Adopting the right approach

In the Best Interests of the Child:
February 24, 1995

This is a significant and much-needed book on a social issue that in recent decades has kicked up a sandstorm of conflict and frantic self-righteousness that has seriously inhibited the ability of those concerned to look beyond the immediate vicinity of their own dogmatically held positions.

The declared aim of the editors (both of whom have transracially adopted children) is to set the arguments for and against such adoptions in a historical, cultural and political context and also to provide proper evidence on the effect of such adoptions on children. In many ways they do indeed fill in the gaps, add substance, and perhaps most important of all, raise a debate that has remained off limits for too long.

For years people have been polarised in a rather senseless way, with one side believing it to be self-evident that adoptive children require only a good home and love and that it is only political correctness zealots, those enemies of good sense and order, who go on about the importance of racial and cultural needs, while on the other hand equally intransigent advocates of same-race adoptions feel it is racist even to say that the best solution may sometimes be to put a child in a family of a different race. The first position has been obsessively defended by the media, the second by many of those in the business of placing children.

What a pity, though, that the book has also ended up being partisan, albeit subtly, in favour of transracial adoption. The weight of evidence offered seems to steer so far in one direction that the publication will finally lack the credibility it deserves. This is surely essential in a debate that has only just begun and where, as Barbara Tizzard and Anne Phoenix show in their chapter on black identity, substantial and appropriate research still remains to be carried out.

Perhaps the problem is an intractable one because even the thoughtful people in this book at times cannot but see the issue in antithetical terms. But in real life something very much more complex is happening.

In fact one of the few uncontroversial things one can say about this subject is that the people involved - black and white, policy-makers, parents, voluntary and statutory organisations and even much-maligned social workers - are all deeply committed to the welfare of the child. The strength of that commitment is overwhelming and there are no real villains to be found. This is why the book should have included essays by those capable of explaining rationally why they are against transracial adoption. Without these voices the book seems biased and even slightly manipulative.

A striking example is the chapter by Ivor Gaber, one of the editors, on the history of transracial adoption. He ends with the case of a mixed-race couple in Norfolk who in 1993 were denied a mixed-race baby for adoption because, among other reasons, the Asian wife was considered to be naive on issues of race.

Following a furore in the press, an investigation was ordered by Virginia Bottomley. Clear instructions were then issued that in such adoptions, ethnicity was important but should not be the only consideration. This approach, says Gaber, according to some observers in Norfolk "had been the case".

Are we really expected to believe such a statement? He also neglects to say that the decision of the local authority was not overturned, so it must clearly have been felt by the powers that be that the original decision had been the correct one in this particular case.

Gaber's chapter is nevertheless very informative and perfectly complements the essay by Phil Cohen, who traces the changing ideologies of adoption in general and of transracial adoption in particular. Cohen describes how the theory of betterment lay behind the adoption of both black and white working class children into middle-class homes and also provides a fascinating account of how this "civilizing mission" changed so that the focus was increasingly placed on psychological bonding and how this in turn related to the national project of family reconstruction.

He says: "The therapeutic family was at the centre of postwar change in adoption policy. The religious/philanthropic model was largely displaced by new secular articles of faith. Foster carers and adoptive parents were scrutinised for their personality traits and incipient neurosis . . . it was no longer so much a question of reclaiming the wayward child . . . but of healing the traumatised child. But history is not linear. In the United States today, we have politicians who talk not only of denying welfare to lone black mothers but forcibly taking their children away so they can be rescued from the 'dependency culture'."

In general the book gives insufficient attention to the reality of racial disadvantage and also to the self-destructive developments within the minority communities. If unemployment, criminalisation, crime and disillusionment are rising in the black communities, how does this affect the numbers of children from those communities who have to go into care and also their inability to adopt? It is interesting that when discussing why a US study on attachment relationships in transracial adoptions showed more insecure maternal attachment than an independent study in the Netherlands, Tizard and Phoenix think that the reasons may lie within the attitudes to such adoptions rather than within endemic racism in the society.

The most thought-provoking parts of this book are those that discuss identity. Are we simply a mosaic of ever-shifting identities or do we all need to retain a core that is a link to our historical and ancestral roots? And can we confess to having the second of these without guilt or fear because it raises the spectres of extreme nationalism? And in transracial adoptions how do we distinguish between the trauma of loss of a parent and the loss of a "cultural identity" - and how, pray, does it help a child to sort out any of this if he or she is left in an anonymous institution for years on end?

Finally, the book provides a huge amount of factual and empirical material (the essays by Tizzard and Phoenix and Rita Simon in particular). For that reason alone it should be essential reading for all those who are truly trying to work "in the best interests of the child".

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is the co-author of The Colour Of Love: Mixed Race Relationships in Britain.

In the Best Interests of the Child:: Culture Identity and Transracial Adoption

Editor - Ivor Gaber and Jane Aldridge
ISBN - 1 85343 152 4
Publisher - Free Association
Price - £15.95
Pages - 249pp

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