (Feast and Howe, 1997). In England and Wales, the 1976 Adoption Act, as amended by the 1989 Children Act, required the Registrar General to set up an Adoption Contact Register to enable adopted people to contact their birth parents and other relatives. Related to these developments is an awareness of the significance (and inadequacy) of post-adoption services (Expert Working Group on Adoption, 2012). Third, there is more willingness to recognise the abuse associated with adoption practices in the past. This is not universally accepted and, in the late-1990s, it was charged that ‘tormented birth mothers describing their regrets’ had become—‘along with sexual and reproductive peculiarities’—the ‘stock-in-trade of television talk shows’ (Morgan, 1998, p. 7). The Natural Parents Support Group has lobbied the UK parliament for a public inquiry to examine the injustices occurring during the years of mass adoption in the 1950s and 1960s. The Movement for an Adoption Apology (2011) has called for an official political statement expressing regret for policies and practices coercing women, often in fraught situations, to relinquish children. In November 2016, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, apologised for its part in the ‘hurt’ caused to young unmarried women pressured into ‘handing over their babies for adoption in the 1950s, 60s and 70s’ (Sherwood, 2016, p. 3). Beyond the UK, the Australian prime minister issued a state apology in Parliament House in Canberra on 22 March 2013 (Gillard, 2013). In terms of research agendas, in the 1990s, some attention also began to be paid to the marginalisation of birth fathers within adoption processes (Clapton, 1997). Fourth, the globalisation of adoption—reflected in intercountry adoption (ICA)—was a significant phenomenon stretching from the Second World War, with the 1990s and early years of the new century being the peak period (Bartholet, 2007). For example, the numbers of adopted children from other countries arriving in the USA ballooned from 8,333 in 1994 to 22,884 in 2004 (Bartholet, 2007, Appendix A). Children move from ‘south to north, east to west, poor to rich, brown to white. Over 50 per cent of them end up in one country alone: the United States’ (Dubinsky, 2008, p. 340). Even the most strident supporters of ICA concede that this is not simply attributable to the ‘objective needs of children for homes or the desire of prospective parents for children’ because fluctuations in the flow of children are inseparable from ‘political attitudes within both sending and receiving countries, and the international community’ (Bartholet, 2007, p. 159). ICA is, in fact, invariably connected, even if only implicitly, to inequalities pertaining to states, classes, ethnicities and genders. Abuses and exploitation have been widespread (Oreskovic and Maskew, 2008). In 2001, for example, Romania headed the list of countries having children adopted by US parents and every discussion on ICA circulated around commercial terms, such as ‘auction’, ‘market’ and ‘price’ (Corbett, 2002). Since 1 May 1995, the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption (Hague Adoption Convention, 1993) has functioned as a form of global governance regulating ICA practices. Relatedly, concerns have been expressed about globalised practices of commercial surrogacy impacting on countries such as India (Pande, 2016). Finally, sexual orientation forms a part of debates on child adoption. Controversy resulted following a late amendment to New Labour’s 2002 Adoption and Children Act permitting adoption by unmarried (including same-sex) couples. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people are now invited to ‘step forward’ to adopt and the adverts targeted at potential adopters are now pictorially reflecting this invitation (Williams, 2015). New Family Social is the UK network for LGBT adoptive and foster families, and it has initiated an annual LGBT Adoption Week taking place in March each year. The Department for Education (2015) reported, in March 2015, that the number of children adopted by LGBT couples and individuals had ‘reached record highs over the last 12 months, with over 280 children placed in loving stable homes’. The ‘best permanent option for more children’: adoption and the Coalition and Conservative governments The policy of both the Coalition and Conservative governments is nestled within the hegemonic framing which Blair and New Labour put in place (Kirton, 2013). However, more recently, adoption policy has been somewhat redefined and has been apparent, for example, in the detectable scepticism towards notions of ‘openness’. Although ‘much more familiar with the prison service than social services’ (Butler, 2014, p. 491), Martin Narey was appointed the Coalition government’s ‘adoption tsar’. Earlier, his views had been prominently aired in the media which reported him calling for less efforts directed at ‘fixing families that can’t fixed’ with more ‘children being taken away as babies’ and adopted (in McVeigh, 2009). His Our Blueprint for Lost Children, although somewhat hastily assembled and anecdotal, furnished part of the foundation for significant policy departures. Narey chose to ignore or criticise open adoption and enquired why adopters cannot be regarded as the ‘real and only’ parents (in Kirton, 2013, p. 99). Such views are likely to be well received in some quarters. In spring 2012, for example, an article in the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper focused on a series of problems which were, readers were advised, acting as obstacles preventing children being adopted (Gallagher, 2012). Purportedly a member of an adoption board that approves adoptive parents, the author—using a pseudonym—maintained that one such obstacle was the professional understanding that an adopted child needed to keep in contact with or have some sense of their ‘roots’ and familial heritage. Adoptive parents often think they will get a few pages about the child they are being offered, covering basic information. Instead they get a file the size of the Yellow Pages, full of details that would make your hair stand on end…A typical example might read: ‘Chrystal-Mai suffered from nits for 18 months and was excluded from nursery. She misses her daddy who is in jail serving 15 years for distributing paedophile images.’ Clearly, this newspaper article belittles, degrades and disregards families of origin. Moreover, such perceptions would seem to be ‘very much at odds with those of adopted children themselves’ whose families of origin remain in varying ways of real and continuing significance (Kirton, 2013, p. 99). It might be contended that Gallagher's piece, so suffused with class loathing and contempt, merits little consideration and that, unsurprisingly, it is entirely aligned with the world view and attitudes of The Daily Mail. However, even if the tonality is somewhat different, the views expressed reflect something of the drift of more mainstream opinion and policy on child adoption practices. These too appear to hanker for a return to a type of adoption which evolved until the early 1970s when there was greater availability of babies and adoption was conceived as a neat and tidy ‘secret’ event, resulting in the definitive rupturing of the adopted child’s relationship with her/his birth mother and family of origin. Gove (2012), seeking to garner the support of child welfare professionals, in the ministerial foreword to An Action Plan for Adoption: Tackling Delay, indicated his awareness of how adoption had changed and was less ‘straightforward’ than when he was a child in the late-1960s and early 1970s. Babies, for example, were only ‘rarely relinquished’ by their birth mothers and adoption was now more likely to follow a period of ‘neglect or abuse and time in care’ (Gove, 2012, p. 3). His main intention was to ensure that the present adoption system promoted ‘successful and early adoptions and does not thwart them’ (Gove, 2012, p. 3). Despite the ‘major overhaul’ of legislation and practice, triggered by the Blair governments, adoption and its associated practices had, claimed Gove, ‘slipped back down the agenda’ (Department for Education, 2012, p. 11): … there are many more than just the three thousand or so adopted last year, who need, and deserve, all that being adopted by a loving and caring family means. That adoptions are at their lowest point for a decade means a cruel rationing of human love for those most in need (Gove, 2012, p. 3, emphasis added). Within the official literature un-named adopters proclaimed that the adoption system empowered them to make ‘confident little people’ (Department for Education, 2012, p. 13). Even those ‘fortunate children’ who were eventually adopted waited ‘too long’ given that the ‘average wait between their coming into care and being united with their adoptive parents was twenty-one months’ (Gove, 2012, p. 3). Dangers inherent in delay were potentially disastrously deleterious for children: attachment problems resulted and evolving discoveries in neuroscience stressed the risks associated with delay (Department for Education, 2012, p. 14). More generally, it was claimed it was ‘too simplistic’ to assume that ‘speedier adoption’ would prompt more adoption breakdowns (Department for Education, 2012, p. 17, emphasis added). The Gove ‘plan’ hinged, therefore, on commitments to: legislate to ‘reduce the number of adoptions delayed in order to achieve a perfect or near ethnic match between adoptive parents and the adoptive child’ (Gove, 2012, p. 3); require swifter use of the national Adoption Register in order to find the right adopters for a child wherever they might live; encourage all local authorities to seek to place children with their potential adopters in anticipation of the court’s placement order; radically speed up the adopter assessment process; introduce a ‘fast-track’ process for those who have adopted before or who are foster-carers wanting to adopt a child in their care (Gove, 2012, p. 4, emphasis added); develop a ‘national Gateway to adoption’ as a consistent source of advice and information for those thinking about adoption (Gove, 2012, p. 4); introduce, as ‘part of a new tougher approach to addressing underperformance in the adoption system’, a ‘new performance scorecard’ (Department for Education, 2012, p. 41). The following year, the Coalition government returned to dwell on the same preoccupations in Further Action on Adoption: Finding More Loving Homes (Department for Education, 2013). The 2013 report stressed that the evolving ‘vision’ was one of a regional ‘system with fewer adoption agencies operating at larger scale with clear incentives to respond to the needs of all children waiting for adoption’ (Timpson, 2013, p. 3). The government was also to take powers enabling it to ‘require some or all local authorities to outsource adopter recruitment and assessment’ (Department for Education, 2013, p. 21). A national ‘Gateway’ to adoption was reported to be up and running with a full online service to be available by 2014. A consortium, First4Adoption, was to provide the service which would serve as an information portal or hub for potential adopters (Department for Education, 2013, p. 9). According to the government, the focal obstacle was that the system did ‘not treat and value adopters as it should’ (Department for Education, 2013, p. 13). One additional new innovation, therefore, would be to symbolically allocate to every adopter an ‘adoption passport’ providing speedier access to a range of universal and specialist post-adoption support services (Department for Education, 2013, p. 36). The 2014 Children and Families Act made the adoption process easier and swifter. Importantly, under the terms of the Adoption Reform Grant, annual funding in excess of £100 million was to be made available to local authorities. Alongside monies associated with the Troubled Families Programme (TFP), this would enable the government to exercise financial and policy leverage given local authorities were ‘still having to manage significant reductions in their overall budgets’ (Butler, 2014, p. 421). In 2016, with an aspiration to ‘revolutionise support for the most vulnerable children’ and to free the process of adoption from the ‘shackles of council red tape’, a ‘brand-new’ four-year adoption strategy was ‘unveiled’ by the Education Secretary Nicky Morgan (Department for Education, 2016c). Described as a ‘watershed moment—a new line in the sand’, the aim is to provide every child adopted from care with a designated teacher and ‘virtual school head’ (Department for Education, 2016a). In addition, ‘therapeutic services’ are to be made available for adopted children and the ‘selfless’ families caring for them (Department for Education, 2016a). Towards the end of his prime ministership, in May 2016, David Cameron announced that his government were to introduce yet another parliamentary Bill to ensure that children can be adopted by ‘new’ families without delay. It has been asserted that delay is interconnected with the issue of ‘race’ and placements (Department for Education, 2012, pp. 21–3). Indeed, the ‘concept of delay itself has been deeply racialized’ with the notion of proposing a ‘ban’ on transracial adoption dominating ‘debate, policy documents and ministerial pronouncements’ (Kirton, 2013, p. 101). This can be interpreted as an ‘attempted “final push” to remove barriers to transracial adoption, long a cause célèbre for both the media and the politicians’ (Kirton, 2013, p. 101). An exhaustive exploration of this topic lies beyond the scope of this article. Nevertheless, prior to seeking to identify key facets of contemporary adoption policy in England and Wales, it is important to briefly highlight how ‘race’ has featured as a major element in policy debates. ‘Much more active, muscular liberalism’: ‘race’ and adoption In 2016, it was estimated that the cost of raising a child to the age of twenty-one is £230,000—more than the ‘price of a semi-detached house in Britain’ (Collinson, 2016). Unsurprisingly, therefore, it is largely financially comfortable, white, middle-class couples, who are able to afford such costs and they constitute the ‘majority adopters both domestically and transnationally’ (Ali, 2014a, p. 93). Yet it is this group, often belligerently aggrieved, which has frequently featured prominently within adoption ‘stories’ and related feature articles. Oftentimes, but not always, the grievances aired are of prospective adopters seeking to gain approval and complaining about how, what might be termed, the ‘weight of whiteness’ affects child adoption assessment (Doughty, 2012; Harley, 2015). Such is the burden of people who perceive—often because of alleged institutionalised ‘political correctness’—that their whiteness is hampering their opportunities to access, extract and legally relocate the biological children of others within their own family units (Woods, 2011). A more recent and politically pervasive emphasis on the ‘failures or excesses of multiculturalism’ appears to signal a return to the assimilationist policy of previous decades (Ali, 2014b, p. 69). A recalibration of policy and rhetoric was illustrated by the speech of Coalition prime minister, David Cameron (2011), to an international security conference in Munich in February 2011, where he castigated the ‘doctrine of state multiculturalism’ for encouraging ‘different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream … We’ve even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values’ (Cameron, 2011, emphasis added). What was required, Cameron (2011) asserted, was a ‘much more active, muscular liberalism’. Importantly, this ‘common sense’ which the Conservatives, and others, continue to promote around issues of ‘race’ and culture now informs debates on adoption (GOV.UK, 2010). Two factors are often disregarded when this matter is placed in the wider public domain by primary definers such as Gove. The first is the reasons why a disproportionate number of black and minority ethnic children are in care (Ali, 2014b). This omission replicates a similar lack of curiosity in US discourses (Roberts, 2014). On account of this, issues related to questions of ‘race’, class and power are eased from the analytical frame. Second, the dominant tendency of ‘invoking a singular category of “race” cannot provide a full picture’ (Ali, 2014b, p. 71). Drawing on a welter of research literature, Ali (2014b, p. 71) usefully articulates some of the complexities which come to light if the category ‘black and minority’ is unpacked given the somewhat different care dynamics relating to black African and black Caribbean, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian children. Nevertheless, the Department for Education’s (2012, p. 21) An Action Plan for Adoption: Tackling Delay starkly asserts that the ‘delay faced by black children … needs particular attention’, challenging the belief ‘in some parts of the system … that ensuring a perfect or near perfect match based on the child’s ethnicity … automatically outweighs other considerations’ (Department for Education, 2012, p. 21). In England—but not in Wales—the Children and Families Act 2014 marks a ‘crucial symbolic landmark’ in repealing the ‘ethnicity clause’ featured in the New Labour Adoption and Children Act 2002 (Kirton, 2016, p. 2). The intention, therefore, is clearly to promote the transracial adoption of black and minority ethnic children. More fundamentally, the current Conservative government is ideologically committed to minimising the relevance of ‘race’ and ethnicity, grossly over-simplifying both the ‘processes and experiences of adoption’ (Ali, 2014b, p. 68; see also Sissay, 2012). Discussion: assessing contemporary adoption politics The evolving politics of child adoption should be situated alongside a range of contextual issues and themes. These include the continuing ramifications of the death of Peter Connelly in 2007 (‘Baby P’), which appeared to reveal, certainly according to potent media forces, that social workers were tardy in removing children from damaging and potential lethal familial circumstances (Bilson, 2017; see also Jones, 2014; Shoesmith, 2016). Alternatively, having been removed, children were, according to dominant accounts, carelessly restored to manifestly dangerous environments. The political and media preoccupation with so-called ‘troubled families’ is significant (Crossley, 2016). In the 1970s, a not ‘dissimilar interest in “problem families” went hand-in-hand with a rapid rise in the number of children in public care in the context of an ideological preference for “rescue” rather than rehabilitation’ (Butler, 2014, p. 420). Perhaps also, developments in neuroscience and brain imaging technology are serving to reinforce the vital importance of a child's early years and are providing an impetus to embed latently punitive processes of ‘early intervention’ and the swift removal of children from families perceived to be harmful (Macvarish, 2016; Garrett, 2017). In a society perpetually fractured by class inequalities, such practices disproportionally impact on families subject to processes of ‘advanced marginality’ and ‘territorial stigmatization’ (Wacquant, 2007; see also Bywaters et al., 2015, 2016). At this particular historical juncture, there are at least four distinctive strands helping to constitute Conservative politics on adoption. The fourth of these, it will be argued, is especially significant and it will, therefore, be more expansively explored. First, there is the encompassing project to ‘reform’ the welfare state and this is coupled to the understanding that public sector workers are insufficiently committed to the type of neo-liberal ‘transformation’ perceived as vital. Of late, in order to try and win over a fraction of the profession to the Conservative cause, there has been a strategic, tactical and instrumental willingness to recognise and praise social workers. Cameron did so at his party’s conference in 2013 and Gove (2013), almost lachrymose, replicated this with his recognition of ‘just how difficult—how challenging—how important and how inspiring—the role of social workers is’. Nevertheless, those undertaking such roles are mostly perceived as an ideological obstacle to embedding a more pro-active policy of child adoption. Despite this perception, there is no tangible evidence that social workers are guilty of inefficiency and ‘widespread poor practice’ (Kirton, 2013, p. 100). The establishment of ‘Frontline’ as a ‘fast-track’ route into social work for a potential ‘officer class’ furnishes evidence that the political aim is to craft a social work workforce better attuned to the Conservative worldview (Murphy, 2016; see also MacAlister, 2012). Second, a new emphasis is being placed on the reported lived and ‘real-world’ experience of those primary definers mapping out more assertive approaches to adoption. Expressed a little more theoretically, particular actors are bringing very specific types of ‘symbolic capital’ (Bourdieu, 1991) into the policy arena and using it as a political resource in forging a new ‘common sense’ around adoption (Crehan, 2011; Hall and O’Shea, 2015). Like Michael Gove, Edward Timpson, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children and Families (2012–15), had direct experience of the issue in that he has two adopted brothers. A part of a family that fostered eighty-seven children, he claimed to have witnessed ‘babies addicted to heroin go into spasms’ (Timpson, 2015, p. 3). He was, therefore, someone who recognised the ‘enormous benefits that adoption can bring’ (Timpson, 2013, p. 3). A similar rhetorical strategy was apparent in a letter mailed to a national newspaper in January 2011, where the correspondent corroborated Martin Narey’s rather simplistic plans to increase the number of adoptions, castigating the ‘misplaced emphasis’ on ‘political correctness’ in social work. In this instance, not only was the writer able to refer to his ‘Professorship and Directorship of a Centre of Social Work and Social Policy’; he was keen to confide to readers of The Guardian that he was, in fact, an ‘adoptive person’ himself. In each of these instances, the devisers, enunciators and supporters of adoption ‘reform’ deploy autobiographical data, often laden with affect, to try and disarm criticisms. Unlike most of their critics, each of them has ‘been there’, having personally experienced adoption. Here, ‘primary experience, unmediated by theory, reflection, speculation, argument’ is used like a trump card in a game (Hall et al., 1978, p. 152). Related to the discussion below, the interventions of these spokesmen (and they tend to be men) might also be interpreted, having recourse to another register, as the voices of satisfied ‘consumers’ of adoption services. Third, as had been the case during the Blair period, the impact of US policy and practice remains influential even though it tends not to be perceived as such. For example, the US 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) flagged a more directive, assertive and combative engagement with birth parents. Placing a ‘strong emphasis on shortened timeframes for terminating parental rights and on adoption promotion’, the ASFA undercuts the ‘potential for strengthening family preservation services’ (Kelly and Blythe 2000, p. 36). Moreover, US champions of this legislation, essentially a form of top-down, class-driven social engineering, view it as a global template for more proactive and assertive policies (Bartholet, 2007, p. 170). Despite significant differences, which this article lacks the space to explore, policy on adoption in England and Wales can be situated on the same ideological terrain. It is also apparent that policies to ‘speed up’ adoption processes replicate discursive tropes found in the US discourse. Fourth, especially as these relate to the figure of the potential adopter, the rationalities of consumption are percolating into adoption policy language and material practices. Even ‘where money is not at issue’, these individuals are being configured as ‘market actors’ (Brown, 2015, p. 31, emphasis added). What is more, because of their economic and cultural milieu, potential adopters may be responsive to an evolving paradigm in which they are unambiguously assembled as the ‘customer’ (Expert Working Group on Adoption, 2012). In this context, emphasis is placed on the need for radical ‘approaches to improve customer service’ (Expert Working Group on Adoption, 2012). Similarly, there is a keenness to utilise the skills of ‘marketing and customer insight experts’ in luring, winning over and retaining potential adopters (Department for Education, 2013, p. 30). Market logic is revealed in a new attentiveness to the speed of response to these adoption ‘customers’. Historically, within discourses on the placement of children, temporal questions often focused on children ‘drifting’ or ‘waiting’ too long in care on account of inadequate care planning (Brown and Ward, 2012). Alertness to such dangers helps, in fact, to constitute part of the doxic knowledge of the bureaucratic field of child and family social work. Now the issue of time is as likely to focus on the velocity of agency responses to potential adopters. The entire thrust of Gove’s plan hinged, as observed earlier, on creating ‘swifter’ adoption processes and ‘fast tracks’. Likewise, ‘scorecards’ incorporate metrics relating to speed of response to enquiries (Department for Education, 2012, p. 17). Such a valorisation of speed of response chimes, of course, with corporate customer service approaches, with the underlying assumption being that technology can ‘accelerate the delivery of products and solutions’ and ‘welfare solutions’ in the ‘here and now’ (Pithouse, 2008, p. 1545). As one of Suki Ali’s (2014b, p. 77) respondents told her, one of the ‘problems with the government is that they talk about having a John Lewis [an upmarket UK chain of department stores] customer service meaning, you know, the customer being the adopters’. There are also some indications that a muddled understanding of local authorities’ target-driven culture is adversely impacting on the perceptions of parents who have children embroiled in care proceedings (Broadhurst et al., 2015, p. 91). A quicker speed of response may not, of course, always be in the best interest of the children concerned and this has been a criticism levelled at ‘aggressive’ attempts to transform policy from Blair onwards (Bilson, 2017, p. 1). This is because assessment processes are appropriately complex and rightfully time-consuming. Indeed, the emphasis on swiftness, removal and adoption application was criticised by Judge Sir James Munby, president of the High Court family division, who, in the case of Re B-S, complained about the ‘recurrent inadequacy of the analysis and reasoning put forward in support of the case for adoption’ (in Tickle, 2014). There will be instances where it is better for children to remain in foster-care for a lengthy period than to be speeding along on a ‘fast track’ to permanent adoption (Hill, 2012). Noting the increase in the number of adoptions, the vice-chair of the BASW maintains that the ‘policy imperative’ to introduce quicker forced adoptions could mean ‘we may well look back on this period in horror as we do now to the forcible removal of thousands of children to Australia in the 1930s, 40s and 50s without their parents’ knowledge or consent’ (in Tickle, 2015, p. 36). Attention should be accorded to the ways in which children—as the ‘products’—are discursively and materially situated within the evolving politics of adoption. Arguably, the current political lukewarmness towards ‘openness’ can be connected to a desire to reproduce the fixity of contracted ownership for purchased items. Legal adoption wholly and unequivocally transfers parental responsibility to the adoptive parents, so practices of ‘openness’ can be interpreted as rendering fuzzy or ambiguous ‘ownership’ of the child. Perhaps strategies aiming to legally fix and stabilise a child’s status, by extinguishing ‘openness’, provide an illustration of Rancière’s theorisation as to how individuals are situated at specific places inside of ‘police’ orders (Garrett, 2015a, 2015b). Hence, the preoccupation with categorically defining which family a child is a member of eliminates, in some senses, any ambiguity attached to their role and place within a specific grid of class-determined relationships and associated cultural expectations. Following the same line of analysis, the enthusiasm for ‘adoption parties’ may be significant. Such arrangements, popular in the US in states such as Massachusetts, prompt potential adopters to take a ‘much greater role in initiating matches’ with children (Department for Education, 2013, p. 34). On occasions called ‘placement activity days’, these are events designed to provide an opportunity for potential adopters to briefly engage with a number of children prior to making a decision about whether or not they wish to adopt a particular child (Department for Education, 2012). In this way, the ‘customer’ is afforded the opportunity to shop around, to peruse and select from an array of ‘goods’. Referred to as ‘cattle markets for kids’, ‘fashion parties’ or ‘speed dating for toddlers’ (in Moorhead, 2014, p. 1), the ‘adoption party’ innovation has not sat comfortably with many child welfare professionals. Before closing in 2015, partly due to funding difficulties, the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF) was involved in such events. A director of child placement at the association conceded that the ‘parties’ illustrate how ‘we are moving up the tariff of risk in the ways we are being forced to seek out families for these children’ (in Hill, 2009, p. 6). Similarly, Action for Children refers to the ‘high risk’ for the children involved, since they will be ‘aware that they are being picked or not picked at the parties, no matter how sensitive the pre-party preparation has been’ (in Hill, 2009, p. 6). Conclusion Recent figures indicate that the numbers of children adopted are falling and this has, in part, been linked to the Re B-S and Re B court judgements (Department for Education, 2016b, p. 6). In September 2016, it was reported that, although the ‘number and percentage of looked after children placed for adoption rose between 2012 and 2014 … the numbers fell by 9 per cent last year and have fallen by a further 18% this year’ (Department for Education, 2016b, p. 8). Nevertheless, an important and forensic exploration of data by Bilson (2017, p. 3) reveals that: Over the 16-year period from 2001 to 2016, 59,970 children were adopted from care. An estimated 34,000 children would have been adopted between 1985 and 2000. This estimate shows that there was likely to be more than 25,000 extra adoptions of children from care since 2001, an increase of 76%. Certainly, a heightened policy focus on adoption can be interpreted as the neo-liberal state seeking to save money on long-term family interventions in situations where parenting is viewed as problematic. In crude terms, therefore, adoption might be perceived as a form of privatisation in that the public authority withdraws and merely acts as a potent mechanism facilitating the legal transfer of parental responsibility to permanent substitute parents who are perceived as being less likely to need costly assistance. In this discussion, especially the latter portion, the focus has been more on the language used to ‘sell’ adoption. In this sense, it often seems that all ‘conduct is economic conduct; all spheres of existence are framed and measured in economic terms and metrics, even when those spheres are not directly monetized’ (Brown, 2015, p. 10). 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The British Journal of Social WorkOxford University Press

Published: Jul 1, 2018

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