Page last updated at 01:25 GMT, Friday, 17 February 2006

My adoption Hell and baby Heaven

By Steve Hawkes
BBC News

It is 10 years since Channel 4's The Dying Rooms documentary shocked British viewers with its scenes of Chinese baby girls being left to die unwanted in orphanages.

Childless couples and single women across the UK dreamed of bringing babies into their lives by rescuing them from a nightmare of neglect and abuse in dark and empty rooms on the other side of the world.

On the day it is being shown again, BBC News talks to one woman who made that dream come true.

Andrew and Alison Bernard with Xin Hao Min in China
Xin Hao Min cried as she left the orphanage with her new parents

Alison Bernard had been hoping for a baby from the day she married her husband, Andrew.

When things did not go according to plan, they asked their GP to refer them to a clinic for fertility treatment.

After three years on an NHS waiting list, they were given funding for one in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatment cycle.

When that was unsuccessful, they paid for subsequent treatments themselves.

Eight years - and thousands of pounds - later, they gave up.

But towards the end of those unhappy years, Alison switched on the television and saw a documentary that would change their lives - and that of an as-yet-unborn Chinese child - forever.

The Dying Rooms showed harrowing images of unloved infants left to waste away in Chinese state-run orphanages.

The social worker made it clear the local authority did not approve of overseas adoption and that we would be classed as a low priority
Alison Bernard

As she watched the babies dying, Alison's dream was born.

But it would be another three frustrating years, battling bureaucracy both at home and abroad, before it became a reality.

"We had the adoption from Hell," Alison tells BBC News.

"But now we have the baby from Heaven."

After telephoning their local authority, the Bernards waited a month before a social worker came to see them.

"He made it clear the local authority did not approve of overseas adoption," Alison says, "and that we would be classed as a low priority."

After completing a compulsory four-day adoption-preparation course, Alison and Andrew, now 43 and working on the helpdesk at Cumberland Infirmary, waited another six months before a second social worker came to give them a home-study assessment.

When I opened the envelope, a picture of a baby fell out
Alison Bernard
They then had to have medical tests - which they had to pay for because they were adopting from overseas - and police checks.

Their family and friends were interviewed and the couple had to nominate a "guardian of testimony" who would be responsible for ensuring their adopted child would not become a burden on social services should Alison and Andrew become unable to care for them.

Alison's identical twin sister, Andrea, agreed to let social services go through her financial records to prove she would be able to care for the child.

One year after their home-study assessment, the couple were finally approved for adoption - then things really started to slow down.

Andrew and Alison Bernard arrive at their home in Etterby, Carlisle, with Xin Hao Min
The Bernards' neighbours prepared a friendly welcome
The Bernards' file had to pass through the Department of Health, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), which charged them a fee, and the Chinese Embassy in London, which charged them an even larger fee, before being despatched to China.

They then had to send a money order to China to pay for the file to be translated.

But by the time the translation was complete, their medical tests and police checks were out of date and had to be sent back, re-done and returned, via the health department, FCO and embassy, all of which cost the couple more money and delayed their application by another two months.

Another money order then had to be sent to China to pay for the new documents to be translated.

Alison, a warehouse supervisor, says social services "were deliberately dragging their heels, just messing us about".

Lily Xin Hao Min Bernard with her cousins, Darius, Lloyd, Dominic and Charlotte
Lily's cousins were waiting at her new home to meet her
The couple say the department only began co-operating after they complained to their MP.

One day before Alison's 40th birthday, a plain brown envelope was delivered to their home in Etterby, Carlisle.

"When I opened the envelope, a picture of a baby fell out.

"I was almost sick with excitement.

"I wanted to just jump into the photo and cuddle her."

It took the couple three days to travel 6,000 miles to southern China, with a suitcase full of baby clothes.

But within half an hour of landing in Asia, the Bernards had become a family.

Their new daughter, Xin Hao Min, which appropriately is Cantonese for Good New Person, cried as she left the orphanage.

But after a short nap she woke up smiling and "it was as if she had been with us forever", Alison says.

Andrew and Alison Bernard at their home in Etterby, Carlisle, with Lily Xin Hao Min Bernard
Next week, the family will celebrate Lily's second birthday
The Bernards shot video footage of the orphanage and the street on which Xin Hao Min had been found abandoned 16 months previously - to show to her when she is old enough to understand.

And they returned home to find neighbours had re-decorated their home and clubbed together for toys for Xin Hao Min.

Inside, Andrea, soon to become Xin Hao Min's godmother, was waiting for them, with her own four children playing in the garden.

Xin Hao Min took one look at her new playmates, jumped out of her new mother's arms and ran off to join them, seemingly fascinated by her new surroundings.

"She was touching the grass and leaves like a blind man trying to see," Alison adds.

"That was when we realised she had never really been outside before - the orphanage was on the 16th floor of a skyscraper and they never left the building."

The Great Wall of China
The Bernards want Lily to stay in touch with her cultural roots

Xin Hao Min was soon sitting in the middle of a beautiful patch of lilies, surrounded by her new cousins, and that was when Andrew and Alison decided on her new name - Lily Xin Hao Min Bernard.

Next week, the family will celebrate Lily's second birthday.

The child is learning Cantonese, alongside Andrew and Alison and her four cousins.

It might be better for someone who wants to adopt from overseas to adopt from Cumbria first
Cumbria County Council

New-found friends of Chinese origin have given her Chinese baby clothes, toys - including a bilingual talking doll - and children's books and DVDs.

"They are fascinated by Lily," Alison adds, "and treat her like a little princess."

And by Christmas, Lily will have a little brother or sister to play with.

The Bernards have saved up the 15,000 they calculate it will cost them to return to China, this time taking Lily with them, to adopt another abandoned child.

But this time they will not have to deal with their local authority.

Lily Xin Hao Min Bernard
Friends of Chinese origin have given Lily Chinese baby clothes
Instead, they have been referred to an agency, which Alison describes as "a breath of fresh air".

But the Bernards believe their hard-fought experience, however traumatic it may have been at the time, has brought the family closer together.

"We do not love Lily any more than any parents love their children," Alison tells BBC News.

"But perhaps we appreciate her a bit more."

A Cumbria County Council spokesman told BBC News: "It would be wrong to say we are opposed to overseas adoption.

"However, there is always a difficult balance between meeting the needs of Cumbrian children needing homes and meeting the needs of Cumbrian adults wanting to adopt from overseas.

"And it might be better for someone who wants to adopt from overseas to adopt from Cumbria first."

He also said the couple's complaints about social services made to the Local Government Ombudsman had been rejected.

The Dying Rooms Director's Cut, is on Friday 17 February 2006 at 2100 GMT on Community Channel (Sky 585, Telewest 233, NTL 14 and 511)

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