Adoption process `nearly destroyed us'

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"IT NEARLY split up our marriage," is the stark verdict of one couple on the arduous, bruising nature of the adoption system. After five years of bad luck and battering against what seemed like an uncaring bureaucracy, they simply gave up.

"We just agreed that it would be the end," says Richard Titford, the vicar of Edwardstone near Sudbury in Suffolk. "It made us think we didn't want anything else. We had at least got each other, and thought we must just get on with being a childless couple."

In fact, having recovered from their ordeal, he and his wife Sarah decided to look for a child abroad and finally adopted their daughter Lucie from El Salvador eight years ago. But even then problems with the British authorities did not end.

"I think there is something very deep-rooted in the British psyche about adoption, as though it is not really very proper," said Mr Titford, 53. "This shows itself in a dead hand that puts the mockers on everything, as if all the time the authorities are trying to make things difficult."

Their story is instructive, both in terms of the lengths to which couples are prepared to go to become parents and in the insensitivity that can be shown towards them.

Following unsuccessful treatment for infertility, the Titfords registered with a private adoption agency. All seemed to be going well until the agency folded, and they were referred to Redbridge social services. Immediately there developed problems between Mr Titford and the social worker assigned to them, which seemed to have something to do with his position as a clergyman and the suggestion that they would not be able to cope with the older kind of child they would be likely to be assigned.

"It was just unreal," says Mrs Titford, 48. "She once asked him how he would feel if the child said "F... off" at the breakfast table. She was just on another planet, I think. She didn't seem to understand that we are just ordinary people."

They were also criticised for not ringing up enough to find out how things were going, which was seen as not being keen enough, and the final straw came when they forgot to take some paperwork to a meeting with the social worker. This apparently showed a profound lack of commitment.

"In the end it was sort of constructive dismissal. There was no way that we were going to be allowed to adopt a child through them so we left," says Mrs Titford. "Afterwards the social worker rang up to say that if Richard and I ever split up, she would be very interested in letting me adopt a child on my own. What an incredible thing to say."

Already at a very vulnerable stage in the process of trying to have children, they were left feeling wretched. "What's so terrible is that we are not an isolated case," says Mrs Titford. "We were made to feel no good and hopeless. It absolutely isn't right."

Once they had heard of the possibility of adopting Lucie, they waited nine months for the British authorities to come up with the necessary entry papers. But by the time that they had become legal parents of the child under El Salvador law, there was still no movement, so Mrs Titford went out anyway.

Once there she went for help to the British Embassy and was horrified by the attitudes she found. The consul was rude and arrogant towards her local lawyer, and the whole idea of taking the child home was dismissed as having to take at least another six months. Sarah was told that if she arrived at the airport without the right papers then Lucie would be sent back.

"The whole thing was just appalling to me. They were trying to frighten us," she says.

After a nervous flight, Mrs Titford and Lucie were allowed in to Britain by a sympathetic customs official, and the procedure to adopt Lucie under British law went ahead unimpeded.

The attitudes they encountered on the way, however, can translate directly into suffering for children in care. Delays in the system mean that children can spend years being damaged in a series of residential or foster homes when a permanent family could have been found.

Research by the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering (Baff) shows huge variations in the practices of different local authorities. While some place 10 per cent of eligible children in adoption families every year, for others the figure is as low as 0.5 per cent. The organisation is pushing for changes in legislation to ease the process, and for the establishment of national standards.

"Robert", now six years old, is a typically sad example of the situation. He was placed on the "at risk" register at birth due to concerns for his elder sister. But it is only now that the two children have finally been offered for adoption.

"They have already been in care five times in their little lives," says Caroline Vandenberg, 42, from south London, who has been fostering children with her husband for 10 years and who looked after the brother and sister herself.

"By the age of six you have already produced such insecurity," says Mrs Vandenberg. "He used to scratch himself raw to attract attention, and in five years' time he could be slashing his wrists.

"There are also sleeping disorders and anti-social behaviour so that he has no friends at school."

They had been to four different schools already, each time forming and breaking bonds with their teachers, eventually unwilling to make any attachments because they know they will always have to move on. "They never find an adult that isn't going to betray them, until they find these magic adopters," says Mrs Vandenberg, who has just adopted two of her former foster charges to join her own two children. "They then have to spend years trying to undo all the damage that has been done to them along the way."