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All Australian children deserve to feel safe and loved and to have a strong sense of identity and belonging. Unfortunately there are tens of thousands of Australian children in out-of-home care who need a family they can belong to. It is not acceptable that children are bounced around the system from one foster home to another or experience significant trauma where their safety and welfare is at significant risk.
There is another option. Open adoption can provide belonging, safety and legal permanency to many children in out-of-home care. Under open adoption relationships with birth parents are encouraged, not hidden. Children gain their adoptive family, which gives them a sense of belonging whilst maintaining relationships with their birth parent(s) and extended families, their heritage, and their culture, strengthening their sense of who they are and where they fit in the world.
Evidence given to the Committee’s inquiry demonstrated that open adoption provides many benefits to children. These include a stronger sense of security and belonging, as well as improved cognitive, educational, mental and physical outcomes.
Despite this, the number of adoptions now occurring is very low. Only 246 Australian children were adopted in 2016-17. It has been reported that Australia has the second lowest rate of adoption in the developed world.
During the course of the inquiry it was made clear that the process to adopt an Australian child is unnecessarily complex. States and territories have inconsistent and fragmented complex legislative requirements which make it prohibitive and difficult to navigate. However, adoption does not need to be complex or time consuming.
The Committee’s report addresses the legislative, policy and practice barriers to adoption and recommends a national law to make adoption a more viable option for all Australian children. The barriers to adoption include the fear of repeating mistakes of past forced adoption policies, a lack of understanding of open adoption, and complex and consuming administrative processes with lengthy timeframes. These barriers in the context of a child’s life which is fleeting - make the case for open adoption compelling and necessary. The essential principles of a national law would be embedded in a national adoption framework where the safety and best interests of the child is a paramount consideration.
One of the most significant issues raised by adoptees, prospective adoptive parents and child protection professionals was that birth certificates still reflect past adoption practices by replacing birth parents’ names with the names of adoptive parents as if the child was born to them. This legal severance from birth families has had ongoing impacts on adoptees. In the spirit of open adoption, national legislation could establish the use of integrated birth certificates, which include the names of birth and adoptive parents.
Adoption may not be the best option for all children in out-of-home care, but when it is, it provides life-long belonging, legal permanency and the security of a profound sense of place. It is essential that we provide this opportunity to all Australian children through a nationally consistent approach to adoption.