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Heartwarming adoption campaign side-steps the care-system’s marginalised voices

21 Mar 2022 6 minute read
Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Ant Heald

The National Adoption Service (NAS) in Wales recently launched a new TV advert in the prime-time Emmerdale slot as part of their #ChooseFamily recruitment campaign.  The launch of the advert was covered by many media outlets including here at Nation.Cymru where it was described as ‘moving’ and ‘emotive’, and it imaginatively goes beyond the traditional happy-families image of adoption recruitment.

The TV advert, showing a seven-year-old boy wearing goggles and swathed in scarf, gloves and bobble-hat that he gradually discards as he grows more comfortable with his adoptive father, provides an engaging visual metaphor that goes some way towards reflecting the trauma that adopted children typically bring with them.

On social media, the NAS and their partner adoption agencies are emphasising further significant messages that have been largely absent from previous recruitment campaigns, such as the importance of life-story work in keeping birth and foster families as part of a child’s history and identity.

Councils, regional adoption agencies and politicians have been boosting the campaign, many using identical wording on Twitter to spread the message that “boys, older children, sibling groups, and children with more complex needs can wait longer to be adopted.”

However, there is another group — black and minority ethnic children — that is conspicuously absent from this messaging, even though they typically wait longer than any other group to be adopted, and are more likely than average to find themselves in care in the first place.

In Wales in 2021, black and minority ethnic children comprised over 8% of the more than 7,000 children in care despite being less than 5% of the total population. Figures on waiting times by ethnicity for Wales are not available on the StatsWales website, but of the children placed for adoption in England, 46% waited for over 18 months, and this figure rises to 69% for Black Caribbean children, who waited an average of 28 months, and they were much less likely to be adopted overall than white children.

It seems even stranger that ethnic minority children are largely absent from the overt messaging around the campaign as the advert portrays a black child with a white adopter, and it is here that my unease with the campaign starts.

I can understand why a white adopter might be portrayed with a black adoptee given the statistics already mentioned. Finding black adopters for black children in an overwhelmingly white population seems bound to be difficult. In the most recent Adoption Barometer survey of current and prospective adopters, 97% of Welsh respondents were white. Tellingly, perhaps, that statistic is the only reference to ethnicity in the report.

Ethnic matching

It could be argued that the advert simply reflects a perceived reality of the adoption landscape: that black children need to be cared for by white adults. Indeed, because of the perception of black and minority ethnic children ‘languishing’ in the care system, there have been moves over the past decade (including legislative changes in Westminster) to further reduce the importance of ethnic matching.

However, assumptions about why black children appear to wait longer, and are less likely to be adopted, are contested, and at best mask considerable complexity around how and why children of different backgrounds enter the care system. The existence of differing cultural attitudes to adoption may also in part explain why relatively few black people become adopters. The socio-economic factors that contribute to a higher proportion of black children in care also mean that black adults are less likely to be in a financially secure enough position to be able to adopt.

So, my initial response to an advert that has been widely lauded was one of discomfort, and I am far from alone in my misgivings. Twayna Mayne, a comedian whose experience as a trans-racial adoptee was the focus of two Radio 4 series, argues that, “excluding black, Asian or minority ethnic adults/parents in national recruitment campaigns says a lot about what you think about diversity and representation, it says this is not important. This might not have been a conscious decision but it still speaks volumes.”

Of course, a thirty second advert cannot cover every nuance of adoption, and I can see the attraction of bundling together several of the ‘hard to place’ characteristics — older child, male, ethnic minority — into the one character, and how this, together with the use of a single male adopter, might be seen as relatively inclusive and progressive. But as Twayna put it, “In 2022 it would be nice to see black adoptive parents in the lives of black children. This campaign is asking us to think about adoption differently but only up to a point.”

Only one of the ‘case studies’ on the web page of the campaign makes reference to ethnicity, and this too is a trans-racial adoption. There is passing acknowledgment that this is not uncontroversial but the adopter asserts, “thankfully, we have navigated the conversations about our differences easily.” But optimistic interpretation of conversations with children who depend wholly on you as a parent is very different from listening to the voices of adult adoptees, especially those from minority ethnic cultural backgrounds.

Adoptee Futures, an adoptee led support and advocacy organisation Tweeted about the NAS advert that it is “very ‘odd’ that they chose not to use Black parent (s)” and Annalisa Toccara, co-founder of the organisation, herself of mixed-race Welsh and Jamaican heritage has written powerfully of the importance of ethnic matching in her own upbringing: “‘I believe Black – including mixed-race – children should be placed with Black parents if possible. Identity matters.”

Identity matters indeed, and perhaps matters most in adoption, where legal ties to the primary sources of identity are severed. And anything that matters about adoption needs to start where adoption starts: not with adoption recruiters, not even with adoptive parents, but with those who are most affected by adoption – children removed from their families, and the adults they become.

In response to the some of the points raised above, the National Adoption Service said: “For the Choose Family campaign we listened carefully to the stories and experience of adopters and adoptees across Wales to encourage more people to adopt those children waiting the longest. In all of our work, within all of our campaigns and at the heart of every adoption are a child’s best interests. The National Adoption Service works tirelessly to place children with families from the same or similar background. Where this is not possible, we offer additional support and appropriate training to all adopters to make sure it is the best match possible for everyone involved.”

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