Children put love first, not black or white: It is time to stop being dogmatic about race in adoption and meet the needs of youngsters crying out for caring families, says Harry Zeitlin

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The Independent Online
THE little girl caught my arm and said: 'Before you go, can I say something? We would rather be fostered together than adopted apart.'

Anna was 12 and the oldest of three girls with the same mother but different fathers. Her father was Afro-Caribbean. The father of the two younger ones was probably of Scandinavian descent, since they were very fair. Anna was bright and wanted to be a lawyer; the next sister was pleasant but of limited ability; and the youngest too young to understand. 'They want to send us to different families because we look different, but they don't understand,' Anna said. 'We are sisters.'

So-called trans-racial adoption is once more in the news, and all of the muddled thinking that goes with it. In reaction to prejudice and racism, well-intentioned professionals have adopted an unfortunate political stance that has not been thought out. How many of those involved think clearly about terms such as 'race', 'ethnic', or 'culture'?

Strictly speaking, different races would imply genetic incompatibility, and we would do well to remember that there is only one human race. There are, of course, differences in physical appearance linked with country of ancestral origin, and although prejudice may be based on that, we should not be led into thinking that appearance also implies more fundamental human differences. Culture refers to behaviour and beliefs that result from learning, such as religious teaching. Ethnic, perhaps is a little easier. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as 'pertaining to nations'.

The biggest problem in understanding the issues surrounding adoption comes from the stereotypes involved. Ethnic does not refer only to black or white; appearance does not indicate culture; and national origins are not immediately linked either to appearance or culture. All 'true' Anglo-Saxons must surely be aware of this - many are hybrids based on Danish, Celtic Roman, or Saxon stock.

The present debate is mainly concerned with black and white. Racists classify people by skin colour, but, interestingly, children on the whole tend not to. Young children become confused when asked if they are black or white, but can describe their appearance fairly accurately if they are not bound by such constraint.

What is the reality for 'trans-racial' adoption? First, systematic studies show that most are successful. That usually implies dark-skinned children with light-skinned parents. Second, it is important to look at those factors that help children to adjust well. Lack of delay in placement, love and security in the family, a good relationship with the adoptive mother, early help in appreciating personal skills and values, and an open attitude to discussing culture and appearance all help. For children of mixed parentage, identifying with both aspects of their racial heritage gives higher self-esteem than being made to decide whether they are black or white.

Is placement with a family of similar appearance helpful to the child's development? The answer is yes, but it is not essential; for older children, cultural differences present more of a problem. An Asian child raised as a Christian, for example, will have problems in a Hindu family, but that, too, can be managed with care. What cannot be repaired is the damage caused by a long time in temporary care, insecurity or an unloving family.

The whole conception of a positive black identity is debatable. Classification by skin colour results from social prejudice. Using such prejudicial classification as the principle means of identity helps children neither with their self-esteem nor to cope with the effects of racism. Certainly, people should be encouraged to be proud of their appearance, but they can cope with prejudice better if they see themselves firstly as a skilled plumber, typist, doctor or footballer.

Take Julia, for example. Her father is 'black' and her mother Irish. Her skin colour is a little darker than John Major's, but she has tight curly hair and African features. It is difficult to see that her classification as black is in any way different to apartheid. She waited for four years for a family; none came and she will probably never trust anyone again.

Are problems over trans-racial adoption common or rare? Most social workers are thoughtful and caring, but children do wait unnecessarily for politically correct parents. Asian children are put with Afro-Caribbean parents because 'it will help them to deal with prejudice', and sisters are separated because they do not look alike. Let us hope that Anna continues to speak out, and is proud of her appearance.

Now that a White Paper on the subject is due, there is a chance for the Government to consider changing the rules on adoption. Perhaps most important is to avoid political expediency at the expense of the children's interests. It would be helpful to have guidelines on the order of priorities, and a caring stable family with the least delay possible in placement should be high on that list. Cultural match is important. Fine to have a physical match, but not if it means an avoidable delay in placement. The wishes of children should be heard. Most children that I have asked put love and care before being black or white. But maybe they have read the wrong literature.

The writer is professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at University College London and is experienced in the field of racial and ethnic issues in adoption.