Judgement of Solomon
Posted on: Monday 3 September 2007
Paper by Savita
de Sousa and
The title of this paper comes from the story of King Solomon, who made a judgement in the case of two women who came to see him carrying a dead baby and a living one with each claiming the living child as her own. Solomon ordered that the living child be cut in two and that half be given to each mother. When one woman gave up her claim rather than see the child killed, Solomon at once recognised her as the true mother. This powerful story is indicative of the kind of judgement that social workers are often in the position of making when deciding which family to place a 'looked after' child with, including those of mixed heritage.
Social workers constantly have to reconcile conflicting perspectives about children's needs when placing them with foster carers or adopters. Even in cases when needs are assessed, there may well have to be compromises when available carers do not meet the profile previously established to best meet those needs. The picture of dispassionate, evidence based assessment and planning in the interests of children often proves to be somewhat different as these issues work themselves out in practice. For mixed heritage children, the social workers greatest dilemma is how to match him/her with the right family, avoiding unnecessary delay and taking into account the wishes of the birth family. In other words, social workers constantly have to 'balance' competing demands and needs and come to judgement where, in effect, they are taking on the role of King Solomon.
Adoption and Fostering in context
Through the 1950s and 60's children of black and mixed heritage were considered to be at best, 'hard to place'. Adoption practice at the time was dominated by racialized and exclusionary practices, as well as 'matching' preferences on the basis of physical characteristics. (1) Societal tensions about post-war migration to Britain undoubtedly contributed to this. The British Adoption Project was set up to challenge the notion that black and minority ethnic children, including those of mixed heritage were unadoptable. This was the beginning of the growth of transracial adoption as agencies argued and found that white families would consider taking black and mixed heritage children and that it appeared to be 'successful'. The publication of Adoption and Race: Black, Asian, and Mixed Race Children in White Families' (2) supported the view that children in these placements did well. But, resistance to these findings and indeed to the whole process of transracial placements came from the Association of Black Social Workers and Allied Professionals in Britain (ABSWAP) (3) in the 1980s, who argued that transracial placements negated the importance of an individual's racial identity and cultural heritage. The acceptability of such placements were seen to be a part of the racist nature of society, where 'black' was considered to be easily and necessarily incorporated into dominant white ways of thinking, believing and being. The views of ABSWAP gained considerable momentum with other groups such as the British Association for Adoption and Fostering's Black Perspective's Advisory Committee taking an active role in opposing transracial placements of any kind. Through the 1980's the evolution of anti racist and anti-discriminatory practice in social work training and practice became dominant themes. These became powerful forces in the profession so that 'same race' placements became the placement of choice, a policy and practice framework that has remained unchanged to the present time.
Over this time some of the serious practical problems associated with the 'same race' policy became apparent; there were serious delays in placing black and mixed race children, or adoption was not being made available as a placement plan because it was unlikely that a same race placement would be found. Due to the negative impact of this on children's welfare, the Department of Health issued a circular (LAC 98(20)) advising local authorities that no child should be deprived of a 'loving home' simply because of the lack of a racial match. It was an important document that introduced some flexibility into the system, although it did not amount to a return to transracial placements. The child's racial and cultural heritage was still core to the placement, and prospective carers were expected to clearly identify how they had prepared themselves and would proactively support the child's identity. Paralleling this issue, there have also been serious difficulties in recruiting enough black or mixed race adopters or foster carers. Specialized projects often have been more successful because of their use of black staff with detailed knowledge of the issues with helpful routes into the black community. However, the pool of available black and mixed race adopters and foster carers is still small, and the availability of resources to support them still limited. The overall picture is still that black and mixed race children are seriously disadvantaged in the competition for placement resources and it remains unclear whether anything done to date will substantially improve this situation.
Placement considerations for mixed heritage children
In practice, the issues facing social workers in making the 'right' decisions for mixed race children are more complex than the same race/transracial placement debate really captures. Unlike in the USA, where consideration of a child's racial background is unlawful in making a placement, over many years the strength of the argument in the UK places the child's ethnic identity and cultural heritage at the forefront of a search for a family. The profiles of children in family finding publications such as 'Be My Parent' clearly identifies the continuing prominence of this issue and the lengths that social workers will go to meet it. Still, it is also clear that many of the children needing a placement have complex backgrounds; even if their background can be accurately and meaningfully identified, in some circumstances even the grandparents may be widely diverse in their ethnicity (Afro-Caribbean, Bangladeshi, Chinese, European), and further there is likely to be diversity in culture, language, religion and other significant factors. Additionally, each of the child's parents may be strongly embedded in their heritage, loosely linked to it or may have rejected it altogether. The parents' identification with their own heritage may influence their views on the placement for their child; their views may be strong and clear, muddled and conflicting, or absent because they may have disappeared. The child's experience of any of this will also be wide ranging. For some, experience of the culture will have been an important part of their early experience and come to form a part of their ethnic identity. For others who have been removed from their parents at birth or shortly afterwards, their heritage may exist as a set of complex facts about them and who they might become but remain unrealised in actual lived experience. When these issues are also set within the context of other important factors - the child may have full or half siblings, be dealing with the consequences of maltreatment, have complex health needs, be disabled, or some of what has happened to them may be unclear or unrecorded - ethnic identity and cultural heritage clearly cannot be the only consideration taken into account in placement planning and placement finding.
The primary question in placement planning is trying to identify what the social worker is trying to do in making a placement. Broadly the focus must be on finding a family that is most likely to meet the assessed needs of the child over their childhood and adolescence, including promoting their identity and heritage. But, are the family being given the task of preserving an identity that already exists, or are they creating the conditions that will allow those aspects of the child's inherited identity and heritage to emerge as a positive factor in the future? This assumes of course that any of these factors are known and stable, and as suggested above, they are not. Children bring a blend of known and the unknown, consistent and inconsistent factors with them. It is the role of the parents with the child to make something of this and forge it into something that will be meaningful and stand the child in good stead in the future. It is important to acknowledge the period of adolescence where identity is formed partly in opposition to the parents' values, circumstances and past. Identity may form out of a blending of parts, a true mix, but also may involve opposition and rejection of parents' values. All of this raises the complexity of understanding on the influence of parents' culture and context on the development of children. Does a secure, open and flexible parent-child relationship create the conditions where the child's identity is most likely to emerge as secure as attachment theory would suggest? If this is the case, are those factors that create secure attachments in parents dependant or independent of issues of ethnic identify and cultural heritage?
One thing that can be certain is that the placement of a child is a radical intervention that will change the child forever. The person the child would have become if they had stayed with their birth parents or indeed in their community is not the person that will emerge from them being placed in a new family in new circumstances. Even the factors that have some stability and continuity to them, such as the child's genetic, cultural and social history, will be influenced by the new circumstances and context of the placement. Whatever the intention is at placement to preserve the past, it will be changed, and the responsibility of the new parent is to ensure as far as possible that this works well for the child and becomes meaningful to them. However, in the argument for 'same race' placements , the capacity of parents to prepare and support children in meeting the challenges that society will pose them becomes another important factor. In this sense, the structuring and stratification of society along ethnic, gender, sexual, religious and class divisions has been crucial in family placement practice. Children need to come to value who they are, but they will also need the confidence, resilience and support to manage institutional and personal experiences of discrimination, suspicion and hatred that they may encounter. Those of a 'same race' are more likely to be in a position to support the child with this because of their own experiences.
The problem of mixed race or ethnicity in family placement is that act of placing a child involves a mix of everything. Yet the primary responsibility of the parent and eventually the child is to create something out of this powerful mix that establishes a positive, stable sense of identity, self esteem, competence and resilience for and in the child that enables them to make their way in the world. The complexity of establishing an identity and integrating cultures is portrayed in the following:
"Like most kids I craved the experience and acceptance of my peers, but they seemed so different to me. They seemed to know something secret. Although I had been told from an early age that I was adopted, that my African father and English mother could not look after me so I have been specially chosen, I did not really understand the full implications of being an 'of the peg' baby. I remember going to a party organised by the adoption agency and being interviewed by a radio 4 journalist on what it was like to be adopted. 'It means that I was specially picked out by mummy and daddy.' I was asked if I knew why I was a different colour to mummy and daddy. 'Because I have been in the sun too long' I replied much to the shock of my parents." (4)
"I went through school with racial impunity, mainly because I was oblivious to it. I hadn't been primed to expect it by my parents, nor given means to defend against it, therefore I wasn't aware of any racism innuendos made by the teachers or other pupils. My parents just loved me as their child, not as a colour that might be discriminated against."(5)
Social workers are at the focus of resolving the complex issues of securing the best for the child within the context of competing explanations of how 'the best' occurs; they have to judge whether one family is better than another and at the same time whether the child will meet the needs of one adoptive family or foster carer as opposed to another. It may be sensible for the government to suggest that social workers take a 'balanced' approach in such matters, but as the argument above makes clear this is probably more akin to workers taking a 'King Solomon like' approach in balancing the needs of mixed heritage children, their wishes and feelings alongside the perceptions and convictions of their birth families, adoptive parents, communities, academics and government.
The placement of children with a mixed ethnic and cultural background focuses the debate about the nature of 'mixed' in a powerful way. In practice, the resolution of these issues does not lend itself to simplified notions of 'same' or 'transracial' placements, but it is core to family placement practice. Social workers might be considered to be the modern day Solomons of the professional world.
(1) Kirton (2000).
(2) Gill and Jackson (1983)
(3) Kirton (2000)
(4) A black adopted person (2006)
(5) Gorham (2006).
A black adopted person (2006) So where are you from?' In: P. Harris (Ed) In Search of Belonging: Reflections by transracially adopted people. London: BAAF Adoption and Fostering, 91
Gill, O. & Jackson, B. (1983) Adoption and Race: Black, Asian, and Mixed Race Children in White Families, London: Batsford
Gorham, C. (2006) 'The colour of love' In: P. Harris (Ed) In Search of Belonging: Reflections by transracially adopted people. London: BAAF Adoption and Fostering, 301
Kirton, D. (2000) 'Race', Ethnicity and Adoption, Buckingham: Open University Press
About the authors
Savita de Sousa and John Simmonds work for the British Association for Adoption and Fostering.
This paper is taken with kind permission from the forthcoming Runnymede Trust publication: Mixed Heritage: Identity, Policy and Practice.