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Adoption of children from overseas

CHAIR —Welcome. Do you have any additional comments to make on the capacity in which you appear?

Mrs Brisson —I am an adoptive parent and I am the national coordinator of the Australian Intercountry Adoption Network.

Witness was then sworn or affirmed—

CHAIR —We have received a submission from you and I think we have just received a supplementary submission.

Mrs Brisson —I have actually just prepared some notes to go with my discussion.

CHAIR —Is it the wish of the committee to accept the three documents that make up this supplementary submission? There being no objection, it is so ordered. Would you like to make an opening statement?

Mrs Brisson —First of all, I would like to take this opportunity to thank the committee for giving us all this opportunity to talk about our concerns and our joys of being adoptive parents and to raise the concerns of adoptees and so on. I think it has long been needed. It has been years and years before anything like this has happened. It is great to see the federal government take such interest in the concerns of the community. In my submission I have tried to address the terms of reference of the committee, which were mainly to do with the inconsistencies of state processes and the rights of adoptive families versus the rest of the community.

I am not going to repeat any of this information. What I would like to talk about today is more the process in the country. I have read in the documents on your web site on the hearings in other states that you have heard from a lot of adoptive families, so I am not going to repeat my own experience of adoption as an adoptive parent. I would rather talk about my experience as a volunteer adoption worker for the past 25 years; the difficulties that we have had for the last 25 years in dealing with governments at both the state and federal level and the anti-adoption culture, which you have heard about over the last few months; and ways of moving forward. At the moment we are not seeing much progress. What I am hoping for as a result of this inquiry is that we can move forward to a much better system than the one we have in New South Wales and in Australia at the moment.

My main concern with the way the system works at the moment is the fact that we have a two-level process—that is, federal and state. We have a central authority, the federal Attorney-General, who takes very little interest in what goes on in the whole process. Every time you write to the federal Attorney-General, you get a letter back saying, ‘Go back and discuss it with your state.’ There are hardly any staff working in that office. In the last eight years since the Hague convention was ratified, they have had maybe four or five different staff members. There is no permanent office that you can liaise with. At the state level you have eight different welfare departments, each with its own rules, regulations, laws and policies. Some are consistent with others and some are not. Although the state welfare departments meet regularly and discuss issues, the flow-on effect is hardly seen in any way. There is very little consultation with non-government agencies. There is no funding whatsoever for non-government agencies such as ours.

When we started the process there would have been at least 20 or 30 agencies working in intercountry adoption supporting families, both pre and post. Today there are hardly any, because they are all falling apart or they just cannot afford to continue to provide the same services that they have been providing. We as an organisation would really like to see the federal government having more involvement in the process and taking it back from the states. We know the states are doing the level of work that they can do, but they are certainly not doing justice to the program. All the states, no matter which state you are in, always claim that they have limited resources and that their primary responsibility is to children in their own states. Intercountry adoption is always the last item on their agenda. So, no matter which state you are in, it is always at the bottom of the list.

I have just tabled statistics for you. These are statistics that we have compiled over the last month. I thought they might be of interest to you. They demonstrate the difference between the number of children coming to Australia and the number going to other countries. The statistics are very clear in showing the differences between countries. My question is: why do only 450 children come to Australia when 21,000 children go to US? It is not about a lack of children. It is not about a lack of applicants. We know there are 800 people waiting in Queensland alone, trying to apply to adopt. There are probably just as many in other states. But they are either not let into the system or the system is bogged down. It is slow and there are not as many seminars as there should be. It is very clear—you do not have to be a genius to put two and two together.

I have just done a quick comparison of a number of countries. Just looking at China, there were probably about 100 children who came to Australia last year. There are no accurate statistics as yet because they have not been published. There were 7,044 who went to the US, 497 who went to Sweden and 308 who went to Norway. Why is our system so slow, so bogged down and so difficult to go through? DOCS claims that, as has been mentioned, it takes them 12 months to process an application. As you heard from a witness, they have been three years in the system and they are still waiting.

CHAIR —You make a statement at the end of your supplementary submission:

BOLIVIA—prime example of bureaucracy at work!!

What do you mean by that?

Mrs Brisson —This relates to the question about establishing programs. As a bit of background history: programs over the years have normally, primarily, been established by NGOs. NGOs would have a direct contact with an orphanage or with an agency overseas or personal contacts. They would liaise with that agency and, if all worked well, all was agreed to and the state welfare departments were in agreement, the program would be established. This all worked fine, and most of the programs that are operating today were opened in that way. In 1994 the states, following the formalisation of the Hague convention in 1993, jointly decided not to expand the program any further until Australia ratified the Hague convention. At the time, it was expected that Australia would ratify it within a year, but it took until 1998 for it to do so.

From 1994 to 1998 hardly any work was done on establishing programs with new countries. If you look at the States, you can see that there are lots of other countries they are adopting from which Australians are not allowed to or able to. In 1998 when Australia ratified the convention it made a decision that no more programs would be opened with non-convention countries, so no non-convention countries are being considered today. The only country that was considered at the time was China, and that was only through a push by Brian Harradine to get the program approved and a lot of lobbying by a lot of family and support groups that were trying to get the program up and running. It took six years to get the China program approved and operational.

That brings me to Bolivia. Bolivia was a program that Australian Families for Children established 25 years ago. We negotiated the program and we liaised with the orphanages directly. It was approved that we would run the program through DOCS at the time. We maintained the program for 23 years. When Bolivia ratified the convention we were told as an organisation that we were no longer able to do it because we were not an accredited body, notwithstanding the fact that in New South Wales until 1 July of this year we were not even able to apply to become an accredited body.

So the program has been shut for three years while DOCS has tried to renegotiate agreements with Bolivia. A large number of families are waiting to apply. At least one family’s file has been sitting there for four years waiting for Australia to finalise any arrangements so it can go through the process. The fact that we were not able to seek accreditation basically stopped the program. I have also included in the submission the chronological order of events in terms of accreditations of NGOs, just to highlight the difficulties we have had in that respect since 1981. Bolivia was a program that, as I said, we established as an organisation. Every child from Bolivia today came through with the help of our organisation, and it is not working anymore.

There is no protocol in place for establishing new programs, to say who is in charge or who makes the decision; there is nothing. We asked DOCS in New South Wales over a year ago to request that the federal Attorney-General document something. We were told that it should come to us in October or December of last year. We are still waiting. The person who was supposed to draft it is now working at the Hague. There is no documentation whatsoever. There are no protocols or processes in place.

CHAIR —When you talk about documentation, you are talking about a formal agreement being negotiated between Australia and Bolivia.

Mrs Brisson —There is no protocol in place to state how Australia enters into an agreement with any other country. There is no documentation stating who is responsible, who funds it, what process needs to be followed, who can recommend what or who makes the final decision.

CHAIR —Who would make those protocols?

Mrs Brisson —The federal Attorney-General. He is the central authority.

CHAIR —That is what I am saying—the agreement as I understand it, now that we have ratified the Hague convention, would be that Australia would negotiate with a foreign country, as we did with China.

Mrs Brisson —But who? Who does the negotiation?

CHAIR —The government does.

Mrs Brisson —What information do they need? What needs to be put in place? It has been three years since Bolivia ratified and Australia ratified, and we are still waiting.

CHAIR —What has happened under the MOU, as I understand it, is that New South Wales has been made the so-called lead state—which I find a bit odd, but never mind—in the negotiations with Bolivia and Colombia. The Department of Community Services went to Bolivia in 2004 to recommence the program and in February 2004 they went to Colombia. They were there in 1987, but that was pre ratification. When they say that there is a lead state, I find it difficult to think that we have states negotiating an agreement on behalf of the Commonwealth. We cannot. It has to be a government-to-government agreement. What is the New South Wales government supposed to do in negotiating these alleged agreements, and are they doing preliminary actions on behalf of the Attorney-General?

Mrs Brisson —I do not know anything about the MOU, so I do not know the content of it; we are not party to that sort of information. What I understand is that each state has been delegated a country to be in charge of. New South Wales is in charge of Korea and Queensland is in charge of Ethiopia and so on. Most of the kids that have arrived from Bolivia have come to New South Wales and most of the applicants are from New South Wales. We have been lobbying for it to be reopened and for us to manage it again.

CHAIR —The question of whether or not NGOs will be part of a situation is a different question.

Mrs Brisson —Yes.

CHAIR —I am just trying to establish where the negotiations with Bolivia and Colombia, for want of an example, are up to. We heard that Tasmania, which was in charge of negotiations with South Africa, have simply put it on hold and they are not doing it.

Mrs Brisson —The advice we received from DOCS is that they appointed a representative in Bolivia about 18 months or two years ago, following their visit there. They are still negotiating agreements. Unfortunately, the legislation is such in Bolivia that it does not provide for agreements to be entered into on a government-to-government basis. The legislation in Bolivia provides for agreements to be entered into on a government-to-NGO basis. Because DOCS are not an NGO there have been some issues about finalising that agreement. I am not sure what the latest is as of this week. We know that they are still waiting for it to be finalised.

CHAIR —I find that a bit odd. I find it very strange that a government would legislate that it could not negotiate with another government; that it could only negotiate with something that had no standing.

Mrs Brisson —That is what is embedded in the Bolivian legislation. It does not exclude government. It basically says that the central authority of another country needs to appoint an accredited body or licensed agency or body to—

CHAIR —Our laws say that the government or central authority may accredit NGOs—not ‘must’. I would find it very strange if the Bolivian government were different.

Mrs Brisson —It is very clearly stated in the legislation.

CHAIR —I might try to have a look.

Mrs Brisson —I am more than happy to send a copy of the Bolivian legislation with its translation.

CHAIR —Thank you. That would be helpful.

Ms GEORGE —You make the comment in your supplementary submission, in the list of concerns arising from the absence of NGO involvement, in point (6) ‘perception that NGOs are purely self-interest organisations with no concern for the welfare of children’. That is a pretty damning statement to make. Could you expand on your reasons for feeling that way?

Mrs Brisson —Yes. In the same way that there has always been a culture anti adoption, there has always been a culture anti parent support groups, which is what NGOs are being described as. As such, it was always felt that parent support groups worked for themselves, only to find children for themselves and go through the process quicker. As I said from the beginning, I have been in intercountry adoption for 25 years. I am a volunteer worker. I do not need to do this. I adopted my kids 22 and 24 years ago. I have always found this idea offensive. Because of that, we have lobbied hard and strong over the years to try to get some recognition. There is no recognition for any NGO in Australia that is working in intercountry adoption. We cannot get a certificate; we cannot get a licence. There is nothing. There is no funding; there is nothing. It has always been perceived that we only look after ourselves because we want children. That is common knowledge.

Ms GEORGE —What is happening with the accreditation process in New South Wales arising from the changed legislative environment?

Mrs Brisson —From 1998, when the convention was ratified, until December of last year we had been working towards preparing for accreditation. There was a list of proposed requirements and functions that bodies could be accredited for. We were intending to apply for the post-approval functions. There are two distinct processes in place. There is an approval process which is done by DOCS at the moment, and we normally work with families after they have been approved by DOCS, which we still do. We were intending to apply to become accredited to continue to do that sort of work and slowly build up the expertise to do the assessments and supervision and so on. In December 2004, we were informed by DOCS and the Office of the Children’s Guardian, who is now the accrediting body in New South Wales, that the functions have been revised and any body that is seeking accreditation will basically need to do exactly what DOCS is doing, and that includes the assessment, approval and so on. So three specific functions that were identified that any accredited body will need to perform.

Ms GEORGE —Has any NGO been accredited in New South Wales?

Mrs Brisson —No, because the legislation only came through on 1 July. The change of the functions that could be accredited for means an enormous change in the need for resources and funding. DOCS has made it very clear that it is not going to fund any intercountry adoption service providers. Basically, as a voluntary NGO, as of 1 July we are able to apply for accreditation but we estimate that we will probably need about $500,000 over the next three years to comply with the requirements and put all the processes in place. We have written to the federal government seeking support, which was knocked back, and DOCS is saying that they are not going to support any. It is my understanding that New South Wales agencies are funded to up to 50 per cent of their budget, agencies in Victoria are fully funded and so on. So local agencies are funded, but the advice that we have been given is that intercountry agencies will not be funded and will have to be self-sufficient and demonstrate financial viability before they can even lodge an application.

Mr TICEHURST —Why do you think the adoption rate in Australia is so low?

Mrs Brisson —It is because of the processes in place. The whole system just does not work. You have eight welfare departments who claim that their prime responsibility is for children in their own state. I have no qualms about that and I have no problem with them looking after kids in their own state. The news this week certainly demonstrates that there is a great need for that, which is why we feel that there is a need for a different body to look after the process. There is a lack of staff, lack of resources, lack of expertise and lack of will. The list is enormous.

Mr TICEHURST —Is the lack of will the prime issue?

Mrs Brisson —Probably the lack of will is one of the prime issues. Look at other countries—everybody always bashes the US, so I will not even talk about the US. But if you look at Norway and Sweden, which are a quarter of the size of Australia but adopt two and three times as many children, the processes in those countries are totally different. There is one central body in charge of intercountry adoption. It works directly with NGOs. The government looks after the assessment of families and the NGOs facilitate the negotiation and agreements with other countries. Entering into an agreement with another country does not need to be so onerous that we have to keep sending people to visit that country. Business does not normally get done in that way. It should not take three years to enter into an agreement. It should not have taken six years to enter into an agreement with China. It took three years to find out that the Victorian welfare department was talking to the wrong person in China, who was not authorised to finalise the agreement. We are talking about social workers dealing on an international level with matters that they are not experienced in dealing with.

Mr TICEHURST —So government departments really cannot run a business—I think that is probably what you are saying. Although it is not a business, it is a process—but it is very similar.

Mrs Brisson —It is a process, but it has to be run as a business. Otherwise it does not work properly.

Mr TICEHURST —I must agree with you. I have been involved in international business on the private side for many years, and I know where you are coming from there. You were saying that even in the Attorney-General’s Department there is no one person that you can deal with.

Mrs Brisson —They keep changing every few months. Every few months there is another person. You write to them and you do not get any answers. As I mentioned in my submission, the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties made a number of recommendations in 1998. There were many public objections to the ratification of the convention. Only the Attorney-General’s Department and the state welfare departments wanted it ratified, but the community was against the ratification. The standing committee on treaties made a number of recommendations. None of those that had anything to do with NGOs has been followed. It took two years for the government to respond. Even in their response nothing has been followed through, which is why I am hoping this inquiry can achieve more than the treaties committee has.

In the federal Attorney-General’s office, there is one person who I think works part time in that particular role. They may do other things, but they are not there in a full-time capacity. They go to the meetings with the states and to the Hague meetings. We had to approach them recently because there is a Hague special commission meeting taking place this week about accreditation. One of the days was allocated and dedicated to the accreditation of NGOs and how it is all working. Australia was asked to respond and so were all the other countries. It is all on the Hague web site. As representatives of NGOs and on behalf of the Australian Intercountry Adoption Network, we have sent a request for an Australian NGO representative to participate. The Hague responded to us that that would have to come from the federal Attorney-General’s Department, as it is the central authority. We put the request to the department and it has not even bothered answering.

Mr TICEHURST —So you do not know whether the representative went or not?

Mrs Brisson —No, we know they did not. She is sitting there—she is actually on holidays in Holland, waiting to hear and she has not been advised. They have not even bothered responding. Whenever we write to the federal Attorney-General’s office or the representative we get a letter back saying, ‘Go back to your state; it’s a state matter.’

Mr TICEHURST —We have that issue a lot—duckshoving between state and federal. Maybe you need a very dogged local member to chase them up.

Mrs Brisson —But they also change. This is the problem, that there is such a lack of continuity.

CHAIR —They have not changed much during the last decade. That is why we are here.

Mrs Brisson —Have they changed portfolios?

CHAIR —No, Mr Ticehurst is talking about local members.

Ms GEORGE —You made the point in your submission about the differences in rights and entitlements at work and in government support for biological and adoptive parents. Would you expand a bit on that?

Mrs Brisson —Yes. I have put together a table because I found it the easiest way of—

Ms GEORGE —What do you think we should or could do?

Mrs Brisson —I think adoptive families are basically being discriminated against because they are not having biological children. So they do not get any medical benefits and they do not get any support. They end up with massive fees. I am not sure whether you are aware of it but, in New South Wales, the fee last year went up to $9,700 for the first application. That is on top of all the other fees. Each adoption ends up costing anywhere from $25,000 to $40,000 by the time the family is able to complete the process.

I would like to see some federal subsidies or tax deductibility. There used to be some. When we adopted our children there was a tax deduction available for both local and intercountry adoptive families—it did not differentiate. We were able to benefit from that. Although it was not much, it was better than nothing. So there certainly is a need for that. We need massive funding injected into support services for adoptive families. There is no funding whatsoever. I went through the DOCS web site and read their annual report for the last year. Every second funding grant that they provided was for family support services.

There is nothing like that for any intercountry adoptive families. We run our own support networks; we have to fund our own support networks. We run our own functions, activities and network services. We put our own newsletter together. If it were not for corporate sponsorship and donations from the public, we would not exist. As the other adoptees group mentioned, we are now getting requests from adoptees to help them with searches and so on. They cannot afford the cost and we cannot afford to do it for nothing, so they are not getting that service. Yes, we can put all the processes in place, but there is always a cost involved with everything. Very few people want to work for nothing. So as far as the federal government is concerned, please take it on for us and fund it appropriately. There also needs to be a proper set-up in the A-G’s department that is dedicated to looking after the community’s and the children’s interests.

CHAIR —Thank you very much for coming along this morning and going through that material. It is very useful for our inquiry, for which we thank you very much.

Mrs Brisson —Thank you for the opportunity.

CHAIR —Thank you. How old are your kids?

Mrs Brisson —They are 22 and 24. This week we are running, in conjunction with a few other volunteers, a camp for adoptive families and adoptive children. I wish Analee and Chris had had the same opportunity when they were growing up. We have a program for adult adoptees who are mentoring the younger adoptees, and they are running all the activities for the camp.

CHAIR —That is good. Where did your children come from?

Mrs Brisson —My eldest is from Colombia and my youngest is from Bolivia. He was the second Bolivian child to arrive in Australia, and he keeps asking, ‘Why aren’t there any more?’

CHAIR —He feels he would like to meet a few here. Thank you very much.

Proceedings suspended from 10.49 am to 11.17 am