After a summer spent working on a holiday project for kids referred by social services, it was gratifying to come back to headlines heralding a mature and sensible approach to helping vulnerable children.
Martin Narey’s call for more baby adoptions from troubled families is both evidence-based and compassionate: adoption is the most powerful social intervention we know of, and the sooner it is used, the less damage is suffered by the child to their development and life chances.
The evidence for this is clear: take, for instance, the cases of Romanian infants adopted in the 90s; those adopted earliest in life experienced huge developmental catch-up with their prosperous peers, whilst those not adopted until three or four years were subject to continued negative consequences throughout childhood. Likewise, we know children born to parents who do not want them fare far worse than children adopted at birth.
This is not a question of ‘redistributing’ children from poor to wealthy families. It is a question of redistributing them from families which are incapable or unwilling to give them the love and care they need to ones which can and will – rich or poor.
There is no right to have a child – it is the greatest privilege with which human beings can be charged. Therefore it is only those with an appalling lack of concern for child wellbeing who insist that the bond between child and parent can never be fully severed, regardless of the neglect and abuse of this privilege. Mistreatment has causes beyond the fault of parents, of course – but once a child is born, it’s too late for a softly-softly approach: that child comes first – no ifs, no buts.
The current woolly thinking stems from a squalid misreading of ‘attachment’ theory, which views the bond between a child and its ‘primary caregiver’ as crucial to later development. However, evidence indicates that children don’t form specific attachments to individuals in early infancy, making this the ideal time for adoption; leaving it later risks disrupting attachments with damaging consequences. And of course not all attachments are positive – it’s probable that abusive and neglectful parents will form negative bonds, with lifelong detrimental consequences.
All the evidence from parenting studies suggests that it’s the quality of care, not the genetics of the individual providing it, which determines the outcomes for children. That genetic parents are more likely to provide loving parenting in no way implies that they will always do so – and where they do not, society must intervene. And far better that this occurs early and permanently than the child be shuttled through a myriad of placements, always in the hope that their parents might one day be able to care for them properly. That is a system which places the parents’ claims over the child above the child’s right to a decent upbringing.
So what should be done? Firstly, adoption needs to be presented as a viable choice to expectant mothers of the unwanted infants who are most at risk of later abuse. Social workers, teachers and healthcare professionals should present the evidence that unwanted babies do best when adopted, and allow mothers to make that decision with no stigma attached.
Where the parents do not make this choice, but are known to be abusive towards other children, or are abusive or neglectful during the first months after birth, or have failed to resolve addictions despite attempts at helping them, then an element of compulsion in adoption can legitimately be introduced – and we should have no shame in saying so.
Where neglectful and cruel parents do not choose to surrender their children, it is neither a deprivation of rights nor an intrusion on privacy for the state to take action to improve that child’s life: it is the kind of bravery we should expect from a compassionate society.