Is Adoption no longer a Human Rights abuse?
Shame, supply, safeguarding, and entitlement
Writing to a friend in 1975, Angela Hamblin explained that she wanted to use her experience in Jigsaw “to understand my own oppression as an unmarried mother and the whole patriarchal concept of illegitimacy.” She developed that understanding in her introductory essay to the Jigsaw booklet, The Other Side of Adoption (1977). Here, she argued that the whole framing of adoption as helping single mothers to escape shame needed to be challenged. Shame, Angela suggested, was the by-product of a double standard that could be traced back to the nineteenth century - “one set of rules for men and quite another for women.” She documented how, after the 1834 New Poor Law was enacted, unmarried mothers who couldn’t support themselves were sent, with their children, to the workhouse. They (not the fathers) had to be punished, and they were made to wear a yellow stripe on a grey gown, known as the ‘badge of shame.’ The alternative, for some mothers, was to avoid the workhouse by selling their children to ‘baby farmers’ - a different form of punishment, akin to what we would now call child trafficking.
Adoption could be seen, in the twentieth century, as a more humane solution to the shame of illegitimacy - adoption would make the illegitimate child legitimate, and, the mothers were told, give him or her a better life. The single mother, meanwhile, could forget the birth and believe that a future husband need never know. As Angela noted, ”The solution to the problem of illegitimacy was to pretend it never happened.”
In reality, the mother could not forget, and she was made to feel that her wellbeing depended on her secret never being discovered. On 27 October, 1976, a year after parliament voted to accept the right of adult adoptees to access their birth records, Daily Mirror agony aunt Marje Proops described a letter she had received from a natural mother. “I’d rather end my life than tell my husband about the illegitimate child I had 25 years ago, “ the letter read. “ My marriage, my children and my home are threatened, all because of a mistake I made when I was hardly more than a child myself.”
For Angela, this fear exemplified the injustice of a double standard about illegitimacy that lived on, unchallenged by the ‘solution’ of adoption.
“Nobody asked why this mother’s marriage, children and home should be threatened because she had an illegitimate baby 25 years ago. And if they really are threatened, is it right that this should be so? Instead, it is accepted, even today, that to have it ‘come out’ that one has been an unmarried mother, however long ago, is still ‘crime’ enough to bring about the destruction of a woman’s life.
Will there ever be a time when these harsh rules no longer apply? Will there ever be just one set of rules which apply equally to men and to women? When it will be considered no worse to be an unmarried mother than an unmarried father? When a mother will be given the emotional and material support she needs instead of being forced to part with her baby and endure the life-long pain which so often follows?”
(Angela Hamblin, Then and Now, in The Other Side of Adoption, 1977)
What has changed?
The social climate is certainly different for single mothers now - there is less stigma, and more opportunity, for them to provide a home for their child. This, together with improved availability of contraception and legalised abortion, has dramatically reduced the numbers of babies that are available for adoption because of concerns about ‘illegitimacy’.
Adoption is more open now than it had been in the post war years, although there are strict limits. Adoption agencies are now encouraged to consider whether continued contact with the child’s ‘birth family’ is in the child’s interest. Such contact can include direct meetings, but is more often by occasional letters sent via the adoption agency, who can monitor the communication and remove ‘inappropriate content.’
And contact tracing is easier now, with the development of DNA testing. This is a mixed blessing, though, as tracing lost relatives has become a branch of the highly lucrative ancestry research/data harvesting industry, avoiding the barriers, but also the safeguards, of contact registers and intermediary services.
Did forced adoption end in 1976?
In 2021, the UK Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights set up an inquiry “to understand the experiences of unmarried women whose children were adopted between 1949 and 1976 in England and Wales.” It heard harrowing evidence from mothers whose babies were taken for adoption, and from adoptees describing the trauma of being separated from their mothers by adoption. The Committee’s Report, published in July 2022, officially acknowledged forced adoption as a human rights abuse, and concluded that the UK government should apologise for it. (A government response to the Inquiry has been repeatedly delayed. Whether or not this will include an apology is, at the time of writing, far from clear).
Apologies, can, if sincere, give some comfort to the victims of historical abuse. But they can also divert attention from what is currently happening. Acknowledging the truth about an injustice that happened in the past is needed, but the Human Rights Committee’s Report assumed that, in England and Wales, the abuse ended in 1976. This is an assumption that is questionable, but rarely challenged.
Thankfully, we don’t in the UK have a powerful pro-adoption lobby like that in the USA, able to persuade both main political parties that taking children from families struggling with poverty or addiction should be a prime aim of government policy. But institutional pressures on social workers on this side of the Atlantic can sometimes result in a similar outcome.
Today, much adoption in England and Wales is of children who have been taken from their mothers because of concerns about the child’s safety. It is assumed that removal is in the interests of the child, and that adoption is a better outcome than alternative forms of care. Under the Children Act 1989, care or supervision orders can be made only if “the child concerned is suffering, or is likely to suffer significant harm”. But when the source of that risk is an abusive man, the response of social services is all too often to separate mother and child, rather than deal with the perpetrator.
”Social services are responsible for the safety of children, and it hasn’t, despite decades of feminist intervention and campaigning, quite grasped the fact that the best way to protect children is to protect their mothers. Male violence is the responsibility of the perpetrator, not the victim. If the men committing such heinous acts of cruelty were effectively dealt with, child protection would become a far easier job all round.” (Julie Bindel, Women who report abuse face losing their children, Unherd 20 April 2022)
Whether or not a child is “likely to suffer considerable harm” is, of course, a matter of interpretation. Investigative journalist Melanie Newman has written about the Graded Care Profile scoresheet used by many social workers in assessing child protection referral. Parents are graded according to criteria which reflect class and cultural bias - “what the assessment tool is effectively saying is that the best parents are those who spend the most on their children and on housekeeping, in terms of time and money.’’ Mothers unable to provide ‘good enough care’ (one example is preparing a home-made meal rather than relying on convenience food) are at increased risk of their children being taken into care.
Add to this the financial pressures on local authority children’s services, and a suspicion that social workers, in the wake of some appalling abuse cases, may have become overly risk-averse, and it seems clear that not all children taken from their mothers are at risk of physical harm. Lack of transparency in the family court system makes it hard to determine what is actually happening, and at what scale. But, as was the case before 1976, it seems that many mothers whose children are removed from them, taken into care, and subsequently adopted, could raise their children perfectly adequately and safely if they were given appropriate support. Again as was the case before 1976, when abuse by men is not addressed, forced adoption is often a result.
A belief that infertile couples are entitled to take children from their mothers is one thing that definitely has not changed. Already, as the number of children that can easily be adopted has fallen, surrogacy is taking its place as a source of supply. The consequences for the women who bear the children, and for the children they give birth to, are at least as concerning with surrogacy as they are with adoption. I shall be exploring these concerns about surrogacy in my next post.
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