When love is not enough

Adopting a baby from another culture can be a last resort for the infertile. But the problems can grow, along with the child
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Indy Lifestyle Online
CORAL Williams always wanted children. After fertility treatment failed and as there were no babies to adopt in this country, she and her husband read about the plight of street children in Thailand and decided to try to bring one back to their home near Swansea. That was in the early Eighties when adopting from abroad was almost unheard of.

Even with the help of local social services, who collaborated with their counterparts in Bangkok, the adoption took two years to arrange. Coral brought Ben, who is now 15, home from a Bangkok orphanage just before his second birthday in October 1984. Ben was so tiny that he fitted in six-month-old baby clothes, and he was immediately hospitalised to be treated for salmonella. Two years later, Ben was joined by a sister, Thara, now 13, from the same orphanage.

Ben and Thara did well at the local village school, and coped well socially at primary school, though both needed speech therapy and found the academic work difficult. Starting at the local comprehensive was more difficult for Ben. "It was a bigger school and there were racist comments," recalled Mrs Williams. "My son would thump the other kids and get suspended himself. He's very strong and we couldn't have him sorting things out himself; we spoke to the head and he dealt with overt racism very well. But some incidents never come to light."

WITH hindsight, Mrs Williams wishes she had tried harder and earlier to bring the children on educationally, and moved the family to a part of town with a wider ethnic mix. "It is easier for Thara, she doesn't get the same sort of abuse as my son, but little girls are more curious - they ask her things about her birth mother we don't know the answers to.

"Personally, I think we could have done a better job, but my only regret is not knowing what I know now. My own children had the worst possible start in life. Now they're doing fine and I'm very proud of them."

Experience has taught Coral Williams, who is now 52, that adopting a foreign orphan is not to be taken lightly. Adorable babies grow up, and she knows that the task gets harder as the child gets older. She decided she ought to help other prospective adoptive parents, and runs the Overseas Adoption Support Information Service (Oasis). "Oasis has around 700 members, and the children are very happy, but as they get bigger, their problems get bigger. Adolescence is difficult for all children, but more so when they are a different colour to other children and to their parents."

Some parents, she says, have unrealistic expectations. "One woman said to me she wanted a dainty little girl who she could take to ballet classes. What would she do if the child turned out to be plump or clumsy?" She tells them that parents have to be prepared for anything.

Mrs Williams would like to start classes for potential adoptive parents. "It is the biggest decision they will ever take, and they have to understand what they are taking on. There are children who not only have the primal wound of being separated from their mother, but who also may have post- institutional damage, who find it difficult to form bonds, and who experience problems with racism."

Opponents of trans-racial adoption argue that such problems make it something to be avoided. Nina Tullar, aged 32, is herself a trans-racial adoptee and has worked as a counsellor for others for six years. She believes that children brought up outside the culture they were born into lose a vital sense of grounding and belonging.

"Children adopted from another country grow up to believe that if they hadn't been rescued they would have ended up as a prostitute or a street urchin," said Ms Tullar. "The only thing they are taught about their own culture is a negative sense. Also, you have difficulties in feeling as though you can claim your culture as your own - you don't feel you have the right. A concerning number of people who have been adopted can end up with mental problems or caught up in the justice system, as an effect of taking their culture away."

She has seen many instances of trans-racial adoptees suffering from recurring depression and anxiety. "One of the consequences of cultural dispossession for adolescents or young adults can be anger, which can make them go off the rails."

Ms Tullar believes these adoptions are motivated as much by the parents' needs as the children's, and that this can make them morally suspect: "When there are so many needy children in this country and so many parents who need support, why do people feel the need to look abroad? If children abroad are in trouble, the way to help is to send aid and money - if people were to put the time and effort they put into taking out one child into helping a local orphanage it would be far more effective. Think of what it costs to raise a British child - enough to keep several families in the Third World for years. I think adopting parents are misled - they don't know the consequences of trans-racial adoption and are often left in isolation to deal with this."

WHAT little research exists on the long-term effects of inter-country and trans-racial adoption does not always bear out Ms Tullar's pessimism. A survey of Romanian children at four and six, commissioned by the Department of Health, is to be published shortly. Peter Selman, head of the department of social policy at Newcastle University, said: "It is my understanding that the report will show that breakdown rates in these adoptions are very low - lower than the breakdown rates for British families that adopt British-born children."

Research in Norway and Sweden, he added, has also been generally positive, though studies do show evidence of adolescent identity crises. "We must be cautious about claiming success," he says, "because it is early days yet, but it is very unfortunate for adopters when they are given the impression that they are somehow doing wrong. A lot of parents of adopted Romanian children that I know admit to continuing emotional and psychological problems with the children, but they are devoted parents and doing extremely well."

In Britain adopting any child - from Britain or abroad - is now a drawn out, difficult and often heartbreaking process. Responsibility for organising adoptions lies with local authorities, and the efficiency with which they deal with hopeful parents varies wildly from area to area. This is partly because adoption is currently out of favour with social workers, who prefer, where possible, not to separate children from their birth families.

An overhaul of the system has been long-promised by the government, and last week first reports appeared about a weighty document to be published by the Institute of Economic Affairs, containing independent research that shows adoption is better for children than either care homes or fostering.

At the same time, the Adoption Forum and the Campaign for Inter-Country Adoption are lobbying for a single, independent authority to govern the policy and practice of adoption, whether from within the UK or from abroad, to make it faster and simpler; last week, they submitted a discussion paper to the government's Health Committee.

Despite the obstructions, the pity and the horror inspired by the fate of individual children is a powerful factor in parents' determination to adopt from abroad. Michael Nicholson, the foreign correspondent whose story was made into a film when he smuggled a Bosnian orphan, Natasha Mihaljcic, out of Sarajevo, said "There is no culture in death" when it was suggested that he had snatched the little girl from her roots. Liv O'Hanlon, an adoptive parent herself who directs the Adoption Forum, has little patience with opponents of intercountry adoption. "Adoption is a fundamentally human reaction to the terrible plights that some children find themselves in, and most inter-country adopters adopt the country and culture along with the child." Adolescence, she adds, is a difficult time for all children. "If they have good emotional solidity behind them they should come through. If you deny your humanitarian instincts over this issue, I don't see how you can retain your humanity."

Michael Mallows, a 53-year-old psychotherapist and a trans-racial adoptee himself, has worked for 12 years with trans-racial adoptees. He is now drawing up a programme for Barnardo's to help prospective adoptive parents. "Family life is a lottery. Some families work, some don't," he says. "It is very important for adoptive parents to be prepared for a day when their sweet four-year-old goes off to school angelically, and comes back saying 'I hate you because I'm black'. One nine-year-old said to me 'I get racism in the street, then I get home and see white faces and I love them - I don't know what to do'."

Adoptive parents must recognise, says Mr Mallows, that love is not enough. "We have to celebrate differences, not ignore them, and recognise the adult-in-the-making in each child. I have met incredible adoptive parents who have persevered in the face of overwhelming difficulties, and when it works it can be inspiring and wonderful." He would prefer to see same- race placements for children, "but not all trans-racial placements are bad in the same way that not all same-race placements are good."

For the young Bosnian, Romanian, Latin American and Chinese children that have been adopted here since the early Nineties, it is too soon to say how things will turn out, said Mr Mallows. "I am a grown-up now and I have taken responsibility for my life. The only way you know if a childhood has been successful is when that child grows up and has children of their own."

Oasis, Dan y Graig Cottage, Balaclava Road, Glais, Swansea SA7 9HJ

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