A right-on guide to imprisoning children
Preventing adults from adopting because they’re too fat or the wrong ethnicity means children will be left in the care system.
The subject of adoption made the news in the UK last week when it was revealed that a prospective adoptive family had been rejected because the husband was deemed to be overweight.
Charlotte and Damien Hall have been married for 11 years and wanted to adopt a child. However, it was reported that Leeds City Council in England was concerned that Mr Hill has a body mass index (BMI) of 42, putting him in the morbidly obese category and therefore at an increased risk of serious health-related illness and premature death. If he could get his BMI down to 40 and maintain the weight loss, it was reported, then the council would reconsider the couple’s application (1).
At a time when children can wait anything up to six years to be adopted, and the one thing everyone agrees on in this debate is that the earlier a child is adopted the better, such a decision will strike many as bizarre. To understand the context behind this judgment, we need to look at the way that adoption, like most of social work, has become highly politicised, and how the contemporary preoccupation with health and lifestyle is the latest manifestation of this (2).
Adoption and ethnicity
I have had a passing interest in the subject of adoption since my days as a social work student in the early 1990s. At that time, I was involved with a group called Workers Against Racism, an anti-racist organisation which, alongside challenging immigration restrictions and racist police activity, was active in challenging the views of the far-right National Front (NF) and the British National Party (BNP). These groups argued that people from different ethnic backgrounds were so distinct that racial segregation was the only solution.
Arriving at university as a first-year student in social work, a profession which I knew had a strong commitment to anti-racism, imagine my surprise when I heard similar sentiments being espoused on my course. The subject of transracial or same-race adoption placements was a major issue, and the consensus seemed to be that, while the BNP and NF were wrong about adults, these extremist groups had a point in relation to children.
In 1972, the National Association of Black Social Workers in the United States, whose slogan was ‘Love Is Not Enough’, claimed that ‘transracial placements are a way of perpetuating racist ideology’ (3). Such sentiments gained prominence in both the US and Britain and transracial placements became rare. However, research in the 1990s began to challenge the view that such placements were necessarily detrimental to children. Though it is still seen as desirable to place children with parents of the same cultural background, the reality is that this is not always possible, especially given the increasingly ethnic mix of contemporary society. Waiting for a suitable ‘cultural match’ will leave many children growing up in the care system rather than as part of a family.
Changing attitudes to adoption
The adoption debate invariably reflects current social mores and is therefore instructive in what it tells us about contemporary political sensibilities. For example, in the 1950s and 1960s, single people and homosexuals were certainly not considered suitable adoptees – in fact, it was often the children of single parents who were up for adoption due to the social opprobrium attached to ‘illegitimate’ children. However, societal attitudes to such issues have changed and adoption policies now reflect this. Today, single people and homosexuals are encouraged to apply to adopt.
Such positive developments are to be welcomed, but as some sections of society are welcomed into the fold, others have replaced them as contemporary social pariahs.
In this respect, the Hills have paid the price for not following today’s cultural sensitivity to weight. Likewise, smokers are considered to have a habit incompatible with the values necessary to adopt. Government guidance may suggest that smokers are not automatically precluded from the adoption process, advising that they be offered advice and counselling to help them see the error of their ways. Nevertheless, some local authorities prefer no such ambiguity - following advice from the British Association of Adoption and Fostering, Portsmouth City Council recently deciding to ban all smokers from adopting children under the age of five (4).
The adoption assessment process also inquires about applicants’ views on multiculturalism, diversity and social equality. It goes without saying that your answers will need to sit favourably with current mainstream political views on those topics, at least if you want your application to proceed satisfactorily.
Let’s assess parenting ability, not social conformity
Of course, any adoption assessment should take into consideration a whole range of factors. The state has responsibility for these children and needs to ensure that they are placed in a family that can provide them with the love and support all children need. In addition, children placed for adoption may have suffered abuse or neglect prior to entering the care system, so I have no problem with prospective adopters undergoing a rigorous assessment. The problem is not so much the need for assessment as what is being assessed, with current political sensibilities regarding health, beliefs and lifestyle being conflated with parenting ability.
Prospective adopters can certainly be deemed unsuitable due to lifestyle or value criteria. In and of itself this is of no real concern. There will be many cases in which certain children are deemed unsuitable to be placed with certain prospective adopters, and this could be based on cultural, lifestyle or health reasons. However, the ‘adoption’ of these issues as being desirable in their own right is not only wrong but counterproductive, leaving children in care due to current political fads rather than a lack of potential adopters.
For example, even if it is the case that Mr Hill may have reduced life expectancy due to his weight (the official reason given for refusing the application), the combined chances of both Hills dying young must surely be lower than that of a ‘healthy’ single adopter. This decision gives the impression of being a dogmatic one, not a reasonably considered one.
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Also, in relation to the transracial/same-race adoption debate, it is worth pointing out that the notion that children are born ‘with a culture’ is patently absurd – they may be born into and develop a culture, but that is a crucial difference. Today, the question ‘Where are you from?’ is seen as more significant than ‘Where are you going?’ Contemporary society gives greater credence to the past than it does to the present or the future. In debates and policies around adoption, this involves purporting a culturally deterministic view of human beings.
In addition, while we should welcome the fact that both single people and homosexuals are now able to adopt, we must also acknowledge that just as sexuality and relationship status do not equate with an inability to be a good parent, neither does a failure to meet current political orthodoxies.
In other words, parents can be overweight, smoke, hold racist, sexist or homophobic views and still raise children successfully. It is likely that many reading this were brought up by parents whose views were of their time and would not sit easily with the contemporary climate. In most cases, I’m sure this did not stop them being great parents; nor did it mean we grew up to endorse such views.
As society changes, different issues will be considered social anathema. In the future, being sceptical of climate change or being in favour of air travel may be viewed as indicating a lack of the appropriate values necessary for raising children. Now, where would that place many of you reading this article, who might at some time wish to adopt a child?
Ken McLaughlin is a senior lecturer in social work at Manchester Metropolitan University, England. His book Social Work, Politics and Society: From Radicalism to Orthodoxy is published by Policy Press.
(1) Too Fat to Adopt, Guardian, 13 January 2009
(2) The subject of adoption was recently debated at the Battle of Ideas festival in London. A recording of what was a fascinating debate can be viewed here
(3) We don’t mind what colour the baby is, New Statesman, 18 July 2005
(4) Criticism of smoker adoption ban, BBC News, 7 June 2007