Australia hasn’t a lot to be proud of when it comes to children in care. The impact of past child welfare policies, specifically the Stolen Generations of Aboriginal children, the Forgotten Australians who grew up in institutional care, and the injustice of forced adoption must always be remembered. It is a shameful history.
Sometimes this means we can be fearful of even saying the "a" word - adoption. Social workers now talk about permanency for children and current NSW child protection law says this can mean staying (or returning) home with parents, living with kin or extended family, open adoption, or foster care.
But some children need only one of these options. Some children need the ‘‘a’’ word. And recently in NSW something interesting has been happening. While there has been a 74 per cent decline in the numbers of children adopted over the past 25 years, in 2014-15, one in three adoptions was a “carer adoption”, and this group is increasing.
NSW is leading the way in policy and practice towards making open adoption an alternative for non-Aboriginal children in the out of home care system – those for whom a Children’s Court has decided that home will never be a safe place to grow up.
Barnardos has been the leading advocate for open adoption since 1984 and over this time has successfully applied to the NSW Supreme Court for adoption orders to be made for almost 300 children. However, given the thousands of children growing up in the insecure environment of NSW foster care, these numbers are still comparatively tiny.
The reality of child protection practice is that plans openly stating that open adoption is the preferred alternative for a child are rarely presented to NSW Children’s Court.
I have seen the remarkable difference open adoption can make to the lives of children in foster care. Many of the children adopted via Barnardos are now adults leading successful independent lives, and our Centre for Excellence in Open Adoption is currently undertaking research into the long-term outcomes of open adoption.
Research participants are telling us over and over again how open adoption changed their lives for the better. They know their past histories of serious abuse, and have grown up feeling safe, loved and cared for by adoptive parents in an atmosphere of acceptance that family relationships can embrace both the present and the past. Open adoption provides a family for life, and many children in the care system need just this.
Foster care is by its very nature impermanent and can be legally challenged, not just once but many times during a childhood spent in foster care. We know as well that in NSW most children in care have many more than just one foster placement. Children in so-called “permanent” foster care move on average six times or more before they reach middle primary age, affecting attachments and development of the ability to form relationships not just in childhood, but forever.
We know absolutely that children in NSW foster care are unlikely to find a new family to love and care for them for the duration of their childhood, and this just isn’t good enough.
Critics say that adoption risks children losing their identity, but academics and psychologists like Professor Marc de Rosnay from Wollongong University and Associate Professor Michael Tarren-Sweeney from Canterbury University Christchurch are building a knowledge base that tells us otherwise.
If we believe, as Barnardos does, that every child has the right to grow up with a “forever” family, then more NSW non-government care agencies need to develop the expertise to become Accredited Adoption Service Providers.
Recruiting, assessing and approving adoptive families and then matching them with children in open adoption for life requires professional skill and expertise, as does the ability to “let go” when an Adoption Order is finally made.
Our experience is that most parents (adoptive and otherwise!) do not want or need a social worker in their lives forever, but rather need to be in control of when and how they ask for assistance as their children grow up.
Evidence shows how much better we can do for our children in care. We know that foster children suffer unacceptably high juvenile justice, adult prison, and psychiatric admissions, addictions, poor education and associated unemployment, homelessness, early parenthood and associated disadvantage. In stark contrast adopted children are generally better educated, have better health, higher levels of employment and are socially more stable with positive, achievable aspirations for future life.
The NSW policy environment that embraces and actively promotes open adoption for non-Aboriginal children and those children who have no extended family or kin able to provide care for them, and who cannot return safely home for the whole of their childhood, is crucial to a strong future for children who come into care. The very fact that the Minister Brad Hazzard this week has strongly encouraged his government caseworkers to give greater priority to open adoption is an important step forward towards a better future for these children.
The situation is urgent. We need to use the ‘‘a’’ word where it would enhance a child’s life. Children’s futures depend on it.
Deirdre Cheers is the CEO of Barnardos Australia and the Centre for Excellence in Open Adoption. She is also Chair of the Association of Children’s Welfare Agencies (ACWA).
(This opinion article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.)