The Importance of Parental Commitment

Hege Stein Helland (2020)

NEW ARTICLE: Decision-makers exercise of discretion in decisions on adoption from care.

Termination of parental rights and adoption from care are intrusive child protection interventions. Such decisions have far-reaching implications and are by many considered controversial.

All European countries have legal mechanisms that allow for adoption without parental consent, but there is scarce knowledge on the justification of these decisions and how judges exercise discretion.

In a newly published article in Children and Youth Services Review, PhD Candidate Hege Stein Helland contributes to closing this knowledge gap by studying how professional decision-makers exercise discretion in the Norwegian child protection system.

Adoption in Norway

– Studying Norwegian adoption decisions is very interesting, as law and political regulations include few restrictions on how to define and understand the principle of the child´s best interest. This means that the decision-makers are delegated a wide discretionary scope, says Helland.

Helland presented a case vignette (a fictional case description) about a young boy in a long-term foster care placement to near 500 participants, including child protection workers, experts on children and judges in the Norwegian child protection system. After reading the case, the respondents were asked to consider if they would suggest adoption or continued foster care.

They were also asked which specific features of the case were decisive to their decision, and in which way the case would have to be different, if they were to change their decision.

Child-centered vs. parent-oriented

Adoption was clearly the preferred alternative, in all three groups. These decision makers pointed to three features in the case as particularly important for their choice: the child’s attachment to his foster family, his parents’ inability to change and to provide adequate care, and the child’s age and the time and length of placement.

The answers show that the support for adoption is high if certain conditions are present. Yet, when decision-makers were asked what would have to be different to change their decision, two factors clearly stood out: If parents show positive change, and if the quality of contact is adequate or good.

– This is interesting because while the rationale behind the justifications for adoption were varied and largely child-centered, the considerations that embodied the power to transform a decision was mainly parent-oriented, says Helland.

An act of balancing

Helland emphasizes that the decision-makers’ reaction to the vignette is not necessarily representative of real-life actions. Nonetheless, the responses suggest that adoption is understood as the appropriate choice for a child whose attachment is to his or her foster parents.

At the same time, the legal bonds between the child and his or her parents as well as the value of parent-child contact, tips the scale in disfavor of adoption if parents are able to reform and commit to change.

– This indicates a hierarchy of norms and standards that guide the discretionary application of the law on adoption in decision-making: where attachment is an important factor, the decision is ultimately dependent on the commitment and functioning of the parents, Helland states.

Contradicting demands

The study concludes that a decision on adoption is ultimately dependent on the weighting of two decisive norms: the right to biological family life and the right to a de facto family life.

– This mirrors the tension between family preservation and children’s rights often found in modern child protection systems, and the findings indicate that decision-makers are trying to cope with contradicting demands of family preservation and children’s rights. Although this study is from the Norwegian child protection system, we can expect to find a similar pattern in other western-European systems as well, concludes Helland.

Hege Stein Helland (2020). Tipping the Scales: The Power of Parental Commitment in Decisions on Adoption from CareChildren and Youth Services Review