Social worker Maureen Crank walked past a rough sleeper in Salford and did a double take. The homeless teenager huddled in a blanket was a boy she had placed for adoption 12 years earlier when he was four.
"Back then we still expected a happy-ever-after outcome," recalls Crank, founder of After Adoption. That chance meeting crystallised her growing conviction that people of all ages and backgrounds needed a support group to help them deal with the difference adoption made to their lives.
The grass-roots initiative she launched 16 years ago from her Manchester sitting room is now the UK's leading charity of its kind. When After Adoption began, it had two part-time workers running informal support groups for parents and adoptive adults. Now it has 100 staff in nine offices around the country, providing a wide range of services and responding to 8,000 requests for help each year.
The charity's services include counselling and information for adoptive parents, birth relatives and adopted people, support for those searching for relatives, and finding families for hard-to-place children in care. The charity has forged strong partnerships with other agencies, such as local, health and prison authorities, to develop innovative projects and support strategies. It campaigns on adoption-related legislation, policy and good practice and has a mission to raise awareness.
"Adoption affects one in four people in Britain and its impact is lifelong," says Crank. "In 1990, having worked in family placement for some time, I was very conscious of things coming round in circles. We were seeing adopted adults searching for their origins as well as birth parents wondering about their children. There was nowhere for people to get the different kinds of information they needed."
So what's the story of After Adoption's growth? After a brainstorming session at her home with friends and colleagues, Crank organised a public meeting. "We wrote to all the agencies, statutory and voluntary, targeted local authorities and publicised the event," she says. "The church where we met was packed - people offered help and the result was a fantastic steering committee, including a solicitor, an accountant and individuals from local authorities. That committee built on our existing strategy, setting out a clear mission, objectives and a development plan, which was sent to all the interested parties.
"We presented a paper to social services directors in the north west and asked for a small amount of funding and some seconded staff. We almost fell off our chairs when all but a few agreed."
The charity hit the ground running. Crank, appointed as part-time co-ordinator, arranged training for the seconded professionals and volunteers.
An anonymous donor put £1,000 in cash through her door, enough for a year's rent on a windowless office. "Then a national Sunday paper ran a story about us and we received 4,000 letters asking for help - they all got an answer," she says. "We were deluged because no comparable service existed."
The work expanded fast. The charity pioneered individual, group and family sessions for people affected by adoption. It produced information sheets, organised funding to take services into the community, set up a project for women in Styal prison who had lost their children to adoption and opened the only UK-wide free helpline service for young adopted people.
Crank was part of the task force that shaped the 2002 Adoption and Children Act and lobbied relentlessly to keep adoption support on the political agenda. "We have continued to push for that because we feel it's the responsibility of society as a whole, not just social services," she says. "There's still a huge stigma around adoption, and we want to end that.
"At the start I imagined a time when our services would no longer be needed, but there are still many new opportunities to take on," Crank adds. "Far more birth parents now have drink and drug-related problems.
Support will also be needed around the new legal orders that give special guardians parental responsibility for children where adoption isn't appropriate."
Crank has recently retired and Lynn Charlton has taken over as chief executive. Crank's tireless work for vulnerable people has been recognised by awards. Now planning her new role as an ambassador for the charity, she says: "To have developed a service with a supportive board and good staff - that's a kind of honour and a lovely feeling."
CRANK'S SEVEN SECRETS OF EXPANSION
- Make sure everything you do is part of a strategic plan and be two steps ahead
- Be clear about your direction and don't lose sight of the objectives
- Be open to change and respond quickly to users' needs
- Communication is hugely important. After Adoption publicised its launch and kept supporters on board with newsletters
- Set aside some income for new work
- Stick to your knitting - study new opportunities carefully when they arise, but say no if they're not right
- Keep networking. "It's one of my most useful skills," says Crank.