Plight of children who may never find a family

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The Independent Online
SCORES of children with hopeful, gap-toothed smiles gaze out from the pages of Be My Parent, a bi-monthly newspaper published by the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering.

It is one of the main market places for advertising children for whom local authorities are seeking long-term carers. It is a highly competitive business; the supply of children far exceeds the pool of people prepared to provide them with a home and a family life.

The problem was highlighted this week when a newspaper in Oxford published a plea by 10-year-old twins whose mother is dying of cancer. "Kids and dog for hire," wrote Lauren and Ashton Mills. "Life-term contract. Sad gits need not apply."

The pathos of their situation tugs at the heartstrings, but the twins are not typical of the children who are offered for adoption and fostering through advertisements in the local and national press, or in specialist publications.

They tend to be those who are most difficult to place: older children, children with disabilities or special needs, children who have suffered neglect or abuse. Nearly all are in local authority care.

The fact that young people have to be offered like wares underlines the national shortage of carers. The common misconception is that there are more adoptive parents looking for children than vice-versa, but that only applies to small babies. There are never enough people to take on the older or problematic cases.

Several factors are to blame. Although overall there are fewer children in care than 10 years ago, a far larger proportion are now placed with families, rather than in residential homes. Many more mothers work than in the past, so they are less inclined to take on fostering responsibilities. And children in care have had a bad press in recent years.

"We are talking of a potential crisis in terms of the availability of suitable foster homes," said Moira Gibb, chair of the children and families committee of the Association of Directors of Social Services.

All local authorities use some form of advertising, on local radio as well as in newspapers. Further along the process, once potential foster/adoptive parents have been vetted, they might be shown a video of a particular child to see if the initial "chemistry" clicks.

John Harrison, editor of Be My Parent, says that the most powerful selling- point in an advertisement is the photograph. "I suppose it's inevitable, but obviously there is the worry that people are too easily influenced by appearance."

Advertisements are candid, but cautiously worded, in order to protect confidentiality and to deter paedophiles. Adjectives such as "attractive" are never used; a background of sexual abuse is referred to as "a difficult early life".

Mr Harrison confesses to misgivings about the whole concept. "Putting children in a catalogue is a horrible business, and I wish it didn't have to happen. But if it finds them the right family, then the end justifies the means."