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Your child is missing. Would you want their adoption to be easier?

‘Millions of children in overseas orphanages … would dearly love to have parents’, claims Tony Abbott, and his government is making intercountry adoption easier. Screenshot/Intercountry Adoption Australia

Imagine for one moment your child went missing. It’s a common enough event worldwide for today, May 25, to be declared International Missing Children’s Day. Surely you would expect no stone to be left unturned to find your child - even if took six months, a year, or two.

But how would you feel if your child was permanently given to someone else before this happened? This is exactly what happens to many families around the world. Parents are targeted by recruiters and children are bought or stolen and sold. Other children are lost, separated by war or disaster, or left for temporary safekeeping in children’s homes.

Some intercountry adoptions involve children stolen from their parents.

Pushing adoption of ‘millions of orphans’

Last week, Prime Minister Tony Abbott launched a new government agency and website promoting intercountry adoption, and repeated the dubious claim that “there are millions of children in overseas orphanages who would dearly love to have parents”. It’s part of a multi-million-dollar service for prospective and adoptive parents intended to speed up adoptions of children from overseas.

The website rehashes what prospective and adoptive parents already know through state and federal departments. There is no information for adult intercountry adoptees, no additional post-adoption support, no research publications – apart from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare yearly reports – and no information about who is staffing this call centre. All in all, it’s a costly exercise for not much return.

The same pressures we see operating in Australia are more intense at the international level. For over 60 years the focus of many national governments and adoption agencies has not been on re-uniting children with their families. Instead the aim has been to adopt children as quickly as possible.

Over the years many cases have shown that even when families do find their children they are not returned once separation is made permanent through adoption. These cases become more complicated, adversarial and unresolvable the older children become.

The case of an Indian family whose daughter was kidnapped for adoption is not an isolated one.

‘Quick and easy’ runs counter to proper process

The subsidiarity principle outlined in the Hague Convention provisions on adoption requires governments to consider in-country solutions first. This is one of the issues scheduled for discussion at the Special Commission meeting of the Permanent Bureau of the Hague Conference on Private International Law (HCCH) in June 2015.

According to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the subsidiarity principle in the Hague Convention on intercountry adoption, children have a right to be raised by their families, families are entitled to support, and suitable in-country alternative care must be provided.

Where intercountry adoption is an option, re-unification is usually not extensively pursued if at all. Not finding the child’s family, or failing to provide families with support, turns on the green light for adoptions to proceed. Children become “abandoned” or “orphans” on paper for this purpose.

For many, the convention on adoption is interpreted as a means to make adoption happen quickly. Thus, if re-unification with family members takes too long, adoption can be considered (see chapter six of the Hague Convention Guide to Good Practice).

Few resources are committed to a child’s right to their family and culture. A child’s right to their family is often over-ridden by a Western view of what “family” means and a sense of urgency for permanency through adoption. Intercountry adoption in the “best interests” of children is well resourced.

This presents complex questions as children should have stability, but there are other ways of providing good care and stability until the need for adoption is properly determined. The mantra of “children looking for a permanent family” is often used in adoption circles to justify adoption, but at what point does “permanent family” no longer mean their own family? It is important that children are not legally separated from their families and countries until all avenues, including family assistance, are legitimately exhausted.

The risk is that influential parties who support speedier and easier adoptions will use the Hague meeting in June to push for time frames that will effectively extinguish re-unification possibilities and legitimise unnecessarily speedy processes.

Searching and re-unification are time-consuming and resource-intensive. But these processes are not impossible and are undertaken by some international and smaller organisations. An Australian adoptee was even able to find his own family in India using Google Earth.

One adoptee in Australia tracked down his own family in India using Google Earth.

A problem arises when the agency tasked with finding a child’s family is often the same one facilitating adoptions. Some seem to believe that there is nothing wrong with an open market in children where children move seamlessly across borders in both directions much like goods and services in global economies and trade agreements. Others have a commitment to safeguarding children’s rights and the rights of families affected by adoption who do not have a voice, and are concerned about the long-term effects on everyone when adoptions are not conducted well.

Adoption as the permanency solution appears to have taken on a religious fervour to the exclusion of all else. But one size never fits all.

Focus must be on original family first

Open adoptions will also be under discussion at the Hague as a means of offering a remedial response to the separation of families. Where adoption does occur, open adoption is important.

However, the realities of intercountry adoption may mean this is just an aspiration – assuming the definition refers to open and continuing relationships between the children, their families and adoptive families. Because there are no enforcements for adoptive parents to continue such costly and emotionally difficult arrangements, it is likely to remain aspirational.

A small number of adoptive parents most certainly do establish and maintain contact, especially in those cases where they have discovered corruption or child trafficking. These adoptive parents have gone out of their way to find the child’s family, placing the child’s needs first.

It would be a sad day if discussions about the subsidiarity principle resulted in setting time frames to speed up intercountry adoptions, instead of redirecting resources to re-unification, family sustainability and appropriate in-country care before adoption is considered. A proper process benefits everyone.

So what should “proper process” mean? I suppose it comes down to what you would expect if it was your child who was missing.

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