The black box of foster to adoption in Australia.

It’s National Adoption Awareness Month in the U.S., and Penny from Foster2Forever is hosting a blog hop for people to share their adoption stories.  She asks that contributors keep their posts down to 500 words but regular readers will know that’s just not possible for me.  So apologies in advance if you’re visiting from the blog hop and you don’t like long posts!

Reading the foster/adoption literature that comes out of America it’s easy to get the impression that adopting from foster care is a relatively straightforward process.  There’s hoops to jump through (for good reasons of course) but if you want to do it and if the children in your care are assessed as not being able to be restored, then there’s nothing really standing in your way other than your willingness to work your way through a year or two of bureaucratic and legal processes.  That’s certainly the picture that I have of the foster to adoption world in America, rightly or wrongly.  It’s probably much more nuanced that that, nevertheless it seems vastly different to our situation here in Australia.

In Australia, we don’t have an adoption culture.  We have a restoration culture.  That well known authority Wikipedia tells us that in 2008-2009 there were only 104 “known child” adoptions in the whole country (there are over 30,000 children in out of home care in Australia).  But I’m not writing about that today.  What I’m writing about today is how that cultural bias towards restoration manifests in terms of the legal status of children in long term or permanent foster care.

But first, some background that might be useful for readers to know.  In Australia, foster care and adoption are administered at the State level.  Each State differs in their approach and the rules and regulations surrounding foster care and adoption vary significantly.  Broadly speaking, all States share this ideological bias towards restoration, although the way that this is expressed through policy and practice varies significantly.

In Victoria, when it’s determined that particular children are not able to be restored to their family, they come under the auspices of the Permanent Care program.  Although the permanent care program is, to all intents and purposes, an adoption program, the departmental discourse makes it clear that a distinction between permanent care and adoption is to be maintained.  The essence of their distinction is this:  Adoption is voluntary and placement through permanent care is not.  That distinction has practical impacts on the permanent care applicant prior to placement and on the permanent care family after placement.  For those who are pursuing permanent care, particular those in the early stages of their enquiries, there is much uncertainty about the practicalities of becoming a permanent care parent.  Will my child/ren get new birth certificates?  What name will they have?  What legal rights and entitlements will we have?  Will my children automatically inherit from me?  For foster carers who are in Victoria, and who may be interested in becoming a permanent care parent to the children in their care, the picture is even more murky.  There is much uncertainty about whether or how foster care parents can qualify for permanent care, and whether or not the authorities will give weight to existing relationships or arrangements when considering placement of the children involved.  While some of these questions are answered as applicants work their way through the process, and some applicants are much more savvy about finding answers to their questions than others, there’s no doubt that some prospective permanent carers are discouraged from pursuing their interest by the uncertainties involved at the outset.

In NSW, while there is a legal right to adopt from foster care, in practice this is highly unusual and has an almost mythical status amongst hopeful long term foster parents.  Unlike other jurisdictions, NSW does make information about adopting from foster care readily available.  In practice however, there are only a couple of handfuls of adoptions in NSW every year.  Much more likely is that children become subject to a “GOM18″ order which is a parenting order which retains children’s legal status under the Guardianship of the Minister (of the relevant government department) until the child turns 18.  This of course can have significant impacts on the legal status of children under this order.  For parents it means that they are still subject to the oversight of the relevant department and in practice the level of oversight or “interference” is variable and depends to a large degree on practice and policy at the local agency or departmental level.

In my own State of Tasmania there is no publicly available information about adopting from foster care.  Department resources make it clear that long term foster care is the solution for kids who cannot be restored to their families and it seems that a similar parenting order to the GOM18 may apply in some cases.  The Tasmania Adoption Act 1988 suggests that long term foster parents could initiate adoption proceedings.  However I would be very surprised if such proceedings would succeed without the express support of the department and determined efforts on behalf of involved caseworkers.

For me, this raises specific questions.  If I become a long term carer, will I be able to travel with my family?  Interstate?  Overseas? Short–term only or long-term?  Will I be able to get my forever child a passport?  What level of oversight will we be subject to in the long term?  At what point will I be able to make decisions about which doctor my child attends or which schools they attend?  Will I be able to co-sleep?  Will I be able to bath or shower with my forever child?  Will my parents be able to babysit my forever child as they do my biological child?  Where rights does my forever child have to my estate?  How long before a determination about legal status can be made after placement?  What expectations about access with family are in place in long term care situations?  What rights do family have to challenge long term parenting orders?  What rights do family have to challenge my parenting decisions for our children?  I could go on.  While many if not most of these questions will be answered during the training and approval process, some of them will only be answered in the doing.  It’s clear that going into long term care here is akin to jumping into the murky water and hope it’s deep enough but not too deep.

While some research has noted the slow re-emergence of pro-adoption policy discourse in Australia, contemporary permanency planning practice in Australia pays little attention to the role of legal status in permanency arrangements.  There is little recognition of how much uncertainty about legal status inhabits the thoughts of prospective and current long term carer/parents and the sense that those seeking clarification of questions relating to legal status are seeking a baby through the back door is still prevalent in the bureaucracy.  At at time when many States are spending money on advertising campaigns to attract carers, there is little sense that the underlying discourse reflecting the prevalence of an ideological bias towards restoration might be turning off potential long term carers.  Deliberate obfuscation about the legal status of children in long term care is one element of discourse which reflects the cultural bias against adoption in Australia.  Sociologists call this kind of obfuscation a black box.  It’s a system in which some participants are unable to see or understand the inner-workings despite their own involvement.  This allows their participation to be controlled or determined to some degree by those who have knowledge of how the black box really works.

Foster care forums in Australia are filled with the anxious questions of those seeking some firm ground on which to build their family’s house of cards.  The stories of those for whom the stars have magically aligned are carried around like a talisman for everyone else.  I know a few women for whom their foster to “adoption” journey has worked out as well as could be hoped in the circumstances.  Yet I know of many many more for whom it has become a confusing and painful nightmare of impenetrable red tape and inflexible yet arbitrarily applied policy interpretations.  As a hopeful intending foster to “adoption” parent, I have to believe that my story will be one of the happy ones, that persistence and determination will be enough to see me through the murky waters.

This is not a post about the pros and cons of restoration.  This is not a post about the pros and cons of adoption.  This is not a post about openness in adoption or long term care.  It’s not a post about how or why the ideological bias against adoption arose in Australia. This is not a post about the merits of short term foster care versus long term care or restoration versus adoption.  This is a post about how uncertainty about the legal status of children in long term care in Australia is manifested from the point of view of a prospective long term carer.

I kept it below 1600 words so I hope that you’re still reading :)

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