Focus: Adoption: the issue in black and white

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The Independent Online
In the Fifties, white couples adopted black children without a thought about their needs other than to offer them a loving home. By the Seventies, the theory was that racism would disappear in a 'melting pot' of mixed races and cultures. But in the Eighties, as the black community became more assertive, so it began to point to the problems of transracially adopted children. White parents found themselves addressing issues of race and culture for which they were unprepared. Now it is rare for black children to go to white families. Where they do, great stress is put on the need for parents to give the children a sense of their own racial identity. The Children Act says a child's race and culture must be considered when choosing a family. But how long should the search go on for the same-race match if a child is waiting? Can white parents be as good?

How disgusted of Tunbridge Wells turned curious

THE SEVENTIES

Penny Dunman and her husband, Mark, adopted four children in the Seventies: Ben is half Caribbean, half white; Daniel, African and Caribbean; Lucy, Jamaican; Paul, African and Caribbean. They have two daughters born to them, Helen and Emma. They live in Tunbridge Wells, Kent.

WE WEREN'T prepared at all for the racism. It came as a shock to us and it always hit when I least expected it - the times when other mothers in the clinic got up and moved away. If I was with my children and witnessed the nasty looks or heard the hurtful remarks I would feel an almost uncontrollable anger against the people making them.

What really upset me was that I knew the children faced that every day alone. It made me feel awful and also guilty because we live in such a white area. They all came back from school with stories of racism and we always took it up with a teacher.

About five years ago I took my son to a tailor, who refused to measure him up. I knew it was because he was black. We left and went somewhere else, but I wasn't going to leave it like that. I felt such anger. We went back to the shop and I told them their racist attitude was outrageous. It was very important for my son and our relationship that I did that.

I would tell people if they were being abusive or patronising. We did lose a few friends that way. Some people suddenly stopped inviting us to their homes.

Racism can be quite unintentional. People have said to me, 'Oh, I think you are wonderful to take in these black children'; or, 'I don't mind if your children play with my children even if they are black.'

But that was the Seventies and attitudes have changed a lot since then. There are more black families in Tunbridge Wells and I sense a far greater acceptance of our mixed family. People still make racist remarks, but they are more from ignorance than a deep- seated suspicion and hatred. Now when I walk down the street arm- in-arm with my black daughter, the looks may be curious but not hostile.

It is bound to be a disadvantage for a child when parents look so different. But there is so much white parents can do. First you have to face your own racism and acknowledge it with the children and this can be uncomfortable. We have always talked about everything in our family; nothing is unsaid because it is too challenging.

As a family we are very proud and aware of our black identity. Our walls are covered with pictures of black people. It certainly took me a while to realise how important it was to make the effort to seek out books and other literature they could identify with. We used to go up to Brixton to get special things for skin care and to buy West Indian food.

I learnt always to take a positive approach. When I went into a local shop to ask for some skin cream and was told, 'We have nothing for problem skins,' I would reply, 'It's not a problem skin, it's a black skin.'

The children needed to mix with other black children. One of my daughters was very unhappy at a school where she was one of five black children. The school we later chose had a lot. The effect on her was remarkable.

I am in no doubt that a black family is better for black children and if that is not possible then an enlightened white family where the children are loved and appreciated and where differences are celebrated. In lots of ways we were second best. Having said that, it is terribly cruel that those of us who took children in good faith should be made to feel so bad. We feel knocked and defensive and need help and support.

But without doubt our lives have been enormously enriched through transracial adoption.

Vicarage life was pure heaven

THE FIFTIES

Mary Titchmarsh, 38, is part Jamaican, part Italian and part English. She was adopted as a baby in the Fifties.

MY PARENTS had four children of their own and four of us were adopted. One adopted brother is half African, my sister is half Asian and the other brother is white English.

I had an idyllic childhood. My father was a vicar and we lived in big country houses in small villages. I never came across prejudice until I moved to London, and that came as a bit of a shock. People were fond of us all and there certainly were enough of us. As well as our immediate family we used to have foster children and some staying from abroad. I remember what fun it was going to get a new child.

It was at junior school that someone first made a nasty remark about my colour. But I felt so secure and loved it didn't worry me. My parents had always bolstered my confidence, made me feel good. They used to say, 'You have lovely features, you are tall and strong. You should be proud of who you are and that it is good to be different.' So I was. You don't have to be the same race to do that.

So much is made of how black parents would treat their child, and yet I can't see why. My parents gave me a wonderful gift of being able to fit into any situation. I don't think I gave any thought to my colour when I was small. As I got older I began to see myself as black. I have never had any crisis of identity, of wanting to be white. I do remember being jealous of people with long blond hair. I went out and bought a wig and I remember wondering whether I could always wear it. But we all wanted long hair then and I was jealous of my half-Indian sister, who had long straight hair.

I haven't felt desperate to explore my roots: I feel black, and black parties are good. My husband is half Italian so I have a link with my Italian roots. But my brothers and sisters' natural grandparents were just as much mine as theirs.

I feel closer to black people when they are given a hard time. Even nowadays, if a white woman goes with a black man she is called a slag or a slut. I was brought up to look down on people who hold those kind of views, so it doesn't get to me. But I know how devastating the effect can be.

The most important thing is careful vetting of adoptive couples. I am not sure that same-race placement is always done purely because it is best for the children but because social workers are rigidly following a policy. Every child wants a mum and dad and they certainly become aware of race only because adults teach them to.

Be proud of them and they'll grow up proud

THE PSYCHOLOGIST

Professor Barbara Tizard, a developmental psychologist, interviewed 58 teenagers of Afro-Caribbean and white parentage as part of a larger research project on the identity of teenagers.

THE DOGMATIC view that children are always best with same-race parents is bizarre. Perhaps at a time when racism did exist within local authorities, and white parents were considered superior to black, it made sense to redress the balance and seek out black foster and adoptive parents. But I don't see that black parents for a mixed-race child is crucial. What is important is that the parents, adoptive or otherwise, should be positive about a child's racial background. This also applies to black parents with a mixed-race child, or a black step-parent of a white child. Because if a black parent is hostile to white people, it will obviously affect the child.

In our research, the race of the parents was not significant in how positive the child felt about his or her identity. Adopted children certainly have extra problems of identity, but that is the case with all adopted children. A traumatised child is at risk wherever you put him or her, and top of the list is extremely sensitive parenting, not race. The parents must genuinely be positive about a child's race.

Many of the kids whom we interviewed were not at all apologetic about their backgrounds. They were proud of it. They felt interesting, even exotic. They maintain this identity despite racism from white and sometimes from black people, which can be very disturbing for young people who have been brought up to think of themselves as black. An adopted child above all needs security, loving care and, of course, non-racist parents.

'Black, White or Mixed Race? Race and racism in the lives of young people of mixed parentage', by Professor Barbara Tizard and Dr Ann Phoenix, will be published this summer by Routledge.

A warm Mum and Dad must be the top priority

THE PSYCHIATRIST

Harry Zeitlin, Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University College London, headed a working party on race and ethnicity for the Royal College of Psychiatrists' child and adolescent section.

I HAVE started to notice a new willingness to discuss these issues. That is not to say that it has improved dramatically, rather in patches. But people do not find it such a dangerous subject. Social workers themselves are aware of the damage done to children left in limbo too long, but often suffer from rigidly held views by the local authority. If it is clear that children cannot stay with the family of origin, to leave them in limbo for longer than six months to a year, moving them from family to family, does terrible damage.

There have been cases where children were in care for four and a half years while attempts were made to decide what race they were. The children became more and more distressed.

I vividly remember one case of three sisters of different colour from one family who found themselves being split up. The oldest girl came to me and said, 'Please, please, we would much prefer to be fostered together than adopted separately.'

In order of importance I would place warmth and concern of parents first; cultural match second; and then physical match if possible, simply because it is one less problem to overcome. Placing a black child with a black family should not be the determining factor. To delay placement rather than make a transracial placing does real harm to the child. Placing a child purely on colour grounds while ignoring the cultural background is ignorant and insulting. This is particularly important when an older child is waiting for adoption.

But even a perfect cultural match is less important than the quality of the parents. Where adoptions have failed it is because a relationship has failed to develop between parent and child.

Black goes better with black

THE SOCIAL WORKER

Jane is a social worker in a London borough. She requested that her surname not be used.

YOU HAVE to ask why white parents want to parent black children. It is so important to ask this question. Surely in all honesty and with the long-term happiness of the child in mind, we should recognise that it is not their first choice. Adoption is a service for children, not a service to provide childless couples with a baby.

There hasn't really been a concentrated effort on what black families can offer. The emphasis is always on what white people can do. Black communities have a strong tradition of caring for black children and most who come into care do so only after the extended family has broken down. The Afro-Caribbean community doesn't realise that there are so many needy children in care.

The assessment process for adoption is daunting and many black people feel intimidated and unqualified, that their home isn't good enough, their job isn't regular. They can also feel uncomfortable with the social services, which is after all white-dominated. But they have so much to offer, if they only but knew it.

I am deeply convinced that black children do better with black families. You have to remember that those who criticise decisions to place a child from a mixed marriage with black parents must accept that the child is regarded as black and that the reason they are in care in the first place is almost always because the mother's white family or, most commonly, new white boyfriend, rejects the child.

We never wrench children from foster carers. Often the full facts behind publicised cases cannot be told. The two sides of the child's life, the new parents and the foster parents, are introduced gradually. Foster carers become social aunts. They know how important it is to maintain links. A good foster carer prepares a child to move on. But, as with anything to do with children, everyone has intense emotions.

The key issues centre on a child's identity. In all my years in social work I know that it is the nuts and bolts of a person. It is arrogant to assume otherwise. That is why they need a positive image of a family of origin.

It is wrong to pretend to a colour-blindness. The melting-pot ideal of the coffee-coloured children of the Seventies, where everybody was seen as the same, could never have succeeded. People should be proud of their differences. There is so much evidence of the benefits of same-race placement. I have seen children who were performing badly at school, were unable to concentrate, and were experiencing racism who, after moving to a black family, become confident and outgoing. They began to perform to their full potential.

We are so conceited and safe in our whiteness, we cannot imagine how it is not to everyone's advantage to be part of it.

They're fascinated by their own colourful stories

THE NINETIES

Ann Kitson and her husband, Paul, have two Anglo/Afro-Caribbean daughters: Francesca, four, and Chloe, two. They live in Stansted, Essex.

OUR daughters came to us when they were babies. We had only just been approved for adoption and had said we would be happy to accept a mixed-race child. We had given a good deal of thought to how we would cope. Francesca's mother had a similar background to mine, a strong Christian upbringing, although little is known about her father. We took Francesca home with us when she was 12 days old. It seemed without question the right thing to adopt Chloe. We felt they could share any problems they might encounter.

We totally support same-race placement but there are not enough black families available. But if our daughters had stayed with their birth mothers, they would have been brought up within white families and communities.

I have joined as many organisations as possible that can help and support us. Obviously we have friends who are black and that is lovely for the children. And I need their help.

Small things are important: I found it difficult to know how to look after the girls' hair and it was wonderful the first time a friend plaited it for them; it's something a white parent has to learn. I read them books with black children in them, but I think they prefer Cinderella]

I imagine at some stage we will have to learn how to deal with racism. At present the children are too small to notice any differences in our colour. When we are not in our home environment people stare, but it's only out of curiosity, not hostility. When we are abroad, though, the curiosity is more open. People will point to the girls' skin and then to ours.

As with any adopted children, we know how much they want that feeling of belonging, so we talk about how they came to be our daughters. We have made life-story books with pictures of them from as early as we could get. They love looking at them and pointing at photographs of themselves and their mothers. 'I was in her tummy. And I was in hers,' they say with delight. Every year we send the latest news and photographs of the girls to the local authority's 'letter box' should their mothers wish to know how they are getting on. So far they have not responded, but maybe one day they will.

By keeping these topics alive we hope there will be no sense of either them or us being second best. We want them to know how much they are loved and wanted.

(Photograph omitted)

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