Britain is full of children who need families, and of parents who long to adopt. So why is matching them up such a tortuous process? Hester Lacey talks to couples who braved the bureaucracy
So you want to adopt a baby. There are never enough to go round; council adoption services regularly tell families that only older and "challenging" children are available. But a new report by the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering group has shown that those babies that are put up for adoption may spend two years or more in care due to bureaucratic delays in placing them with new parents. Currently the situation in this country is very much a lottery: each individual council runs its own adoption programmes, and these vary greatly. The BAAF study showed that there were huge and inexplicable differences in the speed with which places were found for children: three local councils failed to manage a single adoption in a year.

There is already growing pressure from professionals in the field to change cumbersome polices; health minister Paul Boateng has tried to stop councils banning would-be adopters on grounds such as race and age. The Adoption Forum and the Campaign for Intercountry Adoption (CICA) have jointly prepared a set of proposals for a new independent Adoption Authority to achieve a more successful, effective and efficient system. The main failings of the current system that they have identified are: a lack of agreed national policies and standards for social work practice; lack of independent or public accountability at all levels within the adoption system; lengthy administration procedures and a general failure to present adoption as a solution on equal terms with other options for meeting the needs of children.

The Adoption Forum and CICA would like to see a free-standing executive agency run along similar lines to the Human Fertilisation and Embryo Authority, with responsibilities and powers delegated by the government to oversee the implementation of adoption policy and practice. They suggest that the Adoption Authority could monitor the performance of all adoption agencies, oversee training of social workers involved, issue licenses to adoption agencies and inspect them regularly, establish and operate a Register of Adoptable Children and mediate in cases that go to appeal.

Below, three different families give their experiences of working through the adoption process. Their stories suggest that some kind of reform is long overdue.

Sunita and Richard, a professional couple, preferred to adopt from abroad

Sunita's story: "We didn't even consider adopting over here, to be frank. The whole system over here is so unwieldy; there are so many points of view that have to be taken into account; for example, the mixed-race issue. You can't say, 'This is right and this is wrong'; same-race adoption is better, but if that's not possible, other options shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. Everyone is very well-meaning and thinks that what they want is right for the child, but what they want is so very entrenched: it's time for change.

"We were very unhappy about the principle of parental contact with adopted children. We felt that with two adoptive parents and two natural parents any child would feel pulled in two and wouldn't settle, and we have spoken to a lot of people in similar situations to us who have felt the same. Under some circumstances it would be right and proper for the child to retain contact with the family, but we have friends who have adopted and whose children have had difficulties coping with two sets of parents.

"I am Indian, so we preferred to adopt from India. Our local authority allocated us a social worker to assess us; she was really nice. Couples who want to adopt from abroad aren't high priority when there are so few resources to go round, so she did our report in her own time and was very sympathetic. It was a very daunting process to go through. I used to be a social worker myself but I still found it terrifying. It is horrible when someone is sitting opposite you saying 'Why do you want a child?' - it's such a normal human feeling wanting to give love, to give protection. Once your report is done it gets caught up in endless Department of Health committees, you wait months and months for approval. Then it's up to you to make contacts in the country you've been authorised to adopt from. We sent hundreds of letters to India, very few of them were answered; then we started phoning, which was very frustrating. Then out of the blue we had a call to say there was a child that would be a good match for us. We brought our daughter back from India when she was 15 months old. The Department of Health was still waiting for various bits of paperwork: we had to wait for all that to be completed, and pray. When you adopt, you think about it just as much as if you were having your own child. I have so much love for my daughter, it's as if she had come out of my own body. If anything happened to her, for me it would be like being physically torn apart. A child just wants to be loved, cared for, and know they are important to somebody. It's unnecessary to make it so hard for that to happen."

Margaret Boutell found a sympathetic adoption agency that would consider her even though she was divorced and in her 40s. She has successfully adopted a toddler with a severe form of cerebral palsy and a teenager with learning difficulties

Margaret's story: "My marriage had broken down after 25 years and I was at a crossroads in my life. I was working out what I wanted to do next and I made lists of things I liked doing and things I didn't. One of the things I liked was being a mum, and by then my own three children were grown up. Then I picked up a magazine at the dentist's and read about Parents for Children - they specialise in placing older children, and single parents are allowed. I got in touch, sent off for their literature and they invited me to an open meeting.

"Parents for Children were very welcoming and encouraging, and I came away knowing it was what I wanted to do. They sent a social worker to interview me many times - once a week at one stage. I had to provide references, which were followed up. I had a stringent medical from my GP. In 1991 I was sent details about Natalie and saw her picture. She was two, physically disabled and in need of a family. I talked to her placement worker, then I had to go and see a family who'd adopted a boy with cerebral palsy, to show me what I was really letting myself in for - and, unbeknown to me, the family did a report on me too. I'm a nursery nurse and I had worked in a special care baby unit and I was running a playgroup, so I did know about small children, but Natalie's foster parents were very worried about me taking her on alone. They told me she could scream for 12 hours at a time, so I warned the neighbours, but in fact a month later I was still waiting for the screams to start and they never did.

"Stephen came two years later. He was 15, and had been looking for a family since the age of nine. He has learning difficulties - something I knew nothing about at the time! He had been very badly treated for the first nine years of his life, but his children's home had done a very good job of picking up the pieces. Since he came here he has really blossomed and he adores Natalie. He's planning his 21st birthday celebrations at the moment and we are all very happy.

"I think I was incredibly fortunate with Parents for Children. They are small, friendly and very supportive. Certainly the local authority would never have looked at me: local authorities have very stereotyped ideas, they want a mum and dad. Once Parents for Children knew me, they trusted me. And I know couples, too, who've fallen by the wayside in the adoption procedure. It's an absolute nightmare, and there are children languishing: it's so sad that any child in this country is without a home. I wouldn't ever try to adopt through the local authority. I'm not saying selection shouldn't be rigorous, but local authorities put too many obstacles in the way."

Susan and George, another professional couple, attempted to adopt a teenage girl but gave up in despair

George's story: "We were very much aware of the fact that appeals were going out for adoptive parents; we heard a radio appeal, sent off for a form and had a very quick response. Social workers came round to see us, we had collective sessions, individual sessions, and we went on a course and did all kinds of exercises. We had talked about adoption and fostering within the family, and our own two daughters, who were in their teens, were very positive about the idea, too. Social services decided that they knew of a specific child, a teenage girl, where adoption would be the appropriate solution rather than fostering. We were introduced to the child's case worker and got as far as discussing dates for her first visit to us - we even knew her name. Then equally suddenly it all fell apart. They came round and spent a whole evening talking to us, and raised all kinds of strange issues: what my ideas were on discipline and what my views were on sexuality.

"It came out that the reason for this sudden change was an extraordinary co-incidence. My eldest daughter, who was 15 at the time, had a friend who was slightly older than her, who happened to share a house with a woman who worked for the local social services. Something that my daughter had said had been passed on to this woman - I have no idea what it was, but that was the end. It was very distressing for everybody, especially my daughter. My wife was shattered. It sounds stupid, but we had felt that we were there, that we had achieved what we were trying to achieve: to give help to a child who needed help. To have that removed for no reason at all was crazy.

"One of the reasons we were given was that I was an over-controlling father, a control freak and that's complete balderdash. We always got the feeling that during the whole process they were not at all interested in the quality of life we could offer. It was not about being able to provide a safe and comfortable environment. It was more about the opportunities they would have to keep close tabs on the child afterwards. As middle- class professionals we felt they felt we would challenge them too much, by not wanting them to intrude on our lives once the process had been completed. We appealed to the local authority, but I'm convinced it was a foregone conclusion: a council won't overturn the decision of its own social services department.

"We decided it was best to forget about it: we were anxious to put it all behind us and we were feeling completely bruised. I can see that social workers are under enormous pressures, from legislation and the media and society in general. There are dozens of scenarios where with the benefits of hindsight social workers are deemed to have got it wrong and when that happens they are pilloried, utterly taken apart. We live in a society where we are making it almost impossible to foster and adopt, and I can't see a way out of it."

Adoption Forum 0171 582 9932, Campaign for Inter-Country Adoption 0171 254 8855, Parents for Children 0171 359 7530