Leading Article: Handle with care

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IT IS reasonable to assume a creditable humanitarian impulse behind the suggestion of Tim Yeo, Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Health, that procedures should be accelerated for British couples wanting to adopt the babies of Bosnian women who have been raped. The horrific stories of widespread and systematic rape, mostly by Serbs, have been well authenticated by Dame Anne Warburton and others. There can be little doubt that a number of unwanted children will be born. The desire to help is natural and, if it is enhanced by shame at Britain's ungenerous attitude to Bosnian refugees, so much the better. These children will be white-skinned Slavs, so there will be a substantial demand for them in Britain. To say that British couples should give preference to the plentiful supply of traumatised, handicapped or differently coloured children in their own country is to ignore the fact that not every otherwise suitable parent has the skills and idealism to meet the needs of such children. Nor is there much future in arguing that there are countless deserving children in other parts of the world. Bosnia happens to be in Europe and to be undergoing a peculiarly dreadful ordeal. Its children are also of a type for which it is relatively easy to find homes. If some of them can be brought to suitable parents in Britain, the benefit will be mutual. Better to help some than none. There are few clear criteria for assessing relative need among all the claims on our help.

To raise questions is not, therefore, to deny the need to help. Yet the issue requires more than a political decision. In the first place, no one knows how many Bosnian children will be rejected by their mothers. The Imam of Zagreb has already urged that women raped in the war should be treated as special and not cast aside. The care of their own communities will normally be preferable to the hasty loss of their children to foreign families, especially as these families are unlikely to be Muslim. The best help Britain can give will be care and counselling on the spot.

Nearer home, overstretched local authorities will ask where the time and money are to come from for vetting households wanting to adopt Bosnian children. They may also wonder whether lower standards should be applied so as to speed up the processing of hardship cases. The answer to that question should be the easiest. Adoption is a difficult and delicate business at the best of times. Adoption from abroad is particularly difficult, because there are greater problems in trying to match hereditary characteristics and often greater strains as the growing child comes to terms with a different cultural background. Caution, care and counselling are needed. Cutting corners will only store up trouble for the future and probably cost the taxpayer more in the long run. Adoption must not be undertaken in a spasm of humanitarian concern, as some people have discovered who took in traumatised Romanian orphans and then handed them back.

If, therefore, the Government is to give the green light to adoptions from Bosnia, it must also give careful thought to the issues and make available resources to ensure scrupulous vetting of prospective parents. Babies must not be used to earn easy credit for politicians or to gratify the transitory impulses of well-meaning people.