Saturday, June 30, 2007

"The Best Interest"

The right to a child
Red Pepper Archive

Emotional reunions between grown-up children and the mothers who gave them up at birth are less likely to be a happy ending than an exposure of rejection and loss. Ruth Valentine explores the politics of adoption.

Adoption has become political. Officially, that is: on 17 February, Stephen Dorrell opened his mouth and spoke the word – adoption. 'Decisions about who can adopt should reflect commonsense values widely shared by society, rather than the specialist and fashionable theories held by a particular professional group.' The context was the announcement of new regulations, giving would-be adopters the right to information about the adoption agency's decision. Not especially stirring stuff, but an opportunity for more social work-bashing. A more far-reaching Adoption Bill was dropped from last year's Queen's Speech, not least for fear of the family-values brigade pressuring single mothers to give up babies for adoption.

Or else: adoption has always been political. The children of the poor, like tax revenues, have been redistributed amongst the middle classes. Or more subtly: those parents whom society treats most harshly, who because of oppression, homelessness, poverty, unemployment or emotional deprivation find it hard to care for children, are given not help to do so but a court order.

The current debate of course reaches back before Dorrell. Some arguments go back at least to the Second World War. 'We know there have been questions about these spinster adoptions,' wrote a social worker to Chichester County Court in the 1940s, referring, inelegantly, to my elderly guardians. 'But in this case...'. And there I was, subject to the same lifeless dilemma: do two elderly women have the right to adopt? What else do we do with this superfluous human being?

The truth is that there has never been a public debate about adoption. The right may groan about political correctness, but the left has never found the issue worthy of its attention. And adoption is a strange institution, worth debating. It is not simply a system for ensuring the care of orphaned children. Adoption has long since ceased to be concerned mainly with orphans. No, the debate, the playground for politicians, is now, as in 1945, about one thing: who has or hasn't the right to adopt children. Do lesbians? Disabled people? Smokers, people with weight problems? And, most virulently, since this is the group least used to official disapproval: do white adults have the right to adopt black children? Adoption as a practice is never questioned.

This is not a debate, but a tantrum. Feel the hatred fly off the newsprint, the 70-point headlines. They say we're not good enough to adopt children. Since the tantrum claims to be the voice of Our People (white, employed, heterosexual, able-bodied, married), it is presented always in these terms. 'Pain of couple refused by PC officials'. The photo: a couple looking ordinary and hopeful and pained. Commonsense values.

Of course the rage, like all rage, comes out of pain. To long to have children and be unable is a bereavement: a pain you wake up with, that catches you like angina as you walk down the street amongst the women with buggies, the men taking their sons to see Arsenal.

We are not good in this country at living with pain. Nor, therefore, at bearing other people's. Never mind, we say to the child whose kitten dies: we'll get you another one. With enough money, we can get another anything. Substitution. Make no mistake, pain and substitution are political. Substitution, we might say, is the opium of the people. Narcotic. Pain-killer.

Hence the rage and incomprehension around this 'right' to adopt children. You can't have children. You've had the indignity and physical pain of what the hospitals already call infertility tests. The unreality of test-tubes of sperm being thawed and spooned into you by someone in uniform. The risky, haphazard, emotionally exhausting process of in-vitro fertilisation.

Never mind, Mrs Jones, what about adoption? Adoption is not a substitute for childbearing. It's not the same thing.

Adoption is political because it is about power. About who has power. People used to having the power of the consumer, the power to obtain substitutes, find themselves in the power of officials, judges, social workers. Those parents whose child is to be adopted (these children are not orphans: even, perhaps especially, in the child-exporting countries there is usually at least one parent), have forfeited their share of power: by poverty, or an inability to care for their children to other people's standards; or by desperation, taking the paltry money, convinced or half-convinced by the dealer's half-hearted argument: she'll have a better home.

If adoption is the redistribution of children from poor to rich, then inter-country adoption is the perfect example of colonialism. Where children become the commodity, like oil, or gold, or mangetouts.

Ceaucescu is ousted then executed in Romania. Journalists fly there. The papers are full of pictures: Romanian orphanages. According to Isabel Fonseca, most of the children in those 'orphanages' were Roma. The Roma have elaborate extended family living arrangements, which cater even for truly orphaned children. The collection of these Roma children in one place starts to have another political meaning.

Mr and Mrs Someone, resourceful, moved by the pictures, take two months' leave and drive to Romania. The dealer, the intermediary – there has to be an intermediary, someone who speaks English, who interprets bureaucracy, who makes it all right – says: orphan. Or else: they haven't visited in all this time. If he's less than subtle, he says: they won't be a problem. If he's clever, he says: you've seen the conditions.

There are regulations for inter-country adoption, but the intermediary ensures that Mr and Mrs Someone don't have to bother too much about that. Nor, in the end, when the child is here, do the courts. As with Edita Keranovic, smuggled out of Bosnia, though her surviving relatives want to look after her. The courts say: it is in Edita's best interests that she stay in Britain.

The Children Act requires the court to consider the best interests of the child. But who defines those interests and what criteria do we use?

What she needs is a loving home, we say, rendered simplistic by those dark un-English eyes, the evident neglect. As if love, the emotion, the intention, were enough. It is the old puritan error: what matters is the intention, not the impact. The error that makes us unable to tell when we are being oppressive: I didn't mean to. I only wanted to help. We know what horrors 'love' may inflict on children.

Let us consider the child. Here he is: Michael. We will call him Michael, even though he was called Marin in Romania and Jorge in El Salvador and Aleksander in Moscow and Ly in Vietnam and Ade in Tottenham and Darren in Birmingham;once he is here he will become Michael. What does Michael say?

Listen closely. Michael was born and straight away removed from his mother. He never fed from her breasts or felt her body-warmth. Or: Michael was born, and stayed with his mother, his father, and then after six weeks/six months/six years he was taken away from them.

The best interests of Michael are: not to have had to leave his parents. Or if that is really impossible: to be with people who can understand his loss and speak of it. Will tell him the unbearable truth and help him to bear it. Are not too hurt, or offended, or afraid of what the truth wakens in them. Good social work practice, what Mr Dorrell reviles as political correctness and specialist theory, seeks out and supports this kind of adoptive parent. [Ed: Better still, of course, good social work practice helps keep the original fmaily intact!]

Do not speak to me of the right of people to adopt when there is this far more basic and undebated right, the right of a child to honesty and understanding. The pain Mr and Mrs Someone have gone through, however great, gives them no entitlement. It does not count in comparison to the loss and confusion of Michael, the power of his experience of rejection. People desperate to deny the fact of their infertility, to 'treat him as if he was our own', are in no position to help a small child deal with the painful reality of his past.

The truth about our origins is important to all of us. Go to the Family Records Centre (previously St Catherine's House) and see the people trawling through the registers. Up to 70,000 adopted people have taken the one step we can, applying for permission to know our original name. Some percentage of these have managed to track down the mother they lost; some, fewer, the father.

The world is in love with these stories of reunion. With Clare Short, courageous and honest, saying it was a mistake, hugging her new-found son. With the aptly named Secrets and Lies. Hollywood requires a new plot device, the PUC (pronounced puke), the Previously Unknown Child.

As if we were all seeking for atonement. For the message: our terrible errors can be wiped out. We can turn the clock back. Here are these radiant mothers, relieved children. In 1945, or '65, or '85, we required these women to surrender their children. 'I was told I had to forget you had ever been born,' said my mother, 'so I did.' Now we require them to reshuffle their lives, to reveal their painful past to families who cannot but be shaken by the revelation. The stories of reunited birth parents and children do not end at the moment of reunion, the photo where we all strain to discover likenesses. With little support or understanding, as opposed to myth-making, available to either side, not surprisingly the stories often come back to a less fairy-tale beginning; it may not be the birth that is rerun, but the rejection.

Where does this leave our non-debate? New Labour can choose to ignore the right-to-adopt lobby and think seriously about the needs of hurt children. Or it can go for the populist line, dowse us in the sticky rhetoric of family values, and watch the graceless squabbling for possession of children continue.

There is a role for the left here: to open up the discussion, not in terms of the rival claims of the would-be adopters, but in terms of the unacknowledged needs of the powerless and unheard children.

Ruth Valentine is a writer and works as a consultant to voluntary organisations.

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