Australia – 21 april 2018
Published in The Australian
According to the experts, it comes down to two simple words. To look after a child, the adult must be willing and able. If the adult is willing but unable, or able but unwilling, the needs of the child will not be met.
In 2015-16, more than 46,000 Australian children were taken from their parent or parents. Most of these children were under the age of five and, although they were placed in out-of-home care, 60 per cent of them were placed with extended family. During the same period, 278 adoptions were finalised.
That leaves thousands of kids who are bouncing around the foster care system from family to family. Experts say these kids want “forever homes” and the permanency of adoption.
However, the overseas experience is that adoption isn’t perfect and it isn’t always forever. Adoptive parents have the right to give children back if it all proves too much. This surely has to be a horrifically damaging event for the child.
It is estimated that there are 4000 children in foster care who are eligible for adoption. Although child protection and adoption are governed by the states, a federal government inquiry has been announced into whether there are unnecessary barriers to adoption, whether a national adoption code should be established and what that code might look like.
Committee chairwoman Julia Banks is to be congratulated for the initiative because a national adoption code would bring consistency of practice. Nevertheless, no doubt the inquiry will step carefully because adoption is a sensitive topic, given its shameful history.
In the past, forced adoption practices separated people and their babies. The closed adoption era created a “baby scoop” generation where infants were seen as blank slates and handed over to infertile couples. Their original birth certificates were sealed and new ones issued showing the child with a new name and the adoptive couple as the parents. The child lost their legal identity and a new one was created. They were legally severed from their biological family, and had no access to medical records and no right to inheritance consideration.
In 2013 Julia Gillard, then prime minister, gave a national apology to the victims of forced adoption. After an inquiry, the government recognised that past practices left perhaps hundreds of thousands of people with deep wounds that would not heal.
It is assumed by many that while closed adoptions are bad, open adoptions are good. An open adoption is where the child knows their biological mother and father, and has regular contact with them throughout their upbringing. Open adoption may be better than closed adoption; however, it may not, and in any case it is hardly a perfect scenario.
American psychologist and family therapist Claude Riedel puts it really well: “It removes the mystery but it doesn’t remove the grief. The reality is, at certain stages, it’s normal to have questions: why did you choose not to parent me, not to keep me? And there may be complexities: have you kept your other children but not me?”
It seems impossible to talk about adoption without hurting somebody and incurring backlash. It is even harder as an adopted person to explain to non-adopted people what being adopted is like. The adoption experience is different for everyone, but a fundamental truth is this: a child wants their mother and father. No amount of pretending this isn’t the case will change the facts. Biology matters. Sorry if that offends.
As an adopted person, I do not purport to represent all adopted people. Nevertheless, I stand with them as a committed advocate for adoptee rights.
Adopted people are the ones most affected by adoption. When we are children, we have no voice; when we are adults, our voices are ignored. And many adopted adults are too shattered to cope, let alone speak.
Banks says the children of Australia are “our future” and that we must “act in their best interests at all times”. Her committee will review the number of adoptions and determine whether our various adoption systems work in the best interests of children.
A child-centric adoption system would not erase the identities of children. It wouldn’t abolish their birth certificates and create new ones with new names, in a grand game of pretence. In a child-centric system the child would never be separated in law from their parents, removed from their family tree and lose their rights.
Naturally, in practice they might reside elsewhere for the term of their childhood, and their carers’ need certain rights to bring them up, obviously.
A child-centric system would allow all adult adoptees who have had their identities changed in the past the right to end or annul their adoption and change their identity back, returning in the eyes of the law to their biological family. This should be a “no fault” process and simple for the adoptee to achieve.
The committee will accept written submissions until May 15. Adopted people have an opportunity here to make submissions and shape how a national code may look.