Infant determinism

An ‘enforced caesarean’ and adoption story recently dominated media headlines.  But the grounds for allowing the child to be placed for adopted are based on contestable theory - infant determinism.

The precise case details remain unclear but we know from the court transcript of February 2013 that a pregnant Italian woman had been detained under section 2 (and subsequently section 3) of the Mental Health Act during a trip to Britain in June 2012. She had a diagnosed bipolar affective disorder (manic depressive) condition but wasn’t taking her prescribed medication. She’d had two previous children by caesarean section and they were cared for, in Italy, by their grandmother. The woman had returned home without her baby soon after the caesarean section but her baby, P, was subject to an interim care order from her birth which had been regularly renewed. The Local Authority had instigated proceedings because P ‘either was suffering, or was likely to suffer significant harm because of the mother’s severe ill health at the time’.

The mother had resumed taking her medication in Italy since P’s birth and returned to Britain to contest an LA proposal, supported by P’s legal Guardian, that P be adopted in Britain without undue delay. The mother, supported by her Italian psychiatrist, disagreed and proposed instead that P should remain in foster care for approximately a year, or up to a year, to allow her time to demonstrate that she could manage her condition and maintain her medication and a stable life.

The Judge said ‘My task really is to consider whether P can be placed with her family and be cared for to a satisfactory and predictable standard within an appropriate timescale (my italics), not whether she might be better off adopted, that is not an appropriate consideration’.

The belief that there is an optimal timescale within which a child should be adopted has become widespread. This is based on the assumption that a child’s physical, emotional, language and cognitive development from pregnancy to age five are the foundations of the rest of their lives. And that how we turn out as adults is determined by the care we have as young children. This has become known as ‘infant determinism’ and draws on John Bowlby’s and others attachment theory. He’s a psychologist that many of us studied in Nurse training. Today his views are most cogently argued by Mayim Bialik in regard to ‘attachment parenting’.

But this outlook is contested by some developmental psychologists, in particular Dr Helene Guldberg. She maintains that research hasn’t shown that there are critical periods for emotional and social development in childhood. She contends that humans thrive in vastly different circumstances and environments and respond in different ways to traumatic experiences or neglect. The outcomes don’t have to be negative. Children especially can react by becoming more resilient, given the opportunity.

Neuroscience is also influencing current thinking in this regard. The new fostering and adoption training guide recently released by the College of Social Work (for social workers in adoption and fostering) includes a section that considers ‘the implications of neuroscience on assessments and care planning.’ But should a pseudo -science like this be used as an argument to push through adoption decisions faster than they used to because it’s politically expedient to do so?

Factors like these almost certainly influenced the judge’s ruling in this case and it’s a worrying development. With this ‘evidence’ against her, the Mother didn’t stand a chance of proving that she could look after her child in time, least of all in the 9-12months she had requested. That’s a worrying development and legitimises professional, court and state intervention in family life on spurious grounds.

About the author

Bríd Hehir is a fundraising manager for Do Good Charity which sponsors nurse training and education in Africa. She worked in the NHS until 2011, as a nurse, midwife and specialist heath visitor and latterly a senior manager. She is a regular contributor to spiked and is a Battle of Ideas Committee member.