Adoption organisations will be bracing themselves today for the inevitable reaction to last night's heart-rending Channel 4 documentary Return to the Dying Rooms. The pictures of neglected, Chinese children living in appalling orphanages, emaciated and starving, will spur thousands into wanting to rescue those tiny abandoned girls. A similar emotional outburst followed the exposure of conditions in Romanian orphanages in 1990. At the BBC, where I then worked, we were swamped with calls from people asking how to adopt the baby in the third cot from the left.
Is this a natural outpouring of human kindness, or a voracious and dangerously sentimental wish to possess pitiful-looking babies? There has always been a rather lofty contempt for desperate infertile Western couples who set off to adopt foreign babies, as if they were predators upon the world's poor families, rather than rescuers. With virtually no healthy newborn babies available for adoption in Britain, more couples seek babies abroad. But often they find themselves treated by officialdom not as saviours, but as marauders.
Illegal baby-trafficking in some countries lays them open to charges of colluding with kidnappers. And even when adopting from countries with well-organised official procedures, couples often encounter deep ideological hostility in this country.
But what harm is there in the rich world taking in the poor world's rejects? As inquiries about adopting Chinese children crescendo, the Overseas Adoption Helpline has already had 1,800 requests for information about Chinese baby girls. China is now the single favourite source of babies for British would-be adopters.
A recent reciprocal agreement between Britain and China has meant that 70 baby girls have been adopted here so far, for the Chinese have no ideological problem with exporting the babies they find so hard to care for. The Chinese stipulate that foreign adopters must have a "home study" report from their local authority (for which the parents must pay up to pounds 3,000), to certify that they are suitable. In addition, they must be childless, over 35, and their papers have to be sent to China through the British Department of Health. The couple pays $1,000 to the Peking government and $3,000 to the orphanage for past care of the child. This appears to be an example of well-regulated adoption.
But not in the eyes of some British social services departments. They take their political cue from the powerful umbrella organisation, British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering, which has traditionally opposed inter-country adoption.
These days, through audibly gritted teeth, the BAAF has relented a little. Felicity Collier, their director, says: "We believe that wherever possible children should be cared for in their country of origin - though we do accept that occasionally where the problems are so acute, inter-country adoption may be the only root to survival. We feel countries should be helped to care for their own children."
BAAF's attitude reflects a sizeable part of social work thinking. Many prospective adopters still encounter suspicion and sometimes downright hostility from local authorities, who are under no legal obligation to provide the crucial home study reports.
Social workers' distaste for transcultural adoption was fuelled by the Romanian orphanages scandal. The extraordinary scene of thousands of Western couples descending on Bucharest, clutching wads of dollars in search of babies, was a disturbing spectacle - yet no doubt a great many babies were saved from death.
Now the Romanians have virtually closed their doors to adopters as a matter of national pride. This pleases Ms Collier, who says: "They are now recruiting families locally to come forward and adopt, and their child- care facilities are of much higher quality ... I understand Romania no longer has a problem."
This comes as bewildering news to the Romanian Orphanage Trust. Their director says there are still 90,000 children in terrible orphanages filled to overflowing. Many are abandoned by parents who cannot feed them, because of extreme poverty, and they become too severely retarded ever to return home. The illegal trade in Romanian babies still flourishes, with orphanage officials selling babies abroad in large numbers.
The Trust supports foreign adoptions, although it accepts this is never going to be more than a marginal solution to the problem of abandoned children. It is working with the Romanian government to try to divert the pounds 100 a month it costs to keep a child in an orphanage towards providing far cheaper help for families, where the average wage is pounds 50 a month. They see no contradiction between these two policies. If some helpless dying children can be saved by foreign families, that does not hinder the attempt at creating a welfare system to prevent more children being abandoned. They take a practical, not an ideological, view.
The O'Curry family is among those to have fallen foul of the ideology of their local authority. Four years ago they adopted a seriously backward child from a Romanian orphanage. They want to adopt her two sisters, so neglected that they cannot feed themselves, walk or talk. But true blue Buckinghamshire County Council, hardly a bastion of political correctness, has refused permission, although Mrs O'Curry is a special needs teacher.
Other local authorities still obstruct foreign adoptions: Hammersmith and Fulham uses the simple device of putting requests for home study reports at the bottom of the pile. But an interview with Josephine Kwhali, assistant director of quality assurance and planning, who chairs their adoption panel, reveals all the ideological baggage that underpins this issue.
She says the reaction to last night's film will be "emotional", with couples falling for the charm of "sweet little babies" but she doubts they will cope with the child's needs for identity and cultural roots. She questions many adopters' "value systems" and wonders why they don't try to adopt from Rwanda. "We can't try to save all the world's children - we may have contributed to many of the world's problems in the first place." She draws on the experience of black British children brought up by white adopters, who, she says, suffer serious problems with their racial identity in a racist culture.
The basic question she and others don't address, however, is whether a suitable adoptive family is one that rescues a child from certain death?
Among some social workers there remains an instinctive distaste for people who want to adopt healthy babies - middle-class, grasping, only in it for themselves ... Why, some of them ask, don't these selfish couples want difficult British 10-year-olds from a life-time in care, or children with disabilities? Because most ordinary people hope and pray they don't have difficult or disabled children. Those who do adopt hard cases are remarkable and admirable people - but why should the unlucky infertile be expected to predominate among them?
Adoption from abroad will never solve the starving world's problems, but each one is at least one child saved. If the risk of emotional scarring is so serious, perhaps the Chinese and Romanians would be kinder if they killed them all quickly? Looking at those desperate babies in last night's film, the humane answer for those with no chance of escape might well be yes, but I doubt any social worker would dare say so outright.
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