Every so often a subject of which one has intimate knowledge makes headlines. Suddenly everybody wants to talk about it and ask for the "expert" opinion. This doesn't happen to me very often, not being an expert on anything much, but the new statistics about adoption cast me, as an adoptive parent, in that role, if just for one day. Only 60 babies were adopted last year in England and what makes this stark, scary statistic worse is that the total number of children up to 16 in care is 65,000, a figure that is increasing fast. This means that there are two thirds as many children in care as there are prisoners in England and Wales (around 87,000).
These are shaming statistics. Let us not go into a possible correlation here. And while there are fewer babies available for adoption than a few decades ago, as a result of less stigma about and more access to terminations, there are still 3,660 infants under one year old in the care system. These numbers are daunting if one looks at them dispassionately and I can't even do that.
To read the magazines Be My Parent and Children Who Wait – where details of youngsters available for adoption are published, alongside a photograph – is to see this crisis up close and personal. Of course, these publications are only seen by social workers and prospective adopters. Perhaps this stuff should be more visible – it's easy to feel uncomfortable about a statistic, then turn the page. It's more difficult to read a heartrending potted biography and see their brave, fragile faces in a photograph, and then turn the page.
The reasons for children being in the care system are myriad, and not all are suitable for adoption; many are temporarily removed from their birth families and will be reintroduced if circumstances improve. But for those who have left their birth parent/s for ever, the idea of languishing in foster care or children's home for years is unbearable (sometimes until they become unsuitable altogether, and can only hope for – at best – an extended stay with a foster family).
By the time children appear in the magazines and on the websites, by the time their details are shared among adoption agencies and not just kept by one local authority who might never have a suitable prospective parent coming forward, a soft, optimistic face can become hardened by let-downs and empty promises. I know this.
I don't make a habit of writing about adoption, not because having created my family by that route, I wish to put the long and painful procedure behind me, but out of deep-rooted protection of and devotion to my two children. We don't have "adopted" children; we have children, thank you. (Although with their blessing I'm writing what I hope is a helpful book about the reality because we couldn't find one when we needed it most.) Meanwhile, because the figures are so dramatically down and because there is a great deal of ignorance and misunderstanding about the circumstances surrounding adoption, I'm a vocal expert for the day. I want you to know how we might fix this.
Children have been kept with their birth families in appalling situations. Basic rights – clean clothes, decent food, cuddles, security – are not observed, and still they remain, while social workers visit and make notes, send in temporary help and try to offer guidance to negligent parents.
I do not agree with this technique. It might seem like abandoning the principle of innocence until proof of guilt but I don't think parents should be allowed to continue to be responsible for a child if they are grossly irresponsible. Let them prove that they are good enough for the job, while their very young children, who will have been identified as at risk quickly, have a predetermined period of respite care – a holiday, if you will.
We need to invest hugely more in our social workers. It is, after all, a job that saves lives. Who among the rest of us is brave enough to make the decision to break a biological connection? How many times do we see small acts of cruelty or unpleasantness and do nothing, because we are not sure, don't want to make a fuss or get criticised for meddling?
Imagine that, then amplify it a thousand-fold. It should not be the job of a 24-year-old recent graduate who doesn't have experience of family dynamics and who can't recognise behaviour that will never change. It's too important. The practice of promoting experienced social workers out of casework must stop.
Then there is the panel that decides whether those who put themselves through the gruelling process of being considered as adopters should succeed. These panels rightly investigate every aspect of an adopter's life – financial, sexual, social, legal – for it is in no one's interests for a child to be placed in a situation pre-destined to fail. (This happens. It is the most brutal of let-downs for children who had, after many disappointments, allowed themselves to believe that life might be settling down.) We are billed as their "forever family". It beats "till death do us part" as a commitment, really. But it is too slow and dependent on participants who have no real investment.
Here's a plan: use the expertise of adopters themselves on the panels that decide who can take home these vulnerable infants, children and teenagers. Nobody can want an adoption to fail less than someone who has battled to make their own succeed. And it is a battle. You don't need me to tell you how great the rewards are for winning. So don't make it easier, make it quicker. There's a difference. With investment and expertise it is entirely possible. Not everybody can be a good parent, but more can than are putting themselves forward. It should be attractive. It's cheaper than IVF; it's a route to parenthood with equal participation for both partners, if a couple; it can successfully be done alone; you even get a (modest) allowance.
One reason so many people seek to adopt abroad is they believe they are not eligible for a baby in this country. It's true that there are not many (although still far too many, as we now know); and that younger adopters are given priority for younger children, but speeding up the process with the most stringent, sophisticated decision-makers in charge helps everybody. But no one deserves it more than those faces in Be My Parent. This is a national crisis. It's worth repeating. Don't make it easier, make it quicker. Nine months start to finish sounds about right.