Joan Smith: There's no end to the people the right loves to hate

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The Independent Online

If you believe in old-fashioned family values, it's hard to imagine a more provocative combination of words than "social worker" and "gay adoption". It's guaranteed to prompt outpourings of rage from people who believe that allowing gay couples to adopt is irrefutable evidence that Britain has lost its moral compass. So naturally there was a furious reaction last week to news that Edinburgh council is to allow a five-year-old boy and his four-year-old sister to be adopted by two gay men, especially when it emerged that the children's grandparents wanted to care for them.

Right-wing columnists wouldn't normally have much sympathy for the mother in the case, a 26-year-old recovering heroin addict who has two children by different fathers. But gay men rank even lower on the acceptability scale than single mothers with addiction problems, so no one should have been surprised when the Daily Mail took up her cause. The paper duly went into battle, throwing around words like Stasi and suggesting that grandparents were being unfairly excluded from their grandchildren's lives.

Although we know little about the people concerned, two things stand out as matters of principle. I don't want to live in a country where children's futures are decided by emotive campaigns in the popular press, and I wouldn't assume for a moment that gay couples (or any other adoptive parents) are less qualified to bring up children than their biological relatives. Social workers have to consider the whole family environment when they decide who should care for children, and they don't make such judgements lightly. I don't share the Mail's Biblical certainty that children are always better off with parents or grandparents, or its loathing (shared by other sections of the right-wing press) for social workers.

I know they get things wrong, and that the consequences are sometimes dreadful. But social workers are dealing with what are politely known as "chaotic" families, whose daunting list of problems includes low educational achievement, long-term unemployment, serial and abusive relationships, and drug and alcohol addiction. These families are a minority in the country, though a worrying one, and it certainly isn't fair to stigmatise every low-income family who lives on a council estate; middle-class parents abuse children, although they're often better at covering their tracks.

Social workers don't, however, have sufficient resources to tackle the entrenched problems they see every day, and they know that a single mistake is likely to expose them to public opprobrium. It happened last week to Heather Rush, one of the social workers involved in the Edinburgh adoption case and (not coincidentally) just about the only person whose identity isn't protected by law. A Conservative councillor denounced her, and her unenviable situation highlights the dilemma faced by social workers.

They are understandably reluctant to take children into local authority care, where kids are likely to lead disrupted lives and do badly at school, if they are not actually abused. If social workers leave children with troubled families, on the other hand, they may be exposing them to physical and emotional abuse. And if they remove children – even to place them with stable, loving adoptive parents – they are likely to be portrayed as evil destroyers of family life.

After all, if you're on the political right, it's much more comfortable to vilify social workers and condemn gay adoption than to acknowledge the role of inequality in creating family breakdown.