Tony Abbott’s ‘Reform’ of ICA – if it’s not broken why fix it?

By Marian Quartly 

In late December 2013 Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced the formation of a high level interdepartmental committee of federal bureaucrats to advise on how intercountry adoption could be made faster and easier.  Press reports showed Mr Abbott making this announcement from the steps of Kirribilli House, flanked by celebrities Hugh Jackman and Deborra Lee-Furness, who have long advocated the removal of bureaucratic ‘red-tape’ from the Australian system of adoption (The Guardian). 

 The committee was to report back in March, with recommendations to go before the April meeting of the Council of Australian Governments. At the time of writing these recommendations had not yet been made public, but it seems likely that the committee will recommend a degree of deregulation of  Australia’s system of intercountry adoption, and the authorization of parent-led agencies in the adoption field. 

The History of Adoption research team felt that our research experience required us to make a submission to the interdepartmental committee.  We argued that any move on the part of the Australian government to reduce safeguards by departing from current standards of probity and child‐centred, professional practice would present an unnecessary risks to children and Australian families.  We further urged extreme caution on the part of the Australian government in undertaking reforms to ICA which increased the role of private adoption agencies established by parent advocates for adoption. This is a summary of that submission. 

If it is not broken, why fix it?

 Australia has a well‐deserved reputation for the integrity of its intercountry adoption (hereafter ICA) programs and is recognised internationally as an example of best practice. Our system has appropriate processes in place for dealing with countries with minimum standards through our ratification of the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption (HCCPC). Our adoption services, state and federal, have  a long‐standing commitment to proper, professional practices in adoption placement and support and high levels of accountability.

Australia’s leadership role is evident in its contributions to the formulation of international policy, for example, Australia’s sponsorship of a special session on child trafficking during the June 2010 meeting of the Hague Special Commission and its subsequent convenorship of a working group on illegal practices in ICA (Hague Conference, 2012). Australian adoptive families generally do very well with positive outcomes for children.

Although exact numbers are not known, it appears that Australia has a very low rate of placement disruptions/breakdowns compared to other countries. Our current ICA system is child‐centred and free of ethical conflicts. The system upholds appropriate safeguards for children and ensures the best placements for children legally available for adoption.

 Adoption Mythologies

 Adoption markets are supported and justified by the circulation of mythologies which frame adoption as the best approach to the plight of children in need. Child rescue narratives which have circulated for most of the twentieth century frequently equate ICA with humanitarianism ((Briggs, 2003; Swain, 2012; Fronek & Cuthbert, 2012). Well‐intentioned people may be persuaded by these narratives to believe that ICA represents the best way to meet the needs of children in poverty and disaster, but this is not necessarily the case.

The United Nations and its agencies (ISS, 2010a, b; UN, 2010; UNICEF 2010) support the position spelt out the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CROC), and underpinning the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption (HCCPC), that overseas adoption should be used only as a last resort, ‘if the child cannot be placed in a foster or an adoptive family or cannot in any suitable manner be cared for in the child’s country of origin’.

 Another common myth in ICA concerns the numbers of ‘orphans’ in the world. Campaigners for a reduction in adoption ‘red tape’ claim there are ‘millions’ of orphans in the world looking for families and that the present system prevents children from finding homes in Australia. In reality, the situation is more complex. UNICEF (2009) identifies that children statistically identified as ‘orphans’ are not necessarily ‘orphans’ as we might imagine them to be from an Australian perspective.

The majority of children included in these statistics have at least one living parent. Children can be living with a parent, family or temporarily or permanently institutionalised. This is not to say there are not genuine orphans legally available for adoption overseas, but their numbers have certainly been grossly exaggerated.

 The need for regulation

 Campaigns for more ‘efficient’ adoption processes frequently cite the system in ‘free-market’ jurisdictions like the U.S. as offering models which Australia might adopt to increase the numbers of children adopted into Australia and to reduce waiting times. However, these less regulated systems are associated with problems such as rehoming, child abuse, child abandonment and even child murder.

Poorer outcomes are linked to the ways in which parent‐focused, private agencies function, inadequate and consistent screening, and inadequate pre‐placement education and follow up of prospective parents (Palacios, 2012; Palacios & Amoros, 2006; Palacios & Brodzinsky, 2010; PPL, n.d.; Twohey, 2013). Where adoptions are managed by the marketplace, agencies frequently deal with non‐Hague countries where minimum standards do not apply and trafficking and other human rights breaches occur. Even Australian ICA is not immune to problems such as child trafficking,  as demonstrated by several well‐publicised cases (Callinan, 2008, 2013; Claire, 2012; Geoghegan, 2009; Jolley, 2010; Lyons, 2008; Rollings, 2008).

 Australia has tested parent‐led agencies in South Australia, and found them wanting. The intercountry adoption functions of the agency, Australians Aiding Children Adoption Agency, AACAA, (also known at various times as ASIAC and World Families Australia) were removed following an investigation in 2003.

This parent‐centred program measured success by the speed and number of adoptions achieved, and gave relatively low priority to safeguarding children. The agency during its period of operation was found to have a bias towards prospective parents, a lack of understanding of its ethical and legal obligations, and a lack of qualified, independent practitioners in the adoption process. Evidence given by the South Australian Department of Families and Communities to the

2005 Inquiry into Overseas Adoption in Australia revealed grave breaches of ethical and professional standards in the operation of this agency, including the offering of children to parents before the conclusion of the formal assessment process, and on six occasions the failure of the agency to forward to the Department risk assessment reports likely to lead to the non‐approval of applicants for adoption (HRSCFH, 2005, p. 95).

Some parents still do not accept the seriousness and significance of the breaches committed at that time, which is itself of concern. One parent told the 2005 inquiry that AACAA, with its freedom from red tape, offered the ‘most progressive and elegant of intercountry adoption processes in Australia’ (Melville‐Smith, 2005). Advocates for such streamlined approaches equate ‘red tape’ with needless delays for parents and not with necessary safeguards for children.

 The Victoria report of a review of ICA services by Justice John Fogarty and others (1989) (known as the Fogarty Report) into the mishandling of an Indian adoption in Victoria (the Baby Kajal case) highlights the role of conflicts of interest and reduced accountability in ICA, and the difficulties of securing the best interests of children in systems oriented towards the prospective parents as the ‘clients’ or consumers.

As reported by Fogarty et al: ‘As parents are paying out and they are in Victoria and the children are not, it gives rise to the view that the service is for them. It is not.’ (Fogarty et al., 1989, p. 122). In the emphatic view of Justice Fogarty it is highly problematic for the community to define ICA as a service for parents.

Receiving countries should have no role in finding children for adoption or pressuring sending agencies/countries to provide children or more children. Even in the current well‐regulated ICA system in Australia, the situation of prospective parents attempting to bypass rules and intentionally or inadvertently placing pressure on overseas agencies has been a problem for government since the 1970s. This has resulted in repeated requests from sending countries through diplomatic channels to ensure that parents work through state authorities and not as agents in their own right (Fronek, 2009).

 Campaigning parent groups cannot serve two masters. The tension between meeting the needs of adopters with whom they identify, an adherence to adoption myths and the associated child rescue syndrome masks the complex realities of the situations of children and their families in cultural circumstances in which norms of family and care may differ from those that pertain in Australia.

Most importantly it fails to provide a realistic view of the many tensions and problems in ICA on which reforms must be based. The tensions between truly working in the interests of children overseas and an uncritical and singular view that focuses on increasing the speed and ease of adoptions invite ethical dilemmas and inevitable ethical violations (Fronek & Cuthbert, 2012).

 In conclusion

 Campaigners for the liberalization of adoption in Australia are highly vocal, high profile, with good access to the media. It is important for the government to recognise that these voices are not representative of the adoption communities. Their opinions are not backed by evidence‐based research and some of them have particular interests in this area of public policy.

There are many sources of expertise on which the government may draw to inform itself fully on these matters. These include mothers and families from whom children have been removed in past adoptions who can provide important perspectives in the absence of mothers and families with similar experiences overseas.

The voices of people who have been adopted are also vital to this discussion and should be invited to speak in a safe environment. Many adoptees are reluctant to come forward due to the pressure they experience if they express views that are not perceived as wholly positive towards adoption. Because intercountry adoption directly concerns them, such pressure can cause considerable distress.

Finally, there are highly experienced and qualified professionals working in the adoption field and academics and researchers with expertise in adoption who can provide advice. The intercountry adoption policy framework and professional practice in Australia must continue to be informed by independent, balanced research, highest standards of professional service, and a focus on children and their outcomes.

Patricia Fronek, Denise Cuthbert and Marian Quartly 


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