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

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

Ms West —I am also principal officer for Anglicare adoptions.

Ms Candlin —I am also principal officer of Centacare adoption services.

CHAIR —You must have had an annual general meeting. You have signed as chairperson.

Ms Candlin —Yes, we have. The submission was made before the AGM.

CHAIR —Perhaps you might start by telling us just how this committee was formed and when it was formed.

Ms Candlin —The Committee on Adoption and Permanent Care?

CHAIR —Yes.

Ms Candlin —It was first formed back in the mid-sixties as a response to the Adoption of Children Act 1965. It has been going ever since. The committee is a non-profit organisation with membership comprising government and non-government agencies, support groups and individuals interested in, involved in or affected by adoption and permanent care or related issues. It has a number of working parties in terms of getting things done. One of those is the Legislative Review Subcommittee, members of which wrote the submission. There is a core group of people who are part of that subcommittee, but it changes from time to time and anybody is welcome to put their hand up to be part of that if it is an area of interest to them. All submissions that are written by the Legislative Review Subcommittee are tabled at the committee and the minutes are then distributed to everybody.

CHAIR —I notice that, on the approval process, your submission—and I will read it because it is rather a strange thing to say—states:

It is difficult to address the issues pertaining to this Inquiry when the terms of reference are very broad and there is no additional documentation on the key points of concern. Even for professionals working within the adoption field there is no readily available summary of the specific approval processes in the different states and territories and it must be acknowledged that such professionals work largely within the parameters of their own state legislation. It would have been helpful if, as is the case for all other Inquiries, that a discussion paper be provided.

I might tell you here and now that discussion papers are not provided by committees when we are doing this sort of work. We do advertise it widely. We ask for submissions. We publish all the submissions on the web site, to which everybody has access. We are seeking the information because, by your own admission, what is available is very limited.

Ms Candlin —Our experience is that there usually has been something a bit broader to go on when we have been writing submissions.

CHAIR —For what? Have you appeared before?

Ms Candlin —For a variety of things, yes. We have prepared documentation—

CHAIR —But have you appeared before a standing committee of the House before?

Ms Candlin —The New South Wales house.

CHAIR —No, a federal standing committee.

Ms Candlin —No.

CHAIR —You have said that there is no ready material available, which in itself is I think a statement that there is very little transparency in this whole area of adoptions. It is what you might call, in some respects, a bit murky.

Ms Candlin —Yes.

CHAIR —We hear again and again that people are afraid to come and speak out—we have had some people withdraw from being witnesses—because they are frightened that either DOCS or its equivalent in other states might lose their file or come in heavily on some other aspects and they feel it has a very punitive nature. So, while I am asking when you were established and what your function is, I guess since its formation in 1960 its function has changed very dramatically. What would you say the function that you have is presently?

Ms Candlin —I am not sure that its function has changed hugely dramatically. I think there have been some significant changes within adoption. But the committee has always been there to lobby for change, to work collaboratively, to work towards improvement in adoption practice and to inform the general population about adoption and the issues surrounding adoption.

CHAIR —I find that a bit of a worry too. We heard in the community forum from someone, who came here very passionately, who feels her life was destroyed and knows of many others who feel that too, that that was a practice of the sixties when girls were said to be bad, wicked and were punished by people like the Catholic agencies and other church agencies. So, if you are telling me things have not changed since then, I have a big worry.

Ms West —There has been a huge shift in practice. One of the roles of the committee has been to address the ills, the ramifications and effects of past practice in a way that ensures that all players, including the law makers, make law and provisions in such a way that the child’s rights and best interests are upheld above and beyond anything else. Enshrined in current legislation is that adoption is a service for the child.

CHAIR —Do you have a knowledge of fostering?

Ms West —Me personally?

CHAIR —Or does the committee?

Ms West —Yes, most definitely. Personally, I have not worked in out-of-home care professionally but I have had a lot of interface with it in this current position and in previous positions. So I have some understanding of how the out-of-home care system works, but I cannot speak from a specialised professional point of view on that.

Ms Candlin —We do have members of the committee who work specifically in out-of-home care.

CHAIR —I think in 1973, which was the peak year for adoption in Australia, 9,000 children were adopted. In this last year there were fewer than 100 and that has been the case for a long time. But there are thousands and thousands of children who are fostered. You have heard from parents here why they have chosen the overseas adoption route—because they really do not want to face the fact that the child can be taken away.

Ms Candlin —I have written a note to myself—and I am glad you have asked that question—because I think there is a lot of misinformation out there about adoption and about foster care. I work very closely with the foster care teams at Centacare. Certainly the long-term foster care team is called the permanent family placement program—it is about placing children permanently. The idea that a child might be—

CHAIR —Before we go there, there is still the possibility of the biological parents intervening and taking them back—yes or no?

Ms Candlin —In reality, it rarely ever happens.

CHAIR —Can they or can they not?

Ms Candlin —It cannot be answered with a yes or no because that is misinformation again and that perpetuates what is out there in the community.

CHAIR —But you are trying to tell me that ‘permanent’ means permanent.

Ms Candlin —Generally it does.

CHAIR —‘Permanent’ to me means that it cannot be interrupted.

Ms West —I think what we have to take into account—

CHAIR —So in that sense it is a misnomer; I am sorry.

Ms Candlin —No, it is not. I cannot guarantee that that would never happen. The reality, though, is that it hardly ever happens. If a child is placed permanently until 18, then they are there permanently until 18.

CHAIR —With or without intervention.

Ms Candlin —What do you mean?

CHAIR —How many social workers come by? How many times does the biological parent have the right to intervene—to come and visit and take part in decision making?

Ms Candlin —Birth parents are involved in visiting and access. That is the same as adoption.

CHAIR —No, it is not the same.

Ms Candlin —Absolutely it is. There is openness in adoption—in local adoption—

CHAIR —There can be openness if the orders are made that way.

Ms Candlin —No. The legislation is very clear about adoption and that is that openness is seen as being the practice for adoption.

CHAIR —We have eight pieces of legislation.

Ms Candlin —I can talk about New South Wales.

CHAIR —We have another seven.

Ms Candlin —I think that is an issue. I do think that is a problem. In New South Wales the legislation is very clear that openness is fundamental to adoption practice.

CHAIR —But again we are using words with dichotomies of meaning. ‘Openness’ can mean transparent; it can mean that it is a good clean process. ‘Open’ can mean that provision can be made that children are to be told, to be given knowledge such as background knowledge, or it can mean that the whole thing is open to intervention and is no longer, shall we call it, a normal family such as the one you or I might have created where people cannot come and intervene.

Ms Candlin —Openness in adoption means it is fundamental. Children who are adopted know that they are adopted—it is talked about. Openness in adoption can be on a spectrum from letters and photos through to meeting several times a year. But it is the same with foster care, depending on the situation. In foster care you might have meetings four times a year—say, in the school holidays with a worker, the foster parents and the birth parents. It would be the same with adoption.

CHAIR —What of your experience, Ms West?

Ms West —I would uphold and agree with everything that Angharad has just said. I think really we have to take into consideration the law and the legal processes here.

CHAIR —We happen to be law makers and we are in the business of changing it if it is bad.

Ms West —Yes, but I think you will find with the current adoption legislation which was proclaimed in February 2003 that not only are the openness provisions upheld but there is now what is termed an adoption plan. That plan is made with the birth parent or birth parents just after the placement is made, but the kind of formal basis and contract for that is done with the birth parent or birth parents at the point at which the consent is signed. I hasten to add here that the preparatory work for the adoption plan has been done with the birth parent or birth parents well before—

CHAIR —How many adoptions were there in New South Wales last year?

Ms West —I do not know that my memory serves me very well here.

CHAIR —Five, 10?

Ms West —No, more than that.

Ms Candlin —AIHW stats have not come out yet.

Ms West —No, they have not come out. But I can say that last year—

CHAIR —How many the year before?

Ms West —I think it was 42 or 43 statewide, but I can speak very specifically to our placement rate.

CHAIR —How many of those were to other family members?

Ms West —We do not manage kin adoptions at Anglicare or Centacare.

CHAIR —But they would be counted in that number.

Ms West —Yes.

Ms Candlin —All forms of adoption would be counted in that number.

CHAIR —Do you think there is likely to be a swing around and people are going to consider that adoption is a better option than fostering?

Ms West —When you work in a specialist area you are very aware of practice issues and what professional people think and, in a way, I am a little removed from what the public thinks. But there would be agreement in our field that permanent planning serves the child very well. You will find amongst the providers that there is a strong belief in adoption and particularly permanency for children who, for some reason or another, cannot be raised within their original families.

CHAIR —But there is this ethos that, if possible, the child should always go back to their original family—and we have had a terrible case happening in New South Wales.

Ms West —Absolutely. With respect, I have worked at the hard end of things. For a long time I worked in early intervention, where there was a strong child protection component, and I have seen the disastrous effects of children being shuffled from short-term care back to their families. There is that whole shuffling effect, which activates the child’s attachment system in ways that are damaging for their development, their attachments later in life and their capacity to form intimate relationships, just generally speaking, in adulthood. I do not support that at all, personally or professionally. There will always be a small percentage of children who will benefit from adoption more than other forms of permanent care, and I wholeheartedly support the permanency planning bill. I think that, in the work we do, things need to be worked out on a case-by-case basis, so I cannot—

CHAIR —But you have said it yourself: there is a pervasive anti-adoption ethos. You have just said it.

Ms West —I do not think you would find it—

CHAIR —You said in a small number of cases adoption might be better.

Ms West —But when you think about the number of children in care—

CHAIR —Thousands.

Ms West —Yes, I realise that.

CHAIR —Thousands.

Ms West —I realise that. I think in a way you are preaching to the converted, in the sense that we all feel a burden of responsibility to those children. But in percentage terms—

Mrs MARKUS —Are the parents of children who are placed in permanent care routinely or at some point in time asked to consider releasing them for adoption?

Ms Candlin —I am glad you have asked that. Yes, there are thousands of children in out-of-home care. A huge proportion of those children are in—

CHAIR —There we go again—it is euphemisms. Out-of-home care is supposed to be nice and warm and fuzzy and what it is really is awful.

Ms Candlin —I do not like the term either, but that is the term that we have at the moment, so we are using it.

CHAIR —But that is what we are into, aren’t we—euphemisms: ‘Let’s make it all sound nice’?

Ms Candlin —If I can finish what I was going to say, there are thousands of children in out-of-home care, foster care or whatever you want to call it. Quite a considerable proportion of those children are in respite care, temporary care or whatever. Certainly we would like to be able to move a good proportion of those children who are in long-term foster care through to adoption. The issue for us—certainly at Centacare and I am sure for Jane at Anglicare as well—is resourcing of that. I am not resourced to be able to move those children through to adoption.

CHAIR —What do you mean by ‘resourced’?

Mrs MARKUS —What would you need to be able to do that?

Ms Candlin —We need considerably more funding. We need about four or five—

CHAIR —Don’t you need policy?

Ms Candlin —No, we do not need policy. The policy is there. We would say, for children who can be adopted, we would want them to be able to move through to adoption—and for a large number of reasons. The first is that it offers them absolute permanency and stability; and, secondly, identity-wise, the children feel they are very much part of that family. And the other reason is that, if they move into the adoption program where we can offer them specialist post-adoption support, it frees up the out-of-home-care teams to assist more families where those children are coming into the system. But the problem is that we do not have funding at the adoption end to be able to move those children through. So it is not about policy; it is absolutely about dollars.

CHAIR —I am sorry, but funding is a reflection of policy. If the policy is, ‘We are anti-adoption,’ then money will not come for adoption purposes.

Ms Candlin —If the policy and the feeling in the government are anti-adoption, then that is where it sits. In terms of the agencies, that is not the case.

CHAIR —But in the government department it is there.

Ms Candlin —I do not think that it is there. We work closely with DOCS, and I think it is an issue of resourcing—

CHAIR —So all the people who have come and told us that there is are all wrong?

Ms Candlin —I have not heard what everybody has said today, but I know we work collaboratively with DOCS here in New South Wales—

CHAIR —Like you, they all took an oath today and they have all given that testimony, and you are telling me that they are not telling the truth.

Ms Candlin —No, but when you work within a system—

CHAIR —You do not see it?

Ms Candlin —No, absolutely you do see it, but you see a broader picture. I see them being stuck for resources at DOCS as well.

CHAIR —It is like people, when discussing politics, saying ‘I do not know anybody who voted for so-and-so,’ because all their friends think the same way.

Ms Candlin —But I think there is a huge resource issue in moving those children through from permanent care to adoption.

Mrs MARKUS —So, clearly and simply, what resources would you require to do that?

Ms Candlin —Five new workers.

Ms West —More positions.

Ms Candlin —More positions, absolutely.

Mrs MARKUS —And those people in those positions would approach the biological parents and work with them so that they would release their children?

Ms West —Absolutely. They would do the work.

Ms Candlin —Or we would be able to go to the Supreme Court for a consent dispense order in those situations where we could or we would work with the child for them to be able to give their own consent. But at the moment we cannot even do the work that we have, let alone be able to move them through. We did one permanent care to adoption last year.

Mrs MARKUS —Have those resources ever been asked for from the government?

Ms West —Yes, absolutely.

Ms Candlin —Yes, we have them under review at the moment and we have asked for them repeatedly.

Ms West —When I first stepped into the position of principal officer for Anglicare just over three years ago, one of the first things I did was write a submission to the Department of Community Services for increased funding.

Mrs MARKUS —When was that?

Ms West —I made that submission in November 2002 and I asked specifically for at least one position to manage older child adoption—to facilitate placement through adoption with permanent families of children who were older and could not be raised in their families for reasons of neglect and abuse. I feel very strongly about this matter.

Ms Candlin —My submission was made in August 2002 and Bernardos made a similar submission in 2002. Our submissions were only responded to at the end of last year.

Ms West —And we had to chase the response.

Ms Candlin —We are now going through a review—that is the response.

Ms West —We did not receive any formal receipt for those submissions and it was only through chasing different contacts that we got formal recognition and a review.

Mrs MARKUS —In some countries, where there have been incidents of abuse and neglect, there is legislation that sets time limits on parents getting their act together and meeting certain requirements and if they have not done so within a certain time—it could be two or three years—their children are automatically released for adoption. Do you consider that system could work?

Ms Candlin —I think we would need to talk to the legislative review. Because we are here as part of the committee, I am aware of not wanting to answer such questions without talking it through thoroughly with the review. But it is certainly an area to be discussed. I think all of those things are valid for discussion in looking at the best possible outcomes for children.

Ms West —One of the main focuses of the Committee on Adoption and Permanent Care is to work for strong beneficial outcomes for children who are in the care system. One of our primary roles as a peak body is to lobby and advocate for good outcomes for children, because we understand the importance of early experience and its correlation with development and transition into prosocial adults and adulthood.

CHAIR —For the record, our last witnesses said that they were members of your committee and they had never seen your submission. I do not see their names listed on it.

Ms Candlin —I am not sure why that happened. Everybody should have seen a copy of the submission.

CHAIR —But you do not even list them.

Ms Candlin —As I said, people are invited to be part of that subcommittee. I am not sure what has happened. We would need to talk about it.

CHAIR —There are the names of the contributors.

Ms Candlin —I can tell you; we have it here.

CHAIR —I have it here too; I am just looking at it. That is it, isn’t it? It is a two-page submission which spends most of its time saying, ‘You haven’t given us the information for us to give you.’ It is very strange.

Ms Candlin —We have prepared a statement for today, if you would like to hear that.

CHAIR —Yes, I would, very much.

Ms Candlin —First and foremost, adoption is a service for children, not for adults wishing to acquire the care of a child. Therefore, all policies, procedures and criteria should reflect the best interests of children. It is of significant concern to the committee—when I say the committee I mean the Committee on Adoption and Permanent Care—that there are such vast differences in the criteria both between states and between domestic and intercountry adoptions. With this in mind, the committee states at the outset that the very wording of the frames of reference of the inquiry do not necessarily acknowledge the best interests of children as the primary focus. Specifically, with the comment how the Australian government can assist Australians who are adopting or have adopted children from overseas countries, the committee believed it would have been far more appropriate, for example, to state how can the Australian government better assist children who are being or have been adopted into Australian families.

The committee also wonders why the inquiry is only focusing on intercountry adoption and not the best interests of all adopted children, both domestic and intercountry. Many of the issues that the committee will raise today reflect issues in domestic adoption as well as intercountry adoption. We would therefore urge the government to consider adoption practices holistically.

The committee is aware that, in the intercountry adoption arena, the overseas countries themselves all have their own criteria. The committee understands that each country has the right to decide who is able to adopt their children and we absolutely respect that right. Within Australia, however, there are many inconsistencies between the states. This is confusing not only for all applicants but for the overseas countries themselves. It has the potential to create an atmosphere of competition and opportunistic behaviour by prospective adoptive parents who attempt to move between states according to the criteria that best suit them. The fact that one country has multiple criteria lacks professionalism and is at odds with the notion of the best interests of the child.

The areas of inconsistency within eligibility criteria which we believe should be standard across states and for both domestic and intercountry adoption are these. Australian citizenship for at least one applicant. The age of the applicants: this again is about the needs of children and adopted children have the right to come into a family where medical opinion, all things considered, is that they are able to see their child through to adulthood. Children who are adopted already have a profound loss and the risk of a parent dying during the child’s childhood or adolescence is great—the ABS statistics regarding the age of parents should be used to give an average age of parents in the Australian community. The length of relationship and marital status: the committee believes that couples should have been married or have been in a de facto relationship for a minimum of three years to establish the relationship and demonstrate stability, which is a significant factor for the child’s future. We further notice that the discrepancies in the legislation between the states with regard to single applicants are discriminatory. The number of children already in the care of applicants: in keeping with the premise that adoption should always be in the best interests of the child, the applicant must be able to meet those needs and the committee is concerned that applicants who have multiple children would not on a purely practical basis have the time to meet the additional needs of an adopted child who has a different culture and pre-existing loss experience, with the subsequent impact this will have on the child’s ability to attach to the adoptive parents. The committee for similar reasons has concerns about families adopting multiple children from multiple countries of origin. The level of court: the committee notes that the jurisdiction for adoption orders varies from state to state. Adoption is the most legal form of alternate care for children, and the committee believes that such a significant order should be made either in the Supreme Court or in the Family Court.

With regard to benefits and entitlements: the committee has concerns about the wording used in the terms of reference with regard to ‘their own birth families and those provided to families from overseas’. If we are truly to consider the best interests of children there should be no difference between the government’s assistance to families whose children are born to them or adopted by them. Similarly, we believe that entitlements to leave, whether maternity or adoption leave, should be consistent and in fact should be expanded to take into account those families who take the permanent foster care of a child.

CHAIR —Thank you very much. Would you mind letting us have that as your substantive submission?

Ms Candlin —Sure. Perhaps I might comment on what somebody said previously—I just wrote it down. There has been a lot of talk about adoptive parents’ preparation for adoption. We believe that it is absolutely vital and agree on the need for it. At the last adoption conference last year in Adelaide, Centacare presented a paper called ‘Walking in somebody else’s shoes’. It was about the preparation model for adoptive applicants and significant things to be considered. We would be happy to give you a copy of that. In addition, with regard to post-adoption support, we would absolutely agree that there is not enough post-adoption support out there in the community and that other counsellors and therapists who are out there in the community do not understand adoption. I would say that there is a need for resourcing to educate them in the profound impact of adoption, both domestic and intercountry, on those children and families.

CHAIR —I have become familiar with hearing all sorts of points of view from people claiming that they do everything in the best interests of the child. Usually it is a question of taking the statement and putting your spin on it. We have just heard your version. Do you think that adoption is a legitimate way of forming or adding to a family?

Ms Candlin —Yes.

Ms West —Yes.

CHAIR —I think I am coming to the view that a child has a better chance in life if it has a permanent and identifiable family to call its own.

Ms West —Because that gives the child predictability and we understand—

CHAIR —But that is not what is happening—

Ms West —No.

CHAIR —because all your evidence has been about pro-fostering and anti-adoption. So there are a few issues we have to resolve.

Ms Candlin —I do not think it has been about anti-adoption.

CHAIR —I am sorry; pro-fostering, to the degree we have it, is the pendulum’s response.

Mrs MARKUS —Just to clarify: do I hear correctly when I understand you to say that you certainly would like to contribute and work closely to increase the number of permanent care placements where children would become part of another family by adoption?

Ms Candlin —Yes, for those children who are suitable.

Mrs MARKUS —And that one of the challenges you face is that the state government has refused to fund your attempts to do that or has not responded to your applications to this point?

Ms Candlin —Yes.

Ms West —It is more the latter.

CHAIR —But there is a big difference or distinction between this permanent placement concept and adoption.

Ms West —There is.

Ms Candlin —Yes, there is.

CHAIR —There is a huge difference.

Ms Candlin —But that is not to say that children who are permanently placed do not stay there permanently.

CHAIR —There is a huge difference; I make that point.

Mrs MARKUS —The availability and the willingness of parents to take on somebody as a permanent placement vis-a-vis a child they can adopt to form part of their family is very different. How parents feel about that has been well communicated here. They prefer the latter option: a child who is available for adoption with whom they can work through all the challenges to be faced, with the arrangement being ‘permanent’ legally and not to be challenged.

Ms Candlin —Yes. To clarify what I mean by ‘suitability’, if we need to make a consent dispense order, a small part of the New South Wales legislation needs to be amended to make it easier for us to assist with those children. At the moment the limitations around consent dispense orders are quite strict. We may have children in permanent foster care who are not able to move through to adoption because it would be difficult to gain a consent dispense order in the Supreme Court as it does not necessarily fit the legislation. So some legislative things need to be amended also to make it easier for us.

Mrs MARKUS —Which confirms that it is not policy, so it is not supported.

CHAIR —That is right, it does. I thank everyone very much for attending today and for taking the trouble to bring their evidence before the committee. I also thank Hansard who always perform fantastically for us. 

Resolved (on motion by Mrs Markus):

That this committee authorises publication, including publication on the parliamentary database, of the transcript of the evidence given before it at public hearing this day.

Committee adjourned at 3.05 pm