HC Deb 01 March 1990 vol 168 cc485-92

Motion made, and Question proposed,That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. John. M. Taylor.]

10.2 pm

Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest)

I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to discuss the important subject of the adoption and fostering of black children, generally from the ethnic minorities, by white parents. This has been the subject of controversy and of some public interest. Last year it was connected with a great deal of apparent injustice and unhappiness, and I believe that the issue has an important influence on the way in which the country develops as an integrated, multiracial, assimilated and tolerant society.

I shall argue that Government policy on this matter needs clarifying, and that the advice that the Government give to social services departments and other fostering agencies, many of which are independent, should be more rigorous. Secondly, I shall argue that much of the advice behind present Government policy has been based on a view of racial identity that owes more to ideology and a divisive form of anti-racism than to reason or scientific evidence, particularly in connection with fostering. Thirdly, I shall argue that additional guidelines on fostering and adoption are required, particularly on monitoring adoption policies and the time limits appropriate to them.

I start by emphasising that 80,000 children in this country are in care or foster homes, one third of whom require placement in a given year. There is no doubt that the vast majority, whether placed through council social services departments or through specialist agencies, are put in good homes which are right for their future development.

In the last two or three years there have been two significant retrograde developments. The first is that a same-race fostering and adoption policy has taken hold in many adoption agencies and social services departments. The argument is that a child can only develop properly with foster parents or adoptive parents of the same ethnic or racial origin. That policy is being applied more rigidly throughout the country. Secondly, not only have there been the appalling cases that we saw last year, where black children were taken away from white foster parents, sometimes after nine years of living together effectively as a family, but there is evidence that because of the same-race fostering policy, young black children are having to wait longer for places.

Hilary Chambers, who is a founder of Parent to Parent Information on Adoption Services, says: Since 1987 the number of under five year old black children on the BMI parent register"— a significant register— has quadrupled. In 1987 she did a small survey. She found that only four of 22 children had been waiting for more than six months for placement with a family, and none longer than a year. Yet only two years later no fewer than 36 out of 75 young black children had been waiting for longer than six months; 17 had been waiting longer than one year, and four had been waiting longer than two years for a foster placement which should be regarded as their right in a civilised society.

More significantly, Mrs. Chambers thought that that was just the tip of the iceberg and that hundreds of black children were waiting for the right to a foster home, and were living in institutional care in the meantime. She said: Whatever the different views on same race placements it is terribly dangerous for a child to be shunted around shoat term foster parents or to be institutionalised in a council home. Even more damaging and more distressing are the cases of black children who are taken from white foster parents largely because of the implementation of the same-race policy. In August last year in Croydon we had an example where a 17-month-old mixed race boy was taken from his white foster mother and placed with the black family who already had children but who wanted a boy. In the home counties a 14-year-old black boy was taken from a white family by the social services department, despite the fact that he had been living there for no less than eight years.

In Birmingham two white foster parents —reasonable and sensible foster parents—were told by the social services department that they would never be allowed to adopt the black children they were caring for. The Independenton 31 October last year reported the case of a two-year-old Asian girl in Birmingham: Social services officials want to place this girl with an Asian family. Her foster mother said: 'She thinks everyone who comes to the door is going to take her away. She says she wants to stay here with her mummy and daddy.' `We're the only family she has ever known. We took her when she was just a six-day-old baby, and we've brought her up as our own. She is just so attached to us both, and we love her very much.' All the social services department had to say was: We intend to find her another family. She is an Asian child and that is one of the criteria we use. I can scarcely conceive a more inhuman approach to a social services problem than that exhibited by that department in the west midlands.

Again, even those cases may be just the tip of the iceberg. Children First, another group in this field, has estimated that there are 20 cases in which white foster parents are battling to keep their black children living with them. So far, in only three cases have they been successful. Although the circumstances of these cases are difficult to verify—very often they are sub judice or confidential, or reports are not publicly available—the fact is that this is a widespread problem which has been recognised by the Department of Health. Indeed, in January this year the Department felt it necessary to issue guidelines on this aspect of fostering policy, and the Commission for Racial Equality has done likewise.

It is my contention that the Government's guidelines, although well meaning, are not rigorous enough and that they allow social services departments to make rigid interpretations of same-race adoption policy and still feel that they are within the guidelines that have been laid down. Equally, I believe, interpretations are based on the sort of advice that has been given to the CRE and, indeed, has been coming from the CRE—advice that is anti-racist, divisive, segregationist and, therefore, wrong for race relations in this country in the long term.

On the face of it, the Department of Health guidelines are fairly anodyne. They say: Each case must be considered on its merits having regard to the needs of children requiring placement. Racial origin is an important factor in placements. Then, more dubiously, they say: In the great majority of cases"— I find that difficult to believe— placement with a family of similar ethnic origin or religion is likely to meet a child's needs as fully as possible and best safeguard his or her welfare. Of course, the guidelines quote the Children Act 1989, which imposes responsibilities on the Government, or the boarding-out regulations. Only when reference is made to the CRE document does one see a less balanced version of this advice. I believe that the CRE's advice is steeped in this anti-racist, rather than multicultural, philosophy, which, as I said earlier, is divisive. Michael Day, in his introduction to the CRE document, says: Love and care is essential for a foster placement but is not the only component of good parenting for ethnic minority groups. I wonder why he should have to make a differentiation between ethnic minority groups and other groups of children. He goes on: One of the essences of fostering should be to allow black children to affirm a racial identity…A child's overall welfare will be decisively affected by the issue of race. I find that that has not been proven. Mr. Day then talks about inherent difficulties of transracial fostering and, even more dubiously, he says: There is a strong body of opinion"— acutally there is not, as I shall demonstrate in a moment— that same-race fostering is conducive to a child's confidence and sense of identity. Possibly worst of all, this document, on page 13, says that if a black child who has been with a white foster family, for however many years, says, "I should like to remain here" he should be interrogated, and the attitudes and feelings underlying this perfectly legitimate preference should be talked through to ensure that the child understands the issues before such a decision is made. So a social worker will sit down with that black child and say, "Although you know these people as your mother and father, the fact is that it may not be right. We think that, because you are black, you may have to go elsewhere." That is a policy which simply cannot be justified.

Given such advice, it is scarcely surprising that the same-race policy, at a more rigorous level, is reflected in the policies of the agencies. For instance, the British Association of Adoption and Fostering, as it was, said: The placement of choice for a black child is always a black family. When the organisation became Families for Ever, having changed its name and, apparently, to a certain extent, its policies and guidelines, it said: "We believe that the placement choice for a black child is always a black family." When one looks at "Be My Parents" one sees the photographs that are given to potential foster parents. Under the photographs of the black children—not the others; just the black children—are the words "Black parents are required". Children First tells me that white foster parents are finding it difficult to adopt a black child even when they have already fostered a black child. Whatever the intention and advice of the Department of Health, the practice of fostering agencies is much more rigid and inflexible. Why do I regard the practice as extremely dangerous? First, and possibly most important of all, it is evidence of an anti-racist ideology that seems to be obsessed with racial identity, with emphasising the difference between people rather than what they have in common. The result is a tendency to ghettoise sections of the community into particular kinds of ethnic minorities and others. That is a form of apartheid. We have seen that in South Africa and we have not regarded it as acceptable there. Sadly, it is seen too often here.

Secondly, there is the assumption that because someone has a black skin he or she will automatically face significant racial discrimination at a certain time in life and as a result he or she should be trained to combat that in an appropriate family.

Thirdly, as Conor Cruise O'Brien said, the practice tends to treat children not as children with different needs but as racial units. Fourthly, there is no scientific evidence in favour of same-race fostering. The CRE report states that the commission could not find any evidence in Britain or in America that it allowed children to develop more fully. Doctor Dora Black of the Royal Free hospital, who is a psychologist specialising in child matters, has said that race is only one element, and not necessarily the most important, in a fostering decision. She said that the most important element is attachment. The director of social work at Edinburgh university said that the quality of relationship between child and carer is paramount, not race. Christine Pickering of Glasgow university said that those who favour rigid same-race fostering show evidence of a fashion that is a fantasy, and polemic, rather then reason, is governing their judgment. Most important of all, I submit that it is the evidence and experience of hundreds of families, perhaps thousands, throughout the country that white parents who have fostered black and other ethnic minority children have become happy and well-adjusted families in a real sense that militates against a rigid same-race adoption policy.

What are the implications for Government policy and advice to agencies and social service departments? First, it should be made plainer that fostering policy should not be used as an instrument of racial or social policy or as a means of bolstering black identity. It should be stressed that it should be used purely for the benefit of an individual child. It should be made clear that the colour of a child's skin is only one of the many factors that should be taken into account, especially when dealing with the youngest children where no attachment to a cultural or linguistic identity is evident. Far more important is the environment—emotional, social and intellectual, irrespective of colour of skin—into which the child is to be sent.

Secondly, the Government must recognise, as Una Cottingham, another child expert recognised, that delay in fostering means damage: An infant needs to attach". There is no excuse for any delay. The Government must set a time limit outside which delays, whether they be for same-race reasons or not, are unacceptable. A limit should be set irrespective of colour.

Thirdly, there should be limits on temporary fostering. It is unrealistic to say to a foster parent, "Don't worry. Take this child in. You will have her on a temporary basis and we, the social service department, will take her back from you whenever we feel like it." The bonds that inevitably develop between the child and the parent—whether a foster parent or the real parent—are too strong and too natural to allow that kind of temporary contract, which should be monitored more carefully.

During the Government review of adoption policies, there ought to be a presumption of a time limit beyond which foster parents would have a right to adopt, all other things being equal, and if they have the agreement of the child, and possibly of the natural parent.

The fourth point is that adoption panels and social workers should monitor placement delays. At the moment adoption panels decide whether a child is suitable for adoption and leave the time scale to the social workers. I believe that adoption panels should have a statutory interest in how quickly a child is placed. Thus, in a crucial area of child care, one could avoid the great cruelties—and I use that word advisedly—that were evident last year. We could reduce the delay that is increasingly evident when finding homes for these unfortunate children and we could increase the quality of placements. Most important of all, we could promote a society which is genuinely inter-racial, as much as multi-racial, which is integrated as well as multi-cultural and which is respectful of race, but conscious of our common identity as British men and women.

10.20 pm
The Minister for Health (Mrs. Virginia Bottomley)

I think that the House owes a debt of gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) for raising this sensitive and important subject. There has been widespread and understandable concern, over the past year particularly, about the extent to which children's individual needs and circumstances, their emotional well-being and their whole stability were being jeopardised by adherence to the rigid principle of same-race placements. It is a very important matter, and I think that my hon. Friend is to be congratulated on outlining it so clearly and forcefully.

In the Department, we have been carefully considering the guidance which is given to local authorities. We wanted to make it unequivocally clear that it is the child's welfare that should be considered in all cases of fostering and adoption. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) steered the enormously important Children Act 1989 through the House last year. We also updated the new foster placement regulations, and we have been reviewing and considering the directions and the regulations concerning children and their well-being.

It was in that context, and following the cases which caused such concern last year, that in January the chief inspector of the social services inspectorate wrote to all directors of social services setting out the principles which should inform family placement work in relation to the issues of race and culture, within a legal and professional framework.

I must briefly summarise the Government's view, which is that both race and culture are important factors in selecting foster parents and adoptive parents for children in care. The Children Act specifically requires local authorities to have regard, in all decisions concerning a child that they are looking after, to the child's religious persuasion, cultural and linguistic background and racial origins. That requirement formalises an approach which should already be a central element in child care practice.

Certainly we encourage efforts to persuade those from ethnic minorities to come forward, so that children from an ethnic minority may be more likely to have a choice of parents from a similar background. However, we strongly and clearly share the view expressed by my hon. Friend that rigidly and dogmatically applied policies, which place racial and cultural factors above the needs of the child, are not appropriate. Children are children. They have their own particular needs and circumstances. Those circumstances and their wishes should be fully taken into account. A child of an appropriate age should be able to express his own wishes and feelings. It is quite clear that there are many circumstances in which a placement with a family of different race can be in a child's interests, if that family can understand and meet the child's needs, including those needs which arise from racial and cultural background.

It is important to stress that the child's welfare and all the other factors involved must be considered when finding the most appropriate placement. No one separate factor should be abstracted and converted into a precondition that overrides all the others. The only general policy that is acceptable in making decisions about placing children in adoptive or foster homes is that all the factors should be considered and that their welfare should be paramount.

There may well be circumstances in which placement with a family of a different ethnic origin is the best choice for a child. A child may have formed strong links with prospective foster parents or adopters, or be related. 'There may be step-brothers or sisters, not all of the same ethnic origin, who may need placement together. A child may prefer and need to remain close to his school, friends or family, even though the foster parents are not of the same ethnic origin. A child with special needs may require carers with particular qualities or abilities. In those circum. stances, the choice is limited.

None of us would consider that any parents have a right to a child. In all circumstances, it is the child whose needs must be fully and properly considered and his welfare made paramount. My hon. Friend spoke of his anxiety that an over-rigid policy can condemn children to a lengthy wait for a placement, during which time the local authority can be searching for what it deems to be the ideal ethnic match for that child. As my hon. Friend pointed out so clearly, delay, indecision or change of placement can often be enormously damaging to a child's fragile welfare and identity. There are many times when a decision and a clear plan for a child's future is in his best interests.

In recent years, considerable progress has been made on the welfare of children and their placements. Many fewer children are in children's homes or subject to care arrangements that are essentially temporary. Timing is a matter of critical importance in planning and providing for children. Time limits must be set which are appropriate to a child's age and circumstances, and they must be kept under careful review. A child should not be left indefinitely in an interim placement or, even worse, in a series of interim placements, while a permanent placement is sought. It is part of the task of the agencies to set and to monitor proper time limits.

I understand and share my hon. Friend's concern about reports of cases where children seem to have been removed from foster parents solely on account of ethnic origin. However, I urge caution because it is easy to take a simplistic view of a case on the basis of press reports. Children are sometimes removed from foster homes, often for a variety of good reasons which are in the children's interests. But it is important that, when a child is placed with a temporary foster parent, that foster parent should be taken through the process. As my hon. Friend rightly said, there is a process of bonding and it can be extremely painful if the foster parent is not aware of, and fully involved in, the long-term plans for the child.

I hope that my hon. Friend will read again the recent guidance issued by the Department. The chief inspector of social services has taken a great deal of time and trouble to consult on and to talk through the new guidance. It makes it clear that the points to which my hon. Friend addressed himself should be incorporated in good practice. As he rightly said, children are not "racial units". It is important that adoption and fostering policy should not be an instrument of racial or social policy. The colour of an individual is only one aspect of a child, an important aspect, but one among many, and his emotional, social and intellectual well-being should most clearly and strongly be taken into account. One of the most important points is that delay for children so often means damage to the child's well-being.

We intend to follow up the guidance to ensure that the adoption and fostering practices of local authorities adhere to good practice. This evening's debate has been a useful further opportunity to clarify precisely the aims and intentions of the Government.

Above all, it is essential that children in the care of a local authority, and children who need fostering or adoption, have their needs fully and fairly met, without rigid and ideological adherence to one aspect of their welfare. The guidance, and the helpful contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest, will ensure that we can make greater headway in ensuring that children's needs are paramount.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.