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Adoption: Giving Due Weight To Birth Parents' Religious Preference


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
by Ayan Panja

My wife and I had always said we'd consider adopting a child of any religion or ethnicity. At one stage we had provisionally been matched with a little girl. The phone call from our social worker informing us of a possible match was a real moment of hope. Were we finally going to be parents soon? We'd dreamed of nothing else for so many years – we had butterflies in our tummies for days. But things suddenly went quiet for a while. There was no further news. We were told to be patient. We waited for a whole six months in the end. Our social worker, a strong, kind and experienced professional, eventually rang to say that the girl's birth father did not want her to be brought up by a non-Muslim family, and that there was nothing we could do about it. We were gutted.

In terms of our religion, I was born a Hindu and my wife was born a Sikh, but neither of us practises any religion. We had made it clear to our social worker that however banal or difficult it may have seemed, we were willing to bring this little girl up as a Muslim. It may not have been possible in reality, but we were willing to try.

We realised that the issue of religion might come up again, so we decided to attend a black and ethnic minority adoption open evening in Euston to cast our net a little further. We were greeted with a smile by a social worker from Harrow. I smiled back politely and as I started looking at some posters I could hear him asking my wife whether she was a Hindu. "No, I'm Sikh," she said, "but my husband is Hindu, although non-practising." "What kind of Hindu?" he asked. I looked slightly perplexed, wondering if he wanted me to say "good" or "bad". "I mean, which part of India are your parents from?" he said by way of clarification. "Calcutta, West Bengal," I said. "Shame, shame, shame," he said. "There is a little boy waiting who is two years old, but I'm looking for a Hindu Gujarati family, actually. Never mind. Good luck – good luck," he added, shaking my hand firmly. Our hearts sank. Again, it was a birth parent request. It all seemed a bit ridiculous. We went back to the drawing board. Would we only be allowed to adopt a half-Sikh, half-Hindu baby whose birth parents hailed from particular states in India? We were losing all hope.

In some ways, religion is far more powerful a force than ethnicity in adoption because it is about belief and culture as well as race.

As it stands, when it comes to adoption, birth parents have remarkable influence – if they wish to exert it – over the religious upbringing of their children. Thinking back, it felt as though we had no say on the matter as adoptive parents. How can a couple or individual who has either given up a child or had a child taken away have the right to stipulate his or her religion? In many cases a child has been removed from birth parents because of violence, abuse or neglect – all of which are things diametrically opposed to anything vaguely resembling religion. Despite not having parental responsibility, birth parents currently still have the final say. If you asked me my view three years ago, I would have said that the system was completely biased towards birth parents, and that in certain cases they ought not to have any say over the religion of their birth child. The truth is that children eventually make up their own minds about whether or not to follow a particular religion as they head towards adulthood.

Ask me my opinion now and I feel differently. The system is still biased towards biological parents. But one of the only things that a birth parent has in terms of rights in adoption is around religion. Religion is so deeply personal. It is far deeper than anything pre-determined, like ethnicity, and far more complex than a throwaway preference, like choosing carpet. Religion offers a way of life, which idealistically encourages goodness. Faith, a sense of belonging, a moral framework and identity are just some of the things it is about. I wonder if some birth parents may feel that by making a religious stipulation that they are adding to their child's life a positive force – that their child is more likely to have a better life if they follow a religion?

I strongly think that biological parents should have a say over religion – but that it is just a say, not a mandate. It is a view that needs to be weighed up along with other factors before the child is finally placed. It is surely worse for a child to be stuck in the care system for several months while waiting for an exact religious match than for that child to be placed with a loving family. Sometimes it can be hard to find the stipulated match. Many religions have subsets and divisions – Coptic and Catholic Christians, Ramgharia and Jat Sikhs, Shia and Sunni Muslims – same but different.

So how did it all end for us? Eventually I took matters into my own hands and sent out more than 100 emails to local authorities and adoption agencies. We got three replies. Luckily for us, one of these responses led to our adopting our son from another region. Thank God, religion wasn't an issue.



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