"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.