The adoption of minority ethnic children has been hugely controversial for several decades, with debates raging on the merits of ‘transracial adoption’ on the one hand and ‘ethnic matching’ on the other. The coalition government attempted to eliminate perceived barriers to transracial adoption by removing the legal requirement for adoption agencies to consider ‘ethnicity’ decisions. The justification was that over-emphasis on ethnicity (rooted in ‘political correctness’) was leading to delay and denial of adoption for children, who consequently languished in the care system. However, Derek Kirton argues the evidence for this is questionable and the removal of ethnicity from legislation is better understood as a political move, framed by a combination of populism and neoliberalism.
As a policy issue, adoption of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) children has passed through three phases. The first, covering the 1960s and 1970s saw the rise of transracial adoption as part of initiatives to challenge the idea that the children were ‘unadoptable’ because of prejudiced attitudes towards them. A second phase beginning in the 1970s and gathering momentum in the 1980s promoted the principle of racial or ethnic matching. This was premised on the idea that families from similar ethnic backgrounds would be best placed to meet children’s identity needs in terms of race, ethnicity and culture and to help them survive in a racist society. It was also argued that the apparent ‘shortage’ of BAME adoptive families reflected the ethnocentric and sometimes discriminatory practices of adoption agencies. Preference for ethnic matching became prevalent and was officially endorsed in government guidance in the early 1990s. From there, however, a long third phase began in which government issued ever sterner warnings against over-emphasising ethnicity if this led to delay in the adoption. The Children and Families Act 2014 can be seen as an attempt to bring closure to this phase.
The government’s case rested on two key planks: first that BAME children suffered from lower and slower rates of adoption and second, that the legal requirement to consider ethnicity was an important causal factor for this. On rates, it should be noted that this does not apply to children classified as of Mixed backgrounds, whose headline adoption rates at least match those of White children. However, in a fairly consistent pattern over time, those categorised as Black or Asian are statistically much less likely to be adopted, with rates of 2 and 3 per cent respectively compared with 8 per cent for white British children in care in 2014-15. When figures have been released on ethnicity and delay, this has been found to apply only to Black children, whose adoptions took over 40 per cent longer. On the basis of these figures, it is regularly claimed by the media and government ministers that BAME children languish in care as a result.
Yet research has shown that the rates were partly explicable by the (older) age profile of Black children entering care. More importantly, a focus on adoptions ignores other routes out of care, such as return to birth or extended family or long-term foster care. Remarkably,it was also found that children from those ethnic groups least likely to be adopted spent the shortest average time in care. This remains an under-researched area, but certainly casts significant doubt on simplistic assumptions of ‘languishing’. What is interesting here is that The Children Act 1989 clearly prioritises (where in the child’s best interests) placement within the family over adoption, yet the lower rates of adoption for some BAME groups are held to be self-evidently discriminatory. The second plank reflected a view that these (s)lower rates of adoption reflected social workers, under the spell of political correctness, pursuing perfect ethnic matches. Evidence for this is very weak, while it is also unclear how far if at all, any such pursuit was rooted in the wording of legislation.
In a recent article, I analysed the Parliamentary debates and passage of the Children and Families Act as they related to ethnicity and adoption. The most striking feature was the coalition government’s increasingly contradictory stance on the (un)importance of ethnicity. The process began with pre-legislative scrutiny in the House of Lords, where the committee chaired by Baroness Butler Sloss concluded that there was no need for legal change and made clear its opposition to deletion of the ‘ethnicity clause’. In a compromise move, however, it conceded that existing legislation could be seen as giving ethnicity undue prominence and proposed moving the content of the clause into the ‘welfare checklist’ that is used to support decision making for children.
For its part, the government held doggedly to the position that the clause must be removed entirely from the statute book in order to achieve the necessary degree of change. However, faced with strong and articulate opposition, it began to assert in ever more strident tones how much ethnicity mattered, how it must be taken fully taken into account on every front and in all decisions relating to adoption for BAME children. Moreover, it was in any event ‘automatically’ included as one of the ‘other characteristics’ in the welfare checklist.
Procedurally, the growing contradiction was managed by a sharp separation between statute (from which any reference to ethnicity must be erased) and guidance (where its implications could seemingly be explored copiously). Part of the explanation for this two-faced approach almost certainly rests with a desire to deliver up a populist symbolic victory over political correctness to the media.
Equally apparent is the influence of neoliberalism, including on matters of race and ethnicity. In child welfare, in a climate where austerity has impacted particularly on the poorest (and often disproportionately on minority ethnic groups), there has been a growing emphasis on ‘child rescue’, a willingness to remove children from their families and do so permanently through adoption. As Goldberg has argued, racial neoliberalism speaks to a post-race society while historic and contemporary racism are ‘buried alive’ and victimhood is reversed. And so in mainstream media coverage the pervasive disinterest in BAME children and families is typically suspended when there is white victimhood i.e. when prospective adopters are rejected.
Racial neoliberalism’s policy influence is discernible in the unwillingness to use the levers of government to address the needs of BAME children other than through the privatised solution of adoption or to recruit more BAME families. Rhetorically, government representatives positioned themselves as champions of racial equality (with flourishes on Mandela and Marin Luther King) and engaged in the ‘non-performative’ use of language, in this instance through regular disclaimers that they ‘take race seriously’ while their actions belied this.
Given the contradictory messages of law and guidance, it remains to be seen how implementation will occur and it is entirely possible that the long running tussle between media, politicians and adoption practitioners will continue.
Derek Kirton is a Reader in Social Policy and Social Work at the University of Kent’s School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research. His recent publications include ‘Neo-liberal racism: Excision, ethnicity and the Children and Families Act 2014’ (available here) and ‘(In)Sufficient?: Ethnicity and foster care in English local authorities’ (available here).