Moral panics, risk aversion, poor practice and hidden agendas

Social workers are getting together to critically reflect on moral panic and the professions’ role in contributing to injustice, as reported by Viviene Cree in The Guardian.

A number of cases featuring in the press in the last few months have raised grave concerns about the role of political forces, risk aversion and hidden agendas. There are always more to stories than are usually reported and I am certainly against social work bashing  but at the end of the day poor practice does exist. It is often fuelled by politicians, lobbyists and celebrities forcing personal opinion or ideology on professional practice and claiming expertise outside their field. In response to the blame game, organisations and people seek to protect themselves and interventions become risk averse rather than good practice. There is a real danger that the core principles of social work, human rights and social justice, and critical reflection fall by the wayside when under such pressure. In countries where moral panic is prevalent there are adoption-driven cultures where adoption has become the primary welfare intervention. Adoption-driven practice masks the systemic reduction of welfare, de-funding of services that help and support families to overcome difficulties and better care for their children and the de-professionalisation of practice. There is little political will towards prevention and a greater emphasis on the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ in society. Social workers and other professions involved in child protection become the policemen in bureaucratic processes that measure success by the numbers of adoptions achieved and the avoidance of bad publicity rather than exercising professional expertise with children and families.

On top of the current pressure to move to forced and hasty adoptions from care in Australia, I have been concerned by several cases that have unfolded in the overseas press in the last few months and have been wondering how to write about them. The first was the case of Maria removed from a Roma family in Greece, assuming reports are accurate, simply because she was blonde. The management of the case, as reported, showed no understanding of Roma culture or the structural barriers faced by Roma families in Europe. The reports identified that Maria’s mother was unable to pay for the child’s visa to leave the country left her in the care of another Roma family, a practice not uncommon.  The second outlines the case of the Italian woman temporarily in the UK who was admitted to a mental health unit. A court order mandated a non-consensual caesarian section and the adoption of the child. No matter how you look at this one or no matter how ill the mother may have been at the time, I cannot find anything in the case that supports sound practice in these reports. Instead, I do see moral panic, breaches of human rights, a disregard for disability rights and little concern in both these cases about what we know about children’s needs for parental contact, culture and identity in adoption let alone the mistakes in past adoption practices that we are now paying for. Certainly a child must be protected and placed elsewhere when required while work is done with parents and families. Normally family placements are explored in the first instance. These are not the only cases of hasty child adoption reported in the press.

It seems there are several contributing factors to this trend. The first and most obvious is risk aversion and the tendency of the press and politicians to blame social workers when things go wrong. In recent years, child protection and adoption in the UK and Australia have suffered from the adverse affects of political interference resulting in continual restructuring, instability and the de-professionalisation of welfare. There are also other agendas. The adoption lobby has been pressing governments to increase the numbers of intercountry adoptions for many years. I found in my research that the intercountry adoption lobbyists did not account for the change in direction hijacked by the politicians and celebrities they recruited to the cause. We have little research-based knowledge that tells us if prospective parents are really interested in local adoption when more attractive options such as adopting from overseas or commissioning an overseas surrogate exist. In these arrangements, parents do not usually have to deal with a child’s family. What research does exist and evidence given to the 2005 Federal Inquiry into Intercountry Adoption in 2005 in Australia  suggests this is the case. Otherwise we might not have the current crisis in foster care. Some politicians view adoption from care as a cost saving exercise that means all costs and responsibilities shift to adoptive parents rather than the state.  This is happening at the same time as massive cuts to selected welfare are underway. It is also interesting to examine the media and its ownership and where the preponderance of uncritical reporting occurs. This leads us to the exposure ‘a cause’ provides celebrities. The need for celebrities to find a cause is well known. Publicists manufacture images that help celebrities climb upward in the fame stakes. Shifts in direction from intercountry to local adoptions occur when undue publicity is attracted and friction occurs between lobbyists.  Money and influence from uninformed, personal and political perspectives is highly problematic and harmful in child protection and adoption.

In Australia, the promotion of adoption as a local welfare solution has been brewing since the mid 2000s led by the political right. We are at grave risk of repeating the mistakes of Europe and the US. States already have the authority to remove children at risk and child protection and well-being are taken very seriously. Changes to legislation currently under review are those that promote adoption with inadequate protection of rights, assurances of informed consent or time or support to address issues faced by families, ironic given the recent apologies for past practices in adoption. The emphasis should be on permanency on those cases where a child cannot live with their families. Adoption is just one possibility in permanency planning and not an overarching solution. In an increasingly unequal society, we must guard against breaches of human rights and social injustice. The direction we are taking will drive people underground instead of seeking help. This is not the kind of society we should want or need.

Adoption will always be needed but must always be about individual need, consensual, be subjected to strict processes, allow sufficient time for truly informed consent from both parents and not be adoption-driven.  Critical reflection demands we examine structural as well as individual factors.  Listen to more on moral panics by Gary Clapton and critical reflection by Jan Fook on Podsocs.

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