There was a time when Nicky's story would have been commonplace. Today, it is not. Only 500- 600 babies in Britain are adopted outside their immediate families each year. Few women consider adoption, and the social services seem unable to cope with it. Doctors' surgeries display leaflets on abortion, but nothing on adoption. Adoption information in the Yellow Pages is listed only under Charitable Organisations, and voluntary agencies in London are traceable only if you know their names. Why? If, as one hears, there are thousands of couples willing to give a child a good home, why is it made so difficult for a young woman to choose adoption for her baby?
NICKY has a strong square face, and looks you straight in the eye. Her parents live in the Midlands, but the family is not close. She works in London as a nanny.
Nicky is 23. She knows better than most girls her age that tiny babies grow into demanding teenagers. 'I didn't want this baby. The father wasn't involved. On my own I knew I'd never be able to give him a decent life.'
Nicky started at St Thomas's where she went for her first scan. 'I told the midwife I was thinking about adoption, so she took me to see a social worker. There was no information there. Only one social worker at St Thomas's knew anything about it, and she wasn't there.
'The duty officer spent five minutes with me. He asked me lots of questions. My name, address, age. My background. The father. Did I think I ought to inform him before I made any decisions? It was the way they asked. They made me feel I was doing something wrong. All he could tell me was that I'd have to register the baby myself. Finally he said, 'Come back and see the right social worker, in three weeks.'
'There wasn't long. Just three months to go. I needed to know. They couldn't give me any numbers to get counselling or anybody I could contact. They hadn't a clue. There were no leaflets or anything, 'cos they didn't know. They just sent me home.
'Three weeks later, when I went for the appointment, the social worker wasn't there. I don't know if she was off sick, or what. They just told me to make another appointment.'
Time was passing. Nicky rang Wandsworth Social Services because they covered her area. 'We went through the same sort of questions as before. Then he asked me what colour the father was. I said 'white.' What colour was I? 'White.' He said he didn't deal with white babies; he only placed mixed-race or black babies. He said, 'I'll get someone to call you.' '
(Alan Simpson, assistant director of Wandsworth's children and families' department, denies that such a comment would have been made. 'The race of the baby is important in making placing decisions. But we don't allocate black babies to one social worker and white babies to another.' None the less, no one called her.)
Fortunately, Nicky's employer, Matilda, is a doctor, a divorcee and a single mother. Her sister, Kate, who also lives in Wandsworth, tried to adopt a baby of her own. Now she and her husband, Nigel, are too old. Matilda suggested Nicky call her.
Through Kate, Nicky got to hear about the Phyllis Holman Richards Adoption Society, one of the 14 adoption charities in London. Holman Richards places 10-20 babies a year. But demand for babies is so high that it doesn't list its name in the Yellow Pages, which is why Nicky found nothing when she looked under Adoption. Their fear is being swamped with calls. 'We just can't handle it. There aren't any more babies available,' says a spokeswoman.
Holman Richards provided Nicky with counselling every week in the last two months of her pregnancy. Their midwife accompanied her to the hospital when she gave birth. Had she wanted, Nicky could have stayed in their small flat before her child was born. 'It was a totally different attitude. I don't know if it was because I was talking to a woman instead of the men I'd talked to before, but it seemed like they came from another world,' she says.
Despite their help, there were bad moments. 'The anaesthetist at the hospital demanded to know why I was giving my baby up. 'Are you a surrogate mother?' he asked, as if I was doing something wrong. You just can't get away from that attitude.'
Much of Nicky's counselling was taken up with where the baby would go. First, the baby would be placed with a foster mother. This would give Nicky a last chance to change her mind if she wanted to. Only when the paperwork was complete would the child go to its new adoptive parents.
'They asked me a lot about my background, and tried to match the background of the adoptive couple with mine. They asked me if there were things I wouldn't want, like another religion. I just wanted the mother to give up work when she got the baby. Then they told me about the couple they'd chosen. He was in his mid-thirties, educated to O-level, now a professional. He likes badminton, reading and DIY. She was a bit younger, and works as a PA. They live in a village. That's all they told me. No pictures of the family or anything. But I thought they sounded quite nice.'
On Monday, 21 July, three days after giving birth to a little boy she named Alexander after her grandfather, Nicky handed her baby to a foster mother from whom he would be collected after a fortnight by his new family.
'I felt sad. When we got there, I just handed him over, and then I went and stood outside while the midwife finished up. I felt very sad. But I also felt proud. Proud of the way I'd handled it. It was the right thing to do.' As she speaks, Nicky opens a brown envelope containing everything she knows about her baby and its parents; a half-sheet of typed paper with their professions, lifestyle and hobbies; a brief letter they wrote to her when the agency called to say a baby was available, two Polaroid snaps taken in the hospital, and two more of the baby alone on a brown sofa in his new home. 'I don't know if he's safe. I mean, I'm sure he is, but I can't see anyone holding him.'
NICKY is happy with what she has done, but her experience raises many questions. In 1991, there were 177,642 abortions in Britain. There are no exact figures for the thousands of people who want to adopt, but fewer than 1,000 babies were placed last year. No one advocates that a baby be separated from its natural mother, but why is adoption treated as such a dirty word in Britain? Why, as Kate, Nicky's employer's sister, says, 'are adoptive parents made to feel guilty for being infertile? And single mothers castigated for getting into 'trouble' and for giving their babies away?' Why indeed? Why do we use the phrase 'putting a baby up for adoption' as if we were talking about putting it up for sale?
Most children are adopted when they're over two years old. Many will have been taken into care from single mothers who just find life too hard. If adoption was offered from the start as a positive option, perhaps these children wouldn't become so traumatised and adoptive homes would be far easier to find.
There must be a better way. According to Nicky, the only interest shown by the social services was a letter that arrived a fortnight before she gave birth asking her to contact them if she was still thinking of adoption. (Karen McSweeney, who kidnapped baby Farrah Quli earlier this month, was suffering from depression after giving up her twins for adoption. Although there is a support group for birth mothers, the Natural Parents Support Group, based in Yorkshire, it seems she wasn't put in touch. She received no counselling.)
If the social services are too busy and too cash-strapped to handle adoptions, why can't the whole process be carried out by someone else? Nicky, who was fobbed off by the social services, began asking these questions herself when she went to see her employer's sister, Kate. Both over 35, Kate and Nigel are considered too old to adopt in Britain. They have turned to other countries, first Poland and then the US.
'We were amazed at the different attitude,' says Kate. 'In America they provide counselling, help, advice. Everything. Because they really believe that if it's done properly, a stable, loving home is available to a child who needs it.'
'In Britain,' Kate says, 'you have to have a home study to prove you can provide a child with a stable family life. They're virtually all done by the social services, who can charge pounds 2,500. They won't do it unless you're on a waiting list which can take four years. By the time we would have got to the top of a list, we would have been too old. So they said there was no point in trying.' Kate persisted, and had an independent home study done by a social worker at the Inner London Juvenile Courts. He charged only pounds 350.
Armed with that, Kate and Nigel contacted a Seattle lawyer who has himself adopted a child. Half the adoptions in Washington state are handled by private lawyers who do nothing else. Kate and Nigel made up a photo album of their lives; their home, parents, godchildren, holidays. 'Then we had to write a long letter advertising ourselves to a birth mother.'
Encouraged to disclose as much about themselves as they could, Kate and Nigel's letter is a chatty, friendly description of daily life in England. The cynical can laugh, but it makes its point: this would be a good home. In the more liberal US states, a woman who is considering having her child adopted reads letters like Kate's, and leafs through the albums. She'll get as much counselling as she needs, and she may even get to meet the family in which her baby will grow up.
The British attitude is that the child and the birth parents must be kept ignorant of one another until the child grows up; an attitude that does little to promote the idea that adoption need neither be frightening nor shameful.
Nicky received the best that Britain could offer. It didn't even include a picture of her baby held safe in someone's arms.
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