LONDON – Race should no longer be a key criteria for social workers seeking adoptive families for children in care, Britain's government said Tuesday — stressing that the priority must instead be to find a child a new home quickly.
Education Secretary Michael Gove, who was himself adopted, said that for too long sensitivities about ethnicity had complicated efforts to place black and ethnic minority children, meaning they wait far longer than white children for a permanent home.
Issuing new advice to those working on adoptions, Gove moved Britain closer in line to European neighbors — who largely disregard a child's ethnicity.
Dismissing critics — which include the National Association of Black Social Workers in the United States — who insist ethnicity must be a concern when matching a child to adoptive parents, he said "politically correct attitudes and ridiculous bureaucracy" had left officials too reluctant to authorize interracial adoptions.
"As a result children from ethnic minority backgrounds languish in care for longer than other kids and are denied the opportunities they deserve," said Gove. "This misguided nonsense punishes those who most need our help and that is why this government is sweeping it away."
He claimed difficulties in placing ethnic minority children — who are over-represented in Britain's care system — had led to a decline in the country's adoption rate. Figures show 3,200 children were placed for adoption in the U.K. last year, down by about 100 on the previous 12 months.
Will Cooper, a 30-year-old born to an Iranian father and English mother, was adopted by a white English family as an infant. He said his adoptive parents made him aware of his ethnicity, but that it didn't have an impact on his upbringing.
"I really don't think there was any difference to my life. There is that mystery about my background, but it's not something that really affects me," said Cooper, who is running the London Marathon in April to raise money for Action for Children, a charity which helped assist his adoption.
He said Gove was right to challenge the perception that ethnicity should be a factor when deciding whether to place a child with a particular family.
"It should be down to quality of life. If they are the same ethnic background, then great, but it shouldn't be a barrier if they're not," he said.
Social workers have often been reluctant to place children with parents of a different race because of concerns it may make it harder for a child to integrate with their new family, or because it can make it immediately apparent that a child's adoptive parents are not their biological parents.
Some communities have in the past also opposed children being placed with families of a different race, believing adopters should have a detailed understanding of a child's ethnic, or religious identity.
In the U.S., the black social workers association and other groups have argued that black children should be placed with black adoptive families, if possible — citing the need to preserve links to their ethnic ancestry.
Like Gove, many believe that British adoption officials have long understood their priority to place children with parents of a similar background.
"I do believe there's reluctance among social workers to place kids with families of a different ethnicity, but more due to pressures put upon them by the system," said Cooper.
In both Britain and the U.S., the number of black or ethnic monitory children who need adoption is higher than the number of prospective families who share their background. Specific campaigns in the U.K. have attempted to encourage black and other minority families to put themselves forward as prospective adopters.
Britain's new advice orders social workers to make placing a child with any suitable family their priority. Gove said speed must trump concerns over "skin color, or faith, or ethnic background."
The education ministry said that on average, a white child waits 610 days to be placed with a permanent adoptive family, while black and ethnic minority children wait about 966 days — almost a full year longer.
"I know that children tend to do well when placed with a family who shares their ethnic or cultural background, but I know also that delay can have a very detrimental effect," said children's minister Tim Loughton.
"If there can be an ethnic match that's an advantage, possibly a very significant one. But, it should never be a deal-breaker," he said.
Judith Washington, a retired social worker who spent 15 years handling adoptions in New York, said pressure to find children a permanent adoptive family quickly can lead to mistakes — or a lack of vital preparation work.
"People who adopt also need help to understand the implications, and to optimize the chances of the adoption being a success," said Washington, who retired in 2004.
She said it's vital those adopting a child of another race have the right support before the child joins their family. Washington said there had been little research to examine the success of adoptions where children are placed with parents of another race.
Gove said his own experience meant it was a personal crusade to increase the numbers of children in public care who are placed with new families.
"I was given a second chance — and as a result of the love and affection, the stability and care that my parents gave me, all the opportunities that I subsequently had in life were there," he said.
Jesse Washington in Philadelphia, David Crary in New York, Jan Olsen in Copenhagen, Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Jorge Sainz in Madrid and Louise Nordstrom in Stockholm contributed to this report