I didn't need reminding that I was black: A form of apartheid promoted by social workers is not justified by the evidence, reports Geraldine Bedell

'A BLACK social worker told me recently that I'd ruined Martine's life,' says Ruth Robinson, Martine's adoptive mother. 'She had never met Martine, and knew nothing about her other than that she's black.'

Ruth is white - and so, according to current thinking on adoption, unsuited to bring up Martine. But that isn't how Ruth and Martine see it at all.

Martine was 13 when Ruth adopted her. Ruth and her husband, Michael, saw her through school and 'did those things people do for college-age children' - offering a base, buying a car; when she married two years ago they paid for a big wedding.

Martine, now 28, is a restaurant manager, and with her (white) husband, a chef, recently moved to Blewberry, near Ruth and Michael in Oxfordshire, where the whole family has opened a restaurant.

'It seems incredible that a social worker could assume I would have been better off staying in care, where there was no cultural education whatever,' says Martine. 'I've got a strong cultural identity; I didn't need reminding that I was black - I could see. I spent the first 12 years of my life in a children's home in Cardiff, and I feel Welsh as well as half-Barbadian. On St David's Day I used to fill the house with daffodils.

'I've experienced racism, but I can honestly say that the worst was in school in Llantrisant, and that was to do with coming from Cardiff, and not being considered properly Welsh by people in the valleys.'

The recent decision by Norfolk social workers to prevent a mixed-race couple from adopting a mixed-race baby, apparently on the grounds that they were 'racially nave' for not having experienced racism in Cromer, focused attention again on the separatist policies of adoption agencies.

Back in the melting-pot atmosphere of the early Seventies, liberal white middle-class couples would not uncommonly produce a couple of children of their own, and then do their bit to avoid overpopulation and help 'deprived kids' by adopting, almost inevitably (since they were available), a black child. But the past 20 years have seen a reaction against this practice, so that the black activist Linda Bellos, writing in the Independent last week, could assert: 'The fact is that considerable damage has been done to black children over the past three decades by placing them with white families. Some have benefited, many more have not.'

Ms Bellos offers no evidence for her claim - and when the Radio 4 programme Call Nick Ross covered the subject last week, calls from black people who had been adopted by white parents were overwhelmingly in support of their upbringing.

For this article, it was extremely easy to find black people who wanted to talk about the success of their white adoptions, virtually impossible to find anyone to put the opposite case. Fatima Whitbread, the former world champion javelin thrower who was adopted by a white family at 13 (against the initial advice of social workers) seems reasonably typical when she says: 'My family has given me all the support and care that I need.'

There is little academic research, and less that is reliable (in other words, that tracks children into adulthood). But the one study in the United States, by Rita Simon and Howard Altstein, concluded that 'transracial adoption causes no special problems, and may, in fact, produce black, white and Asian adults with special interpersonal talents and skills at bridging cultures'. Similar work in Britain by Oliver Gill and Barbara Jackson, which followed children to the age of 14, also found they were doing well on all criteria.

According to Jane Aldridge, co-ordinator of Children First, a pressure group 'trying to keep the door open' to transracial adoptions: 'All the evidence suggests that transracial adoption is as successful as any other form of adoption - which is generally held to be slightly more successful than the raising of natural children.'

So why this apartheid - an apartheid, what's more, promoted by black people? Before the early Sixties, black children were never placed in white families, on the grounds that this was 'unnatural'. Then came the melting- pot phase, and the subsequent reaction - which seems to have originated in the US, as a by-product of the civil rights movement, and to have been propagated particularly by the American Association of Black Social Workers. 'We don't want our children raised in a background that takes them away from their heritage and has disdain for the values of the black community,' Morris Jeff, its president, said in 1989.

'Black people began to say: 'Our children are being taken away from us: we need to pull together and look after our own',' says Henrietta Bond of the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF), whose Black Perspectives Advisory Committee has greatly influenced British policy. 'Adoption was felt to have become too much a service for adults; there was a sense that white people were taking black babies simply because there were no white ones available. Black social workers pointed out that families should not be judged exclusively by white middle-class values: affluence became less important. And policy began to build on the experience of black adoptees, whose white parents had not brought them up to cope with racism.'

It is hard to track down these unhappy adoptees, apart from a few prominent black activists, such as David Divine, the deputy director of the central training body for social work (CCETSW), who sat on the Black Perspectives Advisory Committee (and who refused to speak to us for this article). But their thinking formed the basis for Practice Note 13, which was disseminated in local authorities and specialist private adoption agencies.

This stated that 'the placement of choice for a black child is always a black family' - a view which has hardened into a credo that the only placement for a black child is a black family. Alexina McWhinnie of Dundee University, who has reviewed transracial adoption research, says this 'has had the effect of stifling discussion. It has become perceived as 'good practice' and anyone or any country that does not follow this 'good practice' must be wrong. If you dissent you are labelled racist.'

At international conferences on adoption, she says, Scandinavian delegates (Sweden in particular encourages inter-country adoption) have been taunted, and their papers refused. A black journalist told me I would be unlikely to find a prominent black person to speak in favour of adoption of black people by white, not because no one thought it could work, but 'because it is such a politically sensitive issue'.

For the children involved, though, blanket notions of 'black culture' or the 'black community' bear little relation to fact. Shanti Wood, 26, is the child of an Indian mother and an African father. Her mother, who had married an Indian before Shanti was born, was rejected by her husband's family when she produced a part-African baby. So at 21 months Shanti was adopted by a white English teacher and her husband, a professor of civil engineering. She grew up in Derbyshire and Cheshire, and is now married and works in a nursery.

'I have my own sense of identity, which is made up of all the influences on my life. I don't see why, just because I am black, I should have to have a particular perspective. I have white friends, black friends and mixed-race friends, but the most racism I have encountered has been from black people, when I have been out with white friends in Manchester and black people have told me I should be stickingto my own. I don't regard myself as a screwed-up person at all. I am aware of my culture, yes, but I hardly have a homogeneous culture anyway.'

Current orthodoxy, as expressed in Practice Note 13, has it that even if a child with one black grandparent looks white, it should be treated as a mixed- race child. Adolescents who say they don't wish to live in a black family can be overruled, as can their parents. No one disputes that matching a child to a similar background is desirable, but the fact is that still not enough black families are coming forward, and too rigid a policy threatens to keep black children in care. 'I often think about what would have happened to me if I had stayed in the children's home,' says Martine. 'I would probably be working in Tesco's now. I would never have travelled. As it is, I was encouraged to do my homework, and go to college, and now I'm running a business.'

Inevitably, not all transracial adoptions are happy. Jonathan Eldridge (not his real name), a television executive married to a teacher, adopted a mixed-race boy when the child was 13 months old. 'We have always had very affectionate relations with Simon, but I think he has felt second-rate compared with his sisters, who were both academic and got to university easily. But the key determinant, I think, has been not race, but class. His mother was described by social workers as ESN, and Simon was a very slow baby - we think mainly because he hadn't been stimulated for the first year of his life.

'He has a poor self-image, which has led him constantly to funk things: he will always give up jobs or training. We would have been very happy if he had been an electrician, or a carpet fitter, but he has never stuck at anything. I think the ideal match for him would have been a working-class mixed-race family, who might have been able to minimise the damage.' Even so, he says his family has been better for Simon than staying in care. 'He is the only one of his brothers who has not been in Borstal or prison; a couple of his sisters have been in mental hospitals.'

Henrietta Bond accepts that Practice Note 13 has 'sometimes been misinterpreted'; and there are increasing signs that social workers are becoming more flexible, in practice if not always in theory. Perhaps one way forward might be the Australian practice of requiring adoptive families to learn as much as possible about their prospective child's culture (which is similar, of course, to what the Norfolk social workers were trying to achieve).

Chris Dalby, a househusband, and his wife, a systems analyst, adopted a Sri Lankan baby in Australia: 'We spent six weeks in Sri Lanka, and a lot of time with people who had adopted Sri Lankan children. We eat Sri Lankan food sometimes; our daughter has some Asian clothes; we meet Indian people socially.'

Zena Oglesby, who runs a successful American black adoption agency, highlights the indignation felt by many black people: 'White foster parents are taking (black) children and being told, 'If you don't raise this child, no one else wants it.' That's an insult to the black community.'

Strenuous efforts to find black adoptive families will continue. Meanwhile, the current apartheid hurts blacks most. Children's homes are not usually imbued with a great sense of black culture (whatever that is: one London African women's group has complained that social workers should not assume African children are invariably better off with West Indian families than white). Adoption, which should be about matching individuals to families, has become instead an issue of professional conduct, around which political ideology polarises.

(Photograph omitted)

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