Australia: Inter-country adoption levels fall to lowest on record

Inter-country adoption levels fall to lowest on record; advocates call on Government to open new country agreements

Updated 21 April 2015
By Matthew Davis
With international adoption levels at an all-time low, actor Deborra-Lee Furness renews calls for a relaxation of the rules governing Australian couples adopting children from overseas.

Deborra-Lee Furness says adoption is a complex issue that needs to be done right, and has called on the Government to reopen inter-country adoptions. (Credit: ABC)
Australian couples considering international adoption are hopeful the Federal Government will open Australia to new inter-country agreements, as adoption rates fall to an all-time low.

Adoptive mother and Adopt Change founder Deborra-Lee Furness, and other adoption advocates, lobbied the Government to reopen Australia to inter-country adoption.

“Adoption is the most complex and highly charged emotional issue, obviously because it’s so primal and it’s about families and we want to get it right,” she said.

At present, the adoption process can only occur with nine other nations.

This, combined with an average five-year wait for adoption approval, has seen Australia’s adoption rate decline over the past 25 years to its lowest ever on record.

In 2013–14, 317 adoptions occurred in Australia, 114 of them from abroad and adopted through the inter-country process.

UNICEF estimates there are some 150 million orphans worldwide – a figure adoption supporters point to as justifying the need for a more effective adoption policy here in Australia.

“What is the alternative? You have a child that is abandoned and on their own. What do we do? We have got to do what is best for the kids, and cross-culture divides are stopping kids from getting into loving families,” Ms Furness said.

“I’d like to see every child belong in a family. Institutionalised kids don’t thrive … It doesn’t work.”

In January, Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced the Government would not only reopen adoption arrangements with Poland, the United States and Vietnam, but it would also begin discussions with four other nations in a bid to place more international orphans in Australian families.

Domestically, the Government announced it would create a new national bureau, the Inter-country Adoption Support Service, to assist prospective adoptive parents gain access to children faster by reducing the waiting period from five years to one year and by offering dedicated support staff.

Mr Abbott called it a “a one-stop shop”.

“For too long adoption has been in the too hard basket, for too long it has been too hard to adopt and for too long this has been a policy no-go zone,” he said.

“It shouldn’t be that way because adoption is all about giving children a better life.

“For those parents who want to adopt from overseas, we will make those processes simpler to navigate, with a central contact point.”

Inter-country adoption ‘should be last resort’
While for many hoping to adopt the announcement was heralded as great news, others worried it would put more children at risk.

Speaking to the ABC’s South East Asia correspondent Samantha Hawley after Mr Abbott’s announcement, the head of the organisation Against Child Trafficking, Arun Dohle, argued inter-country adoption should always be the last resort.

“This is a result of the huge pressure from the adoption lobby … there is no need for it,” he said.

“Australia should assist these countries in such a manner that they can take care of their own children.”

Mr Dohle added that there were many documented cases where vulnerable children had been sold to orphanages or kidnapped and then adopted by families in the West.

ABC’s Foreign Correspondent highlighted some of these dubious adoption practices in previous stories.

The episode Stolen and Sold featured an Australian family who discovered that two siblings they adopted from India had been taken from their mother and sold to an orphanage.

Later that year, Fly Away Children revealed serious problems with the overseas adoption program in Ethiopia.

In 2012 the then federal government closed inter-country adoptions with Ethiopia after 22 years, citing an “increasingly unpredictable” adoption environment.

The program remains closed, but in 2014 families who already had Ethiopian adoptions in train were granted exemptions from the lengthy court process that is usually required.

Adoption activists want more of the foreign aid budget to go towards helping children be cared for in their own cultures, rather than being adopted abroad.

Many on both sides of the debate agree that the best interest of the child is paramount to any changes to Australia’s relationship with adoption, even some who were adopted themselves as young children.

“Adoptions need to happen, they need to be in place for children who are 100 per cent relinquished or abandoned, orphaned,” said Le My Huong, director of the Vung Tau orphanage and Long Hai Centre in Vietnam, and herself an adoptee to Australia.

“I know though there’s many, many families out there that will provide the love and the need, all the needs that children require.”

Watch Foreign Correspondent’s Vietnam – Are You My Mother? on ABC tonight at 8:00pm.