A few years ago, when I started helping local authorities to recruit foster carers, I was surprised to see how many applicants were of black African or black Caribbean origin in comparison to the racial composition of the local population.
An attraction campaign I produced for a southwest London borough provides a stark example of this. With a population of 306,995, just over ten percent (32,756) were of Black African, Black Caribbean, or Black Other origin (Source: ONS, Census 2011), yet 50% of applications came from black people. This is so statistically significant that it merits close attention and offers an intriguing starting point from which to think about cultural differences in family dynamics and child rearing.
It takes a whole village to raise a child.
It’s my observation, and most people agree, that black British families tend to be very closely knit in comparison to typical white British families. There are a number of reasons for this. Within West Indian homes, parental responsibility is often supported by the extended family and neighbours too. The proverb headline above symbolises this tradition. Children growing up in one-parent households are much less disadvantaged than those in the UK because of this wider support network (Source: One Space).
People within minority groups also depend closely upon each other for security and social identification. It’s why humans naturally gravitate into groups. Think ‘curry mile’, ‘gay district’, ‘Little India’, ‘Chinatown’, and so on. Birds of a feather flock together. Such behaviour is common across minority groups of all kinds and so inherently natural that it’s counter-intuitive to argue against it. In the words of my partner, a minority-ethnic white Trinidadian who migrated to the UK some years ago: ‘It’s nice to live somewhere where I’m not in the minority’.
Taking a look at our recent past I find more evidence that point to strong black family cultures. In the fifties, when Britain was rebuilding after the Second World War, the government encouraged mass immigration from the countries of the British Empire and Commonwealth to fill shortages in the labour market. There was plenty of work in post-war Britain and industries such as British Rail, the NHS and public transport recruited almost exclusively from Jamaica and Barbados (Source: Wikipedia, The Windrush Generation). This migration relied substantially upon the wider family network to provide care for children ‘back home’ whilst parents travelled here seeking better prospects.
To my mind, it just doesn’t make sense to claim that there aren’t enough black people around to come forward to adopt black children. Not only does evidence suggest that black people are highly family orientated and more inclined towards a wider involvement in looking after others’ children, but my own fostering recruitment experience, which yielded disproportionately high enquiry levels from prospective black foster carers, indicates that it’s not a lack of interest that is creating such a difficulty in forming racially matched adoptions.
A cultural void.
A friend recently shared with me her experience of growing up black in a white, adoptive, family. With deep gratitude for her upbringing, she nonetheless agreed that there was a cultural void that left her feeling all throughout her childhood that there was something missing.
We talked about this in some detail, and acknowledged that transracial placements, for all their good intentions, still deny black children the opportunity to assimilate the rich cultural interplay that takes place within ethnically matched households, much of which is so fleeting and subtle that it defies identification. But it is there. On the other hand, black children who are adopted by white parents grow up with an absence of cultural reinforcement and validation. Take the experience of Nattlyn Jeffers:
‘In short I myself experienced over 12 years in a transracial foster care placement based in Leeds, West Yorkshire, as a West-Indian child I grew up with white foster carers who did not meet my cultural needs nor my Rastafarian faith and religion.’
I believe that the extent to which transracial adoptive placements deny children a rich and complete development of their own racial identity is both devastating and lifelong. As such, I strongly oppose the views of the education minister, Michael Gove, who was himself adopted. I am absolutely clear that Gove’s experience of growing up in care does not, of itself, elevate him into a position of unquestionable authority on the issue of transracial adoption, particularly as his own adoption was not. His argument lacks both sound reasoning and convincing evidence.
I have spoken with many fostering applicants who feel (or hope) that their own care experience is qualification enough to look after other people’s children. It’s not. But it can be a powerful asset to bring to fostering if it comes with personal recognition of abandonment trauma (I do not believe any child in care escapes this unscathed, however convincing the façade may be), and experience of working through this deeply and successfully.
In my experience, childhood abandonment (not to mention abuse) always leaves psychological scars that present behaviourally in adulthood, whether as substance misuse, addictive behaviour, issues of co-dependency, low self esteem, and so on. Therefore, it is critical for the wellbeing of looked-after children that we do not recruit either foster carers or adopters who may unwittingly transmit their own unresolved childhood trauma issues on to them.
White in all but skin colour.
During my research for this article, I came across a report published in 2001 by The Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Entitled ‘Black youth on the margins,’ it contains this starkly insightful excerpt:
‘The placement needs of black children have, hitherto, been debated within the political framework of the day. The political ideology of the 1960s set the scene within an integrationist framework where the ultimate goal was one of racial harmony. Research evidence about the upbringing of transracially adopted black young people informs us about the one-way and parochial nature of such thinking.
Minority children were welcomed into white homes, but they were expected to think and behave as the adoptive family, and not see themselves as racially different. Lack of contact with people of their own racial and cultural background, with little or no input about their racial and cultural heritage, meant that these youngsters grew up believing themselves to be ‘white in all but skin colour.’
The outcome of such a cocooned upbringing meant that, as children and later as adults, these individuals were culturally bereft and ill-equipped to come to terms with their own racial identity, and to deal with ‘race’ and racism in society.’
For me, that’s an incredibly powerful observation. As if we needed evidence, it makes abundantly clear that a child’s need for cultural identification isn’t something that changes over time – it’s inherent. Children today are no less in need of a sense of belonging than those who grew up ten, twenty, fifty, or a hundred years ago.
On this issue, I find myself wondering why, as a society, we are still debating the obvious. We must urgently ask ourselves why we have failed to properly act upon the unquestionable importance of racially matched adoptions. How is it that we have not yet pushed this issue beyond the reach of political whim? It is plain that the human need for cultural identification is fundamental fact.
The report goes on to say:
‘The difficulties faced by white substitute parents in ensuring that black children grow up in an environment where they develop a positive sense of their own racial and cultural identity have been highlighted in the British literature. A recent study into permanent family placements where two-thirds of the children were of mixed parentage has documented differences between black and white long-term foster carers.
‘The study found that ‘whilst some white families can successfully parent children who are of a different ethnic origin from themselves, they have extra obstacles to surmount in ensuring that the young people have a positive sense of themselves as members of a particular ethnic group’ In a study of the Post-Adoption Centre in London, it was found that white adoptive parents to black children tended to be over- represented amongst those seeking help and advice. Clearly, these families were in a crisis and needed support.’
Gove’s trump card.
The reason why racially matched adoption matters so much is because children are our country’s future, and they have a right to a childhood that nurtures their sense of self. However well intentioned Gove may be (on that, I’m sceptical), he scares me.
His ‘I was adopted’ trump card hands him a carte blanche to wield great power over adoption policy that I am deeply convinced is heading in the wrong direction. In February, The Observer published an interview in which Gove says that he ‘believes that race issues are holding up the adoption process’, and goes on to say:
‘Reforming the adoption process is one of the government’s top priorities, with education secretary Michael Gove hoping to end what he describes as the ‘misguided’ belief that all children must be matched with parents of the same race.’
At the same time, The Guardian ran a story about a long-term study of Hong Kong orphans adopted by white parents that showed negative effects of racism and problems of identity:
‘The study by the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF) examined the experiences of 72 Chinese orphans who arrived from Hong Kong in the 1960s and were adopted by mainly white British parents.
Researchers questioned the former orphans on their experiences from childhood through to middle age, reporting that common experiences included ‘varying levels of racism, prejudice and feelings of belonging and difference within their adoptive families and wider communities.’ Some of the women, the three-year BAAF study found, ‘felt alienated, struggled with conflicts of dual/multiple identities and had experienced race-based mistreatment.
Childhood and adolescence were particularly traumatic for some, with 54% saying they ‘felt uncomfortable’ following comments about how they looked different from their adoptive family, while three-quarters admitted thinking that they wanted to look less Chinese. For a minority, it added, ‘race-based bullying’ and discrimination ‘had a substantial negative impact on their wellbeing.’
So where is the evidential underpinning for current government transracial adoption policy? What are the historical and current statistics on transracial placement breakdowns? How is the Department for Education monitoring this so that we can take a view on the resilience of transracial placements in future years? What are the benchmarking criteria? How were they arrived at?
Critically, at what point will we know if this (catastrophically flawed, in my view) government policy is failing so that it can be reversed to avoid even more children being denied a healthily culturally matched adoptive home?
We’re back to the money bit.
Here I want to begin with some straightforward facts. In London, the typical cost of a foster placement is £32k per year. If a child grows up (not ‘languishes,’ as Tim Loughton likes to put it) in foster care until they are 18 years old, it costs the taxpayer about £830k; a round figure that includes average year-on-year inflation at 2.8% (Source: Trading Economics).
For a bigger picture, the latest data from the DfE show that at February 2013, there were 10,250 children in care across all of the 32 London boroughs, at an estimated cost of £328 million per year. Now round that up to 18 years, and we’re looking at £7.5 billion.
Across the whole of the UK there are a further 81,500 children in care, which adds a further £61 billion to the London figure above, to arrive at a grand total of £68 billion. So, the UK spends the equivalent of the entire GDP of Uzbekistan, a country with a population of 30 million, on each generation of looked-after children.
If prospective black adopters were offered the financial means to adopt black children, for whom long term fostering is currently their plan, how might that be achieved? Those living in social housing could be offered larger accommodation, and those in privately owned housing could be offered a lump sum to enable them to buy a larger house, or perhaps a loft extension or a basement conversion. On a case-by-case, means-tested basis, that might amount to an upfront investment by local authorities of around £50k per looked after child.
Whilst the savings in each case would differ, in all they would be significant. Consider offering a family £50k to adopt a child currently aged 10, for example, where the cost to the taxpayer for foster care until age 18 would be around £270k. The taxpayer saves £220k, the generous adoptive family gets a bigger house, and most importantly, our newly adopted child gets precious legal and emotional permanence within a loving, ethnically matched family.
That feels to me like a practical solution in which everyone gains, so why have we yet to see local authorities implement such a common-sense approach? Since governments are failing to adopt such a sensible, realistic policy, I suspect it must be about money.
Are councils reluctant to put up cash to invest in adoption in this way, perhaps afraid of attracting adoption applications with questionable motivations? Maybe, but I don’t feel this is sufficient reason to avoid offering financial support since adoption assessments are rigorous and will weed out people who are trying their luck.
Is it that successive governments don’t want to commit the extra short term funding that local authorities might need to implement this forward-thinking, strategically-sound practice? Of course, some political parties are less sympathetic to the cause of looked-after children than others. So, we go round and round, over decades, tossing the transracial adoption issue up in the air, without ever definitely resolving it.
I want to finish with an extract from an article which appeared in The Guardian in November 2010: ‘Long waits for adoption have nothing to do with ethnic matching’, which asserts that ‘as long ago as 1973, well before inter-racial policies, black children stayed longer in care’. It’s a well-considered and highly insightful piece of writing:
‘…they perpetuate the usual stereotypes of adoption through the images of happy, cuddly, non-disabled babies, when we know a majority of the children waiting for adoption are older, more likely to be disabled and more likely to have complex social and health needs. Second, the evidence on how long black and minority ethnic children wait for adoption is not explored.
Evidence throughout the last two decades has shown minority ethnic families with children as being at greater risk of experiencing poverty, and the associated risks, than their white counterparts. If the analysis of the Institute for Fiscal Studies proves to be correct, this disparity will increase over the next five years.’
It’s now three years since that article was published. Has the poverty gap between white and minority ethnic families increased? I think it has.
Sean Parry is a time-served, multi-award winning recruitment marketer. He has worked among all sectors, private and commercial, public, health, police, fire and rescue, third sector, and local authorities. Over 20 years, Sean’s affinity with the cause of looked-after children and young people drew him to work ever more closely with children’s services.
Initially this included large scale social work recruitment exercises, later leading towards fostering and adoption attraction and recruitment marketing strategies. Full details of his career, and the core carer recruitment support service that Sean now provides on a retained consultancy basis to fostering agencies can be found on his LinkedIn page.
If your fostering agency is looking for specialist support to recruit new foster carers, please get in touch on 07977 712712 or by email for an exploratory, no-obligation discussion. This will be followed up with a summary of your support needs, along with full details of how he can help, anticipated outcomes, and hourly rates. Testimonials of Sean’s work from former fostering agency clients are also published on this website.
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