(image via Child & Family Services/State of Utah)
By all means, the early childhood experience of Nigel was tough.
Having been placed in foster care at age three, Nigel and his brother were passed through twenty different homes before finally being placed in permanent care when he was six. The interruptions this created in terms of social interaction necessitated extensive counselling.
Reported on the ABC’s Lateline program in 2013, Nigel’s case (first name given only) case is far from the only example of children having negative experiences in out-of-home care. Another case reported by the ABC earlier that year involved Haydon Frost, who was 22 at the time of the report but had not been able to get his licence despite having a steady job as his upbringing involving 39 different foster care placements meant he had not had anyone to sit with him in order to accumulate the 120 hours of supervised driving required before sitting the test.
The above cases demonstrate why some in Australia would like to see fewer children placed in out-of-home-care and more given a permanent home through adoption. Writing on the ABC web site in 2015, for example, Dr Jeremy Sammut, a research fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies, argued that constant entries into and exits from the out-of-home care system were damaging for children, who needed a sense of permanence and stability.
Unlike foster care and other forms of out-of-home care, adoption involves the transfer of legal rights and responsibilities for the permanent care of children from the natural birth parent(s) to their adoptive parent(s). Once an adoption order is granted, the legal relationship between the child and their birth parent(s) is severed and the adoptive parents assume full rights to and responsibilities for the child in question as though they were natural birth parents.
All up, data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare indicates that the number of adoptions finalised throughout Australia dropped by around three-quarters from 1,052 in 1991-92 to 278 twenty-five years later in 2015-16. This includes 196 children from Australia and 82 from overseas. Adoption numbers for Australian children have stabilised since 2004 (overseas adoptions continue to decline) but remain down on 1991-92 levels by 81 percent. Recently, there has been an emphasis on ‘known’ adoptions by those with whom the child is familiar (e.g. family members, step parents or carers): these now account for more than half of all adoptions of Australian children.
Should Australia seek to reverse the decline?
According to Renee Carter, Chief Executive Officer of not-for-profit organisation Adopt Change, the answer is yes. Adoptions, she said, offer children a sense of permanency and normality which in turn facilitates better life outcomes. This contrasts with the out-of-home care system whereby Carter says children spend an average of twelve and a half years being bounced around within five, ten or twenty families. Many children who come through the out-of-home care system, she said, experience problems with unemployment, education, teenage pregnancy and interaction with the justice system. Staying within the system, she says, marks these children as ‘different’, adding further trauma to that already experienced.
“Adoption provides a new family relationship and so it provides a lot of security to children and a sense of permanency,” Carter said.
“When we look at children within out-of-home care, we are talking about children who have already suffered trauma. We need to provide them with the best opportunity to have stability. That’s part of the healing process. It’s not a cure-all, but it can be a big part of it.”
Professor Darryl Higgins, Director of the Institute of Child Protection Studies at Australian Catholic University and former Deputy Director (Research) at the Australian Institute of Family Studies, disagrees. During the period of the early 1970s, he said, adoptions peaked at around 10,000 per annum. In those days, he said, there were a large number of forced adoptions, and the needs of adoptees as well as natural birth parents often played second fiddle to those of prospective adoptive parents.
When it comes to child protection, Higgins says Australia has moved beyond issues of parental ownership and had recognised that vulnerable children need to be supported in a range of ways. A large part of this, he says, involved working with parents to enable children to have safe homes with their natural family.
Rather than pursuing more adoptions, Higgins says the focus should revolve around reducing the number of children coming into out-of-home care through early intervention and improving operations within the system to maximise the chance of successful reunification. Throughout much of the research he performed during his tenure with the Australian Institute of Family Studies, Higgins says critical themes which consistently arose surrounded the importance from the perspective of children of having a sense of identity and understanding where they came from.
In respect of adoption, Higgins fears the severing of legal ties creates complications in terms of natural family reunification. Furthermore, he says evidence supporting notions that those being considered for protective orders would necessarily be better off through being adopted was scant.
Given Australia’s past history with adoption – especially with those from the indigenous community – he says the onus is on those calling for greater adoption numbers to prove their case.
“With the call for turning around the trend in relation to the lower number of adoption in Australia, there are a whole range of claims made but there is actually no evidence to show that if people who are currently being considered for a child protection intervention were to be adopted that that would produce greater safety, stability or wellbeing outcomes,” Higgins said.
“I have never seen anybody put up evidence to say, ‘this is a study that shows that we experience better outcomes (with adoption)’. Of course, partly that is because it would be difficult to design a research study that would measure that.
“In the absence of that, we have claims made on the basis of rhetoric. People look at the instability within the out-of-home care population and therefore claim that because there are inadequate things going on in the child protection system that therefore adoption is the answer.
“That is a leap of faith. There is actually no evidence to connect those two things together.”
Carter disagrees about Higgins’ point regarding the severing of legal relations between adoptee children and their birth parents. Whilst acknowledging the need for children to maintain a sense of identity and understanding about their background, she says this is allowed for under current practice in Australia of ‘open adoptions’ whereby contact with the child’s birth family is maintained. This contrasts with the closed system of adoption which was common under the early and middle part of the twentieth century which involved the sealing forever of an adopted child’s birth certificate and the issuing of an amended birth certificate which established the child’s new identity.
That said, she says Australia should look at options adopted in overseas jurisdictions under which the legal relationship with birth families was not in fact severed and both families were included on the birth certificate.
In terms of improvements to the current system, Carter says Adopt Change would like to see Australia move toward a nationally consistent system, which she said could help to eliminate inconsistency and uncertainly associated with having different rules, processes and procedures across different jurisdictions, departments and agencies. Whilst acknowledging the need for thorough screening processes, she says there are areas where processes could be simplified and red-tape reduced. Changing negative and often inaccurate perceptions surrounding adoption would also help, she said.
Higgins, meanwhile, would like a single pathway for prospective adoptive parents which would involve having demonstrated their parenting capacity, potentially through having been foster parents.
Australia has seen a significant decline in the number of children being adopted.
Whether or not this should be reversed is the subject of ongoing debate.