Leading Article: A chance to get adoption right

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ON A matter as sensitive as adoption there can be very few valid generalisations. Stir together all the variables - parents, children, social workers - and it becomes impossible to find a typical case. Yet the subject is clearly in confusion, a victim of bad planning, muddled thinking and a lack of consensus on social values.

The imminent appearance of a government White Paper on adoption coincides with a public row over a Norfolk couple who were refused permission to adopt a child of mixed race because, among other reasons, they allegedly had no understanding of racism. Many other cases have surfaced of apparently suitable couples being unable to adopt because of what looked like prejudice on the part of social workers or excessively narrow criteria applied by local authorities, particularly as regards the age of the applicants.

Fashions also change too easily. In the Seventies white couples were encouraged to demonstrate their liberalism by adopting black children; now they are discouraged because of the importance attached to racial identity. A black child may even be wrenched away from a happy white foster family in order to be adopted by a black family, thereby establishing the primacy of race over concern for the individual.

The White Paper seems likely to contain some useful ideas, especially for speeding up and regulating adoption from abroad, and it would sensibly give children over 11 the right to take part in discussions about their adoption. It also contains bad ideas, for example that couples should be asked to pay up to pounds 1,500 to be assessed. This seems unlikely to survive the barrage of criticism it is deservedly attracting. Apart from the absurdity of excluding poorer families from adoption, it seems to suggest that adoption is not primarily for the benefit of children, but a service to be purchased by prospective parents who can afford it.

The main test of the White Paper will be whether it can improve procedures for assessing adoptive parents. The individual cases that surface in the press are not always easy for outsiders to judge. Sometimes the prospective parents may not be as ideal as they think they are, or the social workers not quite as stupid as they seem. Adoption is more difficult than most people think, especially now that the majority of cases involve not babies but older children who are emotionally damaged or handicapped. Even the best-intentioned families can buckle under the strain that this imposes.

But accumulated evidence makes it clear that the criteria for assessing applicants are in some respects too narrow and in others too vague; that social workers have too much power; that some are ignorant, prejudiced and ill- trained; and that applicants have insufficient opportunity to appeal.

Pioneering work has been done by the Children's Society in letting would-be adopters assess themselves in group discussions followed by systematic support and counselling. This procedure, which is also used in the United States, has a much higher success rate than that achieved through the usual interrogation by social workers. Something like it should emerge from a fundamental re-examination of current British assessment procedures.