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Adoption of children from overseas

CHAIR (Mrs Bronwyn Bishop) —I declare open this hearing of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Human Services for its inquiry into the adoption of children from overseas. This inquiry has attracted considerable attention. We have received over 240 submissions to date, and the vast majority are from parents and couples who wish to start or grow their families and help orphaned or abandoned children from overseas. This public hearing allows the committee to meet people from New South Wales who have a personal or professional involvement in intercountry adoptions. The New South Wales government are not appearing today. They were to but the person who was to appear is not well, so that will have to be rescheduled. We will hear from intercountry adoption groups, young adult adoptees and private citizens. Copies of these submissions are available on the committee’s web site.

The committee will also invite short, informal community statements from interested individuals. Members of the public, regardless of whether they have given a submission, are most welcome to inform the committee about how international adoption has affected them or attitudes they have. We only require people who are taking part in this segment to give their first name if they wish, and nobody has to be an expert. 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 the committee staff here at the hearing.

Witness was then sworn or affirmed—

CHAIR —Welcome. We have your submission. Would you like to make an opening statement?

Ms Ellem —Yes. I will give an overview of what I said in my submission. I would like to say how grateful I am for the opportunity to speak to you today as a parent. It is a great honour to be before you and Ms George. You are people I admire very much. Thank you. In my submission I mentioned the following points: the importance of an adoption program run by the federal government; the importance of individuals working in the adoption body believing in the process that they serve; the excellence of DOCS seminars and their clerical staff; the use of parent facilitators to aid new people who are starting in the adoption program to navigate through that process; the importance of providing adoptive parents who are going through the process with the information they need; and the need for DOCS to have enough staff to be equipped to deal with the workload that they have. Eight staff is not enough; they need more people.

There are two other points I would like to add. We are able, as adoptive parents, to apply for Australian birth certificates for our children when we receive them. That is wonderful, except that on the birth certificate the child’s status is listed as ‘abandoned’. As a parent, dealing with all the issues that adoptive children will have throughout their lives, I am aware that that issue will be constantly thrown in their faces. The birth certificates will be examined by strangers throughout their lives when they are applying for bank accounts, passports and driver’s licences. That is a very personal, private matter that needs to be within families. If it is necessary to have a child’s status on the birth certificate it should be listed as adopted.

I come to the issue of the rights of adoptive parents. We always seem to be lesser parents than our biological counterparts yet we look after, care for, nurture and worry about our kids every bit as much as biological parents do. It would be wonderful if government could recognise that we have the rights of parents.

CHAIR —Thank you very much. When you got the birth certificate and it said ‘abandoned’ on it, did you raise that with the department?

Ms Ellem —We have not done that yet. We are in the waiting zone for the next two weeks to be allocated our child. But that was one of the first things that we were told about at the adoption seminar. The social worker, Penny Haskins, who is excellent, said at the time: ‘This is what is on the birth certificate, and if you have an issue with that you need to take it up with your federal member.’ So what better opportunity than to take it up now and say that this needs to be addressed for the sake of our children?

CHAIR —I think you make a perfectly valid point. I would like to ask you about the timing of the process that you have gone through. When you first decided that you wanted to be adopting parents you obviously thought about it a good deal. When did you first apply?

Ms Ellem —We have been in an unusual situation in that we applied back in late 1999. We went through the process and we were just getting ready to prepare the adoption papers when Brent and I decided to withdraw from the program because we felt that we had issues that we needed to deal with ourselves. This process is very good at highlighting things that need to be dealt with. That is a positive that I really must stress is important because it assures you 100 per cent that if you are not ready to do this process you will not be able to go through it. You have to be 100 per cent committed to each other and to the child that you are going to bring into your family. So we went away, did some things that we needed to do, sorted some issues out and then came back and reapplied. We did that in 2002. We put our papers in very early and we received notification for our adoption seminar in May of that year.

CHAIR —But you would already have been in the pipeline, I guess?

Ms Ellem —We had been, yes, but when we came back we had lapsed, so we had to unlapse ourselves.

CHAIR —So you had your first education seminar?

Ms Ellem —Yes.

CHAIR —How did it proceed from there?

Ms Ellem —After the first education seminar we got our paperwork ready to submit. That can be a bit of an extensive process. That took a couple of months. We then lodged that paperwork and we were told that we needed to go through the assessment process. We did have an issue with the assessment process. My husband and I had been together, living in a de facto relationship, for 11 years at that time. When we approached the department, when we first started going through the process for the second time around, we said to them: ‘We’re not married. We’re going to get married. We are making plans to do that. When do we need to do that so that it doesn’t hold up our process?’ We were told that we had to be married before our papers went to China.

So we went through the interview process until January of this year, with the wedding booked and everything sorted out for a wedding in July, to then be told that there would be no further interviews with us until we were married, in case we changed our minds. That time was very difficult to deal with because we hit a brick wall with DOCS. Despite the fact that we had been told the information by DOCS itself and had acted on the information given, it was very hard not to feel that we were being penalised arbitrarily. There was no room to manoeuvre on that. We even suggested—because my father is a Baptist minister—that our wedding could be done around the pool at home, if that was going to continue the movement in our process. We had been waiting a long time. We were told that it made no difference at all. No reports would be written and nothing would be done until July. We were then given assurances that, that being the case, because we would then fall into the new DOCS document procedures, our approval process would only take three months. Three days after we were married we met with our social worker, who looked us in the face and said, ‘Do you want to change your minds?’ We said no and she said, ‘We’ll finish the interview then.’ So she did and we waited five months for approval.

CHAIR —Why did it take from 2002 to 2005 to get to that stage? That is a long time, when we are told that the average waiting period in New South Wales is around a year.

Ms Ellem —Yes, that is said a great deal.

CHAIR —It clearly is not.

Ms Ellem —I have no idea why that is the process. I am hoping that I have not got my dates wrong—that it was not 2003. But, no, we are right: as of January or February of next year we will have been in the process three years. It has been a three-year wait. Why it has taken that long I do not know. I have no idea. It indicates to me that the problems that existed in DOCS when my parents were adopting and facilitating Brazilian adoptions exist to this very day and are ingrained in the very process itself. Because it has happened to us and that is 27 years—

CHAIR —What is ingrained?

Ms Ellem —I think the methodologies in place and the understaffing have been chronic issues in DOCS New South Wales for the past 27 years. That is how long I have been involved in and around international adoptions. There have always been chronic delays. There has always been understaffing. There have always been issues with staff who do not believe in the process that they serve.

CHAIR —They do not believe in adoption at all?

Ms Ellem —No, they do not believe in adoption at all. I find it very hard not only as an adoptive parent but from a business and philosophical point of view. If an individual does not believe in what they do, that colours and affects everything they put their hand to. It does not matter how dedicated and professional they are—and a lot of our DOCS people are very dedicated and very professional—if you do not philosophically believe in what you are doing then it will colour your attitude towards the people that you deal with and the processes that you do.

Ms GEORGE —Could you expand on your statement that senior staff do not believe in intercountry adoption and on the words of one of the senior caseworkers quoted in your submission? I find it amazing that public servants can work in an agency that is all about facilitating intercountry adoption and have that attitude. Can you elaborate on that and explain why you think that attitude prevails in the department?

Ms Ellem —I was at a China information day. ASIAC hold those twice a year for the different countries and the different programs to give adoptive parents an insight into what is happening in the adoptive country programs. There are representatives from DOCS as well. We had just been given word that our adoption had been delayed and we were both very upset, and I was there to try to talk to this senior DOCS individual to see if we could come to some agreement. There were a number of couples there in various stages of the program. The first words that came out of the mouth of the senior DOCS person that was there—the person, I might add, who was also at that stage responsible for approval of couples to adopt—were: ‘If I had my way, none of you would be here. I don’t believe in international adoption. As far as I am concerned, you should all be fostering.’

That is a hell of a statement to make to a room full of adoptive parents. All of a sudden you begin to realise what is really going on. I was very disappointed—I was crushed. It all became apparent to me. Up until that point I had been so pleased, because I could see the bad old days of adoption in the past and I thought that they were a thing of the past. I have a number of horror stories that span the 27 years that I am talking about, things that had happened to family friends and even to my parents. These are things that would, to anybody looking on outside, raise the question: why would people put themselves through such a torment to adopt a child when they have to face individuals who are prepared to do absolutely anything they can to stop the process going through?

I spoke to my dad at length about this because of my dad’s involvement in the eighties and nineties with DOCS and with the adoption program itself. I know it was a very frustrating thing for them. He believed that there have never really been any extensive studies done into the positive aspect of adoption in this country. There has been a lot of policy made and decisions made on adoptions that have been termed as failures. They are the background; that is where the policy is coming from. If this were a scientific or a mathematical field, if anybody handed you data that was only coming from one specific angle of a problem, a scientist would tell you that the information was flawed because you do not have both sides of the picture. Why have policies never been made dictated by adoptions that are wonderfully successful? They are not.

There is a problem coming from the universities. There seems to be a mind-set that has got to be at least 30 or 40 years old that goes back to the bad old days of the stolen generation and back to when adoptions were things that were considered secrets and the hideous problems that young teenagers had to go through. I cannot think of anything more devastating than hitting 16 years of age and finding out you are adopted. I would be breaking into buildings as well! There were mistakes made, but we have to move forward. It is not 1975; it is 2005. We are letting our children down by bogging ourselves back down in policy that is too old. We have got to be progressive and move forward. That is the only thing we can do for parents and also for our children. If policy is being made based on situations that are 30 years old then that has to change, because we are moving forward—it is a modern society and adoptions are not stopping. More and more people are adopting every day. We are batch 23. I just saw on the net last night that batch 32 for New South Wales is just opening and batch 31 just closed. That is a lot of people wanting to adopt from just one country alone—China.

Mr TICEHURST —Joanne, you are a wonderful advocate for adoptive parents.

Ms Ellem —Thank you.

Mr TICEHURST —I find very strange the points you made earlier on in your opening statement about adoptive parents seen as lesser, but then that does go hand in hand with the comments you have just made about attitudes of people towards adoptive parents. Of course, you had to be married first. If you look at the history of marriage, probably one in three marriages fail. Normally, if people have been together in a de facto relationship for many years, for all intents and purposes they are married.

Ms Ellem —That is right.

Mr TICEHURST —I have seen many people in that role. Generally, people who are determined to adopt would be good parents—and I am not sure what the history is. You make a very interesting point about the legislation being targeted at the wrong angle. Unfortunately, with the way our media operate, sometimes it is the controversial side that gets the hearing but the positive side, I agree, should be pushed forward even more.

Ms Ellem —Lately in the press a lot of positive things have been said about international adoption, which has been fantastic. When my first sister came from Korea back in 1978, DOCS had advised everybody to keep the adoption process secret but, more than that, the press was filled with stories of baby buying and how wrong it was to remove a child from a culture, even though an orphanage is no culture. In the eighties the press was incredibly very bad but, especially over the past 12 to 18 months, press coverage has done almost an about-face. While there still may be little negative tones out there, I have to point to two excellent articles by Hamish McDonald in the Sydney Morning Herald—there was one last week. Ray Martin on Channel 9, of all places, every now and then props up a story on international adoption that really takes your breath away and you think, ‘Wow, there are actually media people there who don’t think we’re the enemy; they think we’re friends.’ That is invaluable, because it teaches the community. There is a lot of pop culture, and everybody learns from pop culture now. People are not learning from books; they are learning from the telly. But if they can give a positive outcome, instead of people asking me how much my baby is going to cost, they are saying: ‘Oh, the process is taking a long time. When are you going to hear? Can you let us know?’ That is a huge turnaround and a huge difference. I have tremendous hope for us as a community because of that.

Mr TICEHURST —I have the privilege of knowing a little Chinese girl who was adopted. In fact, the mother is sitting right behind you. It is wonderful see the love and devotion that that little girl gets in her Australian family. If we have more examples like that in this country, that is the best thing we could do.

Ms GEORGE —Joanne, you say that Australia has the potential to be a model in the area of intercountry adoption. What extra processes and changes would be needed to fulfil that potential?

Ms Ellem —I do believe that. I believe that, with us all working together, we have the opportunity to create something that other countries will want to copy. I am a layperson. I had a couple of years working in the Public Service, but that was a long time ago, so I am not a person to be able to dictate what happens. But I was thinking about this the other night—and I have a document here that I will give to Margaret to give to you later. I really believe that we need to be running adoptions in this country on a federal level. Probably the most logical thing would be for it to be overseen by the Attorney-General’s Department. Because all the states need to be unified across the board, that would also unify adoption policy and processes. There is a lot of confusion with overseas countries as to the different needs and requirements of each state, and that causes delays and other problems. There are all sorts of issues there.

On the reason for wanting it done federally, I really believe that all approvals should be handled federally and not on a state level. I absolutely believe that 100 per cent. I believe that a lot of the processes consist of double handling. New South Wales has done their damnedest to try to address those issues and to speed up the process, but I think they are let down by the fact that they are so chronically understaffed, mostly by part-time people, and they cannot cope with the workload. It does not matter how many streamlining processes you put in place; if you physically do not have the time to deal with those processes, it all falls apart. A federal body would have a unified set of policies and procedures in place that could be followed across the board, so you would not have the sorts of issues that are occurring in Queensland, in particular, at the moment.

I would like to see parents and DOCS—or parents and whatever the federal body is called—working in conjunction with each other. There is a huge resource in dedicated, adoptive parents who would be putting their hands up and volunteering and saying: ‘I’ll be a mentor. I will help people navigate their way through the bureaucratic mess, the mayhem and the nightmares; I can do that.’ These people could also speak about issues that are not talked about at a DOCS level or at seminar levels. There is information that adoptive parents need to know, such as the feeling of helplessness and how to deal with that helplessness and how to deal with the feelings of fear. I fluctuate from being scared to death one minute and being overjoyed the next. It is like swings and roundabouts or big waves. There are a lot of people out there who go through this process who do it in the dark. DOCS cannot, because of time constraints, money constraints and staffing constraints, give us the information that we need to ensure that we are informed during this process. Parent facilitators could do that.

Parent facilitators could give advice. Parent facilitators would be a valuable resource. They would be able to do all the things that DOCS or an adoption body physically would not be able to do. That would be unique. That is what I think would set us apart from anyone else, and it would be fantastic. You would have a system that operates not only from a government level to ensure that children’s rights are being protected and that kids are not being bought. Agency adoption is too fraught with area for abuse. Whichever way you look at it, agency adoption is going to be dedicated to the speed of the process and the money paid. It is not going to be dedicated to the needs of the children. But a federal body dedicated to the needs of the children and working in conjunction with parents—all working together for the needs of the child—would be fantastic.

CHAIR —Your testimony about the anti-adoption attitude is one that I would never have believed I would find when we started this committee’s hearings. But what we have found is what you have encountered. We find it is an attitude that permeates right across the bureaucracy. That is not to say that every individual person has that attitude; it is just a culture of anti-adoption that applies in Australia, where we have fewer than 100 children in Australia adopted every year but thousands of them fostered. It is only now that we are finding that certain jurisdictions—and we have had discussions with the ACT and Tasmania—are starting to reappraise and understand the value of permanent families for children. If you are really interested in the best outcomes for children then adoption, being a legitimate way to form a family or to add to a family, is going to have to come back into practice.

Ms Ellem —Absolutely.

CHAIR —That is going to take a lot of change. I was interested in the comment that you made about there being absolutely no studies about the success or failure not only of adoptions but also of fostering, and yet anecdotally we are starting to hear some dreadful stories. I think an appraisal has to be made of a policy that was made over 20 or 30 years ago. I think what you have had to say to us today is extraordinarily important, because it is coming from someone who is dealing with it and wanting to look after a child. You might be interested in the evidence we took from a young girl in Tasmania last week. Her name is Amee. She is 14 years old and she comes from Ethiopia. The question was put to Amee: ‘Should people be putting more money into the countries of origin where the children are rather than adopting children and bringing them to Australia?’ Amee gave the best response. She said that she was so proud to be an Australian, that she loves her parents and that she loves this country. She said that, if she had stayed in Ethiopia, as a woman her life expectancy was 39.

Ms Ellem —That is absolutely correct.

CHAIR —Whereas we have obligations as a nation to assist other countries in looking after their young children who need assistance, there is no written law that says that children must be sentenced to never having the opportunity to come and experience a loving family here. We are seeing so many examples of loving families being created by adoption—and not denying culture and keeping up those connections. Support groups are important. I have found things in this inquiry that I never expected to find. I never expected to find the complexity and this underlying culture. Thank you very much for being with us today. It has been a wonderful testimony.

Ms Ellem —Thank you.

CHAIR —How long will it be before you think you will get your baby?

Ms Ellem —If things continue to go the way they are, we should hear something in the next two to three weeks. I will let you know.

CHAIR —We look forward to hearing from you.

Ms Ellem —I will do that. Thank you very much for letting me speak to you today.

[9.35 am]