FOUR weeks ago a boy of seven was found abandoned, shoeless and unconscious, near a pier at Ap Lei Chau Praya Road. He was mentally retarded and had to be taken into special care. A few months earlier, death threats accompanied the opening of a hostel for mentally handicapped people on the now infamous Tung Tau Estate. Residents vandalised the building, smashed windows, daubed death threats on the doors, and made threatening telephone calls in a hate campaign fuelled by their fear of the mentally handicapped. These actions are a shocking manifestation of the Hong Kong public's narrow minded and ill-informed attitude towards mental handicaps. In the light of such bigotry what chance do the territory's special needs children have of being adopted? The figures tell the story: The numbers of prospective adoptive parents and children waiting to be adopted are similar. There are 66 potential parents, 20 of whom have been screened, with 44 undergoing screening. There are 77 children, 13 in the process of being matched with screened applicants, and seven with overseas families. That leaves a potential 53 parents for 57 children - except all the couples are competing for eight healthy babies. None are willing to take one of the seven children diagnosed as having health problems, but normal intelligence quotient, or one of the 42special needs children with a mental handicap. This year, only one special needs child in Hong Kong found a home locally - with a Caucasian couple. For the rest, the long search for a new family usually takes them overseas. Overseas adoption is a lifeline for Hong Kong's special needs children. Ignored and abandoned by local people who are ashamed, embarrassed, and scared of the handicapped, overseas couples are often their only hope. In 1992, four special needs children went overseas. Seven more are currently being matched for adoption abroad. ''No one in Hong Kong at the moment is willing to take a special needs child,'' said Katherine Shin Yeung Kwan-man, Chief Social Work Officer for Family and Child Care in the Social Welfare Department (SWD). The department is working to change public attitudes towards mental handicaps, and in the process boost the chances of local adoption for children. It is organising public education programmes and injecting increased resources into public special needs facilities. Mrs Shin said parents in Hong Kong were still afraid and ashamed to admit they had a mentally handicapped child. ''People used to be ashamed of bringing them out in a wheelchair,'' she said. ''There are a lot of myths about the mentally handicapped. People think they are violent and aggressive, but the opposite is true. ''Many people have a hard time accepting the mentally handicapped. The first attitude we want to change is that these children should not be rejected. Then perhaps we can get people to accept them.'' Mrs Shin said the department had earmarked tens of millions of dollars for a massive public education campaign next year. ''We need a long-term campaign; people need to be reminded from time to time,'' she said. ''In the '80s, a half-way house was built in Sha Tin for the mentally handicapped. There was opposition. The project was delayed, but public education helped local people understand mental handicap and accept the centre.'' THERE are indications the tide is turning against the kind of narrow-mindedness that has plagued the SWD and its work. ''There was a variety show earlier this year on TVB with public figures, government officials, Legislative Council members, and the mentally handicapped,'' Mrs Shin said. ''In June, able-bodied and disabled people got together on a Hong Kong Tourist Association yacht and learned to sail. ''The Director of Social Welfare, Mr Ian Strachan, opened a shop run by the mentally handicapped and Lady Ford visited her handicapped god-daughter at the Caritas Medical Centre. Both events attracted positive publicity. ''By bringing disabled people in front of the public's eyes, we can show they are not horrible creatures,'' Mrs Shin said. But a bad attitude is not the only obstacle to the adoption of special needs children in Hong Kong. The territory is a ''disability-unfriendly'' place, making it difficult to care for the handicapped. ''There is a housing problem in Hong Kong,'' Mrs Shin said. ''There needs to be changes to make Hong Kong an easier place for disabled people.'' If there were better resources more parents would look after their own handicapped children, instead of giving them up for adoption, she said. In Hong Kong, Chinese families are favoured over Caucasian families for adoption. If a Caucasian couple does adopt a Chinese child, adoption officers offer them counselling in Chinese culture and heritage, focusing on how to help the child identify with its own culture and face up to possible problems in the future. The SWD, Mrs Shin, ''sells the open adoption policy'', advising parents to tell the child about the adoption as soon as he or she is old enough to understand. This means the adoptive parents will have to accept the sometimes distressing fact the child may try to trace its natural parents. ''If you love and trust your child, the child will love you, and the fact that he or she is adopted will make no difference. ''If they find out when they are older, say in their teens, it can cause a small revolution at home,'' Ms Shin said. Once an adopted child is over 21, the SWD will help trace the natural parents to ask if they want contact. If the child is younger, it will need permission from the adoptive parents. Couples apply to adopt for a variety of reasons, but the thing most have in common is that they want healthy, normal babies, not special needs children. Group meetings are arranged for potential parents, at which all aspects of adoption are discussed informally. Once a couple officially applies to adopt, the SWD carries out a home study, a detailed check into the couple's background, income, attitudes, marriage, and attitude towards children. Every couple is carefully reminded adoption is a lifelong commitment. ''It is not like buying a doll,'' Mrs Shin said. Parents receive counselling on parenting, sibling rivalry, education and discipline. There are two parent support groups - one for Chinese speakers, and one for English speakers - for long-term support. Local couples get priority over foreign couples, but the SWD cannot afford to wait too long for the right local family to come along. ''Our policy is to look for homes locally at first. As soon as we feel the chances for local adoption are slim - a year is already too long - we start referring to overseas agencies, the International Social Service (ISS) and Holt, an adoption agency in the United States,'' Mrs Shin said. ''One hundred couples have been processed and approved in the US, Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Most couples want normal children and there is keen competition. Most normal children can be placed within three months at a very young age.'' As far as the SWD is concerned, ''local'' applies to those couples who live in Hong Kong and call it home. The SWD adoption hotline number is 852-3107.