Why the state can't fix the family

Pushing single mothers into having their babies adopted is no solution to unplanned pregnancy
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The Government wants to encourage more single mothers to give their babies up for adoption. What a good idea!

Some 38,000 teenage girls and 50,000 non-cohabiting single women give birth every year at a cost to the state of pounds 9bn in social security. Most single mothers are destined to life in the worst flats in the worst estates, without child care or a chance to work, their children's chances blighted from the start. (It is odd how the Government focuses on the inadequacies of single mothers when fathers are the ones who cause most of the trouble in problem families. When pressed on this point, they hasten to say that they mean any unplanned child with less than ideal parents.)

Meanwhile, thousands of childless couples queue in vain to adopt. Simple. Call in the social engineers, and it shouldn't take much spanner-work to solve these two problems with one short, sharp wrench.

Tomorrow, the Department of Health publishes a draft Bill on adoption, together with a consultation document. Its officials could not frame a legal clause that would persuade unmarried mothers to give away their babies - in the old days it was done by shame and family threats. So instead, a circular has just been issued to local authorities and adoption agencies by the department, an authoritative missive just short of legislation.

The circular instructs social workers to promote adoption as a positively good solution instead of a last resort. "Adoption continues to be an important service for children, offering a positive and beneficial outcome for many. ... For many children it will be clear to social workers at an early stage that adoption is the only practical long-term solution likely to meet their particular needs."

Leaving aside low thoughts about the public exchequer, what ideas lie behind this eulogy for adoption? John Bowis, the Health minister, explains: "We are trying to promote adoption as an acceptable and valid alternative to abortion and the burden of bringing up an unwanted child."

The idea was first widely mooted in the United States by Newt Gingrich and stolen, like so many, by John Redwood. Now, watered down, it has trickled into this new adoption legislation. How odd that the right's infatuation with genetic determinism (the poor are poor because they are genetically inferior), exemplified in the recent influential book The Bell Curve, allows them to admit that changing a child's environment will change its destiny - a liberal creed if ever there was one.

Encouraging adoption sits strangely in the right-wing canon since it involves state intervention in the most private of matters. The right, often correctly, thinks that the state is very bad at many things, such as running gas and electricity industries or managing housing estates. When it comes to taking responsibility for vulnerable children, it has scarcely improved since the days of Oliver Twist. Of the 51,000 children in its "care", 75 per cent will leave with no qualifications, one in seven girls will leave care pregnant or already with a baby, while 26 per cent of the prison population are care graduates. Hardly a record to suggest that the state should intervene in a whole lot more families in order to do them similar good.

Of course, adoption is not the same: newborn babies nestled into carefully selected families do not suffer that fate. Some 21 per cent of adoptions do fail but mainly among children adopted at older ages. However, many more adopted children do develop behavioural problems, earning them disproportionate referrals to child guidance clinics. As adults, half of all adopted women and 30 per cent of men set off in search of their natural mothers, feeling that some part of themselves is missing.

In a book called Lost Children, I interviewed a great many adopted people who described a deep sense of dislocation. They spoke of looking in the mirror and wondering if anyone else anywhere looked like them. They lived with a dangerous dream of a lost, better family and a perfect mother.

As for the wretched mothers forced by poverty and disgrace to part with their babies, the anguish lasts forever. They talk of gazing at everyone in the street of the right age, trying to recognise the child they abandoned.

Those are the very good reasons why the Government is wrong to promote adoption except in extremis. Yet a nagging doubt remains. When you see hopeless cycles of deprivation repeating themselves over and over again, why not take that child gently from the arms of inadequate parents, married or not, and rescue it from following in their footsteps? Even if that adopted child does grow up full of regrets, isn't that outweighed by the undoubted benefits? The child is automatically moved up the social ladder, brought up in a well-heeled family, to be well educated with every prospect of a good life ahead, so isn't that better?

Against that view is history. Such social engineering has led to untold misery, though it often looked like common sense at the time. Dr Barnardo's and the Government sent battalions of poor children abroad as "apprentices" to a "better life" in Canada and Australia, where they ended up as indentured servants. The mass evacuation of very young children in the war, without their mothers, "for their own good" is now regarded as a brutal error. Governments get these things wrong.

The Children Act planted in the law the idea that a child's interests are always paramount. But it turns out to be an ideal impossible to grasp, let alone implement. Looking at most court decisions, it is apparent that we still regard children as the possessions of their biological parents. We do not know how else to treat parents' loud claims of ownership. This month, the Court of Appeal sent a 10-year-old Zulu boy who had lived in Maida Vale for four years back to his natural parents - to live in unaccustomed poverty, with no chance of an education - despite his passionate wish to stay in London with the only family he has ever known. His parents' demands for his return overruled all his own wishes, and it happens time and again in courts everywhere.

In the end, the argument against the Government's desire to take more children from their parents is not the emotional or Freudian one that says a baby is always better off at the breast of its biological mother. That is often self-evidently sentimental nonsense, since a great many parents are monstrous.

No, the reason why state-promoted adoption makes no sense is this. There are limits to what government can and should attempt to do. To step in and seize babies from undesirable, though not dangerous parents is beyond the remit of government and suggests that the state is responsible for ensuring that every child gets equal and optimal parenting.

Should government take the blame for every human failing, even for fate itself? Where would this quasi-eugenic thinking ever end? How oddly it sits in the spectrum of modern right-wing individualist ideas, when it so plainly belongs to the realms of socialism, or even national socialism.