Celebrity campaign to reform adoption laws

This is the transcript of a radio show that was broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on 13.03.2008.

KERRY O’BRIEN: The apparent ease with which celebrities adopt children from the developing world has left many prospective parents in Australia wondering why it’s such a difficult process here. Australia has one of the lowest inter country adoption rates in the developed world. Last year, 400 children were adopted from overseas, but the queue of hopeful parents stretches into the thousands. At the moment, the process can take anything up to six years. Actor Deborah Lee Furness, herself an adoptive parent, is using her celebrity profile to lobby the Government to make it an easier and faster procedure. But the push doesn’t enjoy universal support.

Kirstin Murray reports.

CLINTON BURGESS: There’ll be a pause at the door and you wonder how your child is going to play in that room and what toys they’re going to play with.

KIRSTIN MURRAY: For the past 20 months Clinton and Josie Burgess have jumped through one bureaucrat hoop after another, hoping one day to become adoptive parents. While it’s been a gruelling process they recognise the aspect to have every aspect of their lives scrutinised.

JOSIE BURGESS: There were medical, police checks, financial checks. We had education sessions which lead onto assignments.

CLINTON BURGESS: Doing the primary school stuff, that brought back a lot of memories.

KIRSTIN MURRAY: And even though they’ve now been given the green light, it could be another three years before the Victorian couple get
to welcome a child from Thailand into their home. The reason for the delay? It’s a game of numbers, and Victoria’s already reached its annual quota for Thai babies.

CLINTON BURGESS: So Thailand I guess nominate how many files they’ll accept from Australia and within the Government system that is then allocated to each State. For Victoria this year it’s nine.

KIRSTIN MURRAY: This isn’t an isolated experience. Across Australia there are thousands of people waiting to adopt a child from overseas
and the queue isn’t getting any shorter.

DEBORRA-LEE FURNESS, ACTOR: People want these children. You’ve got them wanting them and you’ve got the orphans desperately needing love and food and nourishment and what’s stopping them is the bureaucracy in the middle, and I see this as a priority. We’re saving lives.

KIRSTIN MURRAY: Actors Deborah Lee Furness and husband Hugh Jackman adopted two children in America after finding the New South Wales system too difficult. For them, the process took less than a year. While Deborah Lee Furness is more at home on a film set, she’s taken on a new role pushing for change in Australia’s adoption laws.

DEBORRA-LEE FURNESS: It’s embarrassing. We’re the Lucky Country. We’ve got endless resources and we’re known to be generous of spirit, so I’m like, “Yeah, come on guys, we’ve got to step up”.

KIRSTIN MURRAY: For those wanting to adopt, the system’s a tangled web. Each State and Territory has its own rules covering a prospective parents age, sexual orientation, even a person’s weight. And the cost can reach up to $45,000. Then there’s the complex regulations of each country offering children up for adoption. This Sydney playgroup meets every week to give the children a chance to interact with other Korean born adoptees. Briget adopted her son Jun two and a half years ago. Before she could apply for a second child, Korea closed its books.

BRIDGET GYSBERS: The thing I find most difficult is the lack of communication. It’s difficult not knowing whether I will be the parent of two children, whether Jun will have a sibling.

JANINE WEIR: Adoption in our community and the way the Government’s seen it, it’s suffered inertia. We’re an anomaly in our community, we shouldn’t be.

KIRSTIN MURRAY: The problems in inter country adoption were highlighted two years ago when a Federal Government committee suggested Australia streamline adoptions by standardising fees and procedures across the nation. That process is still under way.

BRONWYN BISHOP, PARLIAMENTARY OVERSEAS ADOPTION INQUIRY: What we found was there was an anti adoption culture that permeates the entire bureaucracy.

KIRSTIN MURRAY: In a bid to increase this pool of adoptees a Government delegation travelled to Cambodia and Vietnam last month, but progress is slow. For Deborah Lee Furness, the solution is simple. She says Australia could speed things up by following America, where around 20,000 inter country adoptions take place each year under a privatised system.

DEBORRA-LEE FURNESS: You can do the work, you can interrogate these people, make them constable, it can be done. These are accountable. These are NGOs, they’re not for profit. These are people who care and are passionate about doing what they do and it can happen.

KIRSTIN MURRAY: The speed at which Angelina Jolie and Madonna are able to adopt attracted a great deal of attention, do you think their experiences should be scrutinised or held up as an example of the US system working?

DEBORRA-LEE FURNESS: Do you know why? It’s not because of their celebrity, they are US citizens. I don’t even want to answer to that about the celebrity, it annoys me. Angelina and Madonna could be out partying and buying diamonds. They’re not doing drugs. Leave them alone. They’re putting something positive into the world.

KIRSTIN MURRAY: What do you think is a fair and reasonable time for Australians to wait?

DEBORRA-LEE FURNESS: Gestation, nine months.

MEG LEWIS, ARMS: I feel frustrated that Deborah Lee Furness has the amount of publicity that she has around adoption. If you come to
ARMS you have women who have 30, 40 years of living and breathing adoption and our voice is not heard in this discussion.

KIRSTIN MURRAY: Meg Lewis heads an organisation called ARMS, a support group for Australian mothers who’ve given children up for adoption. Back in the late 1970s adoption was presented as the only option for Meg Lewis. The only keepsake of her son is the photograph.

MEG LEWIS: I believe that children should have the right to remain within their own family, their culture and their community.

KIRSTIN MURRAY: Meg Lewis fears just as she experienced, women overseas are giving up their children because of social and economic pressures.

MEG LEWIS: I think it’s a great injustice to do that to communities in developing countries where we don’t have that practice here in Australia anymore. It’s not acceptable and yet, we’re quite happy to look overseas and take children from developing countries.

DEBORRA-LEE FURNESS: You see that’s part of your corruption, that’s part of the due diligence. Yeah, I can see the fears in that. We can’t come from a fear base. If anything, with anything we do in life if we come from fear we’re not going to act. It will stop us every step of the way.

LYNELLE BEVERIDGE, INTER-COUNTRY ADOPTEE SUPPORT NETWORK: I was born in Vietnam in 1973, I was adopted into an Australian family at the age of six months. Children will go through quite a number of issues. In the teenage years especially, they’ll be dealing with issues like racism from school.

DEBORRA-LEE FURNESS: Lynelle Beveridge has first hand experience of the challenges adoptees can encounter as they grow up in a foreign culture. Enough to inspire her to set up a support group for others like her. And it’s that long term post adoption support which she sees as vital to ensure the best interest of the child remains central to any overhaul of Australia’s inter country adoption system.

LYNELLE BEVERIDGE: We need to address the broader context of an inter country adoption and especially the post adoption side of that for the adult adoptees once they grow older as well as for the families, because there are issues once the child arrives. It’s not just that’s the end of the story, that’s only just the beginning of the journey.

KIRSTIN MURRAY: Right now, the Government’s in the process of setting up a national adviser group to represent all aspects of the adoptive
community. But Deborah Lee Furness is continuing to push for more immediate action.

DEBORRA-LEE FURNESS: What is the alternative for a child that is walking the streets fending for itself, institutionalised dealing with all the emotional problems that happen with being institutionalised or being left to die? That’s the other alternative.

KERRY O’BRIEN: And, of course, in the middle of it all the issue of whether I guess, the integrity of the process.