Perlita Harris obituary

Other lives: Academic whose writing gave voice to the experience of adopted people

My colleague Perlita Harris, who has died aged 52, was an academic whose contribution to the field of race and ethnicity in adoption was unparalleled, because it drew on both her personal and professional experience. Through a number of edited books, including In Search of Belonging: Reflections of Transracially Adopted People (2006) and Chosen: Living With Adoption (2012), Perlita was able to harness the power of art, poetry and autobiographical writing to give voice to the experience of adopted children, young people and adults.

She was born Perlita James in London to an Indian mother, Phulwati, and lived at Packwood children’s home, in Caversham, Reading, before being adopted at the age of four by the Harris family: Ann, a nurse, Jack, a metallurgist, and their children, Peter, Wendy and Ian. She spent a happy childhood in rural Gloucestershire, and went to Rednock school in Dursley, but was undoubtedly conscious of being a rare black person in a very white community.

Perlita studied anthropology and sociology at Goldsmiths’ College, London, graduating in 1987. After a master’s in social work at the London School of Economics and a PhD at Warwick University, she worked for the National Association of Young People in Care, becoming a vocal and powerful advocate of the rights of young people, many of whom remained firm friends. She also spent time in Canada, working in adoption services in British Columbia.

In 2004 Perlita moved into academia, teaching social work first at Warwick and Brunel universities, before joining Goldsmiths in 2007. She brought high standards to everything she touched, engaging with a first-year undergraduate essay with as much conscientiousness as she did a PhD dissertation. Her commitment to producing high-calibre social work graduates was rooted in her recognition of the powerful contribution social work could bring to marginalised and vulnerable people, a perception informed by her own early life experiences.

In her late teens Perlita had made contact with her birth family. Her mother had died of breast cancer but Perlita developed a strong relationship with her maternal half-siblings, Samantha, Sebastian and Selwyn.

Later, Perlita discovered that she was a carrier of the BRCA2 gene linked to breast cancer; Samantha also died from the disease in 2011. When Perlita was diagnosed in 2009, she used her experience to contribute to an academic study, What If?, part of a doctoral project by Christine Douglass. Nine women with breast cancer were given video cameras and invited to record whatever was important to them. The moving films were first shown at the University of Westminster in 2015.

Perlita’s cancer returned in 2018. Learning that the prognosis was poor, she enjoyed a wonderful final summer with friends and family. She married her long-term partner, Chris Atkins, in hospital, two days before her death; Chris survives her, along with Ann, her siblings and her half-brothers.

Joan Fletcher

The GuardianTramp

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