Evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights: The right to family life: adoption of children of unmarried women 1949-1976
We welcome the Joint Committee’s investigation into the scandal of widespread forced adoptions in the 1950s-70s, when single mothers were forced to give up their babies at or soon after birth, usually as a result of parental, financial and/or societal pressure. We are glad that the many years of campaigning by the Movement for an Adoption Apology and others most affected has resulted in official recognition of this callous injustice, which caused untold trauma to thousands of mothers and their now adult children, to the fore. It is long overdue.
But the Committee cannot stop at the ‘70s if it is to get and give an accurate picture of the injustices mothers are still facing because the scandal of forced adoption is far from over. Mothers whose children are being forcibly adopted right now must also be heard.
Our coalition Support not Separation, co-ordinated by Legal Action for Women (LAW), brings together organisations and individuals who have experienced or witnessed the damage caused by the arbitrary separation of children from their mothers (or other primary carer), and are determined to change this desperate situation. It includes organisations of single mothers, women of colour, women with disabilities, rape survivors, breastfeeding advocates, kinship carers, psychotherapists, men and social workers.
Our Dossier Suffer the Little Children and their Mothers (2017) gives an overview of our experience with hundreds of women we have worked with – predominantly single mothers on low income, many of them Black women or other women of colour, immigrant, with a disability, and/or who went through the care system as children. Our most recent research, published in July 2021 found that of 219 mothers, at least 76% had suffered domestic abuse, 44% were women of colour and/or immigrant women, and 10% had children who had been or were in the process of being adopted. In every case the mother/primary carer strenuously opposed the adoption, including by representing themselves in appeals to the High Court when their legal aid had been stopped.
During parliamentary debates on the forced adoptions you are considering, MPs have said that such adoptions could not happen now because there is a court process. But, as you will know, the Ministry of Justice’s Harm Review found that women face a number of barriers in the family courts including “sexism, racism and classism” – and we would add, disability discrimination.
As you must know, more than 90% of all adoptions in the UK take place without the consent of the birth family. Over 3,500 children were adopted in England and Wales in 2019 – the last year for which we have figures. While a court order is now required, the judicial system has not protected mothers and children from this most cruel abuse of power by the state. The family court hearings which make such decisions are held behind closed doors, mothers cannot even tell their families what is happening to them, and the press are mostly oblivious of what is happening, even though some judgements are reported anonymously. As with any secret system, there is no public scrutiny. Mothers who have tried to speak out have been slapped with gagging orders or threatened with prison.
It is untrue that all or even most children who are adopted come from abusive homes from which they have been “rescued”. In fact, many children are taken into care when poverty is considered “neglect”, when mothers who’ve suffered domestic violence are accused of harming their children because they couldn’t escape and were given no help to do so, when young mothers who were raised in “care” have babies taken at birth on the assumption that they don’t know how to be a parent, when disabled mothers and those with mental health problems are told they won’t be able to “cope” with their children. Often children get taken on the basis of an assumption by social workers, backed by judges, that at some point in the future a mother might cause her child “emotional harm”, even when no actual harm has yet taken place. Challenging a future “possibility” is virtually impossible especially if all the professionals involved predict it and back each other up.
The mothers/primary carers we have worked with include:
A young white working-class mother with a very mild learning disability who got no support to keep her child and whose family members were assessed as “not suitable” – her baby had never suffered harm or neglect, but was taken on the basis of “possible future emotional harm”, and the child was cut off not only from birth parents but two sets of grandparents who also loved her. They were working class, her adopters middle class, and as her grandmother told a public meeting in Parliament, this, like the forced adoptions you are looking at, was social engineering. The mother has gone on to raise a child with a new partner.
A young Black mother who had been raped as a teenager, again got no support, was told she did not know how to be a mother because she had spent a short period of time in care and her baby was adopted away from a loving extended family. She too has another child she was “allowed” to keep.
A white working-class father desperate to keep his two young children after his wife was found unfit because of severe mental health issues was not allowed to keep them on the grounds that he would struggle to work and care for them at the same time (which every “working mother” does!), so they were adopted.
An African mother who was a victim of trafficking had two children taken for adoption after she went to social services for advice – she wanted help with her daughter who came to the UK after being looked after by her grandmother in Africa. Instead of support she got criticism and racist judgements from social workers who quickly took her child into care, and when her sibling was born, took him at birth and then adopted them separately. She tells her story here.
A white disabled wheelchair user who lost her child to adoption after she requested support to look after her baby, as is her legal right under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 and the Care Act 2014. She was placed in an unsuitable Mother and Baby Unit on the top floor and told to get up and walk. She had, like a high percentage of disabled mothers, also been a victim of domestic violence. Years later an appeal court ruled that her treatment was unacceptable and that she should have been assessed in the community. By this time her daughter was already adopted. The mother has just recently been contacted by her 18-year-old daughter, who was denied any and all information about her mother throughout her adoption, which broke down. She is taking legal advice about possible redress, but mother and daughter can never re-gain the years they lost by being separated.
In every case, the children who were being forcibly adopted had suffered no harm – until they faced the trauma of separation from their mothers and wider families. No wonder that so many adopted children have a very difficult time as teenagers and that up to 20% of adoptions break down.
Our letter published in the Guardian on 1 June 2021, mentions two adoption cases we were involved with: one, tragically, went ahead to the ongoing distress of the biological family; the other, we were able to stop, saving the children and their loving and dedicated mother. Welcoming our Guardian letter, Jean Robertson-Molloy of Movement for an Adoption Apology highlighted an important point: “I believe we are the only country in western Europe which regularly sanctions adoptions opposed by the birth family.” How many more children and mothers will have to go through this lifelong trauma before this practice is acknowledged as a modern-day scourge and stopped?
As you will know, the Children Act 1989 and the Adoption and Children’s Act 2002 state that the decisions made by the family court “must be in the best interests of the child”. Yet, the trauma of being separated from the person who loves you and is your first protector is ignored or dismissed. Instead, evidence shows time and time again, that children from working-class backgrounds are being “rescued” by middle class professionals – much as was done in the last century to the children of single mothers not only in Britain, but Ireland, Australia, Canada . . . As with these historic cases, abuse of power by state agencies and profiteering by private agencies are at the root of child removals and forced adoptions. Legally adoption is supposed to be a last resort, but successive governments and ministers (Blair, Cameron, Michael Gove) have promoted it as the “gold standard”, and an increasingly privatised “child protection” industry has added a profit incentive. Private fostering, care homes and adoption agencies make millions from the suffering of children and mothers. It is important to note that local authorities with higher adoption rates are also those who take more children into care.
We also note and have given evidence to the independent review of children’s social care which has expressed serious concern that “If we have an increasingly adversarial system, it is not safe for children.” This is the system that too often promotes adoption rather than supporting families under Section 17 of The Children Act. When children are adopted, the state ends its financial responsibility, whilst support in the community is paid for by the state. Supposed savings cannot be the reason since the state has been ready to pay up to £300,000 a year to private companies to keep a child in institutional care. Such profiteering from children’s and families’ misery is obscene.
The mothers, grandmothers and other family members we support, who have battled to keep their children in the face of a political and economic push to fast-track adoptions have a right to be heard. Mothers want justice and an end to a practice based on sexism, devaluing the bond between the child and the mother, denying the legal and human rights of both as well as their right to financial support in favour of an increasingly privatised industry. Forced adoptions are inflicting the worst possible punishment on mainly working-class mothers and children whose “crime” is to be victims of violence and/or to need financial help.
We hope that your committee will agree to call on mothers who are facing forced adoptions right now. These mothers do not want to wait decades for their struggles to be acknowledged – they want recognition and an end to the injustice now.
Anne Neale, Legal Action for Women, co-ordinates Support Not Separation
Tracey Norton, Disabled Mothers’ Campaign
28 October 2021