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STANDING COMMITTEE ON FAMILY AND HUMAN SERVICES - 03/08/2005 - Adoption of children from overseas
STANDING COMMITTEE ON FAMILY AND HUMAN SERVICES
House of Representatives committee
Wednesday, 3 August 2005
Adoption of children from overseas
Final

CHAIR (Mrs Bronwyn Bishop) —I declare open this public hearing of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Human Services for its inquiry into the adoption of children from overseas. The committee has received over 200 submissions for the inquiry, which presented the committee with many complex and technical issues. Although adoption numbers have declined from a generation ago, adoption touches many people in the community. Last month, I gave a media interview to an Adelaide radio station, where the presenter declared on air that she herself was adopted.

We will be hearing today from Victoria’s key international adoption groups and a number of adoptive parents. The hearing will open with a community statement session. Members of the public, regardless of whether or not they have given a submission, are most welcome to inform the committee about how international adoption has affected them. You do not need to be experts—all are welcome. We only require you to give your first name to the committee, but if you wish to give your full name and you do represent an organisation, that is fine as well.

Some of you in the audience may wish to know what involvement the Victorian state government will be having in this inquiry. The committee recently received the Victorian government’s submission from the Premier, the Hon. Steve Bracks. That submission has been posted on the committee’s web site.

This hearing is open to the public and a transcript of what is said will be made available via the committee’s web site. If you would like further details about the inquiry, or the transcripts, please ask any of the committee staff here at the hearing.

I now ask people who want to be part of this community forum, which is a new segment we have introduced into our hearings, to come forward.

Jamie —I am here representing myself, but hopefully I am here for the benefit of all would-be adoptive parents. I would like to commend all would-be adoptive parents and adoptive parents in this room for taking the time to come here.

It is very important when we are reviewing the procedures for overseas adoption that the efforts of the government remain squarely focused on addressing the issues and difficulties experienced by would-be adoptive parents and that the government look toward how these people can be assisted in this complicated and arduous process, which takes a lot of time, effort, money and heartache.

This needs to be done without compromising the wellbeing of the children involved, of course. For this reason, it is imperative that this inquiry not be distracted by fundamentalist religious interests and hetero-normative family associations who would like to use this as a political platform to prohibit gay and lesbian persons from overseas adoption. The fact of the matter is that none of the countries with which Australia has signed adoption treaties allow gays and lesbians to adopt—period. Therefore, legislation that would ban overseas same-sex adoption would be a total waste of time and taxpayer money. Efforts would be better directed at assisting those who can legally adopt from those countries.

Given that banning overseas same-sex adoption would not make any practical difference, the only motivation for implementing such a ban must be ideological. Such a ban would serve only to further enshrine discrimination against gays and lesbians. That concerns me deeply because in effect it is saying that gay and lesbian Australians are less equal than other Australians and that it is okay to treat them wrongly. The more the government legally endorses this type of discrimination the more it provides ammunition for hate crimes and persecution against sexual minorities. That concerns me as well because my community has been victimised by hate crimes, persecution and discrimination. Let me tell you, they are alive and well in Australia and are only getting worse, because the government is indoctrinating discrimination towards these groups.

Passing discriminatory legislation would also set a dangerous precedent for unmarried, heterosexual couples seeking to adopt from overseas. It is well known that the fundamentalist religious organisations view only marriage as a legitimate basis for raising a family. That has some implications for de facto couples as well—it is not just discrimination against same-sex couples. In short, let us not waste time and money to create a bad law whose only purpose is to discriminate. Let us instead focus on how we can help would-be adoptive parents, who face incredible challenges and their own discrimination within the whole procedure. Thank you.

CHAIR —Thank you very much.

Marilyn —I am from the Intercountry Adoption Resource Network, although I am just giving my personal story today. I have a 21-year-old daughter. She was adopted from India 20 years ago, so she has been with us a long time. I have seen things that have happened in intercountry adoption over that period of time—some for the good; some for the worse.

I would like to congratulate you on calling this inquiry. I think it is fantastic. It is probably the first time in 20 years that adoptive parents have had this opportunity. I have already sent in a submission, which I did with Glenys Gayfer, who has a 25-year-old adoptee. So you already have that.

I wanted to focus on three things at the minute. The overall thing is that I would hope that out of this meeting there might be stronger recognition of the NGOs—that is, the parent support groups. In the past, perhaps before fee-for-service came to Victoria, there was enormous respect between the government and the NGOs in running the Intercountry Adoption Program. Many things—probably education—have gone to the better in that time, but I think there have been some backward steps in the recognition by the governments of all states of the expertise of the parent groups.

I feel that NGOs—that is, parent support groups—have an important role in the continuing development of new programs. We feel strongly that programs can be developed by the government and NGOs working together. It is essential that programs are looked at not only in Hague countries but also in any country where there are children in need of families. Traditionally, it is the parent support groups that have opened programs through their ongoing personal contacts.

We could use China as an example of this, and there are many Chinese children here today. Perhaps the China program could have taken off much earlier. Two parent support groups sent representatives to China many years ago and came back with very good information for the government, but unfortunately it was only paid lip-service. It took many more years for the China program to commence. It is time for the government to give much more recognition to the expertise and experience that the support groups have.

I think you would be well aware that there are six-monthly meetings between the states and territories. The sharing of information at this level could also include the NGOs, to recognise the importance of information sharing between all parties. This could perhaps be done with two parent support group representatives at each of those meetings. Often the parent support groups have individual information on what is happening in countries. They could circulate this from state to state. Because that does not happen, we get a lot of misinformation.

The other thing I am concerned about is the DIMIA fees. Fees are a very expensive aspect of intercountry adoption now. When we adopted our daughter 20 years ago we paid nothing. Today, families have to mortgage their houses six times over to get their children. One area that could be looked at is the DIMIA fees. There should be a separate application form for adoptive children. The mess that happens when families go to Immigration to put in their sponsorship forms is incredible. As the time and cost involved in processing an application for an adopted child is much less than that for a migrant application, I feel that fees could be lowered. They could also be lowered if there is a sibling application.

We are delighted that the eligibility for the maternity allowance has been increased to the age of two years. But many intercountry adoptive families adopt children much older than that, and I do not think we should discriminate about whether you get an under-two-year-old or a six-year-old. The costs involved are still great.

ACTING CHAIR (Mrs Irwin) —Thank you very much, Marilyn.

Diane —I am the president of the support group Families with Children from China (Australia). I am the mother of two children: a birth son and also a beautiful daughter from China who is here with me today, Jade Xiaoqing. Our group has submitted a substantial submission, which I do not have time to read here. I will just read the first part of it.

CHAIR —I assure you that we will definitely read the submission.

Diane —It is 92 pages; I did not write it. The first part reads:

FCC was incorporated in March 2004 in response to the growing need for a dedicated family support group representing those who have adopted children of Chinese ethnicity. The adoption program with China has grown steadily since the introduction of the bilateral agreement in Dec 1999 to the point where it is now the largest program in Australia.

Families with Children from China (Australia) is the only national parent group that acts solely for families that have adopted or are in the process of adopting children of Chinese ethnicity.

Our children enjoy a common cultural heritage and our group strives to keep our children connected to the countries of their birth and to each other. As parents, we also draw great strength from the friendships with like-minded people who share our adoption experiences.

Our association’s three key goals are:

  • a)       to support families who have adopted children of Chinese ethnicity through post-adoption and Chinese culture programs
  • b)       to encourage adoption of children of Chinese ethnicity and support waiting families
  • c)       to advocate for and support children remaining in orphanages in China.

Our submission has gone through a number of points, including the states’ inconsistencies regarding age. We have outlined the age restrictions in the various states and recommended that age be only one of the considerations in the overall assessment, rather than an arbitrary cut-off point as it is in some states. With regard to marital status, there is a discrepancy among the states. Some states require that couples be married rather than accepting a de facto relationship, and we recommend that all de facto relationships be considered equitable to marriage and should be considered as such with regard to an adoption application.

We go through a number of other points in relation to free speech as regards adoption. Many couples who are either in their first adoption or considering adopting again are afraid to speak out against some of the difficulties in the process that they have encountered. The fees are another problem. The local fees vary enormously from state to state. In the past this was not the case. I believe the fees were fairly minimal in the past. Also in the past, there was government support for adoption in the form of taxation rebates and so on. That does not exist today at all.

We have also gone through the discrepancies and entitlements between adoptive and biological families and how biological families are able to receive things such as the maternity allowance. At the time we wrote this, adoptive families were not able to receive it. That has since been changed. There are so many points in this document. I hope you will consider all of the points.

Mr QUICK —We read them all religiously.

Diane —It is written by an academic and she has thoroughly referenced everything. Thank you very much.

CHAIR —Have we received the document?

Diane —Oh yes!

Mrs IRWIN —Mr Quick is correct; we do read all of the submissions. I think a number of us have had to get stronger glasses since this inquiry was announced.

Jeanette —I am a single adoptive parent. I have a daughter from China who is now five. I am going to talk about my personal application process in which I suffered quite considerable discrimination. I am concerned that ICAS requires single applicants who wish to adopt from overseas to supply a stat dec certifying that they are heterosexual. Married women who apply are not required to provide this, and I believe this is in breach of Australian antidiscrimination and equal opportunity law. To my knowledge, the Intercountry Adoption Service of Victoria does not have a legal exemption to do this. In my case, an assumption was made that I was lesbian and I therefore suffered years of delay in the process. I consider that the staff acted unprofessionally and unethically when they processed my application.

In addition, ICAS rang agencies I had dealt with in my role as a foster parent and told them I was lesbian. When I questioned Suzette Guttmann about this, she said she and Rhona Noakes denied they had done this. I have no reason to believe that Natalie Altmann, the social worker who told me this, had any reason to lie. Suzette Guttmann stated that ICAS had received an anonymous phone call alleging I had abused the foster children in my care and had been on an invalid pension. These allegations were totally unfounded and I now have doubts that the phone call was ever made. I believe this was just part of the process of obstructing my application. Social workers with the foster care agencies supported me and refuted these allegations and continued to place children in my care. Suzette Guttmann continued to raise these allegations and not accept that they were unfounded. As they were anonymous, I had no details and ICAS had no way verifying them anyway.

As part of the delaying tactics, Suzette Guttmann harassed my GP and disputed with her the diagnosis of a mild chronic illness I had suffered years previously. I did not have this condition when I applied, and I have not relapsed since. It never interfered with my ability to parent or work.

I have never been in receipt of an invalid pension. Suzette Guttmann insisted it was the Intercountry Adoption Service’s policy that all applicants supply their complete Centrelink file for ICAS’s perusal. I had to decline this, as my file contained confidential information regarding my foster children and I was not permitted to disclose this information. Suzette Guttmann insisted I sign the consent form and told me ICAS staff regularly obtained information from Centrelink by way of a telephone call once the form was signed. This was not true. The freedom of information officer from Centrelink called me in to discuss the issue with me, as he was only permitted to release information that I requested. Suzette Guttmann and ICAS would not be specific about the documents and dates required. Actually, Centrelink had very little information on file and as soon as I told Helen Brain that I would be lodging a complaint of discrimination the Centrelink file was suddenly not needed and I was approved and processed in record time.

My application was obstructed and delayed because I was single and already the parent of three children. I had two home studies done. Both recommended approval, and the second home study social worker confided that she had been chosen as she was hard in her assessments and had been instructed by ICAS to ask difficult questions. It was unstated but understood that she was supposed to find a reason to disprove me. She wrote me a glowing home study report and apologised for the treatment that I had received from ICAS.

As part of the delay, single applicants are frequently placed in queues for education groups and the allocation of home study social workers. This makes their process a lot longer. In my education group the married couples had already gone overseas and collected their children before I even had a home study worker. I am unable to adopt a second time, due to my age, so my daughter will grow up without a sibling. Had my application been processed as normal, I would have been able to adopt a second time. The policy of not allowing adoption out of birth order means I cannot apply for an older child. There is no written policy or research to back this policy. Although sensible, it fails to take into account individual family circumstances. I believe my daughter would benefit from having a slightly older sibling. Thank you very much.

Lisa —My husband Andy is here with me. Please forgive me as I am very emotional. I would like to thank you for holding this inquiry, and for coming to Melbourne. Firstly, I would like to say that I am very grateful for the parent groups in Victoria. They are the thing that keep us going as adoptive parents. I also really want to impress upon you all today that many, many families have stayed away because the Victorian process is ruled by fear and intimidation and many people who may have been here today are too frightened to come forward for fear that something they say today will be held against them in the future.

We started the process nine years ago. We are a couple without children. We have no skeletons in our closet. We have no reason not to be parents. We went into this process through love and faced mountains of—

CHAIR —Are you okay? Would you like a glass of water. Take a deep breath. We are here to listen sympathetically.

Lisa —I will just say that we are halfway through our adoption process. We have two children. We hope to have two or three more. It is with great fear that I attend today, but this is for my children and for every family in Victoria and around Australia who comes to this because they want to be parents. That is why I am daring to speak—and to speak on behalf of the families from our program who did not attend. Our children are from Ethiopia. We have a very strong national group. We have a lot of insight into the various approval regimes throughout Australia. We understand that in other states—Tasmania particularly; and we know the ACT has a very positive process—the departments see it as a service. They see that they are a service to their clients. In Victoria that is not true. There is a system where you are guilty until proven innocent. There is no love. I am sorry. I am really lost, and I am not a person who is usually lost for words.

We have no control over the timing of our files. We have no control here over whether or not we make our family a large family or a small family. Many people stop at two because of the cost. You have heard about all of the cost and everything else. But a lot of the time there are people in the department here, like the head of the department, who have a very strong bias. Some families are easily allowed to go through quickly and some families have to go through all sorts of hoops. There do not seem to be any consistent rules here. It is very much a personal thing. There is a strong bias towards persons from a certain socioeconomic group or belonging to a particular group or even having an education—for example, if you are a lawyer you get through easily because you will know the law so you will not make a fuss. Many people have been yelled at and threatened. With our first adoption, we were threatened. With our second adoption we were threatened that, if we made a request, we would be put through family counselling for no reason. We have no reason to go through it.

Andy —Really, the gist of what we are here to talk about is the intimidation and fear that is part of the process that certainly we experienced. I know that a number of families do. It is difficult to move towards what you are trying to build as a family, be it one or two children or certain ages and those sorts of things. We represent people who have been through it more than once. We plan to do it again. You would think that would be quite easy. The process is ridiculously difficult, from my point of view. If anything, you are questioned as to why you want to do that and why you might want to have four children from a country overseas, whereas obviously for biological families that is not the case. You are very severely looked at. Whilst I support the general gist behind that and the view that it has to be in the best interests of the child, I think it should be more about being loving and supportive. It tends to be quite the opposite in a lot of people’s experience.

Pauline —I represent a group of mothers who had their children taken from them over 30 years ago and given to strangers. This occurred throughout Australia from the 1950s onwards, right through to the eighties. I have in front of me a Senate petition on adoption policy reform which I will read from. Before I read from it I would like to read an email from my son, who I lost to bad adoption practices over 32 years ago. Because of his inability to relate to his adoptive parents, he is alone out there in society and is unable to bring up the child he has fathered. In this email he says:

Tell Liam I got his postcard and I’m impressed by how well he writes, I really love the pictures he did I love his fascination with trains, over the years I can really see improvement in his drawing technique. I’m in my second week of prac now and have been placed in ICU which has it’s own set of challenges, I’ve got 3 weeks to go until I finish this lot of prac then onto my last 4 week block, and I’m counting every week.

He maintains contact infrequently with me and his son. This is because of his inability to relate to people around him due to a condition the name of which escapes me at the moment. I believe copies of the petition have been sent. The petition states:

This petition is addressed to the Honourable President and assembled members of the Senate. We, the undersigned—

that is, Origins Victoria, which also represents Origins groups throughout Australia and the USA, the UK, Canada and New Zealand—

submit:

(1)      that traditional adoption, in which babies are transferred from their natural parents to a generally childless couple, is one of the most contentious and sensitive policies sanctioned by government;

(2)      that past practice shows that poor adoption processes can lead to great suffering and anguish;

(3)      that the fall in local adoptions (from 9,798 in 1971-72 to 73 in 2003-04) shows that in the absence of social and financial pressures, only very rarely do natural parents choose to relinquish their babies permanently;

(4)      that over the last decade, the fall in local adoptions has been offset by a rise in intercountry adoptions, such that intercountry adoptions now outnumber local adoptions five to one;

(5)      that the majority of Australia’s intercountry adoptions are from China, South Korea, Ethiopia and Thailand—countries that have not ratified the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Cooperation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption;

(6)      that Australian adoption policy, as formed by

(i)            the Family Law (Hague Convention of Intercountry Adoption) Regulations 1998   (Cwlth)

           (ii)           the Immigration (Guardianship of Children) Regulations 2001 (Cwlth) and

(iii)          various state-level enactments

has rarely been the subject of academic research or government inquiry;

(7)      that Australian adoption policy has been formulated on an ad hoc basis, without supporting studies;

(8)      that Australian adoption policy is inconsistent across the States and Territories;

(9)      that Australian adoption policy does not conform with international trends towards open adoption models (an area in which New Zealand, by comparison, are considered world leaders);

(10)    that international research supports the belief that open adoption models are generally more favourable to the child, the adoptive parents, and the natural mother;

               …             …             …

I could go on, but I have only three minutes. The situation is like that of the king who placed his chair at the edge of the sea to hold the tide back; he did not succeed. Deep down, I do not believe we are going to succeed in stopping intercountry adoption. At least we can get the birth certificate right and ensure that it illustrates the true genetic origin of the child so they are not left wondering for the rest of their lives who their genetic parents are. Their genetic parentage should not be kept secret from them so that the rest of their life is not lost in a milieu of anger, mistrust and interconnectedness with people around them. It is a very sad and sorry state that was created back in the fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties. You have one in five people in Australia affected by adoption and you do not have the support services to assist them now. How are you going to have them in future, especially when you have children from overseas with different colours and different racial backgrounds? You have a country which, under the current federal government—excuse me—does not encourage intercountry relationships.

Graeme —Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to present to you today. I have not been able to lodge a submission with you. I only just became aware of the panel a short time ago. I recently supported two dear friends who have been fortunate enough to adopt a child from China. The process for doing so was long and required a strong commitment over a period exceeding 18 months before they were deemed suitable. It also involved considerable financial and emotional expense. From those observations I firmly believe that any individual who is prepared to demonstrate this level of commitment and a desire to share their lives for the sake of a child cannot help but be a devoted parent.

As a gay man, I was particularly concerned about the effects on the GLBTI community. I realise that much of the negative sentiment in regard to adoption by members of the GLBTI community comes from various churches or groups or discredited sources, such as Dr Paul Cameron of the family research institute. Dr Cameron’s studies are often cited as scientific research by groups seeking to oppose members of the GLBTI community on any issue. His so-called studies have been cited in the Psychology Review publication. It must be remembered that Dr Cameron has been struck off the medical registers in two states in the United States, where he has operated, and his study is refuted by national professional bodies in both the psychiatric and psychological professions.

With regard to the opposition from religious organisations, I find their claims that their concerns are for the welfare of the child absolutely hypocritical when—with particular reference to the Catholic Church—they are the organisations that, as some would say, perfected the art of institutionalised abuse of children. We do not have to go far back in history, to two of the highest standing religious leaders in Australia, to see the hypocrisy of these churches. One is Archbishop Hollingworth, whose actions in not addressing the issue of an abusive priest allowed this child abuser, a practising clergyman, to continue abusing a child and continue his ministry. A further disgusting example of this hypocrisy is Cardinal Pell of the Catholic Church, who attended the trial of one of Victoria’s worst child molesters, Father Gerald Risdale, in his full priestly regalia—not as a witness for the prosecution or to administer support to the traumatised victims but, as Cardinal Pell put it, as ‘a demonstration of priestly solidarity’.

While these religious institutions are quick to proclaim the fabricated ills and evils of two people of the same sex providing a loving and caring, nurturing environment for children, they are quick to disregard the very real evidence that the majority of child abuse occurs within a traditional family unit and is by a blood relative and that by far the greatest perpetrator of domestic violence against children is an immediate family member in a domestic setting. And, as it was reported in the Herald Sun only two days ago, the largest single contributor to the death of children—and this was stated to be somewhere in the order of 1,500 per annum—was poverty.

We in Australia are fortunate that as a society we are largely beyond blind faith. Most importantly, we have numerous examples of members of the GLBTI community who are going about the care of their families with the same struggles, worries and joys as any heterosexual couple or any other couple for that matter. These are the same members of the GLBTI community that are caring for your children, nursing your sick, tending to your aged and infirm, paying taxes and even proudly serving in the military, risking their lives to protect the freedoms that Australians enjoy.

On 18 November 2003, the supreme court of Massachusetts voted that it was unconstitutional to bar same-sex couples from marriage. While the government was seeking a compromise to appease the opposing ruling, which suggested civil unions as separate but equivalent, the court issued its final decision in a statement that was of immediate relevance to our own issue: that is, history has shown us that separate is never equal. Thank you.

CHAIR —Thank you very much.

Libby —Hello. My name is Libby. I am the mother of two children—a birth child, and an adoptive child from India. I would first of all like to comment on the fantastic support from the Parent Support Network that is out there for adoptive parents. The main comment I would like to make is about the accountability and the transparency of the system through the Department of Human Services. It is a long, tedious, difficult process, and I went into it feeling very prepared as an experienced mother. When we put in an application, our oldest daughter was seven, so we had seven years of good, solid parenting behind us, we felt.

I fully acknowledge that there are good as well as perhaps less appropriate people working in any job. Our first social worker was, to put it mildly, atrocious. She verbally abused our child. We had to ring up her supervisor and say we were not prepared to have her come into our house again unsupervised. On her next visit, she came with her supervisor but could not remain calm and participate in the discussion for the whole length of the interview and left the room. We then had to go in and have a meeting with the supervisor and the director at ICAS. Basically, there was no acknowledgment that there had been any problem at all. There was never any form of apology or comment back from ICAS at all about the verbal abuse of our daughter. I asked the director several times for the opportunity to give written feedback and she said there was no format in which we could do that.

We were then assigned another social worker who was fantastic, very supportive and understanding—exactly how you would hope that a social worker doing a home study would be. I again spoke to the director and asked, ‘Is there an opportunity for feedback on this?’ It is a fee-for-service arrangement at a fairly high fee. I would have thought that there was the opportunity for customer feedback and, again, she said no. I am amazed that the department do not want feedback even on their good social workers. That social worker did some very significant things that were extraordinarily good and the director was not interested in those aspects of it, which is extremely unfortunate for the whole process and for everyone.

The director said that, at the end of allocation, there was a time when all the people involved in the department got together and did a final summary of the applicant and that sort of thing. I asked whether we could be part of that process and she said no, that we would be excluded from that. The whole process is such an intense personal process that there is no opportunity. Your hands are absolutely tied. They hold all the cards of your future. It is a very difficult process and I would like for them to be more accountable and, in reality, for there to be a very fair system.

CHAIR —Thank you.

Janet —I speak as another representative of Families with Children from China and also from my own experience as an adoptive parent, who was privileged to be in the first group of parents to adopt from China under the bilateral agreement in December 1999. I am here to reinforce the FCC’s submission—which I know you have received—and also what our president, Diane Wright, said earlier. I know you have met other speakers from Queensland, including Sue-Belinda Meehan and Karleen Gribble. I want to put more faces to this organisation. We are all obviously supporting the same thing. Even though we represent FCC, the principles that I want to address today apply irrespective of which country our families adopt from.

One thing we did to gain support for our organisation was to raise $16½ thousand for a charity. That is mentioned in the submission. I know Sue-Belinda has spoken about that. I want to talk about a couple of things. One concerns the ideal model, and I know that that issue has been raised and discussed around the country with this committee. The two things I want to speak to are fairly high-level matters. What we are on about is consistency, and what you are hearing very strongly today is the need for consistency in the treatment of families as they go through this process of intercountry adoption, particularly in relation to eligibility—whether we are talking about age, marital status or, in some cases, things which may seem ridiculous to many of us regarding people’s weight and a whole range of things. We are looking at consistency there whatever the model is—whether it be a government-provided service or whether it is to be outsourced to private groups.

Another thing I want to talk about was the process in relation to the best interests of the child. As a committee, you are aware that the state departments do state that everything they do is in the best interests of the child. If everything is to be in the best interests of the child—and I am not making an assumption or acknowledging that it is; I think many of us believe that it is not because of the inconsistencies—how can it be in the best interests of a child to delay the time because of the inefficiencies, the lack of resources, the lack of funding that we have to go into this service to assist families and children to be united as quickly as possible?

Many of you, I am sure, are parents and have the experience to know how critical the first few months of a child’s life are. You may have heard Andrew Denton interviewing Mem Fox the other night on his show. Mem Fox is nationally and internationally recognised as an expert on teaching children to read and engaging children’s love of reading and learning. She said of some of the research that she is involved in that reading to babies in the first four months of their lives really helps stimulate their emotional, intellectual and physical development. Of course, that makes us as adoptive parents stop and ponder about what our own children are missing out on.

I can offer personal evidence of the best interests of the child in terms of my own daughter, who was adopted from China at 20 months of age. Sometimes you do not find things out until years later, as we are now with our daughter, who is very healthy at 6½. We found out that it was because she was kept in a cot for the first 20 months of her life that she could only pull to stand when she first came into our lives. She learnt to crawl over three days in a hotel room and then it took another six months before she could walk unaided. That is way outside the average, normal, healthy development for a child. You do not see the implications of that until your child becomes much older and her teachers are wondering why the child has no sense of coordination in their gross motor skills or their fine motor skills. Your child may then need extra government assistance in teacher aids, learning assistance and all that comes with that. So, in the best interests of children, we would advocate that the time for people to go through this process of being united with their children, wherever that is in the world, is as efficient and as effective as it can be, with resources tied to it.

The other thing in the best interests of the child and families going through this process is that, whoever is providing the service—at the moment obviously that is the state governments—we have open and transparent communication with waiting parents. You have heard people’s stories today. We should not be patronised as parents. How people get through should not be arbitrary. It should be objective criteria that are used.

I would like to conclude by saying that every day delayed in a child’s life to them being in a family, outside an institution, is critical to that child’s future emotional, mental and physical wellbeing. Thank you for conducting the inquiry.

Anne —My name is Anne. I am an adoptive parent of two children. I would like to reiterate a number of points that people have made. From my own particular experience of the process I would like to say that one of the difficult things is the inconsistency. What can happen is that you will be allocated a social worker and, depending on the social worker that you are allocated, you can find yourself having five home visits, where somebody else will have three home visits. You can find your home visits running for something like two to three hours, where somebody else’s home visits may run for two hours over three separate occasions. You can also find yourself with a particularly conscientious social worker, to the point where they will be opening your cupboards and checking inside them—invading your privacy, basically.

The process generally goes very well until something goes wrong. In our case, with our second adoption something did go wrong. You can find yourself at the mercy of a particular program manager. In some cases, I know of parents that have fallen by the wayside and have not gone through with the process because they cannot manage the emotional side of things and the trauma of dealing with the bureaucracy. In our case, we got our second child through sheer persistence only, I believe. The support of the parent support groups also helped us through that difficult time.

I think that the resourcing of the department is one of the other problems. There are simply not enough people to do the job and this is illustrated by the fact that it took a friend of mine who is going through the process some nine months before they could get into any education groups. What happens, of course, when you have a blowout and are not able to service the number of clients who need to attend education groups, is that they simply cannot allocate social workers within the three-month time line that they are trying to work to. That means that people who are interested in adopting find themselves not even being assessed within 12 months of first applying. This is on top of the fact that there are age constraints in many countries and, as we know, many adoptive parents tend to be a lot older. Some people are simply not going to be able to be parents, because of the lack of resources.

I would also like to refer to things like the legalisation process. The department does not have enough resources in that area. It cannot prove the documents quickly enough, which means that you can wait something like six months before you can go to court to finalise the adoption of your child. For people who have finished their adoption, that is not a stress, depending on your personality. However, for people who want to go on to second and subsequent adoptions it puts another great time line on the process.

I would like to reinforce the importance of parent support groups. The department rightly emphasises the great store that one has to put in taking on the culture of these children and ensuring that they grow up with full knowledge of who they are and in the fact that not only do they come from a variety of countries but that they are adopted children in families where generally they do not look like their parents. In order to do that you need the support of the support groups. You cannot give the support to those children that the department demands of you unless support groups are there. Support groups can survive only if they get adequate recognition and funding.

With regard to the payment of the $3,000 for family set-up, whether or not we are paid is not the issue. All families within Australia should be treated in an equitable manner. That means that if a child comes into your family, no matter by what means or at what age, that child should be recognised and your family should gain that recognition.

Finally, I would really like to emphasise that, as you have heard, some of these children have difficulties as they grow up and those problems sometimes do not present until later. There are a number of parents who have worked hard and lobbied hard over the last two years to try to get funding for what is called postplacement services. They want to bring the resources of people like speech pathologists and psychologists into a central position so that people with children who are adopted—I believe that they have particular needs over and above just having various learning and emotional difficulties—can have a place where they can go where there are professionals who have expertise in the area. Thank you for the opportunity to pursue my ideas.

Peter —My wife and I are in the process of adopting. We were approved about two years ago. At the time of approval, after going through the long, arduous process of assessment, we expected to wait six months. The programs stop and start in a lot of countries. To a large extent there are a lot of problems overseas that cause problems for people who are waiting. The under-resourcing overseas is another issue that Australia could do something about when we set up a program with overseas countries. Children are not immunised generally and there is no general funding to look after the children in the orphanages or homes overseas.

Couples that go through the assessment process need to be able to deal with the bureaucratic processes. They need to be able to submit to review by social workers. They need almost an academic slant to get through some of the processes. That must prevent a lot of people going through who might otherwise be able to do it. That level of dedication is required and the costs are very significant. When you are still waiting, you have expended a lot but you still have nothing to show for it. An example is the department of immigration fee that is payable on handover—$1,200 or something. There is no accountability as to what happens to it. Even if the child that you have paid for to come to Australia does not come, we are told that it is hardly even worth asking whether there is any way of getting something back. That sort of unaccountability does not seem to exist in other areas.

I would have thought that from a government viewpoint this could be likened to the overseas aid program. Australia’s overseas aid program has been declining for the last 20 years, even though we have become much more prosperous and have been in boom times. If overseas adoption was seen along those lines, it could be assessed as a very effective form of humanitarian overseas aid. It might only cost the government another $2 million to do wonders to cover the costs that are involved for all the intercountry adoptions. Alternatively, it could be seen in terms of the benefits it provides to Australian society, rather than as being overseas aid. Australia is doing a lot of things to try to address its ageing population problem and falling fertility rates but this would be one very effective way.

Children are being brought into families that have been assessed as being stable, loving and dedicated and where, generally, there is a mother and father. If some sort of value was placed on that, I think the payback to Australian society would be several times over anything it spent covering all the costs of overseas adoption. At the very least, the costs incurred could be tax deductible. That would be consistent with donations for overseas aid. In our own case, because we are spending money on adoption at the moment, what would otherwise have gone to overseas aid is being substituted. I think it is fair to see it in that sort of way. There is a case for it being tax deductible if we have to pay. Funding for children to be immunised could help a lot, as could funding for them to be cared for in the overseas countries when a program is set up between Australia and that country. Thank you.

CHAIR —Would anyone else like to comment?

Lyn —Yes. I have sent in a submission and I hope people have read it. My daughter is currently 29 months old. She was adopted at the age of nearly 19 months, in September last year. She is the light of my life. I am a single parent. I did not go through quite what Jeanette has had to go through, but I have to admit that I do not believe single parent applicants are treated equitably in the process. I would especially like to bring up the example of a friend I have come in contact with through this, who lives in South Australia. She had to move to Victoria to adopt her daughter. In my opinion, that is absolutely criminal. She is a fantastic parent to her daughter and she had to move states because of state regulations. From that perspective, I feel very blessed and very lucky that I live in Victoria. I have three fantastic cousins who were adopted from India. Growing with them and watching them grow has been a delight in my life. When I realised that marriage probably was not going to be an option for me, intercountry adoption was the first thing I thought of because of the experiences I had growing up with my cousins.

I am not going to take very much longer, but the immunisation allowance is one thing I would like to bring up. My daughter was nearly 19 months old when I adopted her and nearly 20 months old when we arrived home. We were given an immunisation form from China which stated that she had had a whole range of immunisations. We realised that because vaccines might not be stored properly sometimes they are not effective. So I went to a paediatrician in Melbourne and asked the paediatrician to check the immunity levels of her immunisations, to check that she had appropriate coverage. He did so and found that most of hers were really good.

She was covered for most of them; the ones that she was not covered for we had done pretty soon. But to try and get all the immunisations that children are supposed to have before they turn two years of age and to have claimed for that before they turn two when they have come home at an older age has been very difficult. She got her last immunisation the day before she turned two and I had to fight Centrelink to get that payment. That annoyed me. And I had to fight Medicare when I bought her home to get her enrolled in the name that I had chosen, even though I had a document from the Department of Human Services stating what her new name was and what her previous name was and I had all the adoption documentation. I was treated like I was trying to enrolled an alien. The person that processed my application was rude and totally uncaring and was speaking very loudly in front of all the other people who were waiting in the Medicare office. I did not think it was appropriate that everyone else should be hearing what my daughter’s background was; that is her private story.

I thank you for the work that you are doing. I thank you for deciding to have this inquiry. I thank you because I am now eligible for the maternity payment, which is going to come in very handy. I really appreciate the time that you are taking and hope that good things come out of it.

CHAIR —Thank you very much. As there is no-one else who would like to say something, we have now completed the community statements. I thank everybody for their contributions. We will now hear from representatives of Victoria’s peak adoption support groups.

[1.42 pm]