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Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs
19/06/2018
Local adoption

HARTMANN, Ms Nikki, Manager, Post Adoption and Forced Adoption Support Services, Relationships Australia, South Australia

JORDAN, Dr Trevor, President, Jigsaw Queensland Inc.

MACKIESON, Ms Penelope, Chair, VANISH Inc

Committee met at 16:55

CHAIR ( Ms Banks ): I declare open this public hearing of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs in Canberra for the inquiry into local adoption. This is the third public hearing for the inquiry. Today we look forward to hearing from three organisations, Jigsaw Queensland, Relationships Australia South Australia and VANISH, the Victorian Adoption Network for Information and Self Help. I'd like to take this opportunity to provide some context for this inquiry for the information of interested parties. The committee acknowledges the profound effects of past forced adoption and removal policies and practices, which was formally acknowledged by the House of Representatives in its resolution of 3 December 2013. The committee understands that for many of those affected, adoption continues to be a deeply distressing issue. The committee has received many contributions from people who have been affected by past forced adoption and removal policies. The committee values these contributions to the inquiry and acknowledges that reliving these experiences has in many cases been profoundly distressing. The committee understands that there are lessons to be learned from past forced adoption practices so that the mistakes of the past are not repeated. The focus of this present inquiry is not those past practices and policies. The terms of reference require the committee to consider how we might provide stability and permanency for children in out-of-home care and consider a nationally consistent framework for use when adoption is a viable option. Our inquiry is therefore intended to be forward looking and solutions focused.

In accordance with the committee's resolution of 20 September 2016, audio from this hearing will be broadcast on the parliament's website and the proof and official transcripts of the proceedings will be published on the parliament's website. Those present here today are advised that filming and recording are permitted during the hearing. I remind members of the media who may be present or listening online of the need to fairly and accurately record the proceedings of the committee.

I now welcome representatives from Jigsaw Queensland, Relationships Australia South Australia and VANISH to give evidence today. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as a proceeding of the House. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of the parliament. The evidence given today will be recorded by Hansard and attracts parliamentary privilege. I now invite you to make a brief opening statement before we proceed to discussion. Perhaps we will go from my right to left and start with you, Dr Jordan.

Dr Jordan : Thank you very much. Thank you for the opportunity to be here today. We are looking forward and not backwards, but for local adoption to be a viable option, we do have to learn from the past. That means that adoption has to be substantially different from past practices. The other thing we believe is that adoption should not be the only permanency option available. For adoption to be viable, it must be seen as also standing next to permanent guardianship non-revokable until age 18. That will make adoption more attractive to some because people have an option. I will explain that in a minute. So they are the three principles—that we learn from the past if we are moving forward with adoption; that local adoption has to be substantially different and not repeat any past practices; and that permanency as the goal for children in out-of-home care should be seen as adoption and permanent guardianship and be reported and researched as such and that those options be available.

It is our belief that most Australian states are on that wave length. Take the example that our goal, if you like, is the number nine. We can get nine by having six plus three or five plus four. There are many ways of getting nine. If the goal is permanency for children in out-of-home care, let's not reject good options by focusing and marketing one strategy at the cost of another. Learning from the past means that we have to respect the autonomy of everyone involved in adoption. That means genuinely informed consent has to be given. It's our belief at Jigsaw that if it is required that consent be dispensed with in any way, adoption is not a viable option. Permanent guardianship until 18 years of age is preferable if consent is not given by an original parent. There may be some circumstances where, of course, we have to dispense with it. Because of our past history, there is an alternative. In that situation, adoption is not suitable.

We also want to suggest that permanent guardianship non-revokable to age 18 and local adoption should converge by adoption being simple adoption—that is, adoption itself as a practice should be until age 18 and not plenary or for the lifelong severing of legal relationships and identity. So simple adoption and permanent guardianship should converge in the future, in a sense, as practices available to people working within child protection.

Access to adoption information is important in maintaining a person's identity and maintaining their relationships through time. Practices such as open adoption suggest that people are aware of that in modern practice. A child may need to go to another family because they have siblings and grandparents and people who they are related to who they know they are related to. They don't need the fiction of a permanent change of identity, particularly later in life. It's not helpful. So that's another aspect of learning from the past.

Another aspect of learning from the past is that everyone involved in adoption requires information and emotional support because family separation always involves grief, loss and trauma. In the world of canned fish, the fish that John West rejects may make its product the best. In the world of child protection, the children who are rejected who don't get a permanent placement don't make the system the best. They make it a tragedy. The paradox of adoption and permanency is that the characteristics of the child most likely to succeed with a permanent placement or adoption are such that they are more likely to be able to reunite with their original family. What Jigsaw is concerned about in terms of the children in out-of-home care is the smaller number of children—not all the 40,000—at the top of the pyramid who Professor Michael Tarren-Sweeney, the psychologist, would talk about. They have complex needs. They have had multiple adverse childhood experiences. They are the ones who people are not and will not put up their hands for to offer homes to.

The leading barrier to adoption and permanent guardianship currently is the knowledge that there's a challenge to adopt children who have had multiple adverse childhood experiences. So our concern is, for example, that numerical targets with regard to adoption or permanency will not address the needs of the children who are most in need of permanency. In a sense, by setting numerical targets, there is a danger that people within the system will pick the lowest lying fruit, which is the kids who everybody will find it easy to adopt or be permanent guardians of. The children most in need of a lifelong family commitment will be left aside yet again.

So that's the paradox for us, in our view, of adoption. The children most in need of permanency and guardianship or adoption are likely to be still left behind unless something is done to support those who put their hand up to offer a permanent home to children. Financially, any government of the day should be committed to helping those families who put up their hands to look after children with complex needs. It can't be simply the government handing over kids from the foster care system and with the contributions to that to private families and individuals without putting in the money and the resources to support them to make those children's lives better.

In summary, we believe that it's important to have a convergence in adoption practice with permanent guardianship and non-revokable guardianship to age 18. We also believe that there needs to be a convergence at the political level and that adoption reform and permanency reform should always be bipartisan. Any changes in policy that depend on one side of politics can change back again. Our kids deserve better than that. We need a bipartisan approach. So far, in my experience over the last 20 years of adoption reform, it's happened because people on all sides of politics have understood the issues and have had a child centred focus and worked together to provide a better future.

CHAIR: Thank you, Dr Jordan. Ms Hartmann.

Ms Hartmann : I want to start by saying that if we are focusing on being forward thinking, that should not be at the expense of forgetting the past. I think that's a lot of what we were thinking about when we were writing our submissions—how we can learn from that when we have had apologies that have said we are not going to repeat the mistakes of the past. When you are looking at the adoption and permanent care of children, we always have to be looking at what is in the best interests of the child. In that position is the notion that parenting is stewardship and love for a child, not ownership. We have to come from that place. We also know that children's connection to their families is really important. That needs to be supported right the way along. The very notion of adoption is a final, quite brutal act of severing that tie.

I think there are other ways that we can be providing permanent care for children that doesn't deny their ancestral relationships with their families. We know that family history searching a couple of years ago was said to be the most common search thing on the Internet. That tells us something about our connection to our ancestors and our heritage. I think any kind of forward planning for children needs to take that into account. We are hearing a lot of stuff nowadays around openness in adoption, but we're not really clear on what that means. Is it open to knowledge? Is it open to connectedness between the families? Some of those things are dependent on families themselves managing those connections. That is based around relationships between the adults. Often the needs of the child get forgotten in that.

In terms of when adoption plans are considered or any sort of permanency planning, we need to provide post support for the families. These children have had a history of trauma. Adoption in and of itself creates a history of trauma. It means that parents need some extra tools and skills to support those children to grow and develop. I think that adoption is always talked about in terms of providing permanency. I don't believe that adoption can guarantee any more permanency than a legal marriage arrangement. So it's not like we can provide that adoption and then that's it and everything will be happy ever after. We know that that just doesn't happen. I think adoption is quite an old way of thinking about how to support and care for children. I think we're in a new way of thinking about children now. I think the responsibility of caring for children is across the board. All of us in Australia should be thinking about the best ways to care for children. That shouldn't be at the expense of their connectedness with their families.

CHAIR: Thank you, Ms Hartmann. Ms Mackieson.

Ms Mackieson : I will focus on a couple of things. Firstly, the original purpose of adoption wasn't to place children from out-of-home care. It was about consent. It was about a voluntary arrangement. So adoption wasn't designed for out-of-home care. Trevor mentioned that the child welfare policy should be based on bipartisanship. I would like to remind the committee that, in Victoria, the adoption legislation that was put in place in 1984 and the subsequent permanent care model was very much a bipartisan policy. It was developed and implemented in the context of explicit rejection of non-consensual adoption from out-of-home care to solve the problems of drift in out-of-home care. What we are talking about is a problem that has been ongoing in child protection and out-of-home care systems not just in Australia but overseas in other Western countries. It's really a problem of bureaucratic making because children are removed. They are placed in foster care. The energy and resources and the focus are on removing children and assessing children. Once they come into care, the emphasis goes off.

In Victoria, in particular, more recently—I know because I have been researching it in my PhD studies—a lot of the children are drifting because they haven't got an allocated child protection worker or because they have had a series of child protection workers who are inexperienced, who don't have a lot of expertise and who don't have a history with the family. So there is drift in out-of-home care for a small number of children relative to those who are coming into child protection. Those who don't go home, who are most of the children, obviously, are actually suffering because of systemic bureaucratic deficiencies, if you like. In Victoria, that has been acknowledged recently. The Victorian government is now recruiting 450 new child protection worker positions. That's a lot of child protection workers that it was deficient in and an acknowledgement of the real cause of drift in care.

In summary on that point, we need to be careful of what we are trying to solve and where our energy goes. That is the first thing. The second thing is about bipartisanship with the policy. I reiterate that Victoria's permanent care model was very much a bipartisan model. It has been in place in preference to adoption since 1992, when it was implemented. We now have about 500 permanent care orders per year in Victoria. Domestically-arranged adoptions, including adoptions from care, number about 20 per year. So you can see the importance of permanent care compared to adoption in Victoria.

The focus at the moment on adoption from out-of-home care is very much a conflation, as Nikki was saying, of legal permanency, which is a very adult-centric approach, to what is most important to children and young people, which is relational permanency and physical permanency. Adoption doesn't necessarily guarantee relational permanency—there are breakdowns—or physical permanency. Often children have to move placement from foster care to go into an adoptive placement. So, in fact, it's undermining the very purpose that it's trying to solve. I guess they are the points that I would like to highlight.

CHAIR: Thank you, Ms Mackieson. I have a number of questions for each of you. I will start with you, Dr Jordan. Dr Jordan, and to all the presenters today, as I said at the outset, the focus of this inquiry is not past policies and practices. Indeed, we acknowledge, as you have done, that this committee will need to obviously take into account past practices and policies. That is what we acknowledge at the outset here. There has also been a number of points made about bipartisanship in relation to this inquiry. I note that this is a bipartisan committee and this inquiry comes from a good place. That is the best way I can articulate that. It is a bipartisan committee.

Ms Mackieson, I will go to your point. The approach of this inquiry is absolutely focusing on the best interests of the child. That is our umbrella focus of this inquiry. First of all, my question is to you, Dr Jordan. You say that local adoption is really a fiction of a permanent change of identity. One of the things this inquiry has been considering from other submissions has been the birth certificate. That birth certificate is a very important document in terms of learning from past forced adoptions. The identity of the adopted child was completely eradicated in the 1960s and 1970s in terms of forced adoptions. A whole new family and identity was created. How important do you regard the birth certificate, for example, in terms of adopting the approach I believe they use in France—they call it additive adoption—where certainly the biological parents remain? The child would still always retain a continuing relationship or access to their parents. It would be a totally open and transparent system. The adoptive parents are noted on the birth certificate as additive to the parents. What are your thoughts on that?

Dr Jordan : I absolutely agree with permanency of adoption—that families are created by addition, not subtraction. Our experience now since the laws have changed in Queensland with regard to access to putative fathers names is that people are using ancestry DNA et cetera and finding out who they are actually related to. So there is a need for a type of registration of birth that contains as much truthful information as possible. We do understand from discussions with births, deaths and marriages that a birth certificate is currently viewed mainly as an identity document, not a birth certificate, so that may be an important consideration. Nevertheless, people should have access to historically accurate information. That is regardless of whether they need to share that document to, as I used to say, rent a video or DVD; no-one does that any more. They don't have to present that document. They can have another identity document. That is very important. I'm not too sure how this would work out legally. Plenary adoption means you terminate not only a person's parentage but their identity from that moment on. With simple adoption, there is a notion even in France that people are recognised as coming from two families and may even have rights of succession et cetera. So we are very much in favour of a document that spells out the truth.

CHAIR: I guess along similar lines, Ms Hartmann, you refer to the final severing, brutal disconnect of the child. That is exactly the sort of practice that this inquiry is saying would not be part of a forward looking inquiry. The connection to the child's biological parents being a very important thing certainly comes out in all the submissions. I wanted your thoughts on the same issue in terms of the value and the importance. Certainly from the submissions I've read and the people I have spoken to, a critical element for this inquiry to consider is that original document.

Ms Hartmann : Absolutely. I would support what Trevor has said in that. What we see in our service a lot is that absolute difficulty in having what is seen to be a falsified birth certificate. That's one of the really important factors when we're considering any kind of permanency planning for children who then do become adults. A birth certificate should be a true and accurate record of their birth. Birth certificates in adoption up until today still are not that. They are seen to be a created fictional identity. As people are coming into more reflection and looking at their own adoption history, that is a really central point that needs to be worked through, if you like. It is one of the things that causes a great deal of distress for people, yes.

CHAIR: My final question goes to Ms Mackieson and Dr Jordan. I will go to a comment you made in your submission, Dr Jordan:

After suitable supportive interventions, the majority of children in out-of-home care are successfully reunited with their families of origin.

The starting position of this committee is that we want to do a forensic deep dive analysis to explain why we have one of the lowest adoption rates in the world and yet we had 48,000 children in out-of-home care in the last calendar year. From your perspective, this committee is looking at those numbers. Those numbers can't be ignored any longer. The focus in the past has clearly been on the preservation of the family at all costs. The focus of this inquiry, not looking at it through the old paradigm or prism of what adoption used to mean, is modern adoption practices in terms of those numbers.

Dr Jordan : So 20,000 children are in out-of-home care in New South Wales. There are 20,000 in New South Wales and 8,000 in Queensland. A number of those children are in kinship care arrangements, so they are with their families. Technically, they are counted in those numbers. I think VANISH addressed this in their submission. We have to stop using that larger statistic and bring it down to the ones who aren't going to be reunited—the ones who are going to be in the system until 15 or 18 and aren't going to be reunified. That brings it down for a start. A number of them are in kinship arrangements. We need to focus on the ones suffering multiple placements and disruption. If you set targets to increase our rate of adoption in Australia, they're not going to move that dial if you use that large number. Take New South Wales as an example. They increased their adoption in the last recorded year to 128, but that made less than 0.1 per cent of a difference to the 20,000 kids in out-of-home care. So you've got to stop using that larger number, which is used for marketing purposes really.

CHAIR: Certainly for the purposes of this committee, it's not for marketing; it's from looking at the hard data and, indeed, looking at those children who are bouncing around the system—

Dr Jordan : That's right.

CHAIR: and the front pages, of which there are too many cases in South Australia. There was a recent case in the Northern Territory. By putting the focus on the best interests of the child, this inquiry, including the terms of reference in this inquiry, is putting the safety of children as the paramount concern. How many interventions does it take for it to be deemed unsafe? There are multiple stories of 50 interventions. Maybe the secretariat can confirm this. I think something like 17,000 children are bouncing around the out-of-home care system. They have been there for over two years. So, in that context, when you marry that with a child's life being fleeting, two years is a long period of time before that child finds permanency.

Dr Jordan : I absolutely share your concern. But permanent guardianship or adoption will be another intervention. The idea is they stop from that moment on. But that's not magic. Those families have to be prepared. For that not to be disrupted, for those arrangements not to be disrupted, a lot of work has to be put in. You have to have those people available. To my mind, a lot of people see adoption as an alternative. They have a dream of what adoption is rather than the realities. There's a phrase that love and dreams are a wonderful thing but love is a harsh and dreadful thing; that is from Dostoevsky. Raising a family with children who have had adverse childhood experiences is tough. It requires commitment. There has to be a lot of preparation and a lot of support given in order to provide homes for those children. But the number of children that we share a concern for is considerably less. You can predict the outcome for some kids, but for others it will take two, three or four years and then you will know. We know from the statistics that those children will be in the system until they turn 18. They require some form of permanency. So we are agreed on that.

CHAIR: I will make one further comment and pass to the deputy chair for questions. This is about your comment on dreams and realities. We are looking at the reality of 48,000 children in out-of-home care. We need to acknowledge that these children have largely fled unsafe environments where there is abuse and neglect. That is why we are looking at the prospect of open adoption or additive adoption, as in the UK models, as a viable option and alternative. I will pass to the deputy chair and then we'll go through the committee.

Ms CLAYDON: Thanks, Chair. I certainly don't want to pre-empt any of the committee's findings and deliberations. It certainly is a bipartisan committee, but none of us have arrived at any particular point of view. We are very early on in our days in this inquiry. Thank you for your evidence today. You have each asked us in different ways, I guess, or encouraged us to consider looking at options around permanency other than adoption. I'm interested in your thoughts about how your alternative permanency options are better placed, I guess, to support a child's identity, ongoing connections to family and those issues that you've made very strongly in your arguments. You have expressed a preference, Dr Jordan, if I'm not mistaken, for a model of permanent guardianship, I think. I would like to hear a bit more about that. I want you each to try to flesh out now what alternative permanent options you have in mind.

Ms Mackieson : I want to pick up on a few things that were commented on before. The first thing is that when we compare adoption numbers in Australia with the rest of the world, we're really only comparing with the UK and mainly England because other countries in the UK aren't as oriented to adoption from care. We're talking about the US, Canada and New Zealand. New Zealand is more like Australia. It has looked less to adoption from care. In the UK, it's only one of three countries in Europe and 28 in the European Union—this was quoted in 2015—that uses non-consensual adoption from care as a permanency option. So when we're talking about the rest of the world, we're really only talking about a very small number of countries. Other countries, such as France, don't use non-consensual adoption from care. What do they use? They have a completely different approach. Rather than removing the child and then having the child in alternative placements, a number of countries have wrap-around services. They put services into the family much more than we do here. So it's a completely different model. They invest at the point of the problem, not remove the child such that then the child drifts in care. There are two aspects of drift in care. One is the impermanence; it's not permanent. The other is the instability—going from placement to placement. As I said before, a lot of that instability is, in fact, of our own making. Foster care is set up to be temporary, not long term.

In Victoria, some years ago, we looked at a model that has been used in New Zealand called One Door, or something like that. You recruit carers not for foster care, permanent care or adoption but who may be required or asked to care for a child who comes into out-of-home care through the child protection system not knowing how long the child might end up being with them. That's more child focused rather than based on the silos. In Australia, we're very set up. We're very programmatic. It's all about what is good for the program to fund it and what is good for the carers. We are not child focused. The other European countries are much more child focused. They wrap their services around the child in the family and put the supports in there. So their response is maybe to remove a perpetrator rather than to remove the child. So it is a completely different approach.

In terms of the models, the alternatives, we've got in Victoria, we've got permanent care, which is a type of guardianship. It's on the continuum of guardianship type orders. So how has that has been working? Nobody knows because there hasn't been long-term research. It has only just been commissioned now. But it's at least as effective. The overseas research on guardianship versus adoption shows that when you control for variables of the age of the child, the time that the child has been in out-of-home care and the history of the child, guardianship type options are as effective as adoption in terms of continuity.

Mr CHRISTENSEN: I have a question on that specific point. I don't understand practically. You talked about a convergence before between the two as potentially a way forward. I'm trying to understand practically what would be the difference between simple adoption, as was mentioned earlier, and permanent guardianship.

Ms Mackieson : Very little. It's almost the same. The thing with most of the guardianship options, including permanent care, in Victoria is that it can be revoked, although there has been a change implemented whereby now the leave of the court has to be gained before there can be an application for revocation. So it's moving closer to that irrevocable guardianship order until the child is 18. So they are actually very, very similar.

Dr Jordan : There is a period of transition here. If we are moving in a new direction, we don't want people to just suddenly leap into new realities. These things are happening. In Queensland, permanency legislation will be presented in the bill in November. We have been working through the Carmody inquiry. The Queensland community spent millions on child protection. In terms of bringing the nation together on this, Queenslanders aren't going to be prone to say, 'Well, we wasted all that money. Let's do whatever else.' We are already moving in terms of permanent guardianship non-revokable. Why people prefer adoption to permanent care is the idea that, under most permanent care, up until now, people have been able to revoke and consent to it. That will be changed and it will become very similar. So it's important that people have a choice or an option here.

People are lining up. People are on lists to adopt. We have a My Home project in Queensland, which is trying to say to people waiting to adopt a child on that list that instead of waiting for a child to come up for adoption, you can give a child a permanent home. You don't have to be a foster carer in order to take the child into permanency. We are trying to converge these so the practical outcome for the children is a commitment of people for while they are a growing family to age 18. When people turn age 18, they are not abandoned. Their future will depend on the quality of relationships and communications that occur in that family. You cannot legislate for that, but you can provide support.

Don't forget that the government has a role in this because the parental rights will be terminated by the government of the day and the courts of the day. So there is some responsibility for the governments of the day to provide the support. It's not just a decision individuals are making. It's not a private contract between those families out there, which obviously actually happens in an informal way that we can't track. So there is a responsibility that cannot be abrogated on the part of the community to provide the support in that situation. But it is going to converge. It is going to look the same. There's going to be a period here in which this is the reality. You cannot just take an esky and paint it and say you've got a new product when there are fridges around.

CHAIR: And that irrevocable element is key, obviously?

Dr Jordan : That's right, yes. That's what makes it converge. We want to ensure that we're not just painting an old esky here and saying, 'Let's keep the kids cool' when there are better options.

Ms Mackieson : I will add that the irrevocable bit is more about the carers' perception. In fact, very few permanent care orders get revoked in Victoria. We need to remember that the adults are going, 'But I want it to be irrevocable.' In fact, what is more important for the child or young person is just that the relationship continues and that they get to stay there. They don't really care what the order is. They just want to be able to stay there.

CHAIR: Yes. It is about that risk of revoking.

Ms Mackieson : And they can't foresee what it's going to be like for them in 20 or 30 years when they've still got this false identity from adoption and their own children. They might well have maintained contact or renewed contact. Through our services they might well have reconnected with their family of origin if it's fallen over. It often does when children are adopted, even under open adoptions. That's complicated and we won't go there. But it does often fall over. Children can't be expected to predict what it's going to be like for them in 10, 20, 30 or 40 years when they are having children and they don't have a legal connection with their own family of origin. So that's the big problem of adoption and the identity of the connections.

Ms Hartmann : I think we've got a chance to do something new around caring for children. I think adoption brings with it a whole history that is never going to go away. It has caused a lot of people pain and distress. I think where we're at now is what we can be doing that is different and more innovative. Look at systems like the one in America, for example, which has high rates of adoption from care. They also have really high rates of adoption breakdowns. That has to be considered because often people come to adoption through infertility. They say, 'Oh, it doesn't matter. We can just adopt.' There's that sort of thinking out there. But the reality is that that's not what adoption should be about. If we are thinking about something like permanent care, then we're supporting parents going into that permanent care arrangement differently. We are saying, `These are children who have had lots of trauma. There's going to need to be a lot of support in parenting' et cetera. It is child focused. It is not around adults wanting to have children and have ownership over that. I think we have to change that.

CHAIR: That is indeed the focus. It is exactly the focus, Ms Hartmann, as you say, of this inquiry in terms of turning that paradigm around and focusing on the children.

Ms CLAYDON: I haven't actually finished.

Dr Jordan : Sorry.

Ms CLAYDON: I'm glad everyone is enjoying the discussion.

Dr Jordan : It was a great question.

Ms CLAYDON: I'm very happy that it triggered discussion. It's good. Sometimes it's more fruitful to have an open-ended discussion than questions and answers. There are two other issues if there wasn't anything further, Ms Hartmann, you wanted to add—

Ms Hartmann : I've always got more to add.

Ms CLAYDON: about what an alternative to adoption might look like. I am interested in why you think there is a focus on adoption as an option now. What is driving that? Perhaps we'll do that question and then I will end with one quick question after that.

Ms Hartmann : One of the things that I hear a lot is that Australia is anti-adoption. I hear this thing around low adoption numbers. I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing. I don't think that just because we've got low numbers of adoption we are doing something wrong. We have had a recent inquiry in South Australia around children in care. We have also recently had one around our adoption act. Both of those inquiries found that adoption should not be the first option. It is not the best option. Commissioner Nyland said that adoption is no panacea for the current shortage of suitable care placements for children who cannot remain with their families of origin. The fact that there's a cohort of families who are interested in starting or growing their families through local adoption and who may relieve placement pressure in the care system is irrelevant to the question of a child's best interests. I think that's what we always have to be looking at—who is pushing the adoption agenda, who is saying that the low numbers are a bad thing and what we are actually doing for the best care of our children in Australia.

Ms CLAYDON: Does anyone want to add to that?

Ms Mackieson : I would just add that it's pretty clear that, with the drop in intercountry adoptions since 2004-05, the focus has shifted. Much as the federal government has tried to increase the number of programs we have and the number of children, it has not worked because internationally the countries that have traditionally sent children overseas have been able to develop their own programs. So it's pretty clear that, as those intercountry numbers have gone down, the focus has shifted to adoption from out-of-home care. I will just say that first. The second thing I would say is that it shocks me really, in a way, because adoption from care doesn't stop children coming into care and it doesn't stop children from drifting in care. The problems with drift happen earlier in the system. They are system issues.

So, yes, if children are going backwards and forwards, we have to look at why that is happening. Is it bad practice? Is it not enough experience or not enough allocation of child protection practitioners? Why is it that children are bouncing around? They should not be bouncing around if we have a child focused system. Clearly, we haven't got that. It's lacking resources or expertise or something in there. In Victoria, they've finally acknowledged that there has been this huge under-resourcing of just the basic ratio of worker to children. If there's no-one working a case, there's no case plan and there's no plugging into resources either to get the child home or do anything else with the child. That's a key thing. Most children get to go home if resources are able to be plugged in early enough. Most people do—

Ms CLAYDON: That brings me to my next question. It is a nice segue. You have all mentioned at various points the need for better supports. I think you are meaning both financial and other. I would like you to be very specific and clear about what it is that you think is required to better support those families. There are two issues. There is support for those families so that there are fewer kids entering out-of-home care and better supports for those people—I think Dr Jordan raised this—who are now caring in a permanent guardianship way or an open adoption manner or under some alternative to adoption as we know it, I guess. How do we better support those who are actually providing that care and guardianship? You raised it as an issue, Dr Jordan.

Dr Jordan : Well, the support should be affordable, accessible and specific to the needs of the children and families. So it has to be aware of adoption issues and permanency issues that are distinct and normative challenges that go with creating families in that way. Some of them are problematic in terms of accessibility in a large country like Australia. But that's the beginning point. The support has to be available to people. Unfortunately, our experience in providing post-adoption support is that people won't use it until they need it. It's not like you're going to necessarily have a constant stream of people at the door. But there needs to be the support there when they are meeting one of those challenges in order for them to work their way through it. It has to be a consistent commitment. In Queensland, when they announced the intention to change the permanency legislation, they said, 'These challenges of looking after families with kids with adverse childhood experiences means that some of the families will be paid.' If you have more than one or two of those kids, that's a job. You can't be both out working.

Ms CLAYDON: So what does that look like? How is that taking shape now?

Dr Jordan : We will see when the legislation comes. The idea is that those parents will be paid as a family to look after those children, at least for a period of time. Financial support continues to that family. The issue that people have said about fostering into adoption is what happens to all that support you get when you are a foster carer and you put up your hand to adopt. I relate this to another issue. Prime Minister and cabinet, when Mr Abbott was Prime Minister, had an inquiry into intercountry adoption. It observed, after taking all the submissions, that no-one was putting up their hand for the children with special needs. Everyone was saying that we need more adoption and it needs to be easier, but they observed that when it came to the kids most in need, there's a shortage. This could happen again here. Without those sorts of direct supports, the children who are most in need of not being bumped around the system won't get support. So this has to be kind of worked out.

I might hand to the others. I could observe some things about the numbers, particularly in relation to overall adoption figures. It gets messed up between local adoption and intercountry adoption. The UK does very little of that, but it does more adoption of children from the care system. I looked at this because people are talking about Sweden. Sweden has a history of missions in overseas countries, both religious and cultural. People make connections and donate to children in those areas. Those children are adoptable. There are all sorts of cultural variations in why the numbers of adoptions occur. It can't just be translated on the basis of numbers.

CHAIR: Thank you, Dr Jordan. I want to give the other committee members a chance.

Ms HUSAR: You raised some interesting points, Ms Mackieson, about child protection. I have said—it is on the public record—that it doesn't matter which government is in charge in any state jurisdiction; we have failed children everywhere. We cannot keep up with the rates of children coming into care. We have 48,000 now sitting in care. God knows how many children cannot be serviced by the current overstretched system. I have listened today. If we can't help these other kids who are at risk because we can't move the other kids out of the foster care system back into their own homes because mum and dad still aren't suitable, and we can't move them out of the foster care system, what do we do with those other kids who are not being served by the child protection system? That's my first point.

My second point is that you are talking about financial assistance to foster carers which wouldn't be available if, say, the child were adopted. We heard the coroner's evidence in the murder of Tiahleigh Palmer. Those foster siblings said she was a source of income for mum and dad so they were terrified to tell the truth about what was actually going on. God knows what happened to her before that happened. So if we accept that there are a number of children that are not being served or getting out of the dangerous situations and that people are seeing this as potentially a source of income, why would we not want to move those kids out of that system after a period of time or into a permanent placement which is in the best interests of the child? You talked before about severing ties. That doesn't happen if we get right a system designed into the future.

Ms Mackieson : I will respond. Across Australia, at least half the children in foster care are with kinship carers. So they are actually with extended family. In some states, it's more. So if those children are in kinship care, their kinship carers are being paid or they will be getting something for that. I don't know if it's comparable. It's not comparable with the formal foster care system, but they get something. A lot of those carers certainly don't want to adopt because that legally distorts the relationships. They also don't want the child to be put on a guardianship order because they are worried that that will upset the relationship they have with the child's parents. So there are many reasons why kinship foster carers don't want to have a more legally draconian order. So that's half of the children who are in foster care. So there are complexities.

From the child's point of view, they are probably with somebody who they feel very secure and very safe with. Those kinship foster carers, though, still need support to navigate and manage the difficulties of contact with the child's parents where there are good safety reasons for the child being placed with them. So there's a whole area that is a bit different for kinship carers, but that's half the children in care.

So let's look at the other half who are in the formal foster care system. If there are foster carers who are doing it only for the money, who is assessing these foster carers? There is professional breakdown there in the quality of assessment. So you've got to look back. It's up to the professionals and the state that is providing these services to provide good services and to assess people. I worked in intercountry adoption for nearly 12 years. I can tell you that there is an inverse pyramid. An awful lot of people, after a flood overseas, would ring up and want to adopt a child from overseas. After you talked for a couple of minutes, you worked out whether they realise that that is not what Red Cross recommends. When children have been traumatised by a natural disaster, the last thing they need is to be removed from their community. So you get down and you work your way through motivations. As people have noted, only a very small number of people want to take on the care of another person's child who has special needs and who they know has been traumatised. It is up to the people doing the assessments.

Ms HUSAR: We wouldn't know how many people want to adopt children because we don't actually keep a register anywhere in this country of people who are interested in permanently adopting children.

Ms Mackieson : But why are we concerned about who wants to adopt a child? Why aren't we concerned with who wants to provide an alternative family for a child, regardless of what the order is? Why is the focus on the adoption? Why isn't it on the children who need care and who wants to help care for them?

Dr Jordan : We do have an adoption waiting list. We have waiting lists in the states.

Ms HUSAR: The other issue around having a non-permanent arrangement with a child, whether we call it adoption or whether we come up with some other name, is that there is an agency involved in the foster carers' lives. If they want to change the kid's school, if they want to go on a holiday and if they've got multiple children from various families, they have constantly got agencies and other people in their lives. I am a mum. I have lots of things happening in my life. I don't know how I would deal with having an extra layer of other people involved in my kids' lives every day. If I am a family that wants to adopt these children, the barriers to doing so are just incredible. So we are making it even harder for people who are volunteering their homes and their hearts for these kids permanently because we've got a layer of complexity there where there's constant interaction. So how do you mitigate around that? You have families where these kids are definitely and absolutely not going back to their birth families. These permanent foster carers, for want of a better term, live for 18 years of that child's life with constant interaction with an agency. They are not real parents because they are not allowed to make real decisions for that child's education, medical care, holidays and things like that.

Ms Hartmann : That is why we need something new. I think the danger is that if we're just pushing for adoption, who is looking in on that family? Traditionally, once an adoption has happened, no-one is checking what is going on in that family. I think that's where we have to think about the way forward and how we are going to do it better.

Ms HUSAR: That's not true. They would be treated the same way as my children, who are my biological children.

Ms Hartmann : What I mean about that is that children in the foster care system have that checking in and those case workers and stuff like that.

Ms HUSAR: Yes, but—

Ms Hartmann : I haven't finished yet. Children in adoption don't have that. Children in adoption are getting abused by their adoptive parents. So where is the middle ground around that?

Ms HUSAR: Do you have any evidence to back that up?

Ms Hartmann : We have a lot of clients who have grown up in abusive adoptive families.

Dr Jordan : We get calls.

Ms Hartmann : You described the case where the foster parents were doing it for the money. My question about that would be: what is happening in the screening process? How did they get approved to be foster parents if that were the outcome? We've got to get better at screening the parents. Parenting children with a traumatic history is a very different thing to parenting a child who has grown up with safety and security and all of that sort of thing. In our service in South Australia, where we've been operating since 2006, one of our most popular programs has been our therapeutic parenting program. Adoptive parents are coming to us saying, 'Whoa. I had no idea that parenting a child with an institutionalised background, trauma and disruptions was going to be this hard. We don't know what to do.' So we've designed a parenting course which is about parenting differently because some of the more familiar parenting strategies do not work with children who have had trauma.

We can't just be providing an adoption for an eight-year-old who has had 100 placements and then go, 'There you go. You're adopted now. Everything is going to be okay.' So they are some of the changes. We have to do it differently because children still get abused in their adoptive families. There's plenty of evidence about that. We saw that in the royal commission, where people who did get abused in their adoptive families were told, 'You don't fit this royal commission into institutionalised abuse because your adoptive family is as if you were born to them.' Well, no. Actually somebody put them in there. So that is still an institution that created that family. So we have to be thinking something new.

CHAIR: I am just conscious that the bells are going to go any minute.

Ms HUSAR: There is only one other thing. I'm happy if you want to take it on notice. There are two. Dr Jordan, you talked a lot about getting them to age 18. The new evidence is that kids are not able to go out on their own at 18 after they've been in foster care. If you have people who are motivated by the wrong reasons, they are getting kicked out at 18. There is a massive disconnect in that. I am happy if you want to take that on notice.

Dr Jordan : I have heard those anecdotal stories, but I haven't seen evidence. People say, 'Oh, they're kicked out at 18.' But there are other foster families who stay loyal and connected for the—

Ms HUSAR: Or the kid gets to 18 and they can finally and permanently adopt them, which is what we took evidence on.

Dr Jordan : Well, you can choose adult adoptions.

Ms HUSAR: I'm happy for you to take that on notice.

Dr Jordan : The point is that, at 18, you are an adult and you are allowed to vote.

CHAIR: We have notification that we may have a division in a few minutes. I would like to give Dr Freelander the option to ask some questions. Take that question from Ms Husar on notice.

Dr FREELANDER: Thanks for coming along today. I'm very interested in your evidence. I have a couple of things I would like to ask. One of my concerns—I totally agree that adoption certainly is not a panacea for any of this—is that governments have abrogated their responsibilities by handing over child protection to a whole lot of non-government organisations that have no transparency and have a very poor selection of carers. I agree that the aim should be some form of permanent care, but there doesn't seem to be any oversight of this. I see lots of children who go from carer to carer to carer to agency to agency to agency, compounding the trouble that they have in their lives and ending up with attachment disorders and poor educational outcomes et cetera. Can you comment on that?

Ms Mackieson : Well, governments can't just hand over the system they've set up. Child protection is everybody's responsibility. If services are being contracted out, there still has to be auditing. There still has to be standards. There still has to be accreditation. Once again, just because an NGO is supposed to be looking after a child doesn't mean it will happen. So it doesn't really matter from our point of view who is doing the looking after; it is the quality of the service that is put in place and the quality of the supervision and the assessment.

Dr FREELANDER: But haven't we seen enough failures from the system?

Ms Mackieson : I'm not quite sure what you are asking. Are you saying that therefore children need to be adopted more quickly to avoid the myriad of services being provided?

Dr FREELANDER: I'm absolutely not saying that at all. It should be the responsibility of government, representing—

Ms Mackieson : Yes. We agree.

Ms Hartmann : Yes.

Dr FREELANDER: I believe this push for adoption is the wrong tack to take. What we do need is stability. I have no problem with people being paid for caring for kids because some of these kids have very special needs, as you know.

Ms Mackieson : Foster care is set up to be temporary. And that's a problem. We have a Western way of doing business that is actually failing. We are not addressing how we are providing services. So we would do well to look at these wraparound services. Instead of removing the child as the first reaction to a safety situation, what can we put in there—

Dr FREELANDER: To keep the family together.

Ms Mackieson : to keep the family together and to keep the child safe?

Ms Hartmann : I don't believe there should be any private adoption agencies because the very nature of private agencies existing is by facilitating more adoptions. That's what we have seen has been very problematic in America. Any kind of financial incentive or anything like that around adoption targets that Trevor talked about should not be on the table at all because that can lead to unethical practices, which we've seen in lots of places in the world. So I think that is a responsibility of government.

Dr FREELANDER: But don't we need better government oversight of these things?

Ms Hartmann : Absolutely.

Ms Mackieson : Yes.

Ms Hartmann : We also need better support in prevention. For example, we hear that if there is a family that are having some issues—for example, around drugs and alcohol—we will give them six months to get themselves together. If they haven't done that in six months, then we're going to dispense with their consent and that child is going to be adopted. What is happening in the drug and alcohol space is that it takes six months for somebody to get into a rehab facility. So if we are—

Dr FREELANDER: At least, if they're lucky.

Ms Hartmann : If they're lucky. So where is our focus overall of preventing children from coming into the care system? How are we putting resources into supporting families that are struggling? At the end of the day, children want to and should stay with their parents where possible. There's always going to be children where that wouldn't be possible. However, I think we can do a lot more to prevent children from coming into the care system in how we support families.

Ms HUSAR: There is no consequence at the moment. You can be a bad parent and get your time and then you get another time and then you get another chance. Where are the consequences for the grown-ups in this situation rather than actually advocating for the rights of the children?

Ms Mackieson : That is a different matter. If adoption is to punish the parents, it punishes the child too.

Ms HUSAR: I didn't suggest that. Ms Hartmann has just said that we are talking about the parents going for six months and they haven't managed to get their act together. I would say that six months is too short a timeframe anyhow. You get a chance and another chance.

Dr FREELANDER: I want to make the point that if a child is adopted or put in permanent care or kinship care, they still need support, and we should not be walking away from that.

Dr Jordan : We are on the same page here. We are talking about permanent care to a family, not staying permanently in the care system. It is to a family committed to their care to at least age 18.

Dr FREELANDER: Correct.

Dr Jordan : So we are on the same page here. If you look at the continuum of care in New South Wales and Queensland, it's the same. Ideally a child is put in care and goes back to their family. If that's not possible, they should find a permanent kinship care arrangement. If that's not possible, there is permanent care to a family or adoption. Really it's talking about adoption or permanent care to a family. It's like governments are trying to twist that little thing around like that. That's why there should be convergence there to realise that if we're looking for a national framework, we are very close to it. The continuum of care is the same. What we all don't want is kids to be bumped around the system.

CHAIR: I think we are in furious agreement on that. I think it's in terms of almost a revised definition of what adoption means. I think it's very important not to look at this through the prism—and it's very challenging for people—of historically what adoption meant. We're all talking about irrevocable permanency because it does provide stability not just to the parent in terms of their parenting but to the child as well. Before I sum up, because I am conscious that the bells could go any minute, Mr Christensen hasn't had an opportunity.

Mr CHRISTENSEN: The last point almost answered my substantive questions. It seems that, in the outcomes we all are looking for here, we are playing around with semantics almost in talking about the terms 'adoption', ' simple adoption' and 'permanent guardian'. The outcomes that you are talking about, I think, are the outcomes that most people are looking for—permanency for those children in a safe and supported environment, preferably with a family and preferably with kin. I take that stepped process that you talk about. Of course, if there is the ability to send children to their biological family somehow, that would be the preference. Failing that, there would be some other form of permanent guardianship. I think that last comment was very enlightening. Do you want to say something on that?

Ms Mackieson : I want to make one more point, yes. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child doesn't talk about permanency. It talks about continuity. I think what we are on about is actually continuity for the child in relationships, identity, placement and caregivers—the relational and the physical. Legal permanency is just one aspect of permanency.

Mr CHRISTENSEN: I understand.

Ms Mackieson : We are on about advocating for the bond—

Mr CHRISTENSEN: I understand that.

Ms Mackieson : and the continuity of that bond.

Mr CHRISTENSEN: Actually, it does lead to another question. I said I understand. What I should say is that, because of the family situation I have come from, I don't fully understand it, to be quite honest. But I understand what you are saying. It leads to a couple more questions and that's it; I am done. It is specifically around that point. Of course, it's a loving and a safe environment. I can't see—and it's because of the background I have come from—how not having that permanency, whatever it is, be it with kin or some other form of permanent guardianship or adoption, would not be preferable to someone having to go into different care arrangements from time to time. I am just trying to understand how the permanency, if it's a safe and loving environment, wouldn't be absolutely and utterly preferable all the time for someone who was in an impermanent environment transferring from one situation to the next.

Ms Hartmann : Absolutely. I think we all agree about that. Permanency is not having to move.

Dr Jordan : That would be moving towards putting a timeframe on how impermanent the arrangement can be, be it two years, five years or four years. That is a question of timeframes. How long do kids bump around?

CHAIR: I have to wrap it up.

Mr CHRISTENSEN: You have to wrap it up?

CHAIR: Yes. I really do.

Mr CHRISTENSEN: Can I ask one more?

CHAIR: Could we take it on notice?

Mr CHRISTENSEN: I will feed it through the secretary.

CHAIR: Okay. That would be good. Just to wrap up, I refer to the general commentary. From the committee's perspective, one of our clear aims is to be the voice of the child. On the point Ms Husar was making, I think we need to always bring ourselves back to focusing on the best interests of the child.

Ms Mackieson : And the rights of the child.

CHAIR: I think we are talking about the same thing.

Ms Mackieson : And the rights as well.

CHAIR: Absolutely. I think it's very important that we do that as we look forward because there are still children bouncing around the system. There are still 48,000 children in out-of-home care. Whichever way you look at it, over 90 per cent of them have fled abusive or neglectful environments. They are the children that we are providing the voice to in this inquiry. I need to wrap this hearing up right now. I will take your last question, Mr Christensen on notice.

Mr CHRISTENSEN: Yes. Through the secretariat.

CHAIR: Yes. Put it through the secretariat. I thank everyone for coming here today. I thank my fellow committee members.

Dr Jordan : Thank you for having us.

Ms Mackieson : Thank you.

CHAIR: I declare the public hearing closed.

Committee adjourned at 18 : 08