With Mother’s Day approaching, Emily Buchanan recalls the suspicions and bureaucracy she had to overcome when she adopted two Chinese girls and brought them to Britain.
Emily Buchanan found herself without a ready reply on one of her first trips to a local playground with her newly-adopted daughter, Jade.
“Is her father Chinese?” another mother asked as she pushed her own toddler on a swing alongside Buchanan and Jade.
As a BBC world affairs correspondent, she isn’t usually at a loss for words. “I paused, not prepared for this obvious question,” Buchanan recounts in From China With Love, her book about adopting Jade and Rose.
“Er, yes, kind of . . . ” was the answer that came out, as her brain cycled through better possible replies: “Yes,” or “Yes, and we’ve adopted her from China,” or “No, her father’s British,” or even the spiky “Why do you need to know?”
The question, even if it was prompted by entirely innocent curiosity, was more evidence for Buchanan’s growing sense that in Britain, adoption is seen as second-best—and overseas adoption even worse than that, perhaps even criminal.
Buchanan admits there are genuine fears about the market for babies for international adoption—she herself reported on underhand methods of obtaining babies in Paraguay.
But she also feels the British media over-emphasise the negative aspects of a process which she says is successful much more often than not.
“The overwhelming majority of overseas adoptions are fine—whereas one in five domestic adoptions fail,” she says.
Buchanan found barriers to international adoption not only in the press and society, but even, in some ways, in the government bureaucracy designed to facilitate it.
She and her husband went through an exhaustive two-month home study carried out by social workers trying to determine if they were suitable parents or not—a process no birth parent faces, she observes.
The UK government tightened rules on international adoption in the wake of the high-profile case involving Alan and Judith Kilshaw. Social services intervened in this 2001 internet adoption case, where the north Wales couple had sought to adopt twins from the United States.
Buchanan agrees there must be laws in place to protect children and prospective adoptive parents, but also fears there are less savoury forces at work.
“There is an inverted racism in the social services, a preference for children to match the race of their parents,” she says.
“We’re all supposed to be multi-cultural, all mixing in some great melting pot—but not in families. It doesn’t feel right, it doesn’t look right. It looks odd.
“Part of why I wanted to write the book is to say I’m not ashamed of it. This is the way the world works now.”
Buchanan says her sister, living in the United States, had a much easier time adopting a daughter from China.
“Adoption per se is so much more accepted there,” she says, partly because Christian conservatives would prefer young women to give babies up for adoption rather than have an abortion, and partly because of the American “that’s all cool” attitude to unconventional families.
Also, she argues, the United States does not suffer from post-imperial guilt the way Britain does, and so it has a different perspective on children brought to the country from less-developed nations.
“They’re going to become Americans—how great for them,” is how Buchanan characterises it.
Finding a home
That may be why the US has many more adopted Chinese children than the UK—which Buchanan says has about 1,000.
Despite the wary attitude towards adoption of Chinese girls, Buchanan has no doubt there is currently a need for it. Both because of China’s policy of families only having one child and because of a centuries-old preference for boys who will care for their parents later in life, Chinese baby girls are regularly abandoned or even killed at birth.
The Chinese government is officially trying to change attitudes towards baby girls, but progress, if any, will be slow, Buchanan says.
In the meantime, international adoption of unwanted girls solves a small part of the problem.
“At the end of the day, they have a family,” she says. “At least they have a home.”