Doctors often develop a dark sense of humour to survive their jobs, and the same may be true of social workers. Seeing first-hand the effects of austerity, deprivation and callous bureaucracy, surely the only responses are laughter or tears.
“You see really bad situations and you see people at their worst.” says Isma Almas, a former social worker turned up-and-coming stand-up. “And also it takes the risk away from comedy – it puts comedy into perspective. Even if I die on my arse on stage, in the bigger scheme of things I'm still okay.”
Almas brought her debut to the Fringe back in 2009, and now returns a decade later with the same wit and charm and a bucketload of new material. In that time she’s been exercising her comedy chops in a more ad-hoc fashion, as well as raising two daughters and working in foster care. Expertly crafted to bring both laughter and tears, her new show About A Buoy: Adventures in Adoption brings exceptional storytelling to an often overlooked subject. Almas decided to adopt a child with her partner, and their story brings to light the racism and homophobia present in an already difficult process.
“The show's about inequality. It's about adopting my son, who's black, the racism that I experienced as a kid, and the racism that he has experienced. It's about gender and sexuality, parenting, and all of us trying to fit in, and find our place.”
In adopting their two-year-old, Almas and her partner had to dive head-first into the world of adoption, which sounds completely bizarre to outsiders.
“There used to be a magazine where you could look at pictures of kids and then get in touch with the social worker – it's a little bit like a catalogue.”
This kind of set-up might have you cringing already. Fortunately, things have changed: “Now there's a website.”
Children and parents have profiles, and social workers act on behalf of children in a bizarre match-making process.
“It reminds me very much of Tinder, or an arranged marriage website.”
From there, prospective parents usually don’t meet the child in person until adoption day. Sometimes parents and children can meet at an "adoption day party": think speed dating or a singles’ night. Parents and children can mingle in a casual environment, meet each other socially, and adults can express their interest in a particular child.
“It's a big party and it might be fancy dress, which I always find a bit sinister. Those parties are only for children that are considered hard to place: children over the age of about three, or black kids. Kids that they know they’re going to struggle to place.”
Recent numbers from the BBC showed that black children spent an average of 50 per cent longer waiting for an adoptive family than children from other ethnic groups. That statistic was certainly not helped by official guidance around adoption and race, which only changed in 2011.
“It was never set in stone that black children can't be adopted by white adoptive parents – there was a preference for trying to match ethnicity. If you can match race, that should take priority. Now [the government is] actively moving away from matching ethnicity. They noticed that it was important, but equally it's important for children to find families as well.”
Where we find one kind of prejudice, we often find another, and the adoption process does not disappoint in this regard. Same-sex couples were only allowed to adopt in England and Wales in 2002 (in Scotland it was 2009), and now around 12 per cent of adopted children find a home with a same-sex couple.
“However,” Almas says, reflecting on her own experience of trying to adopt as part of a gay couple, “even though it's perfectly legal for gay parents to adopt, it's the social worker's judgment at the end of the day. A lot of social workers would come back to us and say ‘we don't want gay parents. This particular child needs a mum and a dad'.”
These decisions apparently need little logic to back them up. In response to an appeal, Almas and her partner were told that one eight-month-old baby had bonded with its foster father, so its adoptive family needed to include a man. It’s easy to see that this would never happen in reverse – a child fostered by two mothers would never be refused the right to be adopted by a heterosexual couple.
“It was quite underhand. They would say ‘your situation is a bit complicated'.” the frustration is palpable in Almas’ voice, and for good reason. “What is ‘complicated’ about our situation?”
After months of applications and fighting against institutionalised homophobia, Almas and her partner now have their full family: two girls and one boy. The process may have been different, but the outcome is the same.
One thing that often worries adoptive parents is the intensity of their feelings for their new child. After birth, parents speak of an instant love, but obviously things are different with a child that doesn’t have that biological link to you. Almas was prepared for just this when she met her son for the first time.
“I'm a social worker as well, so I was quite level-headed and was trying to prepare myself for not instantly feeling anything. But when I actually did meet him, I did feel it. I just wanted to take this child and just protect him and love him, take him home and make him mine.”
If you’re looking for laughter and tears, wit and charm, rage and forgiveness, About A Buoy could be your perfect match.