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Friday, 19 January 2018

Report: The Role Of The Social Worker In Adoption – Ethics And Human Rights - An Enquiry

Written by The Editorial Team

Adoption has been a particularly politicised and contentious area of public policy in recent years in the UK, perhaps most particularly in England. Political and ideological perspectives on adoption drive legal frameworks, policy, the culture of practice and the use of resources. It was against this backdrop that BASW commissioned the Adoption Enquiry in 2016.

The UK-wide enquiry, led by Professors Brid Featherstone and Anna Gupta, took evidence from more than 300 individuals and organisations. These included social workers, birth families, legal professionals, adoptive parents and adults who were adopted as children.

The study allowed for novel approaches to enable people from different perspectives to speak and listen to each other openly and safely. Through this, complex and profound narratives, which are too often silenced within prevailing discourse, have been brought to the fore. 

Key findings

  • Challenging the status quo: It was considered that in England, in recent decades, policy makers had tended to promote adoption as risk free in a ‘happy ever after’ narrative. The Enquiry heard from a range of respondents across the UK that this is unhelpful.

It can lead to the silencing of adopted children and adults who may have to manage contradictory emotions such as grief and loss, joy and happiness. It can lead to birth families being unable to articulate their losses and feelings of shame and sadness. It can also leave adoptive families silenced and unable to access the help they need.

  • Impact of austerity: The researchers found austerity was adding to the “considerable adversities” faced by many families in poverty who are seeking to safely care for their children. Welfare and legal aid cuts had reduced the financial resources available to some, while services designed to help more families stay together and prevent children being taken into care had also been stripped back.

Cutbacks were also impacting post-adoption support, with provision for both birth families and adoptive families “inadequate”, the enquiry found. Support for post-adoption contact between adopted children and their birth families was under-resourced, with little follow up from services if “letterbox contact” was ended unilaterally by any of the parties.

  • Human rights: The enquiry found social work’s professional ethics were not routinely or transparently used to inform adoption practice and said this area needed further exploration. It heard groups of parents such as birth mothers with mental health or learning difficulties and young parents who grew up in care were particularly vulnerable to both losing their children and not having their human rights respected.
  • Importance of social workers: The enquiry found the quality of the relationship between social workers and families was “crucial” to pre-and post-adoption support. However, it warned the pressure of rising caseloads and cuts to services, meant many practitioners felt limited in the time and support they could provide and some families feared their children would end up taken into care if they sought help.
  • Support for adoptive parents: There was a consensus that post adoption support needed improving for everyone, with ethical issues raised in relation to adoptive parents being left caring for traumatised children without adequate help. England is the only country to have an Adoption Support Fund, but this was viewed as insufficiently resourced, with the amounts available capped in recent years.


This Enquiry is a start and not an ending point for BASW. We will continue to develop its themes and support improvements in practice, policy and professional confidence, particularly in the application of ethical and human rights principles in this vital area of work.

We will do this at a UK-wide and country specific level and will be holding events across ngland, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales to explore detailed implications in each of the jurisdictions.

The enquiry’s authors, Professor Featherstone and Professor Gupta, made five recommendations and BASW has accepted them and has outlined how they will action them.

BASW CEO Ruth Allen, said: “Adoption can be highly successful, providing children with stable, loving homes and adoptive parents with the experience of creating the family they want.  Birth families may consent to adoption and recognise the value to their biological child.

“However, the Enquiry explores the complex realities of adoption for many people, particularly in non-consensual adoption, with mixed outcomes and experiences for all involved which raise questions about what the report calls a dominant ‘happy ever after’ narrative.”

There is a dearth of information and meaningful longitudinal research to inform policy and social work practice on adoption. Very little information is collected or known about the social and economic circumstances, the lifetime costs and benefits, and long-term outcomes of the promotion of adoption of children from care.

For example, there is no comprehensive data on the number of children who are returned to care after adoption and the reasons why, nor sufficient research into the longitudinal outcomes into adult life of those who are adopted.

Allen continues: “Without this information, the arguments made for adoption in its current form and current policy are insufficiently evidenced. Therefore, we are urging government and key stakeholders to urgently discuss the use of adoption in the context of wider social policies, specifically relating to poverty and inequality.”

The Adoption Enquiry report and BASW’s Response can be found here.