This article was original published in the Observer Sunday 6 July 2008
by Tracey McVeigh


Fiona Graham is white, but she has been racially abused when out with her children over the past few years. ‘They don’t shout at the kids, but there have been a few choice things said to me,’ she says. ‘Paki lover’ is a favourite. That’s if she’s not with her oil rig worker husband, who is as white as she is and of an intimidating stature.

The Grahams have two children, Aisha, 10, and Burhan, five, who were born to a British Pakistani woman and a white father in the north-east of England.

The couple, from Stirlingshire, adopted the children three years ago and Graham knows they will have some unique issues ahead of them as a family, but she is determined to be as prepared for them as she possibly can. ‘Aisha had been in care for two years and Burhan for 17 months, all his life, when we first asked about them. But we were refused point blank because they were looking for a Pakistani Muslim couple. It took another five months before their social worker would consider us. But as far as I was concerned, the kids were being brought up with white Christian foster carers with no one else in sight for them. When Aisha first arrived here she had never even heard the word Pakistan. I do see how much they need to learn about their heritage; in fact, I see it more now than I maybe even realised at that time. Already Burhan recognises there is a difference in colour between us. The need to belong is inbuilt in them and as their colour and their heritage did not come from us, then we need to make sure they understand and explore that part of them.

‘I absolutely know we did the right thing and you have to consider children’s need for love and security and everything else comes after that. If I didn’t think that, my kids would still be in care.’

But as Britain becomes an ever more multicultural society, families like the Grahams are becoming increasingly controversial. The debate over transracial adoptions that has gone on, almost unheard, in Britain since the 1950s is hitting a crescendo, challenging the adoption agencies and social workers to clarify policy and accusing them of ‘taking the foot off the pedal’. The first government-commissioned report in nearly a decade to look at the issues around black and ethnic minority children in care is due to be published this month and tomorrow a major conference on the issue, organised by the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF) and entitled ‘Why Am I Waiting?’, will take place in London.

Adoption has changed since the days when childless married couples toured children’s homes and, as long as they had a clean house, could choose the cutest baby. No longer are single mothers shamed into putting their babies up for adoption, and with more fertility treatment available there are fewer prospective adopters around too. In 1976 some 22,000 children were adopted. In 2007 it was less than 3,500 – 2,200 of them were children from care.

Most of the children who need new families have begun life with alcoholic, drug-dependent, abusive or potentially abusive parents. Finding them a new family has become intensely complex. For each child in their care, local authorities will look through their own books for an adopter. But if there is no match in their own pool of parents, then there are funding considerations – looking further afield and approaching other local authorities to search their waiting lists brings an ‘inter-agency’ fee.

Time spent in care is directly related to well-being. Research shows children in care fare far worse than adopted children and are susceptible to brain damage and emotional and attachment issues. One per cent of children from the care system reach university, compared to 40 per cent of the general population.

There were approximately 65,000 children in care in England and Wales in 2005, of whom around 40 per cent will return to their birth families. Just under 80 per cent are white in a country where 87 per cent of the population describe themselves as white British – meaning children from ethnic minorities are over-represented in the care system, and staying there longer. The issue has been sending a slow shockwave through the system and behind the growing calls for a rethink on the approach to transracial adoption are two phenomona. The first is that efforts to match children’s ethnicity with the ethnicity of adopters slows down the process for black and mixed-race children. The vast majority of available adopters in this country are white and middle-class.

The second are the new voices joining the debate – black and mixed-race children who were adopted by white families in the Sixties and Seventies are now adults and are becoming increasingly vocal about their experiences of lifelong identity issues, mental health problems and deep feelings of isolation that came with even the most loving of homes. Their mantra is that ‘love is not enough’.

David, now a 45-year-old academic, of dual heritage – white and Arab – was adopted by a white couple in 1962. ‘Love is not enough,’ he said, ‘and there’s a living community struggling with the consequences. Where do these children [placed in white families] get their linguistic, religious and cultural knowledge from? The main problem is the under-theorisation of the issues.

‘The experience of racism had a profound impact on me. It would have been helpful for people around me to have had an understanding of that and of the cultural issues that one inevitably struggles with. It’s about a sense of isolation – one never fits in with either community. We exist in a third space, outside other communities. It is a debilitating experience. We need a radical rethink on transracial adoptions.’

His parents were ‘supportive and loving’, but for David that did not counteract what he describes as a ‘lifelong experience of verbal and physical abuse and various types of sophisticated institutional racisms’. He has found tremendous similarities with other interracial adoptees and says: ‘All of us are on a journey, but it will have no resolution for us. I don’t think they [social workers] have a grasp of the enormity of it. People aren’t tracked through life. Mental health services have no grasp of it.

‘It’s not simply a case of whether children should not be placed in white families; a family setting is always preferable. But it would need parents prepared far more than they are, prior and during the adoption process. “We’re liberal parents, we’ll do all we can” – this is just tokenism. “We’ll explain Eid, we’ll explain Ramadan,” a few Islamic books around the house … that’s not good enough, that’s just insulting.’

In one survey of adults who had been adopted as children, around 46 per cent of white people said that, even though it was a positive adoption, they felt a sense of not belonging. With transracial adoptees that figure leapt to almost three-quarters. ‘Research is scant: there are a lot of small-scale studies but there is a real drought of understanding. I think the foot has been taken off the pedal for black and ethnic minority children whose needs, meanwhile, have been continuing to grow. Interracial adoption is a relatively new phenomenon, an 18-year period really,’ said Sue Cotton, head of adoption services at the children’s charity NCH.

‘There’s a gap in knowledge. We know there’s an over-representation of black and ethnic minority children in care, just as there is over-representation in the prison service, in mental health services, but we don’t know why. The overriding thing we do know is that kids in families do better than kids in care, but one of the big driving forces behind everyone now is these testimonies from the adopted children of the Sixties and Seventies who are reporting that impact, those very human issues of identity that no one expected to be so fundamental.’

There are not enough adopters coming forward from ethnically diverse backgrounds, says Savita de Sousa of BAAF. The Soul Kids Campaign in 1975 in London was the first attempt to recruit black adoptive families and, along with another project in the 1980s, they blamed the shortage on the agencies themselves for showing ‘eurocentrism’.

‘Things have been constantly changing in this debate. The Blair government said, “Love and care is enough,” but it’s unresolved,’ said de Sousa. ‘Love is an important factor but it’s not the only factor. We cannot be colour blind. It’s what they do in the US; it’s illegal to consider race in the placing of African-American children, and it’s being challenged there as it’s not working. Current research sees delays in the system because social workers are so busy looking for the right match, but we need rigorous imaginative recruitment. That’s our real challenge.’

In the 1950s and 1960s black children were considered ‘unadoptable’. The practice was to match children in terms of physical resemblance, so adopted children should look as if they had been ‘born to’ their families, but race matches were seen as impractical at a time when many black communitites were socially deprived. In 1965 there was a recruitment drive to find parents willing to transracially adopt. Those who came forward were middle-class, educated, already parents and living in predominantly white areas.

By the 1970s there were three factors backing transracial adoption: it was seen as successful, there was a shortage of black adopters and the thinking was that ‘permanency’ was best. The practice began to be questioned, pushed by The Association of Black Social Workers and Allied Professions, in the Eighties. But transracial adoptions have never stopped. In the early 1980s it was estimated that over 80 per cent of black and ethnic minority adoptions in the UK were transracial. The Adoption and Children Act 2002 (enforced in 2005) was the first legislation in more than 25 years. It most famously gave unmarried and same-sex couples the right to jointly adopt, but it also enshrined the demand that social workers should ‘wherever possible’ put a child with a family which ‘reflects their ethnic origin, cultural background, religion and language’.

Speaking on condition of anonymity to social workers from local authorities around England, The Observer found anecdotal evidence that this has left many social workers feeling ‘paralysed’.

Every one of them agreed they would be ‘deeply uncomfortable’ with anything but a ‘same race’ match for a child in their care, even if the child had spent six to 12 months in care. ‘I have little confidence white people really can ever understand racism – now there’s a pretty big matter right there. Unless you bring me a utopia when everyone is colour blind, then I’m sorry but deep down I think we as a society are nowhere near ready to have successful interracial adoptions,’ said one recently qualified man.

Another, from one of the handful of authorities actively trying to recruit ethnic minority adoptions, agreed in part but said: ‘Our search for families is always having to be balanced by time but there is no point in pushing a child into a new life that may be wrong for them. For some, care may be their best option. We’re not taking out a colour chart and matching skin to skin, and sometimes you have to walk away thinking, “Well, that’s the best I could do.” There are so many backgrounds in some of the children we’re seeing now, a lot of East European mixes coming in now.’

For ‘Chris’, now 18, who spent nine years in care, never finding a family is something he finds hard to forgive. ‘I had some nice foster carers, some not so bright, but the only one I hated was the one who wasn’t white. I was let down. I would have found myself a family if they’d have let me. Now it’s like, “Well that was my childhood … that was shit, wasn’t it?” You know, when I was little I didn’t care about colour, I still have no colour – outside I do, but inside, no. They talk about heritage… you know I’d rather just have had a mum, thanks, black, white or even blue-dotted.’

Dr Perlita Harris pulled together the experiences of 57 transracially adopted people, including David, into a book called In Search of Belonging: Reflections by transracially adopted people. She says we need a whole new mindset: ‘It’s those questions – can we really be colour blind? Being transracially adopted is a complex, challenging, and at times very painful, lifelong experience. These are adoptees who were raised in families who, in the main, took a colour blind approach – we see the child but not the colour. They are just like our other (white) children.

‘Too many transracially adopted adults report feeling alienated, displaced and disconnected from their community of origin, unable to speak the language of birth relatives when they do trace them, of internalising the negative racist messages in society, of struggling to understand who they are. The narratives of transracially adopted adults demonstrate unequivocally that love, alone, is simply not enough.’

As people such as Lesley Allison fight to give a home to ethnic minority children, boys like Chris live with a deep need for a family, black, white ‘or blue-dotted’, and transracially adopted adults such as David endure a lifelong struggle for identity. The thing they all have in common is a deep desire to want the best for some of the most vulnerable children in Britain, but not all of them can be right.