I am not surprised that the mother of a white Christian girl should be upset that her daughter was placed by Tower Hamlets council in London with a foster family reported to adhere to a strict form of Islam. But my experience is very different — one in which cultural sensibilities were taken into account, but to an extreme and absurd degree. Our story is about adoption, not fostering, but one assumes that similar decision-making guidelines govern the placement of vulnerable children.
My wife and I are British Sikhs, but not practising ones. We have open minds — we like to think there is something out there but we are far from being religious. We both, as it happened, went to Roman Catholic schools. We both work in business and our closest circle of friends are white British. We do not seek to convert anyone to Sikhism or any other religion. Yet on the basis that our parents came from India, we have been prevented from adopting any white British child. Given that we live in Berkshire, which is not exactly brimming with Sikh children in need of adoption, this means we have effectively been banned from adopting.
When we first got in touch with the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, every-thing seemed so promising. They put us in touch with their adoption arm, Adopt Berkshire. We went to an introductory workshop where we were received with a very positive attitude. The message seemed to be: everyone is welcome, different races, different sexualities and so on. We pondered over adopting for another six months before deciding that it was something we really wanted to do. We weren’t demanding a newborn — because we were a youngish couple in our lower and mid-thirties we had ticked the ‘under two’ box. But when we called Adopt Berkshire, their attitude had changed. The official very bluntly suggested that maybe we ought to go and look at adopting from somewhere else, because they would not be able to ‘prioritise’ us.
When I asked what they meant, she came up with the term ‘cultural heritage’. We were being frozen out because Adopt Berkshire had classified us of Indian/Pakistani heritage and therefore unsuitable for adopting white British children, who make up the bulk of local children in need. It all came down to a question I had been asked when we first applied. Asked my ‘ethnicity’ I had said ‘Indian’. That was true: ethnically I am Indian. Yet I am British, born and raised here, as is my wife. The fact that our parents were from India does not make us culturally Indian.
We weren’t going to give up easily. I phoned them again and asked them to send someone round to our home so they might understand who we were as people. We had everything to offer to a child, with four empty bedrooms waiting to be filled. That triggered another question — since we had a large home, would we consider taking siblings? Of course, we said.
So they sent an official who spent half an hour looking around before becoming apologetic. ‘Whatever happens,’ she said, ‘I hope this doesn’t put you off adoption. You two seem like a great couple for adoption.’
But not good enough, apparently, to satisfy the strictures of Adopt Berkshire. A week later we were told we wouldn’t even be allowed to apply. One reason given was that we didn’t have any childcare experience. This surely cannot be unusual, given that people often choose to adopt because they have been unable to have their own children.
The greater reason, it turned out, was still our ‘cultural heritage’. Even today we cannot understand what this means. Take, for example, Adopt Berkshire’s recommendation that we adopt from India because the culture there was ‘similar to our own’. But India has so many diverse cultures and religions: Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Christians and more — how could we have ensured the cultural match they thought was so important?
In fact, we are culturally British and we believe race was the overriding factor. Given that Adopt Berkshire did nothing to explore whether we really were culturally Indian/Pakistani or not, it really came down to one thing: the colour of our skin.
We are now in the process of adopting a child from abroad, though not from India. We have been approved to adopt a child from the USA by the Department of Education in the UK after undergoing a long training programme run by the Intercountry Adoption Centre in London. We passed with flying colours. In America, it is the mother of a newborn baby, not social workers, who makes the ultimate decision as to who adopts her child. So, finally, we will be able to give a child a loving home. But why couldn’t it have been a British child?
Sadly, our experience came in spite of efforts to change the system by Michael Gove, who was then the minister responsible for adoption. He could see that an obsession with ethnic and cultural matching of children and adoptive parents was denying stable homes to a large number of black children because of a shortage of black volunteers. Children were being shunted between foster placements while waiting for an elusive match.
Of course, race should be one of the factors when making decisions about adoption, along with financial stability, the home, religious persuasion, age and so on. But it should not be the overriding factor, as it appears to have been in our case.
It was wrong of Tower Hamlets to place a white Christian girl — one old enough to understand her identity — with foster parents who appear to have tried to convert her to Islam. But it is wrong, too, that an obsession with cultural sensibilities is being used to turn willing and capable parents away from the adoption system. Councils may think they are doing the children a service, but in fact they are letting them down badly.