Changes to intercountry adoption must put children’s needs first

In a reminder of the risk of adoption rackets, these Nepalese orphans were rescued from a home that was profiting from supplying them for domestic work and overseas adoption. EPA/Narendra Shrestha

Prime minister Tony Abbott has released the Report of the Interdepartmental Committee on Intercountry Adoption and announced changes to “enable more people to find families”, not meet children’s needs. This wordplay is more important than it might seem.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child clearly says children’s interests always come first. Even though adoption can be a good outcome for some children, it is not a service to help people have families.

By shifting its purpose from children to adopters, Abbott has opened the doors to a demand-led system. Market approaches are very broken systems (read Kathryn Joyce’s exposé – it’s a page turner). Because of the potential for abuse, adoption needs to be handled carefully: how we think about it, talk about it and act on it.

Only 40 of 89 pages of the report were released publicly. Sections not published cover Options for Reform and Recommendations. These include plans to align with Hague Conventions, establish new programs and use non-government-accredited agencies. The report covers the issues of intercountry adoption well and recommendations are generally positive but it raises several questions which ought to be answered.

Who benefits from ‘cheaper, faster, easier’?

Abbott has promised to open programs with a string of new countries that will be cheaper, faster and easier. In our submission to the committee, Professor Denise Cuthbert from RMIT, Professor Emerita Marian Quartly from Monash University and myself outlined why these are bad performance measures which tell us nothing about outcomes for children.

The immediate opening of a program with South Africa is recommended. The work done on this program (and others) took place under the previous government, led by the Attorney-General’s Department and supported by the National InterCountry Adoption Advisory Committee, which was abolished in November 2013.

While concerns about the lack of welfare support and real alternatives for poor, black mothers remain unresolved, South Africa has at least ratified the Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption.

The convention provides at best only minimum safeguards for children and their rights. The truth is much of how the convention operates in practice is geared towards supporting countries to become compliant. This means compromises are made to facilitate adoptions in the meantime.

Other countries named in the report are the US, Kenya, Bulgaria, Latvia, Poland, Cambodia and Vietnam. Human trafficking is a known problem in Cambodia and Vietnam. Even though Vietnam has now ratified the convention, a UNICEF report identifies problems including payments from prospective parents over and above the fees actually required, poverty and a lack of services for children with disabilities.

Kenya, not without its problems too, requires adopters to live there for at least three months but can take up to nine. Bulgaria has a disproportionate number of Roma children in the adoption system, which points to serious inequality for Roma in Europe, and Poland gives preference to those of Polish descent. Each of these countries has its own restrictions, costs and requirements.

The committee conceded that it probably won’t be able to do anything about the actual number of children available but hopes to make the experience better for adopters.

It is pleasing that post-adoption support is on the table, but I was left a little confused about what was actually proposed. Post-adoption support is very different to supporting people going through the adoption process and to post-adoption visits required in the 12 months after a child is placed.

More funded post-adoption support, including visits to skilled professionals, is urgently needed for families, especially when it comes to Australia’s responsibilities for older and special-needs children.

Tony Abbott, seen here meeting Adoption Awareness board members, may also be eyeing a way to cut government welfare costs. Alan Porritt/AAP

Whose agenda is being served?

Adoptees have been calling for better access to a range of independent services, including in their countries of birth if and when they might need it throughout their lives. Paying for this is not on the government’s agenda.

The most important part of the report is proposed actions on structural change. A Commonwealth-regulated model is required as the federal government is the central authority as set down by the convention, but Recommendation Eight suggests a preference for accredited non-government agencies to deliver the services. Transparency about the role of lobbyists, potential conflicts of interest and relevant expertise and capacity must be part of considerations.

“Cheaper” will not necessarily be an outcome. The government currently absorbs much of the cost of intercountry adoptions. This will not be the case if intercountry adoption is privatised in Australia. Even at bargain-basement rates, adoption will cost Australians a lot more.

There is unlikely to be one agency if adoption is outsourced. Instead, differences and competition between states and agencies are more likely. Pre- and post-adoption costs will be shifted from government to parents.

It is no secret that the real political agenda is to turn Australians towards adopting children from care. That’s cheaper than government-funded foster care and providing services for struggling families. So will intercountry adoption really be cheaper, faster, easier?

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