It is ironic to note that the source of the title quote, so often used by the late great Sir Terry Pratchett has itself often been falsely attitributed – to both Mark Twain and Sir Winston Churchill. It seems likely that its source is Jonathan Swift – see further Freakonomics – Quotes Uncovered: How Lies Travel.
This underscores the central point – lies have traction because they are usually/often put in dramatic and exciting terms, can be simply stated, are unsupported (because they can’t be) and usually are attractive to those already primed to believe.
Those of us attempting to wave a flag for truth and accuracy therefore come limping after, having wasted valuable time collecting material to debunk what is untrue. I won’t say ‘lie’ because to me that implies some deliberate malice; I don’t think that is the motivation behind most people who promulgate untruths about the family system. I think its worse than that – I think they actually do believe what they say.
So I understand how this happens, but its still deeply depressing, particularly when the untruth continues to be relied upon and spread by our national press.
I refer in this post to the recent article in the Independent which offers us the real story behind ‘forced adoptions’ and is a comment to yet another attempt by the Daily Mail to whip up outrage on an assumption that one factor in a case (the age of the grandparents) is the ONLY factor and proof that the family law system is broken irreparably, etc, etc.
The judgment is now available in the ‘too old grandparents’ case, and as ever, the reality is somewhat different to how the Daily Mail would like to see it. We can only hope that at least some of those who were shocked and upset by what the Mail said will now take the time to read about the actual issues.
Credit where credit is due to Joe Shute of the Telegraph who DID read the judgment about the ‘too old grandparents’ and provided a clear and honest appraisal of its content and consequences. The Transparency Project collectively is delighted – particularly given some of the misinformation that the Telegraph has previously published.
Of course, it cannot undo entirely the damage done by the earlier, sensationalised and inaccurate reporting by both the Mail and the Telegraph- but its a start. So well done The Telegraph – and that is not something I thought I would ever say. Let’s hope this is the start of a trend.
But main topic in this post is the Independent article. It turns out that the author, Caroline Selkirk, is actually the Chief Executive of the British Association of Adoption and Fostering. I am astonished. Her identity is not made clear in the article. This is clumsy propaganda.
I had, probably naively rather higher hopes of the Independent. But while I am happy to see some attempts to counter the simplistic polemics of the Mail I am not sure that this is the way to do it:
Make no mistake about it: most children who are embroiled in the care system are there because of serious abuse or neglect. One of the reasons that contested adoption is legal here and illegal elsewhere is because UK law puts the welfare and rights of the child first, above those of parents and any associated relatives. It’s not always in the child’s best interests to stay with their birth family.
Well, yes. That is not entirely untrue. But of course it is itself a polemic without nuance or consideration of all the issues, raised by many in both academic and social work fields about the reasons WHY families may end up in such dire straits and what we as a society could and should be doing about it. Adoption is not a cure all for the problems generated by an increasingly unequal society and a lack of help and support for vulnerable people. It’s also odd to suggest that other jurisdictions don’t care about the rights/welfare of the child as much as we do.
But my real beef with the article is this:
The UK is the only country in Europe, and one of a tiny minority of countries in the world, that participates in so-called ‘forced adoption’.
This is simply untrue. I can see how this untruth gets perpetuated as it is everywhere – even Judges get it wrong, see Mostyn J in Re D (a Child)  EWHC 3388 (Fam) who seemed to think that only 3 out of 28 European Countries permitted ‘forced adoption’.
I turn to the people who should know – the Council of Europe The Committee on Social Affairs, Health and Sustainable Development of its Parliamentary Assembly produced a report in March 2015: Social services in Europe: legislation and practice of the removal of children from their families in Council of Europe member States.
At para 35 the report states:
Adoptions without the consent of the parents are not possible in France, Greece, Luxembourg and Spain. They are rare (practiced only exceptionally) in: Canada, Cyprus, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Romania, Serbia and Switzerland. In some countries which proscribe adoptions without the consent of the parents (for example, in Russia), the child can be given up for adoption if his/her parents are unknown, legally incapable or whose whereabouts have been recognised as unknown by a court. They are possible in Andorra, Croatia, Estonia, Georgia, Germany (in 2010, 250 children were placed for adoption without the parents’ consent), Hungary, Italy, Montenegro, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Sweden, Turkey, and the United Kingdom (in 2013, 3.020 children were placed for adoption without the parents’ consent).
So that’s 15 countries. They are ‘rare’ but do happen in another 6 in the Council of Europe. 15 plus 6 is 21 – not 3. And certainly not 1. Even some countries which forbid ‘forced adoption’ will allow it in certain circumstances, for e.g. Russia.
The report is well worth a read as it highlights some very real concerns about what is going on in the UK. I accept that while we are certainly not the ‘only’ country to allow ‘forced adoption’ we do seem to be pretty unique in our promotion of adoption above other options. The report comments at para 72:
England and Wales are really unique in Europe in placing so many children for adoption, in particular in the young age group which is “popular” on the adoption market. Statistics show that under 20% of children forcibly taken from parents who leave care aged under 5, return to their parents. The former Prime Minister Tony Blair went so far as to establish “adoption targets” for local authorities from 2001 to 2008.
But even this relatively sober and respectable document shows the danger of simplistic reporting with that last reference to ‘adoption targets’ – a phrase which throws up an enormous amount of debate and which requires very careful unpicking. If you are at all interested in that debate the Child Protection Resource has set out many of the issues in its post on Forced Adoption in the Myth Busting section.
So why am I bothered?
There seems to be a view in some quarters that this transparency lark is a bit futile – 0r even deluded. The argument is made that attempting to shine a light on inaccurate reporting/misunderstanding of cases will have little impact because of those who will simply refuse to accept any argument that goes against their firmly held narrative about the ‘secret and evil’ family courts.
But this is a self defeating and self fulfilling prophecy. I fear that this untruth about the ‘unique’ status of the UK has caused enormous damage. It needs to be countered. It is repeated over and over again, each source able to refer back to the previous source in support. It perpetuates the notion that there is something very rotten in the current system, if we are so alone out of all other European countries. But in so doing it does not shine a light upon the very real issues that need discussion but instead is another shiny distraction for the Daily Mail to wave at its followers. It means we don’t talk about the real problems, we are too busy being shocked at/attempting to debunk something that just isn’t true.
Of course I understand that newspapers are not in the business of providing worthy 3,000 word analyses of the Issues of the day. No one has got time for that. The media fulfils a vital role in disseminating information in an accessible way. So please, please, please therefore stop repeating simple untruths. If you don’t have time for nuance and debate, you must make time to get your fundamental facts right.
Sarah Phillimore is a barrister who specialises in family law
This post originally appeared on the Transparency Project blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks