Coming Home to Self

- Identity and Survival Issues in

Trans-racial and inter-cultural adoption and fostering

by Michael Mallows [*]


Self esteem is, in essence, the value we attach to, and the opinion we have of our self, based on our attitude to our work; our current and potential success, our purpose and place in the world; our fears, fantasies or perceptions about how others see us, our strengths and weaknesses, our ability to stand alone or stand with others – as well as whether we can say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ appropriately, to self or to others.

We want and need to belong. People of all ages who have had multiple placements, lost one or more ‘forever families’, been or felt discounted and denied on the basis of biology, behaviour, culture and colour, will still yearn to be a part of something that echoes and mirrors their sense of self. If our home life or childhood experience does not or did not reflect back to us words and images that say ‘you matter’ our self-esteem, if we have any at all, might not be well grounded.

I do not define success in terms of a child being compliant, malleable, obedient, god-fearing, studious or industrious, but a child who, as an adult in the making, is actively encouraged and empowered to be at one with hirself and hir world now and in the future.

I particularly have in mind children whose racial or ethnic origins are different from their carers or adoptive parents. Although I emphasis issues of pigmentation, the underlying principles are not exclusive to race, adoption or colour.

I thoroughly dislike the term ‘placements’, especially in relation to adoption. I often wonder what adopted children think or feel when they hear that their “placement has broken down”? Some, I imagine, will be dismayed to discover they were in A Placement and not a family!

‘Looked-after’ children no doubt have similar feelings and hurtful beliefs about their placements breaking down, especially if this is the latest in a series. They, however, might not have been encouraged to believe that this time they’d found a forever family.

Many such children are convinced, even if it’s never actually been said, that they are to blame for the placement is breaking down – yet again! They are the cause of their multiple moves; the virus in the body of the family, which was doing fine until they came along.

It was their attitude, their lying and stealing, their aggression, their challenging behaviour, their (inappropriate) expressions and explosions of emotion, their resentment and rejection of the people who do their best to care for them, that led to the resentment and rejection of those same caring people. In short, what happens to them is their fault! 

And what sense can a looked-after or adopted child make of all this? Oh, people will attempt to reassure, comfort or convince them that they are not to blame (“We love you but not what you do!”), but I know, after thirty years of working with children, adolescents, adoptive families, residential workers, pre- and post-placement professionals, therapists and counsellors from a wide range of disciplines, I know that the sense of self, the identity of many such children and teens is built on the shifting sands of low self-esteem.

I know, too, that many (most?) of the countless adults I’ve worked with still have a powerful longing, a profound yearning, a kind of nostalgia for something different, someone else, some place other.


A belonging place!

For the Australian Aborigines, a nomadic people, the Belonging Place is always inside each individual. If we do not have that, how can we ever come home to self?  For those who lack that core sense of self, those who, all too often, roam the desert wastes of life ‘in care’ or live with families who love them, yes, but seem not to notice something that they, the child, see very time they notice their own skin. In them beats a heart that feels forever empty, a dream forever unfulfilled, anger unexpressed, sadness unrecognised, fears unnameable, pictures that lack vibrancy or vivid hues.

Race and cultural heritage are essential elements of personal development and evolution. They are aspects of our past and our potential and, as such, need to be honoured and celebrated. It is a sad reality that, even now, in the 21st Century, although lip service is paid to issue of race and culture in adoption and fostering, many professionals are ill-prepared and poorly skilled (even if they had the time and self-awareness!) to prepare and equip prospective adopters or foster-carers to acknowledge the racial dimensions of a child’s heritage and identity.

Of course, racial issues will be touched on during preparation sessions but, as far as I can tell, tentatively at best. This can result in the preparation of prospective adopters being somewhat cursory and superficial in relation to ethnicity and diversity.

This observation is reinforced by what many social workers tell me. They not are necessarily unwilling, of course, but they are under pressure to meet targets; they don’t want to scare prospective carers away; they are reluctant to probe too deep and don’t want to ask too much because, as they say, they are not counsellors!!

Also, relatively few social workers are sufficiently trained in group facilitation skills to risk stirring too many emotions in groups that are ‘working well’ and even less so in groups that aren’t! Since ‘working well’ often means not being difficult or challenging, why would the group facilitators risk upsetting the hornets’ nest?

There may be a few platitudes and a couple of case studies to raise awareness of ‘the issues’. Maybe some parents or carers to tell their story, but little to trigger more than a mild and fleeting discomfort in the participants.  Understandable? Yes, when over-loaded, time-poor professionals are over-whelmed by government ideology, managerial demands and financial constraints to find placements for children. If meeting targets is a guiding principle, post-adoption considerations are not likely to loom large.  Sadly, I anticipate more inter-cultural adoptions and other placements breaking down sooner and more aggressively than hitherto.


Competence Continuum

Culturally competent parent, carers and professionals are able to work or respond effectively and build bridges across cultural and ethnic differences in a way that acknowledges and respects the culture of the individual or organisation being served. They are aware and respectful of and, indeed, celebrate different values, beliefs, traditions and customs. Their desire, willingness and ability to see value in each and every culture is such that learning about cultural differences becomes something achieve rather than avoid.

Cultural competence, for organisations and individuals, requires self-knowledge and self-awareness, experience and knowledge about a particular culture, and positive change or action for successful interaction with the identified culture.

Lack of cultural self-awareness makes it difficult to be truly sensitive to the impact that our cultural customs, beliefs, values, and behaviours have on people from other cultures. It is difficult to tolerate the ambiguity that results from not knowing what the rules are or what is expected of you in unfamiliar situations

Cultural competence enables people; parents, professionals and children, to empathise with the unique perspective of different members of various ethnic group(s), especially individuals who are most different from you. It enables people to listen to others even when intercultural differences pose challenges because, say, the other person has a strong accent, is highly emotional, or shares views that are counter to one's own.

Cultural competence enables us to recognise when our personal limitations interfere with our ability to interact with someone who is different. It can give us the confidence or courage needed to take risks so that we can practice intercultural skills that enable us better to address the challenges of intercultural interactions, rather than blame people for the consequences of our inadequate responses.

James Mason (1993)[1] developed a continuum of five progressive steps whereby individuals, families, groups and organisations can measure their cultural competence:

  1. Cultural destructiveness: Attitudes, policies, and practices that are demeaning and detrimental to individuals and their cultures.

  2. Incapacity: Lacking the capacity to assist different cultures, the system or agency is unintentionally ruinous or destructive to individuals and/or communities.  

  3. Blindness: Intending to be unbiased, the system and its agencies function as if the culture makes no difference and all the people are the same.

  4. Pre-competence: Individuals and organizations start to acknowledge cultural differences and to make documented efforts to improve.

  5. Competence: Acceptance and respect of cultural differences, continual expansion of cultural knowledge, continued cultural self-assessment, attention to the dynamics of cultural differences, and adoption of culturally relevant service delivery models.  


Questions of Survival

At some level, whenever any of us feel threatened, scared, anxious, we are likely to ask any or all of three questions. These questions might never fully surface because some people learnt the answers so early on in their journey through life that every subsequent step is predicated on an absolute.

Will it hurt? (Sensation) Will I survive? (Survival) Will I matter? (Status)

Many people are stuck at and will settle for an affirmative to the first question. After all, intolerable pain can seem better than non-existence!

Many people, even though they continue to breathe, to function, interact, relate, play, work nut do not survive. Their ego is shattered, their self-esteem below zero, and they often live toxic lives in poisonous relationships. They might not end their lives but they might only get through the living death of every day with the help of prescribed or illicit substances. Or dangerous liaisons, high-risk activities, self-harm – a joyless, zombie-like existence.


Survival Sub-types

Some people are self-survivors. They know they can rely on and trust no-one. They have to batten down every hatch lest they sink beneath the weight of other people’s demands. Their psychic energy is as low as their self-worth and their carapace is impregnable.

This, of course, often compels a child’s carers or parents to attempt to breach the gates, scale the walls, batter down the defences.

What is that young person to do? S/he might retaliate, resist, dig hir heels in – or hir finger-nails. And s/he might well earn a label, and be rewarded with another move, another placement, another set of closed doors, thus proving s/he was right not to invest in Others!  

A similarity survivor will make a deep and profound commitment to one other person, to whom they will pledge allegiance, or be the best friend, lover or constant crony. Bear in mind, the alliances are part of that individual’s survival strategy and the behaviour that results from that strategy makes perfect sense. However, we are mostly judged by the effect we have on other people. Rather than seeing our distressing or dysfunctional behaviour as symptomatic of underlying fears about reality, others are likely to assess, label and treat our behaviour as the actual problem. Their treatment might well alleviate their problem (threats, bribes, prescription drugs, aggression retaliation, exclusion), at the same time as reinforcing our fears and exacerbating our feelings about people being dangerous or devious (“We love you but not what you do!”).

But, most children are capable of figuring out, even if they cannot articulate it, that ‘if what I do stems from my feelings, which are an expression of who I am, then it is me that you don’t like!’

The third type are social survivors who need group affiliation because being alone is terrifying and the intimacy of a one-to-one is daunting. Where the one-to-one might agree ‘Till death us do part’, and the self survivor be willing to seek death to avoid intimacy, the group survivor will do anything to avoid being paired up or solo. This has implications for many of the relationships that are imposed on looked-after children, as well as people of all ages in institutions (including married and family life).

The therapist, key-worker, adoptive parent or foster carer who wants to connect, to get and to feel close, might well be trampling over the sensibilities of the self-survivor.

I should perhaps mention that healing, in whatever form, can shift people from hurt to healing, in which case, they are able to reach out to one, two or more people in healthy ways.  

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[1] Mason, J. L. (1993). Cultural competence self-assessment questionnaire. Portland, OR: Portland State University, Multicultural Initiative Project.


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Michael Mallows is a Management Consultant, Group Worker, Therapist, Supervisor, Adoption Consultant, Coach and Mentor; also an Author, Lyricist, Public Speaker, Team Builder and Workshop Presenter. [Click on any of the links to learn more about him and his activities] His website is and Email: