Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Chapter 12 – Matchmaker, matchmaker – The Third Prep Day Pt 1

The third Preparation Day, we were told, was going to focus on the actual process of adoption itself; how we would be assessed through the coming months, adoption panel, how children were selected for particular prospective adopters, introductions and settling in, ongoing contact with the birth parents. So not too much to cover in two three hour sessions. 

By now the group was beginning to be a group of friends who we were looking forward to meeting again. It was clear that there were some with whom we had begun to click more than others (and some whose façade we couldn’t seem to break through and not for want of trying). But, that’s the same in any random group of people who are brought together by mutual interest of circumstance – whether at work or in a club. And still there was a little feeling of “us against the system” to bind our group together.

I’ve mentioned before that we were a pretty feisty bunch – well, at least a couple of the couples were. One couple, who we’ll call Peregrine and Esmerelda (for reasons which will become clear later...), were particularly happy to be vocal, followed only in the bolshy stakes by Julie and Brian (whose prop-forward physique and demeanour only served to enhance his presence in discussions). Our various debates, up to that point, while sometimes heated had remained civil. However it was during the morning session that near civil war broke out.

We’d spent most of the morning discussing the process which would lead up to us actually adopting a child and now it was time to discuss the matching process itself. To most of us, this was something of a revelation, we’d sort of assumed that the process of matching children with parents was pretty arbitrary. We were aware that it wasn’t a simple first-come-first-served queuing system as we realised that some were placed with their child fairly quickly. For others the wait was longer. However, we had not realised the complexity of matching or the care which was taken in achieving a good match.

Some elements were fairly obvious. Clearly the practical aspects needed to be considered – whether you wanted one, two (or more) children, age, gender, emotional need vs styles of showing affection etc. The idea that physical attributes might also be taken into account to assist the child in fitting into the family and to help minimise obvious differences later in life was both sweet and comforting. However, we had no idea that we’d also wandered right into the middle of a political minefield.

So then we got to ethnicity... Maureen and Doreen were quite open about the elements of matching which could, uncharitably, be described as “racial profiling”. They contextualised it well in terms of working to assist the child to build a coherent internal image of who it was and where it was from. The need to be able to understand your own cultural background. How better to achieve this than to place a child of a certain ethnicity with an adoptive family which shared that same ethnicity – or, at least, were equipped to help the child understand that culture. To me that seemed broadly sensible, provided that it was applied in a pragmatic and caring manner which was sensitive to the broader welfare of the child beyond that one aspect of their character – their ethnic background.

But that wasn’t good enough for Esmerelda. “So hang on a minute, so are you saying that you’d rather have a child stay in foster care or in a children’s home rather than have a loving family just because there aren’t parents of the right colour available at the time.” I suspect that Doreen should have countered with “Well, it’s a complex process and we try to take lots of issues into account but overall the child’s overall welfare comes first.” Frankly, even “I’m afraid that’s the policy, you’ll just have to like it or lump it.” would probably have been more productive. Instead she mumbled something about cultures even within broad ethnic groupings being very different – West African and Afro-carribean cultural differences were mentioned as were various Indo-Asian ones. That was a red rag to a bull. Esmerelda’s fiery Scots dander was clearly up now. “So the fact that I’m Scottish would be taken into account when matching us then would it?” “Well, why not?” That comment just fanned the flames further.

Daggers were looked across the room as Brian and Julie weighed into the debate with a few more inflammatory statements which seemed to question the parental history of social workers and policy makers in general. And so the debate went around and around in a pointless circle for several minutes. All the while the rest of us shot nervous looks at each other as if to say, “I’m staying well out of this...”

Finally, Maureen wrestled the discussion to the ground and put it in a firm headlock. “Well,” she said, “That’s the policy, I’m afraid, you’ll just have to like it or lump it.” Ting! Ting! The combatants sat down in their respective corners and figuratively glared at each other across the ring as their seconds removed their gumshields, squeezed a sponge over their heads and rubbed them down with a towel... They seemed to be ready for the bell and a call of “Seconds out, Round Two!”. Instead, Maureen quickly summed up the matching process and said, “Well maybe now’s a good time to break for lunch. Back here in an hour?

Of all the “heated debates” our group got into this was definitely the most vehement and heartfelt. It was the one which left the participants the most red faced and muttering under their breath about “political correctness gone mad” for the longest. It was interesting that when, only a few months later, the Government announced its review of adoption in the UK it was this very point on which the politicians also concentrated. The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, (an adoptee himself) was quoted as saying, “One particularly sensitive element of the matching process is, as you all know, matching by ethnicity. Which is much more complex than simply race... I won't deny that an ethnic match between adopters and child can be a bonus. But it is outrageous to deny a child the chance of adoption because of a misguided belief that race is more important than any other factor. And it is simply disgraceful that a black child is three times less likely to be adopted from care than a white child... If there is a loving family, ready and able to adopt a child, issues of ethnicity must not stand in the way.”

This was followed up a few weeks later by a statement from the Prime Minister, David Cameron which said, “This Government is going to tear down the barriers that stop good, caring potential adoptive parents from giving a home to children who so desperately need one... It is shocking that black children take twice as long as white children to be adopted... We will tackle the absurd barriers to mixed-race adoption which trap many non-white children in care.

But enough of politics. The passion with which both sides argued their cases sparked another topic of discussion between my wife and I on the way home that day. Which puts me in mind of another thing which my wife and I discussed while on the way home that day. What are people thinking? Don’t they have any insight into the process or any filters on what they say? All the way through the process we both tried hard to balance a helpful openness with a certain level of circumspection. We were, after all, being assessed. There might be things which you might think to yourself, even say to each other in the privacy of your own car... But to blurt them out in the middle of the session just seemed like foolishness.

And there were other cases where people seemed to enjoy saying the unsayable. The following week during a discussion on post-adoption support I recall Julie saying “Of course, when we’ve got the children we don’t have to listen to a word any of you social workers say!” The tone of voice implied that the comment wasn’t entirely facetious or joking.

I remember looking at her slack jawed and thinking to myself, “Did you really just say that...?

“...out loud?"

“...to the people who are writing a report on your suitability to adopt?”


Still, horses for courses and everyone has a different approach.

But lunch was beckoning and the discussion on the follies of ethnic matching could continue over sandwiches and cheap instant coffee. Because the afternoon session would be all about contact...


Vicki TBB said...

Such an emotive topic to discuss and think about when you're already feeling emotional anyway!

I'm already looking forward to reading your contact post, which was no doubt as equally emotive...it's something that is oft debated both before and after placement.

Thanks for linking up with the Weekly Adoption Shout Out x

dontwelookalike.com said...

Wow, this is a powerful story about the emotions simmering under the surface in this debate.