Adoption parties: the best way to find a child a family?

Adoption parties allow hard-to-place children and potential parents to mingle. Critics have called them 'beauty parades' – but do they work? Kate Hilpern attends an event to find out

"Weren't you tempted to bring one home?" is the most common reaction I get when I mention that I went to an adoption party last weekend. To which I've found myself honestly replying that I was tempted by a lot more than one.

To the casual onlooker, the event – which took place in a primary school in Bolton – looked like something in between a childrens' party and a school fête. Outside, there were bouncy castles, giant Lego, and animals to pet, and inside there was everything from soft play to face painting to crafts and later, after the party tea, a magic show. But behind the fun, the aim could hardly have been more serious: to get some of the 59 children who attended out of the care system and into adoptive families.

Adoption parties – or activity days, as the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF) prefers to call them – have been going just shy of two years in the UK and the idea is simple. Invite a bunch of kids who, for various reasons (they may be in sibling groups, have disabilities, be a bit older etc), have been hard to place. Then invite a bunch of approved adopters. Set up activities that get them doing entertaining stuff together (even the bouncy castle was chosen because adults could get on, too) and hope the adopters feel a connection and wind up adopting one of the kids, of whom there are 4,000 currently awaiting adoption in the UK.

So far, they've been a hit, with 20 per cent of children adopted as a result, roughly double the rate expected by the more traditional means of matching, which usually involve social workers matching children with adults who have never met them, using paper profiles. Crucial to their success is that there's no secrecy. Indeed, the children know it's an opportunity to meet families who want to adopt and to meet other children who need a new family, but that it might not lead to their finding a family.

"All we need now is a barbecue and a beer," jokes one adopter nervously, as he looks up at the unexpected blue sky (rain had been forecast) and then down at a handful of kids running around with the pirate swords they have just made. Truth is, I could do with a drink, too, for there are times when it feels overwhelming to see so many children who might never get the one thing most of us take for granted – a family.

At least there's the "quiet room". This designated classroom is set aside for adopters to take a breather if it all gets too emotional, as well as to look through the booklet of profiles of children they take a shine to or to talk to a social worker to learn a bit more about them.

For the most part, though, it's the excitement and magic of the day that rubs off on everyone, including me. "This little 'un has been up since 6am asking when it starts," says one foster carer, laughing, as she watches him run round ecstatically in circles.

"Find me a child here that's not having a good time," a social worker shouts above the noise of laughter and yelling when I'm back inside. "It's only the adults who are nervous," he says. He's right, I think, looking at some of the couples gathering timidly around the edges of the room.

Others get stuck in. "It's not easy," admits one man as he kneels down on a soft-play mat. "Society usually discourages us from talking to kids we don't know, especially couples like us who are gay. But this is our second adoption party and we want to make use of every minute."

Despite putting the heart back into what can feel like a detached and bureaucratic process (I should know – I sat on an adoption panel for 10 years), adoption parties have attracted controversy. A few months ago, Anne Marie Carrie, who was then the head of Barnardo's, was scornful: "This is not Battersea Dogs Home. I am concerned about the aspect of beauty parades." Others have labelled them speed dating for toddlers, shopping expeditions and cattle markets.

Such fears are understandable. These are fragile hearts we're dealing with – children who have probably been removed from their families due to a history of neglect or abuse. Many have had multiple foster placements and all of them will be particularly sensitive to rejection. "What if they ask us if they can come home with us?" asks one adopter anxiously in the short briefing they got at the start of the event.

"Be honest," says Bridget Betts, the adoption activity-days programme manager at the BAAF. "Say they're going home with their foster carers." In fact, no child does ask that, or anything like it – they rarely do, she says. They're too busy having fun and meeting other people like them, often for the first time, as well as lapping up the attention from the adults, which they tend to crave more than most kids do. "Did you see the cupcake I just made?" or "Are you going on the bouncy castle?" were the only kinds of questions I heard them ask.

Betts doesn't deny there are risks. "But what's the alternative? And it's not as if the children aren't well-prepared."

The same goes for the adopters, who have several strict rules to obey, notably no removing of the booklets from the room; no talk of adoption; meeting kids but not monopolising them. "We once had nine sets of adopters crowding one little girl – we simply can't have that," Betts says.

What surprises many adopters are the indirect benefits of the day. "I came here feeling quite disillusioned about the adoption process because there's so much waiting involved," one adopter tells me. "But these kids and this atmosphere – it's made me feel enthused again."

Another tells me she's approved to adopt sibling groups, but is finding herself drawn to single children. "We were also pretty sure we wanted a boy, but I've just talked to two lovely little girls," she says.

In America, where these events have been part of the adoption fabric for years, adopters almost always leave with wider views about the kinds of children they could take on. "Like many adopters, I went along to the adoption party with set ideas, in my case wanting a six-to eight-year-old boy – certainly no older," says Ruth Bodian from Boston, Massachusetts. "But then I noticed an 11-year-old boy hanging around the Disney station and we got chatting and I noticed all kinds of intangible things in his temperament and his eyes that I don't think I'd have noticed in a photo or documents about him. That was seven years ago now and Jaron has been with me ever since."

Significantly, Jaron says he felt adoption parties stopped him feeling a passive part of the family-finding process. "I chose my mum every bit as much as she chose me and that feels good," he says. "You'd expect there to be a spark when you form any other kind of relationship in life. Why don't we value the chemistry in adoption, which is expected to be a lifelong relationship?"

Finally, it's time to go home. If the experts recommend a match based on the bonds formed today, these adopters could have a new family in just a few months. And it's this excitement the adults seem to leave with, no matter how apprehensive they were when they arrived.

"I've been working in adoption for 30 years and this was my first adoption party," says one social worker, pulling me aside on my way out. "I wasn't at all sure about it, but now I feel like tossing my paper profiles out of the window." She looks so moved that she might cry.

As for the kids, it's only when a little girl trips over and grazes the arm that is clutching her party bag on the way out that I realise it's the first moment of sorrow – let alone tears – that I've seen all day among all 59 children.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

    £40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

    £35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

    Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

    Recruitment Genius: Trainee Hire Manager - Tool Hire

    £21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is seeking someone w...

    Day In a Page

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
    Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

    That's a bit rich

    The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
    Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
    Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

    Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

    Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
    A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

    Britain's Atlantis

    Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

    David Starkey's assessment
    Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

    'An enormous privilege and adventure'

    Oliver Sacks writing about his life
    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
    Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

    Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

    Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago