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Do Australia's Adoption Policies Act in the Best Interests of Children?

by Jane Hunt
14 March 2016

Balancing the desires of biological parents and families with the needs of children in cases of foster care and adoption is ethically complex. But when family restoration is pursued at the expense of the needs of vulnerable and at-risk children, something has to change, writes Jane Hunt. 

During the last year, I have listened and talked with practitioners, policy makers, adoptees, adoptive parents, children and young people in care and birth families. 
I have heard of the best and worst of human beings. My heart has constricted hearing about the profound harm some have experienced and it has swelled in joy at the love that human beings can have for each other.
Research shows unequivocally that multiple placements has a negative impact on children. 
Adoption in Australia has become fraught in all aspects – politics, policy and practice. It is a complex social issue that presents a number of ethical and moral dilemmas for Government, the NGOs working with vulnerable and at-risk children and for the broader community. It is complex and nuanced with no clear response that will work in all cases. And it is highly emotionally charged.

In Australia, there are over 43,000 children in ‘out of home care’. These children are identified as being ‘at risk’ and cannot remain in the care of their biological parents. They have been removed by child protection practitioners and depending on the child’s circumstances, have been placed in the care of extended family or with a guardian or in short-term foster care. 

Once children have been removed, the efforts of the child protection workers and other support services are framed to support the birth parents and to help them to reunify with their children. And this is where one of many ethical dilemmas emerges for the practitioners, policy makers and legislators. 

How many opportunities should biological parents be given to demonstrate they are able keep their children safe and parent them? What level of support and services should they receive? And in the mean time, how long should a child stay in a temporary care? How many placements is it tolerable for a child to experience?
These are difficult decisions for practitioners to make – each child’s situation is different. One practitioner describedweighing up whether to return a child to their birth family against the risk of harm to the child as one of his hardest challenges. Having worked overseas, his personal view was that in Australia the scales have tipped toward ‘restoration’ with birth families at all costs. This is not appropriately counter-balanced with an assessment of the risk of harm to children in the process.
Adoption in Australia has become fraught in all aspects – politics, policy and practice. 
Compounding the situation is the problem of the availability and quality of the foster carers able to care for vulnerable children. One practitioner in a regional town told me of a situation where she had to make a decision not to remove a child from a harmful situation because they did not have an appropriate foster carer available. The fact the child remained in an abusive family environment weighed heavily on the practitioner’s conscience.
Adoption, child protection and out of home care policy and legislation are founded on the assumption that decisions must be made in the ‘best interests of the child’. There is, however, no universally agreed upon definition of what this means.
Foster care is by nature, temporary. There is always the possibility for the child that their relationship with their carers will end. This means some children experience multiple placements in foster care. 

Sometimes the reasons for a change of placement are compelling – to be nearer their school, with siblings or nearer extended family members. However, research shows unequivocally that multiple placements has a negative impact on children. 

Lack of security and attachment can have profound impacts on development. I've been told by some that multiple moves teach children that adults ‘come and go’ and cannot be trusted – a view corroborated by a number of young people in foster care who report feeling they ‘didn’t belong’ anywhere. 

Even the ‘Permanent Care Orders’ preferred in Victoria, which enable a child to live with a family until they are 18, fall short of providing a child or young person with the psychological and legal security of a family forever. 

Why in Australia do we continue to provide a system that fails to meet children's long term needs?
At the heart of this discussion lies a paralysing ethical dilemma – when a decision needs to be made to remove a child from their biological parents due to harm, neglect or abuse or when has not been successful, whose rights should be protected? 

The right of the parent to keep their children, or the rights of the children to the conditions that will help them feel safe, secure and loved? Whose pain takes precedence? The parents’ loss and grief or the child’s trauma and pain?
The trauma caused by the historical practices of forced and closed adoptions has made many practitioners and politicians highly attuned to the needs of birth families. We need to learn from the profound hurt and trauma inflicted on many women who were coerced into relinquishing their children.
Adoption is not a panacea – it won't be in the best interest of every child in long-term care. 
The voices of adult adoptees who experienced secrecy, stigma and shame around their adoptions are deserving of understanding and compassion.
But considering or advocating for children to have access to adoption does not deny or ignore these experiences. It is important to learn from the impact of past practices and develop open adoption practices ensuring transparency and honesty for all involved, plus provide support services that assist all parties involved in adoption.
It is also important to recognize that attempting to deal with a historical wrong – forced adoption – by loading the policy scales against adoption creates a situation where everyone loses.
Adoption is not a panacea – it won’t be in the best interest of every child in long-term care, but it should be an option considered for all children that need permanent loving families. This then allows a decision to be made that is child focused and in their best interest.
There are many policy makers, practitioners, legislators and families who are trying to acknowledge and navigate the ethical complexities of child protection, foster care and adoption. It is critical we continue in this direction without being subsumed by the shame of our cultural past in order to put the needs of vulnerable and at risk children first.
Jane Hunt is the CEO of Adopt Change. Follow them on Twitter @AdoptChangeAU. Image:



The ethical dilemma framed by Ms Hunt only exists as it advocates flawed social policy and practice - adoption - as a solution for what is a very real and serious social problem - dysfunctional families that put women and children, at risk of physical and emotional harm.

The most tragic family issue in Australia today is not low adoption rates - it's domestic violence. The reason we have over 40,000 children in out-of-home-care is a consequence of unemployment, homelessness and domestic violence, all of which put stress on parenting.

Domestic violence is eating away at the heart and soul of our nation. Many of our families, as Ms Hunt draws attention to, are broken. Falling apart. And this is most damaging to women and their children. The number of children in out-of-home-care is an awful indictment on the health of our nation.

Adoption is far more complex than the fantasy of giving a child a 'forever family'.

Adoption is a traumatic experience etched deeply into the heart and psyche of the adopted person, an experience which they have to deal with for life.

This is not to dismiss the need to provide safe sanctuary for children at risk; it simply goes further by recognising that adoption itself is not without effects of long term harm.

Adoption is built on deception. The notion that your first identity is flawed, your parents are flawed, your extended family is flawed and that these origins need to be wiped clean. Permanently.

Once the threshold of an adoption order is crossed, the adopted person faces a complex set of conflicting psychological and social factors they have to deal with throughout their lives: Separation. Loss. Guilt. Shame. Trust. Identity. Intimacy. Rejection. Loyalty. Adopted people have great difficulty in dealing with these deep seated psychological and social factors which often manifest into various degrees of self-harm via depression, substance abuse, poor relationships and in the worst cases, suicide.

Children do need to be protected and removed from physical harm. There is no argument with that. Abuse and neglect of children is not resolved, however, by stripping a child of its name, identity, parents, and wider family through the replacement of a 'forever family' via an adoption order.

To believe there is no trauma or pain in adoption shows limited understanding of the lessons of the past. There is enough international research to show that adoption is not without long term harmful effects.

And it's not as if alternatives don't exist. They do. Fostering, guardianships and permanent care orders are available. No doubt they can all be improved and that is where the focus should be placed.

The real ethical issue here is why it has taken Australia so long to address domestic violence and its devastating effect on families. We need to find ways to stop the flow of children into out-of-home-care and to strengthen the parental skills of their parents.

Adoption doesn't address the issue of struggling families, it just preys on their helpless children.
14/07/2016 6:19:08 PM

Margaret Watson
As a Late Discovery Adopted Person who learned at age 40 years of my adoption, I can assure you that the damage of secrets and lies , betrayal, disbelief and rage that I had been lied to all my life to that point, causes a life changing trauma, equivalent to the first trauma a baby experiences at removal at birth from it's mother. There is numerous available research literature demonstrating the brain and hormonal changes impacting a baby removed from it's mother who also suffers a lifelong wound from that scission as well. So too, young children removed from their family will suffer disrupted attachment , neurological and physiological impacts.The optimum is to see children have safe, secure and happy childhoods and grow into well developed adults. Adoption does not always provide such a safety net. Many thousands of adopted persons report having been abused in their adoptive families, they live with genetic bewilderment at having their birth certificate changed and a new one issued as if born to the adoptive family, they long to know and experience their family of origin history and feel accepted, included with a known sense of belonging with their people - their family of origin. "Forever families" are a construct , a system designed to give people other people's children, when nature does not play the game for them. Why not let us consider greater efforts to provide education, support, resources and mentoring based in compassion , tolerance and understanding for families who struggle to parent their children?Why break and remove the most profound human bonds under the guise of "best interests" for children who have no say. ?
23/03/2016 9:32:37 PM

Sharyn White
Why push adoption when long-term guardianship provides security and permanency without severing ancestral connections and changing identity?

Won't these potential adopters care for a child unless the child (then adult, and any subsequent generations) trades their identity and heritage for that care? Who is this really about?

I'm an adopted adult who was taken from my mother at birth, placed at about 6 weeks, and forced for the rest of my life (and my subsequent generations) to live a lie - grafted on like a Frankenstein body part to an alien family tree and forever severed from my own true genealogy, having no option to discharge this legal contract I was never a party to, being forced to base my identity on and use identity documents stating known falsehoods in the name of my "best interests".

No, Jane Hunt (CEO of Adopter lobby and support group, Adoptchange), we definitely do not need to be amputating more generations from their families in the name of care.
23/03/2016 8:58:16 PM

Jan Stewart
This...." in a regional town told me of a situation where she had to make a decision not to remove a child from a harmful situation because they did not have an appropriate foster carer available. " and you can be very sure there is no mental health help available or drug and alcohol rehabilitation or domestic violence help or refuge available to the family wither. We spend the money on on short term fixes but not on the family. The family will never be able to recover their children because they cannot reach the impossibly high tasks.
18/03/2016 9:01:36 PM

Your blog sounds lovely and all good and I agree that children swing too much between families because of our poor foster system which does little to provide adequate life long supports (which is also reflected in the adoption arena) .. but you make the black and white contrast of who's interests being those of the bio family who is abusive vs the child who is at "risk of harm" ... we should not always assume a child will be at any less "risk of harm" by placing them in adoptive families, nor should we assume that "meeting long term needs" is going to be addressed solely by adoption which, when research has shown, adoption is fraught with problems that occur long term - like changing the child's identity via adoption, like the reality the child will always have to struggle with not quite fitting in even if adopted into the most loving family .. research of adoptees show they suffer more emotional issues than the average non adopted population so let's also not assume adoption is free from the dilemmas arising from a child having to be (or forced due to lack of suitable options) given up for whatever reason. Let's also not follow the UKs path of moving the pendulumn too far the other way and pushing adoptions at all costs when the reality is, put yourself in the bio family's shoes and look at what has caused the family trauma to begin with and what would it take to help these parents become better parents if they so wish to? We should never be advocating a time frame for bio families to "get their act together" nor should we be pushing numbers as the reasons for promoting adoption. These are usually complex and generational family issues that lead to the child needing care or being given up .. as an intercountry adoptee, I strongly am against any form of "glossing over about adoption" to make it seem like the solution for a major problem that ALL countries face. Perhaps your organisation should become true child advocates instead of adoption advocates and push for the money you successfully raise to be better spent on trying to prevent the problem in the first place, rather than placing a bandaid on the problem after the fact because it happens to serve your interests?
18/03/2016 3:40:15 PM

Lalletta Bordas
doption will give them that.
18/03/2016 2:34:59 PM

"At the heart of this discussion lies a paralysing ethical dilemma – when a decision needs to be made to remove a child from their biological parents due to harm, neglect or abuse or when has not been successful, whose rights should be protected?

The right of the parent to keep their children, or the rights of the children to the conditions that will help them feel safe, secure and loved? Whose pain takes precedence? The parents’ loss and grief or the child’s trauma and pain?"

I'm not sure why this is considered a paralysing ethical dilemma?! The only dilemma that I see (as an attachment trained psychotherapist), is that the child's needs should always come first. The longer children go without a secure base - the more trauma they experience. If only community services and the court system would keep up with the latest in attachment theory. It's not rocket science.
16/03/2016 11:49:46 PM

What a well thought out article.Everybody concerned needs the wisdom of Solomon.
16/03/2016 2:09:41 PM

This is excellent. Thank you for your balanced and well thought through article.
16/03/2016 11:37:18 AM

Heather Baird
Wonderful article Jane. We have such a long way to go before we can change this broken system,with each step we take we are getting nearer....
16/03/2016 8:47:26 AM

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