Secrets, lies and the burning need to discuss adoption

It involves the dynamics of sex, race and class and highlights the conflict of nature and nurture
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The Independent Culture
ADOPTION IS a hot issue. Hot enough to be untouchable most of the time. Part of the problem is that there are so many fundamentalists involved in the business and they will die fighting for the right not to question or change the way things are done. Many a strong beast has been cowed by the ferocity of this self-righteousness. The contentious or courageous (depending on your point of view) Jack Straw has just been forced to confront these soldiers for daring to suggest that teenage mothers could be encouraged to consider adoption as a real option when they have their babies.

Speaking at the Family Policy Studies Centre, Straw said, I think quite rationally, that there are, at present, 3,500 small children in care and part of the problem is that professionals dealing in this area are too obsessed with keeping children with their birth mothers. The longer these youngsters remain in state institutions, in the hope that one day their birth mothers will reclaim them, the more difficult it eventually becomes to place them. Surely with the care system being in the mess it has been, this is simply not good enough for our most vulnerable children. And we know, too, that there are many good parents who cannot get any babies to adopt.

So let us at least consider what Straw has suggested. But no - even a debate on this subject is such heresy that our experts would torch our words before we can speak.

Perhaps I should be a little kinder to these people. They can't help being insanely protective of their ideologies and procedures, because such a wash of emotion overcomes thought whenever the subject is raised. Adoption highlights the perennial conflicts between nature and nurture, the powerful and the powerless, rights and responsibilities. It generates poignant stories of secrets and lies. It flashes up the dynamics of sex, race and class. It is the stuff of fairy tales and fables and the terrors of childhood.

For years, a wicked older cousin used to make me cry by telling me that I was found on the roadside, ant-bitten, in a torn basket, on the road to Entebbe, and that my parents took pity and adopted me. It was easy to believe him because, when I was born, all the rooms in my father's heart were already taken up or shut down. So this was why Papa never hugged me, I thought.

I look around the scattered field that contains our two families, one English and one Ugandan Asian, and there are at least two known stories of unwanted pregnancy and adoption. A child was forcibly taken away from a wild teenage mother in the Fifties, never to be heard of again. Her one photograph has disappeared. Forty-five years have passed but the pain of not knowing remains, although the matter is never discussed. In contrast, another teenager refused to have her child taken into adoption and stuck with it. The child is bright and contented, but the tough times her mother went through have taken a terrible toll.

The past was indeed a bad land for teenagers who found themselves pregnant; shame combined with a complete lack of others' compassion to make life unspeakably punishing. Giving up babies in that atmosphere was, I imagine, a relief; and at least the conspiracy of silence stopped the noises of accusations and demanding, oppressive questions. Being forced back into their own heads, however, drove a third of them half mad with guilt and hopelessness. But this is not the past.

What happened in the Fifties and Sixties - when each year more than 20,000 babies were taken away by mothers, nuns or matrons - is not what happens today. Nor could it because that pervasive sense of shame has dissolved for ever. We also have an openness, and access to post-adoption information. To say then that what Straw was suggesting is a return to the Fifties is completely wrong-headed.

Felicity Collier, for example, director of the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering, evokes the ghosts of times long past whenever a radical shift in thinking on adoption is suggested. Too many others involved in the business do this too. The maddest among them even believe in a class plot to take away the children of the poor, and Blair making speeches about expanding the middle class has probably reinforced this paranoia.

Dare to suggest, as I have done, that same-race adoptions, although highly desirable, cannot be the only driving principle for the placement of children, and you have to go into hiding. Getting such a child in care brought up by good black and Asian parents would be the best thing of all. But we should not pretend that ethnicity bestows parentcraft. There are appalling black and Asian parents to whom I would not give a dead cat to mind, and white parents who not only give their non-white adoptive children a nurturing home, but work very hard to provide them with an appropriate cultural and racial identity.

Again, in the past there were massive failures where black children were placed in inappropriate white homes in all-white areas. And it is because black social workers and the wife of Paul Boateng fought for a change, that we learnt about this. The sad thing is that blindness was substituted by deafness as experts and practitioners set about replacing an unworkable old orthodoxy (All you need is love) with a new one (What's love got to do with it? All you need is black skin).Yet when Boateng brought this up last year, just as now, the troops of social workers, BAAF et al came out holding up their banners of no change.

Returning to teenage mothers, it is right that adoption should be offered as a positive choice. The number of these pregnancies is higher than in any other EU country. Most of the girls are under-educated and have few prospects. As the Louise Woodward case shows, looking after a small child when you are very young yourself can be deadly.

Economic deprivation makes this all the harder. Many teenagers regret their pregnancies because they know how hard is the endless journey ahead. Suggesting that they might get better guidance on adoption is not to stigmatise them but to offer them real options, and to take away the negative image of adoption. From being the good guys who were offering homes to children in need, adoptive parents have been made to feel that they are taking children away from their birthright.

The whole area of adoption needs to be transformed so that we can discuss the issues in an informed way. If we can achieve that, then perhaps we can then start to treat radical new ideas as opportunities and not threats to be fought off whatever the cost.