Will changes to adoption law that remove the consideration of racial origin serve children's best interests?
Our adoption rates are now at their lowest point for a decade. Just 76 children under the age of one were adopted in 2011, down from 95 in 2010 and 287 a decade ago. Statistics also show a proportional increase in those children put up for adoption who are now born outside of marriage.
Around 80% of children adopted in 2010 were born outside of wedlock, compared with 69% in 2000. For children adopted in 2007, their average wait between them coming into care and being adopted was 21 months. Only 60 babies were adopted in 2012 despite it being easier for children to adjust if they are placed at a younger age. Recent political interest has focused on the statistic that black, Asian and mixed-raced children wait three times longer to be adopted than white children.
Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, was adopted at the age of four months. He published guidance on 22 February 2011 encouraging social workers to place children for adoption whether or not there was an ethnic match. The guidance has not changed the law but emphasises that the prevention of adoption on such grounds as ethnicity and sexuality 'is not child-centred and is unacceptable'. It warned that 'time is not on the side of the child and a delay in placing a child with a new family can damage their development, contribute to further emotional harm, reduce their chances of finding a permanent family, or increase the chance of adoption breakdown'.
In November 2012 Michael Gove announced that the Government would be changing the law in the Children and Families Bill as he felt that the guidance had not worked. He told the House of Commons on 23 February 2012: "I won't deny that an ethnic match between adopters and child can be a bonus. But it is outrageous to deny the child the chance of adoption because of a misguided belief that race is more important than any other factor."
There is currently a clause in the Adoption and Children Act 2002 that says: 'In placing the child for adoption, the adoption agency must give due consideration to the child's religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background'. The Government published an Adoption Action Plan in March 2012 in advance of the new Bill.
In light of the recent decision by Rotherham Council to remove from UKIP supporting foster parents a child of Eastern European origin, the Government is now considering removing the requirement to consider racial and cultural matters in relation to fostering as well as adoption.
The US changed its law in the mid 1990s, with one in three states thereafter reporting a fall in the waiting time for adoptive families for ethnic minority children. It remains to be seen whether the proposed change will have the same effect, bringing back the position from the 1970s, when inter-racial adoption was commonplace.
There are some who would oppose the proposed change. Research from the British Association for Adoption and Fostering has suggested that nearly three quarters of children in inter-racial adoptions said they always "felt different" from the rest of their family, compared with fewer than half in same-raced placements. There is little research on trans-racial placements, but one Government study in the late 1990s reported that some children suffer additional stress as a result of losing contact with their racial and cultural origins as well as the trauma of losing contact with their birth families. The actress Halle Berry famously argued that the "one drop" rule meant that her daughter should stay with her, rather than be looked after by her white father. Essentially her argument, with which many black people agree, is that a black child needs a black parent.
Ultimately, the current law provides that the children's best interests are paramount. One could argue that the Government cuts in the legal system, and the cuts to legal aid facing family lawyers, will adversely affect more children than any proposed change to the adoption law. In light of such cuts it makes one question whether the true focus of the Government really is the welfare of some of the most vulnerable children in our society.