In the most recent detailed study of the placement of children of multi-ethnic origin, no difference in terms of the rate of breakdown of the adoption was found between the black children placed with black families and black or mixed-race children brought up by white parents.
Professor June Thoburn and colleagues at the University of East Anglia looked at how black, mixed-race and white families care for black or mixed- race children. They studied the adoptions and permanent foster placements of 297 children, who joined their new families between 1980 and 1985, and talked to a sample of parents and children about how issues of race and adoption had been handled during the child's upbringing.
They found that in both groups the key issue was the age at which children were adopted, rather than race: the older that children were when they were placed, the more likely it was that the adoption would break down.
Around half of the placements where children joined their new families at 10 or 11 broke down, and one in five broke down where the child was placed at seven or eight.
The research is likely to be welcomed by Health Minister Paul Boateng, whose department is currently drawing up new criteria on adoption placements. "It is not the colour of a parent that decides success or failure, but the ability to give love and care," he said.
Mr Boateng has also criticised social services for "dogma and wrong-headedness" which have led to an over-insistence on same-race adoption, and other "politically correct" criteria, causing a reduction in the numbers of parents who are considered eligible to adopt. On the other hand, families who adopted children of the same race found it easier to deal with the racial issues affecting the youngsters. "It makes sense to place children in racially matched families," said Professor Thoburn.
"All children who are adopted have extra obstacles to face: a feeling of rejection by their birth parents and loss, perhaps maltreatment, at being singled out as different because of adoption. If you add to all that a racial identity that is different to that of their adoptive parents, you are simply adding another difficulty for them to overcome."
In the study, most of the black or mixed-race children (now adults) who had been successfully adopted into white families said they thought it might be preferable for children to be adopted by same-race families, but they stressed they would not now swap their adoptive parents for anyone else.
According to Professor Thoburn, racial matching might be an important issue but other factors are vital too, such as living as close as possible to a child's birth family. Today, children in care are encouraged to maintain links with their birth family, and being adopted by a white family may be a better solution for a black child than being placed with a same-race family miles from their natural family.
Professor Thoburn is concerned that the perception of adoption as the catch-all solution to all children's problems is giving rise to severely disturbed children being adopted when they are not suitable at all - because, she says, they can wreck families, causing other children to leave home early, and can exact a very high financial and emotional cost on adoptive parents.
According to the British Agency for Adoption and Fostering, 5,797 children were adopted in 1995, but they estimate that a further 10,000 children are in care. Also, BAAF found in a recent survey that one in five children are adopted trans-racially, so there is clearly a need to recruit more black and mixed-race people as foster and adoptive parents.
Just as the profiles of children needing adoption have changed, so, too, have those able to adopt them successfully.
Professor Thoburn points to an important source of good parenting: single black women. "More women are putting off marrying and having children, so while we're losing the traditional source of foster-parents, there are more single women (black and white) who want to combine working with parenting. Many black women want to provide homes for black children who are in care, and they like the challenge. There are single, black working women who do very well at looking after very disturbed children."
She suggests that a wider, more imaginative recruitment of adoptive parents, together with the traditional infertile and childless couples who have the ability to take on disturbed children, might be very fruitful.
n Preparing for Reunion: Experiences from the Adoption Circle, new edition (pounds 7.95), by Julia Feast, Michael Marwood, Sue Seabrook and Elizabeth Webb, is published by The Children's Society.Reuse content