During the last decade, couples happy to adopt a child of a different colour from their own have had little hope of being approved as suitable parents. But changes to the adoption rules proposed by the Government last week show a shift away from this rigid same-race placement policy. Culture and ethnicity should no longer be regarded as more important than other factors in the choice of parents.

While this has been welcomed by those who say that searching for same-race parents has condemned children to a long wait in care, many adoption agencies disagree. Barnardo's argues that it is 'common sense' to place a child with a family of the same culture and ethnic background, and the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering point out the many difficulties for white parents in bringing up a black child.

So what are the practical problems of placing black and mixed-race children in white families? Would a black family cope better?

MIXED-RACE COUPLES MAY BE THE IDEAL

Sam and Linda Lewis come close to the ideal for an agency placing mixed-race children. Sam is of West Indian origin, and Linda is white. They want children who reflect their different cultures and are in the process of adopting two mixed- race children, Katie, 2 1/2 , and Tom, 18 months.

They live in a small village near the Welsh border where there are few other black people, a factor that may not please some adoption agencies. But Sam, who was brought up in London and moved to Wales six years ago, says: 'I don't understand why, because I'm black, I shouldn't live in the country. If it's the best of Britain, why shouldn't my children have it too?'

While Linda admits it would be nicer for all of them if there were more black people around, she doesn't feel it will be a disadvantage: 'Sam can give them a very positive image about being black. As for the children, because one of us is black, I don't think the need for positive black images, such as dolls and photos, is such a big issue.' Sam, however, is conscious of negative images of black people, particularly in the media, and wants to make sure the children get to know his black family and friends.

Both feel it is easier for a black child to be brought up by parents who have experienced racism. 'You really don't know about it as a white person,' says Linda. 'It is like trying to explain to a man what it is like to be a woman. I've heard it said all children really need is love. They also need a bit more than that to deal with life if they are in some way different.'

Although the children they hope to adopt are mixed-race, they will be viewed by society as black, says Sam. 'They will, unless they are very lucky, experience prejudice and racism.

'I can't protect them from that, but I can teach them that one can survive it; that one needs to seek to change it by example. Children need parents who can help them deal with these problems and make them stronger as a result.'

Being black and living in a small rural community has its advantages, Linda believes. 'Everybody here knows us and those who knew we were going to adopt were really pleased.'

'People who are in favour of non-same race placements say race doesn't matter,' says Sam. 'Part of the reason they say this is because it doesn't matter to them, so they often feel it doesn't matter to other people. But they would be shocked by how offensive people can be.'

He wants his children to see the positive side of being black, such as being part of a supportive community. 'Black people say hello even if they don't know me. I always have an affinity with black people. It's like the British abroad.'

WE DON'T KNOW WHAT IT'S LIKE TO BE BLACK

Fiona Slater, who lives in Essex, has 18 years' experience as the mother of four Afro-Caribbean and mixed-race children. She and her husband, Jeff, were approved as adoptive parents by Barnardo's in the mid-Seventies, before many local authorities made it a policy to place black children with black families wherever possible. They have two girls, Kirstie, aged 18, and Katriona, 16, and two boys, Daniel, aged 10, and Jason who is 11.

'I don't want us to be quoted as a success story. We aren't, not until they are adults,' Fiona says. 'I do think black children should first of all be placed with black families. But if there is a choice of a child being in care or going to a white family which is prepared to get support, then it must be better to go to that family. Some people might say we have adopted black children as second- best, but we tell our children we are second best for them.'

But she admits it was more of a challenge than she expected, despite the help she received from Barnardo's, which pointed out the importance of black role models. The Slaters were advised to get books featuring black families, and were given advice on hair care and culture. It was also suggested they put pictures of black people around the house. But when Katriona, who has strong Afro-Caribbean features, was a toddler, Fiona tried unsuccessfully to brush her hair. A black friend told her it needed to be plaited and treated with oils and gels. 'We should have known a lot more about that before we adopted them,' Fiona admits. 'Nowadays much more advice is given to adoptive parents.'

Fiona has tried to buy West Indian food and encouraged the children to listen to African and West Indian music. 'Jason loves steel-band music. When he was younger he would have loved to be part of a steel band but there isn't one near us,' she says.

Meeting other black people was also a priority. This was not easy, as the family lives in Chelmsford, where there were then few black families. She went out of her way to make friends with a black woman who had children at her daughters' school, and as more black people moved to Chelmsford the circle of friends grew. They proved vital when Jason was seven and children at school began calling him names. 'He was being called things like worm head or cow pat, or being told he'd been left in the oven too long. He started asking about his natural mother. One day he burst into tears and said, 'You don't know what it's like because you are white. You can't help me.'

'Immediately we got in touch with a black friend who lived near by. She told him that he was going to face racism all his life, and that he had to be tough and proud of himself. She gave him a lot of practical advice, for example telling him not to react violently.

'You definitely need someone like that,' Fiona says. 'We don't know what it's like to be black and you can't do everything a black family would. All we are concerned about is that we are doing all we can to make them feel at ease in black and white company.'

She says that she would be quite happy if her children adopted strong Afro-Caribbean identities as they got older. Jason already has designs cut into his hair like other black teenagers, although at first Fiona did not realise it was fashionable among black boys. 'White children might shave their hair off or boys might have ponytails,' she says. 'It's really no different.'

I'M SEEN AS FOREIGN BUT AT LEAST i HAD A FAMILY

DEBBIE, a 25-year-old woman of Middle Eastern origin, was adopted as a baby in 1968 by a white couple who lived in rural Suffolk. Although they had adopted other children, including Afro-Caribbeans, and fostered many more, Debbie's mother did not tell her she was adopted until she was 15, saying she was her child from a previous marriage. 'I would look at my mum and see my hair was different, and my skin was different,' she says.

The problems started at infant school. 'I would be called Paki or nigger. I didn't feel I could talk to my mum about things. She just said they were teasing me because they were jealous. There was nobody to turn to - no other adult. I found that very difficult.'

Last month, she joined a new support group for young adults who have been trans-racially adopted. It has only 20 members, who came together after a series of discussion groups organised by the Post- Adoption Centre.

It was the first time Debbie had met other people who shared her experiences. 'Racism was the most common experience. We were all brought up in white areas. The people in the group talk about feeling different, looking different, and not feeling they could relate to their parents. We were all searching for people who looked the same as us.'

Debbie admits she was disturbed as a teenager, often running away to London, where she moved permanently in 1990 and now studies at university. 'One reason I came to London is because here I can walk down the street without being different,' she says.

'Obviously hair and skin weren't such an issue for me as for an Afro-Caribbean person, but I used to use much darker make-up than my friends. I didn't realise any of these things until I mixed with my own people.'

When Debbie found out she was of Middle Eastern origin she turned to Islam, visiting mosques and embassies, only to find herself rejected because she did not understand Muslim culture or speak Arabic.

'In Islamic cultures, it is unusual for a person to be given away,' she says. 'The child is looked down on and I found I wasn't respected by many Muslim people. That was very difficult to deal with. In this society I'm seen as a foreigner, and I am in theirs as well. But I was brought up as an English girl, and I still feel very English.'

Although Debbie is critical of white adoptive parents who do not recognise that black children are different, she feels it was better to be brought up in a white family than in a children's home. 'At least we had the security of a family upbringing. Children in residential care don't have that.'

Association of Trans-Racially Adopted People (Atrap), c/o the Post-Adoption Centre, 5 Torriano Mews, Torriano Avenue, London NW5 2RZ.

Some names have been changed.

(Photograph omitted)

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