Adoption in Australia has long been seen as a complex, fraught, cost-prohibitive and lengthy process.
This avenue of caring for children is also marred by our history of forced adoption. Between the 1950s and 1970s, babies of unwed mothers were taken illegally by doctors, nurses, social workers and religious figures, sometimes with the assistance of adoption agencies or other authorities, and adopted out to married couples.
And despite ethical, transparent and legal adoptions now being the practice benchmark, new figures show Aussies are adopting at lower rates than ever before.
A report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that there were only 317 permanent care arrangements finalised across the country this year. The figure an almost 10% drop on last year. The reasons for the decline varies. They included a declining birth rate, a rise in long-term foster care, improved access to contraception and, importantly, social change.
“Having a child outside of a registered marriage is much more acceptable than it was a few decades ago, so adoption is not the option a lot of people are choosing to take,” AIHW spokesperson Mr Tim Beard said.
And while frustrated with this drop, many working in the adoption field saw it coming.
“Anecdotally we saw this happen from chatting to parents and agencies. We are disappointed in the figures.” said Jane Hunt, CEO of Adopt Change – an organization founded by adoption advocate and actress Deborah-Lee Furness.
Ms Hunt estimates there are around 50 000 children in foster care – and about 11 000 removed from violent or abusive families. And she points out that there are a large number of children who can never return to such environment.
“The child needs to be at the center of the focus – it might be foster care just to give the family a break for a short period. But there are other children who are unable to return home and we are advocating that adoption to be one of those options for permanent, loving long-term care like adoption,” she said.
And she believes attitudes towards what it means to adopt are changing. “People now realise that adoption is not forced adoption and kids being taken away. It is about a transparent, ethical, safe fair and open process.”
“I meet women and men who want to and they are frustrated by the system – each state and territory is different, with different legislation, and it takes a very long time, up to five years. That means a child has been in an orphanage that whole time. It can cost also $40 000 for an inter country adoption, that’s cost prohibitive for a lot of people,” she said.
In response to bureaucratic hurdles which deter many would-be parents to adopt vulnerable children, Prime Minister Tony Abbott last month announced the government had set a goal of 12 months as the time it will take for families wanting an ethical adoption process in Australia.
More than halving the wait time has been warmly welcomed and Ms Hunt would like to see the number of adoptions more than double. Barnardos Australia go one step further and are calling on adoption quotas to be set.
But not all child welfare experts believe that setting adoption targets is in the best interests of a child.
Karen Healy is the National President of the Australian Association of Social Workers and a professor of social work at the University of Queensland.
“In Britain, where adoption is common practice among children in out-of-home care, twenty per cent of adoptions fail. It is only two years since apologies were made in Federal and State parliaments following the release of the landmark report into the Inquiry into Forced Adoptions in Australia,” she said.
She also has concerns about the rights an adoptive child has to know his or her biological family.
“The relationship between the child in out-of-home care and their original family is changed forever by adoption. The rights of children to maintain contact with their original family are constrained once adoption occurs. Adoptive families are entitled to move interstate or overseas and have very limited obligations to recognise the child’s original family.”
But despite adoption numbers generally dropping, there is on type of adoption that is on the rise – open adoption by a known carer.
The AIHW report found that almost a third of finalised adoptions were by foster carers, which has steadily risen over the last ten years, thanks to recent reforms in New South Wales.
New South Wales sees itself as the leader in transitioning children to the permanent care of someone they know (such as a foster parent or extended family member).
Child protection legislation which began in back in 2012 and came into effect on 29 October this year also included legislating for birth family contact to ensure “openness” of all future adoptions of children in care.
“Although these figures are heartening, there are still far too many children being moved around in an unstable foster care system whose life outcomes are so much worse than their adopted peers. Open adoption is a far preferred option for children when they are no longer able to live safely with their family of origin and who would otherwise linger in out of home care until the age of 18. Adoption means a family for life,” said Barnardos Australia CEO Louise Voigt.
Open adoption stipulates that a child can have knowledge of their background and contact their biological family but still be part of a safe and secure adoptive family.
Barnardos Australia would like to see other states following suit – introducing similar legislation so that children who can never return home – can swiftly, openly and permanently put in the care of someone they already know and trust.
Is adoption a better alternative than years of foster care? What is the best model for the care and rights of a vulnerable child?
*Antoinette Lattouf is a Sydney based broadcaster and writer. She’s an award winning and Walkley nominated journalist. She has worked at Network Ten, SBS, ABC and triple j. Antoinette is a mother and a wife. You can follow her on Twitter: @antoinette_news