Newspaper headlines this weekend made me curious to read a newly published adoption case entitled A&B v Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council.
Reports suggested that as a result of yet another blunder by apparently ever blundering Rotherham social workers (already under the cosh in the grooming scandal involving vulnerable girls in care), a baby was apparently wrongly placed for adoption, and had to be returned to the birth father’s family, causing havoc all round.
It sounded dreadful, but newspaper reports don’t always get it right, so I thought I’d read the case. What I read was indeed truly shocking, but I don’t blame the social workers at all. I would not have removed the child from its prospective adoptive parents.
Let me explain.
When I was a legal aid lawyer, I frequently used to meet “no hope” poorly educated girls – black, white, or mixed race – drinking too much alcohol, taking drugs and having several children to different fathers whilst in their teens, then having them taken into care and adopted away. Sometimes the first time I met them was in the cells at a police station.
I saw more financially-savvy such girls having children to several different fathers keeping the children and getting council housing as a consequence – along with, of course, increased state benefits for each child they had.
I saw the unmarried fathers too – black, white, or mixed race – living in their own council-owned homes, thus not jeopardising their own welfare benefits or any that their girlfriends and mothers of their children might also be getting in their own homes. Yet those fathers would still see their women every day and describe them as their “partner” when it suited them, but they could still, putting it crudely, have sex with someone else whenever they wished. I’d see these fathers to deal with child maintenance payments in the days before the CSA.
It was often necessary, of course, to put on Oscar winning performances to preserve the perks when dealing with the authorities – social services, the benefits agency, the police. They all did so and life went on.
Some did aspire to get out of this unfortunate lifestyle and make something of themselves.
And a lucky few succeeded. But there are still plenty of feckless fathers bearing no responsibility, financial, emotional or otherwise for children who are so casually conceived to a variety of mothers, dumping the child with whichever mother gives birth. This pattern then ends up being repeated by the next generation. They never have the father–child relationship that so many of us are privileged to have, because they have no example to follow. Others are even less fortunate, as the mother too is hopelessly unsuited to care for the child and so they raised amongst an extended family or placed in care. These terribly deprived children thus grow up without any parents at all.
And it’s a tragedy.
But suppose a baby has an opportunity to escape this lifestyle. What would you do? Would you help or hinder that escape?
A baby is born to one such alcoholic, drug-taking hopeless young mother who knows she can’t cope. Two children have already been born to her in her teens and adopted. The baby’s father is in a serious long term relationship with a woman he doesn’t live with but who is raising their child, together with another child to another father. He has an affair with this desperately inadequate, unfortunate girl. He couldn’t care less about being unfaithful to his “partner” of 10 years, nor about contraception, and neither did she on her regular visits to have sex with him at his home. Predictably she becomes pregnant. He is black, she is white, and so the resulting child of this particular relationship is mixed race.
Whilst pregnant the girl and her mother run into the father and you can imagine how the future grandmother reacts when she sees him. She isn’t happy. He brushes it off, but in the community, the relationship isn’t a well-kept secret.
His partner gets to hear of it. He lies, she doesn’t believe him, life goes on.
The mother plans to give up her third child for adoption on birth, but she is in a long term relationship with another man with a string of criminal offences and prison sentences, and apparently, she tells him the child is his. They register the child as theirs. He tells the social worker who queries the child’s colour that his mother was Burmese – hence the child’s colour – and the social worker believes this story. The birth father in the meantime does nothing about his son.
What may have gone on between mother and her partner, regarding disclosure of the true paternity of this poor little boy we do not know. It’s an offence to lie on a birth certificate. Whatever happened we do know one thing for sure. The mother quite clearly was doing her level best to keep the birth father out of it and clearly wanted the child adopted to begin a new life. With her own Oscar-winning performance to social services, she fooled them. So I don’t blame Rotherham Social Services for what subsequently happened.
The baby was fostered straight away and at seven months old finally placed with a carefully selected couple for adoption. He remained with them until this case was heard, by which time he was 20 months old.
The couple were not, I should add, asked to just foster the child – they were advised to accept the baby as their son and start to raise him as theirs. They did so, and introduced him to the extended family.; Everyone was happy and all was going well. The baby was of course told, like parents do with babies, they were his parents – probably, I imagine, with lots of love and kisses. But because they too accepted the Burmese tale, they also started to tell him gently about Burma so he would know from an early age about his roots. And unselfishly they put a photograph of his birth mother in his bedroom. It was absolutely the right thing to do.
Then out of the blue, from somewhere else in the country, the birth father’s 29 year-old single sister appeared on the scene. She has a child of her own and is also living in council accommodation. She knew perfectly well who the real father of this little boy was and she told the court she wanted to raise the child. She told the Judge that such an arrangement was not uncommon in “African” culture, there were a lot of siblings and that she was raised by an aunt.
The young woman told the court in support of her case that she had no intention of forming another relationship in the foreseeable future, what with this new baby to care for, but also said she would like to be rehoused so she could live near to her own mother who she speaks to every day on the phone – or else go and live nearer her brother: the cause of all these problems. Although she was uncritical of her brother, he was investigated by social services and found to be unsuitable to care for his son. His partner also offered, in support of the Aunt’s application, to be a “first reserve” if the arrangement with the Aunt didn’t work out, but why on earth would she want a child of a rival’s relationship living with her? And why on earth should he be placed with her?
Reader, I have several nieces of a similar age to the Aunt. I know many of their friends too. I can’t think of any one of them who would ever say at their age they didn’t want some fun, some free time, a great social life and if still single, that they have no intention of forming a permanent relationship in the near future. I can’t think of one who would want the burden of a child who is not their own to raise as well as another baby who is their own. We all know bringing up a baby is damned hard work. So to me, it all seems like nonsense.
But I ask this question too: why on earth should the Aunt be placed in that position and assume the significant burden of raising another young baby along with the one she already has? What can she possibly offer that baby now and as he grows up that the adoptive parents could not, except one part of a bloodline that the birth mother clearly did not want to acknowledge and went to such lengths to obscure?
The Judge does not mention the respective financial positions of all the parties so we don’t know what material differences there might be. There are however financial benefits to the Aunt in taking on another child. If the baby was placed in her care, she would become eligible for better state-funded housing in an area she’d prefer. She would also most likely get all the help she needed given the baby’s obvious needs, along with increased child benefit.
But even so, why burden her at her young age, impose upon her an obligation not to have a relationship with another man (which she may or may not keep), when there are others willingly doing a much better job with the baby already?
As he grows up this motherless boy will see his father come and of course, he will also see him go. We know he is an unsuitable parent. So what emotional and psychological benefit is this child going to get in the years to come from such an appalling example of fatherhood? And isn’t he likely, raised within that norm, to repeat that behaviour himself as he grows up? And isn’t that going to cause more overall harm than good?
Now let’s look at the birth mother. Missing from the judgement is any consideration of her wishes or an acknowledgement of the maternal family, which conversely, the adoptive parents had taken on board and had not ignored. We know how utterly, completely, hopeless she is. Given the history and her behaviour, the father’s family naturally wouldn’t feel well disposed towards her. What are the family going to teach this little boy about his birth mother? What are they going to call her? How will they make him feel? Will he be made to feel ashamed and miserable for the rest of his life about his mother? Would that cause him long term psychological damage? Will his mother’s photograph ever appear in his new home?
In reality too, how will the Aunt’s child take to the new baby? If the new baby is taking up his own mother’s time, won’t there be natural resentment? And when the Aunt meets another man as of course, she will, how will this little boy be treated by them both? Aren’t there too many serious, inherent risks, every one of which is completely avoidable, for such a vulnerable child from such a mixed background?
My views are of course my own and I haven’t met the people involved. However, two social workers and a psychologist strongly urged the Judge to let the child stay with his adoptive parents, all of the view that it was too late for a move. They have had the benefit of greater exposure to the details of the case and the needs of the people involved. However, the law states that adoption is a last resort. The Judge must be satisfied there is no viable alternative. So the Judge had to consider the long term situation and as he put it “speculate” on the baby’s future needs.
Might the conclusion be that the baby, if adopted, would from a safe distance, placed with two loving parents, be helped to reach a balanced view of both his birth parents? The benefits of adoption in this particular case are plainly obvious.
So what did the Judge do?
He ordered the baby to be removed from its adoptive parents and sent to live with the Aunt, burdening her with another child. He left the traumatic handover arrangements to social services and the adoptive parents. What those adoptive parents must be going through, thinking of the likely future now of their “almost” son, I dread to think.
His Lordship said he was aware there would be much disagreement with his decision, and that it was a very difficult case, although he had ultimately not found it difficult making his decision.
Read the judgement here.
Photo by hoxtonchina via Flickr