‘A roller coaster”, “a tear-jerker”, “heart-breaking and heart-warming in equal measure” ... the outpouring on Twitter over Channel 4’s 15,000 Kids and Counting is testament to the impact that responsibly made television can have when allowed to explore society’s most sensitive issues.
It helps explain why the Government’s First4Adoption portal crashed after the second part in the three-programme series as 2,000 prospective adopters came forward to register. A further 1,918 people contacted the site on Thursday night, a phenomenal response given that only 3,500 children are adopted each year.
Two groundbreaking shows on Channel 4, including the earlier Finding Mum and Dad, and a major adoption series that begins on ITV this week are all bringing a new level of public understanding to an issue that has long been afraid to expose itself to public gaze.
One woman has played a central role in this process. Shelagh Beckett, an independent adoption and fostering consultant who advised all three television projects. According to Claire Lewis, series producer of ITV’s Wanted: A Family of My Own, Beckett has been “the bridge between us the media people and the professionals, and her advice is very valuable”.
Beckett told The Independent on Sunday that the subject was still so delicate that only “a small number” of local authorities were even prepared to consider working with a television team on adoption matters. She said that even though directors of social services departments were generally “much more prepared to work with responsible documentary makers”, it was harder to persuade social workers to go on camera.
“They have to be very brave and be prepared to expose areas of their professional practice. Some social workers are willing to be brave, but they’re a small minority,” she said. She hopes the impact of series like 15,000 Kids and Counting, which was filmed over two years by the production company True Vision, would “gradually help build up more trust and confidence in the sector”.
The series was prompted by the fact that a British child is taken into care every 20 minutes and the total number of 15,000 children put up for adoption in 2013 is double the number of five years ago. At one point in the series, Annette, a social worker, asks a little girl called Lauren to describe her office routine. “Looking on websites to see who wants me,” comes the reply.
It wasn’t just the children who needed to give consent for filming. Birth parents, adoptive parents, foster carers, social workers, the managers, heads of social services, local authority councillors, and an almost endless list of interested parties had to be convinced of the merit of the project for it to go ahead. “There are so many people who can stop you at any point,” said Brian Woods, executive producer of 15,000 Kids. “It was an absolute miracle getting the series on air.”
Initially True Vision, which worked with local authorities in Wigan, Warrington and Stockport, lined up 147 potential adoption cases for use in the series – only seven children ended up on air.
The authorities were delighted with the outcome. Jayne Ivory, head of service at the people directorate at Wigan council, said the programme would improve public understanding. “Adoption is not hidden, but it’s highly confidential and complex,” she said. “To have got this level of insight – from the child’s perspective, the professional’s and the adopter’s – gives a really rich account of the whole process.”
Ivory praised Beckett for her intermediary role. “Shelagh as a consultant has been not only an important point of reference for the production company but also for us. I’m hoping to get her back to do some training with us.”
She said the series had shown not only “how wonderful our kids are” but the professionalism of staff such as Annette, who succeeded in placing Lauren and her brother Liam. But, as Woods pointed out, if the two siblings’ adopter had declined to be filmed, then months of filming and three-quarters of a programme would have been scrapped.
The success of 15,000 Kids follows the well-received Channel 4 show Finding Mum and Dad, directed by Amanda Rees for the Welsh company TiFiNi, which highlighted a new approach to adoption: adoption parties where prospective adopters can look for children.
Adoption has emerged as “a bigger issue than people had recognised”, said Nick Mirsky, head of documentaries at C4, who said the shows were inspiring social change through the impact on social media.
“If you go back five or 10 years, a programme that prompted social action was usually headed up by Jamie Oliver or some celebrity and was very ostensibly campaigning,” he said. “These aren’t campaigning programmes, but because of the internet a documentary can prompt quite a lot of social action without wearing a shield and saying, ‘I’m a campaigning programme.’”
ITV’s four-part Wanted: A Family of My Own is hosted by Nicky Campbell, himself adopted. Despite the fact that Claire Lewis is known for her work on the acclaimed series 7 Up, used in the training of social workers, she said the filming process had been “tortuously difficult”.
The makers contacted 90 local authorities and finally partnered with eight. “We had authorities who believed it was unethical to show any part of the process,” she said.
She hopes the series will “shatter myths”, such as the notion that many adopted children are babies (hardly any are) and that older or same-sex couples may not adopt.
Like Woods, she praised the filmmaker Sacha Mirzoeff for the BBC series Protecting Our Children, which has been instrumental in breaking down the mistrust between social services and the media.
Even so, on completion of Wanted: A Family of My Own, one professional approached Lewis and said: “I can’t believe that you have done just what you said you would do.”