Moral failures and market failures: why we should abandon intercountry adoption

In April this year the Centre for Independent Studies (independent of what?) published a scathing attack by Jeremy Sammut on current out of home care policies.

His argument is as follows,

Child protection data for 2012–13 show that Australia’s OOHC system remains under siege due to rapidly increasing spending on OOHC, increasing numbers of children in OOHC, and the greater complexity of the OOHC population. Since 2000–01, the total real national expenditure on OOHC has more than tripled; the total OOHC population has more than doubled; and the total number of children in very expensive ‘residential’ care placements has almost doubled. High levels of ‘re-reporting’ and ‘re-substantiation’ of cases of child abuse and neglect, plus high levels of ‘instability’ (unstable placements) for children while in care, mean that increasing numbers of children are being damaged by the very child protection system that is meant to protect them..

 The longer time children are left in abusive homes and unstable care, the greater is the damage done; it could therefore be argued that more damaged children are ending up in care not despite but because higher spending on family preservation is exacerbating child abuse and neglect. Larger sums are being spent on family support/preservation without yielding the promised reductions in demand for statutory and OOHC services because Australian child protection authorities refuse to face up to the hard truth behind the failure of so-called ‘preventive’ social services to assist the dysfunctional families most likely to abuse and neglect children: damaged parents, with entrenched personal and social problems, stay damaged, and these dysfunctional families damage their children..

 Sammut spends fifteen pages hammering this point. He then proffers the solution like a rabbit out of a hat; more adoptions.

Despite the deteriorating situation in the OOHC system, there has been little effective policy response in most states and territories. Lack of action—best illustrated by the gross disparity between the high number of children in care and the low number of local adoptions—has led to child protection gaining overdue national attention. In December 2013, the Abbott government announced plans to make it easier for Australian parents to adopt children both locally and from overseas. Acknowledging the official ‘taboo’ on adoption in child protection circles, Prime Minister Tony Abbott ordered an inter-departmental committee headed by the Department of Premier and Cabinet to recommend ways to take adoption out of the ‘too-hard basket’ and streamline the adoption process.

 And the reason he offers for this misguided profligacy and policy blindness of our states and territories?

..social workers remain traumatised by the profession’s involvement in past adoption practices, including forced adoption and the Stolen Generation; hence the adoption ‘taboo.’ Adoption targets and incentive-based funding would circumvent the anti-adoption cultural resistance and facilitate much-needed cultural change in child protection authorities by providing clear political direction. Responsibility for reviving the use of adoption would be rightly and definitely assumed by the politicians, both federal and state, who are ultimately in charge of the system.

Sammut bemoans the lack of ‘local’ adoptions – 210 in Australia last year. He regards this as pitifully low,

..especially given the rising numbers of children in care. But the situation is actually bleaker than this. There were only 54 adoptions where the child was not previously ‘known’ to the adoptive parents, and in all these cases the birth mother and/or birth father consented to the adoption. Adoption is so rare partly because child protection authorities will not pursue this option without parental consent and will not apply to the courts to dispense with parental consent. Of the remaining 154 ‘known’ adoptions, 78 were ‘step-parent’ adoptions, 5 were ‘relative’ and ‘other’ adoptions, and 81 were ‘carer’ adoptions—out of a care population of more than 40,000. Moreover, 78 of 81 carer adoptions were in NSW alone. The under-performance or non-performance on adoption from care by other states and territories speaks for itself. (my emphasis)

 Sammut offers the United States as the ideal model for his proposed policy shift.

In the United States, more than 50,000 children are adopted from care each year. If Australian children in care were adopted at the same rate as in the United States, there would be around 5,000 adoptions each year, nationally.

Concurrent with this attack on out of home care policies, Adopt Change, a high profile lobby group has persuaded the Abbott government to cut the red tape to speed up intercountry adoptions. In December 2013 the SMH reported that

Tony Abbott says he wants to make it “much much easier” for Australian couples to adopt children from overseas, saying tens of thousands of babies could be brought to Australia from orphanages.

The Prime Minister invited Hollywood actor Hugh Jackman and his wife, the adoption advocate Deborra-Lee Furness, to Kirribilli House on Thursday to announce that his government would deliver “reform on overseas adoption” within 12 months.

“There are millions of children in orphanages overseas who would love to have parents,” Mr Abbott said. “And thousands of those, maybe even tens of thousands of those could come to Australia”.

 In May 2014 the Prime Minister announced that a

new report has identified significant barriers facing Australian families wanting to adopt from overseas.  Inconsistent rules, costs and the lengthy wait to adopt currently deter many people from even starting the adoption process…COAG agreed to a national system for intercountry adoption. The Commonwealth will work vigorously with the States and Territories to have a new system operating by early 2015.

Adopt Change also claims that there are “almost 18,500 kids in foster care in Australia needing a family”. Is this accurate? And is adoption a solution?

Let us be clear: there is no eager queue in the US or Australia of people waiting to adopt a child from out of home care.

In the US around 20% of children in foster care are adopted annually. Most US states give top priority to relatives and current foster parents when a child becomes legally freed for adoption. In 2013, 89 percent of children adopted from foster care were adopted by relatives or foster parents. They also needed plenty of state support to do it. Ninety-three percent of the children adopted from foster care in 2013 qualified to receive an ongoing subsidy because they met their state’s definition for “special needs.” (In 2008, 43% of monthly subsidies were $301–$500; 24% were $501–$750.) According to a US adoption guide these subsidies are designed to remove the financial barriers that may prevent a family from adopting from foster care, and to ensure that a child’s special needs are met until he becomes an adult.

If the same policy is adopted in Australia, and long term foster parents are encouraged to adopt the children in their care, how would we judge the success of this initiative? And why not move to the simpler and quicker option of permanent guardianship?

And as for Sammut’s hard truth that helping dysfunctional families enables futher child abuse? There is plenty of evidence of successful programs that meaningfully engage parents in protecting their children.

Whatever the consequences of adoption from foster care, it does not significantly increase the quantum of carers as it mostly formalizes existing care arrangements. Barnardos Australia, strong proponents of open adoption from out of home care, speak of reducing short term placements by offering carers and their foster children the permanency of adoption. Paradoxically, in 2013, the NSW Government spent a million dollars in a campaign to recruit more foster carers. The Minister said,

“There is urgent need for new foster families to provide safety and stability for vulnerable children and young people,”…“We have 9,000 amazing foster carers across NSW, but we need more. In the next year alone we need at least 450 new carers.”

There were no Hollywood celebrities at the launch.

We know from past history that adoption flourishes when governments deny the resources that families and communities need to look after their own children. It then becomes easy to break the connection between birth parents and their children. This in turn frees up a larger pool of children available to be adopted.

Let me table some relevant facts. Although Australia is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, the demonization of the unemployed is ensuring the creation of a permanently impoverished underclass. In the mid 90’s the unemployed were just on the poverty line at 48% of median income. This has dropped dramatically to around 30% of median income. Sole parents are moved from parenting payment to Newstart when their youngest child turns eight. About half the 600,000 children below the poverty line are in sole parent families. This begs two questions. Are state governments having to put back into families (through OOHC funding) what the federal government has been busy stripping out? And are numbers of children in out of home care rising because of this entrenched and growing underclass?

Do social inequality and high adoption rates go together? Well…..yes.

Consider this league table of child poverty from UNICEF. Remember too that the Abbott government is determined to introduce further policies to increase inequality.

In relation to minimising child poverty, Iceland is the best performing country in the world. In 2012 in Iceland there were 34 adoptions. 50% of those were step parents adopting their partners child. The rest were intercountry adoptions, mostly from China. There were no local adoptions at all outside of kinship. Not one single Icelander adopted a local child that was not already known to them. By contrast, in 2008 in the US there were approximately 136,000 adoptions. 13% were intercountry. 41% were organised through a public agency and 47% by other means. These include adoptions organised a facilitator who charges a fee for linking expectant birth mothers with prospective adoptive parents. The US accounts for half the adoptions in the entire world. A growing underclass ensures that there are plenty of local adoptions where the adoptive parents did not previously know the child.

There are many adoption practices in the US that Australians would find abhorrent, including the quasi marketization of the process, including the prospective adoptive parents paying all the birth mother’s expenses, as well as being present at the birth. (What odds the birth mother changing her mind at that point?)

Organisations like Adopt Change portray adoption as an act of altruism; essentially rescuing orphans from deprivation or worse. Whilst there is usually a significant component of altruism in fostering an older child with special needs and problematic family attachments, the same cannot be said for those people who want to adopt a healthy young baby and have as little as possible to do with the baby’s birth family. If the desire is strong, then those with the means will turn to intercountry adoption (or surrogacy).

This quote from an adoptive parent sums up this viewpoint;

“I am an adoptive parent. I adopted my gorgeous boy 15 years ago from South Korea. Why South Korea? Because it was a country that imposed no religious or other constraints on us adopting a baby.
Why not Australia? Because we would have had to agree to share our baby…”

This quote from another adoptive parent illustrates a more thoughtful view.

I am a mother of an adopted child from another country … There is a big part of me that feels guilty for having adopted my son. He was relinquished because he was the last of 10 children, no father, poor mother. She didn’t choose to give him up,- her circumstances forced her to. But I got what I wanted! a child. Of course he was lucky now that he has me and I feel blessed but the motivating factor was me wanting to have a child. If my priorities weren’t looking after ME firstly, but rather helping a child, imagine what the money and resources that it is costing me to raise one child, could do to support the family and community that my son came from. If we all did this……..

Intercountry adoption has been plagued with scandal. Child trafficking and/or bribery and corruption have occurred in Guatemala, Albania, Cambodia, China, Nepal, Samoa, Haiti, India, Ethiopia, Liberia, Peru, and Vietnam.

The majority of these countries are parties to the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption. Supporters and apologists for intercountry adoption offer this convention as a solution for the chronic corruption that plagues the practice, but paradoxically the fatal flaws in intercountry adoption can be found in the text of the Convention itself. As you might imagine it affirms the necessity of adoptions being made in the best interests of the child, that consent for adoption must be freely given without inducement or compensation, that agencies involved should be non profit, and that only reasonable fees may be charged. It upholds the principle of subsidiarity according to which intercountry adoption should only take place when suitable adoptive parents cannot be identified in the country of origin of the child.

Astonishingly it does not require adoptive parents to maintain their child’s cultural or religious links with its community of origin. The only relevant reference to this is the UN Declaration Relating to the Welfare of Children (1986). Article 24 requires Member States to pay due regard to the child’s cultural and religious background and interest. What does “due regard” mean? And how can it possibly be enforced? The Declaration does not canvass the option of open adoption at all. How practical is this concept across oceans and cultures? Open adoption is feasible in local adoptions from foster care, particularly given that foster parents started their journey with an openness to a relationship with birth family.

Most striking of all, the Convention declares its intent to “establish a system of co-operation amongst Contracting States to ensure that those safeguards are respected and thereby prevent the abduction, the sale of, or traffic in children”. (my emphasis)

If adoption regulations are ‘preventing’ a market in acquiring children, the regulations are in effect market regulations.

The social disadvantage of the communities and individuals who relinquish children for adoption has always fuelled the ‘best interests of the child’ argument, as any victim of a forced adoption will tell you. Now (and in history) proponents of adoption will sometimes say that the end justifies the means – after all who could argue with a good outcome? But consider the now famous case of Michael Hess, the US lawyer, adopted by wealthy Americans from an Irish orphanage, who then vainly looked for his mother Philomena Lee. He died without ever meeting her.

We now know in hindsight that this should never have happened. Even if Michael Hess had been an orphan it should never have happened. In a more civilized world Michael would never have left his own country. The state should have given Michael’s mother and/or extended the family the means to care for him properly. If this was not possible he should have been fostered in his own community.

Despite the propaganda of pro intercountry adoption groups, intercountry adoption is on its last legs. Figures from International Social Services show a global decline of nearly fifty per cent, from 43,142 adoptions in 2004 to 21,991 adoptions in 2011. The decline is not because of market regulation failure, but because of the increasing realisation that it should never have been a ‘market’ in the first place.

Countries are taking more seriously their obligations to look after their own children. It is unlikely that more countries will sign up to the Hague Convention.

Convention participant countries are taking longer and longer to offer children for adoption and increasingly offering only older children with illnesses and disabilities. In a world committed to social justice and the reduction of inequality, adoption will become a rarity, just as it has in Iceland. Countries are increasingly taking the view that the ‘best interests of the child’ include keeping the child in its own community and providing that community with the resources to care for its own children.

There are many things that we can do if we want to contribute to the welfare of children both at home and overseas. We can contribute to child welfare charities both at home and overseas. We can lobby our governments to increase welfare payments so that no child lives in poverty. We can insist that the Abbott Government increase overseas aid, and stop counting money used to imprison asylum seekers as foreign aid. We can volunteer to be foster carers and open our hearts to both the children and the communities they come from.

Of course none of the above will necessarily ease the pain of being childless.

Just as adoption is declining and becoming more open, a new challenge to child welfare is emerging; surrogacy – the most marketised ‘solution’ of all, purpose designed to prey upon the pain of being childless. Google the term ‘surrogacy’ and you can immediately weigh up the pros and cons of renting a uterus in India or Mexico. Prospective parents can compare the costs and benefits of an arrangement in India costing $28,750 USD, or Mexico at $49,500 USD. Let us not debate how to regulate this market. Surrogacy contracts are already being declared unenforceable in many jurisdictions. There are some things that should never be for sale.

In my view the Australian Association of Social Workers should take an unequivocal stand on these issues. We must not forget the lessons of the Stolen Generation and forced adoptions. We should advocate for the repudiation of the Hague Convention, we should no longer support intercountry adoptions, and we should affirm the unenforceability of surrogacy contracts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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One Response to Moral failures and market failures: why we should abandon intercountry adoption

  1. Hi! For some reason this piece written by you calling for the abandonment of inter country adoption has only just been posted in our FB group – I see it was written 2 years ago. Just want to say thanks for taking on Sammut and putting your arguments down against inter country adoption and surrogacy – both of which remove babies from their birthmothers – both of which usually entail permanent and irrevocable removal from country of origin, language, culture and extended family. ISS have always been well “into” inter country adoption which is why I am surprised to hear you argue the other way. Australia has just opened up adoptions between Poland and Latvia – and just recently Bulgaria. Now more than ever it is time to put an end to the sourcing of children for adoption. Poland especially has a large middle class and is capable of looking after their own children.

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