Matching, ethnicity and identity: reflections on the practice and realities of ethnic matching in adoption.

Author:Wainwright, John

Drawing on the evidence from this evaluation and the wider research literature on adoption and ethnicity, the authors examine the reality and nuances of ethnic matching in practice, and the problematic notion of focusing on ethnicity as a key factor in placing BME children with adoptive families. They highlight issues of flexibility and pragmatism in relation to the increasingly complex notion of ethnicity, particularly when placing children of dual or mixed heritage.


The issue of ethnicity and adoption in children's services has long been, and continues to be, a controversial and complex area of child care practice. Against this backdrop, this article explores some of the themes and issues that arose from an evaluation of a specialist adoption project that focused on the matching of black and minority ethnic (BME) and dual (1) heritage children with BME parents (Ridley and Wainwright, 2010).

The main purpose of this evaluative study was to assess the effectiveness of an independent specialist adoption project in developing, supporting and encouraging adoptive parents (and families) from BME backgrounds to provide permanent homes for children in need of adoption. The project specialised in recruiting a range of adopters from black, Asian, (2) minority ethnic and dual heritage backgrounds, and also in matching adoptive families with 'looked after' children from BME backgrounds needing adoptive placements.

Background and context: ethnicity and adoption in the UK

The 2010 election of a Conservative-led Coalition Government in the UK has resulted in renewed controversy and interest in child care practices related to adoption and ethnicity. Michael Gove, the Education Minister, launched the Government's new policy by arguing that too often children of BME and dual heritage are not placed for adoption because of some local authorities' preference to wait for a placement that is an exact ethnic match:

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. (Department for Education, 2012)

The Minister's statement and the subsequent promotion of transethnic (3) adoption are based on two cornerstones of government policy: (1) that speeding up the process of adoption and rewarding local authorities for the placement of children for adoption is more financially 'cost effective' than placing them in foster care or residential accommodation; and (2) that the issue of ethnicity should not be placed above the overall needs of a child in adoption policy (Loughton, 2011). In contrast, the Coalition Government promoted a return to transethnic adoption to address the disproportionate number of children of BME and dual heritage who are waiting for an adoptive placement (Department for Education, 2011). However, underpinning this move to reverse adoption policy to a protransethnic position is an ideological view that integrating minority ethnicities into wider society, even within the small family unit, will contribute to a more cohesive sense of Britishness or Englishness (Cantle, 2001). Policies of multiculturalism (Modood, 2004; Parekh, 2006) have long been seen by the Conservatives as undermining the British national character (Barker, 1981; Cameron, 2011).

Over the past 50 years in the UK, policies of adoption and ethnicity have shifted from one position, that of transethnic placements, to the polar opposite --matching the ethnicity of adopters and children. The Coalition Government's preoccupation with transethnic adoption at the beginning of 2010 marked a further shift. The practice of transethnic adoption began in small numbers in the 1950s and increased significantly in the 1960s, involving the children of new migrants coming to the UK, initially from the Caribbean, then Africa and Asia (Gaber, 1994). By the 1970s, transethnic adoption had become an established practice in the UK (Kirton, 2000), which according to Triseliotis et al (1997), was due to both a lack of minority ethnic adopters and an over-representation of BME children in care.

There was little recognition that children from BME backgrounds may have had different placement needs to their white majority ethnic peers, and even less discussion of the related need to recruit and match them with BME adopters (Kirton, 2000). It took the intervention of the Association of Black Social Workers (ABSWAP), which referred to transethnic adoption as 'internal colonialism' (ABSWAP, 1983, in Gaber and Aldridge, 1994, p 206), together with an evident lack of BME foster carers and adoptive parents, for local authorities to consider a change of policy to one of ethnic matching (Rhodes, 1991, 1992). In the context of anti-racist practice, many have argued that earlier failures to recruit BME adopters were a result of institutional racism where social service interventions often pathologised and were punitive towards black families, for instance, placing their children on the child protection register and/or removing their children into the care of the local authority. This inevitably led to reluctance, particularly from African Caribbeans, to engage with adoption and/or social work agencies (Small, 1986; Sunmonu, 2000; Frazer and Selwyn, 2005).

Policies and legislation

The importance of adoption and the placement of BME children was placed firmly on the public agenda by New Labour with the then Prime Minister's Adoption Review (PIU, 2000), which highlighted that BME children remained among the most difficult children to place (Charles et al, 1992; Thoburn et al, 2000). Without transethnic adoption as an appropriate option through which to place BME children, and in light of the continued shortage of BME adopters, the numbers of BME children 'looked after' have continued to grow. This has led to renewed debate concerning whether, over the last 30 years, legislation and policies that have encouraged practice towards ethnically matched placements (Department of Health, 2003) have resulted in more BME children having to wait an undue length of time for placement (Gaber, 1994; Rushton and Minnis, 1997; Selwyn et al, 2010; Loughton, 2011).

More recently, statutory adoption guidance (Department for Education, 2011) from the Coalition Government has placed transethnic adoption centrally back on the agenda as good adoption policy and practice (Loughton, 2011), with the UK Prime Minister committing to new legislation to ensure that policies of ethnic matching do not impede the adoption of dual heritage children into white families (Community Care, 2012).

Outcomes for adopted BME children

An important question for a study on ethnic matching is whether children matched in this way experience significantly better psychosocial outcomes in their childhood and adult life than those who are not. Research suggests that, for both fostering and adoption, ethnic matching has been found to be a successful way to place children and provide BME children with stable and settled placements. Crucially, it is argued that ethnically matched placements encourage and nurture a positive black identity within BME children, which is seen as central to their well-being (Small, 1982, 2000; Thoburn et al, 2000). However, there is also a wealth of research that suggests that transethnic placements can also be successful in terms of outcomes, including rates of placement breakdown, psychosocial outcomes (for instance, successful relationships in school), and in coping with racism (McRoy et al, 1997; Thoburn et al, 2000).

Further, in both the US and the UK, many studies have found no relationship between self-esteem and ethnic identity, and conclude that transethnic adoptees do not suffer any more adverse outcomes with regard to ethnic identity than do their peers in comparison groups (Simon and Alstein, 1987, 1996; Tizard and Phoenix, 1993; McRoy et al, 1997; Moffatt and Thoburn, 2001; Thoburn et al, 2005). Even though earlier studies reported that white parents of transethnically adopted children did not promote a positive sense of children's ethnic identity, with many BME and dual heritage children viewing themselves as 'white', they nonetheless concluded that transethnic placements were successful. Children in these placements scored as well, if not better, than those in ethnically matched placements, on various outcome indicators of placement success (Bagley and Young, 1979; Gill and Jackson, 1983, p 132; Bagley, 1993, p 294). However, the question of whether BME children should be ethnically matched, or not, cannot simply be resolved by research findings alone, for at the centre of the argument are the rights of BME communities to maintain...

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