Making a child your own

High-profile celebrity adoption cases have focused the spotlight on what in reality can be a lengthy and difficult process. Yet it is possible in the Emirates.

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For many years, Ward 16 at Dubai's Al Wasl Hospital was the first home dozens of children knew. Newborn babies and other youngsters wound up there, some abandoned by their parents. These vulnerable children were cared for by the ward's staff, some for months, others for years, before being placed with the people who would become their parents. Orphaned or abandoned children in the UAE cannot be legally adopted, but they can be placed with Emirati families. While they will not be able to take the family name, they will grow up as Emiratis.

Like Ward 16, Dar Zayed, a welfare organisation established in 1988 by Sheikh Zayed, the late founder of the nation, has a permanent fostering section in Al Ain, as does the Sharjah Social Care Homes Complex. "The abandoned child is going to get a UAE nationality so should live in a UAE culture with a UAE family," said Fatima Mousa, the manager of the complex, which houses up to 19 children. Those applying for legal guardianship are subject to a rigorous evaluation process, which includes family studies carried out by social workers to assess whether the would-be parents are suitable, will care for the children and are in a position to provide for them financially.

Already this year there have been several cases of abandoned children, including a toddler found at a Sharjah mosque in February. More than 200 families are said to have come forward to offer him a home. These children occupy a special place in Islamic tradition and caring for an abandoned child, or laqeet, is considered a highly pious act. Orphans, or yateem, are children of known parentage, but where the father or both parents are deceased.

Lt Col Mohammed al Hosani, the deputy manager of Abu Dhabi Police's social support departments, said there was no need for Emirati children to go into foster care because, if something happened to their parents, they were absorbed into the extended family. "There is no adoption here because the children would continue to live with their family, maybe their grandmother or aunt, because of the strong family relations," he said.

However, the system for fostering children may be about to change. The Community Development Authority (CDA), the body mandated to enhance Dubai's social development, is conducting an in-depth assessment of children in care, including those in Ward 16. "We are currently in the process of transitioning the Al Wasl Custodian Care Programme," Sheikh Maktoum Butti Al Maktoum, the chief executive of social care at the CDA, said in a statement.

The authority is expected to announce new recommendations in the coming months to ensure "the well-being of abandoned and orphaned children". They are also reviewing existing policies and legislation. "Our overall objective is to provide every child the opportunity to be brought up in a caring family home environment," Sheikh Maktoum said. While orphaned children here cannot be formally adopted, expatriate families in the UAE can adopt from abroad.

Many of those who have tried the process describe it as a complex and often fraught undertaking. Caroline and Chris Lloyd, a British couple based in Dubai, have been trying for more than two and a half years to adopt a child from Nepal. They are all too familiar with the pitfalls of the international adoption process, which they describe in their blog as akin to being in a "holding pattern". But, while the process had been long and drawn out, their journey took a tragic turn in August 2007 when they received news they could never have prepared themselves for.

Umesh, the boy they were in the process of adopting, had died suddenly in his orphanage in Nepal. "We only spent five days with Umesh in Kathmandu, but he was one of the happiest and chuckliest little babies we have ever had the privilege to meet," Mr Lloyd wrote. "Leaving him behind was very hard. We genuinely felt he was already part of our family and that the day was drawing closer when we would be able to bring him home to his loving family."

After losing Umesh, the couple started the process again to adopt another child. But just this week the Nepalese prime minister resigned, throwing the country into uncertainty. "Our lawyer is telling us that this new development as far as he can see will cause us indefinite delays," Mrs Lloyd wrote. "A new break in our hearts has appeared tonight." Other UAE-based expatriates such as Matthew Morgan-Jones, a father of four, have come through the difficult process.

Mr Morgan-Jones, who found out in his 20s that he could not father children, had always wanted to be a parent. His children were being cared for at an orphanage in Sierra Leone, run by the US-based charity All As One, when he began the procedure to adopt them. "My first experience with Dauda and Magda was such an anxious time," he said. "It was going along well for four months and then Sierra Leone got a new chief justice and it stopped for six or seven months. That was heart-wrenching."

In the three years since he became father to David and Dauda, both aged six, Magda, four, and Mariama, two, the British expatriate has become an authoritative voice on inter-country adoption for foreign residents of the UAE. "I get about 10 e-mails a month from people asking me about it," Mr Morgan-Jones said. "Some make it, some don't." Some countries do not allow single fathers to adopt, but in Sierra Leone, they judge the situation on a case-by-case basis.

"I actually involved my mother in every stage of the process," he said. "From my point of view it was very important that I showed it was not just me adopting. They would obviously be my children, but I wanted to show that I am supported and have the support of my family. It was important to me to let the country know that I come from a family with a mother and three sisters and the children would have female role models in them."

Those going through the process must adhere to the requirements issued by the country from which they plan to adopt. The situation differs from country to country, but for British citizens such as Mr Morgan-Jones, who is not classed as a habitual resident of the UK, his own country's adoption laws did not apply. "In light of the Madonna thing and the whole attitude of adopting to 'do good', inter-country adoption is not about 'doing good' but about you wanting to be and being totally committed to parenting a child to the best of your ability," he said.

Like many others, he started the process with a home study by a psychologist or social worker licensed in the UAE. Dr Raymond Hamdan, of the Knowledge and Human Development Institute in Dubai, has performed more than 200 home studies and the accompanying 10 hours of pre-parenting classes during his 15 years in the UAE. "There is coursework that is required that talks about parenting and adoptive parenting - whether the person already has children or not or has adopted before or not," he said.

The assessment, for which Dr Hamdan charges Dh9,500, evaluates any psychological or medical problems that could interfere with good parenting, as well as discusses the child's psychological, social, medical and financial needs and their spiritual development. When the home study and parenting classes are complete, Dr Hamdan prepares a report stating whether he feels the prospective parents are capable of bringing up a child.

"Our job is to rule out psychological disorders that could effectively harm the child's life psychologically as well as physically and we are looking for the reason for participating in adoption. For instance, some people may want to get an adoption to save the marriage," he said. "We will quickly inform them that this is not an option." Inter-country adoptions can cost between US$15,000 and US$25,000 (Dh55,000 to Dh92,000), depending on the agency used and the charges levied by lawyers and government bodies.

Once the adoption is finalised the child can enter the UAE with their parents, provided all the legal documents are in place. The child can travel on their own passport and the new parent can then apply to place them on his or her visa. In Mr Morgan-Jones's case, as a single father he encountered no obstacles applying for residency status for his children. "Although locally it is not allowed for a single father to foster a child, this adoption happened outside the UAE so I am the child's legal father and the country allows men to bring in their children," he said.

With no adoption agencies operating in the UAE, many prospective parents also turn to an adoption support group that has been running in Dubai for more than a decade. Members of the group have adopted children from countries including Mexico, Australia, Sierra Leone and Vietnam. Carole Sankey, a British expatriate who adopted two children from Vietnam in 2001, runs the monthly get-togethers. "You need to consider many things," she said. "The main thing is to decide on a country and then, if necessary, get a no-objection letter from your embassy."

Prospective parents should also keep in mind the difficult lives that these young children may have already experienced, she said. For many, it is a long and challenging path, something the Lloyds know only too well. "Would we have started it had we had a Google Map for the whole trip, complete with a full breakdown of the hazards we would have come across on the way? Don't know," Mrs Lloyd wrote of their efforts to adopt.

"I guess the key to it all is what happens in the end. If we end up at the destination we wanted, it will have been worth every tear shed, blister acquired." * With additional reporting Yasin Kakande