Forced adoptions are not “historic”, we see them everyday

Forced adoptions are not “historic”, we see them everyday

The murder of 13-month-old Leiland-James Corkill has brought the damage caused by forced adoptions to public attention. Here Anne Neale and Nina Lopez of Support Not Separation, write about the cruelty of a state that prioritises the profits of the child adoption industry over safety.  


In 2020, Cumbria social services in England took Leiland-James Corkill from his mother Laura Corkill at birth, despite her love for her baby and her struggle to keep him, and placed him with a woman who eventually killed him. This is not the first time new-borns have been wrenched from their mothers’ arms by social workers, sometimes backed by police, causing lifelong trauma and even death. 

On 15 July 2022, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, chaired by Harriet Harman MP, published its report about forced adoptions which took place between 1949-76. Hundreds of thousands of ‘unmarried mothers’, often teenagers, and their families, were shamed – by churches, social workers and the NHS – into giving up their children. The Committee called for the government to issue an apology.

The Movement for an Adoption Apology has campaigned for years for official recognition of this callous injustice. They won a debate in parliament, when the Committee heard evidence from mothers who had been forced to give up their children as well as from children who had been adopted. Some professionals also came forward, like the former nurse who witnessed “callous behaviour” towards “unmarried mothers”. Acknowledging their trauma, the Committee recommended improved access to counselling and the removal of barriers to accessing adoption documents.

Forced adoptions are happening today

This airing of past wrongs was long overdue. But as the adoption of Leiland-James shows, forced adoptions did not stop in 1976. Support Not Separation (SNS) deals with them every day. In July 2021 we wrote to Harriet Harman pointing this out: “Mothers whose children are being forcibly adopted right now must also be heard. We should not have to wait 50 years for these continuing tragedies to be reported. We must take this opportunity to hear about them and stop them occurring now.”

There was no reply. When hearings began in October 2021, we submitted evidence and received a cursory acknowledgement but no invitation to testify. The justification for this refusal is that legislation on adoption was introduced in 1976 and later, guaranteeing due process. But while a court order is now required, the judicial system has not protected mothers and children from this most cruel abuse of power by the state – 90% of today’s adoptions, like Leiland-James’s, are against the wishes of the birth family.   

In 2017, Legal Action for Women, which co-ordinates SNS, published the dossier Suffer the Little Children and their Mothers. It documents the experiences of hundreds of women who attended our monthly self-help meetings – predominantly single mothers on low income, many of whom are of colour and/or immigrants, have a disability, and/or went through the care system as children. Out of 219 mothers in our 2021 follow-up survey, 10% had children forcibly adopted. A majority, like Laura Corkill, had been victims of domestic violence and had gone through a family court system which even the government-sponsored Harm Review described as full of “sexism, racism and classism”. 

A sexist, classist family court system

The Children Act 1989 (Section 17) and the Care Act 2014 provide financial and other support to keep children in the family. But in practice requests for help are often used to label mothers “unfit” and take their children – especially if the mother is a victim of domestic violence. Laura Corkill suffered several miscarriages as a result of violence by a former partner and was lying in hospital recovering from a blood transfusion after one of the attacks when social services took her two older children. 

One of the mothers, an African refugee who had escaped from traffickers, approached social services assuming they would support her. Instead, they took both her children and put them up for adoption (by different families of different races) claiming that as a “victim” she was “unable to parent”. 

Similarly, a disabled mother who had suffered domestic violence had her child forcibly adopted after she requested help. Sadistically, as a wheelchair user she was placed in a Mother and Baby Unit on the top floor and told she had to get up and walk. Years later an appeal court ruled that her treatment had been unacceptable – too late to overturn the adoption. 

Another mother was further traumatised when she found out that her daughter was returned to foster care after the adoption broke down because she “missed her mum”. 

Mothers dismissed, children traumatised

As Jean Robertson-Molloy of Movement for an Adoption Apology highlights, “I believe we are the only country in western Europe which regularly sanctions adoptions opposed by the birth family.” In the year ending March 2021, 2,870 children were adopted in England and Wales, and a further 5,780 were waiting to be adopted. There are no reliable figures about what happens to adopted children, but Adoption UK suggests that only one third of adoptions have no significant problems.

Mothers are dragged, sometimes for years, through family court hearings that take place behind closed doors, out of the public gaze. They are gagged from speaking publicly and even to their families. The media is mostly oblivious even though some judgements are reported anonymously. The adoption of Leiland-James got extensive coverage only because there was a trial of his murderer.  

Both the Children Act 1989 and the Adoption and Children Act 2002 state that court decisions “must be in the best interests of the child”. Yet the trauma of being separated from the mother who loves and protects you is routinely dismissed. Laura Corkill speaks for thousands of mothers when she says: “I may have been the victim, but I was also the protector of my older children.”    

Private firms profiteer from forced adoptions

Evidence shows that families in poor neighbourhoods are 10 times more likely to be targeted. As with historic cases in the UK but also in Ireland, Australia, Canada, US and the military dictatorships in Argentina, Chile and Spain, abuse of power by the state and profiteering by private agencies are at the root of the forced adoptions that continue to wreck lives. 

Successive governments have pushed for adoptions – the “gold standard” – to be fast-tracked. While single mothers, impoverished by benefit cuts, sanctions and zero-hour contracts, are denied support they are legally entitled to, a growing privatised “child protection” industry is raking in millions. Private firms run 75% of the UK’s residential homes, delivering “consistently poor outcomes” despite the average placement costing £4,000 a week, or about £200,000 a year (£1 million in one case). Eton would be cheaper. 

When welfare was cut in the US, undermining single mothers, money for the child removal industry increased from $25 million to $5 billion, a rise of 20,000% according to Professor Dorothy Roberts. Clearly, as in the UK, the money denied to mothers is used to remove children and feed an industry.

In Scotland too, mothers and grandmothers are financially discriminated against. The Scottish Kinship Care Alliance campaigns for financial parity between foster carers and kinship carers. Who is more deserving of support than those who keep children in the family and out of institutions?  

Support not separation

What is at stake, besides profiteering, is the power of the state over women and children, exercised by social workers and the family courts. Recently, Judge Keehan made an adoption order for three siblings, even though he acknowledged that, “The parents deeply love their children and the children love them. There is no question, and never has been, that the parents are more than able to meet the basic care needs of the children.” 

Why were they adopted? The reasons he gave included the parents “extreme over-reaction to the involvement of professionals in their lives and those of their children, most especially social workers”.  

Social workers are being trained to treat women, especially the most vulnerable and impoverished single mothers, as surrogates for the state whose power they represent.

The long overdue apology, if granted, may bring closure to some, but it will not stop forced adoptions. Since the Australian government apologised for their earlier genocidal policy the number of Aboriginal children removed from their families has doubled. 

Today’s forced adoptions are no less harmful than those that took place decades ago. They devalue the bond between mother and child, denying the legal and human rights of both, and sometimes the right to life itself. 

Mothers and grandmothers all over the UK are resisting this sadistic, sexist practice. The first Wednesday of every month women can be heard outside the family court in central London, telling their stories and chanting together: “Open the family courts” and “Take away our poverty, not our children.”


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