Systemic racism and ableism pervades the misogynistic UK adoption industry

Photo of a judge's gavel (small mallet used to bang on the desk) lying on papers on a desk.  It's an application for an adoption order -- Section 46 Adoption and Children Act 2002.

Shared from the Canary 2 March 2023 — part two of three reports by Steve Topple — thank you!

This is the second in a three-part series looking at adoption in the UK in relation to mothers and caregivers. Part one, which you can read here, looked at how forced adoption is not a thing of the past – with high numbers of children forcibly removed from mothers by social services. 

The issue of forced adoptions is one that bubbles under the surface in society and is often not recognised when discussing children’s care and social services. However, for the mothers’ affected by it, and those who live in fear of it, social services snatching your child away is a very real and present danger. That’s because agencies are targeting marginalised women and children when it comes to adoption

Systemic racism in adoption

Support not Separation is a coalition of organisations. It fights for the rights of mothers and children against social services and other government agencies. As the Canary wrote in part one of this series, in 2019 the group conducted research into mothers caught-up in family court cases.

Predictably, nearly half of the women Support not Separation surveyed were Black or brown. The issue of forced separations and adoptions is often driven by both the state’s systemic misogyny, but crucially racism. The latter is particularly rife, with the government’s own figures backing this up. They show, for example, that the percentage of children in care who are dual heritage is double the population rate (10% versus 5%). Therefore, the state is disproportionately separating these children from their mothers. Also, since 2015, the number of white children the state has forcibly removed from their mothers has fallen. Meanwhile, the number of dual heritage children has risen.

The organisation Adoptee Futures brings together adult adoptees, supporting them in healing from their experiences. It is also working to “reclaim the adoption narrative” from the current, toxic one. Annalisa S. Toccara is the group’s co-founder and CEO. She told the Canary:

We believe racism is institutionalised in the UK adoption sector. Racist attitudes and biases have been engrained in the system for decades, in addition to a lack of diversity and cultural understanding within the industry. The needs of Black children and families are not being met correctly in the family welfare system. As a result, rather than the government adequately providing funding and support for kinship carers, money is being funnelled into the adoption industry, and Black children are being removed from their families of origin and placed into care. This is especially concerning considering the data shows that Black children are overrepresented in the care system and often experience more harm due to being taken from their families and placed in unfamiliar environments.

Black children make up 5% of the population, but 8% of children in care. The disparity, as Annalisa explains, compounds already existing issues of anti-Blackness that children face. The adoption industry exploits this for its own profit and Annalisa tells us:

We believe the government should take further action to provide substantial resources for families in crisis. Adoption is equivalent to putting a bandage on an issue rather than addressing the core causes of why children are put into care, including systemic racism, classism, ableism, and colonialism.

Support not Separation also found in its research that 94% of women were on low incomes, and at least three-quarters were survivors of domestic violence. However, another intersecting yet supposedly “protected” group under the Equality Act 2010 is chronically ill and disabled mothers.

Do disabled mothers actually have rights?

Tracey Norton is the coordinator of the Disabled Mothers’ Rights Campaign – part of campaign group WinVisible (women with visible and invisible disabilities). The group aims to bring “disabled mothers together” to fight against the state taking their children away. The group told the Canary it is fighting to:

stop the cruelty and discrimination we face from Council social services and the family courts taking our children away.

It also wants:

the support from official agencies which we are entitled to by law.

The Canary spoke with Tracey about the group and its aims. She told us:

We always make the point that disabled mothers and their children are particularly targeted by social services. This results in children being traumatically removed from their mothers – as disability is seen as harmful to children. Disabled mothers are entitled to support in the community to support both themselves and their children under the Care Act and the Children Act. However, because the family courts are held in secret, the injustice and trauma of forced removals including forced adoptions, just because a mother has a disability, is hidden from public view. There is no accountability for decisions made there.

Targeting chronically ill and disabled women

The situation when a chronically ill and/or disabled mother is facing social services or the courts is often harrowing. And, in no uncertain terms, it is laced with prejudice and discrimination. Tracey has experienced it first-hand. She told the Canary:

I am a mother with an invisible disability. My child has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS) and we have been directly affected by family court. I fought long and hard to get my child the care he needed in the community. However, when they decided to cut my funding, I fought to keep it – causing them to drag me through family court with false allegations. My own invisible disability was used against me in court. A judge with no medical qualifications was allowed to say that he did not believe the results of my MRI scan and dismissed my issues as a lie. My child was removed and I fought a long battle to get him home.

Whilst he was in care, he was placed in inappropriate accommodation which was inaccessible for his wheelchair, and with no accessible bathroom. He spent the next two years not having a bath or shower and having no sheets on his bed. He was denied access to medical appointments or appropriate education – and when I finally got him home I had to throw everything out as it was infested with fleas and his hair matted. He spent his time in care living on bread and hummus, and was skin and bones when he returned home to me – having his first home cooked meal in two years.

Sadly, Tracey’s story is not unusual.

This journalist knows one mother who was sectioned under the Mental Health Act because social services believed she was lying about her chronic illness (which was also EDS). She then had to pretend she was well to fight a two-year court battle to get custody of her child. I know another mother who lives with enduring psychological distress. She is still in a battle with social services after having her children forcibly removed. Said services lied about her, falsified evidence, breached regulatory guidelines, and – in a situation similar to Tracey’s – put her children in appalling foster care.

Another mother was also subject to social services forcibly removing her five children. That was until she, too, was diagnosed with a chronic, incurable illness, eventually getting her kids back. This is all just on one council estate in south London. The common factors are that, in all the cases, the children were dual heritage or Black, all the mothers were reliant on social security, and they were all either chronically ill or living with mental health issues.

For people who are forced to encounter the adoption system, it’s clearly not a system that is working well. The system takes already existing racism, classism, and ableism and focuses that on vulnerable people. None of this can reasonably be considered an accident of the system. Rather, it’s the system working as it’s supposed to.

Part three in this series will be looking at what the state does to take chronically ill and disabled mothers’ children away from them. It will also look at how adoption has become a for-profit, private industry. 

Featured image via perpetual.fostering – Wikimedia, resized to 770×403 under licence CC BY 2.0

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