Race matters, but it should not be a bar to adoption feb 2013
The Children and Families Bill which had its First Reading yesterday deliverson this Government’s determination radically and permanently to reformadoption so that neglected and abused children get the stable and lovinghomes they need and before they are unduly damaged by neglect and abuse.I’m very proud that much of the Bill flows from recommendations I havemade to Michael Gove and, until recently, Children’s Minister, Tim Loughton.It has sometimes been a difficult road and undoubtedly a controversial one.Sometimes that controversy has been the natural result of the Governmenttackling genuinely sensitive issues - contact between children and birthrelatives, placing children with their would be adopters but in a fosteringcapacity while the legal processes unfold, or offering adopters personalbudgets to allow them to buy in support – all included in this Bill.But much the most controversial issue has been the move to reducetheemphasis given to ethnicity, culture, linguistic background and religion whenmatching a child to adopters. That there is a problem is not in doubt. Blackchildren wait a year longer to be adopted than white children,and some blackchildren simply grow out of the chance of adoption, losing for all time, thechance of the love and stability that every child needs.It is frequently – sometimes mischeviously - suggested that in changing thelaw on ethnicity and adoption that the Government are suggesting thatethnicity doesn’t matter. That is simply not true. What the government aredoing – and partly as a result of my urging – is ensuring that ethnicity andcultural considerations do not unnecessarily veto an otherwise satisfactoryadoption.There is an important history here. In the immediate post war years, blackand mixed race children in care were extremely unlikely to be put forward foradoption. Children’s case files were stamped as “unadoptable” reflecting abelief that predominantly white adopters would not countenance theadoption of a black child. This attitude persisted well into the sixties until theadoption of black children into white homes became commonplace.But by the end of the seventies race emerged again as a factor, this time basedon a belief that it was not in a black child’s interests to be adopted by a whitefamily. Transracial placements, as they become known, were frowned upon.In 1983 The Association of Black Social Workers told a Commons SelectCommittee:Transracial placement as an aspect of current child care policy is in essence amicrocosm of the oppression of black people in this society… it is in essence a form ofinternal colonization… a new form of slave trade.
Government guidance at that time was – remarkably – pretty close to theBlack Social Workers view. But evidence first emerging toward the end of thenineties demonstrated that there was no basis for the belief that ethnicmatching was vital to the success of an adoption. By 1998, Paul Boateng,destined to become the UK’s first black Cabinet Minister was critical of localauthorities who:Still refuse to place children for adoption because one of the prospective parents… isdeemed the wrong colour.Labour legislated and the 20002 Adoption and Children Act made plain thatavoiding delay in adoption was the priority and that children should not waitin order to be adopted by parents of the same ethnicity, culture, religion orlinguistic background.But local authorities have been slow to change although some, at last, havebegun to adjust their policies. But others appear unmoved and continue toemphasise race above other considerations.For example, Sheffield’s adoption website today refers to children who:May be of black or dual heritage and need to be placed in families, which are able tomeet their ethnic and cultural needs.It is not that race does not matter. The advice I have given to Michael Gove isthat if there are two sets of adopters interested in adopting a black child, blackadopters have an advantage. But when, as is so often the case, there are notenough black adopters available, then to continue to emphasise race is cruellydisadvantageous to black children. And it happens in cases where race shouldreally not be an issue at all. In a very recent Be My Parent magazine, whichessentially advertises children waiting for adoption, a little boy, T, and whohas significant developmental delay is described:T was born with Spina Bifida… and will need continued (medical) support includingfrom a neurosurgeon for hydrocephalus. Professionals monitor his kidney function,orthopaedic needs and developmental progress. It is not known how much mobility hewill have in the future…But the advertisement goes on to say that the family needed for T must beable to develop a sense of T’s ethnic and cultural identity. And this is notsimply about black children. In the same magazine white brother and sister Hand G are featured. Parents willing to adopt challenging children like this areheroes. But, remarkably, such adopters come forward. But in this case, theyshould not do so unless they can reflect or actively develop the ethnic andcultural identity of these two children, both of whom are Downs children.That’s what I mean when I talk sometimes about an obsession with ethnicity.Local authorities have been commendably brave in supporting the adoptionof children by gay parents. And they are right to do so because the evidence isclear that the disadvantage of a child growing up in a home where they are
unlikely to share the sexuality of either of their parents is easily overcome.The evidence that white parents can, with sensitivity and support, similarlycompensate for a difference in ethnicity between themselves and an adoptedchild is just as compelling. This Bill, will, I hope, ensure that social workpractice responds to that reality.