House debates

Wednesday, 28 November 2018


Social Policy and Legal Affairs Committee; Report

11:10 am

Photo of Cathy O'TooleCathy O'Toole (Herbert, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Ten years ago, on 13 February our then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered a national apology to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in this nation. His recognition in particular focused on those who suffered as part of the stolen generations. The journey to the national apology began with the Bringing them home report in 1997. Recommendation 5a was:

That all Australian Parliaments

1. officially acknowledge the responsibility of their predecessors for the laws, policies and practices of forcible removal …

This particular recommendation is very relevant to the issue that we are discussing in this chamber today—that is, the government's proposal to open up adoptions for Indigenous children who are in out-of-home care. Ultimately, the government is proposing to see a return to Australia's reprehensible legacy of permanently removing First Nations children from their families. We know that this policy has a profoundly disproportionate impact on First Nations children, yet those opposite seem to choose to ignore that fact.

In March this year, the then Assistant Minister for Children and Families, the Hon. David Gillespie, spontaneously made a public call to open up adoptions for First Nations children living in out-of-home care, without appropriate consultation from those who would be affected—that is, of course, primarily families. I was certainly not at all surprised that his proposal was quickly condemned by experts and First Nations representatives. The Aboriginal Child and Community Care Chief Executive labelled the public call as incredibly offensive.

Not only did the then minister choose to make a spontaneous call without input from those in the sector but he also chose to ignore these very people when he decided to stick to his guns and refer the matter to a parliamentary committee. It is absolutely clear that the minister and his government were not interested in taking this matter seriously or even entertaining the idea of proper consultation, as they rejected attempts from Labor to work through a bipartisan position for a consensus report. Instead, the minister identified only two terms of reference for the framework. Only two terms of reference for a framework that would have a dire impact on this country and its people! Only two term terms of reference for a proposal that would effectively see forced removals of children from their homes! Only two terms of reference for a proposal that would essentially disconnect our First Nations children from their cultural heritage and connections! To add insult to injury, the terms of reference called for consideration of:

1. stability and permanency for children in out-of-home care with local adoption as a viable option.

If the member for Lyne and former minister were serious about the stability of a child's life, he would never have made his spontaneous call in the first place. I agree with the report where it states:

All Australian children deserve to feel safe and loved and to have a strong sense of identity and belonging.

However, I cannot agree that permanently separating a child from its family will deliver this outcome—particularly for our First Nations youth, whose sense of identity strongly relates to their cultural ties. I am also deeply concerned that not all organisational representatives and First Nations organisations had their voices heard on this critically important matter, particularly if their view was not in favour of the minister's assertions. The government's report not only ignores the weight of evidence from submitters but disregards human rights conventions and the recommendation of countless inquiries that show connection to kin, culture and country as being critical to the safety and wellbeing of First Nations children. Surely we need to be addressing the causes of out-of-home care as a priority. Right now we are spending more on out-of-home care than we are on early intervention and prevention measures. This disproportion of funding is clearly not delivering good outcomes for children.

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has urged Australia to collect information on the reasons children are placed in out-of-home care, in order to work towards reducing the number of children being placed in out-of-home care. At present, there is no national approach to research on outcomes for Australian children in out-of-home care, including placement types, such as kinship care, guardianship and other permanency orders. If we are serious about protecting and delivering safe environments for our children, we need to be discussing early intervention and prevention actions.

The proposed plan in the government members' report rests solely on diverting children from out-of-home care into open adoption, which purports to be about providing an open exchange of information and contact between children and their birth parents and families. However, in reading the joint standing committee's report, many witnesses told the committee that their lived experience of so-called open adoption is very different. I have deep concerns that, by transferring children who are living in the out-of-home care system, the government is effectively turning its back on our most vulnerable youth. Severing children's links to families, culture and background—particularly our First Nations children—will only cause further harm. I strongly urge the government to reconsider its position.

I urge the government to listen to the organisations and the individuals who are pleading with you to not return our nation to the appalling policies of the past. You must reflect on the recommendations of 2018 and allow the parliament of today to uphold our responsibility to their predecessors for the laws, policies and practices of forcible removal. I call on the government to return to the drawing board and look at intervention and preventive measures, rather than policies that will simply separate families and cultural identities and, indeed, cause more detriment to our children's futures. Surely it is more humane and important to invest in keeping families together and functional, rather than creating another stolen generation, with all of the hurt, trauma and social and emotional disconnection that our First Nations children in particular have experienced as a result of the past.

11:17 am

Photo of Warren EntschWarren Entsch (Leichhardt, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise in support of the Breaking barriers report that was tabled here earlier this week. It certainly wasn't lost on me that November is National Adoption Awareness Month. Currently there are more than 47,000 children living in out-of-home care in Australia. Unfortunately, almost 70 per cent of those children have been in out-of-home care for two years or more. Of those numbers, there are close to 20,000 kids who are Indigenous children living in out-of-home care. Unfortunately, there have only been something like 250 children adopted in the last year, and this is a staggering number.

While there are those who are out there opposing permanent adoption—and I respect their views on that—and calling on government, as the previous speaker did, to look at causes rather than focusing on permanent adoption, let me say to you that the time frame for a child's life is very, very short. If the majority or all of that time is spent effectively institutionalised or in out-of-home care without permanency, it has a very serious and negative impact on the child.

We should be looking at the causes of this, but the numbers continue to grow. In doing so, we should not, at the same time, ignore the fact that these numbers are growing. These 47,000 children who I'm talking about at the moment are also desperately looking for permanency. Sadly, Australia has one of the lowest adoption rates in the world, mainly due to very inconsistent, complex and cumbersome laws in our states and territories. One of the biggest challenges that children in out-of-home care face is, as I said earlier, that lack of permanency. They are likely to bounce around the system from carer to carer. We, as legislators, have an obligation to provide these kids with a better solution.

We also must learn from the sins of the past to ensure that they are not repeated in the future. Again, I heard reference to the stolen generation in the past. Of course, we are considering here the adoption of kids who come from very troubled backgrounds. For one reason or another the birth parents do not have the capacity to be able to care for these kids. These kids have gone through a process through the relevant departments and have been identified as being at risk. Surely to goodness, providing a permanent home for these children is a benefit for those children. That is something we need to focus on.

One thing that was extremely evident during the committee process was that Australian adoption laws are extremely complex. This report has made seven recommendations—all of which I support entirely—and provides a comprehensive blueprint to make adoption a more viable option for our children. The case and evidence for a national framework on open adoptions could not be more compelling. Let me be very clear: open adoptions are entirely different from the previous closed adoption concept. This is something that the detractors of this report have attempted to blur. In open adoptions children remain connected to their birth family, their culture and their identity—something I believe is extremely important. However, I found throughout this process that a small number of organisations were quick off the mark to dismiss this process but actually offered no real solutions.

My electorate of Leichhardt is extremely vast and is home to many different people and cultures. Recently the Queensland government announced new laws that will recognise traditional child-rearing practices across the Torres Strait. This is a historic step, not only for the Torres Strait and Queensland but for Australia. This is what they call island adoption, where children go from one family to another and are traditionally adopted into that family. While I disagree with many things that have been dished up by the Queensland government, you have to give credit where credit is due, especially in this instance where the interests of the children were put ahead of politicking. This is now recognised. It's very much in the interests of these children.

This brings me to recommendations 1 and 2 of the report, which I would like to focus on. I mentioned earlier that my electorate of Leichardt is home to many cultures and many Indigenous communities. Recommendation 2 states that:

    I would like to expand on this further and speak about adoptions in our Indigenous communities. We have a lot of issues up there. Look at this recommendation here. We have had some appalling tragedies where children had to be taken away from communities. These children in many cases went into care where there was no kinship. Wherever possible, of course you put the children where kinship is available, but in many cases kinship was not available for these children. There was no other family there that was able to take these children, so these children ended up in the system and in foster care.

    I know that a lot of people argue that Indigenous children should be adopted only by an Indigenous family through the kinship arrangement. That is culturally appropriate. I've raised that concern. My colleague here was on this committee and has a very different view to me on this. I was at an event on Monday and I saw a number of children who had been adopted from Africa. I've seen quite a number of families bringing them in from India, Bangladesh and a number of other places. These children actually thrive when they come here and have a loving family that is totally supportive of these children. When you talk to the families of these children, they don't try and deny their culture. They in fact support it and do everything they can to maintain the children's connection with their culture. And what they provide that the children are not able to get in a foster care arrangement or an institutionalised arrangement, where they are moving from one to the other, is permanency. So these kids are thriving.

    I have asked the question on a number of occasions: why is it culturally appropriate for children who come from all these different cultures around the world to be accepted into families in Australia and it is not acceptable for Indigenous children to have the same opportunity? I am aware of a number of families in my electorate that have been the foster carers and, on rare occasions, adopters of young Indigenous children. Those children have gone on to absolutely thrive—very much part of the family. But the families go to great lengths to ensure that the kids maintain that connection with their culture.

    If there are family members there who are able to look after children and provide them with a safe environment, then by all means they need to be given priority in relation to the opportunity to take those children on a permanent basis. However, if family members are not available, and those kids are still going to remain at risk, I think that an adoptive family of another culture is far better than the long-term institutionalisation of those children or sending them from foster carer to foster carer. I've seen many examples of foster parents who really have very little control over the decisions that are being made for children. I think it's a tragedy that this happens. It's not in the best interests of the children.

    I support the report absolutely. I'd like to take the opportunity to thank my fellow committee members—in particular, the member for Chisholm, Julia Banks, and my colleague across the chamber here, the member for Macarthur—and staff. I certainly commend the report. (Time expired)

    11:27 am

    Photo of Mike FreelanderMike Freelander (Macarthur, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

    I rise today to speak on the Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs report Breaking barriers: a national adoption framework for Australian children. In doing so, I seek to associate myself with the remarks made yesterday by my friend and colleague the member for Newcastle, and I will speak to Labor's dissenting report. First of all, I would like to acknowledge the work of the committee secretariat throughout this process and thank the staff for their very valued contributions, hard work and organisational ability. I commend all the members of the committee, including the government members, because I know that the views that they formed were heartfelt and genuine and this is an area in which there are very complex social, legal and family issues involved.

    The report is the culmination of a number of public hearings, private meetings, many submissions and many visits with different organisations. The inquiry was intended to enable the committee to report on approaches to a nationally consistent framework for local adoption across Australia. I wish to make it clear that I, along with my Labor colleagues in the committee, cannot support the government's report. Labor is of the view that the report and its recommendations pose the risk of children, particularly First Nations children, being permanently removed from their families. We are very concerned about this possible outcome.

    The government's report, I think, fails to really understand the nature of child protection in this country. I had a long involvement with child protection in my career as a paediatrician and it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the great teaching and knowledge I had from two doctors at the children's hospital many years ago, Dr Ferry Grunseit and Dr Suzette Booth, who taught me the basic issues and the main issues about child protection, at the children's hospital, then at Camperdown and now at Westmead. They impressed on me the importance of developing policies that are right for families in this area, and the dangers of views that have not been well thought out and are not based on the evidence.

    In my career as a paediatrician I have seen a number of child protection failures, some of which involve patients of mine, and I take some responsibility for that. I have seen children die from injuries and I have seen children starved to death by their parents. I have also seen families destroyed by children being removed and from a lack of support. It is important to understand that child protection is essentially an issue of risk management. There is no right or wrong answer. Multigenerational poverty often culminates in child protection issues. Many of the families I've seen involved with child protection services have very entrenched family histories of involvement with so-called welfare agencies. I've seen children removed from their families who I think shouldn't have been removed. I've seen some children kept with their families who I thought would have been better removed. I've seen some children who have had ongoing trauma because of multiple child foster-care placements. I've seen a lack of transparency in many of the child protection issues that I've been involved with and I've seen an abrogation of governmental responsibility developing in this area with the hiving-off of child protection issues and management to non-government organisations, often those with very poor governance. So, this is a major issue.

    I know that there are some very entrenched views about this. In my office I have a transcript of the Apology to Australia's Indigenous Peoples. I'm very concerned about the possibility of having another stolen generation that we'll have to deal with. I looked over the apology before writing this speech and one line in particular stands out to me today:

    The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia's history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.

    Whilst I acknowledge that, in the child protection sphere, there may be some children who are adopted and ultimately have good results, I'm very concerned about any move to expedite adoption and to remove some of the protections for families involved in this field. Child protection is a long-term issue. When children are referred to welfare agencies, it should be seen as a referral of the whole family. We know that any intervention is unlikely to improve the situation in the short term. So, it's an issue in which there must be long-term intervention, particularly intervention early in the process. Because we know it is a multigenerational issue, any intervention that's done needs to look at the whole family and needs to progress with support over a long period of time.

    As stated in our dissenting report, we on the committee who are members of the opposition had serious concerns from the outset that it was becoming a tool to legitimise the agenda and the ideologies that had been suggested by the government originally. Community representatives and experts alike were quick to condemn the ad hoc proposal. A government that doesn't concern itself with the concerns of all its people is very likely to introduce policies that fail and that will have long-term consequences.

    Our fear that this inquiry would be used as a political tool to legitimise early adoption was proven correct the moment the terms of reference were locked in. The very first term of reference states the committee should specifically consider:

    1. stability and permanency for children in out-of-home care with local adoption as a viable option;

    The government, through its report, would subsequently make recommendations that would open up adoption to children in out-of-home care, with very short periods of waiting time. I cannot stress enough the significance of this. We are dealing with families that have complex medical, social and other problems, including mental illness, drug and alcohol difficulties and also multigenerational poverty—

    A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

    Proceedings suspended from 11:35 to 11:54

    The report as tabled disregards the evidence of other inquiries which have demonstrated that connection to culture, kin and country is critical to the safety and wellbeing of First Nations children. We know this to be an undeniable fact and of the utmost importance. It is a crying shame that those opposite can come to this place and make determinations which place such vital connections at risk. Through its inquiry the committee uncovered evidence which demonstrated faults in the practice of open adoption. The government members of this committee are recommending that children in out-of-home care be diverted into open adoption arrangements, which in theory would aim to allow open lines of communication and information exchange between the child and their birth parents and families. In practice this is very unlikely to happen, as many of those involved in the adoptions that have already occurred are opposed.

    My fear is that what will happen is that families will themselves not want to contact welfare organisations and family and community services, because of the fear of their children being removed. I believe this government report will put more families at risk and that it has the potential to actually harm the care of children in out-of-home care because of their family's unwillingness to seek support from family and community services and like organisations. The report fails to understand the multigenerational aspects of child protection. It fails to understand the complex nature of child protection issues, which are not binary. They're complex and often need to be reviewed.

    In summary, the government's report creates huge risks not just for Indigenous children but for all children who are involved in out-of-home-care situations and child protection. I think there needs to be far more investment in early intervention services and in family services that will provide support and protection for children, while, at the same time, trying to break the multigenerational nature of child protection.

    11:56 am

    Photo of David GillespieDavid Gillespie (Lyne, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

    I rise to speak in support of this very extensive Breaking barriers: A national adoption framework for Australian children report. The issue of adoption is very emotional, and I would just like to make some comments to try to take the emotion out of the argument. There has never been an issue that has catalysed so much of the Australian psyche into action than the stolen generation issue. It was a result of bad policy in a different time and place that no-one would wish to happen again, but that is part of the problem when we start discussing improving the adoption system.

    A very worrying phenomenon is that increasing numbers of children are going into child protection and out-of-home care. The numbers are steadily increasing. At the last audit there was a 13 per cent increase; 47,900 children were in out-of-home care and a proportion of those children, about 32,000, were there for at least two years. It is not a tenable situation that should continue in this country. Part of what this report highlights is that in an open adoption system, where the identity of the birth parents is maintained, there is no change in the birth certificate but you have a dual listing of birth parents and adoptive parents, the links to their culture or former family are kept and the responsibility and the permanency is addressed, with adoption in some cases being a viable solution to correct the recently observed intergenerational repetition of poor parenting that leads to child protection issues.

    Further to those figures there was an analysis of the number of children in care in Victoria and in Western Australia back in 2011, and 40 per cent of those children had between two and five placements in out-of-home care; 14 per cent had between six and 10 placements; and 32 per cent had 11 placements. This revolving door of different placements is really damaging to young minds, emotions and psyches. Permanency is something needs to be our main focus.

    I wish to make a few comments about this report and the broader issue of adoption. As has been outlined in this report, in the hierarchy of decision-making around the country, the best interests of that individual child should be paramount. Depending on which state or territory the child is in, there are different child protection and adoption laws, policies and procedures. The aspiration of this report to have a national law will simplify things in a legal sense, but I think the states, who run the child protection and adoption systems, are the appropriate legislative bodies to be deciding how they run it in their state. I think there should be a principle running through all this legislation, which is there but seems to get lost in the application of the laws, that what is best for that child has to be the focus of the decision-making. What we want to do is improve the situation so that, in the right circumstances, adoption is a viable and safe option for any one individual child.

    As I mentioned at the outset, there is still a stigma associated with the word 'adoption' because of the stolen generations, the forgotten generation and all those children that were taken from the UK and brought out to Australia. It was in a different time and place. It was cloaked in secrecy. You lost your identity. Even the name on your birth certificate was changed so that your adoptive parents were your parents. The parents didn't know what happened to the child and the child didn't know what happened to their parents and family. No-one is advocating for that, but, as I said, because there is so much stigma associated with past adoption practices, anyone who advocates for a change in mindset and application of that one principle—that it has to be best for that individual child—is often met with resistance.

    As I mentioned, the concept of open adoption is quite a different institution to what a lot of people assumed that people who presented to the committee inquiry would be advocating for. Birth certificates don't have to abolish the names of the birth parent. You can have co-listing of birth and adoptive parents if they are adopted. There can be prescribed levels of contact with the former family. Some of the current guardianship or parental custody orders, depending on which state you're in, allow contact with the former parents. No-one wants to change the system to make it any worse for the child, but there are some instances where the parents were violent, abusive or still have problems with drugs and alcohol. A slavish commitment to reunification and restoration is admirable, but you have to draw the line somewhere.

    In my time at the ministry with responsibility at the federal level for children and families I heard many applications and horror stories where children were in this merry-go-round: they ended up with foster carers who wanted to adopt them, yet the barriers to adopt from fostering were insurmountable. There were other entreaties by people who had cared for children as foster carers and were willing and able to adopt a child but, because of this institutional, regulatory and legislative resistance to considering adoption, gave up all hope. Then, because of policies that aim for reunification or restoration, people who'd formed a bond with their foster child had the child, who'd formed a bond with them and in some instances were the only parents they knew, taken away from them, which retraumatised the child all over again. That's why I call now for people around the nation, depending on what state or territory they're in, to use the existing laws that do allow for adoption to be freed up so that, in the case where it isn't possible or safe for the child to be reunified or restored to their birth parents, adoption in an open fashion is considered and possible without waiting 10 or 12 years to achieve it.

    Depending on what state you're in, there are either permanent care orders or parenting arrangements, which is de facto adoption. In Victoria, I think they had roughly between 3,000 and 4,000 children who were under permanent care orders. Depending on what state you're in, those care orders can be challenged. I also got representations from children who said that they wanted to know that, legally, they can't be given back. They're left with the uncertainty, let alone the people who were the permanent guardians rather than adoptive parents.

    The issue is that adoption is not a bad thing, because, for some children in some families, it is the best option. It does give permanent relationships; it gives security. It means children aren't going through the revolving door of going from one foster family to the other to the other to the other. There are placement principles for Indigenous children which are embedded in lots of the legislation, but the overriding concern is it shouldn't exclude what is best for the child. Sure, everyone wants to be put with their kith or kin, and that is quite sensible, but in some situations in Australia it's actually not possible, particularly in very regional or remote small communities where there's a high level of dysfunction in the whole community, in which case placing them there is not the best for the child. (Time expired)

    12:07 pm

    Photo of Emma HusarEmma Husar (Lindsay, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

    It's always interesting to follow the minister who was responsible for this area when he talks about and acknowledges the problems in regional and remote parts of this country. I acknowledge his presence here now and also challenge the member for Lyne particularly on what he's actually doing, given his knowledge of how tricky the situation is in those remote and regional areas, in terms of funding and supporting those families that are subject to having their children removed.

    I'd like to thank the member for Macarthur, who spoke before the member for Lyne, and the member for Newcastle, who I had the pleasure—if I can call it that—of sitting on this committee with, and the secretary and all of those who supported the work that we did. More than that, I'd also like to thank those people who gave evidence to our committee. These things and these issues are never easily spoken of. Such knowledge and expertise from those witnesses who were allowed to attend was beneficial to our committee.

    I rise now to speak against this report, Breaking barriers: a national adoption framework for Australian children, which is the national adoption framework for Australian children. Like my colleagues, I'm horrified by the recommendations by this government to return to the blight on our nation: the years of the stolen generation. Between 1910 and 1970, many Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families as a result of various government policies and practices. The generations of children removed under these policies became known as the stolen generation. These policies of child removal left a legacy of trauma and loss that continues to this day to affect Indigenous communities, their families and individuals. What this government is proposing harks back to that time.

    Earlier this year, in this very place, we commemorated the official acknowledgement. It'd been 10 years since the then Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said sorry on behalf of all Australians past and present. The journey to a national apology began with the 1997 Bringing them home report, with recommendation 5a of the report stating:

    That all Australian Parliaments

    … officially acknowledge the responsibility of their predecessors for the laws, policies and practices of forcible removal …

    On 13 February 2008, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a formal apology on behalf of the Australian parliament to the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This apology was particularly poignant to the stolen generations. Is this government's memory so short that they cannot recall this important moment in time? Have they forgotten the stories that were shared? Just one month after we hosted the sorry anniversary event, then Assistant Minister for Children and Families, the member for Lyne, David Gillespie, suggested that adoptions for more Indigenous children should be an option. I don't know about you, but this makes me incredibly angry. It makes me sick and hammers home the clear fact that this government does not learn from past mistakes.

    The deplorable call of the recommendations in Breaking barriers report is to encourage open adoption for children in out-of-home care. This is a policy that will have a mammoth impact on First Nations communities, given that their children are 10 times more likely to be in out-of-home care. Indigenous children, throughout Australia, remain very significantly overrepresented in care and in contact with welfare authorities. Their overrepresentation increases as the intervention becomes more coercive, with the greatest overrepresentation being in out-of-home care.

    This cannot go on, and it cannot be left as if there is not a direct correlation between the past malpractices and mistreatment of First Nations people and what is happening in current, modern-day Australia. Indigenous children are particularly overrepresented in long-term foster care arrangements, and a high percentage of Indigenous children in long-term foster care live with non-Indigenous carers. Indigenous children are more likely than non-Indigenous children to be removed on the ground of neglect, as opposed to abuse. This policy and this government are leading our national down a horrible, horrible path. They are suggesting that we recreate one of the worst parts of our national story. They are asking us to agree, as a nation, to have another stolen generation. There has been absolutely no regard for the evidence-based child placement principles. The government are instead opting for the harsh, interventionist policies proposed by this government in the Breaking barriers report.

    I will not stand by and let this disregard, disrespect and disgusting determination of our First Nations children and their future continue to be proposed by this government. They are proposing open adoption as their policy. They are also suggesting that we jump over the guardianship process and go straight into an open adoption. Open adoption is only slightly less cruel than forced adoption. The child is supposed to be raised with an understanding of their past and a connection to their biological family. Research, though, has shown that, despite the best of intentions, open adoption does not work how it is planned. I have struggled to find a person on either side of the open adoption process who can actually confirm to me that it works.

    So what would it look like? The adoptive parents and birth parents would have agreed that they will stay in touch, share the milestones of their child's life and provide access to the child so that a deep connection to self can occur. The part where it falls apart is in keeping the promise. Author Amy Seek published a book called God and Jetfire to tell stories of birth families. Majorly, the open adoptions have failed many of the birth mothers she has spoken with over the years. She writes:

    The adoptive parents may have pulled out, reneged on stated or implied promises, often claiming that, as the child grew old enough to grasp the deep ambiguity of the arrangement, ongoing contact became confusing. Sometimes birthparents draw back. Sometimes adoptive parents appear to get jealous. In most states, the law offers no protection for what is usually a non-binding, voluntary agreement.

    I'm disgusted, but I'm unsurprised that the centre of this government's national child protection system would be open adoption. It is the heartless recommendation that they attempt to package as an empathetic solution to a very complex issue.

    Leading practitioners, organisations and NGOs have come out against the Breaking barriers report. It is our responsibility—ours alone, as representatives of this nation and, importantly, at this very moment, as representatives of the First Nations people—to stand up against this revolving suggestion of a social policy. We know from history and from expert advice that this does not work. Indigenous people need to look after their own children. They need to sustain their culture, the oldest living, continuing culture in the world. This government is proposing yet another so-called social policy that would put a nail in that coffin.

    We hear the word 'self-determination' as a core value of social policy and the agencies involved. Please allow me to read from a 20-year-old report, the same report that helped lead to the national apology taking place, the Bringing them home report. I had to point out to two of my colleagues on this inquiry that it actually even existed. The report said:

    In spite of this, Indigenous children continue to be removed from their families at a disproportionate rate and continue to be placed into non-Indigenous environments including group homes and foster families.

    I have spoken about the impact on our First Nations people and on their parents, but what about the most important people in this complex situation—the children? The child is at risk of many negative impacts, including reduced ability to assimilate into family, a sense of rejection, poor peer communications, power struggles and identity confusion. This does not sound like we are acting in our children's best interests.

    I am for child protection, I am for doing what is in the best interests of the children and I am always willing and able to stand up and fight for those people without a voice. This, however, does not go anywhere near what needs to happen. The United Nations Children's Fund also gives us some guiding principles around the rights of a child in its Implementation Handbook for the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that:

    Forced integration is a breach of—

    the child's—

    rights and the Committee has recommended that States with significant indigenous populations adopt enforceable legislation to protect their rights.

    The recommendations contained in this report do the exact opposite. The solution is something that this government is continuing to skirt. The solution is to invest in addressing the issues of family breakdowns and to support our Indigenous families to raise their children in safe, appropriate manners. We must consult with our First Nations communities, though, and this was something that the committee was absolutely starved of. Many witnesses who wanted to appear were not able to, and there were a number of people who would have come along to give evidence to our committee, had they been allowed. We need genuine partnership with our First Nations, our First Nations communities and our First Nations leaders, not interventionist strategies version 2.0, or wherever we're up to—because I am sick of counting. There is a reason why we need to continue to close the gap.

    This is not going to be helpful. We must comply with the principles for stability and permanency planning and we must only suggest permanent care once the family has been provided with culturally appropriate and intensive family support services, which is what is missing. I implore the minister to take up my first suggestion, which is to actually fund these communities, not continue to defund them. The guiding principles that we on this side have prepared should underpin any national adoption framework. No child should be left without a real connection to their birth family, now or into the future. I urge this government to stop, to collaborate with us on this, and to actually listen to our First Nations people on the best way forward and on their self-determination.

    12:16 pm

    Photo of Kerryn PhelpsKerryn Phelps (Wentworth, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

    The Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs report Breaking barriers: a national adoption framework for Australian children provides valuable insights into and recommendations to improve Australia's adoption framework. At present there are nearly 48,000 children in out-of-home care in Australia, and that's an 18 per cent increase since 2013. While some of these children are living with relatives or kin, many are living in the insecurity of foster care. The report's findings highlight how the sense of permanency provided by adoption can transform this situation. Adoption can provide stability, family and legal certainty, and adoption can prevent children drifting in foster care. Children become a permanent part of their adoptive family, giving them a crucial sense of belonging.

    I have witnessed how adoption can transform a child's life, and I personally understand the importance of improving Australia's adoption framework. My youngest daughter, Gabi, joined our family after my wife Jackie and I had provided initial emergency foster care for her. These initial months turned into a battle to adopt her, and Gabi was eventually adopted in 2012. She was one of only 143 children adopted in New South Wales, amongst 672 adopted across Australia, between 2011 and 2013. That knowledge of permanence and legal status enabled her to thrive—physically, emotionally and academically. The process of adoption is protracted and difficult to navigate, which means that many children in out-of-home care don't find families where they can thrive and reach their full potential. In the 2016-17 financial year, 246 adoptions of Australian children were finalised. The strikingly low rate of adoption was why Jackie, Gabi and I became strong advocates to streamline the legal adoption of Australian children in out-of-home care where there was no prospect of return to their birth family. The declining rate of adoption in Australia, combined with the increasing number of children in out-of-home care, suggests that overcoming barriers to adoption in Australia could reduce the number of children in impermanent foster care and improve the lives of many children.

    A harmonised national approach to adoption is vital because, under current arrangements, there is no national law governing adoption of Australian children, and significant variation exists in relevant legislation and practice across Australia. The Commonwealth government must provide national leadership to improve the safety and wellbeing of Australia's children through the National framework for protecting Australia's children 2009-2020. The national framework was agreed in 2009 and is underpinned by the principle that all children have a right to grow up in an environment free from neglect and abuse. Their best interests are paramount in all decisions affecting them.

    The recommendations arising from the report emphasise the role that open adoption can play in improving the lives of neglected children. Historically, under closed adoption an adopted child's original birth certificate was sealed and an amended birth certificate issued that established the child's new identity and relationship with their adoptive family. This sometimes has negative impacts on adoptees. Open adoption, on the other hand, acknowledges the origins of children and allows information-sharing or contact between birth and adoptive parents. The report notes that open adoption is now facilitated in varying degrees in all states and territories in Australia.

    While open adoption can benefit a number of children, there are circumstances where closed adoption is more appropriate. The report recommends that open adoption occur unless there are exceptional circumstances justifying closed adoption, but my experience suggests that decisions about closed or open adoption should be made based on the particular circumstances at hand and take into account what is best for the child and, depending on their age, the child's wishes. It is imperative that the safety and wellbeing of the child are prioritised, even though notions of family preservation and cultural considerations are important.

    The report notes that, as part of the adoption process, states and territories issue new birth certificates in which the adoptive parents are named as parents of the child in lieu of the birth parents. The child's original birth certificate is kept in the relevant state's or territory's records and may be requested on application. This approach is gradually shifting to one of integrated birth certificates. These are birth certificates that include the names of both the birth parents and adoptive parents. South Australia is in the process of changing its adoption legislation to have integrated birth certificates. The ACT, New South Wales, Northern Territory, Queensland and Victorian governments are in various stages of considering integrated birth certificates.

    As part of any law reform relating to integrated birth certificates and adoption more broadly the question of inherited citizenship should be taken into account. As recent experience in Australia's parliament has demonstrated, citizenship rights can be inherited passively. It is important that the legislature consider how such rights will be affected by integrated birth certificates.

    Another of the committee's recommendations relates to the timing of a decision about whether a child may be able to safely return to their birth parents—that is, this decision must be made within a legislated time frame, such as six months for children under two years or within 12 months for older children. It is vital that a legislated time frame of around 24 months also be required in relation to decisions on adoption. I'm aware of families subjected to eight or more years of uncertainty as foster parents waded through the complex, protracted process of adoption. Such prolonged uncertainty compromises a child's wellbeing and is just not good enough for these young people's lives. The committee's recommendation for an evidence based approach to adoption is valuable, and I urge government to support research into issues, such as the effect on children of forced contact or lack of contact with birth parents during the adoption process, along with other potential impacts on children. In light of these considerations, I thank the committee for its work in completing this important report.

    Debate adjourned.