Why is Harriet Harman refusing to hear evidence about forced adoptions happening today?

For immediate release

Forced adoptions are not only ‘historic’. Why is Harriet Harman’s human rights committee refusing to hear evidence about the thousands of forced adoptions taking place today?

On 6 July 2021, we wrote to the Joint Committee on Human Rights asking them to include evidence from mothers whose children are being adopted without their consent right now. We never even received an acknowledgement.  We should not have to wait another 50 years for these continuing tragedies to be reported and stopped.  This is the letter we wrote.

Committee must hear from mothers whose children are being forcibly adopted right now

6 July 2021

Dear Harriet Harman,

We write following the coverage of “Mothers Demand Apology Over Forced Adoptions”.  We understand that the Joint Committee will hear oral evidence from single mothers who were forced to give up their babies from birth in the 50s-70s.  We very much welcome this hearing.  Official recognition of the women whose struggle over decades has forced this callous injustice 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.  Mothers whose children are being  forcibly adopted right now must also be heard.  We should not have to wait 50 years for these continuing tragedies to be reported.  We must take this opportunity to hear about them and stop them occurring now.  Current publicity about historic adoptions give the misleading impression that forced adoptions are a thing of the past.  Children’s and Families Minister Vicky Ford is not challenged when she says, “We cannot undo the past, but we can be reassured that our legislation and practices have been significantly strengthened since then.”

However, the scandal of forced adoption is far from over.  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.  We have a monthly protest outside the central family court (on line since Covid) and monthly self-help meetings.  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.  A majority have been victims of domestic abuse and have gone through a family court system which the government sponsored Harm Review found full of “sexism, racism and classism”.

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.

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?

Of the other mothers in our group who have suffered in this way, one was an Black immigrant victim of trafficking.  She lost her children to adoption when, having escaped her traffickers, she approached social services for help thinking they were there to support families.  Instead, they took both her children, justifying their forced adoption (by different families of different races) by claiming that as a “victim” she was “unable to parent”.  She will have no contact with her children unless or until they look for her once they turn 18, and they have no contact with each other.  No-one knows how they will struggle through life, living with the trauma of separation and the belief that they were abandoned by their mother.

Another mother also deemed “unable to parent” is a very young single mother who had been raped as a child when walking home from school.  Fortunately, she went on to have another child shortly afterward and has been deemed able to keep that baby.  No reasonable explanation has been forthcoming as to why the first child was removed.  Yet another, a disabled wheelchair user, 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 but a note was put on record.  She has never received an apology.

We are seeing a huge increase of domestic abuse victims losing their children to forced adoptions because their mothers are blamed for a violent crime committed by the fathers.  Never mind that many mothers fled their abusers with nothing but the clothes on their backs to protect the very children who are then taken from them. Such scandals are kept from the public by family court hearings which are held in secret – women are not even allowed to tell their families what is happening to them.

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 £200,000 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.

Yours sincerely,

Anne Neale & Tracey Norton