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Wednesday, 28 November 2018
Page: 11960


Dr PHELPS (Wentworth) (12:16): The Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs report Breaking barriers: a national adoption framework for Australian children provides valuable insights into and recommendations to improve Australia's adoption framework. At present there are nearly 48,000 children in out-of-home care in Australia, and that's an 18 per cent increase since 2013. While some of these children are living with relatives or kin, many are living in the insecurity of foster care. The report's findings highlight how the sense of permanency provided by adoption can transform this situation. Adoption can provide stability, family and legal certainty, and adoption can prevent children drifting in foster care. Children become a permanent part of their adoptive family, giving them a crucial sense of belonging.

I have witnessed how adoption can transform a child's life, and I personally understand the importance of improving Australia's adoption framework. My youngest daughter, Gabi, joined our family after my wife Jackie and I had provided initial emergency foster care for her. These initial months turned into a battle to adopt her, and Gabi was eventually adopted in 2012. She was one of only 143 children adopted in New South Wales, amongst 672 adopted across Australia, between 2011 and 2013. That knowledge of permanence and legal status enabled her to thrive—physically, emotionally and academically. The process of adoption is protracted and difficult to navigate, which means that many children in out-of-home care don't find families where they can thrive and reach their full potential. In the 2016-17 financial year, 246 adoptions of Australian children were finalised. The strikingly low rate of adoption was why Jackie, Gabi and I became strong advocates to streamline the legal adoption of Australian children in out-of-home care where there was no prospect of return to their birth family. The declining rate of adoption in Australia, combined with the increasing number of children in out-of-home care, suggests that overcoming barriers to adoption in Australia could reduce the number of children in impermanent foster care and improve the lives of many children.

A harmonised national approach to adoption is vital because, under current arrangements, there is no national law governing adoption of Australian children, and significant variation exists in relevant legislation and practice across Australia. The Commonwealth government must provide national leadership to improve the safety and wellbeing of Australia's children through the National framework for protecting Australia's children 2009-2020. The national framework was agreed in 2009 and is underpinned by the principle that all children have a right to grow up in an environment free from neglect and abuse. Their best interests are paramount in all decisions affecting them.

The recommendations arising from the report emphasise the role that open adoption can play in improving the lives of neglected children. Historically, under closed adoption an adopted child's original birth certificate was sealed and an amended birth certificate issued that established the child's new identity and relationship with their adoptive family. This sometimes has negative impacts on adoptees. Open adoption, on the other hand, acknowledges the origins of children and allows information-sharing or contact between birth and adoptive parents. The report notes that open adoption is now facilitated in varying degrees in all states and territories in Australia.

While open adoption can benefit a number of children, there are circumstances where closed adoption is more appropriate. The report recommends that open adoption occur unless there are exceptional circumstances justifying closed adoption, but my experience suggests that decisions about closed or open adoption should be made based on the particular circumstances at hand and take into account what is best for the child and, depending on their age, the child's wishes. It is imperative that the safety and wellbeing of the child are prioritised, even though notions of family preservation and cultural considerations are important.

The report notes that, as part of the adoption process, states and territories issue new birth certificates in which the adoptive parents are named as parents of the child in lieu of the birth parents. The child's original birth certificate is kept in the relevant state's or territory's records and may be requested on application. This approach is gradually shifting to one of integrated birth certificates. These are birth certificates that include the names of both the birth parents and adoptive parents. South Australia is in the process of changing its adoption legislation to have integrated birth certificates. The ACT, New South Wales, Northern Territory, Queensland and Victorian governments are in various stages of considering integrated birth certificates.

As part of any law reform relating to integrated birth certificates and adoption more broadly the question of inherited citizenship should be taken into account. As recent experience in Australia's parliament has demonstrated, citizenship rights can be inherited passively. It is important that the legislature consider how such rights will be affected by integrated birth certificates.

Another of the committee's recommendations relates to the timing of a decision about whether a child may be able to safely return to their birth parents—that is, this decision must be made within a legislated time frame, such as six months for children under two years or within 12 months for older children. It is vital that a legislated time frame of around 24 months also be required in relation to decisions on adoption. I'm aware of families subjected to eight or more years of uncertainty as foster parents waded through the complex, protracted process of adoption. Such prolonged uncertainty compromises a child's wellbeing and is just not good enough for these young people's lives. The committee's recommendation for an evidence based approach to adoption is valuable, and I urge government to support research into issues, such as the effect on children of forced contact or lack of contact with birth parents during the adoption process, along with other potential impacts on children. In light of these considerations, I thank the committee for its work in completing this important report.

Debate adjourned.