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18 July 2005

’’We don’t mind what colour the baby is,’’ said my father-to-be. The adoption officer beamed. Perhaps, after all, there was a baby available – me

Half Persian and half white, Katharine Quarmby grew up in a loving home in Norfolk. Adoption across

By Katharine Quarmby

Some black activists have dubbed it “stealing children” and “cultural genocide”. Some adopted adults even call it “transracial abduction”. Others reply that it betrays children, abandoning them to a life in short-term foster placements while social workers search for the “perfect match”. The controversy over transracial adoption has raged for 30 years, and it is not over yet.

I have a personal interest: I was adopted transracially. In the 1960s, black or mixed-race children were not considered suitable for adoption. I was one of the few mixed-race (in my case half white, half Persian) children who bucked the trend. At the end of yet another session at yet another adoption agency, my father said casually: “We don’t mind what colour the baby is.” The adoption officer beamed. Perhaps, after all, there was a baby available – me. As I learned from my adoption documents years later, the officer remained concerned that I might “darken too much over the summer months”, but luckily that summer was not particularly sunny and she felt able to conclude that “you could hardly call her coloured if you did not know”. Freed for adoption with the flourish of a pen, at the age of four months I had a permanent new family – unlike the many other mixed-race or black children of my generation who ended up in poor-quality residential care.

But I stood out in a family of tall, fair boys and, worse, felt isolated in an almost totally white school in Norfolk. I was bullied, punished for being different. I paid a price for growing up as a mixed-race child in an overwhelmingly white county. Research shows that adopted children often outperform non-adopted children educationally. Certainly a motivating factor for me in my studies was the desire to leave Norfolk, and one of the best days of my life was the day I learned I had a place at university and could escape.

I was raised when the notion of “clean-break” adoption was fashionable. Consequently, I grew up with no knowledge of my Iranian heritage, and I have no friends from Iran and no contact with that country. My birth father – who was serving in the Royal Persian Navy – had wanted to marry my English mother and take us back to Iran, but she wanted to go to university. So I never experienced a Persian childhood. Because that part of my identity is not rooted in any kind of reality, I constantly feel tugged by thoughts about the country and the birth father I never knew. This is called genealogical bewilderment; I feel a part of me has been lost, and I am a stranger to a culture which should have been my own.

Yet it could have been so much worse. Once my birth mother had refused the offer of marriage and decided to relinquish me, the choices narrowed down to two: adoption or a childhood in the care system. And given that there were not many Iranian families looking to adopt in Leeds in the late 1960s, adoption meant going to a family of a different race. As it happens, my adoptive mother is half Serbian and partly English and Spanish. She arrived as a refugee from Yugoslavia after the war, and her earliest memory of England is of standing in a playground not understanding what was being said. Her experience of the bewilderment of a child who has lost a culture was surely more valuable to me than the colour of her skin (although the adoption agency noted approvingly that she was “on the dark side herself”).

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No one denies that time in care increases the potential for problems in later life. Ultimately, I believe that it is more important to experience a loving childhood and belong somewhere than to have a same-race family. So I worry when I hear opponents of transracial adoption placing too much emphasis on finding the perfect match. There have long been powerful voices making this case. The Association of Black Social Workers (ABSW) claimed in the 1980s that “transracial placements are a way of perpetuating racist ideology”. Their slogan, that “love is not enough”, still looms over the argument. They pointed out that white parents did not know how to care for black children’s skin or hair, that black children could not walk down the street with their white relatives without having to give an explanation.

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ABSW won the argument and transracial adoption became rare, but there remained an acute shortage of same-race adopters and, as a result, children from ethnic minorities still waited longer in care than white children. Then, in the 1990s, research in the US and UK concluded that children placed transracially fared as well as those placed in families of the same race. The incoming Labour government was convinced, and in 1998 issued a circular to local authorities, stating: “It is unacceptable for a child to be denied loving adoptive parents solely on the grounds that the child and adopter do not share the same racial and cultural backgrounds.” The Home Office minister Paul Boateng said: “We mustn’t let dogma get in the way. We have to put children first.”

Seven years on, I wondered whether the policy was being implemented. Most local authorities with which I spoke – among them Manchester, Kent, Liverpool, Lambeth, Westminster, and Hammersmith and Fulham – do place transracially now, particularly where a child is of dual or mixed heritage. Indeed, they point out that it is practically impossible to find a perfect match for all their children, as so many have three or four ethnic backgrounds. Intriguingly, Hammersmith and Fulham and neighbouring Westminster are now fostering transracially – but it is black carers who are looking after white children.

Meryl Sturdy, assistant team manager for Westminster’s family placement service, says: “We recognised the impact of drift on children while we were waiting for an ideal ethnic match. Transracial fostering works because of the attitude of the carer. They look beyond skin colour to see a child with needs. We are blowing the concept of same-race placement out of the water.”

It is sensible to place children with families of the same race where possible. The question is what to do when this is not possible, and how long the search for the perfect match should go on. Research on attachment theory demonstrates that it is vital that babies be placed in permanent families as quickly as possible; and so I would argue that in principle it is better for a child to go to a good family, even if the family’s race or culture is different, than to miss out in the name of that holy grail, the perfect match.

However, there are still many who resist on ideological grounds. I came across an Indian couple who had wanted to adopt a “dual-heritage” child, but found the local authority reluctant – it wanted the child’s “white side” to be given priority. And so, the child stayed in foster care for nearly two years. Professor June Thoburn, one of the UK’s leading academic experts on adoption, is scathing: “That is crazy – there shouldn’t be a delay of this sort.” Eventually, the local authority relented and now the boy is happily settled with his new family.

Increasingly, religion is becoming a factor alongside race. When a Sunni Muslim baby was denied a home with a Shia Muslim family, remaining in care for months as a result, even one of the most passionate advocates of same-race placements was horrified, saying that “it felt like policy was being taken to an extreme. There should be time limits on faith matches, especially with a baby.” The Department for Education and Skills is so concerned about religion becoming a delaying factor that it has asked Bristol University to investigate. In my case, my mother thinks that my birth father may have been an Armenian Christian who later lived in a secular Iranian family that may casually have observed the Muslim faith. How long would I wait in care these days for the perfect half white, half Iranian, Armenian-Christian/Muslim match?

I lost a Persian childhood: the taste of Persian apricots; the sight of the mountains that ring Tehran; the sound of Persian poetry. But I had love, music, education and stability. I gained other childhood memories that shaped my identity: canoeing off the Norfolk coast, the music of Paul Robeson and Bach in our house, the sight of a barn owl as I walked over Waveney water-meadows. My narrative was fractured by adoption, but I have a voice I would not have had without true, consistent love as a child. I believe transracial and transcultural adoption can work. In the end, love is enough.