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Queensland: Torres Strait Islanders work to draft suggested changes to adoption laws, which will include cultural practices

MONICA ATTARD: In north Queensland today, Torres Strait Islanders are working to draft suggested changes to the State's adoption laws. It's an initiative of the Queensland Department of Families which is attempting to include cultural practices. Under islander law, a baby can be adopted by a childless couple if the baby is from one of their relatives. As Robert Dark reports from Townsville, one of the participants is Roslyn Bourne, an adopted child herself who's been trying to get formal recognition of her own adopted daughter.

ROBERT DARK: Roslyn Bourne has been looking after her daughter as an adopted child since the girl's birth seven years ago, but Mrs Bourne, who's lived on the mainland in Mackay for the past two decades, says she's always had trouble getting the authorities to recognise the child as her own.

ROSLYN BOURNE: In our society, in Torres Strait Islander society, the word 'adoption' is a taboo.

ROBERT DARK: Why is that?

ROSLYN BOURNE: Because the reason is you don't want your child to know who is their biological parents and the reason is because the child you are adopting is from your own family.

ROBERT DARK: So the extended family is the same as the immediate family?

ROSLYN BOURNE: Yes. And adoption in our society, as a Torres Strait Islander, only occurred within a family, and I was adopted into a family through my step-mother, you know adopted mother. She was a first cousin to my biological father.

ROBERT DARK: What was your first exposure to the Queensland Government's adoption laws?

ROSLYN BOURNE: When I first came across my adoption paper - now I'm 47 years old today - and way back then when I was 37, I just came accidentally across it, you know, when I tidied up my parents' room, and the adoption paper was in the government envelope, those yellow ones, just slipped out of the book, and I pick it up and open it up, and you know, I had tears in my eyes. You know, one thing I thought about it that way, Mum and Dad never actually told me that I was adopted, even though when all my friends told me, I came crying in to them and they said .. and Mum's the first in, always jumping to conclusion and she always said, 'Oh, don't listen to all them lies. You're my eldest daughter.'

ROBERT DARK: Mrs Bourne was given responsibility for her adopted child while it was still in her niece's womb. She's unable to have children of her own and says the transfer of responsibility for children between family members is common, but she says the Torres Strait Islanders now want legal recognition as adopting parents.

ROSLYN BOURNE: During my mother's life, I never thought of like going to a doctor to have babies, and this one day she came to us and she was pregnant, and she said, 'Aunty, if I have the baby, I'll give it to you and uncle,' and I said, 'Fair enough.' And this baby was handed over to us straight at the hospital after she gave birth, and the next day she told me to go and visit her during meal times and she let the sisters hand it over, the baby, to me and I hold her and tried to feed her, and I never hold a little baby like this before in my life, I was so scared.

ROBERT DARK: Do you think the European way of judging whether parents are fit to adopt a child is different or consistent with the way that Torres Strait Islanders judge that?

ROSLYN BOURNE: No, definitely not. If you are non-Torres Strait Islander, you wouldn't have a clue. It doesn't matter if you're a judge or someone else from family court, family service court, or from an adoption agency. This situation only can be understood by a Torres Strait Islander.

MONICA ATTARD: Roslyn Bourne and that report from Robert Dark in Townsville.