Feature Story 01-Jan-2013
the adoption journey
Welcoming a new child into the family is a joyful time for adoptive parents, but it often comes after a long and difficult adoption journey. Couples who choose the adoption pathway say it’s all worthwhile in the end, despite the unexpected twists and turns along the way.
Adoption provides permanent care for children who are unable to live with their birth families, so there is a trail of paperwork and a list of criteria to be met. Applicants can expect long wait times and many expenses when the adoptee is born overseas. There are also increasingly stringent guidelines to protect children and their families against the risks of illegal or irregular intercountry adoptions.
In 2010-11 there were 384 finalised adoptions across Australia, the lowest annual number on record, according to an Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) report. This is a decrease of 96% since 1971-72, when 9,798 adoptions were recorded.
These figures reflect the decline in the number of children who need adoption and are legally able to be adopted. Increased social support for young single mums, as well as declining birth rates, more effective birth control and alternative legal orders have all contributed to the reduction in the number of Australian adoptions. This means there are now fewer children requiring adoptive placements than couples seeking to adopt a child.
In Queensland, adoption has steadily declined in recent years and in 2010-11 there were just 40 adoptions, consisting of 35 children from overseas and five local children. This is a significant reduction from the early 1970’s when there 1,458 annual adoptions in Queensland.
Intercountry adoption numbers have fluctuated over the last two decades, and have been the most common type of adoption in Australia since 1999-00, however, these figures are also declining steadily, due to economic and social changes that allow children to remain with their birth family or be adopted in their country of origin.
This decline has made it much more difficult for prospective adoptive parents, who now face long wait times and complex procedures. For intercountry adoptions, the wait times depend on where the adoptive families live and which country they choose to adopt from. While some families may move through the process quickly, the average wait is four to seven years and may take up to twelve years.
The Department of Communities, Child Safety and Disability Services (DCCSDS) states that in Australia the adoption timeframes depend on matching a couple’s capabilities to the needs of a child. The wait time for intercountry adoptions is determined by the overseas agency that accepts a couple’s file, and the Australian government is unable to have any influence on these timeframes. Some overseas partner countries also have specific eligibility criteria regarding the adoptive parents’ age and marital status, as well as infertility requirements or restrictions on family size.
“Overseas programs increasingly seek adoptive placements for older children, sibling groups and/or children with highly complex medical, social and behavioural needs,” the department spokesperson advises. “This has meant significant waiting times for couples who are approved to adopt a child from overseas.”
The adoption journey
Queensland mum Rianne Muller and her husband decided to adopt a child after trying unsuccessfully to have a baby for several years. They applied for an intercountry adoption in 2004 and received the news that a child was allocated three years later. They travelled to South Korea to adopt baby Jack when he was seven months old.
“It’s a tough process. You don’t think there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and then you get the photo and all the work was worth it,” Rianne says.
The adoption journey was long and arduous, with a lot of paperwork and regular assessments and interviews to ensure that their circumstances hadn’t changed. Despite the difficulties, Rianne says it is a rewarding experience if applicants can stick it out. She and her husband have never looked back and they would do it all over again.
“We had issues getting Jack, but I wouldn’t trade those issues because I’ve got my son. He’s everything to us, so we’re very, very happy,” she says. “I didn’t adopt to rescue a child. My husband and I wanted a family, so we worked very hard and we jumped through every hoop. The end result is we now have a family.”
Prospective adoptive parents need to make informed and educated decisions about their future family life, so it’s vital to research adoption as much as possible. Rianne recommends visiting relevant websites, joining an adoption support group and immersing yourself in the culture that your child is coming from.
For the past two years, Rianne has been the membership secretary for the International Adoptive Families of Queensland (IAFQ), a volunteer organisation that assists and supports existing and future adoptive families. There are about 250 member families in IAFQ, which has support groups in most Queensland regions and hosts regular multicultural activities, including picnics and camps.
Rianne says being part of the IAFQ network is worthwhile for participating families, who can share their experiences with others and meet children from a range of countries. Most IAFQ member families have adopted children from other countries; however, some members have adopted local children.
“When we get together, we’ve got children from all over the world and they all get together and they are just kids. We don’t see race, we don’t see colour, we see our children playing happily,” she says. “It’s very important for children to know they are not alone. There are other adoptees who are in the same boat, and we want to make sure they are going to be friends and they’re going to talk to each other.”
Intercountry adoption programs
The Federal Attorney-General’s Department (AGD) is responsible under the Hague Convention for managing Australia’s intercountry adoptions, which generally only take place when there is an established inter-country adoption program with another country.
Australia closed its intercountry adoption program with Ethiopia in June 2012, following several years of issues including long waits and uncertainty for Australian prospective adoptive parents. Attorney-General Nicola Roxon advised that the decision was made after considering the sustainability of the program and the best interests of Ethiopian children.
“Unfortunately, the adoption environment in Ethiopia has become increasingly unpredictable, complex and uncertain, leaving many prospective Australian parents in limbo for years,” Ms Roxon said after announcing the closure.
“The government has concluded that this uncertainty, combined with obstacles to operating the program in a sustainable and ethical way into the future, means the program needs to be closed.”
Queensland currently participates in active intercountry adoption programs with Chile, China, Colombia, Hong Kong, Lithuania, Philippines, Sri Lanka, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand. Adoption programs with Fiji and India are on hold.
A Department of Communities spokesperson confirmed that intercountry adoption programs are controlled by participating countries and are subject to change.
“Factors that influence the status of a program can include the number of children in need of adoption, the number of applications received across the world, resource and infrastructure limitations within countries of origin and a range of social, political and cultural considerations within the country of origin,” the spokesperson advises.
“Changes include increases in the fees couples seeking to adopt a child are required to pay, lengthening timeframes for the allocation of a child, changing criteria that couples have to meet to be eligible and change to the status of a program, such as a program may be suspended or may close.”
Adoptive mum Rianne (above with her family) says that some people are hurt by policy changes that are beyond their control. After applying for a second child, Rianne’s file was ready to be sent over to South Korea when the age limit for adoptive parents was suddenly reduced. She was “heartbroken” when she received a phone call on her birthday advising that she was ineligible.
The government fee for a local adoption is $554 as at 1 July 2012, however, intercountry adoption fees include $3,985 for assessment and a further $1,708 for post-placement supervision. Extra costs for overseas adoption vary depending on the child’s country of origin, but expenses include international airfares and accommodation, medical, legal and visa fees, and donations.
Rianne estimates the overall cost of adopting a child from overseas would now be between $20,000 and $50,000. “It’s an awful lot of money, but that’s where the commitment comes in,” she says.
While the majority of adoptions are now intercountry, some families choose to adopt a local child. Sunshine Coast mum Chrissie has adopted two locally born children, both of whom are still under five. Chrissie’s four-year-old daughter was adopted in 2009 and her second child, now one year old, was welcomed into the family in 2012.
Chrissie and her husband were lucky to have a relatively short wait for both their children; they waited a year for their eldest and just six months for their youngest daughter. She attributes the short wait to fate and being in the right place at the right time.
“I’m just so blessed that I was placed with children in the first place, especially if you go a second time,” she says. “The greatest thing is just being a mum and having a family, watching them grow and develop.”
In Queensland, the Department of Communities, Child Safety and Disability Services (DCCSDS) administers the Adoption Act 2009 under the principle that the wellbeing and best interests of an adopted child, both through childhood and the rest of his or her life, are paramount.
When an adoption order is granted, the legal rights and responsibilities are transferred from the birth parents to the adoptive parents, thus, adoption is a life-changing experience for everyone involved—the birth family, the child and the adoptive parents.
Most local adoptions are now “open”, so the birth parents, the child and the adoptive parents all know each other, exchange information and have contact with one another. This is a major change from past practices where adoptions were closed and identities remained hidden. Chrissie does not have open adoption agreements in place yet for her children, but she says it’s possible in the future.
Answering the difficult questions
The secrecy and shame surrounding adoption is long-gone, but misconceptions about adoption have endured in the wider community. Adoptive families find that people ask intrusive questions about their children’s background and visible differences in appearance, without any respect for their privacy. This is challenging for adoptees, who have been separated from their birth families and may be dealing with that loss.
Parents need to work through any issues that arise with their children in an honest and open way, and turn to support services when necessary. Chrissie often fields probing personal questions about why she chose to adopt, how much it cost and why her daughter was put up for adoption.
“I just ignore or brush over those kinds of questions and people quickly get the message of what’s appropriate and what’s inappropriate,” she explains.
Chrissie wants her daughters to feel comfortable and proud of their adoption, so she wrote a children’s book, Mimo’s Answers, to help address the difficult questions about adoption.
“The book, specifically, was written for my little ones, and I then just put it out to the adoption world,” she says. “My little one knows that she grew in my heart and not in my tummy...she knows the real basics.”
Mimo’s Answers gives children the language to talk about adoption, so they are equipped with responses when issues relating to their adoption come up, says Chrissie. To order the book, contact Chrissie at: firstname.lastname@example.org.