WHAT HAS prompted the Government to suggest that some 'rape babies' could soon be available for adoption by British couples desperate for a child? The idea that Britain may soon be officially opening its gates to innocent infants spawned from the brutal rape of thousands of women in the former Yugoslavia would have been unthinkable a decade ago. The reason, Tim Yeo, the Health Minister, told a conference last week was that by doing so 'this country can lead in offering a humanitarian response to what is a profoundly tragic situation'.

Adoption experts were swamped with inquiries. The hopes of thousands of people wanting to adopt were raised - but could soon be dashed. The babies may never materialise. Inter- country adoption experts warn that raped women could do as their Korean War sisters did: leave the umbilical cords of their unwanted babies untied. Critics argue that the Government's offer of refuge for war babies contrasts with its restrictions on the number of Bosnian and Serbian refugees, amounting to a cynical PR exercise. But what is being missed, amid all the emotions that adoption - especially inter-country adoption - raises, is the fact that here was a significant landmark in the changing picture of adoption in this country.

At the back of the move lies the Government's avowed intention to avoid a repetition of the mistakes made during the Romanian crisis, which led to an international boom in the number of babies being adopted, with children the victims of corrupt racketeers - traded, according to one Romanian official, 'like a market where you sell potatoes'. Mr Yeo made clear that this time 'there is no question of parents who have not been approved for adoption being allowed to by-pass the system'. He could not tell the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering (BAFF) conference how many babies might be available, but he warned that if red tape were not cut, 'bureaucratic obstacles' could provoke people to go outside the system, on 'child-finding missions'. Unusually for a government that encourages enterprise, it was vital in this case 'to try and deter people from embarking on those kind of free-enterprise expeditions'.

The Bosnian babies 'crisis' has evidently galvanised the Government into action over its adoption review, now in its fourth year. It is the first for 20 years and Mr Yeo promised that the Government would announce the next stage of the review by the early summer. The remarkable thing about the review - apart from its stress on adoption as a child-centred rather than parent-centred service, with children's welfare being paramount - is that it proposes a comprehensive legislative framework for inter-country adoptions, making it a criminal offence not to have gone through a vetting procedure, similar to those for home adoptions, approved in future by the Department of Health.

This will replace the current position, which is described by Peter Selman, lecturer in social policy at the University of Newcastle, as a 'do-it-yourself' system. Unlike most other European countries, Britain has no central agency that matches children abroad with suitably vetted couples seeking to adopt. Would-be parents are forced to use an informal network of contacts drawn from a pool of those who have adopted from abroad, through organisations like Stork. They do all the paperwork themselves, apart from a 'home study', carried out sometimes through social services, but more often, if a council refuses, by the Inter-country Adoption Social Workers Group (ICASWG).

While adoption in this country is a largely free service, adopting abroad can be expensive, with travel, accommodation and legal fees adding an average pounds 10,000 to the bill. Adoptions abroad in former parts of the British Empire, like Kenya and Sri Lanka, are recognised here. But those from places like South America are not, so parents have to adopt twice, once abroad, then again here, sometimes paying a second time for a social services 'home study' costing up to pounds 3,500.

Some adopters follow official guidance and seek entry clearance for their child, with paperwork delays through the Home Office, Foreign Office and Department of Health likely. But about 80 a year - many more when Romanian adoption was at its height - flout entry clearance procedures, running the risk of their child being turned away at British immigration, since admission is at the discretion of the Home Office. None, so far, is known to have been refused.

Why does anyone go to such lengths when there are children in this country who need loving homes? The truth is that as Western infertility rates have risen, British adoption has contracted. The Pill and social changes making single-motherhood acceptable have resulted in fewer children being put forward for adoption.

The number of babies at an age that produces the highest success rate in adoption has dropped steadily from 5,172 in 1974 to 950 in 1990. Adoptions of older children, usually special needs children with mental or physical handicaps, or who have been sexually of physically abused, has also dropped over the same period from 22,500 to 7,040. With at least five would-be adopters for every baby, according to BAAF, the vast majority will never succeed.

Initially only a few people sought adoptions abroad and the 'system', such as it was, worked. But as they grew, to the present estimated 600, mainly babies, a year - no official figure is collected - strains began to show. By April 1991, following events in Romania, an International Bar Association report on 'The Inter- country Adoption Process' noted 'a crisis of confidence between prospective adopters and their local authority which has become worse over the years'. It found a clash between adopters, usually older, professional couples, and social workers, more used to dealing with deprived families. Parents reported that they were unhelpful, obstructive and prejudiced, knowing 'little or nothing about inter- country adoption'.

So will the review help solve the problems? It proposes a specific duty on councils to provide services for inter-country adoption. Initial signs are that councils are working more positively on overseas adoption cases. Brian Jones, assistant secretary for social services at the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, recognises that 'expertise is extremely limited', but it is growing. He is clear that inter-country adoption is a feature of our times: 'If it is not Bosnia, Somalia, or South America, pressure is going to grow from first world countries to take third world children.'

The Association of Directors of Social Services agrees, but believes more inter-country adoption work will create conflicting demands on departments being asked to 'do more with less', between the needs of dreadfully deprived British children and babies in terrible situations abroad.

Mr Yeo's positive stance has helped change attitudes at the top. Last week he reiterated his criticism of 'dogma and political correctness' in adoption, and emphasised that the Government had no 'same race' placement policy. The consensus from all sides involved in adoption, however, is that without extra resources the review proposals will not work. The strongest criticism comes from the Campaign For Inter-country Adoption, which argues that councils are 'overworked, under-resourced and short-staffed', burdened with responsibility for new laws on care in the community and children. Barbara Mostyn, campaign chair, says overseas adoptions are being 'lumped on to local authorities because they are there'. Councils do not bring to the work any expertise in international matters 'because they are local people dealing with local problems'.

The campaign commends what is missing at the heart of the review: a specialist central intercountry adoption agency, as a focus of excellence, ending the monopoly of councils and adoption agencies. It claims that the review, written with a 'British is best' outlook and scant regard for actual practice overseas, is in danger of being overtaken by events at this May's meeting of the Hague Conference which is drawing up international rules on inter-country adoptions.

Neither the campaign nor Stork is confident that delays currently experienced during the 'entry clearance' process at central government level will be avoided. They allege that during them around 15 children abroad waiting to be adopted have died, one was bombed out of its foster care home and some, who earlier tested negative, have contracted the Aids virus. Stork shares with the ICASWG fears that the Department of Health, proposing to give itself the final say on whether adoptions from overseas should go ahead, 'will raise the spectre of faceless bureaucrats against whom there is no appeal'.

Ms Mostyn says the children, whose welfare the review claims is paramount, will not really benefit, but the bureaucrats will. 'It will make them more comfortable because they have done something.' If she is right, humanitarian responses like Mr Yeo's, shared by parents who adopt from abroad, seeking to turn many 'profoundly tragic' individual situations into happy endings, will be so much wasted breath.

(Photograph omitted)

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