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STANDING COMMITTEE ON FAMILY AND HUMAN SERVICES
23/09/2005
Adoption of children from overseas

CHAIR —Welcome. We have your submission. I invite you to make an opening statement.

Dr Schilz-Middleton —Thank you very much for this opportunity to address you today. I am currently the President of ASIAC (New South Wales) and an adoptive parent. Joining me here today are Dr Lucy Burns, past president of ASIAC and adoptive parent; Rae Clark, committee member of ASIAC and prospective adoptive parent; and Tim O’Reilly, coauthor of our submission and adoptive parent. Established in 1975, ASIAC is a parent support group for families that have adopted or are in the process of adopting children from China, Korea, India, the Philippines, Taiwan and Thailand. We are one of the longest serving and largest parent support groups in New South Wales, with over 500 members. ASIAC’s philosophy is that every child, regardless of colour, race or creed, has a right to a family life in which he or she may develop his or her full potential.

Our association’s key goals are to inform, assist and support prospective adoptive parents, to encourage contact between adoptive families, to promote understanding of intercountry adoption both in Australia and overseas, to provide support to needy children in overseas countries and to assist in self-help programs in those countries. To assist prospective adoptive parents, ASIAC holds general information days with the participation of DOCS, social workers, PARC and adult adoptees. We had over 150 attendees at our recent information day. We also hold country-specific information days with the participation of recently returned adoptive parents to provide practical advice on what to expect when picking up your child and what to expect when you arrive home. Finally, we host waiting parents evenings to provide updates on country programs and make available the opportunity to meet DOCS staff, ASIAC information officers and other waiting parents.

To encourage contact between adoptive families, ASIAC organises discussion evenings, cultural events, picnics and annual camps. We support over 15 playgroups throughout New South Wales. Through these events we aim to network families to share adoption experiences and provide mutual support as well as strive to keep our children connected to each other and their birth countries. To inform our members, ASIAC maintains a web site which attracts over 350 visitors a week. We issue a newsletter four times a year covering program updates, new arrival announcements, events and relevant information to the intercountry adoption community. We have a voice at government departmental level on various committees advocating on behalf of our members.

To support needy children in overseas countries we manage sponsorship programs for each of the countries we represent. The aim of these programs is to provide financial assistance towards the education of these children. ASIAC also makes special donations towards self-help projects such as buying fishing nets for each family of a fishing village in India affected by the tsunami to help restart their livelihoods. All of this is done on a volunteer basis.

Our submission has made a number of points regarding the inconsistent adoption practices between states, as well as the disparities between biological families and adoptive families. In this regard, we would like to focus our comments here today on two issues of major concern to our membership—the cost of intercountry adoption in New South Wales and the need for increased focus on parental education and post-adoption services. Intercountry adoption is expensive. Many families use the equity in their homes to finance their adoptions. For families that are not homeowners, the cost of adoption is often prohibitive. The Commonwealth subsidises the costs associated with growing families by biological means, yet it provides no financial assistance with adoption expenses.

Rae Clark is a chartered accountant and is currently in the process of adopting a child from Korea. She will provide the committee with a brief overview of the costs that her family will encounter in their adoption and present a model for adoption tax relief. Post-adoption issues remain a particular concern of our organisation. The increasing profile of intercountry adoption in the media appears to be focused largely on the assessment phase, with little foresight to or concern for the planning and provision of services to assist adoptive families to settle into their new lives and roles. Dr Burns has recently compiled a book, Children of Many Lands, that contains a comprehensive overview of intercountry adoption. She will give a brief overview of the issues around post-adoption raised by more than 200 adoptive families across New South Wales. I will hand over to Rae Clark.

Mrs Clark —Thank you. My husband and I are nine months into the process of adopting a baby from Korea, and we estimate that it will cost us $35,000 to adopt our next child. You have got a copy of my handout, and I have detailed the breakdown of that estimate. We already have a child. He will be three in December, and he joined our family at no cost to us; he is a biological son. He was born using the public hospital system here in Sydney, and we did not incur any fees associated with his birth. So the cost we will experience in adding our next child is quite a shock.

As a chartered accountant I specialised in personal income tax for six years, and I have got a personal and a professional interest in the issue of tax relief for adoption costs. There are a number of models for adoption tax relief. Historically, Australia has had a system of tax relief for adoption. Prior to 1975, there was a deduction and prior to 1985 there was a rebate. The handout also summarises those, as well as providing copies of the historical legislation. Around the world there are a number of models used for adoption tax relief, and they are also summarised on the handout.

The model for tax relief that ASIAC would like to present is the same as the medical expenses rebate, which is that for all expenses over $1,500 you get a rebate of up to 20 per cent. It is ASIAC’s position that a similar model should be introduced for adoption expenses. In terms of costs for the government and economic impact: last year there were 272 intercountry adoptions, and if each of those adoptions were to cost $35,000 and a rebate equal to the medical expenses rebate were provided, this would cost the government less than $2 million annually, yet it would have a significant effect on adoptive families. We recommend that this committee considers making a recommendation for adoption tax relief to be explored and legislated.

Dr Burns —I would just like to give some brief excerpts from a report that we have recently undertaken for ASIAC New South Wales. The report contains a historical overview of intercountry adoption in Australia; interviews with adoption professionals; a survey completed by 190 adoptive families, covering 224 children; and stories from 12 adoptive families about their journeys. The book has raised many issues around intercountry adoption, but for the purposes of today’s inquiry I would like to focus on the needs of intercountry families and the lack of services currently meeting those needs.

Firstly, I would like to re-emphasise that we are discussing the future of small children who have no choice in the decisions made for them. In this situation there is an absolute imperative for care and protection. As the report says:

He left the orphanage with the clothes he wore and a small book of his schoolwork—nothing else. He had no tooth brush, change of clothes, photograph or memento at all; nothing to remind him of his five years at the orphanage, except for a couple of school workbooks. And there he was, prepared to walk away to another country with total strangers.

Our survey asked about a number of issues, including bonding and attachment. We found that, whilst the majority of children bonded quickly and intensely with their parents, there were subgroups of children for whom this process proved very difficult. In particular, as found in the international literature, children adopted at older ages took significantly longer to bond and were less securely attached. This is a stressful time, and parents were often left without the support or knowledge of how to promote attachment with their children. Some of their reactions are in the report:

In my heart, I lacked confidence about my ability as a parent and so I had tried to prepare myself for the fact that Daisy would probably attach first to Craig—

her husband—

who is naturally relaxed around children. I was glad that Daisy had ‘attached’ to Craig; it meant that she had the emotional ability to do this, a positive early indicator. However, I am ashamed to say that, in my heart, I was devastated. I had waited so long to become a mother and my darkest, most hidden fears were welling up. I had planned how I would handle initial rejection. When it actually happened, all my preparations went flying out the window. To me, it appeared that all the other babies had attached to the mother—except for mine.

                   …             …             …

He bonded to us immediately, but has high anxiety and fear of being abandoned. It’s manageable, but he must be micromanaged to ensure he remains calm, secure and trusting of his environment.

                   …             …             …

Our two younger children came to us very hurt and confused. Both needed to see counsellors to work through issues of loss and abandonment. The twenty-two year old is doing well now, but the eighteen year old is still struggling.

Our survey asked parents about the health of their children. I have a table here which demonstrates the main health issues raised, and of particular note is that one in five parents reported behavioural/psychological problems in their children. These often occurred at the time of adoption, but many were longstanding.

A number of parents reported that their children exhibited violent tantrums and that they were ill prepared to deal with these issues:

One paediatrician referred us to a child psychologist because of her concern at the severity of the tantrums. As with other professionals, the psychologist was unable to provide any assistance ... We have tried to analyse the early tantrums. What would have reduced their severity we wonder?

                   …             …             …

No amount of training would have prepared us totally for the emotional and physical toll that the first four to six months had on all of us. When he first came home, we dreaded his daily tantrums because of the intensity of them and the duration.

                   …             …             …

She was quite violent. She was obviously used to being hit as she tried to provoke me every time. It almost seemed like she needed the ‘completion’ of physical abuse. She also used to call herself negative things and hit herself on the head. Time out didn’t work as she refused to be more than one metre away from me. Avoiding eye contact sometimes did. She grew out of it after about five months, when she had enough English ... and but still gets weepy and temperamental when she gets out her routine.

                   …             …             …

If he wasn’t in control of a situation he would hold his breath until he passed out. The best solution was to ignore him but make sure he was in a safe area to fall. He grew out of this by age four.

These are just some of the challenges adoptive families face. Yet, despite this, there are no courses run to educate prospective parents about the specifics of parenting a child from overseas. The majority of this work is undertaken by parent support groups. There are virtually no specialist services available to assist parents with the management of their adopted children in either a preventive or treatment framework. There are no services available in country regions. Despite the emphasis on streamlining processes to make the adoptive process quicker and less bureaucratic, there is no long-term data available examining how children adopted from overseas actually fare in Australia.

Coming from this, we have two main recommendations: firstly, the funding of a suitably qualified professional group to provide parenting advice and health information to families adopting children from overseas both prior to the adoption and once the child has been placed; and, secondly, the funding of a large-scale probably longitudinal study of the physical, social and medical welfare of children adopted from overseas into Australia.

CHAIR —I take it that those incidents were quotes from different people’s experience?

Dr Burns —Yes.

CHAIR —Would you give us that?

Dr Burns —Yes, I will table that.

CHAIR —We will accept those three documents as supplementary submissions. Mr O’Reilly, would you like to make an opening statement?

Mr O’Reilly —I am not specifically down to say anything, except to answer questions.

CHAIR —Feel free to say something if you want to.

Mr O’Reilly —Thank you.

CHAIR —We have been hearing quite a bit about the need for post-adoption services. Who do you think would be best placed to supply those services?

Dr Burns —At the moment there is an organisation in New South Wales called the Post Adoption Resource Centre, PARC, which is run through the Benevolent Society. I believe it is partially funded by the New South Wales Department of Community Services, so I am not privy to those details. Essentially my understanding is that that organisation arose out of the need for local adoptees to connect with their biological families and to assist them in doing that. It obviously seems well placed to do that. It is seeing more intercountry adoptees coming through its service. It is not funded very well to do that. So I think logically it seems a very good central organisation to carry that out. That would be my feeling as it already deals with these sorts of issues.

CHAIR —We heard in Tasmania that they have started to introduce courses there and, I understand, more broadly too to assist parents in the early stage when there are problems of connection for the child. Some children have gone through a period in their life when there was no response to what they cried out for in terms of their needs, and they have gone inward—and so there are attachment issues. Is that the sort of thing those other problems arise from, do you think?

Dr Burns —I believe it is much broader than attachment issues. A lot of these children have come from very disadvantaged countries where substance abuse is very prevalent. This creates some neural problems for these children—learning disabilities and hyperactive behaviour that is very longstanding. Certainly attachment is part of it, but there is a syndrome which arises from being institutionalised for a number of years that is very longstanding and requires a lot of assistance. Families who are managing those children are very greatly in need of support and assistance to do that.

CHAIR —Does it happen more with one country than another?

Dr Burns —Obviously our survey is not random, so we could not really give reliable estimates. Some children have been institutionalised for a long time, a number of years, like the Romanian and Thai children who generally come through at older ages. It is probably not country specific; it has a lot to do with how long the children actually spend in institutions and, as I mentioned, substance abuse and the amount of prenatal care that a woman has had during her pregnancy, whether she has used drugs—which obviously is correlated with disadvantaged societies.

Mrs MARKUS —What about access to mainstream services? Is it part of the issue that mainstream services may not have the expertise and understanding of the complexities that children from overseas may be facing, or is it that you are competing with other families in the mainstream?

Dr Burns —I believe that it is both. In terms of specific services, there is a post-adoption clinic at Westmead Hospital. I recently spoke to someone who had come back with their children and they could not get in until next year. It has a six-month waiting list. That is where parents will bring their child to have a full physical assessment. They are very familiar with adoption issues in that clinic, but there is a very big time lag in actually getting in. In terms of the mainstream services, there is very little understanding about how adoption impacts on a child’s life and obviously the life of the child’s family. I have spoken to many people who have been from pillar to post trying to find someone who adequately understood the issues that they were facing.

Mr O’Reilly —I think that it is reasonable to assume that most adoptive families have at some point tried to access mainstream services. Their individual experiences will of course be known to them, but I will speak from personal experience. We have two children from Korea—two boys. In accessing mainstream services, which we have done, you do not particularly find—no offence being intended—that, as Dr Burns said, there is any real understanding. The recommendations that might come from those professionals can be inappropriate. They have not really grasped the situation. Anecdotally, that is what you would find with other people as well. People do access mainstream services and do not get anywhere.

Mrs MARKUS —Have you come across situations where the right kind of help has been sourced, and what kind of help has that been?

Dr Burns —When I think back on my history with ASIAC, where I have been involved for about 10 years, people who have spoken to me have found it not through any sort of mainstream services but more through particular groups that they are affiliated with, like spiritual groups. They are getting information that way, or through some community centres, I suppose. But it has been very hard finding somewhere that could address their issues.

Mrs MARKUS —So in an ideal world, what would a service specific to providing that ongoing post-adoption support look like?

Dr Burns —That is a big question. Obviously there is parental education before the child comes to live with the family. There is no equivalent to an antenatal service for these families. My children were older when they came to live with us, but with people with younger babies, I understand that it has been difficult trying to figure out how to manage a young baby.

Dr Schilz-Middleton —Yes, it has. Most of them basically rely on meeting up with others within their own playgroups. We have a Korean playgroup and we encourage everyone to come when they are considering adopting. We also encourage them to come later, once they have come home with their babies. It is through talking with the other mothers about what issues they have and what they have encountered—in terms of diet or whatever—that they are able to find some answers. Your question is a very big one and I do not think we have put our thinking caps on about that.

Mr O’Reilly —It may be that market forces are a big issue here. If no-one is professionally trained to deal with this, no-one will be out there in a professional capacity advertising their services. So it is a cart and horse kind of situation.

Mrs MARKUS —I think you have to start somewhere if you are going to initiate something that has not been developed before. My thinking is that maybe there should be a multidisciplinary team.

Dr Burns —I would agree with that.

Mrs MARKUS —That team would be able to make assessments and maybe it should be a little mobile. They could do a little bit of evaluation and research along the way and establish best practices in responding to this unique group.

Dr Burns —A lot of these issues seem to be raised in the country regions where there are far fewer services. The mobile nature of that team would perhaps meet those needs.

Mrs MARKUS —Maybe there should be a pilot program or something.

Dr Burns —Definitely.

CHAIR —In your original submission you said there would be benefits in the Commonwealth taking a more active role in intercountry adoption, particularly in the investigation and establishment of new programs. I take it that when you said ‘new programs’ you meant new countries?

Mr O’Reilly —Yes.

CHAIR —What would you see the greater involvement being?

Mr O’Reilly —It could be in a number of areas but partly it would be in the administrative area. If we are looking at the inconsistencies between states, the federal government does not have an overarching role in this. So, as has been pointed out in many submissions, there are different programs and different bilateral agreements entered into by different states.

CHAIR —Since the Hague convention, from what I can see, the only new agreement that has been completed is the one with China. That was negotiated by the federal government. The other agreements almost seem to have arisen from agency to agency arrangements and then have been taken over by state bureaucracies to administer. As I said earlier in the day, after ratification of the Hague convention an MOU was entered into by the Commonwealth with the states. That basically handed over the authority to administer their central agency task—so much so that there seems to be only one person who has anything to do with it at the federal level. I agree with you that there has been far too much of a hands-off approach to it. We have a situation where the jurisdiction to establish a relationship between parents and children belongs to the states but the responsibility for visas and making citizens is a federal responsibility. Of course, it is the responsibility of the federal government to enter into treaties and ratify them and so on. So it does seem to me that there is a bigger role, but I am interested in knowing what you think it might entail.

Mr O’Reilly —As you just detailed, the paths between the states and the federal government tend to diverge rather than converge and recognise the different jurisdictions. It would be better if they could come together.

CHAIR —We have the COAG process, where things can go on the agenda and the Commonwealth can work with the state governments to bring about more harmonised outcomes. But we certainly would not want to all go to the worst standard.

Mr O’Reilly —There probably needs to be a greater administrative role played by the Commonwealth government—without necessarily always taking over every part—in order to have greater consistency and greater understanding between states so that you do not have different states with different programs. That is what we were getting at here.

CHAIR —What they have is the lead role as distinct from responsibility. Whereas Victoria has responsibility for China, Tasmania told us last week that they do not talk to Victoria anymore; they send their files direct to China. There is no reason why they cannot, actually.

Mr O’Reilly —True.

CHAIR —These are the areas in which we do need quite a bit of tidying up of the way you appeal.

Mr O’Reilly —I understand as well that New South Wales is the lead agency for Korea and supervises or administers what is to happen in every other state.

CHAIR —We have it on a ready-reckoner. I have to keep looking up to see who is responsible for which. The other thing that I think is particularly important to us is looking at the question of delays and where they occur. I guess each parent who is adopting chooses the country to which they want their file sent.

Mr O’Reilly —In a manner of speaking, yes.

Dr Burns —That is right, as long as you meet the guidelines of that particular country.

CHAIR —Yes, but you make that choice. Most of our children from overseas are now coming from China.

Dr Burns —Yes, but if you wanted to go to Taiwan, for example, and you were not a practicing Christian who had been married for a certain number of years, you could not do that.

Mrs Clark —And if you are less than 30, you cannot go to China. I am unable to adopt from China.

Mr O’Reilly —There are lots of particular restrictions in each program but, yes, allowing for those restrictions, you are able to choose a program.

CHAIR —As long as you meet the criteria.

Mr O’Reilly —Yes.

CHAIR —Having done that, you cannot switch either.

Mr O’Reilly —You can, and people do, but that does not reduce or remove delays or barriers in any way because usually, if you go from one program to another, which people have done, you then have to get in line in the other program that you have just been sent into.

CHAIR —I have asked this question of others: did you ever think about fostering an Australian child here?

Mrs Clark —We certainly did. There were two reasons why we did not. DOCS insists on a two-year age gap between children. Our son is currently two years and nine months old, so maintaining that 24-month age gap could have created problems. We looked more at the permanent care and not foster care. DOCS has these new permanent care orders whereby a child needs to be away from their biological family until they reach adulthood. Let us say that the mother or father got their life on track. They could appeal that decision five or six years down the track. For us, having a child already in our family, we did not feel that we could give our son a sibling and then have that sibling taken away. If it was just us, we would certainly consider taking in a sibling group and, if they all went, we would deal with the grief, but we did not want to impose that on our son.

CHAIR —Good point.

Mr O’Reilly —We did not consider fostering as a viable option. We did look at it, but the obvious reason for that is that my wife and I were seeking to form a family. We are unable to do so biologically, so we chose to form a family through adoption as the most viable alternative. In our view, fostering does not provide that.

CHAIR —One of the things that has come to our attention is that less than 100 Australian children are adopted every year but there are thousands who are fostered. Some of those were before respite care, which is one thing, but a lot of them need permanent homes.

Mr O’Reilly —That is exactly right.

Mrs MARKUS —You made a comment in the submission about enhancing the involvement of the existing community parent support groups in determining adoption policy. How would you see that expressed practically?

Mr O’Reilly —The particular recommendation is that there be an enhanced involvement of existing community and parent support groups in determining adoption policy—that is, a two-way street, the glass which is half full or half empty. We do not particularly have a role in that at all, so getting to the table would be good. We think that our voices, firstly, need to be heard and, secondly, would be constructive. Additionally, we think that, administratively, the Commonwealth and the states could have, through means already there or other means, greater cooperation so that things are dealt with in a more open environment and a more consistent atmosphere. The idea is that we tag onto that so that parent support groups, adoptive groups or whatever, may appropriately have a role in that. That is essentially the idea—that there is a greater involvement between the states and the Commonwealth to streamline and improve the processes. I do not see any reason why parent support groups, as has been pointed out in post-adoption areas and other areas, carrying the can a lot of the time and providing the experience, cannot have a voice at the table.

Dr Schilz-Middleton —We are on the New South Wales Committee on Adoption and Permanent Care. There is only one organisation, ASIAC; I think AFC is the other one. We would like to see more representation from parent support groups on that committee. I have been to a number of the meetings. It is very skewed towards fostering and local adoption, and we feel that we need to have a bigger voice on intercountry adoption. I am aware that the committee made a submission, but I certainly have not sighted it as the intercountry representative on the committee, so I did not know what was in their submission. That is just a point of interest. I am aware that they are here today to talk about it, but I thought I would just make that point.

Mrs MARKUS —If a national approach or lead was taken by the federal government—for example, there was a policy advisory committee—who would you include and not include on that? You may not be prepared to answer the second bit.

Dr Schilz-Middleton —There are quite a few parent support groups, as you would know, and I am seeing it from that perspective. That is a very big question that I would have to think through, and I do not have the answer off the top off my head, to be honest. To some extent we have a fairly good rapport with DOCS. We endeavour to have as many parents as possible who have just travelled talk to DOCS and express any of their concerns. We have a fairly good communication channel with them. I do believe that it would be quite a positive step forward if, somewhere along the line, there could be more involvement of parent support groups, such as our own, in terms of their policy or their processes. Are you talking about a national advisory committee?

Mrs MARKUS —It is all hypothetical at this stage.

Dr Schilz-Middleton —We have not thought that through.

Mr O’Reilly —It if it were the case, obviously there would be criteria but I imagine that there would be whatever is workable—two or three groups from each state, perhaps, or if it is a state group, there would an advisory group, as you said. I imagine that this process that we and you are undertaking has identified key lobby groups, parent support groups or whatever. Arguably, you have the formation of an answer right there amongst the groups that have put in submissions, have appeared, or both. From looking at transcripts and following it, we have seen that there are a number of them. You might get anywhere between five and 10 key groups in each state, but probably five is reasonable.

Dr Burns —The adoption arena probably needs to be broadened to include specialists in child development and a broader generic approach as well. Otherwise it just gets too insular, and you will have the same issues reoccurring. There needs to be a broader think, firstly, about what that would do and, secondly, about the sorts of stakeholders you would have. It would have to be broader than the situations you already have; otherwise it would just be creating the same thing at a federal level.

CHAIR —That is a fair comment. Thank you very much for coming. I note that you are members of the next group we are going to hear from. It has been a great pleasure.

[2.30 pm]