The adoption system is failing children and foster carers

You could have blinked and missed it but, according to the website of the Department of Family and Community Services and the Australian Institute for Family Studies, the past week has been National Child Protection Week. This year’s theme is “Protecting children is everyone’s business … All Australians are encouraged to play their part in protecting children”.

Nice idea, complete with a pretty picture of jumping children.  But for children in long-term foster care — the most abused and vulnerable of all children — we are not doing enough. It is a long-term crisis, almost wearyingly so.  No wonder people turn off.

This week, senator Zed Seselja launched a report by the organisation Adopt Change.

The report shows a largely positive attitude to adoption in the community that is not reflected in practice. “The report suggests that there is an overwhelming sense from the community that Australia can be doing more for adoption by removing the red tape that currently makes it so hard,” Seselja said at the launch.

However, the problem is not simply red tape. Inter-country adoption is difficult, but it has been streamlined and high-profile adopting parents such as Deborra-Lee Furness have brought it positive publicity. And, importantly, once people are approved they go through an orderly system. Not so with those trying to adopt a long-term foster child.

Probably the most startling fact in this report is that last year in Australia, 50,000 children were in out-of-home care. More than 18,000 had been removed from their families for two years or more, but only 204 had been adopted. Half of these children had experienced six or more foster homes.

If foster kids get lucky and families want to adopt, they wait on average five years to complete the adoption. I have spoken to parents who waited seven. Some simply give up.

NSW was supposed to be the model of fast-track adoption for fostered children. But this is not the case in reality.

Most of the people I have spoken to, who are afraid of being labelled troublemakers and are shy of speaking out, have told me the problem is not the legislation, which was amended by former minister Pru Goward to allow adoption for children in long-term placements. The problem is the anti-adoption culture within the department, which runs very deep.

In NSW alone there were about 19,000 children in foster care last year and 82 adoptions. Foster-parent groups estimate there are almost 1000 families who would adopt if they were permitted.

So why are they not permitted, even though the legislation has been changed? Some families who have children in so-called permanent placement have been blocked from adopting by a loophole, section 90, which means an application for contact on kinship grounds can hold up everything almost indefinitely, and may entail numerous expensive court appearances. There are no limits to the number of times this application can be made. Then, after years of dealing with one case worker after another, usually fixated on restitution rather than adoption, these families are tempted to give up.

So why don’t we hear about these families, as we have heard about families adopting overseas? In a word, fear. These families tell me that they are intimidated by the department, which will not allow them to make public statements, and they fear loss of the children.

Fiona Court is not intimidated. She has set up a lobby group pushing for easier adoption for foster parents. Court wants mandated permanency, which actually means permanency; child-focused decision-making; acknowledgment and respect for foster parents, who are often treated as full-time babysitters; and consistency with clinical-based practice.

“The wider community thinks open adoption has been fixed,” Court says. “They don’t realise it’s effectively closed. Foster parents want options to improve the opportunity for open adoption, especially for the families left behind by the reforms … we are not saying compulsory adoption, just a chance … there are valid social-protection and economic reasons for adoption. The 2014 Goward reforms did not make adoption easier for current families. Some have waited more than seven years. I am sure Pru Goward, as NSW minister for family and community services, would have requested it, but the department did not produce it.”

And because permanency doesn’t mean permanency, foster carers are becoming scarce. Wendy Foote, deputy chief executive of the Association of Children’s Welfare Agencies, says there is a shortage of foster carers across the country and on any given night there will be a child in a motel room under the supervision of welfare staff simply because a foster carer cannot be found. Why? According to Court: “We have a department on the whole supporting restoration at the expense of adoption. There is a belief in family preservation at nearly all costs.”

This is a product of years of twisted academic ideology permeating social-work schools. It is an ideological offshoot of the feminist movement and it views the rights of birth mothers as paramount because it sees the family as an extension of the mother. The rights of the adult triumph over those of the child. In fact, a child does not see anything in terms of rights. He sees only mum, dad, love, home. For long-term fostered children, that centre is missing.

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