12/10/2011 11:46 BST | Updated 22/05/2015 06:12 BST

The Great Adoption Debate: Does Race Matter?

David Cameron probably thought he was being rather daring when he raised the subject of interracial adoption at the Conservative Party Conference last week. "We've got people flying all over the world to adopt babies, while the care system at home agonises about placing black children with white families," he told delegates. Another politically-correct bogeyman slain. Go David!

Since then we have had the promise of a major review of social work practice by the government and it has been hard to move for opinions about the "scandal" of white parents being turned away when they come forward to adopt black and mixed race babies. Interestingly, there has been very little mention of whether there might be a shortage of potential adoptive parents who actually want a black or brown child: I guess admitting that wouldn't be very 2011.

Call me a cynic but I just don't buy the idea that the only thing stopping the thousands of black and mixed race children in the care system from finding happiness and stability in loving families is those pesky social workers with their outdated notions about race. To me this reeks of our PM's masterful PR skills: create a media storm about a non-existent problem and hopefully nobody will ask what's really going on.

The great adoption debate: Does race matter? David Cameron at the Tory Conference last week. Photo PA

There are prospective parents who say they have been turned down on the basis of their racial background. They tend to get disproportionate media coverage, but are likely to be relatively rare cases. Even officials admit that the evidence for this problem is "anecdotal". This is a non-story: although government guidance expressly recommended same-race adoption in the late 1980s and early 1990s, that view was overturned a full 13 years ago by the Blair government, which argued "it is unacceptable for a child to be denied loving adoptive parents soley on the grounds that the child and adopters do not share the same racial or cultural background". Cameron may now wish to claim this issue as his own, but he's coming a little late to the party.

That's not to say there isn't a problem here. Black and mixed race children are overrepresented in the care system. A black child in care is three times less likely than a white child to be adopted. Black children also wait longer than white or Asian children before being adopted – 1,300 days compared with 995 days. It's hard to disagree with Martin Narey, the government's adoption adviser, when he says the system is failing these children.

Blaming all this on over-zealous social workers is easy: the reality, boringly, is more complicated. Where is the clamour for the essential preventative work with families to stop these children ending up in care in the first place? Where is the social work training and funding to engage with and support more black and mixed families into the adoption process? Where is the discussion about the needs of these children, as opposed to the needs of all these imagined (white) prospective parents? All drowned out by political posturing.

Social workers and others who work with babies, children and young people in care grapple daily with the virtual impossibility of replacing the absent tender loving care of their actual parents. In deciding whether to place a child with a family, they must balance all kinds of considerations personal to the individual child. Unlike politicians, they cannot adopt the view that because race does not exist, it does not matter. Scapegoating social workers does nobody any favours... unless you're trying to distract people from some difficult truths, of course.