In response to the tragic death of four-year-old Chloe Valentine in South Australia, adoption has been raised as a solution to a “child protection crisis”.
Some advocates argue that removing children earlier from abusive parents and making these children available to adoptive parents in a shorter time frame will reduce the risk of serious abuse and even deaths of children.
Delivering the findings of the Chloe Valentine inquest last Friday, South Australian Coroner Mark Johns said adoption should “have a place” in child protection. And he is right.
But while adoption is a good option for some children, it’s not always the best solution. Adoption should only be considered when other, less intrusive options have been eliminated and the decision has been made that the child cannot safely remain at home.
These are high-stakes decisions with far-reaching and long-term consequences for children. Not only their physical safety but also their social and emotional well-being must be considered.
How does adoption work in Australia?
Adoption is a legal process where rights and responsibilities are transferred from a child’s birth parent(s) to their adoptive parent(s).
The legal rights of the adopted child become the same as they would be if the child had been born to the adoptive parent(s). The adoptive parent, therefore, can make decisions about the child in the way that a foster or kinship carer cannot.
In the past, adoption gave “illegitimate” or parentless babies a home with parents who may not have been able to have children of their own.
However, changes in societal attitudes towards adoption and parenting, as well as legislative and socioeconomic changes, have reduced the number of Australian children for whom adoption is considered appropriate. In 2013-14, 317 adoptions were finalised in Australia – the lowest number on record.
In adoption today, there is no longer secrecy about children’s origins. An open exchange of information about their birth family is seen as beneficial for the child.
“Open” adoption, where there is information and/or contact between the child and their birth parents, is now facilitated in all states and territories to varying degrees. Open adoption is enshrined in Article 9 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), to which Australia is a signatory.
What role should adoption play?
Let’s consider some of the pros and cons for adoption as a permanent care solution.
We know that increased stability and permanency are important to children and young people and improve their well-being. Adoption is one way to increase stability and a sense of belonging and identity for children. This is its major advantage.
However, decisions about permanent removal of a child are complex and often not clear-cut. Under Article 21 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989):
parties must ensure that the adoption of a child is authorised only by competent authorities who determine … the adoption is permissible in view of the child’s status concerning parents, relatives and legal guardians and that, if required, the persons concerned have given their informed consent to the adoption on the basis of such counselling as may be necessary.
This takes time. Efforts have been made to reduce the time involved, such as in NSW, where the time parents have to demonstrate they have made the required changes to safely parent their children has recently reduced to six months for children under two years, and to 12 months for children over two years.
Attempts to remove the requirements for birth parents to consent to the adoption of their child are generally not supported by the Australian community.
Barriers to adoption
Children adopted by their foster carers are mostly older: of the children adopted from care in 2013-14, all were over one year of age.
Older children removed because of child abuse and neglect are more likely to have additional needs and require support with behavioural, emotional and physical health problems.
However, access to services and financial supports, along with foster carer payments, are generally removed when the parenting responsibility is transferred to the adoptive parent; this may act as a deterrent to adoption.
Many prospective adoptive parents prefer to adopt a baby and believe that this is more likely through an inter-country adoption. They may also consider that inter-country adoptions are more likely to result in a permanent arrangement without the complications of birth family contact.
Of the more than 40,000 children in out-of-home care in Australia currently, half are in kinship care living with relatives. This is increasingly the preferred care option.
Adoptions by relatives are discouraged, because of the confusion it creates in birth family relationships and the potential for family conflict. If a child was adopted by their grandparents, for instance, the birth parent would legally become the child’s sibling.
In addition, one-third of the children in care are Indigenous, most of whom are placed with kin or Indigenous caregivers, so adoption may not be appropriate.
Adoption is only one of several options used to provide a permanent family for children unable to live with their birth families. Several Australian jurisdictions allow the transfer of guardianship to the long-term carers of children.
New South Wales, at the same time as facilitating adoption from care, has recently enacted legislation permitting the Children’s Court to allocate parental responsibility under a guardianship order.
Victoria introduced permanent care orders in 1992; these provide an opportunity for the child to develop a stable caring relationship with carers, without severing the legal tie with the birth family.
Where long-term foster care is stable, outcomes in terms of educational and developmental well-being are similar to adoption.
However, achieving stability in foster care is challenging. Currently the formal system for planning and monitoring care placements is overly focused on accountability; it is seen by carers to be intrusive and not always in the “best interests” of the child becoming a permanent family member.
The pool of available foster carers has also reduced. This is largely attributed to increases in women’s participation in the workforce and financial pressures.
There is a great deal of scope for the child protection system in Australia to better support foster carers to provide a safe, nurturing and permanent family, when children are unable to remain at home.
Adoption is an option for some, but an overemphasis on adoption could mean that other strategies to improve outcomes for children are neglected.