Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs
Local adoption

COCKS, Ms Jessica, President, Family Inclusion Strategies in the Hunter; and Churchill Fellow, Winston Churchill Memorial Trust

ROSS, Dr Nicola, Private capacity

Committee met at 16:53

Evidence was taken via teleconference—

CHAIR ( Ms Banks ): I declare open the public hearing of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs in Canberra for the inquiry into local adoption. As I have stated at previous public hearings for this inquiry, the committee acknowledges the profound effects of past forced adoption and removal policies and practices, which were also formally acknowledged by the House of Representatives in its resolution of 3 December 2013. We would all agree that the mistakes of the past should not be repeated. However, 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 to use when adoption is a viable option. Our inquiry is therefore intended to be forward looking and solutions focused.

Today we will hear from Dr Nicola Ross and Ms Jessica Cocks from Family Inclusion Strategies in the Hunter. 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 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 on the web of the need to fairly and accurately report the proceedings of the committee.

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

Dr Ross : I appreciate the opportunity to speak to the committee. I'm a senior lecturer at Newcastle law school, University of Newcastle, and I appear before the committee in a private capacity as an academic with 14 years research and teaching experience in the area of child protection.

Ms Cocks : I also appreciate the opportunity to be here today. I am here on my own behalf, as a Churchill fellow who did research overseas into family inclusion in child welfare. I'm also here as President of Family Inclusion Strategies in the Hunter, which is a parent and practitioner co-led organisation aimed at promoting greater family involvement in the lives of children in care.

CHAIR: 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 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.

Ms Cocks : I want to make a very short statement, which I hope doesn't duplicate the submission I've already made. I want to make two main points. Firstly, we can't separate the issue of adoption from out of care from other parts and other functioning of the child protection system in Australia, which is plagued with problems. The way the early intervention system functions or not has a flow-on effect to the statutory child protection system, to the courts, to out-of-home care and, if children are adopted from out-of-home care, to the experience of adoption.

The systemic problems that exist at one end of the system do impact the other end. For example, we are often told by advocates for increasing adoption from care that adoption is only a possibility for children who cannot safely return home ever, yet we know that not everyone is equal in the child protection system. We have varying reunification rates and entry-to-care rates based on state, postcode and race, to name a few. So is it safe to say that all children who have been permanently removed have had the opportunity they deserve to stay safely at home? I don't think we are safe to say this in Australia at this time. Regional variations are just one example of this. In Newcastle, the chance of being removed from your family and placed into care is twice that of a child born in Sydney. If you live in Broken Hill, it is about four times greater. Just to touch on race, if you are Aboriginal it is around 10 times greater. So to take the issue of adoption from care and separate it out from the broader care and protection issues in Australia is very worrying. So I'd just ask that that be a point of reflection.

Secondly I ask the committee to reflect on the opportunity costs of a narrow focus on adoption as a pathway to permanency, which will only ever be relevant for a small number of children, as opposed to a focus on relational permanency inclusive of reunification and on children's outcomes. In Australia we have low rates of reunification overall and a system with grave difficulties engaging positively and productively with families. We don't need increased numbers of alternative families for children. Right now we have more alternative families available than ever. The crisis we face is about engaging with families in achieving reunification more often in relational permanency when children can't live at home, and about good outcomes for all children and young people. Relational permanency requires ongoing family relationships for all children and an ongoing role for families, in the interests of children. Adoption per se offers very little to solve the complex issues faced by children and families. Family inclusion and a focus on relational permanence has far more to offer.

Dr Ross : My research has addressed adoption from a different perspective, comparing legislation and adoption in England, Wales and the United States with the reforms in New South Wales in an article with Professor Judy Cashmore published in 2016. This research noted that approaches to adoption taken by different countries must be considered in light of the different contexts and culture of these jurisdictions. You have to be careful about applying research from one jurisdiction in a simplistic way to other jurisdictions.

I've also recently been part of a research team with Jessica Cocks looking at the experiences of out-of-home care and legal processes in the Hunter in New South Wales of parents who've had children removed from their care. This research demonstrated the extent of parents' powerlessness in the legal system and out-of-home care systems. We need to consider the power differentials when we consider making adoption from care without parent consent easier. Changes in this area need to be evidence based. As I indicated in my submission, poverty and disadvantage play a major role in parenting difficulties for many parents and increase the likelihood that parents will have contact with the child protection system. It's problematic if parents are not able to access the services that can assist them to parent. We know that there can be waiting lists for services, particularly in rural and regional areas. Some of the parents in our research were able to parent children when they received support but had earlier children removed when timely support was not available.

We need quality research into open adoption. We don't yet know for instance how contact will be organised by adoptive parents with parents and extended family, particularly if they are left to do so without support. There is a significant need for post-adoption services, and that's particularly the case when adopted children reach adolescence, and we see that in countries such as England and Wales. We do know that currently there is limited post adoption support for parents, although now Family and Community Services is willing to pay amounts of money to people who wish to adopt children who have been in care. We also know from research that contact arrangements when children are in out-of-home care can be difficult for parents, for children and for foster carers to negotiate. That is likely to be at least as difficult if not more difficult in adoption arrangements.

Finally, if adoption of babies increases, I'm concerned about support for these children and their adoptive parents where it becomes evident later on that these children have syndromes such as fetal alcohol syndrome. I understand that it is currently often undiagnosed and that up to five per cent of children may experience this syndrome, which can cause significant difficulty for these children and their families because they have greater needs for ongoing services.

The parents of babies removed by statutory authorities have been harshly neglected by our services in the past, and these parents need support for many reasons. They're likely to have further babies in response to their grief and loss but, without appropriate support, they may lose these later children to care. Many are able to parent but they need appropriate support services to do so, and these have not always been available.

It's my view that any reforms to adoption from care in Australia need to take account of these factors and be soundly evidence based and ethical. Adoption should be a last resort, and that's indicated in the approach that the courts have taken in the United Kingdom. There is a need to have exhausted all possibilities before we move to adopt children out of care and that is particularly the case where parents don't consent to adoption.

CHAIR: Those are very clear views you have in relation to adoption. Are you effectively saying that there are no circumstances under which adoption would be considered the most appropriate option for children in out-of-home care?

Dr Ross : I'm certainly not saying that. I think there will be situations where adoption is appropriate; it's just that we have to be very careful about the circumstances in which those adoptions take place.

CHAIR: So what would those situations be?

Ms Cocks : I certainly endorse Nicola's comments in the sense that there would be exceptional circumstances where adoption might be appropriate. It's very difficult to say exactly what those circumstances might be and when adoption, per se, might be a child-focused requirement to achieve a good outcome for a child, because so many other things contribute to positive outcomes for children that really have nothing to do with the legal order.

One example that might help the committee understand how adoption without consent might be in children's interests is the situation where a young women might have become pregnant as a result of sexual abuse or rape, the father of the child is known, and the young woman wants the child to be adopted but the father refuses to give his consent.

CHAIR: The principle of this inquiry is putting the best interests of the child first, as the ultimate priority. In that context, what are your views on open adoption laws, also called simple adoption, where the child is given a profound sense of place? They've fled and it's been determined that it is unsafe for that child to return to their home, their biological place; nonetheless, open adoption has the basic principle of maintaining connectivity with the biological family, and that would include legal rights, birth certificates and the like. What are your views on open adoption in that context, particularly given the umbrella principle of putting the interests of the child first, rather than looking at this through an adult prism?

Dr Ross : I don't think there's any disagreement; there can't be—

Ms CLAYDON: We're struggling to hear you.

CHAIR: Sorry, Dr Ross. The line's cutting in and out.

Teleconference interrupted—

CHAIR: My apologies, Dr Ross; we had some technology issues. We'd be grateful if you could repeat your answer to my last question.

Dr Ross : I just wanted to make it very clear that neither of us is for a minute suggesting that anything other than the best interests of children should be the first consideration.

In relation to open adoption, I think that at the moment we have limited research into what it actually means and how easy, for instance, it will be to support and reinforce those aspects of the adoption that actually make it open in the first place. For instance, as I said before in relation to contact processes, even in relation to contact when children have been removed by the court at an interim level before the court has made a decision that those children are to be returned to their parents or to be removed permanently, there are some sometimes very significant issues that occur with that contact. I think we need to be very careful when we're talking about open adoption that we are all talking about the same thing and that, in fact, it can be delivered in the way in which it's hoped it can be delivered.

Ms Cocks : I agree with everything that Nicola has just said. Also, we need to reflect on what we're trying to achieve for children and young people. What we're trying to achieve is a sense of permanency, a genuine lived experience of permanency, which requires them to have ongoing relationships with their family. While we can tinker with new types of legal orders that may appear more palatable than more conventional closed adoption arrangements, we already have legal arrangements and legal orders available to us that relational permanency is consistent with. I don't think there is evidence in support of adoption to achieve that relational permanency, per se. That's done in relationships.

Dr Ross : I would like to add something to that: some of the issues that we're discussing are relevant to carers across the board. One of the things that would make open adoption work is good, worked through relationships between adoptive parents and relinquishing parents. That is something that sometimes we don't have processes in place to achieve. It's the same issue for foster parents and parents who've lost children into care. If the foster parents are not open to having a relationship with those parents then the whole thing doesn't work very well as a process of caring for the children themselves.

Ms CLAYDON: I have had the pleasure of reading some of your work earlier, being your local member, and I met you at the launch of the FISH research. Thank you very much for making this submission. There are a couple of matters that I just wanted to take up. I was really taken, Ms Cocks, by your evidence that not everyone is equal in child protection. Your submission and Dr Ross's submission kind of bear that out, whereby poverty and social disadvantage are really profound contributing factors in people's lived experience of family and the child protection systems thereafter.

You've made some recommendations of sorts for the committee to consider. I just wondered if you might like to talk to us more about what kinds of support services are required? Dr Ross certainly makes the point that support services are required for the disadvantaged parents, helping them to hold their family together. But you also have to look out for those carers who are providing support to children and young people in care, needing financial, emotional and educative support. I'd like you to talk to that and then also to elaborate more on your concerns around the response to the special needs of children who get adopted from care.

Ms Cocks : Are those recommendations that you're talking about recommendations in the submission that I've written?

Ms CLAYDON: Yes, in your submission. You made four points at the end saying, 'If you are to make any attempt to introduce a common framework around greater recognition of local adoption, then you would need to consider these four matters.'

Ms Cocks : In terms of childrens' interests being prioritised?


Ms Cocks : In terms of the support services to try and ensure that these kinds of things can happen, one really crucial and very absent service innovation that we need in Australia is more peer support for parents and family who are interacting with the child protection system. I think that's important as a preventative measure to ensure children aren't removed. It's important to increase reunification, and it's also got something to offer parents, family and children who need to continue their relationships when children are in care long-term. When I'm talking about peer support, I'm talking about parents helping other parents and parents and family members helping other parents and family members to navigate the system. We're about to trial, here in Newcastle, a peer support program for parents in the Broadmeadow Children's Court. I'm really looking forward to us making a contribution in this space. I learnt about peer support when I was overseas on my Churchill Fellowship, and they have achieved increases in reunification rates and increases in relational permanency when parents and family get the opportunity to support each other through these processes.

Ms CLAYDON: Is it fair to say that that's a new approach for Australia?

Ms Cocks : It's absolutely new. This has never been done before. The project that we're going to be trialling at Broadmeadow Children's Court is being funded by the Law and Justice Foundation and run in partnership between FISH, Life Without Barriers and the university here. It's only a small project, but it's highly innovative, and I think it has enormous potential. It involves partnerships across the disciplines, including lawyers and social workers, which is exciting. That's one area. At the moment, in Australia, we have a sharp change in the way parents and families are supported when children are removed. Once children are removed, the resources that the system allocates to children in the care and protection system shift sharply to the out-of-home care placement. Nearly all the resources that are allocated to child protection when children are in care are allocated to the out-of-home care placement. I'm not telling you something that you probably haven't already heard—this is a well-known phenomenon. Very few services are provided to help families get their kids back, and it's a real lottery as to whether or not you get into those quite rare or quite scarce services. It's often highly dependent on the relationship that the case worker in question has with the family. I'm not blaming anyone for that—it's the way the system works. It's a systemic problem.

Once the next step happens, if children remain in permanent care, then what little attention parents and families get disappears almost entirely. There are very tiny pockets of group work available to support parents and families who have lost their children into care, despite the evidence based importance of their relationship with their children for those children. I'm not saying we should be having family inclusion and support for families who lose their kids into care because I'm worried about those families—I'm saying this because this is what their children need. It's well-established that children do much better when they leave care. It doesn't matter what the legal order is—adoption or whatever—they do much better when they have good relationships with their families of origin. So, no matter what this committee recommends in terms of the use of adoption, we absolutely have to integrate support services for families who have children who are adopted and who are in care no matter what. We need to do that in the interests of the children who are in care and in the interests of the future children that they will have.

Dr Ross : Could I add one thing to that? One of the things that came out so powerfully through our work with parents was about power differentials. I think if we're going to be talking about any new forms of adoption we have to be very careful that the power differentials actually work appropriately for the children, that all those earlier steps have been taken and that a lot of work has gone into building relationships between all those concerned. It's really problematic if children are removed from parents when there is a possibility that parents can parent them themselves. Those kinds of issues then create obstacles between people having good relationships. Basically, any opportunity of adoptive parents having good relationships with parents who've relinquished children into care are then problematic, because the earlier stages of that process has left parents feeling that things were done in a very unfair way and that they weren't given opportunities and chances that they really would have liked to take. I imagine that open adoption will work best where parents don't feel that that has occurred, where they can see that there are good reasons for those children to be cared for by other people, where they're welcomed as part of the support network for those children, and where everybody genuinely has a relationship and a place so they belong together in some ways still.

I just want to raise the issue that making those contact arrangements work post adoption is something that we need to look at very carefully. The chances are that if we don't properly support them then they won't happen and the open adoption will end up looking much more similar to the forms of adoption we've had in the past.

Ms CLAYDON: Dr Ross, I think your submission actually made the point that we don't, at this point, have a lot of evidence as to whether something like the open adoption process has resulted in kids remaining connected with the families from whom they've been removed. I'm interested to know whether there are many other people researching an area with a focus on the child's point of view—which is what struck me about the work that you and FISH have done—or the views of adults who were adopted as kids. Have you got many other people doing research work in this area with you?

Dr Ross : It's unfortunate. The family law area in Australia as a Commonwealth jurisdiction has a lot more legal researchers and sociolegal researchers than child protection does. I think that's a great shame, because I think there's an enormous social utility in research done in this area. That's one of the problems with our system at the moment: there is more money, if you like, and more status sometimes, for people to research in relation to family law matters, as opposed to child protection matters. But the reality is that there are very large numbers of children who are impacted through child protection processes, so we really need to build our research capacity in this area.

Ms Cocks : I'd endorse that. In terms of children's participation, there's some good work being done by the Centre for Child Protection in South Australia. That's worth exploring. But I think there's a real dearth of research in Australia when it comes to family engagement in child welfare. Here in New South Wales we have a relatively recently set up institution—I'm going to get the acronym wrong—the 'open adoption research institute'. To my mind, it's extraordinary that we've managed to find resources to explore one particular legal outcome that will impact such a small number of children, and yet we cannot find the money to fund a family engagement research centre when that is the crisis that is facing child protection systems in Australia. Once again—I know I sound like a broken record—family engagement is important no matter what the legal outcome. Obviously, it's particularly important to achieving what we all want to achieve, which is more children staying safely at home with their families.

Ms CLAYDON: Thank you.

Mr ENTSCH: I think, Ms Cocks, in your opening statement you made the comment here that there are more families than ever that are available to offer support for kids in out-of-home care.

Ms Cocks : Yes.

Mr ENTSCH: What worries me here is that, as of June last year, there were 47,900 kids in out-of-home care. Of those 47,000 kids I think about 17½ thousand or 18,000 were Indigenous. Of those kids there were about 32,000 that had been in out-of-home care for two years or more. We're talking about the best interests of the child, and it's my understanding that the minimum amount of time in out-of-home care is in the best interest of the child because the longer they don't have permanency, it has an impact. Do you agree with that assumption?

Ms Cocks : I take a very strong view that the legal arrangement that a child is in doesn't necessarily equate to the lived experience of permanency. I think if we reflect on the research into out-of-home care in Australia—and I fully acknowledge that we haven't got enough of it—and certainly if we rely on research from overseas, we will find that children who are still formally in out-of-home care have the same chance of achieving relational permanence as a child subject to an adoption order, depending on the circumstances of their lives, bearing in mind that the legal order is really just one of those circumstances. So I think that we are very right to be gravely concerned about the number of children in out-of-home care, but, in terms of what they're experiencing, we need to look well beyond the legal order they're subject to and whether or not they're formally in out-of-home care.

Mr ENTSCH: The reason that the children are in out-of-home care in the first case is generally because there is some level of breakdown or dysfunctionality within the family group, and the kids have been taken out because it's in the best interests of the children to do that. I can understand trying to make sure you do your best to try and make sure that that fracture is repaired, and, of course, the best scenario would be that those children are able to go back to their family group. However, I would think that 47000 is a significant increase since the last measurement. I'm just trying to see the figure. It's about an 18 per cent increase since 2013. So the numbers are growing and the number of kids in long-term out-of-home care is growing. The longer you keep kids that don't have some level of permanency, the more impact it's going to have on the child. How long would you suggest that we do work on dysfunctional or fractured families to try and get to a point of reunification before you say, 'It's time that we found some level of permanency for this child'?

Dr Ross : I'm not sure if that question was directed to me.

Mr ENTSCH: Either of you. I'm just interested.

Dr Ross : There are a couple of things that I'd like to comment on there. The first is that one of the things that really concerns me is the lack of work that we saw being done previously with parents once children were taken into care. Most of the time, parents will consent to their children being taken into care in the first instance, but, at that point, quite often, parents might be ready to do some work to turn around whatever issues they have had, which tend to be primarily around neglect and emotional abuse rather than other forms of abuse.

The concern that I had was that, at that point, parents were thrashing around looking for services to assist them and they often couldn't find those services. They couldn't connect with what was needed to provide support. So the first thing that I think we must look at is: when we take children into care at an interim level, how do we maintain good relationships with their parents, to the extent that is possible, and how do we support those parents connecting to services which they may not have had access to previously? To be fair, they may not have been prepared, in some instances, to engage with them, but they're likely to be ready to engage with those services once it's really clear to them that their children are likely to be removed long term, and I believe that we, as a community, need to work really hard with them then.

If parents are prepared to engage but the services aren't available, then I think that is one of the things that needs to be taken into account in processes. So it may be that there's a longer period, while those services are made available to parents, that is needed. If parents are completely unwilling and incapable of in any way engaging, then I have to agree that we certainly need to make some decisions for young children, because there are developmental considerations. But we really need to be clear about those things, and I think there are some concerns. If you look at the Tune report that was done in relation to New South Wales, it's pretty clear that those services weren't always available to parents who were having their children removed. What this actually means is that the decisions are being made almost immediately the child is removed, rather than when the court actually makes the final decision to remove the children permanently.

Mr ENTSCH: Again, it gets back to a time frame. A year in a child's life is a long time. There is only a limited window of opportunity to capture opportunities for that child. Again, you're right—generally it is those agencies that are identifying whether or not the families are genuinely trying, or whether they are basically ignoring any opportunity for reconciliation. I'm asking: is there any time frame that you would suggest that we look at before we say, 'Enough is enough. The opportunities have been there to try and deal with this. Let's give this child the permanency they need, through open adoption or a mechanism where they've got a permanent home.' Is there any time frame? Do we work on it for a year, two years, three years, five years?

Ms Cocks : I'm more than happy to comment on that. I think we need to set reasonable time frames so that we can work towards children's permanency and stability and better outcomes for children. I'm not going to give you an exact time frame, because I really think we need to be child-centred when we make these decisions—bearing in mind that most children enter care in Australia at primary school age, so we're certainly not always talking about very young children. But certainly the age and developmental stage with children needs to be taken into account. I would ask us to consider carefully the approach to permanency decision-making that we're currently taking. At the moment, we give families a particular time frame. It varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. And there seems to be an implication that we don't work towards permanency until after that time frame has passed. I would really strongly urge the committee to focus on permanency in your recommendations from the very beginning, and if we think about relational permanency, then we focus on that from the very beginning. That means that families need to stay closely connected to their children, as much as possible, from day one of removal, with a focus on reunification but, most importantly, a focus on relational permanence. Although those time frames are very important, and a decision about permanency in terms of whether or not a child can safely go home needs to be made, ultimately, you don't need to decide on adoption to decide on permanence. The practices and eventual decisions about permanence don't need to be a decision about adoption. It's unrelated to the legal order.

Dr FREELANDER: Thanks very much, Dr Ross and Ms Cocks, for your presentation. I'm interested in your views about (1) the need to provide early intervention for families at risk and whether you feel that we are concentrating enough on early intervention services and (2) whether we have focused enough on the long-term needs of at-risk families and the need for long-term and continuing support rather than removal of children in these families.

Ms Cocks : That's a great question. Early intervention sounds easy. It sounds simple: we just need to do more of it and more kids will be able to stay at home. But it's a very complex issue. I think the fact that you've linked it to a question about providing ongoing support to high-risk families is really important. The way we've constructed discussion about early intervention in Australia tends to suggest that you chuck in the resources and support, often based on evidence based programs that come from other places, and then you can leave that family alone. And if the family doesn't respond to that evidence based program, which might last for 12 weeks or six months perhaps, then that family's problems are intractable. I think that's a really problematic way of thinking about early intervention. We need to think more creatively and in a way that reflects the needs of our communities here in Australia.

There's emerging research coming out from the Centre for Child Protection in South Australia which has looked at the service options or service types that are available to families in South Australia and found that they're grossly inadequate—they have poorly constructed service design, they are not amenable to evaluation and they are using techniques and interventions that lack an evidence base of families with multiple and complex problems. We're talking about families who have experienced intergenerational trauma, young families and families living in intergenerational poverty who are experiencing ongoing suffering. Child removal does not solve those problems.

To your next question, I think that we need to have an approach that responds to families over time and recognises that families, particularly those with intergenerational trauma, will continue to experience problems, particularly at transition points. We need to have a service system that will respond and we need to build the evidence base here in Australia. Again I would refer to the ripe area for innovation, if you like, being parents and families helping each other to overcome problems and the urgent need to address the underlying social causes of child removal in Australia. Antipoverty programs, for want of a better term, are urgently needed to address child protection issues in Australia, because poverty is absolutely linked to child removal.

Dr FREELANDER: The committee has been focusing in many ways on so-called open adoption. In terms of the overall number of children in out-of-home care, what proportion of those kids would be appropriate for open adoption? In other words, the question I'm asking is: is the focus on early adoption going to help much of the burden of children in out-of-home care?

Ms Cocks : My answer is to very, very confidently tell you that open adoption of young children in care will do nothing to solve the child protection issues in Australia. There's no evidence from overseas that it's had any impact on the overall welfare of children and families in those countries. The UK continued to lurch from one crisis to another and one inquiry to another. At the moment I think they're running at about five per cent of children being adopted from care, so it's only ever going to be a small number of children for whom open adoption might be possible. Does that answer your question?

Dr FREELANDER: Yes, that's great.

Dr Ross : I will add something. It is just about the fact that we have an ethical responsibility to work with parents who have had children removed to ensure that they don't have successive children removed without any intervention. There are really good and sensible reasons for working with them, because often those parents will need a lot of support to get their lives together. They need to have a period where they don't have more children so that they can successfully parent later children. But if we leave them alone, don't recognise their grief and loss when children are taken into the system and then have legislative systems which allow evidence of their treatment of earlier children to participate in later proceedings to remove later children, I don't think anybody is a winner in those circumstances.

I'm very concerned, I have to say, about young parents, where there's an enormous power differential when they're attempting to care for their children. The National Children's Commissioner, Megan Mitchell, has released a report about young parents that is well worth considering in this regard. I consider that it's possible in Australia that we already have a significant number of parents from whom we are taking children consecutively. We need to be more aware about those particular families and thinking about how we can intervene to support those women who are of child-bearing age so that they can go on to successfully parent later children. But that certainly won't happen if we leave the field with the baby we've removed and just allow them to continue on with their lives at that stage without support.

Ms Cocks : I just wanted to add one more point that the committee may or may not be aware of that: adoption, and particularly adoption without consent, fuels distrust in the system by families who need help. If families interacting with the child protection system know that it's possible that their child will be adopted away from them without consent, then for those families—we already have an enormous problem when it comes to trust in child protection systems in Australia; it's not a trusted system—it fuels further fear and distrust.

Mr ENTSCH: There was another issue raised—I'm not too sure who raised this—about the transfer of resources when a child is taken into out-of-home care. It was raised about the transfer of resources going to the child and how that had a detrimental impact on the child's parents. Who raised that?

Ms Cocks : That was me. I can provide clarification on that, if you like. I don't have any problem with the resources going with the child. What I wanted to point out to the committee was that the resources went to the out-of-home care placement.

Mr ENTSCH: There is a system here where resources are provided to families, depending on their circumstances, that are additional resources specifically to support the child. It's not unreasonable to think that if that child goes into out-of-home care then those resources that are intended for that child go with that child, to be able to continue to support that child.

Ms Cocks : Again, I don't have any problem with a foster care allowance being paid to alternate carers for children. What I was hoping to highlight to the committee is that we've signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states clearly that children have a right for their parents and family to be supported to care for them. We have a systemic issue where, when children are removed, very large amounts of resources go to the out-of-home care agency that is supporting that child. I've no problem with out-of-home care agencies receiving that funding. That's appropriate. But the systemic problem is that the cut-off of resources—and not just resources provided by the child protection system but resources provided by the Commonwealth, in terms of Centrelink family payments and other resources—are lost to the family and that that represents a barrier to reunification and relational permanence.

Mr ENTSCH: If the child has to be removed in the interests of the child, because of neglect or whatever—there's a whole raft of things, as you say, from substance abuse and all that sort of stuff—surely to goodness, by taking that child out of that environment and supporting it somewhere else, the parents would still have the normal Centrelink payments that any other individual or couple would be able to claim, and any additional resources that are outside of that, if they weren't providing resources that were originally provided to them for the support of their child to their child at that time, there's no guarantee that, by giving additional resources, it's not going to end up exactly the same it was prior to the taking of the child and being used on themselves rather on the benefit of the child. I just don't quite understand. If they're not using that money to support that child and subsequently the child is removed, surely, giving additional resources in the hope that the family is going to redeem itself is maybe just a step too far.

Ms Cocks : There are a few comments to make on that. First of all, there are lots of reasons why children come into care. Sometimes it's because of addiction. Sometimes it's because parents aren't spending the money that they should be spending on children. But it's not always those reasons. There are a range of reasons why children come into care. There is a research report that has just been released in Tasmania that goes through the barriers to reunification. Poverty, homelessness, and the phenomenon that I've just described of a lack of support and resources being provided to family to help them reunify, are a significant barrier to reunification. So if we want children to go home—and we do; it is the absolute priority of all state and territory governments in Australia that children go safely home when they can—then we need to create the conditions for that to happen. At the moment we have a system that does not support that. Resourcing and support services are absolutely a part of that.

Mr ENTSCH: Where I come from I have a very large Indigenous population. What's your view in relation to Indigenous children being provided permanent homes, either foster or open adoption, with non-Indigenous families?

Dr Ross : I think there are really good reasons why Aboriginal people object strongly, where it's possible to support the permanency principles whereby Aboriginal children go to Aboriginal homes. That should always be the first port of call. There will be situations where Aboriginal children can't be housed with other Aboriginal families, and when that occurs then I think we have to work extremely hard to make sure that there are opportunities for those children to experience their culture in positive ways. There's quite a bit of research, some of it going back some way now, which indicates that there can be significant identity issues for Aboriginal children who are raised in white homes. I'm sure we do a lot better these days, because we have such things as cultural plans in the Children's Court that attempt to realistically look at ways to properly support the cultural identification of Aboriginal children as Aboriginals, but that is an area where we still need to do a lot more work. For very good reasons, I think, Aboriginal people are very concerned about the numbers of children who are being taken out of the care of their families. So we need to be working very hard together to provide the support to those families to ensure that as many Aboriginal children as possible remain with their Aboriginal families.

Mr ENTSCH: I think it's very dangerous to generalise. I've been talking to people like Warren Mundine. I'm not too sure whether you either of you are Indigenous.

Dr Ross : No, we're not.

Mr ENTSCH: Warren Mundine is a very high profile, highly respected Indigenous person, and he has a very different view, as an Indigenous person, and feels very strongly that the best interests of the child is a permanent home. He's an adoptive parent himself. He has been very critical of the difficulties he's had in being able to give that permanent home to the child that he has. He makes it quite clear, as an Aboriginal person, that, irrespective of the cultural background of the parents, if they give the love and the caring and the commitment to the child that he has no issue with that, irrespective of the cultural background of the adoptive parents. I just make that point as he is a highly respected Indigenous person. I've spoken to many Indigenous people that are very much of the same view. So I think it's always a little bit dangerous to say Indigenous people have a particular view. I think, as with everybody else, there are views and counter views right throughout the community.

Dr Ross : I'm sure there are. I think you'd be aware of the work of Grandmothers against Removal in New South Wales. We do have to look very carefully, not just for Aboriginal people, but for other kin as well, to make sure that we're always offering opportunities to extended family to care for children where that's possible. Of course that's part of the hierarchy of options that comes immediately after the importance of returning children to their parents where that's possible. The next alternative is that children are cared for within their families. There are some interesting cases where the power differentials show that even in relation to extended family, sometimes it's been extremely difficult for competent extended family members to be given the opportunity to care for children. So I think we have to be really exploring that in relation to all groups, not just Aboriginal people.

Mr ENTSCH: I don't think there's any argument that the best place for the children is within their extended family. But unfortunately, the fact is that we've got 47,000 kids in care at the moment, and of them close to 17,000 or 18,000 are Indigenous kids, and for a lot of those, for whatever reason, permanent homes are not available. If the ideal scenario is not available, then option B may well be a loving, caring family irrespective of their cultural background. That's the only point I'm making there.

CHAIR: I'd like to build on the last point that Mr Entsch made. Dr Ross, I think you mentioned that in this inquiry we need to look at this not just for Indigenous children, but for all children. The fact is that this inquiry is about all Australian children, regardless of their heritage, regardless of whether they're Indigenous or not. The numbers cannot be ignored in relation to Indigenous children. The fact is that the safety and well-being of that child should be the paramount consideration, regardless of cultural or biological considerations. Because at the end of the day we could have situations where the Indigenous child is recycled back into harm. We have seen too many examples of that that appear on the front page. The point I want to make is that this inquiry is about all Australian children. There's not a special carve-out for Indigenous children. The safety and wellbeing of the child and that child's life and future is the paramount consideration.

You said yourself in your answer to Mr Entsch that there's a lot of work to do regarding Indigenous children. In the meantime, a child's life is fleeting. We all tend to look at it through an adult prism. Looking at it through an adult prism is adult years, not children's years. I make that point about the inquiry because I feel it's a very it would have been far easier for this inquiry to carve out the situation with respect to Indigenous children. However, the numbers themselves are so shocking in relation to the number the proportionate number of Indigenous children in out-of-home care who, based on the submissions and the evidence we've seen, would have a much better life and would have a great life in an adoptive situation, if the consideration is their safety and wellbeing. I just want to make that point and that comment and I'd like to thank you for your attendance here today.

Ms CLAYDON: Chair, we might have a very different reading of the purpose of this inquiry, I think in some respects. I certainly don't think a focus on the needs of First Nation kids would have been an easier carve out or any such thing.

CHAIR: I'm not suggesting that—

Ms CLAYDON: We've had just a body of evidence before us from First Nations organisations that have put forward the sorts of principles that they would like to see adopted. I think that the in evidence we heard today from Dr Ross and Ms Cocks in terms of looking at all Australian kids, I don't think they were distinguishing at all around the fact that poverty and social disadvantage are profound markers for kids that end up in out-of-home care and they might come from a range of cultural grounds. So I just really wanted to say that there's a slightly different experience being articulated.

CHAIR: Just to clarify: I'm not suggesting any committee member has suggested that there be a special carve out; I'm merely making the point that this inquiry is looking at all Australian children, and, yes we have heard a body of evidence, in that regard, in relation specifically to Indigenous children, but we have also heard a significant body of evidence in relation to the fact that adoption is quite often a much better option for children regardless of their biological heritage and/or cultural consideration. We have heard that evidence and it's on the record through many of the submissions. I just wanted to make that point that it is considered a viable option by many organisations.

Dr FREELANDER: I'm not sure that we've had, on balance, evidence of that, to be honest.

CHAIR: Can I ask the committee to review the submissions.

Ms CLAYDON: The committee will be deliberating this evidence.

CHAIR: Indeed. Many submissions have been made.

Ms CLAYDON: We have different experiences, I think.

CHAIR: Many submissions have been made, very balanced submissions. We've called from a wide variety of organisations— including you here today, and I thank you very much for your time here today—from every state government department and also indeed from organisations such as Adopt Change and Barnardos. I thank you again Dr Ross and Ms Cocks for your evidence here today. I wasn't going to purpose of the inquiry—I'd just like to confirm that Ms Claydon—I was just confirming that this inquiry is looking at the best interests of all Australian children, and that is something that we certainly need to integrate into our report.

If you've been asked to provide any additional information—I don't think you have—would you please forward it to the secretary by Monday, 24 September. You will be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence and will have an opportunity to request corrections to any transcription errors. I now declare the hearing closed. Thank you very much.

Committee adjourned at 17:59