The public perception of adoption has always been surrounded by warmth, love and happy-ever-afters. Traditionally, childless couples would apply to adopt newborn babies whose mothers could not raise them. The mothers were 'fallen' women who became pregnant out of wedlock and whose only option in a disapproving society was to give up their babies. Off into the sunset would go the newly constituted family to live a full and happy life.

Then along came better forms of contraception, and with them a relatively more relaxed attitude to single parents, whose offspring, planned or not, were no longer labelled illegitimate. For the childless, the supply of healthy, white babies dried up. For a while there was a fashion for adopting children of mixed race. That lasted until we became more enlightened and decided that such children suffered greatly by being divorced from their own kind and culture.

The childless who looked to advances in infertility treatment soon realised that the success rate, after years of medical and surgical procedures, was not high, so they risked remaining childless.

That's when the next fashion came along, right on time: older adoption. It started in America. Older children, the kind usually kept in institutions all of their lives, were put forward for adoption instead. Their placement with foster parents seemed to be successful. According to social-work specialists, about 30 per cent of those placed remained within adoptive families, where they were deemed to fare better than if they had stayed in an institution. It was a hard argument to counter. Children raised within families gained experience of how families worked, of how relationships were formed and sustained, so that when the time came, they would be more likely to have successful families themselves.

The cause became evangelical. We must, went the dogma, close all children's homes and have the children adopted. It was beautiful in its simplicity.

Every child has the right a family and any family is better than none.

There were those who raised a voice in caution, who counselled a less aggressive, assured approach, who said that not every child could cope with family life. And look at the success rate from the other side: 30 per cent success meant 70 per cent failure didn't it? What of the families who had taken the 70 per cent, only to have the whole wonderful enterprise fall about their ears? Yes, think of the children permanently placed, but what about the families who failed, where the families broke down, often years after the adoption ?

These dissenters were largely branded as heretics and at best their voices ignored. The crusade that all children were better off in a family gathered steam all through the latter Sixties, Seventies, Eighties and it is still going strong. But the chickens are coming home to roost. What was beautifully simple has become horrifically simplistic.

When childless couples applied to adopt in the traditional manner and found the cupboard was bare, they were led to considering older children.

Desperate to be just like anyone else, to be normal, they would consider a toddler perhaps, or a five-year-old, though that wasn't what they really wanted. It all sounded so positive. Tender loving care and reassurance was all that was needed to overcome any difficulties - just the qualities those who ached for a child had in abundance. And who could resist a child who was in so much need?

So children's homes closed all across the country and droves of children were placed in families over the years. And there were good reasons, for children's homes at their worst were awful places, homes of abuse and intimidation rather than providers of care.

But children who have been removed from their natural families have usually been taken into care for very good, or rather bad, reasons. It was usually a result of family violence, neglect, sexual /physical /emotional abuse, prostitution, incest, mental illness - whatever combination you come up with, deprivation is always a key part of it.

They come not just with a single incident. It is in the nature of the social-work beast to believe that the blood-link between children and parents is so important that several incidents will have to have taken place before they will take the huge step of breaking it and removing the child.

The natural family must be kept together, supported and given as many chances as possible before the ultimate step of removing the child is taken.

This of course means that the child suffers more harm before the next trauma -removal from the family.

Children's homes are not attractive places. Yes, the staff are often caring and committed, but many are not. At any rate, they are rarely trained to deal with damaged children and they are paid peanuts. They are often at the mercy of children who have grown up knowing how to work the system. If they aren't learning about life in a healthy way, they do so in a way that enables them to survive, and the best way to do that is to get them before they get you. They put their energies into identifying others' weaknesses and going straight for their soft spots. Care workers often tread a fine line between being effective and staying on the good side of the authorities.

While in homes, these children mix with others. They fall prey to all sorts of abuse from children higher up the pecking order. And just like prisoners locked up together, they learn more efficient anti-social behaviour, they become better at being 'badder'. All good reasons, of course, for getting them out of institutions, but just as good reasons for changing the kind of institutions they are kept in.

At any rate, the downward spiral of the child's wellbeing is not in itself a reason to hand them to the kind of parents who simply want a family. But that is what has been happening. People who have no special and no particular interest in dealing with damaged, disturbed children, are taking them into their families and then the real trouble starts. Faced with disturbed behaviour they don't understand, sometimes years later, these parents do what they and others would do, especially if they have longed for a child for years: they pour all their time, emotion and energy into making things better. As they have no professional or personal understanding of what they are seeing, they often have no idea of how to help. That's when the truth may begin to seep through: they are out of their depth.

Sometimes many hard, troubled years have passed, involving parents working desperately with a child in the hope that they will get through this troubled phase, only to find another, and another, waiting round every corner. And, as they become more desperate for a solution to their ills, they may go back to the social workers who placed the child, and if they push really hard they may find out details of the child's early life that weren't passed on at the time of placement. It happens all the time.

For instance, it has been known since the Seventies that certain factors contribute to the risk of a child becoming mentally ill in the teenage years. Any child with emotional, learning or behavioural difficulties (the vast majority of children in care suffer from all three) or with a family history of mental illness, has a higher chance of becoming mentally ill.

The more factors the higher the risk. Psychiatrists report that they have a higher proportion of psychotic, or schizophrenic, teenage patients who have been adopted as children. This used to be blamed on the patient in some vague way, but we now know that what happened to the child prior to placement (very often the situation that caused the child to be removed from the natural family) causes the later illness. No matter what the adoptive parents did, there was no way of avoiding it; so all those years have been wasted. If they had known at the start they could have made an informed decision on whether or not they could cope. It's called the right to know.

Yet there are still too many instances in which social workers have been economical with the truth, by not telling prospective adopters everything.

Their reasons range from 'not wanting to put people off' to 'giving the child a clean slate in the hope that things will go well', and at best both are rooted in a lack of training and understanding.

There are also the economics to consider. Put the child back into care and the adopting parents will have to pay the local authority for his/her keep until adulthood. And even those social workers who admit to 'excesses' in the past are still appealing for permanent families for older children today, because the plain fact is that it is cheaper to have child adopted than to maintain him/her in care.

There have been many instances of prospective adopters not being told that a child had been sexually abused and had subsequently molested other children, in the hope that it will all go away. This is like having a child who has lost a limb while with the first family, and expecting that limb to grow back again within another family. Sexual abuse is not curable, it becomes part of who you are. Likewise, when parents are faced with a teenage psychotic years after adoption, it is no use telling them that no psychiatrist was willing to give a diagnosis on the mental problems of other family members because of patient confidentiality.

So what we are looking at today is a movement based on the premise that it is possible to adopt children older than newborn, which effectively implies that every child is adoptable. Where there were little disturbing factors, these were ignored or covered up, on the basis of 'hope'. That included not warning prospective adopters that there is a failure rate, and it is rather high. Add to this the lamentable training of social workers, something they acknowledge themselves. Yet these same social workers constitute the only existing post-adoption support. And when families break down the social workers most often blame the parents, while the parents blame themselves.

Of course there are lots of adoptions that work out well, but the plain fact is that too many families are now facing disaster in their lives because they adopted an older child.

There are children who have suffered too much, been too damaged by their early experiences, to be able to cope with family life. Their needs are best served by professional care. There is no way of knowing, when you answer that sad little appeal for new families, if you will be landed with one because the social workers themselves don't know. Happy ever after can all too easily become hell ever after for all concerned.

A sensible way forward would be to reform children's homes. A better option would be to create smaller, more family-centred homes instead of encouraging mass adoption. Not a large institution, but something that lives between the family and the state. Until the heretics are listened to and the evangelical zeal is dissipated, late adoption will be a risk few families can afford to take without worry.

Meg Henderson is the adoptive parent of three children and has been involved in fostering and adoption for 18 years. Her book 'Finding Peggy', a story of her experience of fostering, is published by Corgi ( pounds 5.99).

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