frontline vol. 2 issue 3.
Adoption and equality
SSP Equality Spokesperson Catriona Grant looks at the implications of the recent legislation on adoption and the positions taken by the church and the SNP.
The Scottish Socialist Party voted to support the Children and Adoption (Scotland) Bill, and rejected amendments to disallow same sex couples from adopting, or for religious organisations to opt out of the legislation allowing unmarried or same sex couples to adopt. This was a politically conscious decision based on the rights of children to have a family, and the rights of unmarried couples to be treated with respect and equity.
The legislation only gives prospective adoptive parents the right to be assessed as appropriate parents, not the right in itself to adopt. What the legislation has done is to create a level playing field for everyone and to bring equality to the issue of parenting. Hopefully it will increase the amount of adults who wish to adopt and reduce the downward trend being seen in those applying to be adoptive parents. Only 400 applicants were assessed as potential adoptive parents in 2005: a considerable drop from the 1000 who applied 20 years earlier.
This debate encompasses a myriad of many discussions and though the focus is mainly on 'gay adoption' it is really a discussion about the changes in the family in the 21st century, and the moral panic of the religious right.
What are the issues at play here? First and paramount are the needs of children to be cared for in a stable environment. Secondly, the rights of unmarried couples to adopt together. The final issue is that of the rights of religious adoption agencies and whether they have the right to practice their faith or not. In a complicated world of 'rights', the legal eagles and philosophers are having a field day on who has the most rights — the children in need of a family who have lived through adversity and loss, the rights of same sex and unmarried heterosexual couples to be treated equally to married couples, or the rights of religious adoption agencies and their staff to practice with their religious conscience.
Adoption has changed considerably since the Adoption (Scotland) Act 1930, the original piece of adoption legislation to come into place in this country. Up until then children who needed cared for outwith their birth parents were 'taken in' by families, relatives and friends, or were cared for in institutions. Dr Barnado's, the leading child care charity realised over 100 years ago that children were better looked after when in family situations than in big institutions and looked for families that could care for children. Sadly many of the children and young people were taken in as servants or worse — unpaid slaves. Dr Barnado's were still farming children out to Australia as workers up until the 1960s.
The 1930s act allowed married couples, step-parents and single people to adopt, with no references made to the sexuality of the adopters. Therefore in reality single gay men and lesbian women have been allowed to adopt since the 1930, as have single straight men and women.
In the 1920's and 30's there were very few cohabiting couples: most would have been married, and any cohabiting same sex couples would be living together in secret. The act reflects society as it was then, and required updating to realistically reflect the world we live in today.
Up until the late 1960s the majority of children that needed to be adopted were abandoned children or infants given up due to unmarried mothers having a child out of wedlock, or children conceived from extra-martial affairs, rape and incest. Children were also 'abandoned' due to marriage break-up, domestic abuse and poverty experienced by their parents. It made sense to seek out families, i.e. married couples, that could adopt these children. Most of these couples could not naturally have children, and prior to the creation of IVF treatment infertile couples looked to adoption agencies to support their desire for a child or children.
However the needs of children have changed, with the battle for women's rights and the welfare state 'unmarried mothers' decided to care for their own children and the state was relatively supportive to them (compared to the past). In 2005 48% of children were born outwith marriage.
However with research and campaigning we are now more aware of child abuse and the majority of children needing cared for are children who have been removed from their birth parents due to abuse and/or neglect. Many children who are in need of a new family are children over four years old, have siblings and have a background that caused child protection services to be involved — their needs are much more complicated than the infants of the past.
Couples without children have the medical services to support them with assisted conception and can find solace in the medical profession for their desire to have a child. There may be one million married couples in Scotland but they are not rushing forward to adopt the estimated 600 plus children that are in need of adoption.
In March 2005 (the most up to date figures) there were 12,185 'looked after' children in Scotland, however 57% of the children were at home with their parent(s) or with close family and friends. 29% were with foster parents and 13% were looked after in residential establishments. There were 393 adoptions in 2004 in Scotland — 33% by step- parents, 1.5% by grandparents, 4% by family relations and 60% by non-family adopters (239 non-relative adoptions).
It has long been recognized that there are not enough families out there to foster and adopt children. However adopting a child is a big commitment, and whilst 80% of adoptions are successful, 20% break down. This can occur when adopted parents are not properly prepared and supported with the problems their adopted children may have. Many adopted children have attachment disorders due to their own family experience. Love and respect for a child is not enough when adopting a child and its siblings who will have been abused and/or neglected when with its birth family, and people who adopt children today have to be special people and be prepared for difficulties ahead.
There are many urban myths regarding why 'married couples' cannot adopt, which we have all heard before — 'too fat', 'too rich', 'too intelligent', 'over achievers' etc and there is public outcry at the 'political correctness' of the social workers and adoption panels making these decisions. However choosing and matching a family for children is a big responsibility; not everyone who desires to be an adoptive parent can be an adoptive parent. There is no 'right' to adopt, however the assessment must be based on effective practice and research that has a praxis into reality, rather than based on value judgments and prejudice. Social workers are looking for parents that can care for a child that has suffered loss and may have been abused, rejected or neglected by their birth parents.
Children who are to be adopted cannot be set up to fail, they need a family that will care for them, no matter what, and who will treat them as their own children no matter the adversity. Some perspective parents have to be able to be prepared, despite their attachment to their adopted child or children, to accept that they may not be able to attach to them without considerable support. Those who have been rejected for adoption will rightfully be hurt and may hang onto the more sublime reasons why they were not successful candidates as opposed to the more important assessment why at this time they may not be the right adoptive parents for the children that the agency is trying to match.
The Christian Right
There has been much hue and cry about same sex couples (and a little bit about cohabitees) being allowed to adopt, mostly from the Christian right. The Christian Institute have been going berserk — they state that the 'best interests of children have been ignored by the Government' after Peers voted by 215 to 184 in favour of plans to allow homosexual and cohabiting couples to adopt children' (from the 2002 vote in Westminster). Colin Hart, The Christian Institute's Director, said: 'The debate in the House of Commons MPs had, in effect, argued that children have the Ôright' to be adopted by couples who have not made a commitment to each other and that the best interests of children can somehow be met by gay adoption. MPs were more concerned about stigmatising adult relationship choices than about the best interests of thousands of vulnerable children. All the evidence shows that children are best brought up in a married household where there is a mother and a father in a permanent relationship'.
In order to back up their moral outrage, they commissioned a survey that they said showed the following:
- In the event of the unexpected death of parents who had no relative or nominated guardian to look after their children, 86% of fathers would be unhappy for their children to be looked after or adopted by two homosexual men.
- 71% of parents who expressed a view were against giving adoption rights to gay men.
- Two thirds (66%) of parents who expressed a view think the Prime Minister was wrong to support gay adoption.
- 18% of Labour voters are less likely to vote Labour if the government allows gay adoption (21% of all voters are less likely to vote Labour).
But the changes in legislation aren't about 'gay adoption': it is about finding the best carers for children who have already suffered adversity in a family situation including assaults, exposure to violence, emotional abuse, neglect, rejection and/or great loss, sometimes at a very young age. The government, under pressure from adoption agencies and gay rights campaigners want to include all potential parents. The new legislation does NOT give gay couples or indeed anyone the right to adopt, only the right to be assessed and if appropriate to become adoptive parents.
Behind the hysteria lies prejudice, homophobia and panic that the traditional nuclear family is changing. The Christian right are concerned about what they see is the destruction of the most important of our social norms — the nuclear family - in an ersatz attempt to pretend their concerns are about children, their concerns are about their perception of the family. The family is changing because the socio-economics of the world around us has changed, attitudes to sex and sexuality have changed, and so have the attitudes to institutions such as marriage and toleration of violence and abuse. Women are economically more independent despite still earning 22% less than men. The capitalist dream of the male breadwinner and the female homemaker is exactly that Ñ a dream. The religious right are seeing their empire crumble underneath them and are holding onto the shreds they are left with, but they are out of sync with the rest of society which is changing rapidly.
The Christian Institute and the Catholic Church desire that only marriage between a man and a woman be seen as commitment to each other as married couples are less likely to separate than cohabiting ones, and those who refuse to marry are giving evidence of a refusal to be committed. They believe that children need to be brought up by a father and a mother, and the Christian Institute claim that a single person can always marry in the future and gay adoptions permanently deny the child the chance to have a mother and father. However it indicates a shallow understanding of modern adoption, as children who are to be adopted already have a family, and their birth parents may be very important to them regardless of their experience and may continue to have contact with them. There is no getting away from the fact that adoptive parents are substitutes to birth parents and have a different role to play to their children.
SNP Vote Shock
In the Scottish Parliament Roseanna Cunningham (SNP MSP), put up an amendment to stop gay couples adopting together but it was thwarted by 101 votes to six, with six abstentions. Cardinal O Brien, the leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, voiced his disproval of the Bill stating: 'The natural way in which children have been brought up is the traditional way since the beginning of time - one woman, one man and a number of children,' he said.
But even the Conservative education spokesman Lord James Douglas-Hamilton welcomed the move to allow same-sex couples to adopt jointly. He said: 'In my view to have discrimination against a whole group is not in accordance with the spirit of the 21st Century.'
There was an attempt at an amendment to exempt religious agencies from the legislation or at least be allowed to refer clients onto other adoption agencies, however there are to be no exemptions for Catholic or other religious adoption agencies. The government insists there can be no opt out from the equality legislation. Roman Catholic hierarchies complain it is a 'full-scale assault on religious belief' because its adoption agencies will no longer be allowed to turn away gay or unmarried couples.
There will be a transitional period until 2008 but the Catholic Church obviously doesn't see it as a compromise at all. Mario Conti, the RC Archbishop of Glasgow, has declared: 'It will be no easier for Catholic agencies to act contrary to conscience in 21 months' time than it is now.'
The scenario painted is that Catholic agencies, which have been given fulsome praise for their excellent work, will be forced to close and their expertise will be lost, but are they not just baying at the moon. Will the Senior Practioners and social workers of the catholic adoption agencies refuse to practice adoption and fostering social work on the basis they may have to one day assess the suitability of a gay or unmarried couple?
Perhaps as the furore calms down gay couples who are genuinely interested in adopting may decide not to approach a Catholic adoption service and approach their local authority and should they accidentally approach a Catholic adoption agency they may be sign posted to a more appropriate agency. The issue of adoption is serious and should not be about litigation and point scoring over morality but should be in the best interest of children. However the Catholic agencies may have to in time accept the legislation and find that a gay couple may be the best family for a child or sibling group. There are many gay practicing Catholics out there and perhaps over time the agencies will overcome their prejudice because it is out of step with the rest of society.
If Catholic adoption agencies refuse to offer a service to gay couples then they face the consequences of that decision which could mean withdrawal of local authority funding and referrals and facing equality litigation. In order to survive they will have to adapt.
However perhaps there will be all types of ways invented to protect the Catholic adoption agencies, such as the introduction of a clearing house that could be the first point of contacts for prospective adoptive parents which effectively would be the local authority.
The whole argument could be a storm in a tea cup but could potentially be disastrous for the two Catholic adoption and fostering agencies in Scotland if they don't comply with legislation. There is the counter argument that states that people have the right to freedom of conscience and religious practice — the argument would become an argument of whose rights come first (or who has the best Human Rights Lawyer) — the rights of the practioners, who have the right to conscience and religion, or the right of gay and unmarried couples to be assessed as appropriate adoptive parents or not.
For socialists there are many dilemmas, yet regardless of personal opinions the Adoption and Children (Scotland) Act comes into being in on 28th March 2007 and the Equality (Scotland) Act in April 2007. This is a reality and not a theological argument. The rights of gay couples and unmarried couples who have already had a long hard fight to be treated with equity reflects progressive change. Christians will have to catch up or face the consequences.
The Children & Adoption (Scotland) Act 2007
The Scottish Parliament is to bring in a new act that modernises the current adoption legislation and ensure more children and young people enjoy a stable home life. The bill will introduce new permanence orders and allow for both partners in an unmarried couple (including same sex couples) to adopt jointly.
The bill will repeal and replace the Adoption (Scotland) Act 1978, save for Part IV, and will amend the Children (Scotland) Act 1995.
The bill will maintain existing adoption services, including those provided by local authorities. Provisions are made to ensure that people have a broad range of support services, are able to access the provision and are clear about what services they would be provided. Existing provision for inter-country overseas adoption will remain, but new restrictions on bringing children into the country will be introduced.
- Unmarried couples would be able to adopt jointly.
- Local authorities would have a duty to provide a range of adoption services.
- People directly affected by adoption would have a right to pre-adoption services, and post-adoption services.
- The provision of support services would be a clearly stated part of the adoption process so that people know what services are available to them.
A permanence order would be introduced for children who cannot live with their families. Before the legislation changes only married and single people could adopt, although a single adoptive parent's partner could apply for a residence order (Section 11 of the Children's (Scotland) Act 1995) to share parental responsibilities. The new legislation allows couples- regardless of their martial status- to be assessed together. It does not give any group the right to adopt, only the right to be assessed together as to whether they would be suitable to adopt or not.