Adopting a child is a slow, painful business. It should stay that way

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Everybody has strongly held views on adoption. Most of us know nothing about what damaged young lives need, but are all too ready to believe that a good adoptive home will do the trick. "All We Need is Love", as the song says.

Everybody has strongly held views on adoption. Most of us know nothing about what damaged young lives need, but are all too ready to believe that a good adoptive home will do the trick. "All We Need is Love", as the song says.

If only, says William Hague, a man of simple messages, children could be adopted within 12 months of coming into care. The periodic media frenzy over yet another story of how "decent" couples were not given the child they wanted (because they are too fat, too white, too addicted to nicotine, not middle class enough...) by "politically correct" social workers recycles the myth that common folk know best what is in a child's interests. Now that we live in focus-group times, the People's Beliefs - based on emotion and hand-me down fables - are becoming increasingly influential, pushing the Government into hyperactivity on several fronts. Some of what is planned will make a big difference.

There is a major review of adoption services going on now. Eight local authorities have already been named and shamed for having the worst adoption records in the country. They are Lambeth, Newham, Northamptonshire, Peterborough, Slough, Barnet, Coventry and Torbay - a diverse bunch, and not just a clutch of "loony left" councils. There are to be national standards for all local authorities, and a Government White Paper is expected before Christmas. A busy task force is already working behind the scenes, trying to improve adoption rates. At present we have 4,000 children in care because of a shortage of suitable parents, and many (not all) would, of course, be better off living permanently with families.

But I have serious worries about all this zeal and its focus. The national performance indicators are concerned primarily with numbers and time. Like the policies on asylum seekers (I suppose there is a connection), the Government wants a faster, firmer and fairer system. Most of all faster, though, because that is most easily measurable, and can then reported in proud speeches by ministers.

We already know that the overall time that children spend in care has gone down from three years and eight months in 1996 to three years and one month in 1999. Are you impressed? I would be if these were hospital waiting lists, where each day counts, but with adoption, where the whole business is so complicated, this may turn out to be very misguided indeed.

I am nervous that this obsession with time will make professionals act sooner than they know they should. For all the bad press they get, and there are some inept social workers around, I think not enough credit is given to the many excellent social workers who have to intervene where angels fear to tread.

There is little doubt that primeval instincts are aroused even among the very young when the subject comes up. My seven-year-old daughter Leila is obsessed with one family story involving the adoption of a child who was taken away from her young mother, and who has never been traced. Why was she given away? Didn't her mum love her? What if she is with a wicked stepmother?

All this happened way back in the Fifties, when such things were common and nothing much was said once the deed was done. But in that long, claustrophobic silence lurks the ghost of the departed child. There is just too much guilt, shame, fear and anguish sloshing about even now, 50 years on, for any healthy discussions to take place. The unanswered questions hum and hover: How did she end up? Was due care taken to place her with good parents? Is she happy?

In October this year, the utterly gripping BBC 1 series Love is not Enough allowed us to observe in detail what really happens and how hard it is to place children and to assess how they will fare in the future. This was reality television at its best, because it challenged your assumptions at every turn, and at the end you understood something that you once thought you knew much too well.

Four couples were shown going through the process before adoption, and you felt for all of them. It was gruelling, at times undignified and offensive, and in all the cases the process only increased the despair of the adoptive couples. But it was necessary.

One couple, Christian evangelists, wanted a child because God had told the childless woman that this was what she should do. With her much younger husband, a spiky-haired blonde who looked very unreliable, they actually ended up with three children. But in the end you saw that he was much more able to cope with this challenge than his partner. Time was needed for this to emerge.

In another case a well-off Kent family had adopted a Romanian child and wanted a Chinese baby next. But half way through, the social worker realised that the mother was turning into an emotional wreck because the biological mother of her son was poor and desperate for them to take another one of her children. She was helped to make the decision to provide financial support to the Romanian mother, and it was only after that that she could commit to the Chinese child.

How can such cases as these be processed with speed? Each child and all prospective parents have different needs. I have just interviewed a family where an adoption is in chaos because one parent has started to feel neglected. For 12 years she was the childless woman whose friends and family constantly gave her sympathy and care. She was desperate to adopt; her husband was not that bothered. They got a lovely, three-year-old, mixed-race girl a year ago under a fast-track system. Now she wants to give her back and her husband is threatening to take the child and move out.

Interviewed on the subject in Community Care this week, Lynda Gilbert, co-ordinator for Adoption UK says: "We need to make sure that the notion of targets does not run away from us and became a numbers game. We must also guard against any increase in the numbers of breakdowns of adoptions, currently running at 20 percent." Exactly so.

Children who have to return into care after failed adoptions probably never recover their faith either in themselves or the world. Increasing that risk for the sake of good statistics does not seem to be fair or right.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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