Law: Our Learned Friend: Racial dogma has no role in the adoption of children

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The Independent Culture
THE HEADLINES which greeted the announcement last week by Paul Boateng MP amending the guidelines and criteria governing adoption have definitely been seen before.

In 1990, a similar announcement was made by the then Health minister, Virginia Bottomley. The changes that she announced were as a result of a highly publicised inter-racial adoption case that was heard at the end of 1989.

In that case I represented a white foster mother who wished to adopt the mixed race baby that she had fostered from six days of age. The relevant local authority refused to approve her as suitable because she was white.

After prolonged legal proceedings, the toddler was (at the age of 17 months) removed from her care and placed with a black family. At the hearing of that case it was common ground that my client had "cared admirably for the baby who was thriving in her care and he was attached to her and her family and she was the only mother that he had ever known".

It was made very plain to my client that she was not considered suitable to adopt the baby because she and her family were white. Although it was clear that the baby was very much a part of her family, she was offered little or no guidance from the social workers involved at that time, she was simply considered unsuitable.

The same authority later refused to approve the adoptive placement of another black child with a white foster mother who had cared for him for a number of years. In that particular case the foster mother involved had actually already successfully adopted a black child who was a fully integrated member of her family. For the authority to then argue that she was unsuitable seemed to make little sense.

In 1990, Mrs Bottomley insisted that the welfare of a child must be paramount rather than any ideological argument. This seems to be close to what Mr Boateng MP restated last week.

Any child who cannot be brought up within their natural family needs to have parents who will be extra special. Parents who will help that child understand their past, love that child absolutely and help them achieve their potential. When assessing potential adopters, social workers have a difficult task.

Children come into care at different ages and with different histories. Each child will have different needs. The needs of a five-year-old child abandoned by both parents will be different from the needs of the three- year-old who is not able to return home to a dangerous or unsafe household. Also, there is a growing number of children in care who have very particular medical needs or who are handicapped. These children can be difficult to place for adoption and often desperately need the love and security that such a placement can provide.

In trying to attract suitable families, local authorities need to look as widely as possible. Also, families keen to be approved for adoption will (entirely understandably) present themselves in the best light possible. Given the number of children who need families, any movement towards encouraging more families to offer themselves as carers for these children must be welcomed.

Adoption is for life and so the utmost care needs to be exercised by those preparing the guidelines for the selection of adopters and by those who implement the guidelines when they undertake the task of approving families for adoption. It seems to me that this is where much of the difficulty is encountered. There are many accounts of prospective adopters who found the selection process bruising and insensitive.

Choosing adopters must be done with care and families should not be excluded on ideological grounds. Where so many children need the love and stability that only a family can provide, Mr Boateng's announcement is to be applauded.

However, adoption is a service for children and the welfare of the child must come first.

A child should be placed for adoption within a family that can meet all their needs. Usually - for African, Caribbean, French, Irish, or Scottish children, for instance - this means identifying an adoptive family which either shares the child's cultural and ethnic background or which has a lot of experience of such a background and is sensitive to it.

The new guidance to end automatic exclusion of some prospective adopters seems to be a move in the right direction. The 1990 guidance was felt to be the same.

What remains to be seen is how the guidance will be applied. The proof of the pudding will be in the number of new families approved for adoption and the number of adoption applications.

Charlotte Collier is a partner at Atkins Hope

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