Feature

The adoption option

Green Lifestyle magazine

Many warm to the idea of adoption, so we examine it's place in today's society.

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There are millions of starving children in the world – an estimated 3.5 million dying as a result of malnourishment every year – and the global population of the planet is at seven billion, increasing at a faster rate than ever before. Meanwhile, almost four per cent of all births in Australia are IVF-assisted. It would seem that adoption would be on the increase as a remedy to these stark realities, yet in Australia over the last 25 years there has been a 78 per cent decline in adoptions.

Reasons for the decrease are various, including shifting social attitudes to single parents, and changes to the law that allows birth families to dispute adoptions in some cases. Meanwhile, a closer look into the trends reveals that most adoptions are being done by existing ‘known’ carers and, for the first time, last year Australia saw more local than international adoptions.

Why adopt?

“Adoption should only be an option if every other one has been exhausted,” says Janine Harrigan from the Post Adoption Resources Centre (PARC), a counselling and support base for adoptees and parents. “There are a lot of kids in this country who are in need of a family,” Harrigan admits. “However, the best scenario is, of course, if children can remain with their birth families.”

Despite most people meaning well in their desire to adopt, the reality is that adoption is about individuals and shouldn’t be approached simply from the perspective of the parents – it has to be from the perspective of the children themselves.

Harrigan says there has been a shift away from past ‘parent-centric’ management of adoptions. “Historically, adoption used to be a choice for parents who were in need of a child. We need to make sure we’re finding families for children who are in need, not children for parents who are in need.”

Sheri Shenker from National Adoption Awareness Week (NAAW) tell us that “a lot of people are motivated to adopt due to infertility or because they can’t have a biological child of their own”. She makes the important point that an adopted child is not a replacement for a biological child. “People should be very at peace and have come to terms with the grief of not being able to have their own child before they embark on an adoption journey.”

Cate Faehrmann, a member of the Greens political party, was adopted. She says it’s important to look at the root causes of the need for adoption or foster care in the first place. “I think governments need to be providing as much support as they possibly can to ensure that family units aren’t broken up. We need to look at the reasons why babies are given up for adoption. [I believe] we are a failing society if babies are being adopted. Children shouldn’t need to be given up for adoption in the first place.”

Who can adopt?

Being assessed as a suitable adoptive parent is a case-by-case selection process. Adoptions are state- and territory-run, and so the rules on adoption vary slightly across Australia. Each of the eight Central Authorities manages adoptions somewhat differently, liaising with the Attorney-General’s Department for intercountry adoptions.

Adoption advocate Shenker says she would prefer to see a more cohesive approach with the same standards nationally. “A lot of the legislation is very outdated,” she says, adding that some states prevent single people, de factos or same sex couples from adopting. “But it’s also worth noting that some countries – if you’re looking to adopt internationally – won’t allow singles or same sex couples to adopt.”

In terms of suitable parenting, Harrigan says that people considering adopting need to know “it requires different parenting skills and different knowledge about parenting to other children”. As a councillor, she admits that she tends to see the extremes, but that adopted children are often traumatised which makes them hypersensitive to stress.

“Even as adults, adoptees will have issues around identity and the inability to deal with rejection... so parents need to manage these sensitivities.”

How hard is it to adopt a child?

“I have heard so many people say that it’s too hard to adopt a child in Australia,” says Shenker. “But I think if you persevere that you can adopt.”

The Adoptions Australia Reports publicly release all of the available statistcs on adoptions in Australia; the latest 2012 Report is available for download as a PDF by clicking here. Last year in Australia there were 203 applications for intercountry adoptions, about half of which were approved. But there’s little information available on the proportion of approved versus non-approved local adoptions. What is known is that in 2012 there were 333 local adoptions, which is the lowest yet in a steady decline over the last 25 years – much lower than the 1,494 local adoptions in 1987.

In the US, there were more than 20,000 adoptions in 2004, although it shares with Australia a 60 per cent drop in intercountry adoptions since that time. “After the UK, Australia has the second lowest number of intercountry adoptions in the world,” says Deborra-Lee Furness, actor and founder of NAAW who, along with her husband, actor Hugh Jackman, adopted two children. Yet we seem to be part of a broader trend, as across the world the number of intercountry adoptions has declined by almost 50 per cent between 2004 and 2011.

The Attorney-General’s Department insists that among the reasons for the declining international adoption rates are “improved economic conditions and greater societal support for single mothers in the countries Australia has programs with”. According to the department, many of those countries are now doing more of their own domestic adoptions, and they say Australia needs to respect this change.

A NSW Department of Community Services spokesperson echoes these points from a state perspective, saying the department encourages adoption “for the right children”. And, in fact, the domestic foster care system is the biggest source of adopted children, making it a good idea to foster first, with the possible option to adopt in the future.

Waiting periods for adoption are long – once approved, a child’s placement involved an average wait of 56 months in 2012. Also, international adoptions are expensive, reaching the tens of thousands of dollars, says Shenker.

Are overseas adoptions ethical?

To ensure intercountry adoptions aren’t contributing to or causing child abductions, sale or trafficking, the Hague Adoption Convention was established in 1993. All of Australia’s adoption programs satisfy the principles of this Convention, even where the other country is not a signatory.

Just last year the Ethiopian program was closed because the paper trail was not 100 per cent up-to-date. Three years ago, the program with India was shut for similar reasons.

Marg Green from Mosaic, a Canberra-based support group for people involved in adoptions, does not think intercountry adoptions are a good idea. “We’re not a child forever, we grow up and there’s all sorts of problems that can arise from being adopted,” she says, adding that she wasn’t told she was adopted until she was 22. “It has created identity issues as an adult... but when I met my biological mother, a lot of things made sense.” She worries that it would be even harder for someone to reconnect with an overseas birth family.

“We would prefer that all children stay within their kinship, and definitely within their own culture,” says Harrigan. “Obviously there are opportunities as well, but transplanting a child into another country amplifies their stress levels.”

The future of adoption

Ninety-five per cent of local adoptions last year were ‘open’, which means adoptees have some contact with their biological families. Often, adoptive families facilitate contact in a neutral environment, such as a park, but each situation is different.“I think we are going to see more children moving from permanent care into known, open adoption over the next few years,” says Harrigan. In a 10-year high, 70 of the 333 adoptions last year were by ‘known’ carers, such as foster or permanent carers.

Barnados Australia is one organisation that helps to connect children in need of foster and permanent care with suitable families. Louise Voigt, CEO of Barnardos, says: “Open adoption provides children in the foster care system, particularly those under the age of five, with the best chance of having the childhood they deserve and growing up to lead happy, healthy lives.

“There are over 25,000 children who have been in foster care for more than two years. One-third of the children in our permanent care are adopted by their carers… And our permanent foster care and adoption program needs more carers in NSW who want to adopt a child.”

In Western Australia closed adoption is now illegal, and other states are considering following suit. Harrigan sums up: “Adoptees have issues about not knowing where they’ve come from, who they are, who they look like, and even their medical history. With local, open adoptions all that knowledge is available.”

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The author of this article, Caitlin Howlett, was adopted into a loving family because her birth mother couldn’t care for her. She has met her biological family and maintains regular contact with both them and her adoptive family.