FAMILY SECRET: Apr 05, AU Edition

Untold tens of thousands of women terminate their pregnancies every year in Australia. Thousands of others, desperate for a child of their own, undergo IVF and other painful and expensive fertility treatments. And, just to make things more interesting, somewhere around 20,000 kids are sitting in Australian foster homes right this moment, many of them craving a permanent, loving family to truly call their own.In between these stark realities stands adoption: an issue that, despite recent publicity surrounding it, most Australians leave in the “too hard” basket. Investigate editor JAMES MORROW sorts out the myths from realities and looks at why the adoption option deserves a second look
The first thing many strangers say when they meet Christine* and her five-year-old daughter is, “she looks
just like you”. Indeed, mother and daughter do share the same skin tone and chiseled European features.
The only thing they don’t share is DNA: Christine had ovarian cancer when she was 19, had both ovaries removed, and although grateful to be alive was left unable to have children of her own. And so, like a small number of Australians, Christine and her husband went down the long, sometimes expensive, and often frustrating path of adopting a baby in this country.
As highlighted by the surprise reunion earlier this year between Health Minister Tony Abbott and the son his girlfriend gave up for adoption when he was 19, adoption was once a routine practice in this country. But for a variety of reasons – increased access to abortion, more government assistance for single mothers, political concerns about “stolen generations”, and a loss of stigma around single motherhood among them – adoption has slowly but surely gone out of favour in this country.

In fact, there are now more babies adopted from overseas in Australia than actual Australian-born children placed as adoptive children in local homes. In 2003-04, the latest years for which figures are available, just 73 Australian-born children were adopted, down from 78 in the 2002-03 reporting period – continuing a trend that has been spiraling downwards for nearly three decades.
By way of comparison, in 1980-81, nearly twenty times that many local children (1,388 to be exact) were placed in adoptive homes.
Yet despite the much-discussed Australian fertility crisis – our 1.75 child-per-woman rate is hardly enough to keep the population steady – on the one hand and the vast number of children living in foster or “out-of-home” care on the other (more than 20,000 kids at any given time and growing, according to the latest numbers from the Australian Institute for Family Studies), adoption continues to remain on the sidelines of the family planning agenda.
Part of the reason for this is the time, effort and money involved in adopting a child – though, to be sure, many fertility treatments can also take years and run into the tens of thousands of dollars. Rules, procedures and costs vary from state to state and agency to agency, but $5,000 is a good starting point for any in-country adoption, with overseas adoptions likely to run to $20,000 to $40,000 or more, especially once plane tickets, accommodation, and other travel-related expenses are factored in. And money is no guarantee of getting a child, either: even qualified parents have been known to wait five, six, seven years or more before being allowed to take home a new member of their family, though two to three years seems the norm. “Adoptions are made so very carefully,” says Jane West, a spokesperson for Anglicare Adoption Services in Sydney.
Beyond being able to afford the cost (fees are waived forspecial-needs adoptions, says West), typically couples need to be between the ages of 21 and 45, have been married for three years (though some agencies accept de facto partners and singles) and be Australian citizens. Much of the expense comes from the training, background and reference checks and medical screens which are all performed. Once these steps are completed, the lucky couple is then put in a pool of applicants with no guarantee that they will ever be chosen.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the equation, West points out that when a child is placed for adoption, his or her birth mother is given extensive counseling (as is the father, if he can be located) – a far cry from the bad old days when young mothers had to give up their children literally without so much as a second look. Birth mothers are given a selection of profiles of potential adoptive families to choose from, and have final say over with whom their child is placed.
“We had never really had any plans to adopt when we got married,” says Christine, who says that she had been thinking about the idea for a while when, one night, she turned to her husband in bed and said, “what do you think about adopting a child?” To her surprise, he thought that was a great idea, and before they knew it the couple from Sydney’s northern suburbs were taking the first steps into the maze of NSW’s adoption regime.
When they started the process in 1998, they had planned to go to Romania to find a child because they were under the belief, subtly encouraged by social workers, that there were simply no children available to adopt in Australia. And Christine and her husband were fine with that idea; as she says, “we figured that we’d be doing the right thing by giving a baby who needed one a home, the baby would be happy, we’d be happy and, well, everyone would be happy!”
But the more they researched it and found out that it was actually possible, the more they became convinced that they wanted to adopt a child born in this country – though Christine admits that initially she was scared off by the whole process of “open adoption”, which allows for contact between the birth mother and her offspring. (Indeed, the ongoing rights and feelings of the birth mother are one reason why Christine’s family has asked for anonymity).
“At first, I have to admit, it was really difficult from my perspective. It was like the changing of the guard: one family is accepting this new responsibility, and seeing the woman who gave birth to your child is probably the most difficult part of the whole adoption process,” she says.
In fact, when Christine and her husband initially filed their applications, they said that they were not keen on having contact with
the birth family, though they were encouraged when a DoCS social worker told them that, paradoxically, “the families who say they want the least contact often turn out to be the best candidates for open adoption”.
Even though it was initially difficult (her daughter sees her birth mother twice a year: once around her birthday, and once around Christmastime), Christine says it has actually been a blessing in disguise. “For my daughter, I think she’ll benefit from the contact,” she says. “And I know from my circle of friends who adopted from overseas that we are lucky to have this contact. In the beginning, yeah, it was extra stress, but now five years down the track I think it’s fantastic.” One feature Christine is especially keen on is the fact that her daughter has a real sense of where she comes from: “She knows her story, she knows everything, but it doesn’t really come up much. It’s just how it is. For the most part it’s been really positive.”
While Christine’s story has had a happy ending, she and others who have been intimately involved with adoption in Australia are concerned that, with so many children in need, far too many are being shuttled back and forth from foster homes to unsuitable and abusive family situations and back again – hurting their abilities to form trusting bonds with anyone, and creating thousands upon thousands of adults who will, in all likelihood, have repeated run-ins with the law or simply become wards of the state. A recent study by the CREATE Foundation, an advocacy group for children in state care, confirms that that is just what is happening, with those in foster care reporting that they are missing school, are victims of bullying, have trouble making and keeping friends, and are subject to everything from decreased educational aspirations to emotional instability and violence.
The head of the NSW Adoptive Parents Association, who, like Christine, has concerns for her privacy and that of her adoptive child’s birth mother and thus asks that her last name not be used, is a woman called Sonia. She recalls going to an Adelaide conference on adoption in 2004. Sitting in the audience amongst a thousand other delegates, she heard that there were many children in various state foster care systems who had gone through eleven or more placements in the space of just a few years – numbers confirmed by CREATE. According to Sonia, there is a golden opportunity here to connect at least some of these children up with parents wishing to adopt, and she believes the government ought to set some sort of time limit – even just a loose one – stating that after a certain amount of time in foster care, a child should be eligible to go into the adoption pool.
“Surely adopting would be more appropriate than long-term fostering”, she says. “We have learned from the stolen generation, and we’ve learned from the days when we forced adoption on girls when there wasn’t any other option, but since we don’t have that social structure anymore where women are forced into doing something they don’t want to do, why can’t we do something about it?”, she asks. “If a child has to spend, say, a year in foster care while some issues are sorted out, that’s one thing. But if we see that a child is going back and forth from foster home to birth parent and then back out again to some other foster home, there has to be a point at which we say, enough is enough?”
Having children is one of the most emotional and important issues to face Australians, both as individuals and as a nation. Without enough young people who have been raised up to be solid, productive citizens, fifty years from now the country will find itself in the same position as contemporary Western Europe.
There, an aging population which is incapable of replacing itself has been forced to make what now looks like a devil’s bargain with various increasingly hostile immigrant groups in order to keep their leaky welfare state economies afloat. While this sort of situation is unlikely to occur here – for one thing, Australia is generally a lot better at assimilating new migrants – the fact remains, we’re not raising enough kids to keep our economy growing at the sort of clip that has, until recently, been standard operating procedure.
So where does adoption fit in? Certainly, it takes a very special sort of person to decide to go through filling out the forms, sitting through the interviews, and writing the cheques that go along with becoming an adoptive parent. And, on the other hand, it also takes a very special kind of person to recognize that, under their particular circumstances, their child might be better off being placed with another family. All anecdotal indicators suggest that there are large numbers of parents who would consider adopting children if they thought that the process was easier and that there were more Australian-born kids who not only needed permanent homes, but were eligible for them as well. (Christine recalls that in a moment of candour, a DoCS social worker – who was later happily proved wrong – told her “there are no healthy babies out there for adoption”, an attitude which surely causes plenty of prospective parents to chuck in the towel before they even begin).
There are many things that need to happen before adoption is thought of as more than just a pricey and rare special offering on Australians’ menu of reproductive choices. Although Parliament has just undertaken an inquiry into international adoptions chaired by Bronwyn Bishop, MP (see interview, p. 42), something ought to be done on a federal level to streamline the domestic adoption process and streamline the chaotic maze of regulations that go from state to state. Part of this should include a look at allowing private adoptions, a process that has worked successfully for years in the United States to put couples in touch with women who want to adopt out a child.
Furthermore, too, cultural attitudes must shift, and concerns about repeating the mistakes of the past must eventually subside if they get in the way of doing good in the future. The number of terminations and children in foster care on the one hand and, on the other, the number of couples going through difficult infertility treatments shows that there are lots of parents who want children but can’t have them – and vice versa – in Australia.
* Not her real name; due to privacy concerns and Australia’s open adoption regime which keeps birth parents involved in their children’s lives, all the adoptive parents contacted by Investigate and named in this article have asked to remain anonymous.