Culture, Narratives

Transracial Adoption – No Longer a Black and White Issue


Written by Nat Illumine

N.b. This article is based on research conducted by the author for an undergraduate dissertation entitled ‘A Political Minefield: Transracial Adoption Policy and the Mixed Race Experience’ (2013) alongside a British Association of Adoption and Fostering conference entitled: ‘Transracial Placements: No longer a Black and White Issue’ (held on July 7th 2014). This article focuses on transracial adoption but does not explicitly focus on the mixed race experience.


There has been an on-going and controversial debate in the UK about transracial adoption – the practice of white families adopting children from ethnic minorities. The debate has a complex history, and British governments have historically flip-flopped on policies, on the one hand attempting to place ethnic minority children with loving parents as quickly as possible, and on the other hand trying to ensure racial, ethnic and religious matching between adoptive parents and adopted children, with varying degrees of success. Whether white parents are able to successfully raise ethnic minority children with a sound sense of racial identity, as well as effectively preparing them for the racism they may experience, is central to the debate.

The History of Transracial Adoption in the UK

Transracial adoption (TRA) began in the UK in the 1960s to allow white parents to adopt ethnic minority and mixed race children, because the number of white childless couples wanting to adopt far exceeded the number of white infants in care. The British Adoption Project was also set up in 1965 to address the increasing numbers of non-white children in care who were deemed ‘hard to place’ due to their ethnicity, thus establishing TRA in which white families were adopting non-white children.

However, by the 1980s there was a fierce critique of this policy by the Association of Black Social Workers and Allied Professionals, who publicly stated in 1983:

The most valuable resource of any ethnic group is its children. Nevertheless, black children are being taken from black families by the process of the law and being placed in white families. It is, in essence, “internal colonialism” and a new form of the slave trade, but only black children are used (in McRoy and Griffin, 2012).

They demanded a change in government policy, stating that any attempts to recruit ethnic minority adopters had failed because of institutional racism. The British Association of Adoption and Fostering (BAAF) also echoed these views, stating in 1987 that:

We believe that the placement of choice for a black child is always a black family. Agency policy and practice should, therefore, be geared to ensuring that an adequate number of black staff and of black substitute families is recruited to meet the needs of black children in their care (BAAF Practice Note, 1987).

As the first generation of transracially adopted children grew into adulthood they faced complex issues. Some transracial adoptive placements were successful; some were not. Many experienced identity crises as they matured, feeling disconnected from their racial or ethnic communities, and lacking the tools with which to address the racism they encountered. Others thrived with their new family whom handled any racial or cultural differences with love and sensitivity. It would seem obvious that denying children prospective adoption based on racial or cultural differences is unacceptable, given the importance of a loving adoptive family and home for children who are unable to remain with their birth family, but ethnic minority children remain three times less likely to be adopted than white children. Thus governments have sought strategies such as TRA to address this, with the aim of reducing delay for ethnic minority children, as well as improving recruitment, assessment and post-placement support for ethnic minority adopters.

“Matching” in Adoption Policy and the Issue of Delay

The process by which potential adopters are identified to meet specific children’s needs is known as “matching” and is seen as key to increasing stability in and improving outcomes of adoption. The legislative and practice framework for matching was formally set out in the Adoption and Children Act 2002 and stated that agencies are required by law to ‘…give due consideration to the child’s religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background’. The current government’s policy is focusing on permanence over fostering solutions by attempting to speed up the adoption process, and by not allowing race and ethnicity to supersede other needs. In March 2014 the government removed this clause from legislation, in order to prevent local authorities from delaying adoptions in the hopes of providing a “perfect match”. A 2012 survey of 411 social care practitioners and professionals undertaken by Community Care, the British Association of Social Workers and the College of Social Work, however, show that almost 70% do not agree with this change in legislation.

The issue of delay is based on the length of time it takes agencies and courts to attend to the adoption process. Of the 67,050 children in care between March 2011 and March 2012, 50,260 were currently in foster placements and 6,200 children were placed for adoption, of which 3450 were adopted. 85% of the adopted children were white, 10% were mixed race, 3% were black, 2% were Asian and 1% were classed as “other”. Mixed race children had higher relative adoption rates than all other ethnicities, but rates were much lower for black and Asian children. Average timescales for white children were 919 days, for mixed race children 996 days, for Asian children 835 days and for black children 1302 days, suggesting that delay is particularly affecting black children.

The legal requirement to match on race and ethnicity has been based on the premise that research evidence supports matching, though this is not necessarily the case. Adoption breakdown rates show little difference between transracial and same-race placements with regards to psychosocial outcomes and levels of self-esteem, although the research undertaken has been critiqued. Limitations include methodological issues of design and sampling, a failure to adopt sensitive measures of experiences in relation to racism, and for being based on a Eurocentric framework. There is indeed a profound lack of systematic assessment of emotional and behavioural development and attachment, making all assessment merely speculative.

The adoption reforms are therefore based on the perception that adoption rates are too low and that timescales are too slow. A hierarchy of needs has been created within matching policy, making racial and cultural needs paramount, but what other “needs” might encompass is left to practitioner wisdom. The concept of “delay” in adoption has thus become racialised, because opposition to TRA is seen as the reason for low rates of adoption. There is little evidence of this – a survey of Adoption UK members in 2011 found only 3% of potential adopters were rejected for a lack of a match, thus failing to support the notion that matching is a barrier to adoption. The current policy discourse is therefore contradictory in that it pits avoidance of delay against the salience of racial identity formation:

Policy discourse wavers between the down-playing of differences required to justify a tough stance against any perceived over-emphasis on ethnic matching, and acknowledgement of the latter’s advantages (Barn and Kirton, 2012).

Matching is clearly beset with issues and limitations, because it can only be based on practitioner wisdom and human judgement rather than evidence, and because the beliefs and assumptions behind the practice are difficult to assess. This makes matching an on-going process, which requires agencies to have the capacity to support adoptive families, and a willingness on the part of these families to work with agencies.

The Issue of Cultural Relativism

Another issue in the debate is the theory of cultural relativism, which positions ethnic minority children as “bearers” of specific, homogenous cultures, assuming a strong level of commitment to birth cultures by both parents and children. Research has shown that transracial adoptees show less commitment to birth cultures when in a white adoptive family and this relates to the rights of ethnic minorities regarding the racial identities of the children from their communities.

However there are major conceptual and definitional problems with these concepts, for example, what does an acceptable cultural identity look like? These questions go right to the root of the concept of “culture” as we know it, problematizing the idea that a cultural, racial or ethnic identity is static, unchanging and the same for all members of an ethnic group. Questions that researchers and academics have posed in relation to this include:

  • Does acceptable mean acceptable to other members of the culture, or to the child him or herself?
  • Should a transracially adopted child identify with their birth culture over their adoptive culture?
  • Can ethnic or religious identity be said to have meaning in cases where birth parents have abandoned their children?

There are no easy answers to these questions, yet they lie at the heart of the debate.

Numerous situations in which white parents who have successfully fostered mixed race or ethnic minority children from birth but were denied adoption based on race have been noted in the literature, ensuring lengthy court battles to keep the adoptive families intact. Other cases involve dubious matching in which, for example Christian Pakistani children were placed in a Muslim Pakistani adoptive family, showing how race, ethnicity and religion can be conflated and how these concepts can be made overly-inclusive.

It is clear that TRA does produce additional challenges for adoptive parents around identity formation, cultural heritages and dealing with racism, therefore ethnicity, race and religion do matter and should be reflected in matching, however a balanced approach to matching is required which avoids reductive racial definitions. The desire to break down barriers to TRA negates the challenges that can occur, and prevents serious debate about socialisation within the family and racial literacy.

Racial Literacy and “Race Mixing” in the General Population

There has been markedly little research into the racial literacy of white parents and the potential strategies they may offer to transracially adopted ethnic minority children in combating racism and formulating positive identities. Racial literacy is defined as an understanding and appreciation of both racial and cultural differences, as well as the realities of racism and discrimination. White mothers have been specifically positioned within this discourse as failing to both inculcate a positive racial identity in their (transracially adopted or mixed race) children and effectively assist them in dealing with racism.

The academic and social commentator Jill Olumide (2002) posits TRA as a discourse about race mixing that is mediated by professional welfare organisations, citing adoption and fostering policy as ‘one of the few areas in which race mixing may still be prevented’. Olumide suggests that opposition to TRA problematises bonds in interracial families by suggesting that bonding between different races is unnatural. This view allows for social work professionals to ‘define the racial “needs” of poor children’, creating specific knowledge claims which are then perpetuated by the media as a discursive device against race mixing.

This racialises relationships between mothers and children, questions their legitimacy, and negates the experiences of white women who have successfully raised their own mixed race children. Within her research, Olumide (2002) found examples of white women who had raised mixed race children being made ineligible for TRA, despite having clear links with ethnic minority communities and replicating the backgrounds of many mixed race children in care. For example, one white woman with three mixed race children was deemed a “white family”, and was only eligible for white placements. The woman in question found this to be unacceptable, based on the fact that a white child would destabilise the perceived position of her mixed race children in the eyes of society. Olumide therefore refers to the social services as ‘a social policing force in matters of race, with very real implications for opportunities to mix race’.

Transracial adoption can often mirror the normal experiences of interracial families in the wider population, and this has been overlooked in the TRA debate.

Conclusion: A strict black and white approach cannot work

The removal of the clause that ensures ‘due consideration to the child’s religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background’ is questionable at this point in the debate. It could lead to a regression to a colour-blind approach, and this needs to be avoided. There is a clear need for further research in this area. The “matching” process in adoption policy needs conceptual clarification, and must move beyond being a merely ‘speculative’ science if it is to become effective in its aims. Transracial adoption, despite being successful in many cases, has been shown to be a panacea for other issues within the adoption and welfare systems, such as issues with recruitment of ethnic minority families.

It has also been argued however that the same-race approach is an ideological and separatist discourse, which is the last bastion against race mixing. However, in order to prevent a return to a colour-blind approach, a more pragmatic approach is required, with a renewed focus on racial literacy. It is imperative that adoption agencies take this on board, not only in assessment of potential adopters, but in training and post-placement support, which is key to successful placements.

However, it is clear that TRA will present additional challenges, in terms of identity and self-esteem, especially given that being adopted forms part of a child’s identity in itself. Dr. John Simmonds, Director of Policy, Research & Development at BAAF, states that TRA involves ‘a complex history of dispute, contested beliefs and evolving perspectives’ and that each adoptive child should be considered on a case-by-case basis. However he also states that ‘giving due consideration’ to issues of race and ethnicity is the basis upon which adoptions should be considered, and therefore deleting this clause is a retrograde step.

 By Nat Illumine 





4 thoughts on “Transracial Adoption – No Longer a Black and White Issue

  1. Thank you for this article, the issues of TRA is a contentious one but needs to be constantly returned. With the ongoing disparities in the care system and the demographics of prospective adopters it will return to the agenda again and again.

    1. Hi Al,

      Thanks for your comment. It is a contentious issue with no easy answers. I felt it was important to look back at the history of changing policies in the UK, with a view to broadening understanding that there are no clear cut answers here. Thanks, Nat

  2. Thanks for this very informative article Nat. it is a good read, especially for social workers who are engaged in the viability assessments and matching process…it should ignite some level of proactive thinking in their decision making process. it is a concerning and very controversial issue that is still on-going.

  3. Thanks for helping me understand that an adoption agency would have to make sure that the families would be willing to work with them to make the matching process work. I would like to know more about this because I plan to adopt a child together with my husband. We just thought of this option years ago if we can’t really conceive due to my condition in my reproductive system.

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