The XX Factor

Is There a “Better” Way To Place Babies for Adoption?

England is having a moment of examining its system of child welfare, prompted (as these things are) by several high-profile cases of social work gone bad-the death of a child returned to its birth mother and the removal of other children from mothers publicly perceived as able to care for them. The new head of England’s Family Courts has said that the goal of the system should be to keep families together, rather than (or probably in addition to) looking after the interests of children, and the London Times profiled a”programme”-concurrent adoption -that aims to do both and is coping with those sometimes incompatible goals.

Concurrent adoption places a baby in a stable family willing to become its adoptive parents, but tries, at the same time, to return the child to birth parents if they meet certain court-ordered requirements specific to their situation. The aim is to provide stability for kids who might otherwise cycle in and out of foster homes or their birth parents’ care, but the result, for parents and courts, is often Solomonic. Maybe that’s why it’s been used in only 52 cases in England in the last 10 years (all but three of which resulted in the child’s eventual adoption).

Concurrent adoption originated in the United States, and it’s a more common practice here (but because each state and sometimes each county keeps its own records, numbers are hard to come by). It’s often known as foster-adopt. In England, where the program is run by a single entity, a baby is placed with a willing adoptive family, then brought for supervised visits with the birth family as they try, and usually fail, to be reassessed as able to care for the child. In the United States, the general principles are the same: A young child (usually a baby or toddler) is placed with a foster family that’s prepared to become a “permanent family resource” and, with a large degree of variation, visits occur with a birth family while courts try to determine whether to permanently sever the birth parents’ legal ties. ( Adoptive Families magazine features a personal story of the foster-adoption .) Some children may even return to their birth mother or another family member for a time and then be again removed, but all fostering is done by a single willing foster parent or family. That’s a clear improvement over multiple foster placements for the baby or child, but the question that’s impossible to answer is whether the risks and complexities prevent more qualified adoptive or foster parents from stepping up to the plate, and what that really means for the (estimated) 25,000 infants (of 500,000 children) in foster care in the United States every year. Those tiny numbers in the program in England highlight the difficulties of running such a program: 49 children adopted, three returned to their birth parents, 52 difficult, individual decisions about whether a birth parent who’d had serious problems in the past could take a child home, not just for the moment, but for a lifetime. What’s most clear is that there’s no one-size-fits all solution. Multiply that exponentially and you’ve got an overview of foster care in the United States-easy to criticize and extremely hard to improve.