There is no “more urgent task” for the government than speeding up the process of adoption and tackling the “absurd barriers” to mixed-race adoption, David Cameron recently said.
This comes hand in hand with new plans that aim to create a “fairer, faster” adoption process, following research that found that black children wait an average of twice as long as their white counterparts to be adopted.
“We want to make it clearer that ethnic matching should not automatically be an overriding consideration in the matching process,” said a No 10 spokeswoman.
But should it be one? Selina, a Jamaican born, London based woman who was raised in a variety of different foster homes when she was younger argues that the decision is a difficult one.
“In an ideal world it would be nice I guess,” she said, when asked if she thought children should be raised in a household with parents of the same culture and heritage as themselves. “But I think it’s more important that kids are part of a family being really looked after and belonging to something as opposed to on the sidelines, waiting to be picked up.”
This is particularly poignant due to research that shows that the outcomes for children raised in care remain shockingly poor, with 53 per cent leaving school without a single GCSE and only one per cent reaching university (as opposed to 40 per cent of their peers). It has also been found that adults who grew up in care comprise 23 per cent of prison inmates, despite the fact that they account for only one per cent of the general population.
This is something that came as no surprise to Selina, having been accustomed to it while growing up. “A lot of the children… especially black children that came in and out of the homes had a really tough time, and really went off the rails,” she revealed. “I can’t say many of them didn’t go down sort of bad paths really.”
This is something she suggests may be due to the lack of identity instilled in them from a young age. “I think it’s important for people…” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of children in the care system who have almost jumped on a race thing when they get to a certain teenage age because they want to be accepted and they want to identify with something. And the stereotypes that they then start trying to identify with aren’t necessarily the best ones”
“I think if you can consistently just let people know about different aspects of who they are or where they’re from,” she went on to say, “and then just let them decide who they want to become.”
This is something that Antonia’s adoptive parents made sure to do. Born to Colombian Christian parents, Antonia was adopted at the age of six months old to American Jews.
“Catholicism has always been spiritually an important factor to my life. I was born a Catholic, my birth mother was Catholic and over 80% of the people in Colombia are Catholic too. My adopted parents are Sephardic Jews and raised me to make my own decisions on religion and spirituality. They never forced me into a religion but educated me on various faiths.”
This was something they ensured by sending Antonia to two Church of England schools and a Catholic school during her youth. “As a child I would go to Synagogue with my family for all the major holidays. December 25th we always celebrate Christmas. My parents attend mass to support me and we only decorate our tree with angels. The angels that hang from the branches are all multi-racial and international.”
Instilling a sense of ones culture and faith when it doesn’t match your own isn’t always so easy, however. “In some ways, I can see how it would help,” said Selina on the importance of a child’s heritage matching that of their adoptive parents. “My foster family had all daughters with long glossy manes like the shampoo advert, but I remember them having to get my hair shaved at the barbers, unsure basically, what to do with it.”
Selina went on to reveal how she used to have to wait for a black member of staff to come on duty at the children’s homes in order to have her hair washed or combed or for the right cream to be used on her black skin. “But these days people are more exposed to things and everything should be more accessible,” she added.
This is particularly poignant as a study conducted last year by the Institute of Social and Economic Research at Essex University revealed that ten per cent of children are now of mixed or multiple heritage, and are six times more likely to be mixed-race than adults.
“People mix more, and are more exposed to different cultures… it’s all more accessible,” said Selina on whether she believed this to still be as large a problem. “When I was younger, there wasn’t much representation. If you weren’t in a black family, you weren’t really seeing much of black people beyond the athletes.”
She went on to suggest that it would now be a lot easier for families of a different race to their adopted children to have contact and support as well as the increased ability to gauge what issues affect different nationalities or ethnicities.
This is reportedly something social services help with. “Culture and race are a very important part of the assessment process,” revealed the manager of Diverse Care – a small, independent fostering agency based in Leytonstone, East London. She went on to reveal that as well as training carers on diversity issues; monthly checks are also conducted to ensure that the cultural needs of the child are met.
In addition, the spokeswoman revealed that if a child is placed with a family from another ethnic group, provisions can and are made for their cultural needs. “We ensure that there are links within the community that will be able to provide the child with the proper food and language skills,” she revealed, going on to provide an example of an African child who was recently placed with Asian carers. “We looked at the community in which they lived. We found other African people, an African church… people who could help instill in him a sense of his own identity.”
This is, however, harder in some areas than others, as she went on to reveal -citing in particular the example of carers who live in predominantly white areas where there aren’t really any other ethnic groups present. “Then there is an element of isolation,” she explains. “But in places like East London where we are based, there are people of all ethnic backgrounds. So no one will stick out.”
But, regardless, identity will always be something an adopted child struggles with, regardless of whether or not their adoptive parents come from the same culture or faith as them. Diverse Care’s spokesperson supported this notion, suggesting that there are always identity issues – even in mixed race families where the children are not adopted. “A lot of them see themselves as black rather than white. There is no firm identity of ‘oh, I am mixed race’ – a lot of them don’t know what to identify themselves as.”
This is further evidenced by Antonia’s experience: “I had issues with identity as a teenager. I would stare at myself in the mirror and not know where I got what from. Do I have my mother’s eyes? Why are my ears so small? I definitely have my dad’s nose…”
This issue with identity and in trying to find out who we are is arguably something all teenagers go through, regardless of whether adopted or not. Selina, now a mother of two supports this, arguing: “even within families, as soon as we hit our teen years, we start forming our own beliefs and culture anyway.”
The extent to which this differs depends on the attitude of the parents, as well as the society in which the child is raised.
“He always felt out of place,” said Hajar on her half Saudi, half Phillipino cousin who had been adopted by her grandmother in Saudi Arabia.
“I think if he grew up in London he wouldn’t have faced half of the issues that he faced,” she said, on the cousin who now perms his hair and has changed his name in an effort to appear more Arab.
Having grown up in a Bedouin, tribal society such as Saudi Arabia, Hajar went on to explain the differences in adoption legislation in the Gulf. “All the rights they give the child in the west isn’t the same at all. Its just that they live under your roof, you take care of them, you raise them, they go to school,” she explained.
Adoptive legislation in the Gulf region tends to resemble more of a foster-parent relationship. This is signified in the term itself, with the corresponding Islamic term for what is commonly called adoption: “kafala.” This, essentially means, “to feed.” The rules surrounding this relationship specify that, among other things, an adopted child retains their own biological surname and cannot inherit from their adoptive parents.
Seif’s sense of identity was made all the worse by society’s exclusion of him. “When we used to go play in the playgrounds people would say to him ‘what are you doing here, Phillipino child’ to his face… Society especially made him feel like an outsider,” she recalled.
But this type of identity crisis is not limited to Gulf countries with strict legislation and societal standards. Diverse Care’s spokeswoman went on to reveal that such cases do also arise in more Western countries such as the UK. She cited the example of a black African boy who just couldn’t accept his identity or his culture; revealing how he had bleached his skin and changed his name in an effort to find his identity, before eventually ending up in counseling.
“If you’re going to adopt someone okay, but try and do it in the right way so that they grow up to be the best person that they can be. It’s up to the person that’s adopting the child to make sure of that. To make sure they’re growing up in the right environment so that their ethnicity doesn’t have to clash with the families,” Hajar argued.
But in taking into consideration the importance of the child’s identity and their sense of belonging, what can be done to ameliorate the plight of children in care? And will the new legislation have an impact on the actual process of adoption?
Many argue no. “I would imagine that it would come more down to budgets and things,” suggested Selena. “It’s just one less barrier to making sure they get the right family and getting children off the books quickly.”
The manager of Diverse Care doesn’t really think the new legislation will hold much weight, either. “Most agencies will continue to match carer and child because we believe that’s in the best interest of the child,” she explained. “We believe children’s needs come first, and culture and race play a very important role in the identity of the child.”
“At the end of the day, we’re all human beings,” argued Hajar. “Look at Angelina Jolie for example – she’s got the United Colours of Benetton… at the end of the day we’re all human beings.”
The lesser of two evils? A loving home. Every time.