HOPES are high that more mainland families will be able to adopt for the first time after last month's announcement that the National People's Congress Standing Committee had started reviewing the Adoption Law. Official reports say the proposed changes include lowering the minimum age requirements for adoptive parents from 35 to 30 and allowing Chinese parents with children to adopt. Foreign adoptive parents will be required to provide certificates of good health and proof that they do not have criminal records. Civil Affairs Minister Doje Cering said: 'Welfare institutions are less than ideal places to promote the healthy growth of unfortunate children because of poor living conditions and the lack of family warmth.' Although the relaxations will not solve the problem of homeless children, they will open the door for more abandoned children and orphans to have family lives. The number of abandoned children has been kept secret but it is believed that millions are living in welfare institutions. Many who are less fortunate are struggling to survive on the streets, even in the wild. Ms Yan, an official from the Ministry of Civil Affairs' legal and policy office, said the legislative process could take several months and a more relaxed adoption law would hopefully be ready by the end of the year. 'Our main principle is to relax the adoption requirements and establish a more standardised adoption procedure,' she said. The amendments were necessary because many domestic adoptions were not registered and were conducted through improper channels, said Ms Yan. If approved, the relaxations would mark a major breakthrough from current practice which some critics say is an extension of the one-child policy. Under the policy, rural parents have to wait five years to have a second child if their first-born is a girl. In cities, parents are limited to one child regardless of their gender. Parents with children cannot adopt. It creates a contradiction in a society which values boys more than girls. On one hand, there are couples who want to have more children but cannot. At the same time, tens of thousands of baby girls are abandoned each year because their parents either cannot afford to keep them or want boys. Chinese parents who already have children cannot adopt even if they can meet the financial cost. Such a restriction artificially reduces the number of domestic adoptions and drives desperate couples to seek illegal adoption, encouraging child trafficking. Officials refused to reveal the annual number of domestic adoptions, but foreign adoptions have soared in recent years. The vast majority of children were adopted by Americans. US statistics show 3,553 Chinese children were adopted by Americans in 1997. Susan Soon-Keum Cox, director of public policy and external affairs for Holt International Children's Services, which handled 485 Chinese adoption cases for American parents last year, said the proposed changes were 'encouraging and progressive'. Joe Kelly, president of the board of directors of the New York chapter of Families with Children from China, said: 'It's definitely a positive development. It shows how committed the Chinese Government is to adoption programmes. 'The new adoption law is the single most popular development among our membership. It's come much to our amazement. I don't think anyone expected it.' Associate Professor Charles O'Brian of the City University of Hong Kong said although more children would benefit from the relaxations, the Government needed a long-term child policy. He said: 'There has to be a plan with achievable targets to deal with issues such as education, family and illiteracy. That's the primary focus. The secondary focus is to look at child care - how to improve care, break up large institutions and develop small home environments for children and raise the level of professionalism so that these children would not be the outcasts of society and be re-integrated into society. These children are victims of the conditions that society created so the community has to take care of them.' Adoption was only an option that helped avoid prolonging institutionalisation, said the professor. 'Even then, the priority should be adoptions in their home country and own culture,' he said. 'International adoption is not going to solve the problem of China's homeless children. At most, it can offer a few thousand children every year the chance of a family life. The long term solutions have to be found in China.' Although more Chinese parents would be able to adopt in the future, Ms Cox was not concerned that the changes would affect foreign adoptions. 'We don't look at foreign adoption as competitive to domestic adoption,' she said. 'It is in the best interests of the children if they can stay in their birth country. However, if they can't, then international adoption is appropriate.'