Helmut Uhlmann was adopted at five years old and appreciates the security it gave him. Photo: Janie Barrett
When Helmut Uhlmann tells people he was adopted as a young child, he's often met with a mixture of surprise and sympathy.
"People will say, 'Oh, I'm so sorry, how awful for you,' as if it's really bad," he said. "It was the best thing that ever happened to me. I am so grateful for it. I know that if I were not adopted I certainly would not be where I am now."
The 24 year old from Rydalmere was removed from his biological parents as a toddler, placed into care and adopted at five, which he credits with providing a stable family life and allowing him to pursue education and a career as a professional musician.
"I feel really lucky to have been adopted at such a young age," he said.
His feelings are backed up by new research from the University of Wollongong that analysed the lives of young people who were legally adopted by their carers after being placed in out-of-home care.
The research found that young children permanently removed from their biological families due to abuse or neglect were likely to benefit from open adoption as opposed to long-term foster care.
Lead author Professor Marc de Rosnay said greater consideration could be given to open adoption, in which children have some contact with their birth family.
"Open adoption is suitable when there is no chance of restoration, when the child is young and when you have appropriate carers who are committed and motivated," he said.
"Adoption offers stability that fostering has struggled to offer. Adoption meets ordinary deep psychological needs of people. It creates a sense of obligation and commitment. It's a bit like marriage in that respect."
The paper identified that children under five in long-term foster care were very likely to benefit from early adoption due to their vulnerable age.
Adoptees' access to information about their history was important for their sense of identity, according to the research, released on Friday. Contact with the birth family was recommended but the paper identified a need for clear guidelines to ensure the experience was positive for the child.
Almost 20,000 children in NSW are in out-of-home care with many entering the system as babies. More than 3000 NSW foster children are under five.
"There are many kids who could be candidates for adoption," Professor de Rosnay said. "It doesn't mean that adoption should happen automatically but it should be considered because it's such a good option for children developmentally."
Adoption is not considered suitable for Aboriginal children, who are over-represented in out-of-home care.
Deirdre Cheers, chief executive of Barnardos Australia, which commissioned the research, said only 84 NSW children were adopted last year although many more carers would like to adopt.
She the complex legal and bureaucratic process and the legacy of previous child welfare practices hindered adoption but the federal and state governments have both signalled they were open to reform.
"We have a very strong almost anti-adoption legacy because of our history - the stolen generation, forgotten Australians and forced adoptions," she said.
"Our current child protection workers don't automatically see adoption as a positive option for children."
(This article was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald and was written by Rachel Browne.)