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Long road to adoptions.

Byline: By Jamie Diffley

South Shields MP David Miliband caused a stir when he adopted a child from America, but adopting from abroad is relatively common. Jamie Diffley takes a look at the issue.

Every Christmas was the same for Heather Gofton. Come the end of the school term, the teacher would say goodbye to the last of the children and head off to a lonely home.

Heather had been a teacher most of her working life but was unable to have children. When her pupils left for the holidays, they took Christmas with them.

"It was heartbreaking and every year was the same," says Heather. "Christmas ended when the school broke up. That was my Christmas. I had spent my life with children and desperately wanted one of my own but I couldn't."

This Christmas was not cancelled for Heather. For the past five years she has had company in the form of Ella. Her daughter.

Heather, now headteacher at The Drive Community Primary School in Felling, adopted her from an orphanage in Shenzhen, southern China. Ella was just 16 months old when they first met, an emotional experience that will stay with Heather for ever.

"I was beside myself when Ella walked in the room. I couldn't believe that I was going to get this beautiful little girl," says Heather. "She was in a terrible state physically, but to me she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

"I wouldn't believe it was happening until I got back on the plane with her and we were both back home."

In her mid 30s, unmarried Heather, of Cleadon Village, South Tyneside, had approached her local authority to see about the possibility of adoption. The only choice she was offered was a disabled child.

"This was 15 years ago and things were a lot different then," says Heather, now 50. "As a working single mother, it wouldn't have been fair on either of us. I would have had to leave them with someone else, while I went out to work."

Although the desire was still there, Heather forgot about adopting until she read an article about China's one-child policy.

With a population of 1.3 billion, China is the most populous country in the world and introduced its policy in 1980 to halt the growth of the country. As a result thousands of babies grow up in orphanages, often in poor conditions.

When Heather first saw her Ella had a host of ailments, including rickets and eczema. Her stomach was bloated and she had a shaved head.

Today Ella is the picture of beauty. Now six she is a pupil at Cleadon Village Primary School and doing well.

Meanwhile pressure is mounting on David Miliband to reveal if he speeded up his application.

The South Shields MP and his American-born wife Louise were present at the birth of their adopted son Isaac James on December 13, before returning from the US on Christmas Eve.

Although Mr Miliband is staying silent on the issue, people like Heather had to endure an emotional rollercoaster.

For six months she was subject to stringent checks from South Tyneside Council social workers. "They spoke to all of my relatives, my friends and even came to school to see how I treat the kids," she says. "It was very strict, but I wouldn't have liked it if it was too easy. It was reassuring that it was such a stringent process. I could have been anybody."

Once approved, Heather's paper work was sent to Beijing and the process started again there. After a long 18 months Heather was finally sent a photograph of a baby girl. But it was a false dawn.

"I didn't get to choose, I was just sent a photograph of this beautiful baby," says Heather. "I sent a businessman who was based in China to the orphanage to see her in the flesh. When he got there he was told the girl had died. It was like a bereavement. I cried and cried and cried.

"The whole process was a lot to go through, but Ella is the best thing that has ever happened to me. Our first Christmas together was magical. She spent four days unwrapping all the presents I bought her.

"It took two years but it was worth it."

Throughout the process Heather was given help and advice from the charity Oasis (Overseas Adoption Support and Information Services). It is made up of volunteers who have all adopted from overseas.

Helpline co-ordinator Maxine Caswell said there were many reasons for people taking this step, but mainly so parents can have a baby.

Of the 5,200 children on the UK's adoption register last year only two per cent ( 120 ( were under one-year-old.

"There are very few infants to be adopted in Britain," says Maxine. "Most people want to start a family with young children for all sorts of reasons. Perhaps they have tried to have a baby but can't conceive. They look to adopt but might not feel comfortable with older children.

The vast majority of the children up for adoption in Britain will be sibling groups or older children."

According to Government figures 286 children were adopted from abroad in 2003. Celebrities who have done it include Angelina Jolie and Mia Farrow.

For those that are thinking about, Maxine said, people have to expect setbacks.

But for mums like Sharon Collins, it is worth it. She already had four sons when she decided to adopt a baby girl from overseas. Her initial choice was China, but was recommended to try Guatemala by agencies.

Freelance language teacher Sharon was 42 when she started the process, which took two years.

"Because I have four birth children, I thought it would be extremely selfish of me to adopt in this country and deny someone else a chance," says Sharon, now 53. "I didn't even consider it. I had always wanted a daughter and chose to adopt abroad.

"It's a process full of pitfalls and I wouldn't recommend it for the faint-hearted. But if you have the tenacity, it is definitely worth it in the end."

It was in December 1998 that Sharon and husband Roy finally got the call that a child had been found for them.

They named her Charlotte and when she was five months old, the family, of Forest Hall, was told they could go and collect their daughter.

"The first moment I saw her she was lying in a pram fast asleep in a little white and green checked dress," says Sharon. "She woke up and smiled at me and I cried and cried. Even when I had her in my arms and was boarding the plane home, I kept thinking I would get a tap on the shoulder and someone would take her off me."

Charlotte is now six and attends La Sagesse School in Jesmond.

The youngster is learning Spanish and her family have never shied away from the issue she is adopted. When she is older Sharon said they will go to Guatemala.

The issue of identity is also important to Heather Gofton and Ella.

"I want Ella to be proud of who she is and where she comes from," says Heather. "I want her to be proud to be Chinese and proud to be a Geordie."
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Copyright 2005 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Date:Jan 6, 2005
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