Posted on December 31, 2012

On Adoption, Race Does Matter

Oona King, Guardian (London), December 21, 2012

‘My social worker is racist,” said a softly-spoken 10-year-old white boy. “She says I shouldn’t stay with my foster carer because my carer is black.” This child was one of 20 in the care system who told the Lords select committee on adoption legislation about their experiences, during a review of proposed changes to the Adoption and Children Act 2002.

The government, spurred on by the education secretary, Michael Gove (himself adopted as a baby), is determined to ensure “race doesn’t matter” when it comes to finding families for children in care. While Gove’s motives are understandable, the Lords committee, on which I sit, decided this week that his main proposal — the end to the obligation on social workers to give “due consideration” to race, religion and ethnicity when assessing adoptions — should be scrapped.

We would all agree with Gove in principle that race shouldn’t matter — and certainly in the specific case of the young boy in foster care it should not. But for many black and mixed-race children, ethnicity shapes their experience. To imagine it doesn’t is to imagine the earth is flat. I’ve lived that experience and I know it’s real.

But I also know that the single most important thing for a child is a loving family. Sometimes it is difficult to meet both these fundamental needs — for a loving family, and for ethnicity to be acknowledged and at least partially reflected.

Black, Asian and children from other ethnic minorities wait longer than white children to be adopted. There are horror stories about social workers refusing to give them a loving family because they prefer a never-ending quest for the “perfect match”. Few things are worse for children in care than delay in placing them with their “forever family”. The longer a child waits, the harder it is to adjust when the placement is made. Children who are moved around the care system are more likely to have significant behavioural and emotional problems, leading to what one report described as a downward cycle of “poor educational results, unemployment and a lifetime of poverty”.

If I had to make the choice, I’d avoid a lifetime of poverty and opt for a loving family that didn’t reflect my ethnicity. After all, in my one-parent family, I had a very loving white mother who didn’t look anything like me. Because she’s blonde and blue-eyed, no one ever thought she was my mum.

The fact that we were — on the surface — separated by race, nagged me as a child. It fed into other vague feelings around being different and “not belonging”. I was the only mixed race child in my class, both in primary and secondary school, although in those days I was often called, at best, half-caste, at worst, mongrel. But it still wasn’t such a terrible thing. After all, I had a loving, capable parent. And that’s what I want for all Britain’s kids languishing in our care system.

But I don’t support the government’s proposal: yes, we should reduce the prominence given to ethnicity (it should not, for example, trump a disabled child’s need to be placed with parents who have insight into disability); but we must not move to the other extreme where it is entirely ignored. I used to share Gove’s view that unless there was the perfectly matched family waiting with open arms, ethnicity should be disregarded. “It didn’t do me any harm,” was my argument. But numerous black and mixed-race adopted adults contacted me to say that being adopted into a white family, notwithstanding unconditional parental love, often left them struggling to resolve difficult issues around identity. Obviously some black adoptees don’t have this experience, but it was a recurring theme. If you imagine a white child adopted into a Sudanese British family, where all other family members are black, it’s not inconceivable that the white child might experience confusion — especially if society viewed the white child’s ethnicity as inferior.

Now that I have three adopted mixed-race children, I realise that some complexities of race can’t be swept under the carpet. That is not Mr Gove’s intention, but it is a likely outcome of his proposal. On the surface, my kids wouldn’t be terribly damaged if they were brought up in a family that didn’t reflect their ethnic background. It would nag them, the way it nagged me, but it wouldn’t crush them. But I now understand in graphic terms that my kids — because of their very difficult birth histories that led to adoption — already had a host of identity issues to deal with that dwarf anything I experienced as a mixed-race teenager. Why add to their load?

Unfortunately, despite the undoubted wisdom of my select committee’s young witness, skin colour continues to matter. Pushing additional cultural identity issues on to fragile children can push them over the edge. While I would never advocate leaving a child in care instead of placing them with a family of different ethnicity, by the same token we mustn’t ignore ethnicity if we don’t have to. Gove is right to be scandalised that minority children wait longer for adoption than white children. But he must not throw a baby’s cultural identity out with the legislative bath water.