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This briefing is on “The Role of the Social Worker in Adoption – Ethics and Human Rights: An Enquiry” by Professor Brid Featherstone, Professor Anna Gupta and Sue Mills. The report is collaboration between the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), University of Huddersfield and Royal Holloway University of London.

The report of the enquiry was published on 16th January 2018 and is available at:


This enquiry into adoption in all four jurisdictions of the UK was commissioned by BASW in 2016. BASW wanted the enquiry to “…explore the ethical and human rights dimensions of social work practice when making life changing decisions about children and their families…”

The enquiry aimed to create safe spaces to hear the experience and views of everyone involved.  BASW intends the enquiry to start further discussion and debate about improvements in practice in this very sensitive area.

Why was the enquiry held?

The enquiry was considered necessary for several reasons:

  • The promotion of adoption by government policy in England and the interest in expanding its role in ensuring permanence and stability for children;
  • Social workers are central to the implementation of adoption policy;
  • There has been little discussion about the role of the social worker in relation to ethics and human rights.

How was the enquiry undertaken?

The enquiry was undertaken under the leadership of Professors Brid Featherstone and Ana Gupta with support from Sue Mills as research assistant and a steering group convened by BASW.  The enquiry included a scoping review of literature, a questionnaire hosted by BASW, focus groups of adopted young people and CAFCASS Children’s Guardians in England, face to face interviews with members of the judiciary, seven seminars across the UK, four including adopted people, adoptive families, birth families, social workers, managers, academics and lawyers, two involved social workers and managers and one adopted people and adoptive parents.  The report provides details of the numbers participating from different backgrounds and the different parts of the UK.

Structure of the Report

The report has five sections covering:

  1. The use of adoption;
  2. The role of the social worker in adoption: listening to social workers;
  3. The role of the social worker in adoption: listening to those who experience social work services;
  4. The role of the social worker in adoption: other professionals and organisations;
  5. Ethical and human rights implications for social workers involved in adoption.

It also covers a final section making five recommendations

Section 1: The Use of Adoption

The enquiry considered that in England policy makers have tended to promote a ‘happy ever after’ narrative of adoption which is seen as unhelpful by respondents to the enquiry across the UK.  The complexities of a wholly positive or negative narrative on adoption were captured in a quote from a social worker.

‘Adoption always raises ethical issues in relation to social engineering – the removal of a child from a poor family to a better off family. It involves placing a child in a situation where they potentially lose their identity including their culture, language and family of origin to name but a few. Nevertheless, in my experience many children have benefited from the stability that adoption has offered them and have gone on to have happy and fulfilling lives.’

The enquiry heard that a lack of clarity about the status of adoption was leading to unhelpful misunderstandings, including about the claims of adoptive families that their children deserve and need state resources in a comparable manner to other looked after children. The promotion of adoption in England was seen as inhibiting ethical debates about adoption and its merits compared to other permanence options.

The problems of contact within adoption were considered by the enquiry including the poor support provided for letterbox contact, the only contact on offer in most adoptions.  The lack of direct contact was seen as possibly storing up trouble for the future given that many adopted people seek reunification with their birth families later in life. Many contributing to the enquiry thought a rethink of arrangements for contact was essential. A key message from young people was that adoptive parents need to be prepared for the reality that many young people will want to search for their birth families when they reach 18 years. Adopted people felt it was vital that identity issues and dual/multiple connections are recognised and discussed.

The enquiry reflected long standing concerns about the impact of adoption on marginalised sections of society and the current context of austerity. Amongst the marginalised groups birth mothers with mental health or learning difficulties and young care-experienced parents were amongst the most vulnerable.

The key points from this section were:

  • It is vital that the perspectives of all impacted by adoption are more fully engaged in policy and practice dialogue about its use and implications;
  • The status of adoption and its relationship to other permanence arrangements and state support for family life needs to be clarified in policy and practice guidance;
  • A significant rethink of approaches to ‘contact’ and connection between adopted children and their families is needed;
  • The current model of adoption fails to adequately recognise multiple attachments and complex identities;
  • The use of adoption needs to be discussed in the context of wider social policies and their impact on already disadvantaged families and communities.

Section 2: The Role of the Social Worker in Adoption: Listening to Social Workers

This section explores the views of social workers who engaged with the enquiry.

Respondents were a mix of frontline social workers in child protection and adoption teams, team managers, senior managers, Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs), Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHs), Managers of IROs and CAFCASS Children’s Guardians.

The enquiry found social workers used the term ethics in a general sense to refer to whether a policy or practice was right or not. Codes of ethics whether those such as BASW’s or from other professional organisations were not explicitly referred to. Social workers reported few opportunities to challenge whether policy or practice in their organisation was wrong. The enquiry did see evidence of social workers doing ‘ethics work’ where social workers did work to see the wider political context in which they practiced.

The way adoption was promoted as a ‘gold standard’ had an impact on workers ability to take an ethical approach.  A senior social worker explained:

‘Often at the early help points of transfer stage a case is seen as an ‘adoption’ case because adoption is so high profile. Permanence has been hijacked to equal adoption – child’s ‘right’ to adoption. Belief is ‘safe certainty’ of adoption and adoption becomes a ‘runaway train’ and impossible for individual social workers to stop.’

Most social workers did not explicitly use the term human rights, but they did identify a range of concerns about the impact of austerity.  The impact of austerity was a concern for social workers.  Most wanted to see a better balance between assessment and support. Social workers made observations of how decision making was impacted by resources for completion of work including the lack of time and the pressure to meet timescales.  The 26-week timescale for completion of care proceedings in England and Wales was a concern for most English respondents. There was consensus that post adoption support needed to improve for everyone.

The fragmentation of the social work role was also raised as a concern with birth and adoptive families having to deal with different social workers at different stages of the process. The organisation of services may encourage silo thinking as social workers work in one part of the system and can lose a sense of the whole picture.

Key points from this section:

  • Social work’s professional ethics are not routinely and transparently used to inform adoption practice;
  • A human rights discourse in social work in relation to adoption is under-developed;
  • Austerity is negatively affecting social workers’ role in adoption;
  • There is too little time at every stage of the process;
  • Fixed timescales are problematic, yet delays need to be minimised;
  • Adoptive parents can change plans post adoption and this can be a concern for social workers;
  • More resources are needed post adoption;
  • Fragmented roles can mean fragmented approaches to families.

Section 3: The Role of the Social Worker in Adoption: Listening to those who Experience Social Work Services

This section explores the messages from adopted young people and adults, birth families and adoptive families.

Across the range of family members, the importance of the relationship with the social worker was stressed. Birth families gave examples of positive and negative experiences including in the latter case feeling deceived and not understanding or being helped to understand why their children were permanently removed.

Many of the responses from adoptive parents repeated themes found in the birth parents’ accounts.

The messages from young adopted people for social works were:

  • Listen and don’t judge;
  • Be honest and don’t lie about history;
  • Be caring and friendly and fun;
  • Get to know the individual;
  • Get the right balance between being available but not too intrusive – work with the child/young person and give them choice;
  • Help young people express their emotions and access support, but also it is important young people are not labelled and assumed to have emotional problems;
  • Make young people aware of their rights and any changes to policy or legislation (e.g. access to information).

A key theme was the use and misuse of power with families stressing that social workers have a great deal of power in relation to assessments and decision making. Birth parents often felt powerless and that their practical needs and material circumstances were not taken into account.

Birth parents felt stigmatised by a history of being in care or being abused themselves as children.

There were examples of adoptive parents experiencing requests for help as being seen in terms of risk and that they became seen as the problem.

There were examples of good practice. One adoptive parent described their experience as:

‘My social worker knew me and my support network, and therefore could speak confidently about me across agencies, and could also make a well-informed judgment when commenting on a potential match. Once the placement had taken place, my social worker could be one step ahead as stress points arose and could intervene with support and advice to prevent serious problems arising.’

The importance of identity and dealing with identity issues was critical for adopted people. Life story work was highlighted as crucial. The importance of sibling relationships was recognised by all participants in the enquiry. The complexity of sibling relationships and decisions on whether to place together or not was also recognised.

Adopted children, adopters and birth parents all struggled with how to manage contact including letterbox contact.

Those who had lost children to adoption did not find that their emotional and practical needs post adoption were recognised.

Key points in this section:

  • The quality of the relationship with a social worker is crucial;
  • The use and misuse of power is a key issue;
  • Court processes can feel like a ‘fait accompli’ for birth families;
  • Good practice is possible even in difficult circumstances;
  • Dealing with identity issues is a central aspect of many adopted people’s lives
    Siblings matter;
  • Do we need to sever relationships so starkly? Contact and continuity of relationships often matter;
  • Post adoption support services need to be available for all.

Section 4: The Role of the Social Worker in Adoption: Other Professionals and Organisations

Other professionals contributing included legal personnel, academics, related professionals and a range of organisations.  These professionals reflected the messages of the earlier sections.

This section makes suggestions about what might make a difference for children and families.

These suggestions included:

  • Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC) as a positive development;
  • The organisation Change has developed ‘easy read‘ materials for service users with learning difficulties;
  • The WomenCentre, who have run groups for mothers living apart from their children, provide training for prospective adoptive parents;
  • The opportunity for birth parents to meet prospective adoptive parents of their children;
  • Local authorities should look more broadly at the positive research on the use of specialist foster care for short breaks/episodic accommodation for families with particular issues such as mental health issues.

Section 5: Ethical and Human Rights Implications for Social Workers Involved in Adoption

The enquiry thinks there is a need to “strengthen discussions in social work and about social work and to draw from the now extensive literature on ethics.”

Ethical talk needs to be embedded in cultures of critical reflection and dialogue. There was little evidence that such cultures were available to social workers. The enquiry found there is a need to explore why codes of ethics such as those developed by BASW are so little referred to by social work practitioners.

The enquiry poses the question of whether alternatives such as the Framework for Ethical Self-Assessment should be explored. This framework poses the following questions for social workers:

  • What prejudgments might you bring to your work as a result of your personal and cultural history?
  • What are your images of a morally good person and/or social worker?
  • What are your ethical principles and how do you prioritise them?
  • What ethical theoretical perspective informs your thinking?
  • What is your understanding of human nature?
  • What is the place of spirituality in your world view?
  • How do you mediate the tension between individual rights and responsibilities and the common good? What is your moral voice?

The enquiry suggests that notions such as ‘moral distress’ open possibilities for action by social workers, their employers, BASW and other professional organisations. The enquiry distinguishes between moral dilemmas which involve two or more courses of action that are in conflict but each is defensible and appropriate and moral distress where one action is preferred and morally superior but the person feels blocked from pursuing it by factors outside themselves. The report links this concept to the impact of the fragmentation of services which leaves social workers with different parts of the problem in a ‘rational-technical’ approach which may contribute to a social worker’s ‘moral distress’.

The enquiry believes further discussion on these issues is imperative. It notes that:

“Ideas of ethics and human rights are closely linked. So, the possibilities for ethical practice are compromised if there is not an active engagement with human rights.”


The report of the enquiry concludes with five recommendations. These are:

  1. The use of adoption needs to be located and discussed in the context of wider social policies relating to poverty and inequality.
  2. UK governments should collect and publish data on the economic and social circumstances of families affected by adoption.
  3. The current model of adoption should be reviewed, and the potential for a more open approach considered.
  4. There needs to be further debate about the status of adoption and its relationship to other permanence options.
  5. BASW should develop further work on the role of the social worker in adoption and the human rights and ethics involved.

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