When my husband, John, was born in 1946, doctors were the chief agents of adoption. His mother was young, single, pregnant and desperate. Her doctor had another patient, a happily married but childless woman in search of a baby. The doctor, knowing the two women, solved both their problems by handing John to his new parents at birth.
Thirty years later I adopted my Cambodian daughter, Li-Da, with minimal fuss. We had a visit from a social worker to check us out. Within days a legal guardian was appointed, and we were allowed to foster Li-Da at once. After three months, with the occasional visit from her guardian, we adopted her.
How very different it is today. The tortuous process Li-Da, now 43, and her husband are going through in search of a child to love makes me wonder if the whole thing doesn’t need a re-think. David Cameron declared he’d speed up the process with the 2016 Children and Social Work Bill, but many councils didn’t adopt the recommendations and his efforts have made no difference. The process still takes years.
There are now nearly 73,000 ‘looked after’ children in the UK, rising every year, and it gets increasingly difficult to place them as they get older. More than 1,100 youngsters are currently up for adoption, but only around 500 couples or singles are waiting to adopt. Those 1,100 children are the ones who social services have finally decided cannot be reunited with their birth family (72 per cent of adopted children are removed from their homes on account of abuse or neglect). The average age at which British-born children are adopted is three years and four months.
At first glance the problem looks like cumbersome bureaucracy. If you want to adopt you first have to go through at least six months (but more likely a year) of form-filling, interviews, inspections and a panel examination about your history, your reasons, your character, your situation, your finances, your attitudes etc, before you are cleared to apply to adopt.
You then have to wait for the offer of a child. It takes about another year to get a troubled, or physically or mentally handicapped, child, around four more years for a healthy toddler, and up to nine years to get a newborn.
There are reasons why there aren’t many healthy newborns looking for a home — the stigma of single motherhood has mercifully gone, and young women now have access to abortion and the morning-after pill.
But another reason is that when an unwanted baby is born, the overriding ethic of the authorities is that the child should stay with its mother, even if she can’t cope or doesn’t want to. Every effort is made to persuade and support her and help her to look after her child. Many children spend years in short stints with their natural mother, interspersed with periods in foster care, some good, some bad. Years of court hearings and this ‘pass the parcel’ existence can, and does, damage a lot of those children. And with every year in care, children are less and less likely to find someone to adopt them. By the time they are offered for adoption, the lack of real love will have almost certainly blighted their ability to bond, to trust and to love.
And then some councils still cling to the idea that finding parents with the same racial mix as the child is important. If you are, say, a Burmese married to a Russian, your chances of being offered a child are slight indeed. I recently heard of a Pakistani couple willing to take a child of any race. They’d jumped through all the hoops but to no avail. Eventually they were advised to ‘go home to Pakistan (they were both born in the UK) and find a Pakistani baby there’. They took the advice.
But trying to adopt abroad isn’t necessarily any easier, and, ironically, a lot of the problem is caused by the Hague Convention, which was set up with the creditable aim of reducing trafficking and child abuse. It is a horrific thought that gangs should buy babies, or pay women to have babies who are then trafficked. But it happens, and Hague Convention countries sign up to make sure adoptions are genuine and in the best interests of the child. All understandable, even noble. But is keeping a child in care while you try for years to sort out his or her family problems, really the right answer?
Hague Convention countries, including most of Europe, North and South America, regard adoption as the last option, only to be considered after every other avenue of trying to keep the child in his or her birth family has been exhausted.
Even trying to adopt one of the thousands of youngsters in need of homes in poor countries, is arduous, drawn out and frustrating. You must go through exactly the same process as for adopting in the UK, which costs up to £10,000, and then spend a month (and another £2,000) getting all the papers you gathered for the UK process certified by a Notary Public, sent to the Department for Education (why education, you may well ask?) and then sent on to an approved agency abroad. In India, for example, if accepted, you will be placed on a central government waiting list and should be informed within two years that two children have been ‘reserved’ for you. You have four days to pick one of them, after which you get more details of the child (medical reports etc) and must confirm your acceptance within a month. If you don’t, you go to the bottom of the list and must start again.
So how about adopting abroad in a non-Hague convention country? Some don’t allow foreign adoptions out of anti-imperial sentiment. My Cambodian-born daughter loves the country of her birth, goes there often, has made films about it and would dearly like to have Cambodian children. She could adopt in Cambodia, but she’d have to live there for at least 18 months, which she cannot afford to do.
Ethiopia’s government has recently suspended foreign adoptions in spite of the thousands of children orphaned by war and extreme poverty. The result is that private orphanages have had to close, and children in the cash-strapped and overcrowded government institutions have no hope of adoption by foreigners and little chance of finding a family among impoverished locals. Syria is making more orphans every day, but it takes years to establish for certain that a refugee child or a war orphan has indeed lost his or her parents. Meanwhile children are in camps, their chances of having a loving childhood receding every day.
Some countries, such as Vietnam, the Philippines, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Gambia and Nigeria are theoretically open to foreign adoption but it’s not an easy process. Their requirements differ, and the procedure is often slow and chaotic. And if you do manage to adopt abroad, UK immigration becomes the problem. Officials need to be satisfied that your foreign baby isn’t an illegal immigrant being trafficked by you. This can mean months of form--filling and delays, and, anyway, living abroad is impractical for most people. Corruption can also be a real problem. A friend went through all the hoops, including providing her bank statements, visiting the orphanage monthly, first working in it and then to be with her promised baby, only to find the orphanage director blatantly extorting money to release the child. He didn’t even pretend the thousands of pounds demanded were for the orphanage. She was to pay the money directly into his own bank account.
So is there no way to adopt a healthy baby? If you have the money to do it, (£60,000 plus in fees to lawyers and intermediaries), the answer is probably a private adoption in the USA, which, though signed up to the Hague Convention, is more willing to see adoption as in ‘the best interests of the child’ if a pregnant mother doesn’t want to keep her baby. You must still battle for a year to be accepted as suitable by the UK authorities, and then you can hire a professional adoption lawyer in the States, who will help you to find a pregnant mother who has decided not to keep her baby.
Finally, your task will be to convince her — not the authorities or the lawyer — that you are the best prospective parent(s). You do this by first putting together a book of photographs and notes to provide information on your family, home, likes and dislikes etc. If that gets you through, you can visit, get to know both child and mother, and, with luck, take it from there.
It’s a complicated subject with no easy answers, but I believe that all the checks and delays do more harm than good. If any irresponsible woman can make a baby with no thought at all, and be given every assistance to keep him or her, I’d have thought it worth trusting a registered adoption society to use their common sense in placing babies with families rather than condemning children to years of being ‘looked after’ by institutions.