Adoption: when nothing is black and white
That despite your torrent of tears and pleas, this is in your best interest. And there is nothing you can do to stop it from happening.
As startling as it might sound in these child-centred times, this is what happened to me.
Despite having been fostered by the same couple since I was 6 weeks old, social services had decided - through a court case - that the bonds of love between us must be broken. That our relationship was wrong, illegal.
I can still see the social worker bundling me into a car and the tears streaming down my face as I repeated, “I don’t want to go!” It’s fair to say an incident like that stays with you. You might imagine such drastic action was caused by negligence or abuse of some sort, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Nan, as I affectionately called my foster mother Sheila, and her husband Ted, couldn’t have been more caring. The reason for our enforced separation was simple: it came down to race. Nan and Ted were white. I am black.
Cross-cultural fostering and adoption has long been a contentious issue. This was back in the 1980s when taking me from my loving home was well-intended, as it was believed I would best flourish in a home that shared my ethnic background. These days we are used to seeing celebrities such as Madonna and Angelina Jolie, Sandra Bullock and Kristin Davis adopting children of a different ethnic background. It seems to be very on-trend.
Although it is largely accepted, there are those who seem to view it as somehow noble or charitable, especially if the child is from Africa or Asia.
And although the UK's Children and Families Act 2014 removed ethnicity as a criteria for adoption (to shorten delays in placing children with families), there are still cases of race standing in an adoptive couple’s way.
Earlier this year, Sandeep and Reena Mander, British Asians from Berkshire, were denied the chance to adopt because of their cultural heritage.
The reasons given included the fact that only white children were in need in that area and therefore white British or European applicants would be given preference.
Understanding your roots is incredibly important - as a psychotherapist it’s an issue I have studied extensively - but my 9-year-old self saw things through a different lens. I loved Nan fiercely and she me, so that meant staying with her.
Such was my conviction that within a year I was back on her doorstep, telling her I’d come “home”.
I had been born in West London to parents who spent a lot of time travelling to and from Nigeria, where they were born. I had six older step-siblings from my mother’s side, who also lived in the UK a few kilometres away with relatives.
My parents had originally come to London to study and work; my father as an electrician and my mother as a teacher. Fifty or so years ago, when Nigeria was a British colony, this was encouraged.
By leaving their wider family behind, though, there was no help in terms of childcare for people like my parents. So, private and affordable fostering arrangements became the most attractive option for many, ensuring children were cared for while parents studied and worked.
Nan, meanwhile, had started fostering in the early 1960s, caring for more than 100 children after her own left home. She fostered some of my cousins so was known to my family when she took me at six weeks.
That parents would willingly give up such a young baby seems unthinkable now, but in the late 1970s it was a more accepted practice among my parents’ peers.
At least being so young meant I never knew any different.
While all of Nan’s other foster children returned to their parents when they finished their education or got businesses off the ground, the bond between us was so strong I never wanted to leave.
This meant I stayed with her even when my parents went back to Nigeria. But Nan always ensured I spent time with my mother when she flew in and I enjoyed seeing my siblings from time to time.
My older step-sister would plait my hair and we’d often prepare Nigerian meals together. I also took a couple of trips to Nigeria to visit wider family members and even managed to learn a bit of Yoruba, my parents’ native language.
As I grew up, so did the continual intake of children, though Nan was well into her 50s.
One of my fondest memories is holding on to the handles of an old-fashioned pram containing two babies either end and a toddler walking on the side.
Sometimes the confused stares from people in the street would bother me. I felt they were trying to work out our unique situation and it was none of their business.
Living with Nan and Ted was a unique experience, not just because of race. They were already very mature in age. Ted had served in World War II and Nan was always talking about rationing and being evacuated to Reading as a young girl. Nan would recall the children she had looked after in the past, and tell stories about their parents.
I used to love looking at each African carving on the wall, a gift from a parent, as well as the numerous native-print kaftans hanging in her wardrobe. One of my most cherished memories is of Nan and me baking sponges. Afterwards she’d always let me have the whisk dripping in delicious cake mix.
I appreciate how very lucky I was with Nan and Ted. Private foster families were not vetted so the process was open to horrific abuse and racism, with some families mistreating the children in their care.
There’s no question it needed tightening up, checks put into place.
When it came to light that I was being privately fostered, social services demanded an active role.
One particular social worker promised to find me “a nice black family” as I innocently tucked into the burger she’d bought me.
I was 9 and couldn’t grasp the enormity of the situation: that I was about to be taken away from the only stable home I had known.
When the case came to the family court in 1984, my mother flew back to the UK and agreed to take me back to Nigeria with her - instead of being placed in the care system - while a “suitable” family was found.
As far as I was concerned, I was already living with a suitable family.
But these were the “rules”. I had to leave immediately and helped Nan to pack my bags as tears streamed down her face.
Ted was angry, promising to bang on the doors of the Nigerian embassy if they took me away.
When the day of my departure arrived, I wanted one last look at Nan and Ted, but their faces were clouded by my tears. I travelled with my mother to Nigeria, my mind full of confusion.
Nan and I kept in contact through letters that I read and re-read. I became withdrawn and visibly unhappy as the months passed.
I missed my life in London: TV shows like Rainbow and running after the ice-cream van every Wednesday. In Lagos, Nigeria, I didn’t fit in at school because of my strong British accent, and I really hated the mosquitoes. It was obvious I didn’t want to stay. I just wanted to go home - back to Nan.
One day, my mother had had enough of my constant pleas to return. There were too many tears and tantrums, and I had begun to shut down from everyone altogether.
“You’re going back,” she promised. She arranged for my step-brother, then 30, to send me a plane ticket.
Looking back, it must have been deeply upsetting for my mother to experience such a rejection by her daughter, but such was the strength of my feelings for Nan I didn’t think of anything else.
I still have no idea how they got around the court ruling and made things official - but in weeks I was on my way back to London. In those days children were allowed to travel on planes alone, but the excitement of being given a tour of the cockpit was overshadowed by thoughts of seeing Nan again.
When we were reunited on the steps of her red, three-storey council house, she scooped me into her arms and I said simply: “I’ve come home.”
A year away in Nigeria had not dented our bond and we continued happily living in the house I had grown up in: the three of us, along with two babies and a toddler, whose parents were from Sierra Leone.
Of course I noticed differences in our skin colour. I saw the way people looked at us at parents’ evenings. I would imagine them thinking: “What is this white lady doing with this black child?” Outside the cocoon of my loving home, I suffered racial abuse at school and in the street. I was called the N-word and told to “go back to where you come from!”.
Racism became a huge reality in my life. So much so, that I ended up being friends with the only other two black girls in the school to fend off the bullies.
While Nan would understandably voice her anger at such bigotry and speak to the headmistress, I turned to my siblings for support.
Having been through it themselves, only they could truly help navigate those painful times.
Would it have been easier for me if I’d been fostered by a black family? In some ways, yes, as it would have helped to have had parents who understood first-hand the issues I faced, but nothing could replace the unconditional love that Ted and Nan offered me.
When I was 15, we lost Ted and we were devastated - they had been married for more than 40 years - yet Nan continued fostering well into her 60s. I began to see more of my siblings. My mother remained in Nigeria so those bonds deepened more slowly.
After leaving school, I went on to get a degree in psychology. When I graduated, I remember looking out into the audience and catching Nan’s beaming smile.
It wasn’t until I received my Master’s degree, though, that something amazing happened: my Nan and mother stood side by side, watching with a look of pride on both their faces.
They’re both gone now - my mother in 2012 and Nan more recently in 2016 - but that image will stay with me forever.
I am now an author, psychotherapist and motivational speaker. The novels I write touch on family dynamics, mental health and racial identity.
One of the characters in my new book, Orphan Sisters, has no idea of her mixed-race heritage, having been brought up with her white mother and stepfather who did everything to make her believe she was white. This leads to confusion with her sense of identity, something common for those who have been cross-culturally fostered.
I’m one of the lucky ones: I look back on my childhood with fond memories full of love. I was never confused about my own cultural identity, thanks to continual links with my siblings and Nigeria.
In an ideal world, children would be adopted by those who share their cultural background. Yet ours is not an ideal world.
Current figures show that of the children in care in the UK, 78% are white, 7% black or black British and 9% are of mixed racial background.
As for matching cultural and ethnic backgrounds: 89% of approved adopters are white and only 3% are black and 2% are of mixed racial background. Clearly, the numbers don’t match. With a child more likely to be adopted if they are white and under 2 years old, many black children will leave the care system at 18 without having had a consistent family life that comes with the security of adoption.
The outcomes for those who grow up in care makes grim reading. According to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), children in care are four times more likely than their peers to have mental health difficulties and 34% of care leavers are not in education, employment or training at 19, compared with 16% of the general population.
I believe there are many things that can be done to help make cross-cultural fostering and adoption more successful - from better training for prospective families to mentors for children. A crucial part of this would be to develop families’ understanding of how discrimination and racism operate in the wider society and institutionally.
But it shouldn’t be prevented. Society may be in a constant state of flux but what never changes is the fact that every child has the right to be loved.
Orphan Sisters by Lola Jaye is out now (Ebury Press). See www.lolajaye.com - Daily Mail