Adoption might be good for parents, but what does it do for the child?

It is good that the Government is at last attempting to sort out our messy adoption system. The issue has, for far too long, been trapped in emotional fog, professional complicity and defensiveness. Credit is due to Paul Boateng, who first start peering into these concealed corridors when he was at the Department of Health and Social Services. He asked tough questions and was rightly dissatisfied with the answers he was given by those working in social services and the relevant agencies, who found such interrogations an affront.

A summit meeting at 10 Downing Street yesterday began the process of reform. The main focus is on parents who wish to adopt but who, at present, are being frustrated by bad rules and even worse practice. Tony Blair has set up a task force which aims to improve and increase adoption, using bright new ideas.

One inspired idea is to use the internet - through secure encrypted sites - to extend the numbers of adoptive families and to match children with suitable parents. (Though I do find the idea of matching a little strange. Nobody would ever think that my son and I make a good match. He is not the napkin to my tablecloth. What we have is commitment to a lifetime together, however hard.)

The initiative has been welcomed by adoption organisations who believe that the PM has thrown a lifeline to the 50,000 children in care in the UK. An impassioned Tony Blair says: "I want to make it easier for children to be placed quickly. The most important thing is that children are in a loving family rather than a care home, however well it is run."

But I wonder. Is this rush a little too enthusiastic? Should we not be a little more wary of bringing an excess of positive energy into play when we are dealing with one of the saddest and most difficult areas of human life? Adoption cannot be dislocated from social exclusion, family breakdowns and the other endemic problems that cause children to end up in the miserable care chain. Life for an enormous number of British children of all classes is immeasurably harder today than it used to be.

Just last week a compelling book, Parent Problems! was published by Young Voice, a project funded by the Nuffield Foundation. In it, children spoke of divorce and separation. Most are never consulted when their parents decide to part, yet these children - increasing in number every day - have to handle the most complicated emotions and a painful network of relationships. We have yet to accept the emotional damage caused when families disintegrate. Many children from broken families end up in care.

Believing that you can magically procure bountiful parents for beautiful children is playing fairy tales with grim reality. For all the talk of joined-up government, this subject is being treated as a one-off blot on the landscape in a particularly dangerous way. There are wild assumptions being made about the sanctity and healing qualities of good family life. Yet many of these children are so damaged by time they end up in care that they are repelled by the very idea of a nuclear family.

In the last two years I have interviewed 26 articulate children in care. Only two said that they wanted to be adopted. The rest don't even want foster families because, as one of them said, "I don't want a second-hand family who feel sorry for me." Some wait in hope; others have become so hardened that they feel secure only with others like themselves. It is all much darker than I ever knew.

Take this harrowing story. Mary is a white woman from South Africa now living in Manchester. She married well and had a glorious house and, on the surface, all the trappings of an upper-middle-class life, with two clever birth children. But she had ideals beyond this. She was a member of the ANC and worked for an aid agency. They decided to adopt a young mixed-race boy, Rory, who had already been returned (like soiled goods) into local authority care by two sets of adoptive parents. This morning Mary told me that she has only now been told that social workers knew they were giving her a very disturbed young child, but that this was an "experiment" to see if good parenting could cure him. It didn't.

Mary's love for him is absolute. She tried everything, including a specially tranquil boarding school where Rory became a tennis legend. But he carried on assaulting people, including Mary herself , burning things, getting into trouble and fathering a child. In the end he was framed and ended up in prison, from where he has just emerged into the arms of Mary. Rory's birth mother, herself a very damaged mixed-race woman, has resurfaced and abuses Mary almost daily. Mary's husband, meanwhile, has left, unable to cope. She has been suicidal, and is furious about the sanguine way people talk about adoption being the fantasy answer to all our wishes.

As she says, children in care are a mirror reflecting back to us the society we have created. So perhaps we are a little too anxious to put them away behind net curtains. There is little ongoing help available to adoptive parents, even though we know that adoptive children can remain adolescents into their late twenties.

The Post-Adoptive Centre in London, Parents for Children, and other self-help groups do their best, and in many cases adoptions can result in happy endings. In my husband's family we have two such examples. But we do not know how many adoptions fail in the short- or the long-term, creating in a rejected child an even bigger wound than before.

And what happens when the adoptive parents split up (the likelihood of this happening must be very high) or if there are children who have such serious "attachment disorder" that they can never be placed?

Tony Blair is wrong when he says that families are always better than even the best care homes. We need both. And yet nobody is talking about investing properly in making care homes into the kind of places they should be for the children whom nobody wants, or who will not thrive within any family, good or wonderful.

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