The adoption debate skews our thinking on youngsters
In an ideal world, there would be no children living away from the security and love of a family. This is far from an ideal world, however, and 4,000 children in England are waiting for homes. As we often hear, there are endless couples wanting to adopt. We’re told of their heartache at not being able to have children – how they’d concentrated on careers only to discover in their late 30s that they were too old to conceive; of their search for suitable babies; and of their angst when they come up against the bureaucracy of the adoption system, being turned away, for example, for being too fat or for smoking. You would never guess that the last 20 years have seen children’s services put massive efforts into fostering and adoption.
The voices that are rarely heard, though, are those of the children themselves; the vast majority of whom – nearly 60,000 in care in England – aren’t lucky enough to find a permanent home in a stable family, but spend their childhood being moved from one foster home to another. And in all the efforts to appease the often middle-class would-be adopters, these youngsters are often overlooked by the local authorities who should be taking care of them.
The fact is that if we really want to help vulnerable children, we need to talk less about adoption and more about making care better. In researching my Channel 4 series, Find Me a Family, I came across many children who have been waiting for a home – some who had featured for years on adoption sites – and they are not the kind of children who most childless couples think about when deciding to adopt. These kids are older, often of mixed parentage, or with physical and emotional issues.
I believe that there are only so many people who are capable, willing and able to care for them, and we have just about exhausted the supply. Now, we need to stop allowing social work to follow fashions and trends, and to get a grip on the system. Too many children are suffering.
Immediately after I was born, my white English mother and Nigerian father put me into private foster care with a family in Chelmsford, close to where I was born. My mother suffered the stigma of being an unmarried mother with a black child. When she went back to her village after giving birth, a male admirer who knew her situation offered her the opportunity to have a normal family life on the understanding that all contact with me and payments for my care were ceased. I didn’t meet her again until I was 26.
As a man in the 1960s, my father had little or no chance of getting custody, despite his attempts to do so. He did, though, stay in contact for most of my childhood.
I came into the care of Essex social services when I was 14 months old because my private foster-care bills were no longer being paid. I moved to a small family group home in Basildon with 10 kids – where I spent nine fantastic years, thanks to Aunty Betty and her dedicated, untrained team. We were well cared for, and I felt loved and at home.
When I was nine, a change in childcare practice meant that social services closed many of the family group homes in favour of larger homes staffed by trained and qualified workers. The effect on me personally was catastrophic. I became uncontrollable and was excluded from school at 10.
I was considered institutionalised, and the five attempts to foster me failed. I was sent to a boarding school for mal-adjusted children, and it was here that I lost my innocence and learned how to bully, steal and fight.
So what has changed since I was in care? Since the 1980s, the practice has been to leave children at home, placing them on the “at risk” register when there are concerns. When I was in care there were 120,000 kids being looked after by the state – now that figure has halved. Because of the scandals surrounding residential care homes, their numbers have been dramatically reduced. In the meantime, social work has moved from being a caring profession to being directive-led, pen-pushing, and having little time for support and relationships.
The 1989 Children Act says that the rights of the child are paramount. I fail to see how what is happening now is responding to that call. I think that the over-emphasis on fostering needs to be rebalanced so that there are a variety of options. The emphasis needs to be on providing children with love and protection and, where that can’t be provided by a family, it needs to be in a therapeutic residential environment with well-paid, trained staff willing to make and commit to relationships with those children. Staff should be rewarded for staying in post rather than moving on – as they do all too often.
The cost to society for this continuing failure is huge. Kids are still leaving care and going to prison or having their own children taken away. We have to give this issue the resources that it needs, and now.
David Akinsanya is a television producer and the presenter of the Channel 4 series Find Me a Family, which begins on 11 May at 9pm.