OPINION: Put vulnerable children first

CARE: Adoption can help provide a happy home to those who need one.‘‘I’M a happy and loved son, brother, father and adoptee. Living proof’’.
Shanghai night field

This young man reminded me of why Adopt Change continues to believe in the enormous difference a permanent, safe, loving family can make.

Sadly, not every vulnerable child who cannot be cared for by their biological parents will get that experience.

Adoption is at an all-time low in Australia – over the past 25 years there has been a 76per cent decline in the adoption of children.

The latest figures published by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare show that in 2013-14, 317 children were adopted; 36per cent of those children were adopted from overseas and the remainder were from within Australia.

Yet we know that there are more than 50,000 Australian children who were in foster care at some time last year and more than 11,000 babies were removed from neglectful and/or violent families.

Worldwide there are estimated to be 153million orphans – approximately 18million of these children have lost both parents and are living in orphanages or on the streets and lack the care and attention required for healthy development. These children are at risk for disease, malnutrition, and death.

We need a fundamental shift in how we help vulnerable children through adoption, both in Australia and overseas. In Australia, adoption has become a stigma, it brings up images of forced adoptions, where women and men were coerced into giving up their babies.

The profound pain caused by this system has echoed down the generations. We need to learn from these experiences and move towards an ethical, open and supported adoption system in Australia. Children who cannot be cared for by their biological parents should have the option of growing up in a safe, loving family. This is because it is the best thing for a child.

The research clearly shows that stable, long-term relationships help healthy brain, behaviour and emotional development. Adults and children are hard-wired to connect with each other – the day-to-day moments shared by young children and the adults who care for them affects the connections and the circuitry of the developing brain*.

When children don’t get this, it disrupts their development, and leads to an increased range of risk of emotional and behavioural disorders.

The consequence for children is that they are less likely to graduate from high school and to develop healthy relationships – setting them up for an increased risk of experiencing disadvantage and social isolation.

There are many barriers to adoption that we need to remove in order to help vulnerable children. Parents share with me stories of long wait times (around five years to adopt a child from overseas), different eligibility criteria across states and territories, the cost and an anti-adoption culture among some working in the area.

In Australia, we need a system that places the needs of the child in the centre and provides a timely response that enables them to grow up in a stable, loving, permanent family. We need support for all of those involved in adoption – if alive, the parents who cannot look after their children, the adoptive parents and the child.

Over the Australia Day weekend, the federal government announced a positive step forward for parents wanting to adopt from overseas. The Intercountry Adoption Support Service will be a ‘‘one-stop-shop’’ to provide prospective families with access to a dedicated 1800 help line and special website. Trained staff will advocate on their behalf, dealing with state authorities and partner countries. Families will be given direct referrals to the people they need to talk to.

The plan includes funding for family support services to provide much needed help to parents and families involved in inter-country adoption.

With this focus and support, the government hopes to reduce the time it takes for parents to adopt from overseas and for a child to be placed with a family. The Commonwealth government will also pursue new inter-country adoption programmes with the USA, Poland and Vietnam, with discussions progressing with four other countries. We strongly encourage the federal government to keep working on opening up relationships with more countries overseas.

There is much to do within Australia and overseas to ensure ethical adoption is an option. Our number one priority should be to ensure children can grow up in a loving, caring family because it will set them up for the best possible chance in life.

And for all those who have adopted or are considering adopting a child, David Howe, puts it beautifully: it is ‘‘an uplifting tale of love which is unconditional, care which is warm, and commitment which is life-long’’.

Every child deserves that.

*InBrief – The Science of Neglect, Harvard University, 2014

Jane Hunt is the CEO at Adopt Change.

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