The argument against relaxing international adoption laws

Adoption Photo: Getty

It seems like an entirely logical argument. There are hundreds of thousands, millions even, of orphaned children around the world who need loving parents. There are numerous couples in Australia who desperately want to give those children a home, so why not relax intercountry adoption laws?

Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced on Tuesday that the Government was going to cut the red tape that many families faced when adopting from South Korea, Taiwan and Ethiopia. In June 2012 Australia closed its intercountry adoption program with Ethiopia, commonly recognised as its most complex, unpredictable and challenging, following several years of issues with the program.  

The recent adoption reforms come off the back of a six year campaign led by Deborah Lee Furness and Hugh Jackman who have two adopted children. Furness has said that Australia’s adoption laws are deeply flawed, and that Australia has “an anti-adoption culture”. 

As a professional who assesses potential parents to adopt children from overseas, I am worried that the nuances of this debate are being missed. We have settled for the rhetoric that there are lots of orphaned children, and numerous parents who want to adopt them, so why not make the process easier? But that equation doesn’t necessarily add up.

Firstly, we have to remember that intercountry adoption is about finding parents for children. Not the other way around. It is not about finding children for potential parents. Before children can be adopted by overseas parents, all avenues in their birth country must be explored. And that can take time. It can take years.

Australia is a signatory to The Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption (1993) which is designed to ensure that the most disadvantaged and vulnerable children are matched with the most appropriate and suitable adoptive parents. In my experience, most families want a very young, healthy child, usually under the age of two. Of course there is nothing wrong with this, but these are not the most disadvantaged children.

Secondly, many healthy children under two are able to be placed in their birth countries, and this is how it should be. Many overseas country programs like China are requesting that prospective couples consider adopting children with a range of complex medical and psycho-social needs, including older children and sibling groups. Understandably, many couples feel this is not a challenge they can cope with.

I have to acknowledge that in recent years the pathway to intercountry adoption has been more difficult than in the past. I have worked with couples who have been waiting for seven or more years for a child to be placed with them. They have been living on the edge of hope for all this time. It is not an overstatement to say that for some families every time the phone rings they wonder if it’s news about a child. I know one family who has not vacationed for the entire wait (getting on for six years now) because they “didn’t want to miss the call”. These are good people who desperately want to love and nurture a child. It is not that we do not want to place children with these couples, it is just that there are not that many available children in orphanages who meet all the criteria.

I have worked with parents who are simply exceptional. One mother committed to becoming fluent in Korean so that she could speak the language at home, and take her young sons back to their birth country. One day she said to me, in tears, “My children deserve to know the language that their mother spoke.”

Another couple with three adopted children were seeking to adopt a fourth, and explained how they had travelled to their children’s birth country and lived there for a year, volunteering and learning about their children’s birth culture. “It allowed our kids to place their beginnings,” the father told me. “After we returned from the trip and they had seen and experienced the poverty they didn’t have so many questions about why their parents hadn’t wanted them.” Another mother told me that her daughter was constantly told how lucky she was that she had been adopted. “People told her that she should be grateful that we took her in,” the mum said, “but it’s her right to have parents, we are the lucky ones.”

Australia is not deliberately attempting to be obstructive to infertile couples, or those who wish to adopt from overseas, but the law endeavours to ensure the rights of birth parents and to protect the best interests of vulnerable children. Research has suggested that adoptive children are over-represented in mental health settings and they can often feel as if they are strangers within their adoptive families. 

Yes, there are bureaucratic mazes that have to be negotiated, but in my experience, although they could be streamlined, most of them are there to protect the child. We have to remember that the vast majority of these children will never know their birth parents. These children’s first experience in life is one of loss and it takes exceptional adoptive parents to meet these children where they are, hold their difficulties and history, and walk with them. This is why we need to walk very carefully into a new era of adoption reform.