Picture this: a six-year-old little boy, born eight weeks prematurely, suffering from heroin withdrawal symptoms because his mother was unable to stay clean during the pregnancy. He spent eight months with his mother who desperately loves him but could not stop using drugs, before moving to be with his grandparents who were also caring for his older sister. The past two years he has been with foster carers because his birth family cannot look after him. Sometimes he is sad, other times he is angry. He finds it difficult to make friends and misses his sister.
If ever a child was crying out for adoption, it is he. Surely he will find a home via one of the country's 180 adoption agencies? Not easily – he starts with yet another disadvantage.
According to figures published tomorrow by the British Association of Adoption and Fostering, one in three prospective parents would not consider a child whose mother abused alcohol or drugs during pregnancy. Yet nearly half the children waiting to be adopted in England and Wales have parents with a history of drug abuse; the proportion is even higher in Scotland. These children are considered to be "developmentally uncertain" as the long-term effects of substance misuse during pregnancy, especially heavy drinking, may not manifest for years, and parents are unwilling to take the chance.
This gap – the gap between people's fantasy child and the reality of the children that need adoption, is the focus of this year's National Adoption Week, which starts tomorrow.
The BAAF is urging prospective parents to consider children with more complex needs by challenging their own expectations. For those able to open their hearts and homes to a "difficult to place" child, the rewards can be enormous for everyone involved [see case studies, right].
Forty years ago, around 25,000 children were adopted in the UK every year. The majority were healthy, newborn babies as unmarried mothers gave up their children for adoption. But as society's view of single mothers has changed so these numbers have fallen. Last year only 80 babies under 12 months were adopted; 2 per cent of the total in England. Despite this, nearly half of all prospective adopters want a baby.
But the children available are older, have complex emotional, development and behavioural needs or are part of a sibling group, according to BAAF. As a result, many children have to wait months for the right family; children from black and ethnic minorities frequently wait longer.
David Holmes, chief executive of BAAF, said: "Two thirds of children come into care now as a result of neglect or abuse and while many have complex needs, many can flourish if parents can see them as children first, rather than as a collection of problems.
"Our research highlights the gap between the expectations of parents and the needs of children. The big shift in society's attitudes about unmarried mothers means the relatively few babies often have some sort of difficulty: that's the reality."
The number of children placed with prospective families fell by 11 per cent from last year, government figures revealed last month. Children are placed with families for several months to test the match before a permanent adoption order is granted by the courts.
Despite such checks, one in five adoptions organised by local councils breaks down, often because parents are unrealistic about how the child and their family will develop, according to Elizabeth Webb from The Adolescent and Children's Trust (Tact), an adoption agency which helps find families for difficult-to-place children. Tact runs a service for children affected by substance misuse which provides assessments and support to minimise the risk of breakdown. As a result, 95 per cent of adoptions are successful long-term.
There are 1,100 children waiting for adoption – a third less than at the turn of the century – yet far more children are adopted from care in Britain than in other European countries.
Julia Mansfield, a social worker from the agency After Adoption, has witnessed significant changes in 30 years. "We now understand much more about the loss children and their birth families suffer. Genetic ties and shared history can never be severed. An adopted child and their new family must always live with that difference," she says.
"Anyone can apply to adopt. We assess people on their qualities not on whether they are married or not. It takes nine months for a baby to grow so it is legitimate to spend at least as long preparing a family to accept children into their lives. Losing one family is a tragedy; losing two is a disaster."
The names in some of the case studies have been changed
Avril Head: 'People will miss out on so much love and joy'
Avril, 57, and Ronald Head, 60, have two adopted sons, Simon, 20, and Dominic, 10, as well as three grown-up birth-children. They have fostered children with disabilities for more than 25 years
"When Dominic came to us as a tiny baby for emergency foster care he was already diagnosed with foetal alcohol syndrome and his medical problems were severe. He couldn't feed, had a misshapen head, a heart condition, flat nose and long lips, all characteristic of alcohol abuse, yet he was the most adorable baby and we fell in love with him. Deciding to adopt him after seven months was in an easy decision for the whole family and his disabilities are just part and parcel of who he is. Yes, the damage caused by his mum's heavy drinking is catastrophic for him, but he, all of us, just get on with it. Each and every one of the children we've had in this family have come with their own lovability factor. It is really important that adoptive parents get all the information about a child's problems, but it makes me sad that people will miss out on such love and joy because they can't let go of their expectation about an ideal child."
Paul and Chris: 'Our dream is to adopt siblings'
Civil partners Paul, 34, and Chris, 35, hope to be cleared for adoption early in the new year
"We both always wanted children so we started to talk about it not long after we got together. After we got married we looked at surrogacy, the possibility of co-parenting and international adoption, but we both felt there were so many children here that needed a family, that we'd like to pursue local adoption. I liked the idea of a baby or toddler as I felt this would minimise the impact of trauma and neglect a child had suffered, though Chris really felt that a baby needs a mother.
But when we started talking to the local authorities, we were told that as a same sex couple, any single, young child, was unlikely to ever happen for us. So we had to open our minds to a different story, a different family, and the adoption agency helped us to think about whether we could actually manage older children or siblings or children whose parents were drug or alcohol users. This whole assessment process has taken nearly a year but we're nearly there and our dream is to adopt two siblings, which is a huge shift from where we started."
Karen and Craig: 'He feels like our son more and more each day'
Karen, 45 and Craig, 40, adopted William, nine, in 2007
"I suffered two miscarriages when we were trying for a baby and couldn't face going through that again so we decided against IVF and started exploring adoption. We never felt the need to have a baby but we wanted a toddler because we thought a younger child would have been through less trauma. But as we worked with Tact [the adoption agency] we realised that we could manage an older child and we learnt to accept that any child we adopted would have special needs and attachment issues. William came to us after years of being moved between his parents, drug users, his grandparents and foster care, so he had a lot of loss in his life. But when we looked at him in a video his foster carers had made, nothing they told us about his anger and behavioural problems could put us off. When I look at him now, I can't believe how much he's moved on: he's making friends, he feels like my son more and more each day. He's still not able to talk about his birth family, but I'm hoping this third Christmas together will be a turning point."
Bill and Hao: 'It took six years to find Katie in China and bring her home'
Bill Davison, 61, and Hao Zhang, 46, adopted Katie Jia from China in September
"We'd been trying for a baby for more 10 years when suddenly there seemed to be a lot of publicity about abandoned girls in China. I called my council and was told I was too old to adopt in the UK so we started thinking China, which felt natural as I'm Chinese so I knew I'd be able to teach the baby about her culture and language. It's taken us six years to find Katie – three years getting approval in the UK and then another three years in China as actually there are far less babies since the government changed the rules; farmers are now allowed to have a second if the first is a girl. We were told about Katie at the end of June and we brought her home six weeks ago, so it felt fast in the end. She'd been abandoned in an orphanage when she was one day old, not even a note so we won't be able to tell her anything about her background."
Celia and Adrian: 'There are no perfect children, but these two are amazing'
Celia, 40, and Adrian, 46, from Australia, adopted brothers, James, two, and Matt, four, in 2007
"When we realised that we couldn't have our own children we went through a real grieving process but then started to think about adoption, both international and domestic. We could have adopted a baby if we'd gone abroad but ultimately we decided we were more comfortable with the structured system here, and all the information you get about the birth family. Adopting siblings made sense to us because they would have each other and the social worker's face lit up when we said we wanted two boys because most people don't. The boys had never lived together before they came to us but they love each other so much. James was removed at birth so he's always been a ray of sunshine with no problems but Matt was neglected and suffered a traumatic separation from his older sibling, so he came with tantrums; huge rage, a lot of anxiety and needed 'complete re-parenting' as his social worker put it. He still looks at us sometimes with terror in his face but is such an inspiration: he lost his parents, survived and has learnt to love life again. There is no such thing as perfect children but these two are amazing."
Hilary and Mary: 'I couldn't love her any more'
Hilary Bracegirdle, 49, and Mary, 16, have been a family for nine years
"I was never obsessed with babies but when my god-daughter was born, there was a physical thing that happened to me and I desperately wanted my own child. But 10 years ago, doctors wouldn't even consider single women for invitro, so when I saw a poster advertising adoption I started to look into it. The social workers told me from the start that couples were preferred. Mary's first adoption had broken down after six months, so I was told she may never bond with me, nor call me mummy and may always seem more like a younger sister, so I shouldn't have unrealistic expectations. But she had such great foster parents that she came to me with great self-confidence, we clicked immediately and within weeks she was saying: "adopt me now mummy". Adopting an older child has been perfect and we get on so well because we are so different. I couldn't love her anymore if she was my birth child, I'm sure of that."