CJ: Hello and welcome to the Feminist Law Podcast. I’m your co-host Courtney Jones.
CT: And I’m your co-host Clara Topiol. We’re both co-founders of the Feminist Law Project and final year law students who are very passionate about feminism and the law. Today on the podcast, we have Dr Lisa Deblasio, a Professor of Law at Plymouth University and academic researcher. Could you please introduce yourself?
LD: Yes, hello Clara. My name is Lisa Marie Deblasio, as you said. I work at the University of Plymouth down in the south-west of England and I teach law and am also a legal researcher.
CJ: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast today. For the purpose of today’s episode, we wanted to focus on your article that was titled ‘Using Reflexivity as a Tool to Validate Feminist Research Based on Personal Trauma’. In this article, you explore the trauma of birth mothers, something that has deeply impacted you. Could you please tell us more about the reasons for writing such an article?
LD: Yes, of course. There were two reasons. First being that I have personal experience of adoption myself, being a birth mum. Many years ago, when I was much younger, two of my children were adopted against my will because I was living with domestic abuse. I’m a domestic abuse survivor. At the time, I wasn’t involved in academia, I was working as a counsellor. I ended up very very unwell because of the domestic abuse and because at the time when this happened, there wasn’t as much understanding and awareness of how women experienced domestic abuse. Back in late 90s/early 2000s, there was much more of an emphasis on victim blaming than there is now. The criminal justice system hadn’t acknowledged to the degree that it does now how much women were not responsible for violence and abuse that was given to them in the home and intimate relationships. Often, when children were involved, it was invariably the woman that was blamed for not being able to protect the child or the children, which is exactly what happened to me. Unfortunately, my experience was rather than being helped and supported to remove myself from the abuser or have the abuser removed from me, the response from the social services was to actually separate me from my children. This was a terribly traumatic experience that devastated my family and myself. I was very fortunate that I was able to become empowered through support, counselling, therapy. I was after that experience popery cared for. By the time I came out of that which was a couple of years, it was too late. The local authority had already placed my children for adoption without my consent. I made it my ambition, if you like, to make sure that I used that experience, rather than to destroy me, to make me. I then embarked on a law degree and a masters and a PhD where I investigated the experiences of women who had experienced what I had, who had been through very similar experiences with losing their children. So that was my PhD which was 100,000 words of work which I did with 32 birth mums on their experiences of adoption. The method was a massive key part of the PhD which was feminist method. The article that you’re talking about was an offshoot of that method. Because it was quite unusual for a law PhD to focus on the first -hand experiences of women in particular, in this case adoption law, it suited a feminist methodology where we sought to empower women by giving them a voice. The methodology actually played a key part in my success with the PhD. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to disseminate that part of the PhD in the Feminist Legal Studies Journal.
CT: Thank you so much for sharing all of this with us and for being so open in terms of your past. It does sound like you feel empowered by what you’ve done to overcome this whole story and going into academia instead. Could you please give us an overview of the care system in the UK and how it works in the legal sense?
LD: Yes, of course. It’s a vast area of child law and it falls under the umbrella of public child law because it’s initiated by the State. We have two concepts within the law. Most of the law that deals with care is the Children Act 1989. Adoption is dealt with slightly differently under the Adoption of Children Act 2002. With the care system, there tends to be two focuses: there are children in need and children at risk. There is a process within the Children’s Act and all the relevant policy and practice that comes from trying to keep families together by supporting them. Where there’s children in need identified, for example the children’s school has identified it or the GP or other bodies or parents themselves have asked for help, the general understanding is that support and care will be provided to enable the family to overcome their problems and parent their children effectively. In reality, funding is poor, lots of centers that used to exist that used to be there to help families in these situations were closed down due to lack of funding and unfortunately, quite often, what happens is it becomes more of a risk factor than a child in need before authorities become aware. So, for example, there might be neglect that becomes evident within the school or within the doctor’s or there might be some injuries from some kind of abuse. It also could be, like with my experience, that a parent has mental health problems or they have domestic abuse which is very common why authorities get involved with families where there is domestic abuse. Or, it could be a drug or alcohol problem. In extreme cases, the State, the local authorities, these are the public bodies that are involved with children, have the power under the Children Act to remove children from their parents, from their carers, either in an emergency situation or in a longer term situation. In order to do that, they have to apply to court. They have to ask the court for permission for an order to enable them to remove children. We call into care. It’s also termed as ‘looked after’. In other words, if a child is removed from their families, their parents, they are looked after by the State, by social services. There are two ways this could happen; an example would be they’re in a residential home for children or with foster parents. In that situation, there will be the presumption that the child’s family will continue to have contact with that child, they will continue to visit them, there will be an ongoing relationship. It should be that unless there is absolutely no chance that that child could safely return to their family, that might be when adoption is spoken about. This could be a long-drawn-out process. Often, children will be in care and their parents will be fighting in court to have their children returned. Sometimes, it will be the court saying you need to get treatment, or you need to get help, or you need to get some therapy or support to help you parent your children. Usually, the law said it was always ever as a last resort when there are no other options should children be permanently removed from their families and placed with new families in the form of adoption.
CJ: Thank you so much for that explanation. Speaking about removing children from care situations, you mentioned that the adoption of your younger two children broke down, so the local authority stepped in and took the children into care. It seems that this is an unusual event but how did this happen?
LD: This happened in the early 2000s. at the time, unfortunately, this is when the new laws were coming in. I didn’t know this at the time because I wasn’t a lawyer. A new law on adoption was coming in which was trying to get thousands and thousands of children out of care. The whole aim of this new law was to try and break this pattern of children living in care for years and years. The outcomes for those children was not really any better than it would be if they were with their parents who were having problems. For example, there was a lot of child abuse going on in children’s homes during the 1990s that didn’t come out until much later. The whole idea about the new law is that the government wanted to get children out of care and into loving families. They were so focused on this that what they actually did was compel children’s services to meet targets. At the time, children services weren’t doing enough to have children placed with new families. So, they set targets for local authorities of high levels of adoption. If you were in my situation, which is that I was terribly traumatized by domestic abuse, I knew my children were too, I hadn’t had very much contact with my children because I was being cared for in a residential unit where I was very unwell. I was having contact with them but the whole time I was having contact with them and fighting to get my life back on track, a plan for adoption had been put in place almost straight away. My children were 2 and 5. That was considered to be an attractive age, they were two brothers together, they were very sweet little boys. It wasn’t long before someone came and put themselves forward for adoption of my children. At that point, I had no solicitor. I had no solicitor advising me on my rights, I didn’t know I had rights, I didn’t know that I could have opposed that. What I was told by a social worker who came to visit me in my residential unit was ‘your children shouldn’t be living with foster parents, they’ll have a much better life if you agree for them to be adopted. Actually, you owe it to your children after what they’ve been through, seeing domestic abuse’. At that point, I was very vulnerable and felt I had no option but to agree. So, I consented but my consent wasn’t informed as the law requires. It wasn’t given freely because I believe that I was emotionally blackmailed to consent. That was the story and over the years, there have been ups and downs in this argument about adoption being the right thing and whether local authorities should have been compelled to initiate so many adoptions. The evidence is that actually, probably not because in my children’s case, less than two years later, the children were removed from the adopters and the reason they were removed from the adopters was they experienced horrific mental and physical abuse at the hands of the adoptive family. So, that’s as far as I know, not overly common. However, governments don’t have statistics on adoption breakdown. So, they don’t know enough about it.
CT: That must be so tricky as you say, having no statistics about this and not knowing the extent of the problem and being able to implement sufficient legislation to ensure that this whole area is regulated or more regulated.
CT: You just mentioned consent, actually. Parental consent tends to be bypassed by the State in the realm of adoption. Why is that and do you think this should change in any way?
LD: Parental consent before the adoption of the Children Act was much more focused on both sets; it was focused on the child, needs of the child, it was focused on the right of the parent to refuse to consent. What the government was seeing and the legal system was seeing is huge amounts of adoption proceedings where parents weren’t consenting because it’s actually quite natural and human, regardless of what’s happening, to not want to lose your child. It’s a human thing. The reason why they changed the law in the Adoption of Children Act 2002 was to take away the focus of parental consent and focus fully on the welfare of the child. When they made the law, they decided the only way they could enable courts to override parental consent was to make a very simple test. The simple test in the Adoption of Children Act is that parental consent can be overridden if the child’s welfare requires it. That test is very very easy for the courts to override. This was challenged by the House of Lords and by Committees when this law was passed. They said this was completely overriding the rights of birth parents. There’s no safeguards in place. indeed, there isn’t. again and again, that is used. The courts have to decide: does the child’s welfare require adoption? Yes, it does and here’s the consent being overrode. My understanding is that at the time of speaking to you, over 90% of adoptions are initiated in that way so consent is overridden. In many other cases such as mine, I gave consent but it wasn’t free and informed which is the requirement within the Act. I think that in some cases, consent needs to be overridden when it’s so imperative that children simply need a home that’s there for them, and they need a loving family that’s there for them and a parent for whatever reason is struggling to understand that and consent. However, on the same token, there needs to be far more safeguards in place because at the point of this happening, many many parents are terribly vulnerable, and they are not properly represented, and they are struggling with the understanding of what this entails. So, the safeguards need to be strengthened in terms of consent and overriding consent.
CJ: Thank you for sharing that. It sounds like overriding parental consent in this case ought to be really on a case by case basis.
CJ: Yes, where it’s actually necessary for the children and that parents definitely deserve to have fully informed consent when it comes to this.
LD: They do. Article 8 and article 6 of the European Convention demand that consent conforms to human rights. At the moment, there is a question about whether that override of consent actually does.
CJ: Right. In your article, you state that ‘you wanted to provide a platform for the voices for women who are rarely heard in academic discourses on adoption where the focus is usually placed on adoptive families’ and in which you say ‘demonstrate the power of reflexivity’. Could you please expand on the interrelation of women, adoption and reflexivity?
LD: Yes, of course. If I start with the general idea that birth mothers, as a social group, are not studied often. They are marginalized so that adoptive research tends to focus much more on outcomes. So, adoption research, as valuable as it is, tends to focus on the experiences of adopted children, adopted parents and the outcomes for those new families and how successful that is, what are their needs… whereas birth mothers in particular, once adoption has gone through, cease to be relevant or important. Even though the law requires there being some ongoing support for them and care, it’s rarely given because of the lack of investment in their support. They tend to be stigmatised, as I was, so they feel that they don’t have a place in society. I try not to generalize here as I recognise this might not be the case for all birth mothers but for the mums in my study, it was overriding evidence that they felt that they weren’t human anymore. They weren’t a mother because their children had been removed. They didn’t have the right to grieve because it wasn’t a bereavement; if we lose a child through death, we tend to have a support in place where we are offered the right to bereave, to suffer grief. We call this living grief; children are removed but they’re still alive. I’ve experienced it; I’ve been asked how many children do you have? For a period of time, I felt that I had to lie, I had to remove the children that were adopted because I didn’t want to have to explain. That was due to stigma and shame and guilt. Because of that, it means that not only are birth mothers researched, but they are also frightened to take part in research because they’re frightened of how they’ll be painted and how they’ll be represented. It only tends to be women who research within a feminist framework that allow birth mothers and other women who are marginalized in society to not be judged, to not feel as though they’re stigmatized but also, they won’t be interpreted in a way that suits my objectives. Because I’m a birth mum, that’s where reflexivity comes in. Although we have a lot of excellent researchers who research birth mums and women who have lost children to the care system, I was able to incorporate reflexivity into my method because I have been there, felt it, understood it and I identified as part of that research group. The normal hierarchy between researcher and researched was not in evidence, that’s the important thing to know. They understood that there was very little chance that I would either paint them in a negative light, any kind of judgment or any kind of stigmatizing because I’d explained to them right at the beginning, I am a birth mum. I didn’t have to necessarily give them the information or the background unless they asked for it. If they did, I would have told them what I told you at the beginning of the interview. This is what happened to me. What that did is it broke down any barrier that existed and they felt able to talk freely, to talk about what they felt they’d done wrong without fear of judgment, and it was a completely open process that was exhausting and draining because it took me a year and a half to do these interviews. It empowered not just them by myself because then I realised, I was not alone with my experience and that’s reflexibility. Reflexivity is a conduit between research and the researcher where there is a strong bond. I explored my feelings from every interview that I did at the end, and I kept them in my research journal.
CT: Thank you for sharing that and I agree, from what I’ve read of your article, it definitely helped to break down some barriers and be on the same level of these other birth mothers and not have the normal, I suppose, hierarchy of researcher and the focus group. You even say in your article that you ‘did not get the sense that those who spoke to you saw you as an academic or researcher but rather as a birth mother. This equality between us demonstrates a key value that reflects a feminist research’.
CT: As such, do you think that your interview or research with them would’ve been different had you not had that experience or had you not had a common past together to share and to bond over in a way that allowed you to potentially explore more the feelings of these other birth mothers and allow you to have a more in-depth research?
LD: I think so. I mean, every interview was different. Some were very very open and we had, as often happens in feminist research, ongoing relationships for a while. Some of the birth mums I stayed in touch with for six months and carried on collecting data, obviously with ethical approval. This was more than an interview. This was more like empirical research where I was quite involved with their life for a while. The thing with the reflexive approach is that quite often in research, it’s up to the researched to ask questions. I didn’t have room in my article to go into this but for example, we’re interviewing today and it’s not likely that through this process, I will ask you questions about your life but in my research, I was able to open the door to say to the birth mums, yes that happened to me. For example, one birth mum felt unable to engage with counselling because she felt as though the people who initiated her child’s adoption should not be giving her counselling. She felt angry and I’d felt that too because I was offered counselling by a social worker who was involved in the adoption of my children. I was furious. I said to this mum, yes that’s exactly how I felt, I know exactly what you mean. The same with the searching element: so, after the child was removed, she wanted to search for her child. She knew there was no way she would ever find him, but it was the grieving process, again. I broke down during that interview because it reminded me of the time I searched for my sons. I was careful with my emotions but in some of those relationships, it was absolutely ok for me to share my experiences. This is unusual in academic research, and this is what made it so impactful.
CJ: Absolutely, I think when a researcher maybe has personal experience of the thing that they’re researching, then the research can have more of an impact. Your article focuses on a feminist perspective of adoption and reflexivity. How do you demonstrate feminism approaches and achieve this portrayal of your situation and research, other than solely by interviewing women?
LD: I was quite new to the feminist methodology when I started my research. I didn’t have years of experience in feminist methodology. It grew quite organically. What it was really was I rejected the male scientific idea about adoption law. So, the male scientific idea about adoption law tends to be ‘adoption is a great service for children, it gets children out of care, puts them with loving families, let’s research that, see how great that is’. It’s valid, it’s good research, it comes back with good evidence that adoption is good for children. What it tends to bypass is the ugliness, the depth, the pain, the suffering, the grief that particularly women experience. This isn’t just about birth mums. Adoptive mums also have things happen to them when they take a child as their own that are equally valid. The whole idea about the feminist approach is that the birth mums in my approach, their narratives and experiences were prioritised so there was no other experience in that research that was priority. My literature review focused on previous feminist literature and other law. Primarily, the whole work was focused on ‘these are your experiences, tell me about them, use their words verbatim’. So, I didn’t edit them; I didn’t put it through any software that would edit their words. I used their words as they said them. Only where I had to absolutely clean up certain things to make it clear. I prioritised their narratives and there was nothing in their narratives that tried to make my point. I didn’t try to control the narrative as a researcher which again, the normal thing to do for research to do, they want to meet the aims of the objectives of their study so quite likely, they’re going to manipulate the data. I didn’t do that. I set out their experience, whether they were bad, good, whatever they were. So, they were prioritised and from that, the whole idea about feminist research is that we’re hoping that women are empowered and do feel listened to in a very male-orientated legal system. From the feedback I got, many of them said that I believed them, didn’t judge them. We’re also looking for something coming out the other end that helps collectively the experiences of women and I’m hoping that’s what I achieved.
CT: Yes, exactly. When I read your article, I definitely felt as well that you were giving a voice to these women who otherwise would not have necessarily had a platform or somewhere to talk about their experiences and their trauma. I definitely agree with that and could recognise that when I read your article.
CT: To wrap up now, if our listeners would like to find out more about research and more widely about adoption, women’s rights and the reflexivity tool that you mentioned, where could they do so?
LD: They’re more than welcome to email me. I’m quite happy for you to share my email address. Also, my PhD ended up being a monograph, a book that focuses on methodology to a smaller level. It’s more focused on the words of the birth mums. They could certainly access that in their university libraries if they’re students. They can also, if they contact me, I can send them a free narrative of that through my university depositary. There’s no need for them to rush out and buy it but they can certainly get more insight, or I suppose they can access the Feminist Legal Journal article that we actually talked about today. if there’s people out there who are listening and feel like they’d like to do legal research within a different kind of methodology, so they don’t want to do black letter law, which is an excellent method but sometimes, more so feminist researchers, they want to get out in the field and look at how the law is affecting women. For example, I’ve just also completed research into survivors of domestic abuse and the law. Again, I interviewed women. That’s something you can do and it’s about getting out there, looking at researchers who use different methodologies such as mine. We use empirical research. We use case studies. We use interviews. It can be done provided that you can justify your reasons why. Legal research is no longer just the study of statute and case law. It’s far more than that now. We can justify that, especially within a feminist methodology.
CT: Brilliant, thank you so much for sharing all of this and thank you again for coming on the podcast today and sharing your past, the really traumatic story you’ve gone through but also all the legal work you’ve done since, that was very interesting and we’re very grateful for having you today.
LD: It’s a pleasure. Thank you very much for having me.
CJ: In today’s feminist news roundup, Japan has proposed raising the age of sexual consent from 13 to 16 years old. This change in the law will also include criminalising the grooming of minors and raising the age of limitations to 15 years. Also in today’s news roundup, retired Met Police Officer Steven is on trial after he was accused of an incident of rape dating back to 2004. Meanwhile in Merseyside, female pupils entering for high schools have been made to enter separately from male pupils and have had to undergo the monitoring of skirt lengths. In the US, Harvey Weinstein has been sentenced to 16 years of prison for sex crimes in Los Angeles, separate from the 23 years sentence he previously received in New York. Finally, the Guardian has reported that women who have experienced domestic abuse are three times more likely than other women to attempt suicide. This is exacerbated when women are experiencing sexual abuse in relationships as they are seven times more likely than other women who are not being abused to attempt suicide.
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CJ: The music from this podcast was sourced from Pixabay.com.
CT: Thanks for listening!