26/03/2013 07:04 GMT | Updated 25/05/2013 06:12 BST

UK Adoption Reform: The Dangers of Repeating Australia's Shame

In Australia last week, the prime minister Julie Gillard delivered an historic and exceptionally moving national apology to thousands of unwed mothers who were forced by government policies to give up their babies for adoption over several decades.

She acknowledged that the policies and practices that forced the separation of mothers from their babies, had denied mothers their fundamental right to love and care for their children, affected fathers and hurt siblings and their wider families.

She talked eloquently of the importance of a child's right to know and be cared for by its parents. She spoke of adoptees' struggle with their "identity, uncertainty and loss" and feelings of a "persistent tension between loyalty to one family and yearning for another".

Meanwhile the UK government is pushing ahead full steam with Clause 1 of the Children and Families Bill. If implemented it could result in some children being placed with potential adopters despite there having been no court proceedings, no court decision that the child should be permanently removed from their parents and no legal advice given to the parents.

Clause 1 of the bill requires that English local authorities, as soon as they consider adoption as even one of the possible options for a child they are looking after, must consider placing the child with people who may go on to adopt them. Even if there are suitable wider family members, such as a grandparent willing to care for their grandchild, social workers will no longer have to prioritise placing the child (or keeping the child) with their grandparents. Instead. they can put the child's name on the national adoption register to find suitable adopters and place the child with potential adoptive parents (who are temporarily approved as foster carers) anywhere in the country.

The government has given no coherent explanation for denying a child the right to live safely with relatives, who could provide the same continuity of care that foster for adoption aims to achieve. No rationale for squeezing out potential family carers when there are already 4,600 children waiting to be adopted.

Politicians, the public and those of us in child welfare are united that children who cannot live with their families need the opportunity to be raised in a permanent, loving environment without unnecessary delays. But the error the government is making is to address one challenge by creating other dreadful injustices and hurt.

There is plenty of evidence that with the right support many parents do make it within their children's timescales. Closures of domestic violence refuges, for example, or benefit cuts that force families into homeless, which Family Rights Group is observing from calls to our advice service, has the opposite impact. As has the government's decision to take £150m from the early intervention grant and give it to local authorities to spend on adoption reform.

In Australia mothers were betrayed by a system, in which they were deprived of care and support. As Julia Gillard told these mothers, you were "denied of knowledge of your rights so you could not give informed consent". Indeed in some cases supposed consent was given when the mother was still heavily medicated from the birth. Yet that's exactly what could happen under Clause 1. Some of those mothers and fathers who will be affected are young, some are care leavers, many have learning difficulties. Family Rights Group is attempting to address this issue of informed consent by pushing amendments to the bill so that a child could only be placed with a potential adopter if there has been a court decision or the parents have consented following legal advice and their consent has been independently witnessed.

It is important to remember that the Australian Senate Committee found that forced adoption by married couples, was perceived at the time to be in the children's best interests. It's an easy trap to fall into, to justify any extension of state power in family lives. But we must not fall into this same trap.

Julia Gillard pointed out that the history of forced adoption in Australia has "created a lifelong legacy of pain and suffering". Let's not repeat their errors.