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The role of the social worker in adoption – ethics and human rights: An Enquiry

In 2016, the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) commissioned an Enquiry into the role of the social worker in adoption with a focus on ethics and human rights in order to:

  • Provide BASW with up-to-date knowledge and evidence from key stakeholders: social workers, managers, adult adoptees, adoptive parents, birth parents, siblings, policy makers and academics on this aspect of social work practice with a particular focus on how ethical and human rights issues and legislation are understood and inform practice;
  • Support BASW in developing its policies in this area.

In this report, we discuss the Enquiry’s key messages and the process involved in arriving at them. The Enquiry sought the views of adopted people, birth families, adoptive families, social workers, social work managers and other professionals, and created spaces for dialogue about the role of the social worker in adoption with a particular focus on ethics and human rights.

The Enquiry considered adoptions undertaken by local authorities across the four UK nations, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The focus did not include inter-country or stepparent adoptions.

Why was the Enquiry held?

The Enquiry was considered necessary for several reasons:

  • Adoption has been promoted by government policy in England in recent years.Moreover, across the UK, there is interest in expanding its role in ensuring permanency and stability for children.
  •  Social workers are central to the implementation of adoption policy. They are involved in initiating care proceedings, recommending adoption as a care plan, assessing adopters, matching children and providing post adoption support.
  • lThere has been little discussion about the role of the social worker in adoption inrelation to ethics and human rights.

How was the Enquiry carried out?

Professors Brid Featherstone (University of Huddersfield) and Anna Gupta (Royal Holloway, University of London) led the Enquiry. Sue Mills (University of Leeds) was employed as the research assistant. A steering group, convened by BASW, oversaw the project. The team also worked with a reference group, members of whom provided expertise on differing aspects of the Enquiry.

For the purposes of the Enquiry we used the following definitions of ethics and human rights agreed with the steering group:

In its broadest sense ethics is concerned with looking at what is the right thing to do and what ought to be done. Ethics help us consider the benefits of actions or decisions for individuals, groups or society in general and the importance of the values and principles behind our decisions. So, it moves us beyond questions such as ‘does this policy work?’ and it makes us consider questions such as ‘is this policy right?’

Broadly speaking, we see human rights as emphasising our common humanity and the importance of social, economic, political, and legal rights. In the context of this Enquiry a crucial question is whether all families can use the economic, social, legal and political rights they need to ensure their children’s safety and wellbeing.