At its peak in the Sixties, more than 16,000 adoption orders were granted annually. But with relaxed abortion laws and increased use of contraception, approximately 300 babies are available for adoption each year, with up to 20 couples applying for each one. As a result, many decide to opt for an older child. Indeed, adoption agencies are keen to portray adoption as about children rather than just babies - one of the reasons for the first ever National Adoption Week.
But while "older" can mean anything from eight months to adolescence, many experts are worried that adopters are ill-informed about the repercussions that a child's past can have. Pat Pearce, a family placement worker, has adopted four children, the last of whom was one-year-old at the time of placement. "I hadn't anticipated how much of a nightmare it would be," says Pat. "For ages, she would wake up at 11pm and wouldn't settle until 4am. It was so hard because, unlike our other children, we didn't know what was causing her distress and so we didn't know how to tackle it."
For Philippa Morrall of Parent to Parent Information on Adoption Services (PPIAS), this constitutes a major unforeseen complication in adopting from abroad. In fact, adopting from overseas is exceptionally complex and expensive, resulting in only 10 per cent of original applications going ahead. But it's understandable that heartbreaking pictures of rejected babies tempt these couples. "They usually don't realise that the baby will be far from healthy," explains Philippa. "If you suffer the kind of mental deprivation that is inevitable from being abandoned at birth in orphanage regimes such as in China, you're not going to be emotionally healthy. You're going to have adjustment and attachment problems almost without question, and they cannot be cured through love. I think a greater understanding about the effects of early trauma is possible, but is currently lacking."
With so few babies available, the approval process itself can be the most daunting prospect to couples considering adoption. "Even those interested in older children - of whom there are more available - sometimes feel they have to be superhuman," says Pat Pearce, who is involved in assessing adopters. In fact, many couples have a very positive experience of the selection procedure, in which they feel able to explore their own concerns. According to Angela and Robert Miles, who adopted a seven-month-old baby: "It was a space in which we could decide whether this was for us, as well as vice versa." Other couples, however, like David and Susan Myers, don't even get past the first meeting. "We were told that our pasts shouldn't affect our application, but we felt we were being interrogated and judged," says Susan. "We were angry because those issues would be irrelevant if we were to have a baby naturally."
Ian Tomkins, of After Adoption, has set up a project entitled "Exploring Adoption" to help couples prepare in advance for such intense feelings as these - that all too often surface during assessment. "It provides couples with a safe, confidential environment in which they can decide if adopting really is for them. In particular, adoption agencies tell us that people are applying when they haven't begun to come to terms with their infertility, which will ultimately affect their relationship with their adopted child. Some people even think, 'We're here to do you a service. What's your problem?' But adoption needs to be seen as an alternative - with additional considerations like the impact of a past - rather than second best to naturally conceiving."
Christopher and Stella Blakeledge are currently attending the group. "There are times when I cry at the sight of new-born babies, and I've got a lot of work to do in dealing with the fact that I cannot have a baby of my own," explains Stella. "We also find some of the reactions to adoption rather difficult. It's as if people find it hard to accept the thought of us bringing up a stranger, and we need to be able to deal with that."
Also covered in the sessions is an exploration of feelings about the growing trend for more open adoptions with some kind of contact between the child and birth parents. "It is unusual for face-to-face contact to be maintained," explains Ian Tomkins. "But most adoption agencies hope the prospective parents would feel comfortable about meeting the birth parents before the adoption. Experience has shown that the more the adopter can tell a child about origins, the more self-esteem the child is likely to have. Comments like 'You've really got your dad's talent there' can help enormously. In terms of ongoing contact, written correspondence is most common. But again, that can be a painful reminder of infertility where it hasn't been accepted."
Single mother Helen Ruffhead, on the other hand, regrets that there is no contact with the mothers of her two adopted sons, Michael and David, both of whom have Down's syndrome. "I used to receive lovely letters from David's mother, which would be so beneficial for David when he's older, but then she stopped writing and my letters were returned unopened. And I wish Michael's grandparents - who used to visit him in the foster home - would visit him now. I recently spoke to another adoptive mother of a Down's child, and the natural mother had visited her boy for his second birthday, and I actually felt envious."
Helen's situation illustrates the increasing types of families and children who gain from adoption. Gone are the days of adopters being a rich, thirtysomething, middle-class couple living in the country. In fact, many experts feel single carers are more focused on the child, as opposed to the other adult in the relationship, as well as being more committed than typical married couples because they have more to prove in the assessment. "Until recently, children with special needs like my sons would have been labelled not suitable for adoption whereas Down's syndrome children are now extremely sought after," adds Helen, whose decision to adopt was a result of her interest in learning difficulties and her love of children.
Sometimes the harsh realities of modern adoptions means prospective adopters won't end up with the family they originally dreamed of. But the changing nature of adoption, which continues to focus on healthier family relationships and improved identities of adopted children, has to be positive. And often, like Helen, prospective parents will wind up with something even more fulfilling than they'd hoped for.
For further information on adoption, call the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering on 0171-593 2000Reuse content