Britain’s Forgotten Children: interview with adoption campaigner David Akinsanya

David Akinsanya was in care and is now an adoption campaigner. He tells Andrew Mickel about his experiences of being in care and working with potential adopters in Channel 4’s Find me a Family series

Statistics show that what people want are white female babies, but they’re rarely available. What’s available is mixed race, older kids and those with learning difficulties,” says David Akinsanya.

“If you’re going to adopt a child you’ll get a piece of paper describing a child, but people see words like ’emotional difficulties’ or ‘sibling groups’ and they get put off. I arrange chances to meet them.”

Akinsanya’s background illustrates the kind of challenges the parents in the programmes face. Born in 1965 to a Nigerian father and English mother, he was initially raised in a private fostering arrangement with another family. However, when his birth mother stopped paying for the placement after her new partner objected, he became a ward of Essex Council and later ended up with a criminal record.

His story from this point may seem an all-too-familiar account of how the care system can fail young people. But there are two figures from Akinsanya’s childhood who he says embody what the system needs today.

The first he came across when he was placed at Battleswick group home in Basildon. Akinsanya says it was “a really pure, three-meals-a-day kind of upbringing” with an indomitable but loving figurehead called Auntie Betty. “With Betty it was a real ‘wait until your father gets home’ scenario – I feared her, but we did get love from staff.

“However, a new area organiser came in and decided they didn’t want matriarchs. A whole lot of young staff came in – some were in their 20s. I played up with them.”

Moved to sink estate

After biting a primary school teacher he was sent to a residential school, although he eventually returned to mainstream education and moved into a new care home with 18 other teenagers. His last experience of the care system was being moved aged 16 to an experimental independent home in a sink estate in Basildon.

“There were just occasional staff visits. By day I was in college, but I was out all night committing crimes, stealing cars and breaking into the college,” he says. When he was eventually caught by the police, his fingerprints linked him to several previous crimes and, aged 18, he was sent to prison.

He attributes his success after prison to the presence in his life of his old social worker, Jenni Randall. Although only assigned to him from the ages of eight to 14, she fought to be allowed to stay in touch with him afterwards and became his “social aunt”.

“When I went to prison, Jenni was the only person who visited me,” he says. “I decided not to get into trouble any more because of her. I still see her at Christmas.”

Need for professional room

Staff who work with children in care need to have the professional room to be able to love children, he says, as both Randall and Auntie Betty were able to do.

Good residential care has to be provided for those who can’t thrive in adoption, he says, highlighting a family-style group home in Leicestershire as a successful example.

“They are expensive because they can have just four teenagers in them, but the kids seem happy. I watched the staff, and they were loving,” he says.

In the Channel 4 series, adults are put through different scenarios with real children to show them the types of responsibilities and challenges they would face as adoptive parents. While doing this sort of thing is often beyond the funding capacity of an adoption agency, Akinsanya says it has real promise as a way of giving prospective adopters a proper understanding of what they would be getting in to.

He acknowledges that it is not easy to arrange these “trials”, but that they provide a useful reality check for all involved. “If you think you can do it, that’s great. But [it’s useful to know] these are the issues you’re going to have to confront.”

David Akinsanya is a broadcaster and adoption campaigner

Find Me a Family, Channel 4, 11-13 May, 9pm


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