Policy and Practice -
a Comparison between North America and Australia
by Evelyn Robinson, MA, Dip Ed, BSW
I am often
asked about current adoption policy and practice in Australia and
how this differs from policy and practice in North America. Although
I have never worked in a situation where adoptions were actually
taking place, I have had considerable experience in post-adoption
services for the last fifteen years and, in that time, I have counselled
many whose lives have been affected by adoption. I have also been
able to acquire some understanding of current adoption policy and
practice from colleagues in the field. During my visits to North
America and through my contacts with colleagues there, I have also
gained some background information on current adoption practices
in North America. It seems to me that there are fundamental differences
between what I perceive to be happening with domestic adoptions
in Australia and what I perceive to be happening with domestic adoptions
in North America.
that adoption policy is, in both places, subject to state rather
than federal legislation and so there are variations in policy and
practice from state to state (in this article, for simplicity, I
have referred to 'state' legislation, although I am aware that in
both North America and Australia there exist states, territories
and provinces). My comments are, therefore, of a general nature
only, as I appreciate that there are many local variations. I am
most familiar, of course, with policy and practice in my home state
of South Australia, but I am aware that most other states in Australia
operate in similar ways.
and practice in South Australia are based on the South Australian
Adoption Act (1988) and have been in effect since that act was passed
in 1989. Since 1989, it has been possible to appraise and monitor
the outcomes of this legislation and the act was officially reviewed
in 1994. At that time, submissions were invited from members of
the public, as well as groups with an interest in adoption. Some
minor alterations to the act were made on the basis of this review
and there have been no official moves to make any alterations to
the legislation since that time.
was the first state in Australia to put in place adoption legislation
which seeks to protect and support the relationship between a newborn
child and his or her families of origin, as well as allowing equal
access to adoption information when the adopted child becomes an
adult. Other states have followed with similar adoption acts.
are illegal in all states in Australia. All domestic adoptions are
enacted by State Government departments. There are no commercially-based
adoption agencies which are licensed to manage these adoptions,
which means that there are no payments of any kind connected to
the adoptions of these children.
in North America, private adoption agencies are licensed to arrange
domestic adoptions. Because adoption has been allowed to acquire
a commercial status in North America, there are financial advantages
for agencies in arranging as many adoptions as possible. Agencies
in North America, therefore, have an incentive to attract customers,
just as any other business does.
have expressed to me that they find the fact that money and children
change hands in the same transactions to be at the very least distasteful,
if not, in fact, immoral.
in Australia, regardless of their circumstances, are generally encouraged
and supported to prepare for raising their children. After the birth,
a Parenting Payment is available from the Federal Government to
anyone, regardless of their gender or marital status, who is a permanent
resident of Australia and who has custody of a child. This payment,
which is means-tested, is a recognition by the Australian government
that children are the basis of a country's future. The government,
therefore, makes financial support available to parents to assist
them to provide for their children. As far as I am aware, there
is no corresponding payment available at a Federal Government level
in North America, although I have been advised that there may be
tax benefits for parents who are in paid employment.
is still a degree of disapproval in some quarters towards single
parenthood, there is a much greater level of acceptance in Australia
than there was in the past. This has resulted in a dramatic decrease
in the number of adoptions in Australia over the last thirty years.
Last year in the state of South Australia (which has a population
of more than two million people), for example, only one Australian-born
child was adopted.
The term 'birthmother'
(or 'birth mother') is currently out of favour with many of the
support groups in Australia and certainly would never be used, as
I have heard it used in North America, to describe an expectant
mother. I have even heard the term 'birthmother-to-be' used to describe
a pregnant woman. This sinister use of the term 'birthmother', before
the birth has even taken place, implies that the separation of mother
and child is a foregone conclusion. Expectant mothers in Australia,
on the other hand, are generally encouraged to concentrate on their
approaching motherhood throughout their pregnancies and no decisions
regarding their child's future are expected to be made until after
the birth has occurred. This is an acknowledgement of the fact that
it is not possible for a mother to know how she will feel about
her child until after the child has been born.
I know that,
in North America, fathers who are not married to the mothers of
their children have a difficult time being heard. In South Australia,
an unmarried mother who is considering adoption will always be asked
to name the child's father and attempts will be made to include
him in the decision-making process. If the father is named on the
birth certificate or if a man is recognised by the court as being
the father of a child, then his consent is necessary before that
child can be adopted. The father will be allowed time to establish
paternity. If the father wishes to raise the child, he has the right
to do so. If the mother and father do not agree with regard to the
child's future, the matter may be decided by the family Court. This
would happen before any consent to adoption had been completed.
Under the South
Australian Adoption Act (1988), consent to adoption cannot be given
until the child is at least fourteen days old. Counselling after
the birth is compulsory and must be completed at least three days
prior to consent being given. The mother of the child must also
be given information in writing regarding the consequences of the
adoption, prior to any taking of consent. After the consent has
been signed there is a period of twenty-five days during which the
consent may be revoked. This period can be extended by up to fourteen
days, but it cannot be shortened.
the consent to adoption is sometimes not finalised until several
months after the birth. While this may not be an ideal situation,
it is felt to be of prime importance that children have every opportunity
to be raised within their families of origin. This will prevent
the long term complexities in the lives of those children and their
parents, which would occur if an adoption took place. During this
period the child may remain with the mother and/or father.
I have heard
of cases in North America, tragically, in which adoption consents
have been signed even before the birth, or very soon after the birth.
I have also heard of cases where attempts to revoke the consent
the day after it had been signed have failed.
there is never any contact of any kind between expectant mothers
prospective adopters. I know that there are many who agree with
me that such contacts are intrusive, disempowering to the expectant
mother and potentially exploitative. They may even serve to encourage
an inappropriate sense of 'ownership' in the prospective adopters,
which, I believe, shows a lack of respect for and understanding
of the sanctity of the mother/child bond. I am aware that this shocking
practice is considered by many to be unethical.
In South Australia,
only after the consent to adoption has been signed and after the
twenty-five day revocation period has expired will the government
department involved select adopters for the child. After this decision
has been made, a meeting may take place between the prospective
adopters who have been selected and the mother, if the mother requests
such a meeting. Prospective adopters will not have any contact at
all with the child until after the revocation period has expired
and they have been notified that they have been selected to adopt.
I find it hard
to understand how anyone can support the practice of having prospective
adopters meet with expectant mothers and try to induce them to consent
to the adoption of the child they are carrying. I believe that prospective
adopters are sometimes even allowed to be present at the hospital
while the birth is taking place. I was appalled to hear that this
happens in North America. I find such behaviour totally inappropriate
and unethical. It concerns me greatly that prospective adopters
who behave in this way are not thereby considered as unsuitable
In South Australia,
if the adopters are willing, they can have their names added to
the child's original birth certificate instead of having a new one
issued. This means that, after the adoption, the names of both the
parents and the adopters appear on the same document, which is the
child's legal birth certificate. The mother of the child has access
to the original birth certificate from the time that the adoption
takes place. The father also has access if his name appears on the
of the type of birth certificate issued, adopted adults in South
Australia have access to their original birth certificates and other
documentation pertaining to their adoption, when they are eighteen
years old. The original birth certificate has details of their parents,
including their names and addresses at the time of the adoption.
They may have access prior to the age of eighteen with the consent
of their adopters. The mother of the adopted child also has access
to the replacement birth certificate when the adopted child becomes
an adult, at the age of eighteen years. This document has details
of the child's adopted name and the names of the adopters and their
address at the time of the adoption.
are also available to the children of the mothers, either if the
mother gives permission or after her death and to the children of
an adopted adult, if the adopted adult gives permission or after
their death. Similar access to adoption information is available
in all states, although in some cases, the release of information
can be prevented by a person involved in the adoption. Fathers also
have the right to access information about their children under
certain circumstances. The legislation which allows this access
has been in effect in South Australia since 1989.
I know that
there are some states in North America where adopted adults are
allowed to access their original birth certificates but there are
no states, as far as I am aware, in which parents are allowed to
access the replacement birth certificates once their children are
adults. I look forward to the time when equal access to adoption
information, such as exists in South Australia, will be accepted
as a basic human right everywhere in North America. This is an on-going
issue of social justice.
to raise a child
to be an unhealthy attitude in North America that there are some
people who are 'entitled' to raise children (whether their own or
someone else's) and that there are others who are not. The result
of this seems to be that, rather than adoption existing to serve
needy children, adoption seems to exist to a large extent to serve
needy adults. In some sectors of the media in North America, the
idea that certain people have a right to acquire a child, by any
means at their disposal, seems to go unchallenged. Although this
misguided notion does, no doubt, also have some support in areas
of the Australian media, I find this attitude to be much less prevalent
in Australia than it is in North America.
I was very
shocked to learn that, in North America, parents who are married
and already have children are being persuaded to relinquish newly-born
infants. The subsequent separation of such a child from a previously
intact family is causing enormous losses, for the child, for the
parents, for the other children in the family, for the grandparents
as well as many other members of the extended family. This does
not, to my knowledge, happen anywhere in Australia.
having children while on a low income is now perceived as such a
crime in some parts of North America, that this dreadful punishment
has been devised. If poverty is considered to be a disadvantage
to such children, then government initiatives which address the
issue of poverty would be more useful to them than replacing the
complications created in their lives by poverty with the complications
created by adoption.
In my professional
opinion as a social worker, any prospective adopters who would be
willing to acquire a child in this way, from an established family,
would be considered to be unsuitable candidates to be entrusted
with child-rearing responsibilities. It seems that a 'supply' of
such children, who already have an entire family of relatives, is
being engineered to meet the 'demand' created by affluent strangers,
who wish to attempt to manufacture a family through adoption. I
cannot comprehend how anyone could consider such a transaction to
be anything other than exploitative and socially unjust.
of older children
are many in North America who are working in family preservation
programmes to prevent separations of mothers and babies, I am saddened
by the fact that there are still those who believe that adoption
is an appropriate outcome for older children who are unable to return
to live with their families. Adoption is rarely considered to be
an appropriate outcome for such children in Australia.
I have heard
it said in North America that adoption can provide such children
with a sense of security. In fact, in my opinion, the opposite is
the case. Children such as these know who they are and to whom they
are related. These realities do not change, no matter where the
child is living. To deny that identity and those connections by
issuing the child with a false birth certificate has, in fact, the
potential to create an enormous sense of insecurity. If their identity
and their family connections are so dispensable, then how can a
child in this situation develop any sense of reality and permanence?
We all know that being part of an adoptive family does not provide
protection against abuse, death or divorce. Adoption, in fact, does
not guarantee permanence of any kind and is actually an attempt
to create relationships where none existed previously, rather than
honouring those relationships which already exist.
children who are unable to live with their families can be provided
with a safe home environment, based on an arrangement which accepts
and honours the reality of their identity and their existing relationships.
This, I believe, can allow them to heal and recover without involving
them in the deceit and denial associated with adoption. Some of
these children have already been traumatised by the abuse or neglect
which they have suffered. In my opinion, it is unnecessarily cruel
to add to their trauma by subjecting them to an adoption.
I am not, of
course, suggesting that every child in Australia lives in an ideal
environment. However, it is not considered to be appropriate in
Australia to try to solve the problems of poverty and abuse in families,
by removing children and arranging for them to be adopted.
not a commercial transaction in Australia and it is gradually being
replaced by other, more effective means of providing homes for children
in need. This suggests to me that Australians respect the advantages
in life which cannot be bought, including a sense of knowing who
we are and where we fit, a sense of heritage and ancestry and a
respect for the intrinsic value of family membership.
I look forward
to the day when children all over the world will no longer be removed
from what are perceived to be dysfunctional poor families and placed
in what too often
turn out to be dysfunctional affluent families.
Copyright © Evelyn
Robinson, MA, Dip Ed, BSW
article may be reproduced for non-commercial purposes only, providing
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who is a counsellor, speaker and author of Adoption
and Loss The Hidden Grief, welcomes contact from
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