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Adoption of children from overseas

CHAIR —We have your submission, but I wonder if you would like to make an opening statement.

Mrs Gribble —I am a parent to a son born to me and a daughter adopted from China. I am here representing the parents’ support group Families with Children from China—Australia. FCC Australia is a support group for Australian families who have adopted from the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong or Taiwan. It is a fairly new organisation, being formed in the last 18 months or so, but we have a membership of over 230 families from all over Australia, as well as some expat members. On behalf of FCC Australia I would like to thank the committee for inviting us to be represented at this hearing. FCC made a fairly comprehensive submission to the inquiry. However, in my introductory statement I would like to emphasise what we feel are the three most important changes necessary in the way adoptive families are treated in Australia.

Firstly, there needs to be consultation with adoptive families before the introduction of legislation or policy that affects them. Just in the last six months, since FCC’s submission was made to the committee, two changes have been made to the detriment of expat adoptive families. Namely, families of newly adopted children who seek to gain Australian passports for their children are being asked to sign a piece of paper that essentially denies their parental relationship. Many parents are unwilling to do this.

Secondly, expat Australians are now required to obtain a residency visa for their child prior to obtaining citizenship, a completely unnecessary procedure but an expensive one that provides no additional checks. It is difficult to see it as anything other than a revenue raising activity. Such visas are generally never used, because the child does not enter Australia until after citizenship is obtained.

These are just two examples that underscore the need for consultation. The issue is not so much that it is a deliberate attempt to make things more difficult but that those constructing legislation and policy are not aware of the issues as they affect adoptive families. That is why consultation is really important. Should there be any formal way of consulting, FCC Australia would be more than happy to provide consultation, along with other peak adoption bodies.

The second issue is that there needs to be adequate resourcing of adoption processing. Many of the problems you will have been made aware of in submissions are due to inadequate resourcing of adoption processing. This includes the large differences between states and territories in the number of adoptions per capita that you see, with jurisdictions with larger populations performing poorly compared with smaller jurisdictions. This difference is essentially because each jurisdiction provides only a minimum service.

I know that you asked the federal Attorney-General for information on why New South Wales performed particularly poorly in terms of the number of adoptions per capita, particularly in comparison with Victoria, where you might assume that the population is relatively analogous to the New South Wales population. I think that this is the issue here: it is about providing a minimum service and so only a certain number of adoptions are processed.

The issue of resourcing also results in the large fees that applicants must pay in some states. They are a huge burden on adoptive families, placing some under enormous amounts of stress. It is a form of racism, and it is not in the best interests of the children in need of adoption placement. The issue of resourcing will remain wherever adoption processing is contained within departments that deal in child protection and where it is competing with this area for funding. Under the law, adoption is the equivalent of birth as a method of family formation and should be similarly supported and subsidised by government.

The third issue is that intercountry adoption is, by nature, a process that involves the governments of two countries. Under the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption, the federal Attorney-General’s Department is the central adoption authority responsible for intercountry adoption in Australia. However, currently the Attorney-General’s Department plays merely a figurehead role and is minimally involved in the actual overseeing of intercountry adoption. It is clear that the federal government needs to take a greater role than this.

There should be national consultation to ensure that states apply matching and non-discriminatory policies in relation to adoptions so that families are not forced into jurisdiction shopping. Many people have had to abandon normal lives and family support to move interstate. They are the tough ones. Many potentially great parents are excluded because they cannot face the additional heartbreak of uprooting or fighting bureaucracy or paying the fees. The federal government needs to be more involved in the negotiation of agreements, because the state government departments have demonstrated that they do not have expertise in this area. Federal departments are used to dealing with overseas countries and the types of negotiations that are required to set up adoption agreements.

The federal government also needs to take a greater overseeing role. This may perhaps provide an avenue of appeal for when state departments may not be acting in the best interests of the child in terms of policy. Currently, changes can be made that are to the detriment of the children—for example, the tripling of the fees in New South Wales that happened last year—and there is no avenue for appeal. New South Wales did not need to demonstrate that increasing the fees was in the best interests of the children before they did it. It is the responsibility of the Attorney-General’s Department to oversee what happens in each state to make sure that they are acting in the best interests of the children. Thank you.

CHAIR —Thank you very much, and thank you for your detailed submission as well. One part of your submission deals with free speech in relation to adoption. That is an issue that has concerned the committee since we first became aware of it. Whereas some jurisdictions forbid any publication of details of the child until the adoption orders are made, in South Australia the law says that you may never speak about or publicise your own child’s adoption history. That seems to me to be rooted in the Dark Ages. I wonder if you would like to elaborate a bit on how this was made public. In your submission you said that when they got rid of the NGO which was handling adoptions they made this statement that you may never speak about the children. Would you like to elaborate on that whole area?

Mrs Gribble —There was public consultation in South Australia—I am not exactly sure when it started; it was last year at some time—about their services and how things were proceeding, because they had outsourced much of the adoption process to a private agency. It was the only jurisdiction in Australia to do so. When the report came out it highlighted some problems but recommended that the agency keep the contract and continue to process applicants in the way that they were doing it. However, the government decided that they no longer wished to outsource any of their services to a private agency, and they announced within a fairly short period of time—six weeks or so—that the agency would no longer have the contract.

Many families were quite upset about that. South Australia’s system moved fairly smoothly. The staff had a fairly good relationship with adoption applicants and they had set up pretty good post adoption support, including the involvement of ICASN. Families wanted to say that they were unhappy about the closing of the agency. However, they were sent letters saying that if they spoke and identified themselves they could be in breach of the law and that there could be a fairly hefty penalty for that. So, while the minister was able to give interviews on talkback radio, individuals were not able to be put to air because they may have identified themselves and so identified their children.

CHAIR —That is disgraceful.

Mrs Gribble —It was fairly dirty.

CHAIR —What was the name of the minister?

Mrs Gribble —I am sorry, I cannot remember. It is in the submission.

CHAIR —The minister should be singled out and made note of.

Mrs Gribble —It was clearly political in nature. They did not wish for people to speak out and so they told them that they could not.

CHAIR —What was behind all of that? It was obviously very deliberate.

Mrs Gribble —They wanted to shut the agency.

CHAIR —Did they want to limit the number of adoptions?

Mrs Gribble —I do not know. There could perhaps have been a philosophical reason for that decision by the minister, or by somebody in the department, who did not wish for there to be outsourcing of the services. It is fair enough for people to have different opinions on how things should be but that was a fairly underhanded way of stifling comment.

CHAIR —It stopped debate.

Mrs Gribble —Yes.

Mr TICEHURST —In relation to this issue of the passports, what was the change to the policy?

Mrs Gribble —Whoever drafted the new legislation with respect to obtaining passports assumed that an adopted child would have an amended birth certificate that would have the adoptive parents named as the parents of the child. That is the case for adoptions that are completed in Australia. Oftentimes children, for example from Korea, come to Australia under the guardianship of the minister for community services and then a local adoption is processed through the courts in New South Wales and an amended birth certificate is issued with the child’s adoptive parents listed as being the parents of the child.

It does not happen with countries where the Hague convention has been ratified and it also does not happen with China. In those cases the children do not generally obtain an amended birth certificate, although in the Northern Territory and Tasmania I believe that amended birth certificates can be obtained if the parents wish to do so. But certainly, in most instances, those families have the child’s original birth certificate and it does not name them as parents. So when they go to apply for a passport, because they are not named on the birth certificate, they are being asked to sign a piece of paper saying that the consent of the child’s parents could not be obtained. Some parents are not happy to do that. Some parents are happy to do it in order to get the passport, other parents say, ‘No, this is incorrect. My child has two sets of parents. I have proof here that I have legal responsibility for the child and so that should be sufficient.’

Mr TICEHURST —You would think so.

Mrs Gribble —It has only arisen during the last couple of months or so.

Mr TICEHURST —How do you think the government should make sure we have consultation before changes are made?

Mrs Gribble —I do not know. That is outside my area of expertise. But there are certainly organisations that are prepared to provide information if it is requested of them. A number of years ago there was an inquiry into citizenship and they received no submissions on obtaining citizenship via adoption. The reason they obtained no submissions was that nobody was told about it and so they then were making recommendations based on ignorance.

Mr TICEHURST —I guess it can be difficult for legislators to know who is involved and who has expertise.

Mrs Gribble —That is right. We probably need a federal adoption body.

CHAIR —It was put to us that it was brought in by the government because it would assist in preventing paedophilic activity. To my way of thinking, you do not put the onus on making a visa application for the child, you make sure you have a good look at the parents who are adopting in the country where the child is to be adopted from. To me the visa issue did not safeguard children in any way, shape or form. I thought it was a crazy thing to do and I said so.

Mrs Gribble —We have expat members who have been in that situation, and they required less documentation for obtaining the visa. It was a one-day process. They went in, applied for the visa and got it. There were no additional checks required. It was just a $1,500 cost to them for a visa which the child will never use. It is just another example. Expats overseas are having difficulty in communicating again with the Attorney-General’s Department and getting answers. The embassies are asking for information.

CHAIR —This did not come through the Attorney-General’s Department; it came through the then minister for citizenship.

Mrs Gribble —I mean with the passport issue and that sort of thing. There are communications going from the embassy because it is a problem for the expats who have adopted. Apparently, they are having difficulty getting information from the Attorney-General’s Department.

CHAIR —We have now found a satisfactory solution with respect to China because the ACT will be the lead jurisdiction on China where expat adoptions are concerned.

Mr TICEHURST —Have you inquired as to why the fees in New South Wales tripled in the last year?

Mrs Gribble —It was moving towards cost recovery. There was a report that looked at the costs of processing intercountry adoption. It did not look at the costs of processing local adoptions, so they were unable to say how much local adoptions cost to process. From memory, the cost was more like $11,000. They have said, ‘Okay, $11,000 would be cost recovery, we’ll give you a little bit of a discount and make it $9,700.’

Mr TICEHURST —Their processes are such that they are dealing with fewer children so that in Victoria their costs are always going to be a lot higher.

Mrs Gribble —And one would wonder whether cost recovery was reasonable. I think if biological parents were required to pay even $500 to cover part of the costs associated with prenatal care, childbirth and postnatal care, they would be most upset about it. Ten thousand dollars is a lot of money.

Mr TICEHURST —It is a lot of money.

Mrs Gribble —I think that people who are adopting for the first time and who do not have other children will often have a double income and they are able to come up with the costs of paying for the first adoption. It is when it comes to the second adoption that things are particularly difficult. The needs of their first child may mean that they need a primary caregiver at home with them full-time. To come up with an extra $20,000 or $30,000 is a big ask.

Mr TICEHURST —It seems incredible. In fact, one earlier witness said that the costs were the order of $25,000 to $40,000 to adopt. It just seems ridiculous.

CHAIR —Most of that money is in airfares.

Mrs Gribble —Most of it is in overseas costs.

CHAIR —And if they make a payment to the overseas agency as well.

Mrs Gribble —I must admit that we are in the process of trying to save for our next adoption. We have just about got enough money in there to pay for the Australian fees now. It has taken some time for us to get to that level. Then there is additional money on top of that.

Ms GEORGE —It is also the double burden, isn’t it—it is not just the costs, which are quite prohibitive for a lot of people who might exercise a desire to adopt, but also the discrimination in terms of entitlements that are provided at different levels of government.

Mrs Gribble —That is right—absolutely.

Ms GEORGE —We had a witness this morning saying that the culture in New South Wales is one that does not really believe in or support intercountry adoption. Do you think this could be an explanation for the relatively low rate of intercountry adoption in this state in comparison to others or is it the cost factor—or a combination?

Mrs Gribble —I think it is mainly to do with the minimum service provision. The staffing is limited and I think that, to a large degree, that is what has limited the number of adoptions. As Jo said this morning, it is not necessarily that individual staff are problematic, although I must say that in recent years things have improved quite a lot. Previous managers of adoptions were extremely hostile, and that is no longer the case. But, when you have the sort of pressure that came from Treasury to increase the fees and turn to cost recovery, that is the sort of problem that we have. There is not the will to provide the service. The state government does not see that they have responsibility for children who are overseas. Indeed, they do not. I guess in that respect their responsibility is to the adults—the adoption applicants—in the state who are wanting to adopt a child.

Ms GEORGE —If you were sitting on this side of the table and you were helping to construct the report and its recommendations, what would you say would be the three priority issues that you have identified?

Mrs Gribble —As I outlined, certainly adequate resourcing of adoption is extremely important. I think I made a personal submission at one stage suggesting, because I know that the states are not going to allow adoption to move into the federal arena totally—although New South Wales seemed fairly happy for it to happen—that perhaps funding could come from the federal government because funding is the real issue. To run the New South Wales department for a year—and I am working from memory again here—is about $1 million as it currently stands.

CHAIR —I think we have to stop saying that, when state governments fail, the federal government has to take over funding what they do. New South Wales has been awash with money. The Carr government has had twice as much money with the GST as John Fahey had when he lost office in 1996. So where has the money gone? That is the better question. It is not good enough to say that they can be off the hook for being incompetent. Personally, I think that, when they put the fees up to $10,000, they were sending out a signal—they do not want you to adopt from overseas in New South Wales.

Mrs Gribble —No, they do not.

CHAIR —It is a price signal. That is the way you send messages—with price signals.

Mrs Gribble —I know. I am waiting for somebody to make a complaint to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission because it is racial discrimination. It does not apply to local adoptions. Local adoptions have been kept under $3,000.

CHAIR —Is that right?

Mrs Gribble —Yes. In my submission there is a table of local and intercountry adoption costs in each state. In many states, local adoptions are free to process. In New South Wales it is not free, but there is a large difference.

CHAIR —The costs are obviously different; I can see that there are differences.

Mrs Gribble —If anything, local adoptions would be more expensive.

CHAIR —I do not know about that. But they left that and they did not increase the cost.

Mrs Gribble —They did not ask the question. There are very few local adoptions processed in New South Wales, which is a good thing.

CHAIR —There are very few processed in Australia, and that is because we have a whole policy that is anti adoption and pro fostering. Less than 100 Australian children are adopted a year, but thousands of children are fostered. Finally, we are starting to see some sense prevail and people looking at the importance of giving children a permanent and loving home, not just a place to live.

Mrs Gribble —I agree. It is a good thing, though, in general. I guess the heyday of adoption in the early seventies was due to infant adoption of children who did not need to be placed for adoption. Adoptive families in general think that it is extremely important that children who do not need placement for adoption are not placed for adoption.

CHAIR —That is different from saying that we are anti adoption and pro fostering.

Mrs Gribble —That is right, but it is a complex issue. That is perhaps part of the problem as well. It is not possible to say that all intercountry adoption is good, because it is not. It can be exploitative and it can be a bad thing—it can be a dreadful thing. We need to make sure that we run it properly so that it is a good thing.

CHAIR —Absolutely. But the question I was asking you was: when they put up the fees for overseas adoption, they did not increase the fees for local adoption?

Mrs Gribble —No.

CHAIR —So it certainly was a price signal.

Mrs Gribble —Yes.

CHAIR —Could you perhaps give me a little more information on postadoption issues that you are involved in as an organisation?

Mrs Gribble —As I said, FCC is a fairly new organisation, but we certainly have postadoption support in linking families with other families. FCC also runs an email list which has members from all over Australia. The advent of the internet has been really helpful, both for adoptive parents and for adoptees as they grow. I live on the Central Coast—I am not in Sydney—so I am a little more isolated. It is via the internet that I have been able to connect with people like Analee and other members of ICASN and ask for their advice and input on different things. The main thing is providing the support of somebody else who has been there, who is perhaps a little bit further ahead than you on their parenting journey. I know that I certainly needed the support of some other mothers when our daughter was placed with us.

CHAIR —Before you thought about having an overseas adoption, did you think about adopting in Australia?

Mrs Gribble —That was not an option for us because we were primarily preferential adopters. We were choosing to adopt from China because we knew that there were children there who were living in orphanages and needed a family, rather than it being about a history of infertility.

CHAIR —So you could have had children?

Mrs Gribble —I have had one, yes. I have my son and my daughter.

CHAIR —So you made that decision to adopt from overseas?

Mrs Gribble —Yes.

CHAIR —You did not consider fostering here?

Mrs Gribble —Perhaps we will foster in the future. The most difficult thing with fostering—and perhaps going through the adoption process too—would be not having autonomy. Going through the process you come across a lot of social workers, some of whom are good and some of whom are not good, and you fear for what things would be like if you had somebody else making choices for you and the child you love. You have no control over it.

CHAIR —That would be an abnormal existence.

Mrs Gribble —It would be difficult but it is certainly something we will look at doing in the future.

CHAIR —In one of the pieces of evidence given to us in Tasmania last week, it was said that when you adopt from overseas there is only one set of parents.

Mrs Gribble —I do not think that is an issue for most people. Perhaps it is an issue for some; certainly it may be an issue for some to start with. Through the process you change how you look at things, because you learn more and see things from a different perspective.

CHAIR —I asked somebody else the same question I have asked you about fostering. Her answer was that her local GP knew her well enough to say that, once she formed a love attachment with the child, she would not be able to surrender it.

Mrs Gribble —It is certainly very difficult. I think that foster parents do not get as much support as they need. Sometimes the issues for foster parents and for families who have adopted a child after long-term institutionalisation, abuse or trauma are fairly similar, and it can be very challenging. Families do need support and education, and I do not know that it is necessarily there unless you are able to seek it out; you have to be fairly proactive.

CHAIR —There were also some fairly horrendous stories about the policy that says that access by the biological parent is always supreme. That brings about some terrible outcomes.

Mrs Gribble —Yes, the research is really conflicting. It is a very difficult area.

CHAIR —Yes. I want to talk about when your daughter was placed with you. One of our committee members went to China during the last break—about three weeks ago—and went to the agency where the children who come to Australia to be adopted come from. He was impressed with the people who were running it. The statistics are just staggering: 100,000 baby girls are abandoned every year and only 10,000 are adopted.

Mrs Gribble —Most of the children who remain in the social welfare institutes and children’s homes in China have a disability of some sort. I mention in my submissions that one of the barriers to families adopting the children is concern over the health requirements of the visa. Even though a waiver can be applied, there is concern over whether it will be applied. Certainly the departments dissuade people who wish to adopt a child with special needs. I have been there and seen the children in a number of institutions. Having a disability does not remove any of their childlikeness or their desirability. They can receive good treatment here in Australia and live in a society where disability does not mean—

CHAIR —Ostracism.

Mrs Gribble —Yes. If you have a disability, Australia is a good place to live. It is my passion.

Mr TICEHURST —You mentioned that some overseas adoptions can be bad experiences. What can you tell us about that, and what should the government do to avoid that?

Mrs Gribble —In terms of being exploitative?


Mrs Gribble —The issue comes down to whether a child does need placement for adoption and placement overseas. The first principle of the Hague convention is that children should, first of all, stay with their families. If that is not possible, they should be adopted locally within their country of origin. Rather than institutional care, intercountry adoption is a third, last resort. If there are instances—and there certainly have been, not in Australia, I believe, but in the United States—where you have profit driven agencies that have been seeking to provide what is almost a product for market driven forces—young, healthy babies—those children should not be placed if they can stay with their birth families. If they can stay in their country of origin, then that is what should happen. If anything else happens, then it is not a good outcome, it is a bad thing, regardless of how happy it might make the people who adopt the child. It is unethical and should not be tolerated. I think that is where it is extremely important to make sure—

CHAIR —You have not told us anything about Australia. We are not responsible for other countries’ policies—

Mrs Gribble —I know.

CHAIR —We are responsible for ours. You did make that statement, so have you got an example here?

Mrs Gribble —No. What I am saying is that that is why we need to make sure that that is how things stay. We have got to be very careful.

CHAIR —I am a bit confused. You did say, and I got the message, that you knew of adoptions here in Australia that had bad outcomes. You are not saying that?

Mrs Gribble —No, I was saying that intercountry adoption can be a bad thing. It is possible for it to be a bad thing. It is not a universal good.

CHAIR —I am glad we clarified that, because I thought you were saying it was bad here.

Mrs Gribble —No.

CHAIR —So it is always good here?

Mrs Gribble —I guess, as far as I know. When people talk about an anti-adoption attitude, I think that those attitudes come out of a concern for making sure that things happen in the right way.

Ms GEORGE —Would the majority of children who are adopted by Australians not be children who have been institutionalised?

Mrs Gribble —A lot of them are.

Ms GEORGE —Is there any doubt about that?

Mrs Gribble —No. That is right. That is why Australia has been careful with how it has set things up. When you read the newspapers and the tabloid magazines, you will read about what happens when perhaps things are not so tightly controlled.

Ms GEORGE —That can happen in biological families as well.

Mrs Gribble —But I mean children being adopted via intercountry adoption where it should not have been.

CHAIR —We can only talk about Australia here. That is what we are talking about.

Mrs Gribble —I was just answering the question. The point I am making is that that is where people’s concerns come from when they talk about anti-adoption. That is the root of it.

CHAIR —I do not think so. When they talk about anti-adoption policy, they mean that there is a permeating culture that is anti-adoption per se and pro-fostering. That comes up all over the country, again and again. It seems to be borne out by the figures. So I think that is a different aspect that you are talking about there.

Mrs Gribble —Perhaps the history of the stolen generation is part of it as well.

CHAIR —We have had some heart-wrenching letters that came from people who were mothers in the fifties and sixties when there were the most appalling policies in the way those young women were treated. They were treated as bad people who had to be punished. Fortunately, all of that has gone. I think the pendulum has swung far too far.

Mrs Gribble —I think you are right. That is also a part of it.

CHAIR —I think a lot of children have missed out on being able to be in a loving, permanent home because of that policy. That has got nothing to do with the individuals, although there is certainly evidence of individuals who were very strong advocates of the policy. That impacts upon people who want to adopt and it spills over into the overseas adoption area.

Mrs Gribble —I agree.

CHAIR —Thank you very much for being with us, and keep up your good work.

Mr TICEHURST —You are doing a great job.

Resolved (on motion by Ms George):

That the committee authorises for publication a supplementary submission from Ms Joanne Ellem.

[11.55 am]

CHAIR —It is now time for us to move to our community statements. This is for individuals who want to talk to the committee for three to five minutes. Either they can give their full name and why they have come or, if they wish, they can just give their first name and put forward what they would like to tell us. We do not swear the witnesses who take part in the community forum, but they are still bound by the provisions of the legislation, which require people to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Lily Arthur —I accept that, and I affirm that everything that I say will be the truth and nothing but the truth. My name is Lily Arthur. I am the coordinator of Origins Inc. Supporting People Separated by Adoption. I have some documents that I would like to table. I will give a brief description of our organisation. We support people separated by adoption. We are a national and international group. We were established 10 years ago by mothers who had lost children to adoption. I have been reading some of the submissions, and I would like to offer a rebuttal to some of the evidence given in Brisbane by Mrs Rita Carroll and Mrs Doral Law, who stated that eight women instigated the inquiry into adoption practices. That is not the truth.

CHAIR —I think you should just put your point of view, because they are not here to rebut what you are saying.

Lily Arthur —Our point of view is that the interpretation of how the inquiry was got was not factual. The group’s membership of over 600 women at that time called for a parliamentary inquiry through the committee of origins. I would also like to mention their comments on funding. Origins has offices in Victoria, Brisbane and elsewhere in Queensland. We have received not one dollar of government funding. Our object as an organisation is to address the mental health issues of people separated from their families by adoption.

The parliamentary inquiry into adoption practices in New South Wales found that, from 1950 to 1998, 150,000 children were adopted here in New South Wales. The inquiry found that the routine practices at the time were unlawful and unethical. I have brought a copy of the report, which states, on the pages that are marked, that the usual practices were unlawful and unethical. Adoption practices in Australia were spread across every state in Australia. So that equates to all adoption practices here until 1988 were unlawful and unethical.

Our group was to focus on the legal aspects of past adoption practice and also the known mental health damage at the time that was inflicted upon mothers and their children, which to date still has not been addressed. I am trying to be conscious of the time and trying to get in as much as I can. A couple of months ago I gave evidence to the Senate mental health inquiry in Brisbane and made a submission on the known mental health damage to mothers by the forced separation of them and their children and the known damage to our children.

CHAIR —I think we all acknowledge that the practices that went on in that period were pretty horrendous and are fortunately gone.

Lily Arthur —They were the result of past unlawful practices. I would like to present to the committee that submission that was presented to the mental health inquiry with attachments and also some of the papers that we have on mental health on our web site. These are the papers from our two national conferences that we have had in the last two years into the mental health effects of adoption. Both of these conferences were instigated by our organisation, which did not receive any type of government funding. The only little bit of funding that we got for both conferences was from gambling institutions. That is all that has been put towards addressing these issues.

With regard to intercountry adoptees, we just heard three young people talk about the problems that they have encountered. There has been no help for people like them. We are the only organisation, to our knowledge, in this state that deals with the mental health issues of mothers and their children.

CHAIR —Perhaps the committee should accept the documents as exhibits.

Lily Arthur —I will just make quick reference to this. This is from the 1970s. It is the director’s report to parliament from the Department of Children’s Services. There is a number of inserts about intercountry adoption—this was from 1970 to 1980—where they categorically state that they did not want to entertain the idea of intercountry adoption because they believed that the motivation of adoptive parents was based purely on sentiment.

CHAIR —I think we have moved on since 1970, fortunately.

Lily Arthur —They also acknowledged at the time the trauma that was inflicted upon the child through loss of culture and separation.

CHAIR —There is no law that says a child should be destined and sentenced to poverty, either.

Lily Arthur —No. We are well aware of that. You were talking before about the anti-adoption culture. We, as an organisation, are seen as having an anti-adoption culture. I would just like to say for the record that Origins Inc. does not support a child not having a permanent and happy family. That is it.

CHAIR —What does that mean?

Lily Arthur —We support a child having a permanent and happy family. We are not saying that we oppose adoption.

CHAIR —So you would support the proposition that adoption is a legitimate way of forming and extending a family?

Lily Arthur —Yes. No-one could deny that. Because we are a group that is focused mainly on the human rights issue, we have to look at the human rights issues behind adoption. Not addressing adoption practices from the past is the reason that there is still a lot of dissent in this country about adoption. We have not addressed the issues of past illegal adoption in this country. We have not done that. We have not addressed the issues of the rights of women in this country who lost their children to adoption.

CHAIR —What we are concerned with in this inquiry is to make sure that we go forward in a positive way and we get it right. We have had submissions from women who have lost their children in the most horrendous ways. One’s heart just goes out to them. The practices then were just appalling. But, fortunately, they have ended. So now we are looking at the way in which children can benefit from being in permanent and good families. We are going to have to move on to the next statement.

Lily Arthur —It is like the stolen generation. Unless we come to some sort of reconciliation with at least 150,000 women in this country who have had human rights crimes and statutory crimes committed against them, we cannot fully accept that women in other countries where we cannot see what is going on are not going to have the same instances of human rights abuses committed—

CHAIR —When a young 14-year-old girl from Ethiopia says she is so grateful and loves being in Australia because, if she had stayed in Ethiopia, her life expectancy would be 39 and she could now have a full life, that is a pretty good testimony.

Lily Arthur —It is a good testimony, but we also need to be aware of the testimony of people who have not had any justice for the past adoption crimes that were committed in this country. We cannot move forward unless we fix the past.

CHAIR —That is not part of our inquiry, but thank you for coming today.

Lily Arthur —I think the committee needed to have an idea of some of the stand on not full acceptance of adoption here in Australia.

CHAIR —Thank you very much. Who is next?

Kylie —Our names are Kylie and Paul. We really welcome this inquiry, because we think it is long overdue. I will give you a little bit of background on our circumstances. We have been trying to have a family, biological and adoptive, for the last eight years now. We have been through the whole IVF roller-coaster process. We applied to DOCS 3½ years ago to adopt. We are still waiting on an allocation. It took 18 months from application just to get through the DOCS process to become approved—it is quite a lengthy process. We have been approved to adopt a sibling group of two children or a single child from Ethiopia. Our file has been over there for 13 months now.

You touched on the increase in fees here in New South Wales. The fact that the fees have increased shows that the government does not have a real commitment to intercountry adoption; I think it is trying to make it a real deterrent to parents. With the declining birthrate in Australia, the government should be encouraging all Australian families to have children, whether biologically or by adoption. Intercountry adoption is a very legitimate way of having a family. All of us in the intercountry adoption community are providing a loving family for children who need families. The children coming to Australia will be valued members of our society. They will pay taxes, just as biological children will. Some of the inconsistencies have been touched on. For example, there are the costs in relation to intercountry adoption. As you know, New South Wales has the highest fees.

CHAIR —And the lowest per capita rate of adoption.

Kylie —Yes. Amazingly, though, according to DOCS the applications have not really dropped off. There are still a lot of families applying to adopt, even after that fee increase happened on 1 July last year. I think DOCS here in New South Wales do a fairly good job considering the number of applications. I think the main problem is that they are really underresourced. Intercountry adoption just does not seem like a priority to the government, unfortunately. We cannot have biological children. We did consider local adoption first, but we were told there were only about 20 children a year from New South Wales available for adoption, and a lot of people wait in that pool and never actually get to adopt. That is why we looked at intercountry adoption. Even though it is a long wait, eventually we will get there. It might take four years, though.

CHAIR —Has your file been sent to Ethiopia?

Kylie —Yes. It has been there for 13 months, so we are hoping for an allocation.

Paul —We feel we are getting very close.

CHAIR —Every time the phone rings, you jump out of your skin.

Kylie —We feel that the government should be supporting and encouraging adoptive parents. A lot of support is given to biological families, with prenatal and postnatal care. Also, IVF costs are subsidised. We know all about how expensive that is, and that is a big cost to the government.

CHAIR —I have to say, though, that last year 7,000 children were born by IVF, and they will more than pay for the subsidy in taxes in future years. So I think they are a pretty good investment.

Kylie —Yes, no doubt.

CHAIR —I am sorry it did not work for you.

Kylie —I guess there are a lot of people like us who go through that process—

CHAIR —Absolutely.

Kylie —and it does not work for them. But intercountry adoption does work—not very well. The process does not work very well but the end result is obviously there.

CHAIR —We hope very much that your phone call comes fairly soon.

Kylie —Thank you.

CHAIR —Thank you for coming and talking to us today.

Kylie —Thank you.

CHAIR —Who would like to be next?

Danielle —Thank you for allowing me to speak. I would like to talk about issues that are specifically relevant to single applicants. I am a single applicant for China. It has taken me over 4½ years, but in two months time I am going to be a mum. I would like to make the point that it is very difficult for single people to adopt children at the moment, and that is often to do with Australian state and federal policy and not necessarily overseas policy. It seems at odds with what is actually happening in our society, where the government is encouraging people to have children, there is sometimes difficulty in finding a partner who is committed to having children—I left a long-term partner because of that—and 40 per cent of families are led by a single parent.

I can certainly say that single people want to be parents as much as people in a partnership do. Currently in New South Wales China is the only program through which there is a fairly definite chance of you getting a child. A few years back to they put in a quota limiting single applicants to eight per cent of the total. That is why the wait is so long. I do not really understand why Australian adoption agencies do not make more of an effort to get more agreements up and going with countries which do allow single people to adopt.

I would also like to make a point about the adoption of children with special needs. I was quite receptive to adopting a child with minor physical special needs that were compatible with Australian immigration requirements. But I can say up front that I did not feel very supported in doing that. It seemed the bureaucracy around that was extremely complicated. That, together with the fact of being a single applicant, in a sense made me drop that, even though I am very aware that countries like China have tens of thousands of children in orphanages on the basis of at times minor and often correctable special needs.

I should also say that I was asked at one point to adopt a local child with Down syndrome. I did not feel able to. While I am willing and able to undertake considerable parenting challenges, I did feel that adopting a child with a very severe developmental disability was beyond my capacity as a single parent. I would like to make two points. Firstly, there should be more emphasis on allowing single people to adopt children. Indeed, some states do not allow that at all. Secondly, we should look at ways in which children with special needs can be adopted into Australia.

CHAIR —There are some countries that allow singles to adopt.

Danielle —Yes, they do.

CHAIR —Ethiopia is one.

Danielle —Yes, but that program has closed down twice in recent years. I think that at the moment it is currently closed.

CHAIR —No, it is not. I can tell you that it is not.

Kylie —There was an allocation two days ago.

Danielle —Okay, so it has been reopened. But in the time that I have been looking at this it has closed down twice and reopened, so it is a bit unpredictable that way. China has a quota. Hong Kong does allow single applicants, but most single applicants do not seem to be allocated children.

CHAIR —I guess there is competition between couples—

Danielle —True.

CHAIR —and they are going to be preferred, I guess.

Danielle —I guess we could get into some kind of philosophical argument about that. There are some other overseas countries that do allow singles to adopt in an unrestricted way. They include Cambodia and Vietnam. I would like to make that point because there are a number of single applicants out there and I feel that we will make committed and successful parents. I have an adopted sister, so I am going into it with a lot of personal experience.

CHAIR —We wish you every success.

Danielle —Thank you very much.

CHAIR —Thank you for coming and putting forward that point of view. Who would like to be next?

Kathy —Thank you for this opportunity. I am here today to talk to you as an adoptive mum—I have a six-year-old son who was born in Guatemala—and also as the wife of an adoptee who was adopted in New South Wales 36 years ago and must be one of the few who has had a great life and does not have anything to complain about, as far as I know.

CHAIR —Someone made the point that we need to hear some more good news stories.

Kathy —I think that the people are happy are out there living their lives and getting on with it, but that is just my opinion. There are a few things I want to say. We seem to throw the word ‘culture’ around quite a lot. I have been to the orphanage where my son spent the first 16 months of his life and I am not sure what culture he would have been exposed to if we had left him in Guatemala to live out the rest of his life. He has a mild developmental delay, and when we picked him up at 16 months he could barely sit up. He was the size of a six-month-old. He was not getting his needs met at all. Maybe he is missing out on the culture but I believe he will learn more about the Guatemalan culture by being brought up as an Australian, because (a) he will survive and (b) he will be educated and literate. We are reading him books about Guatemalan culture, whereas I am quite sure nobody was reading to him in the orphanage.

I am an immigrant; I came here from the former USSR when I was eight years old. I know that culture is really great but survival comes first, along with love, respect, education and life opportunities. We can all talk about culture from our Western middle-class lifestyle—and that is wonderful—but I do not think my son would have experienced any kind of rich Guatemalan culture. In fact, he would probably have been lucky to grow up to shine shoes for a couple of dollars a day, if that. I have no misconceptions that I took him away from anything wonderful.

I think that is where the so-called adoption professionals that we deal with come from—the fact that we are taking these children away from their culture, thus doing something that is going to be bad for the child in the long run. I do not believe that. To me, these professionals are like vegetarians running a butcher shop. They are doing their job but they do not really believe in what they are doing. That is how it comes across. I do not believe we were supported or encouraged at all during our first or second adoption process. In fact, I often say that we got to adopt despite DOCS and not because of them.

I think the federal government can do quite a few things to help the adoption culture. Firstly, we need a full-time department or an agency of the Attorney-General’s Department which conducts programs. Leaving it up to the states—I do not know if you are getting the picture yet—just does not work. They do not care; they do not want to do it; they want to pass the buck. It is amazing that there are any programs. How that happened is really bizarre because they do not seem all that interested. As you said, Tasmania is supposed to be in charge of South Africa, but they do not want to do it, so no one does it. It just sits there. The children are there. The children need families—

CHAIR —The South African government, in fairness to them, have not passed the legislation that is necessary either.

Kathy —I do not know, but I know that other countries are running programs for South Africa, so somehow they are managing to do it. I do not know how. The other thing I want to talk about is the Hague convention. Our son was born in Guatemala and we adopted him from there. It was a program that DOCS introduced us to after we had initially started with another program. When we went to adopt a second child we were told we would be allowed to, but when it came to the crunch they just kept telling us, ‘No, you can’t. It’s not a Hague country.’ It seems to me that China, which is our most successful country regarding adoptions, is not a Hague country. So it is possible to run successful programs with non-Hague countries, yet DOCS told us many times that they will not run programs with non-Hague countries—Guatemala being one of them.

CHAIR —I think that basically the Philippines and India are the only two Hague countries—

Kathy —We are currently waiting for an allocation from Colombia, and that is a Hague country as well. To my way of thinking, it is a bit of a weird situation because the donor countries that are asked to be Hague signatories are the countries which can least afford the bureaucracy necessary to implement Hague standards to appease countries like Australia. If we cannot do it with all of our resources in Australia, if our adoption culture is so pathetic, how can Third World countries run adequate adoption programs with their resources? It just seems ridiculous. We should be setting up programs where the need is, not having these arbitrary sorts of things like saying that we do not deal with non-Hague countries when in fact we do, with China.

Just very quickly, to finish off, I want to talk about the fees. We were charged a fee of $1,305 by the federal government to process our child’s adoption visa. It is just not fair. We have just paid $1,500 to have our paperwork legalised by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which basically means they attach a piece of paper to each of our documents saying that it is a real document. I think it is $100 per sheet. It is just ridiculous. There is the $4,000 that only children under two are entitled to. It just shows that the government is not fully aware of adoption issues.

CHAIR —In fairness, quite a lot of us did a bit of lobbying about that. It used to be only for one-year-olds and we got it up to two in the last budget.

Kathy —If I had read my whole speech I would have said that I am very grateful for that, but for 2½- to five-year-olds the needs are still there.

CHAIR —I take your point.

Kathy —Our first adoption cost $37,000. It will probably be around $40,000 this time around. If we do not need that $4,000 I do not know who does. I would just like adoptive families to be treated with a little bit of respect in society and given some of the opportunities and support that we really need. That is my big speech in a nutshell. Thank you.

CHAIR —Thank you very much. We appreciate that.

Mrs MARKUS —What were some of the challenges you had relating to DOCS, administratively, or with the professionals?

Kathy —I could be here for another couple of hours answering that, but one of the things was that a social worker told us we had communication problems and sent us to a marriage counsellor. When we returned from a few visits with the marriage counsellor, who was quite confused as to why we were there, the social worker never asked us for a report or anything else; we just went. So I had sleepless nights, crying myself to sleep, thinking we were going to fail. The first time around you are really very anxious about the whole process because these are the people who are the gatekeepers. If you do not pass there is no-one to complain to because they are it.

CHAIR —There is no transparency?

Kathy —Exactly. DOCS tell us that they are child centred, but during the waiting process for our son it became obvious that he might have some delays and the DOCS manager at the time and our caseworker called us in and said, ‘You can pull out now.’ They did not say, ‘We think your son might have some issues; we are here to support you or offer help.’ They said, ‘If you want to back out of this adoption, you can.’ When we said, ‘No, he is our son; we want to bring him home,’ they said, ‘That is very child centred of you.’ I could not believe what I was hearing.

Mr TICEHURST —What is it all about?

Kathy —Exactly.

Mrs MARKUS —So they were possibly too problem focused instead of saying, ‘This is a challenge; how can we work through it with you?’

Kathy —Definitely. We started off wanting to possibly adopt older children. Straightaway you go to the social worker and they tell you, ‘No, it’s best to adopt as young as possible.’ It seems to me that there is this kind of risk management attitude rather than looking at what is best for the child. Instead of encouraging people, educating them and supporting them, we are treated like children who do not really know what we want—they are going to teach us what is right and we cannot make decisions. We have never had any support with our son since we have been home. He has had the whole range of therapies and lots of support, but we have found that independently. DOCS do not offer any ongoing support as far as I am aware.

Mrs MARKUS —You did not feel that your strengths were validated and that what you brought to this child or to this process was encouraged or valued?

Kathy —Not at all.

Mrs MARKUS —I am sorry to hear that.

Kathy —It is very frustrating, but what does not kill you makes you stronger, and I think we are a lot stronger.

CHAIR —Thank you very much for coming today.

Kathryn —I will tell you a little bit about my background, because that certainly shapes who I am today. I found out I was adopted when I was 43. To say it was a shock is a gross understatement. It was a very successful adoption—so successful that I was blown out of the water, because I had no idea. I had a very positive experience. However, a lot of us who have been adopted and did not even realise it did not know we had issues to deal with, and that certainly has coloured my life in forming relationships. The adult adoptees who spoke before said that with this do come issues. Of course, if we have been abandoned at a pre-verbal stage, we are going to have things in our body that need to be dealt with. So, certainly as a 43-year-old, I needed to work through my issues that I did not even realise I had.

The downside of that is that I was married very young and was then involved with various men who, for whatever reason, were not available. Ultimately I think I was keeping myself safe. Then I found a man whom I fell madly in love with who had children. He was very wonderful and said to me right at the beginning, ‘I am not willing to have children again, and I know it is important for you.’ I tried to let go of that feeling. I said, ‘Oh well, I’ll be a young grandma.’ I tried to let go of it and I could not. We split up because of that, but we are still very good friends. I went down the sperm donor route. That was a conscious choice to be a mother. I think I did about two or three cycles.

At the same time, my mother, who was also adopted and who found out that she was adopted just after her mother passed away, was dying. I was lucky enough to find out just before and to be able to thank her. So I was not really in the space to be conceiving. Then a friend said, ‘Have you thought of international adoption?’ The rest was really a three-year journey and that is the result over there that you have seen: my gorgeous girl, Samrawit.

CHAIR —She is gorgeous.

Kathryn —Yes. She will have been in my life for two years in December. It is a huge emotional roller-coaster choosing to be a parent and being determined to be a parent. I was approached by the sperm donor clinic, which asked if I would like to go IVF. For me personally it was not something I felt I needed to do. For me it was about becoming a mother and, probably because I had found out that I was adopted, it was more important for me to be a mother to someone who needed a mother than to hang on to the egoistic side. From my perspective it would have been very egoistic to insist that it be a child from my own tummy. However, had I chosen to go IVF, I would have had a lot of financial support. So what I would like to state is that I chose for my own personal reasons and also for altruistic reasons to adopt a child that needed a mummy, but I did not get any support financially. To me that is a bit out of whack. How we form our families is a personal choice—or sometimes it is not. Sometimes it is taken away and this is the only choice.

As far as my experience was concerned, it was very frustrating because your life is not your own, so to speak. You feel like a piece of paper. Mine was a three-year process: one week short of three years from the time that I put in my expression of interest form through to arriving back in the country with Samrawit. For some people that is quite a short process, but it is still a huge emotional roller-coaster. My experience with my own social worker was that she was brilliant. I did not feel negated in any way. I came into it with a high level of self-esteem. I never questioned that I would be approved. I just went into it that way. My social worker was, I think, outstanding and still is. I have applied for a second child and we are in the process of that at the moment.

I feel that DOCS are way, way, way, grossly understaffed. Sitting here earlier I just had a bit of an ‘aha’ moment. I thought, ‘What would it be like to have adoptive families working in the adoption department?’ We do not feel like people understand us. They cannot. They are not in our skin. They are not going through the process. I just realised that. My life has changed dramatically since Samrawit. What I used to do to earn my money is not appropriate anymore because I want to be at home with her. I just toss that in to say that perhaps it is time to use the resources that we have that really do understand the process to get in there and get the program moving quicker, because there is no reason that it should take that long. It is the longest pregnancy.

CHAIR —How long before your file went to Ethiopia and how long after it went to Ethiopia was the allocation made?

Kathryn —I was approved approximately one year after I put my expression of interest form in. So it was a one-year process from expression of interest through. I was very proactive in getting into my first seminar. I heard that you had to wait sometimes six months to get to your first seminar. So I got on the phone and I said: ‘Okay, I run my own business. What would it take to get into one earlier? I am getting older.’ This is just it: we come to these decisions at a time in life when some of us are not young. I asked lots of questions of the girl on the end of the phone. She said: ‘We run these seminars every month and we invite X, Y, Z number of people, but we don’t get a chance if someone can’t make it’—because both partners need to go if you are a couple—‘to ring around and fill those positions.’ So the course goes ahead but there are all these people—hundreds—in the queue. So I said: ‘What can I do? I’m available at short notice.’ She said, ‘If you were to ring on the last Friday of the month, there might be a position for the following Friday.’

CHAIR —And that is how you got in.

Kathryn —I actually went on my merry way and was marketing my business—January is the busiest time—and forgot. But I must have made an impression on her and she rang me and said, ‘Would you like to come to the February workshop?’ So I fast-tracked a little, but then I had to wait six months for my older child seminar.

CHAIR —What about the wait from when your file went to Ethiopia? How long did that take?

Kathryn —It sat on a list here for a year. Then, when it went over to Ethiopia, it arrived in the country on 23 April and I was allocated Samrawit in late September. So it was about six months.

CHAIR —How old was she then?

Kathryn —She had just turned four, and she is just about to turn six. From my perspective it is the most wonderful way to enrich our nation. We have this wonderful multicultural race of people that we call Australian now. Let us embrace it, bring these incredibly beautiful people in and make it easier for people to do that. Financially I was able to do this. I know so many single mums that cannot.

CHAIR —Do you know any of Samrawit’s background?

Kathryn —We are very blessed. We know her aunty and six cousins. She has never been institutionalised. She spent from six months of age through to just before she turned four with her aunty, uncle and cousins, whom we stay in touch with. We have just had news that, because of the money that I send over to them, they are sending for her brother, who lives in a little village in Buta Jira, out of Addis Ababa. He is going to come and live with them and go to school as well. We now know his name. So we have family to stay in touch with, which we do. They now have a phone on, they have moved house and they are all going to school. We are very blessed. DOCS do a very good job in informing you that there is a high chance that you will not have any of that. So I consider it a blessing.

CHAIR —Do you know what happened with the relinquishing by her birth mother?

Kathryn —Yes. Her father and mother passed away from either AIDS or tuberculosis—we are not sure which.

CHAIR —She is lovely. Thank you for coming. Is there anything else you want to add?

Kathryn —Everyone has said it this morning: the discrepancies from state to state are very confusing. I belong to AACASA, which is a support group for Ethiopian families. It is really tough. It is the most wonderful support group. It is so valuable. You are chatting away, and you just feel badly that someone in Queensland might be waiting five years and they might be paying $2,000. We are paying $9,000 and we might wait three years. It is time we made it an even playing field so that everybody gets the same opportunity.

CHAIR —You would not want it to get worse, though, would you?

Kathryn —No, not at all. Thank you for your time. The opportunity is really valuable.

CHAIR —Thank you.

William —My wife Judy and I have a seven-year-old daughter, from Ethiopia also. Some of these people you have been speaking to already are good friends of ours through the AACASA network. I want to raise two issues today. I think one is unique to our particular circumstance and which you might like to think about. The other is examples of the inequities from state to state and the time of processing. When we were in Ethiopia picking up Eyerus in July 2001, we met quite a few people who were also doing the same thing at the same time. Some of those people were from the ACT and some were from South Australia. It was interesting for us. We are in the process of going through a second adoption at the moment. Our file is in Ethiopia and we are hoping that we might get an allocation soon. We are waiting for that telephone call as well.

This example illustrates the differences in the time frames in which processing occurs. We met a young couple in Ethiopia at the time that was picking up a baby. They came from the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia. That was in July 2001. By October 2003, they had returned with their second child. We had the same space of time. We had been in Ethiopia at exactly the same time. We had applied for a second child as soon as we could after we returned to Australia, yet they have been back two years whereas we are still waiting to go. There is a similar case with some friends from Canberra. They went six months after us. They went in January 2002 and they had been back a year with their second allocation of children. They were living in Canberra at the time.

CHAIR —Was the discrepancy between the time that the files were sent to Ethiopia or was it the time that the files spent in Ethiopia?

William —Mostly it is in the time that is taken at this end of the process. This is only hearsay, so it is probably worth testing at some stage. I understand that normally it is a year before you can apply for a second allocation of children. I understand that what South Australia were doing was that, if you wanted to go for a second allocation, they would do all the activities that they could do for processing that file up to the date when the application could be made. So basically they could have a year’s head start in processing an application, and then it would be put into the system with a whole lot of work already done. In New South Wales we were not even allowed to lodge an application. We lodged our application in February 2003.

CHAIR —So you had to wait the full year before you put in the second application.

William —That is right. In the ACT I think it is just a case of having fewer people to process. In the particular case of the couple who went in January I think their allocation was on 19 December 2001; on 19 December 2002 they walked into the equivalent of DOCS in the ACT and put their application in and it was processed straightaway. That is one of the differences that we are seeing—cases where we are in the same kind of time frame as those two couples and we are seeing a marked difference in the time that it takes. Our application for a second allocation was approved in April, and it had been there since August last year. So at the moment we are at the 13-month mark, which is about the same time frame as the processing the first time. There was no concession made for the fact that we had already adopted once and that we were successful as parents. There was no concession in terms of fees, processing or any of those elements. That is frustrating for us, who are well connected. Our friendships and relationships stretch right across Australia due to the adoption that we have done, which makes for great holidays but also means that we are in good contact with people who have been through it. So I present those two case studies as examples of differences between states.

The other issue I would like to touch on is to do with the ongoing relationship with family who remain in the country of origin. Our daughter, Eyerus, came from a town 400 kilometres north-east of Addis Ababa. The reason she was relinquished for adoption was that her father had been killed in a car accident while living in Eritrea at the port town of Asaba. As I understand it, the Ethiopian government, during the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, repatriated the family to the town of Dessie in Ethiopia. They lived in a displaced persons camp. The mother died, we guess, at about the age of 45, leaving Eyerus, who was three; an older sister, who was about nine; and a 16-year-old cousin, who basically had been in the family since she was one year old—so effectively she was an older sister. The social workers there I think convinced Eyerus’s ‘older sister’ to relinquish her for adoption. They had no income. They currently still live in a displaced persons camp in a room that is about 10 square feet with no running water, no sewerage and no cooking facilities. It has a single light bulb and a fairly large single bed which they share. That accommodation is in a block that looks about the size of a toilet block in a caravan park.

When we returned to Australia our hearts were so struck by the conditions of these two girls and the circumstances they found themselves in that we looked at the option of adopting them or finding some way of bringing them to Australia. We were thwarted at every turn. We were told that because Eyerus was adopted to us all rights of family connection were extinguished from a legal point of view. So family reunion programs for immigration were out. We were told that because they were Ethiopian and live in Ethiopia they were not refugees. They were with country, they were economic refugees, but they did not qualify as refugees.

They do not have any skills. They were nine and 16 at the time and had not had very much schooling, so they could not come as skilled immigrants to Australia, which left only the option of an educational visa. Educational visas, as you might know, are very expensive. I think the fees for each of the girls to do their schooling would have been $6,000 per year, plus we needed to have several years of those fees in the bank for it to even be considered, as well as a couple of years of school records and so on. So we found on every corner that we were thwarted. We looked at the adoption option and were told that they were too old, even though under the UN convention they were eligible to come. In that, we were not supported by DOCS or by the agent in Ethiopia. At the moment we send money on a monthly basis to keep a roof over their heads and to feed and educate them, which will give them a start. But it is not quite the same as having them with you.

We were prepared to support them in every way—that is, financially, emotionally and physically—in Australia, but we were prevented from doing that. It seems that there are two sorts of rules running. One is that you are encouraged to keep the connection between the child and the birth family as much as you possibly can but, when it comes to doing something of material benefit for them like including them in your family, that is not possible. I flag that issue as one that you might not have come across in your deliberations so far.

CHAIR —Thank you very much for coming. I think it was very well and succinctly put.

Leanne —I am a single woman. I am trying to adopt. I am at the very start of the whole process. I have met some of these people through AACASA, which I think is absolutely wonderful, because otherwise you feel very alone because you do not know a lot of people who are doing this. You do know lots of people who have children, but you do not know a lot of people who are trying to adopt and all the things that come with that. I do not have anything new to talk about. I just thought that this was really important, so I wanted to reiterate a few of the things that I have come across which I think are going to affect me personally as I go through this process.

One of the things that affects me personally has to do with the discrepancies between states. The first is the health issue. I am obviously quite overweight. I went to quite a number of doctors and got certificates and whatever else to say that I am very healthy and have been doing things about my weight. The New South Wales government were nice enough to say that that was good and, so long as I keep doing the proper things and keep trying to lose weight and whatever else, they were happy for me to go ahead with my adoption. But I know that in other states they are not allowed to do that at all; they are just cut off straightaway. If you are not at a certain BMI level, then there is nothing you can do about it. I think that is very unfair because, as my doctor said, there is nothing wrong with me whatsoever. I am a teacher. I work with teenagers every day and I can run around after 13-year olds and 14-year-olds. I have just taken an entire class of them to Central Australia for two weeks. If that does not prove that you are fit and healthy and can look after kids, nothing does.

CHAIR —Good old Queensland is the big offender in the overweight stakes.

Leanne —The other discrepancy is that some states do not allow single people to adopt. I think that is extremely unfair. I think that we are all Australians and that there should be a rule for Australians. If it is made a rule that all Australians cannot adopt if they are single, people can complain against that, but I think it is really unfair that it depends on where you live and whether or not you are in one city or another.

CHAIR —It also depends on the country from which you want to adopt.

Leanne —That is true as well, but I think that it is not right for your own state government to say that you cannot even start the process just because you are single. If you have family, friends and a very good support network, you can certainly do it. Like I said, everyone has talked about these issues, but the other discrepancy relates to the ACT and just how much more quickly and efficiently things happen there. It is very frustrating for me in New South Wales. I put in my expression of interest at the start of the year. I am currently in the middle of my social worker interviews. I would not be if I had not pushed things. I pushed to get into any seminars as quickly as I could. I did all my paperwork and everything else as quickly as I could and I think that is the only reason I am as far ahead as I am, because I know of other people who are at the same stage as I am but who put in their expression of interest last year.

Of course, there is the cost. I think the cost is prohibitive. I am lucky that I have a good job, I can save very hard and have very strict budgeting and I can do this, but it really cuts out a lot of people who are in less fortunate jobs or who have fewer professional skills so that they cannot have such a job. That is very unfair.

Another thing is that I know it does take a lot of people a very long time. I was talking to somebody the other day and it has taken them seven months just to get into a seminar. That was in Victoria. There are a lot of people who need to go to the seminars, because you really need to face those issues and decide whether or not you want to go ahead with this. If you cannot even get up to the point where you are actually facing the important issues then you might decide this is not right for you, but it is a really important starting point. To have to wait for over half a year just to get to that point is too long.

Another point relates to the allowance that goes to people who adopt children who are under two. Yes, I think it is good that it is up to two, but everybody needs it. There is not a lower cost just because your child gets older. There is another issue going back to differences between states. I am not entirely sure that this should be a state thing; it should possibly be a national thing. But then I worry about that and whether or nor it would slow things down or make things worse. I do not know. I have thought a lot about it and I just keep going back and forth.

My last point is about how other countries do things. For example, I have been reading a lot about Americans and I know that they pay approximately the same costs—$25,000 to $40,000—but they go through agencies. Their time frames are closer to five to nine months, as opposed to three to four to five years. I wonder about that. Going through the agencies obviously is not making it more costly. It is costing them exactly the same but they can do the whole thing so much quicker. But, like I said, I am very new to this so maybe there are just things I do not know.

CHAIR —Thank you very much for coming and giving us that. Anyone else?

Susan —We were in Ethiopia four years ago and we adopted Zenash at the same time that Eyerus was adopted by William and Judy. She is a very good girl. I have been trying to write information down as people have been talking about the things that they have spoken about. A lot of people do not bring up faults with DOCS because they are so scared. I can remember when I went through the process, and I was so worried about which way was right and which way was wrong. If you say something one way, can it be taken another way? I know that Kathryn went through a big process—

Kathryn —Yes.

Susan —because she said one thing that was taken the wrong way and then she had to go through another six months of processes. She ended up getting a boyfriend very close to the end of her adoption process, or the time of her papers going to Ethiopia, and then she had to go through another great big process of getting him approved and all of the things that went with that.

I was in Ethiopia at the time, two years ago, when Samrawit was there. I know that when her mum came for her she looked tired and worn because the last six months had drawn so much out of her. It is a long process that takes a lot of energy and a lot of organisation to put together. You are not only dealing with DOCS but you have to go and find your own notary public, you have to go and organise with your doctors and you have to organise all your travel arrangements and money—and we are not very well off. I am from Western Sydney. That does not mean that I could not be wealthy but—

CHAIR —It means you are a pretty good citizen, actually.

Susan —But we are not in the higher echelons of money or anything like that. Zenash is now a full Australian citizen. She has her citizenship and DOCS keep sending me letters asking me to take them the citizenship papers. They want them notarised so they can send them to Ethiopia. I am finding getting that sort of thing done—finding the notary public and all that sort of stuff—outside of a government department hard, when they could have a notary public attached and it would be cheaper in that way. It is going to cost us a lot of money, time and travel from Western Sydney to find a notary public or to go back to the notary public in the mountains whom we did go to.

When we were adopting Zenash, the Ethiopian program was not shut down. But the Americans, through their agencies, had sent a different family from the one who were on the paperwork. The Ethiopians closed the program for six months. They basically shut down until everybody matched up. I know that two years ago, when I was there, there were quite a few worries with other countries that are not as firm as we are here in Australia. We are the strictest country in the lead-up to adoption and in the follow-up. We are the only country dealing with Ethiopia that has to report back to them. With France, Switzerland and all of those other countries—especially Spain—they have an agent who comes in, finds the children and the children go out. The Ethiopian government do not even know where they have gone. They do not know who has adopted them or what has happened to them. They absolutely love Australia for being so connected to families and to them in reporting back through DOCS and doing all of that—I wanted to say that.

When I started the process, I was on IVF too. I would ring up DOCS and say, ‘I’m on IVF but I need to find out about adoption.’ They would say, ‘I’m sorry. You can’t have any information until you’ve finished.’ I rang about five times and then they said, ‘Oh yes, we do have an information pack,’ and they sent that out. But there is really nothing there to help you to decide on the processes. I could have done IVF another five times and it still would not have done me any good. I had gone through it three times and that was enough. There needs to be a cut-off point and a helping point for people, because it our lives and we are doing all the things we can to have children. There needs to be a line that we cross where they say, ‘IVF is not going to do you any good. You can step in now,’ so I can ring DOCS and they say, ‘Yes. This is what you can do,’ and give you that option and the choices of Australian adoption, overseas adoption, handicapped adoption and fostering, all of those things—whatever you need.

CHAIR —Did you think about fostering?

Susan —Yes, but the child could have been taken away. There were lots of things like that. I did half of the seminars for fostering before we went for full adoption. I could not have my child taken away, and I could not have them for two years, six months or whatever and then have them taken away after short-term fostering.

I had weight problems and other issues. Even when I did deal with DOCS I tried to minimise my contact. I dealt mostly with the clerk in DOCS. She was very helpful. She seemed to be the one behind the scenes who knew the most and was the one who would give me what I needed to know and tell me how to go about doing things. Sometimes you are a bit worried about how you go about doing things, too, because you do not want to be perceived to be a person who is not eligible to adopt. I have a very loud voice and if you heard me yell, you would say, ‘She’s a bad mother.’ There are things like that that you know about yourself that you try to minimise all the time. I think Zenash should talk.

CHAIR —Would you like to talk?

Zanesh —Yes.

CHAIR —Do you like being here?

Zenash —Yes.

CHAIR —Mum is pretty good?

Zenash —Yes.

CHAIR —Are you at school?

Zenash —Yes.

CHAIR —Where are you at school?

Zenash —St Marys South Public School.

CHAIR —Are you doing well?

Zenash —Yes.

CHAIR —That is good. What is your favourite subject?

Zenash —English.

CHAIR —Good girl. Do you have a favourite book?

Zenash —No.

CHAIR —Are you reading?

Susan —She gets a gold merit every term, and she is up to maintaining gold because once they get it they have to maintain it for the year.

CHAIR —That is pretty good.

Susan —She is very good at English. The other thing I wanted to mention is that you do not just get a child; you usually get a family. Some children are completely abandoned, but it is our obligation to her country and to her to try to find family, which we did, and we support her family. You do not just take on a child; you take on a life from whatever circumstances that child has come. That is part of my obligation. You sign paperwork to say that you will take that on, so that is what you do. In the American program the notary public is very hard. Older children are supposed to be quicker—Zenash was four; she is eight now. You need to have no police record and enough money in the bank. The first house I had did not have an inside toilet. I only mentioned that at a seminar, but when the girl came to see the house we ended up buying she went looking for the toilet outside. So things you say at seminars must be remembered.

CHAIR —Thank you very much, young ladies.

Susan —Maybe you should leave her there and just keep questioning her.

CHAIR —I thank everyone who has been part of the community statements session. We find it is helpful to us. We hope it is useful to you to come and put a point of view, including points that people feel strongly about—like Lily’s. People’s stories are helpful to us in thinking our way through this.

Proceedings suspended from 1.02 pm to 1.53 pm