Adoption: Why can't white people adopt a black child?

With so many children from ethnic minorities living in care, Kate Hilpern asks whether the virtual ban on white couples adopting them amounts to `political correctness' at the expense of the children.

Jonathan is three years old and, like hundreds of black children in care, he longs to be adopted.

Having made enquiries into his circumstances, a white couple recently expressed an interest, but because Britain now operates a strict policy of same-race adoption, they were refused. Jonathan, they were told, must wait until a family with similar ethnic heritage was found.

If this were likely to be achieved speedily, few would argue against it. But, say increasing numbers of experts, not only is it unlikely to happen quickly, in many cases it may not happen at all - leaving the likes of Jonathan languishing in care. Thus transracial adoption has become one of the most controversial areas of adoption in the Nineties.

Jane Aldridge of Children First, a pressure group in favour of transracial adoption in instances where same-race placement cannot be achieved, argues that because there are no hard statistics on current practice, informed debate is almost impossible. "Although it's clear that black children waiting to be adopted are over-represented in care, there are no statistics about just how many they amount to, let alone how many are successfully placed with a family," she says. "And although recruitment of black adopters is undoubtedly slower than white adopters, nobody knows to what extent."

Felicity Collier, director of British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering (Baaf),believes the process can be speeded up. "Just because it is believed that black children should be ethnically matched, that shouldn't mean they have to wait any longer in care. Local authorities have shown that efforts to recruit black families can be successful. The `Soul Kids' project in 1975 - the first recruitment campaign targeted at ethnic minorities - revealed that they are just as keen to adopt, but are less confident about coming forward."

Until that confidence is instilled on a national scale,who will pay for the consequences? In the past, transracial adoption has undoubtedly been racist. Even as recently as the Sixties, black children in care were, like handicapped kids, seen as "hard to place". Over time, projects were set up to place them in families, and because adoption was a white, middle- class preserve, so were the adopters. To be fair, many of them were trying to make a conscious gesture towards a more integrated society, in which colour was unimportant because everyone was the same underneath. But by the Eighties, the idea that racial differences were superficial was recognised as wrong. It was discovered that many transracially adopted children had grown up with no positive racial identity. Jenny Darrell, 34, a member of the Association for Transracially Adopted and Fostered People (Atrap) is one such person. Raised in a family where race wasn't even mentioned, she explains, "I lived in a rural village with no other black children around. No consideration was taken about my race, and that had a huge impact on my behaviour and identity. By the time I was 13, my parents had placed me into care."

In 1989 it was decided that there should be clear guidelines about same- race placement. And with rumours of some black children talking in white stereotypes - or, worse, rubbing themselves with bleach - few argued against it. Issues of race and adoption are openly discussed by today's families. In fact, it is a strict pre-requisite.

Sue Richardson, mother of four transracially adopted children, says it would now be unheard-of for adopters not to live in an ethnically rich area, or to incorporate aspects of the child's background into everyday life. "Race has always been talked about in our family," she explains. "And in situations where I need help, I turn to People In Harmony, a group providing support to mixed-race families. It deals with anything from skin care to how to deal with racism, and consequently my children have developed positive racial identities." Coping with and understanding racism are important in the debate, since white families simply cannot equip black children to deal with racism in society in the same way that black families can, claims Baaf. But whilst white people can never really know how it feels to be victims of racism, studies show that black and white parents give similar advice to cope with racism, and that both sets of parents discuss racism to a similar extent and in similar ways. "It seems to me that most aspects of transracial adoption that fail are due to lack of education," says Liv O'Hanlon, who was put off by the rejecting atmosphere around transracial adoption in Britain and consequently adopted from Central America. "Of course, my child cannot fully experience his original culture here, but no culture is entirely pure. Living in London 15 years ago, I might not have been able to get Latin-American music, chillies, tortillas and relevant films very easily, but I can now. And it's these that are the essentials of culture."

It is also significant that not all transracial adoptions in the Seventies were unsuccessful. Clare Gorum, 31, was one of four adopted children from a variety of races and feels the ethnic variety enriched her upbringing. Yet because she is of mixed race, she would find it harder than ever to be adopted by ethnically similar people if she were a child in care today. "And who do you classify as black or white, anyway?" asks Liv O'Hanlon, stressing that neither constitutes a homogeneous group. "I have known of a child with one black grandfather who was not allowed to be placed in a white family." And whilst nobody suggests that children already placed in white families should be taken away, the backlash has left many white parents and their black children feeling devalued and guilty. Ironically, some parents who had adopted one black child were then told by the same adoption agency that they were not allowed another, isolating the adopted child even further. "It would be unfair to suggest that adoption agencies have not taken these details into account," says Jane Aldridge. "In many ways, I feel we've won the argument but lost the war. I mean, they agree in theory, but it just doesn't happen in practice." Same-race placements must be in the best interests of the child, she says. And black adopters should be recruited much more quickly than at present. In the meantime, it could be said that the wheel has turned full circle: children from ethnic minorities are once again waiting indefinitely in care, because of their race.

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