The Reality Behind The Rainbow

1st March 2008

Seeing Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt hopping around the world collecting children to make up their ‘rainbow family’, and Madonna picking up an African child along with her groceries, gives a very glamorised view of intercountry adoption – but what is the reality behind all the pretty pictures?

To find out Heather Harris spoke to parents, agencies and the British Government. Her report shows just what a controversial topic this is, provoking great debate and divided opinions.

Fundamentally, it all comes down to a classic heart and head dilemma. Our emotions tell us that all children in deprived areas worldwide should be given the chance for a better life in the UK, but our head questions how we measure what is ‘better’. Is it right that we take children away from their families and culture – no matter how deprived their existence – to live in a totally alien environment?

Certainly the British Government doesn’t think so, and it wasn’t until the 2002 Children’s Act that the whole idea of adopting from overseas was recognised and legislated for. Prior to that parents such as Michelle Dixon and her husband Philip, who adopted their daughter from Ecuador 21 years ago, had to do it all themselves,

“Our local authority would have nothing to do with it and we had to turn to other adopters and piggy-back on their experience. That was the start of parent support groups, which are still the main source of help as official advice, especially central Government help, is seriously lacking,” Michelle told me, adding that, like many children from overseas, her daughter has serious special needs. She had been damaged in the womb because her pregnant mother had taken drink and drugs.

“It was the flood of children from Romania in 1999 which forced the British Government to act, and Local Authorities to first take on the responsibility for adopting from overseas,” Michelle explained.

Elsewhere in Europe, as in both Australia and the USA, there are specialist adoption agencies established to liaise with specific countries. In the UK, however, both domestic and intercountry adoption are handled at Local Authority level.

As Stevan Whitehead, chairman of the Overseas Adoption Support and Information Service (OASIS) points out, “The whole procedure in this country is very bureaucratic with a lot of different stages to go through. It can take as long as a year just to get on the first step, which is the day-long Adoption Preparation course, and up to four years just to get final approval in the UK.”

For the many couples turned down for domestic adoption at this stage – frequently because of age – the next step is often to look overseas. And this is where the real confusion starts, with the procedure, length and cost of intercountry adoption varying widely from country to country. Some countries accept same sex couples and single parents; other don’t. Some charge thousands and others, such as Thailand, charge nothing. Some are totally disorganised, while others, such as China, have a whole system in place. (This, together with the large number of abandoned girls in the country, explains why 50% of children adopted into the UK come from China).

Stevan and his wife, Ellie who is a Special Needs teacher, adopted two children from Guatemala eight years ago: Veronica, now ten years old, and Ozzy, 11. Both have learning difficulties but are at mainstream school.

“We made the decision to adopt from overseas after being turned down for domestic adoption in 1996. We knew it would take time, but weren’t prepared for the feeling that we were ‘on trial’,” he remembers.

They chose Guatemala as Stevan spoke Spanish and knew there was a strong Guatemalan community in his area of North London. “Living in such a multi-cultural area has been a huge advantage, as the children are surrounded by classmates who don’t look like either of their parents,” he explained, adding that Veronica’s friends include one half Thai/half English girl and another half Japanese/half Italian.
It also means that Veronica and Ozzy regularly meet other Guatemalan children at local social events. Stevan and Ellie have also taken them back to meet their birth parents – something which they felt was very important but which they admit is a highly personal decision, which other couples find too emotional.

“We have also always been very open with the children and told them exactly where they came from, using language appropriate for their age,” he said, while admitting that there are some terms such as ‘Tummy Mummy’ that he hates (a fact echoed by Michelle Dixon).

The most difficult aspect of the whole experience, though, is not the initial red tape, or even their continuing battle to get the right learning support for their children in school. “It is the questions asked by other adults in front of Veronica and Ozzy – like ‘Couldn’t you have children of your own?’ or ‘Are they brother and sister?’”

“I want to shout ‘They are our own, Veronica is Ozzy’s sister’. People just don’t think how hurtful words can be”.

Stevan gave up a lucrative job as a Marketing Consultant to help look after the children, and has worked voluntarily for OASIS for 20 years, although he now feels it may be time to “make way for someone who is less frustrated and cynical about the whole adoption process”.

It is easy to see where this cynicism comes from. The latest statistics show that the UK allowed 350 children to be adopted from overseas last year, compared to 8,000 who came into Spain and 4,000 into France.

“The problem is other countries just don’t like dealing with the UK because they have to talk to over 80 different Local Authorities, there’s no-one proactively going out there and working with agencies overseas. And all the time thousands of children are dying of malnutrition,” Stevan said, in a tone that conveyed just how frustrated he felt at not being able to do more – an emotion shared by all those individuals I spoke to who had travelled overseas and seen first hand how families struggle to keep each new baby alive.

And despite the tide of celebrity publicity, the number of successful intercountry adoptions in the UK is actually falling, as the Government has closed off some countries – such as Russia and Cambodia, and, very recently, Guatemala.

The Department of Children Schools and Families is unrepentant. Their Press Officer told me, “We definitely do not have a policy against intercounty adoption and there is not unwillingness on our part to help but we do have to protect children and their families. We stop adoption from countries for very good reasons, concerned with child trafficking, coercion and systematic falsification of documents.”

I suggested that surely where thousands of families are dying of starvation and disease, there is no place for bureaucracy. Again she stressed that there have to be ‘rules and guidelines’.

“Our policy is based on whether that child cannot be cared for in any suitable manner in their own county, and where the adoption is in the best interests of the child, and with respect to the child’s fundamental rights”.

It’s clearly a fine line between protecting those children and families who can’t speak up for themselves and also helping UK couples who genuinely can and want to give children from overseas a loving home.

Julie Liebling, from the Intercountry Adoption Centre (ICA), agrees: “There has to be a clear and important process to give people the time to really think things through. A lot of research needs doing from both sides. It is lengthy but necessarily so.”

This was also the view of Wendy and Roger Smith who became parents of two Chinese girls, now aged ten and six, after a chance remark from a friend.

“We were resigned to being childless when a friend commented that travelling back from China, she saw a couple with a baby on the plane. It sounds naïve but until that moment I had never thought of adopting from overseas,” Wendy laughed. After speaking to her rather sceptical husband, she then contacted Hertfordshire Social Services and met “the most wonderful social worker who could not have been more supportive”.

Two years, and many gruelling interviews later, and Wendy was running into B&Q to find her husband, with a registered letter from the Chinese Government in her hand.“It was in B&Q car park that we first set eyes on a tiny photo of our first daughter,” said Wendy.

Three months after that, and they were on a plane to China knowing that they would be coming home with their new baby. “Exciting but totally terrifying!”

Both girls now go to a local school and are very bright, although Wendy admits that it is still early days and problems could manifest themselves later in life. “Of course it is difficult for them not having any birth relatives at all and no chance of ever finding them”. China does not offer the same DNA tracing facility as other countries, as there is still a huge stigma attached to mothers who abandon their children.

Unlike other adopters, the Smiths support the lengthy procedures and rigorous stages of approval. “I know we were lucky with the Social Services support we received, but we firmly believed that what they were doing was necessary. Yes, it was tough, and they made us examine every part of our life and relationships but some people are so impatient to get a child that they forget what a huge decision it is.”

”You are being allowed to bring up someone else’s child for the rest of its life so really a few years wait is just a small part of a whole lifetime experience”.

Despite being told that they had to go through the whole procedure again when applying to adopt their second daughter, they remained positive – and this was the main advice Wendy offered to other people thinking of intercountry adoption. “Try and work with Social Services, not resent them,” she continued, “and never see adoption as second best. I could not love my daughters any more. It is the best feeling ever, and I would never have it any other way.”

Clearly there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, even if it does seem heavily wrapped in red tape and can take a very long time to find.

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