They'll be grown up by the time you get one

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The Independent Online
It's 9.30pm and the phone rings. "What can we do? We've been out to an orphanage in Peru that has agreed to let us take a child once our paperwork's sorted, but our local authority refuses to assess us. An agency says they'll put us on their list but it'll be 18 months before anything happens. We've been trying to sort it out for four months. Now we're stumped." Twenty-five minutes later, I put the phone down. It's the third call of the evening: the others presented equally tangled skeins of red tape created by the various departments involved in allowing a child to have a British family. A child who might otherwise live out parentless days in hard labour in India, or in the sewers of Bucharest, or who might be shot dead in Colombia simply for being undecorative.

This evening was busy for a telephone number passed on only through an informal network. But my evenings - like those of many other parents who had adopted children from overseas - were busier five years ago when, because we'd struggled through the traps, we were regarded as oracles. Then, the grapevine was the only source of information about adopting children from abroad. Now there's more organised help, even some from officialdom. The Overseas Adoption Helpline was set up in 1992 by Virginia Bottomley, then at the Department of Health, who, curiously for a self- help Tory, saw these adopters' grapevines as a sinister "underground network". The helpline has done some good work, but its life has been mean and miserable. And, as it turns out, short. We learnt last week that it faces execution in March.

The helpline started life with pounds 43,000 designed to last six months. Expectations were high: it was to provide a five-day-a-week telephone service, advising on the requirements of this country and of 100 different "sending" countries, from a standing start with no data base. It staggered along with grants until March this year when the Department of Health snatched back 50 per cent shortly before pay-day. Now it opens two afternoons a week and charges callers.

Its demise will save pounds 90,000 a year. So did nobody use the helpline? Well, yes: 13,000 calls in four years (pounds 7 per call) from would-be adopters, social workers, lawyers, doctors - all those involved professionally in a Jarndyce & Jarndyce-like "system" in which prospective adopters' documents (10 sets minimum) have to hit 13 different civil service desks before leaving the country. When a child finally reaches Britain, he or she will still have to be readopted even though British authorities abroad have already approved the deed.

Parents who adopt from overseas are by and large a robust lot. Their politics vary but few of them have expected, or received, or wanted, any help financially even though costs can mount to pounds l0,000 per child by the time air fares, time abroad and fees to British social services and lawyers are thrown into the pot. They do, though, want to have jumped all the bureaucratic hurdles before they bring the child home, and they want to remain firmly within the law.

Ever since the appalling state of 200,000 Romanian children exploded on to our screens six years ago, the Conservative government, in many speeches and papers, has supported the notion of inter-country adoption. The result: most people believe the Government sees such adoptions as desirable.

The Government has signed - and promised to ratify - the Hague Convention, the practical implementation of the UN decrees on the Rights of the Child which recognises the acceptability of such adoptions. The Government has enshrined this in a new Adoption Bill. The result: internationally, other governments think Britain is serious about inter-country adoption.

John Major himself favours such adoptions: some of his senior lieutenants have adopted from overseas, warmly encouraged by him. He even mentioned adoption in his annual conference speech: "I still hear too many stories of politically correct absurdities that prevent children being adopted ... If that is happening, we should stop it." The result: his policy-makers believe he is in favour of adoption.

But what has actually happened? The Adoption Bill was dropped at the very last moment, thus ensuring the chaotic status quo. That leaves just four or five civil servants at the Department of Health controlling the policy and practice of overseas adoption at whim. It also leaves them controlling the purse-strings of the helpline. Now they have cut that. And who, after next March, will deal with the queries once handled by the helpline, some 60 a week and rising? The same four or five civil servants who, unofficially, acknowledge that they are already overstretched. In other words, they will say who is allowed to adopt (a function they've awarded themselves with no basis in law and at odds with domestic practice where local authorities authorise adoption), they will process the papers and they will ration the information.

Even before halving the grant, the DoH's idea was to put the helpline out to tender. A complicated and pricey tendering process was instigated, from which the only experts at the time - the advice-giving parents' organisations - were firmly excluded. Two weeks ago, a letter went out to all tenderers saying that there wasn't going to be a grant anyway.

If asked, the DoH officials will say the helpline's savage end was ordered by the newish minister, Simon Burns, known to fellow backbenchers as the Ranter from the Ranks. He may have gained a housepoint for saving pounds 90,000 but couldn't he get together with his master, Stephen Dorrell, and look at the link between infertility and adoption? Just a fraction of the pounds 10m a year the NHS spends on hi-tech treatment (lower-tech stuff, much more common, goes unrecorded) diverted to the helpline might reap dividends.

Maybe it is hard for the bureaucratic mind to see why DoH money - there for the benefit of British citizens - should go to help children from overseas. But that is a narrow view. Overseas adoption helps British citizens become parents with a stake in the future; it helps desperate children in under-developed countries; it sets up an intricate and highly committed network of private aid for those countries; it brings greater understanding between nations, races and cultures. It reflects the mixing and matching and interweaving of the world's people made possible by modern transport and modern thinking.

If this government, and the next, seriously wants to save money it should look at the real cost of the current bureaucratic beanfeast. Chaos is expensive: endless sending around of bulky papers, phone calls, chasing lost documents, setting up this and closing that, dealing between the DoH, the Foreign Office (embassies in the sending countries), the Home Office (immigration), local government and/or adoption agencies here; keeping all those records in all those different areas ... and much more besides.

Would it not be better to set up a one-stop shop: one set of regulations, one central authority, responsible and accountable and open to the public, able to inform people, train social workers, and govern the behaviour of a variety of specialist overseas adoption agencies? Those agencies, which could be established with seed-cash and become reliant on their own fundraising, would, as they do in other "receiving" countries, organise the actual adoption of a child from beginning to end. Then neither the child nor the prospective parents would have to flail around in a bureaucratic and legal morass that leaves them vulnerable to shoddy advice and practice both here and abroad.

And I would have fewer calls from people driven crazy by the current nightmare. It's not that I resent the time - far, far from it. It's just that they and the children they want would be so much better served by a decent, positive, flexible system. The Conservatives promised one but signally failed to deliver.

The writer is director of The Adoption Forum.

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