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Speed-Dating for Toddlers: A Solution to Britain's Adoption Crisis?

24/03/2014 12:10 GMT | Updated 21/05/2014 10:59 BST

Critics have slammed them as 'cattle markets for kids' and 'speed dating for toddlers'. They've been branded 'Babies 'R' Us' parties or 'shopping expeditions' for children.

Controversy abounds. Welcome to the world of adoption parties.

Officially known as 'Adoption Activity Days', these events involve herding 30-odd adopters together with a batch of 50 children from care homes. Throw in some magicians, entertainers, music and food and you have a party. Ideally, by the end of the day, prospective adopters will find a child that they will give a permanent home.

At first glance, it conjures images of some Dickensian orphanage where downtrodden children are lined up for wealthy couples handpick their favourite. At first glance, it seems like the commodification of children. At first glance, red flags are raised.

At first glance.

In reality, nobody is hastily corralled into some dingy church hall for a fashion parade where would-be parents bid on children they like. These are meticulously planned, fun-filled gatherings run by professionals. Unorthodox maybe, but they are finding homes for Britain's most vulnerable children.

Just 5% of the 93,000 children living in UK care homes are adopted each year. The shortage of adopters is systemic. The stream of children is constant. In England, 6,000 children are ready for adoption but there are just 1,800 approved adopters.

Most adopters have an 'ideal' child in mind. Rarely is it a severely abused child, one with mental health or learning disabilities. They want young children with straightforward histories. They want 'easier to raise' babies and girls. Older children, siblings, minorities and traumatised children struggle to find 'forever families'.

Yet care homes are not littered with babies. Just 6% of children in care are under 12 months old. Over 50% are ten or older. Half of all adoption orders are now consented by birth parents meaning these children were abandoned. They have legacies of neglect. Around 60% suffered abuse.

The harsh truth is that, on paper, they are unappealing to adopters.

Traditionally, prospective adopters 'choose' children from written descriptions, pictures or DVDs before assessments and 'matching panels' begin. The bureaucratic hoopla ensures that it takes over two years for a child to enter care, be placed for adoption and welcomed into a new family. Just navigating the courts takes 55 weeks.

Delays and 'unappealing' backstories mean these children languish in long-term care where every year, their chances of adoption fall by 20%. The older they get, the less likely they will 'attach' to new parents, achieve academic success or have stable relationships.

In care, the likelihood of crime, drug and mental health problems increases. Almost 40% of young offenders and 27% of adult prisoners were cared for children. Only 6% go to university, one third possess no formal qualifications and only 13.2% obtain five GCSEs (the national average is 57.9%). A quarter of young women leaving care are pregnant or already have children. Nearly half become mothers by the age of 24.

Minimising time spent in care is crucial. That's where the adoption parties come in.

The parties aim to find parents for 'hard-to-place' children. In theory, the meetings make adopters more open to those they may not consider on paper. Adopters can see intangible qualities that cannot be translated by rigid bureaucratic processes. There's no chemistry in flicking through paper catalogues. Temperament or personality can't be judged on paper. You can't hold the hand of a photograph.

In America, matches made at adoption parties constitute almost half of all placements. In Massachusetts, they have a 30% placement rate compared to 11-14% when profiling children in the media. The British Association of Adoption and Fostering has just completed five pilot parties where which identified permanent homes for 42 of the 225 attendees. That's a 19% placement rate - already higher than the 14% of matches made by traditional methods.

Predictably, critics have pounced. Former Barnardo's Chief Executive likened the scheme to Battersea Dogs Home. Others fear that early interaction stokes emotional involvement without proper understanding of the child's trauma and if no match happens, will children feel rejected, when rejection is already apposite for them?

Even with those risks, the Government's adoption adviser believes the parties energise the adoption process and address the "scandal" of black children waiting longer in care. Other adoption agencies welcome children's involvement. Normally, adoptees are voiceless; social workers, adults and judges make life-altering decisions without consulting the person whose life is altered.

Nobody is sugar-coating the situation. It's no secret that this is a last resort when all traditional methods have failed. It's not a free-for-all either. The adults are approved adopters or deep into the process. The most emotionally fragile children are not invited and the child's age or history is not revealed.

The risks are real but the alternative is vulnerable children remaining unplaced. There are some moral difficulties to wrestle. Some people might look for the most charming child. Not everyone will find a match, but how is success defined? What if even one child's life is changed immeasurably because of the party?

In an ideal world, nobody would need to be adopted, but this is not an ideal world. Adoption parties cannot prevent a child being taken into care, but they can help take them out of care. They give 'hard-to-place' children a greater chance of placement. They tackle some endemic problems in the adoption process. They put the heart back into an emotionless administrative process. These 'cattle markets for kids' mark a revolution in an increasingly moribund adoption process.

They might just be the answer to Britain's adoption crisis.