Why can't we be parents?

Andrea and Nigel were perfect candidates to adopt - until the discovery of a long forgotten accident. HESTER LACEY reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
On the face of it, it looks as though Andrea Kelly and Nigel Turner would be the kind of young couple that would be welcomed with open arms by an adoption agency. Both in their mid-30s, they have a stable relationship, a comfortable home in a pleasant area, steady jobs, and a supportive extended family. Andrea and Nigel, however, have been rejected as potential adoptive parents without even reaching the stage of their suitability being assessed - much to their shock and distress.

They first contacted Durham Family Welfare, a local agency which assesses people hoping to adopt, after three painful and distressing failed attempts at IVF over a period of three years - two of which they had to finance themselves. "After the third time we decided to try to adopt," says Andrea, 35. "I think it's always been at the back of our minds if IVF failed."

When they were having their last treatment, they saw a notice in the waiting room about adoption, and went to a meeting run by Durham Family Welfare. "You read a lot about adoption and how hard it is," says Andrea, who is the manager of a bookmaker's. "When we went to the meeting it was really reassuring. They put you at ease and said you don't have to be perfect." After further discussion they decided to apply to adopt, a few weeks after the initial meeting. They were first visited by a social worker, who explained more about the procedure and told them they would have to have a full medical and a police and social services check before their assessment proper could go ahead. When she left, Andrea and Nigel felt quite optimistic. "The last thing she said to us was that we had a lot to offer," remembers Nigel, 34, a building contractor.

They went to several more meetings and forums run by the agency - and then disaster struck. Ivor Evans, an adoption worker from Durham Family Welfare, called round. There was, he said, a problem with the police check.

Andrea knew immediately what it was. "There's only one thing I've ever been in trouble for," she says. "I was only 15 at the time." Andrea and a group of friends had been playing about with an air rifle. Andrea herself had already been shot during the game and didn't think the rifle was dangerous. "We'd been shooting at each other; I'd been shot several times that day. It made you jump as you were running, but that was all. It was just kids messing around." But when she took her turn with the gun, she managed to hit one of the boys which caused bruising and broke the skin. The boy's mother decided to involve the police, and Andrea was convicted of causing actual bodily harm in the juvenile court - she was fined pounds 25.

"The mother did what any mother would do - what I'd do if a child of mine came in and said they'd been shot with an air rifle," acknowledges Andrea. "It was stupid and juvenile. I feel so stupid about it now."

Andrea had almost forgotten about the whole thing until the application form from Durham Family Welfare arrived. She and Nigel called the local police to ask if they should mention the conviction and they were told it had long since been spent. But under the present Protection from Offenders regulations, introduced in 1997, any prospective foster or adoptive parent who has been convicted of a crime against a child cannot even be assessed, whatever the nature of the crime and however old the conviction. Andrea and Nigel were stunned.

"I just can't believe this has come up again, 20 years later," says Andrea, on the edge of tears. "I've been put in the same category as a child abuser. I understand why there are checks - you need that, it's right. But there should be some sort of flexibility. I want to prove that I'm nothing like that." Durham Family Welfare checked the situation with their solicitor: it is because the boy who was shot was a juvenile that Andrea's conviction stands. If he had been a couple of months older and classed as an adult, the incident would be considered irrelevant today. There is no leeway for the agency to use their discretion.

Susan Rayner, director of Durham Family Welfare, was sufficiently moved by their plight to write to the Department of Health. "You could say that she was careless or even reckless of her friend's health," she wrote. "She could hardly, however, be described as a child abuser. It does not seem fair or just that she should be arbitrarily prevented from becoming an adoptive parent." Ivor Evans, the couple's adoption worker, adds: "They made a favourable first impression. We would certainly welcome the opportunity to see if they could become adopters."

It seems, however, that the opportunity won't be forthcoming. In the meantime, Andrea and Nigel's living room is full of photographs of their family - nephews, great-nephews, smiling little boys. The only thing that can help them to adopt a child of their own is a change in the law. Alternatively they could reluctantly decide to have another attempt at IVF. Andrea plays with her friends' children, sees how fast they are growing up and feels how quickly time is passing; Nigel feels a pang when he sees fathers taking their sons to football matches.

Andrea Kelly and Nigel Turner are not the only couple to find they have run up against this particular law; at least 10 similar instances exist. "It does seem absurd that in this country we try to find a reason why things shouldn't happen rather than finding a way of making them work," says Liv O'Hanlon, director of the pressure group Adoption Forum. "We come up against this attitude time and time again - it's part of an extraordinary bias against adoption."

The Conservative MP Julian Brazier, an energetic pro-adoption campaigner, wants this and related issues that make adoption more difficult examined and reviewed. "Look at the hypocrisy of local authorities saying they have no adoptive parents available, and then look at cases like this," he says. He believes that it is "outrageous" that 53,000 children are currently in care and that so few of them end up being placed in a new home - only 2,000 children are adopted each year. Local authorities, he says, keep on producing "pathetic excuses" to account for these figures.

Adoption has been an unfashionable option for some time, although there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it is far more beneficial to children than remaining in care. Children who spend long periods in care are far more likely than their peer group to become drug addicts and 40 times more likely to end up in prison. However, it is notoriously difficult to satisfy the criteria for becoming an adoptive parent. Liv O'Hanlon cites one couple that was turned down because they had no family support network locally. When one of the couple's parents then moved to the area, they were rejected because the family lived "too close". Another couple was turned down because their home was "too tidy". According to Mr Brazier, "In some local authorities, social workers' dogma is being put ahead of the best interests of children."

Pressure groups and politicians have been campaigning for some years to review the situation, and it looks as though they may finally be having some success. Mr Brazier, who is chair of an all-party initiative to tackle the subject, led a discussion in the House of Lords in June during which Health Minister John Hutton announced a series of measures designed to tackle the poor adoption records of many local councils. These will include "hit squads" who will be sent in to run services if the local council doesn't come up to scratch. As a last resort, control over adoption could be removed from local councils completely.

These new measures are welcomed by the Adoption Forum's Liv O'Hanlon. "It will mean that more of an eye is kept on local authorities," she says. "The Bramley case and others have shown that there is a serious need for an independent watchdog." She would also like to see further action; the Adoption Forum is campaigning for the registration of social workers, and the setting up of a national register of adoptable children. Adoption reform still has some way to go. As Julian Brazier puts it, "It's very far yet from being all over bar the shouting." Andrea Kelly and Nigel Turner would agree. As yet there is no sign of the judicial review that might let them start a family of their own.