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Who takes priority in the case of children living in care?

By Marie-Therese Gibson - posted Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Calls for adoption reform in recent weeks have focused on the intercountry adoption system. Prime Minister Abbott vowed to cut time frames for intercountry adoptions from five years to one year. Debra Lee Furness, founder of Adopt Change, was awarded NSW Australian of the Year for her work to improve access to intercountry adoption in Australia.

Efforts to provide safe and loving homes for international children in need are to be welcomed, but we also need to pay attention to our own backyard. A new research report from Women's Forum Australia, Adoption Rethink, highlights the situation of vulnerable children living in care in Australia, calling for action to address what is turning into a crisis with long-term consequences for our society.

Nearly 40,000 children in Australia are living in out-of-home care (OOHC) and 68 per cent of these have been in continuous care for two or more years. These are children who have been removed from their natural parents because of physical, sexual or emotional abuse, or neglect. The number of Australian children living in OOHC has doubled over the past 12 years. Children are also moved in and out of care more frequently. While foster carers make a heroic effort to provide loving care for these children, the lack of stability and permanency still has a detrimental impact on a child's well-being.


There are long-term damaging consequences for children who are left to flounder through the foster care system, in some cases for years, while waiting for the courts to resolve their future. Stability and permanency are crucial to a child's healthy development. The lack of these factors in a young child's life has been shown to adversely affect normal brain development. The cost to society and governments in caring for these children and mending the traumatic consequences of their situation is enormous. So why do we continue to tolerate it?

Our government is a signatory to international instruments emphasising the rights and best interests of the child, and it is a sound human instinct to put the needs of the most vulnerable first. But, as Martin Nary of the UK Adoption Leadership Board has noted in a landmark adoption review, delays in resolving the situation of children in need arise from attitudes that place the rights of the child below the needs of the parentsanda loss of the sense of urgency when a child is placed in care.

Given the high number of children living in OOHC in Australia, it would seem that here, like in the UK, the focus is on keeping children with their birth parents and supported by foster care, even when this is to the detriment of the child's best interests.

Should a child remain with his or her birth parents at any cost? The research shows that the optimal situation for a child occurs when a child is raised in a safe, loving and stable environment by his or her birth parents. Every effort should be made to facilitate this with appropriate financial and community support.

However, where it is established that children are at risk of harm, we need to take more urgent action. As the director of leading children's charity, Barnardos UK, points out, "research shows that most parents who are going to significantly improve their ability to look after their child do so in the first six months of the child's life. If that doesn't happen, then we need to be bolder – and quicker – in making the decision to remove that child permanently."

If birth parents do not show signs of being able to offer adequate care within six months, social workers, courts and others involved in the adoption process should be empowered to act quickly. Where children are at risk of harm, a decision to place a child in an alternative permanent and stable environment should be made with urgency. The research suggests that the permanent arrangement should take effect no later than six months from the time of substantiation of harm. This may require giving the courts the facility to dispense with parental consent to adoption.


Open adoption principles, involving ongoing contact, could still apply when, and to the extent, that the authorities consider safe and beneficial for both the child and its parents.

Vulnerable children benefit from the safe and stable environment that permanent care options, including adoption, offer. Research shows that adopted children score higher on IQ, school-performance, and a lack of behavioural problems than children who are forced to live in institutions, foster care or with birth parents who are unable or unwilling to provide appropriate care. We need to reorient our priorities to meet the needs of children first.

How our community cares for its most vulnerable members speaks volumes about who we are.

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Adoption Rethink is available for download

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About the Author

Dr Marie-Therese Gibson is the former Principal of Tangara School for Girls. Dr Gibson has an MA and Dip Ed from the University of Sydney and a PhD in Educational Sciences from the University of Navarre (Spain). She is currently a Board Member of Women's Forum Australia, an independent women's think tank that conducts research into issues affecting the health, safety and well-being of women.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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