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What’s holding back Britain’s adoptions of foreign children?

United Kingdom
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A village school in Myanmar

When Ranjiva Prasad, an IT worker from Hampshire, arrived at the orphanage it was so remote he wondered how he’d ever managed to get there without a helicopter. Some 16 miles from the nearest road, the scattering of buildings lay in a distant part of Jharkhand, one of India’s poorest states, some way from the town of Khunti.

He and his wife had come to meet the girl they wanted to adopt as their daughter and bring back to Britain. They knew that was going to be a long and difficult journey and one they might not be able to finish.

‘It’s a process of attrition,’ Ranjiva tells New Internationalist, ‘You end up investing so much in it, that it was like, you know what, if it kills us it kills us. It’s do or die. That was our mentality through the final stages.’

As a country, Britain is the lowest per capita adopter of foreign children compared to any other in the West. Statistics provided by The Hague Conference show the number has declined year on year since 2004, decreasing by 83 per cent to 2015.

A downward trend is common to every country receiving international adoptees, as developing countries become more prosperous and their systems for domestic adoption improve.

But the decline in Britain is starker, and intercountry adoption has now all but ceased. Just 58 adoptees arrived in 2015 – compared to 5,648 in the US, the largest inter-country adopter.

The reasons for this are complex, but one factor is that fewer children are being abandoned in developing countries, according to Peter Selman, a Professor at Newcastle University who monitors intercountry adoption. The fact that high numbers of children are being put up for adoption domestically also plays a part.

Britain is the lowest per capita adopter of foreign children compared to any other in the West

‘More adoptive parents are needed [for domestic adoption],’ says Selman, ‘so the government does not want to encourage adoption of overseas children.’

In Britain, there is a specific set ot policies favouring domestic over inter-country adoptions, according to Selman. For example, families choosing the domestic route benefit from free of charge home studies and social support, and often also financial support. Moreover, compared to the US, Britain has far fewer non-profit private agencies that organize inter-country adoptions and are recognized by central authorities – just one, as a matter of fact.

‘So most adoptions are independent and not many are transracial,’ says Selman.

Domestic adoption was not a viable option for the Prasads though. Unable to have children of their own, they approached two local councils to enquire about adopting domestically. ‘They [Bracknell Forest and Hampshire Councils] do try to match on ethnicity,’ Ranjiva said, ‘In the Indian community here, children aren’t really put up for adoption.’

They were told informally by a social worker that in lieu of a child of Indian background becoming available for adoption they’d be at the back of queue. It was then they decided to look further afield.

‘We knew how arduous the process was and how expensive it was,’ says Ranjiva, ‘but we wanted children. We wanted to share our lives.’

They enlisted the help of the adoption agency Parents and Children Together (PACT), which guided them through a six month period of home study to establish if they were suitable parents. This involved the Prasads taking on voluntary work at a school and nursery, 13 hour long interviews with a social worker and a bill of around £7,000. After six months, they would undergo a five minute meeting with a panel of local community leaders to decide if they were fit to adopt.

‘But those are just little foothills compared to what’s to follow,’ says Ranjiva.

Their paperwork was then passed to Britain’s Department for Education (DfE) who handle intercountry adoptions. A raft of documents must be notarized and apostilled by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) at a cost of about £800-£900, according to Ranjiva.

Families are usually then allowed to travel to the country where they’ll adopt to be matched with a child, but in 2014 the Indian government stopped taking on any new intercountry adoption cases. It took them one and a half years from their initial interview before India started taking on new adopters and allowed them to board a plane to Jharkhand.

‘[We felt] trepidation, nervousness but also joy to finally meet the one we’d share the rest of our lives with. Equally we felt fear that the chaos of the process to date and the promise of more to come, would mean it was also the last time we’d meet this little girl,’ Ranjiva says.

The process of adoption in India was equally chaotic. After a long and arduous battle through the local court system, the Prasads realized one person was repeatedly failing to turn up for the state organised panel that’d approve the adoption. A friend of the Prasads, who was an air conditioning salesman, knew her as a customer and was able to persuade her to attend, after fixing her air conditioning.

The adoption was approved, but although the girl automatically became a British citizen at that moment, she still needed paperwork from Britain to enter without a British passport.

That two months was totally unforgivable for the British authorities. They can issue a business visa in one day. It takes them eight weeks to provide a certificate of right to abode,’ Ranjiva says.

Although the DfE is quick to recognise adoptions from India, the Prasads believe it is not communicating properly with the Home Office who provide the certificate needed to enter.

‘If you’ve got this child who’s not bonding with you [because she’s in another country], she’s bonding with other people. I’ve spent close to £30,000 on this and it felt like a money-making scheme to me.’

The Prasads wrote to their MP to see if he could force the DfE or Home Office into action. They say there were about twenty emails or phone calls before they raised a response. Communicating with the intercountry adoption team directly was not possible.

Cecile Trijssenaar, who runs The International Adoption Guide, a charity offering support to international adoptees and their parents says the problems the Prasads met are the norm, not the exception.

‘The Home office and DfE need to work together so that newly adopted children have no problem acquiring [paperwork] to come into the country,’ she says. ‘Members of the public need to be able to communicate with the DfE Intercountry Adoption Team… the only way families do this is through their local MPs.’

Cecile believes the process is also too expensive and there needs to be more transparency around how the fees being paid by the adopters are spent.

Contacted for comment on the matter, a DfE spokesperson told New Internationalist:

‘We want every child to be in the safe, stable and loving home that’s right for them, and the law is clear that anyone who wishes to adopt a child from another country must be approved and assessed by a registered adoption agency.

‘The Adoption Support Fund – backed by a government commitment totaling £70 million – helps to pay for therapeutic services for adoptive families, and the Children and Social Work Bill will extend support to all adopted children at school to help improve their educational attainment.’

It took the Prasads almost three years to adopt, but now they have returned with their daughter to Britain. She is adjusting well to her new home.

When asked how the government could be doing more Ranjiva says, ‘Why is intercountry adoption not as important as domestic adoption? That’s not been made clear. There’s no recognition that we are one global village.

‘During our training to become adoptive parents we heard the figure that only one in 20 succeed, and I now believe this.

‘You can imagine the complexity that arises from the interaction of so many agencies and the problems that it causes. In our experience it is up to the adoptive parents to solve these problems.

‘We have a fantastic relationship with the orphanage we adopted from and they would dearly like us to adopt another child. But we do not have the energy, despite desperately wanting too.’