Adoption should be made simpler, but children deserve to be protected

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The Independent Online

The adoption and fostering of children has always been fraught with complications, and will remain so. It is inappropriate for would-be parents to be allowed to adopt without hindrance - and equally inappropriate to put too many obstacles in their way.

The adoption and fostering of children has always been fraught with complications, and will remain so. It is inappropriate for would-be parents to be allowed to adopt without hindrance - and equally inappropriate to put too many obstacles in their way.

The summit held at Downing Street yesterday was laudable, merely in the fact that it addressed the problem. Coming up with simple answers would imply cynicism or foolishness, or both. It is easy to peddle the idea that thousands of admirable would-be parents are unfairly rejected because of the bureaucrats. But social workers do not take sadistic pleasure in preventing suitable parents and children being matched up; their caution is crucial and well-advised. Admittedly, natural parents come in all moral shapes and sizes. But careful weeding-out of adoptive parents is important, none the less.

The most serious problem is not the cumbersome screening process, but the fact that there is still a mismatch between the 5,000 children who are awaiting adoption at any one time, and the 1,300 parents who have been cleared for adoption but are kept waiting in limbo. The current system is far too cumbersome for the computerised world that we live in. Currently, adopters and adoptees are matched up only by a series of phone calls and correspondence between a host of different organisations and local authorities. It need not be that way. Computer cross-indexing would make it easy to match up a child with a shortlist of adopting parents who meet the required geographic and other criteria. The fact that the efficiency of the system varies so radically in different parts of the country shows clearly that there is much room for improvement.

The pain of childless couples who are eager to adopt is real; it is good if children's needs can be matched up with such would-be parents whenever appropriate. It would, however, be wrong for the adults to dominate the agenda so that their own requirements become paramount. If the process of adoption can be speeded up on the child's behalf, that is all to the good; but for the process to be accelerated on behalf of pushy adults would be to turn common sense on its head. Any would-be parent who has a child's interests at heart should also accept that official caution is all to the good. Adoptive and foster parents may require particular skills because of the difficulties that a child may have experienced in his or her early months or years. All these factors must be taken into account before any decision can be made.

Caution is not the same as prejudice. Under existing rules, neither gay nor unmarried couples are allowed to apply jointly to adopt a child. Both rulings are nonsensical. What counts for a child is an atmosphere of loving stability. Wedding rings are, in this context, beside the point. Heterosexual married couples (including those who have more than enough material wealth) can be appalling adoptive parents. Gay and unmarried couples can be superb and loving parents. Downing Street was quick yesterday to deny reports that gay adoption might be made easier. It is wrong to be so dismissive.

Yesterday's summit was, however, an important start. Health minister John Hutton suggested that 1,000 more children might be adopted each year as a result of the planned shake-up. If that happens, the change can only be welcomed. The fear of endless checks is such that many people rule themselves out unnecessarily under the existing system. The current limbo does nobody any good at all.

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