The Sunday Times

October 2nd, 2011

Sorry, children, these zealots will never let you be adopted

For years I have been tempted to believe that the training of public servants makes them unfit for public service. I cannot count the number of times I have written or spoken about this suspicion, which is becoming a conviction. Recently the powers that be have begun to admit that the training of nurses is not fit for purpose. It is now time for everyone concerned to admit that the training of social workers is also unfit for purpose and has caused tremendous damage.

As with nursing training, social work training has led countless good and intelligent people astray, to their own loss and at great public cost. When poor training is compounded with the current absolute belief in localism, it is hardly surprising that so many public services fail to serve the public properly.

Take social work. If social workers are indoctrinated during their training about the supreme importance of racial, sexual and gender concerns, over and above the particular skills of their calling, and spend a large part of their courses on academic theories about such matters, they will — like nurses — arrive at their first job poorly equipped for the actual demands of the work. Encouraged by their superiors, who have the same mentality, they will continue to pursue such priorities. What is more, they will do so in defiance of central government directives, again supported by their superiors.

I first became aware of this more than 20 years ago in the field of learning disabilities. Many years ago, some people set up communities or small homes to provide a good life for people with learning difficulties. Although these little communities and group homes were much loved by many people, and were clearly a good arrangement for some, if not all, social work fashion swung against them in the 1970s (in an overreaction to the hospital “warehousing” of people with learning disabilities). They became anathema.

Before long, local authority social services would no longer send these homes clients, insisting instead on the fashionable model of tiny flats ” in the community”, for only one or two people. This model was disastrous for many — underfunded, undersupported, insecure and lonely, sometimes among hostile neighbours. But social work fashion prevailed. Happy, small communities were broken up and hospitals in lovely sites were sold off and turned into apartments for the well-off. The vulnerable people who lived there were thrown out to depend upon the uncertain kindness of strangers.

After a while, even the government began to realise the folly of this. Academic research began to back the importance of choice and the value of all sorts of living arrangements, including such communities. In the 1980s and 1990s Whitehall sent around countless local authority circulars pressing councils to offer choice. But councils refused, many almost entirely. In reply to a letter I wrote to all councils in England and Wales in 2002, at least half said they would not consider housing in anything but the standard model.

In other words, they blithely ignored respectable research and the wishes of people and government. This is what often emerges when power is devolved: ignorance, outdated ideology, obstinacy, mismanagement and postcode-lottery care. Localism is not as benign as it may seem.

All this explains why adoption today is in crisis. The picture is similar. When Labour came to power, I remember Paul Boateng addressing a think tank on the subject. He actually admitted — to his listeners’ delight — that social services were indeed opposed to adoption, particularly to “transracial” adoption, and he and his government would sort this out urgently. Tony Blair did try, but his government’s efforts did not come to much and little has changed for the better. Last week it was reported that adoption had fallen to a 10-year low.

Only 60 babies under the age of one were adopted in 2010-11, fewer than 2% of the 3,660 babies of that age in care. The total number of children in care has grown to well over 65,000, yet only 3,050 were adopted — about 4.6%.

The obsession with ethnicity remains: despite a shortage of ethnic minority adopters and increasing numbers of white adopters, social services still often insist on “ethnic matching” — a form of racism that in any other context would surely be illegal. This is why, in part, 9 out of 10 black children in care never get adopted.

Not all the children taken into care need adoption, of course. But children are taken into care only if they are thought to be at serious risk of harm at home, and a study by Bristol University has found that nearly 60% of children who are returned from council care to their natural parents are then abused at home. There is now overwhelming evidence that adoption — especially early adoption — can give a child a chance of a good, normal life.

Any delay is disastrous. Apart from the risk of lasting damage to abused babies, the later children enter care, the more likely they are to stay there, according to a study by York University. Equally bad is the time it usually takes to get a child adopted from care, once the adoption decision has been made.

Meanwhile, people who want to adopt are often horrified by the intrusive, drawn-out grilling they face. Many give up. One single woman says she was asked by social workers how often and how she pleasured herself.

Martin Narey, the government’s new adoption czar and the former chief executive of Barnardo’s, says: “Even when it is patently in the best interests of the child, we have a system that is better at thwarting adoption than achieving it.” His recent report for The Times demonstrates this all too clearly. Defenceless children and would-be parents all too often face institutionalised resistance in social services, academia and national bodies. It may be impossible to break down this resistance. But there are some things that might be done.

Social work training, like nursing training, should be radically revised. The degree courses do not produce people who are ready for social work: overwhelmed with jargon-ridden theory, they are unprepared for the psychological, legal, managerial and moral responsibilities they will face.

What is more, local authorities ought to be obliged to do what the government tells them on such centrally important matters, or explain why they have not. Otherwise this public service, like so many others, will not actually serve.