Adoption: Meet your family

Bigotry is being hardened and children put at further risk by Hollywood's 'Orphan', says Lisa Markwell, an adoptive mother of two
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The Independent Online

There are plenty of myths and half truths about adoption. As an adoptive mum I hear everything from "where do they come from?" and "oh, very Angelina Jolie" to "you could almost pass them off as your own" and "so, are they all right, you know, mentally?" This last question was from a (I believe) well-meaning colleague, and irritating as it was at the time – the answer "better mentally than you, you ignoramus" was on my lips – he could have been forgiven for thinking it on the evidence presented just about everywhere.

The film Orphan, released here next week, is the latest disaster movie as far as adoption is concerned. It's already caused outrage in the United States for its depiction of a little girl, adopted into a loving family, who turns out to be monstrous. Warner Brothers, the film's distributors, have been forced into changing its tagline from: "It must be difficult to love an adopted child as much as your own" to "There's something wrong with Esther" after adoption groups in America threatened to boycott the film, and online forums shrieked their disapproval. Care professionals and adoptive parents alike know that older children often languish in care homes and foster families, victims of the perception being that they are more difficult to adopt. The last thing anyone needs is a horror story.

Without giving too much away – although a casual viewing of the trailer reveals fires, car "accidents", creepy stares and untimely deaths – Orphan is ultimately too daft to be a real disincentive to anyone considering adoption. There are compelling reasons why the mysterious Russian nine-year-old doesn't have a real-life equivalent. It quickly tips into standard schlocky horror and the only real mysteries are why Peter Sarsgaard, a brilliant US actor, would associate himself with this dross, and why the parents of the child actress who plays Esther thought it a good idea to launch her career with the role of an overtly sexualised, foul-mouthed orphan.

What about this tagline? "She was the daughter they'd longed for. But one couple couldn't imagine the nightmare adoption would bring". Actually it's not from a film, but the headline on a recent newspaper feature.

It's the sort of publicity that Mo O'Reilly, director of child placement at the British Association for Adoption & Fostering, could do without. When we compared notes about the cinematic/popular press version of adoption versus reality, we agreed that doom-mongering like this is disappointing at least: at worst, it is distinctly harmful. "What's sad is that I see many fantastic placements with happy children and parents," she says, "but that's just not reported".

When young, single women gave up babies that they couldn't care for, an adoption picture of 50 years ago, the oft-told story of children with "issues" was not relevant.

Now that the majority of the 70,000 UK children in the care system have been removed from their families for reasons of bad parenting, it's hardly surprising that some of these children come with "baggage". It should be noted that most of those children will, with diligent assistance from social workers, be placed back with their birth families. Of the others, around 3,200 will be adopted, according to Barnardo's. Surprisingly, 2,200 of those will be under the age of four. It's the smaller, five-to-nine category that is most newsworthy. Like little Esther in Orphan (and the only way in which they are alike), these children are survivors. But not without it affecting them.

During the assessment process, I was appraised in stark detail about what these vulnerable children might have been exposed to, situations Mo O'Reilly describes as "abuse, starvation, neglect, eating dog food".

We don't like to acknowledge their existence, unless it is served to us fictionalised or without context in a banner headline, O'Reilly adds, because "how can you understand these children, or put yourself in their shoes, when their lives are so – I don't like the word 'damaged' – difficult?"

It may be simplistic to lump a fictional film with misery-memoir-style news stories, but taken together, the potential for the general public to build a negative view of adoption is very real. Between them, the two show polar opposite reasons for anyone considering adoption to run a mile.

In Orphan, a couple whose third child was stillborn seek to "replace" her with Esther. One visit to an orphanage is enough to see them drive home with the lonely, abandoned child in the back seat. In most real-life coverage, couples are put through months or years of harrowing, intrusive, even aggressive questioning before being deemed suitable to adopt, only for social workers to palm them off with a child whose troubled history is kept from them.

The truth, of course, is somewhere in between. Prospective adopters are put through months of interviews and training to prepare them for the challenges of taking on children from difficult backgrounds. It's gruelling for a reason: to allow couples to be sure that they're really ready for adoption, and for social workers to be sure that they are too.

I resented bitterly the regular intrusions and detailed interviews that came as part of the assessment process, but appreciate now that it is a necessary weeding-out technique. Esther's adopters would have fallen at the first hurdle: children can't replace other children.

If there had been any latent disagreements about child-rearing between my husband and me, they would have been found out. O'Reilly thinks this is one reason why people whose adoptions either fail before they started or break down are the ones sharing their stories with the media. "It's only a small minority who are turned down. Social workers will have counselled those they feel aren't ready or equipped out of the assessment process early on. But for them it's painful, the end of their dreams and they are looking for someone to blame."

Those whose dreams of parenthood come true with the placement of a child, but then for one reason or another don't work, there is anger, grief and the need to apportion blame.

So, having jumped through all the hoops and with the benefit of six years' experience, I can offer one small rebuttal to the negativity. Adopting older children – mine were four and seven when they joined the family – is more akin to forming a relationship than becoming a mother. They are people, not blank canvases, with personalities, likes and dislikes, past experiences they want to cherish and some they would rather not think about.

They will bring sadness with them, but that doesn't make them monsters. It's fantastically rewarding to be called Mum by someone whose original mother figure was criminally neglectful. I'm challenged and entranced by my children every day – like all other parents, I imagine.

An online forum discussing Orphan and its sour, skewed and ludicrous depiction of adoption quoted a mother who had been faced with the trailer while watching television at home with her adopted child.

She said: "Those who belittle [the film boycott] have never sat beside an adopted child watching a trailer like this. They have never been with that kid in a cinema, enjoying a fun movie only to see the experience change when the villain turns out to be adopted. Or the weird character turns out to be adopted. I have. My son is adopted. This stuff hurts. Just like racism. Or being called "retard" or "queer". Can't we outgrow this junk?"