Adoption reforms that were brought into effect in NSW in 2016 have seen a surge in open adoptions and a dramatic reduction in approval times.
Since the changes, foster carers who wish to adopt a child in their care have had their applications fast-tracked and the new system has resulted in adoption approval rates doubling since its implementation.
Before the changes, the adoption process could take years. Neil and Sue Coutts have adopted two foster children, each time dedicating at least four years to the adoption process.
Wait times have now been halved thanks to the new Family and Community Services (FACS) Adoptions Taskforce, whose job it is to wade through the backlog of adoption applications, which at last count was 370, down from a total of 470 a year ago.
As well as new streamlined processes, the NSW Government's Adoptions Transformation program provides families with a means-tested adoption allowance to help them transition to their new responsibilities.
Finding "forever families" for foster kids
The new system reflects the reality, that foster carers are often in the position to provide a stable and loving home to a child, for a lifetime. Emma, a caseworker for Challenge Community Services, welcomed the recent changes saying adoptions amongst foster carers was a rare occurrence in her experience.
"It is quite an exciting development because adoption gives these kids more security," Emma said. "I hope that the changes result in a more streamlined process, and it is definitely looking promising as FACS's dedicated taskforce is on hand to help potential adoptive parents over bureaucratic hurdles.”
What is open adoption?
Adoption has changed dramatically over the years and is no longer the traumatic, complete separation from birth parents that we associate with the term. Instead, open adoption has the advantage of maintaining links with the birth family and culture, leading to better outcomes, and a happier result, for children.
Open adoption is the process whereby the child’s adoptive parent takes on all legal rights and responsibilities for the child. Part of an adoptive parent's responsibility is keeping the birth family involved with the adopted child's new life. "Challenge is always supportive of open adoption because it is vital to keep connections with a child's birth family: it is their identity, where they come from, their story,” Emma said.
“Open adoption is about connecting the adoptive family and the birth family, so essentially this child has two, cooperative, families. It is up to the adoptive family to encourage a relationship with the birth family, so it is imperative that we have confidence that the adoptive family is able to facilitate that contact and the child’s connection to his or her family."
Facing fears on both sides
Emma observed that both birth and adoptive parents were often scared of the process of open adoption and each other, but these fears seldom eventuated. She said that while keeping contact open with birth families can present challenges; it was also a rewarding process.
“I think sometimes foster carers have a fear of the birth family, and this is usually unfounded,” Emma said. "Obviously in some cases it is not possible to involve the birth family for safety reasons, but in most cases it is possible to develop good relationships with the birth family and work towards building a connection between the carer and the parent.
“Carers and adoptive parents need to understand how important it is for these children to know their family and where they come from, where possible, and for the carers to be able to support the foster children through that process."
She said that birth families needed to be educated on what open adoption involves.
"It can seem scary because the birth family thinks they will be cut out of the child's life once they are adopted," Emma said. "But that is not the case with open adoption, and I think there needs to be a lot more information supplied to birth parents to alleviate their fears, to reassure them that they still have an important role to play in their child's life.”
How can Challenge help?
Challenge works in conjunction with FACS, working as a liaison between foster carers, birth families, the Family Court and contracting independent assessors.
“Our role is to help the carer start the process of adoption,” Emma said. "We handle the initial inquiry, let FACS know of their intentions, and we provide a liaison service through the whole process. We will arrange for carers to go to adoption training and we will attend some of these seminars with them.”
One of Emma’s primary responsibilities is to locate, which can often prove difficult, and provide information to the child’s birth parents of the child so they can express their views on the adoption.
"We also assist the carers through their application, filling in forms, medical and police checks, that sort of thing. We arrange for Community Services to undertake safety and background checks on carers,” Emma said. “Our most important role is supporting the carers through this process, we are there if they need to discuss anything or debrief about the process because it can be quite stressful for them.
“Obviously their heart is set on adoption, so naturally they worry that the assessment might show that adoption by the carer is not in the best interest of the child. However, usually by the time we get to the assessment stage we know that adoption is the right option for that child,” Emma said.
Emma was hopeful the new reforms would see more foster children find their “forever family”.
“I think the open adoption process can be really amazing now and if we can increase the rates of open adoptions for these kids, then they have a real chance at a better future," Emma said.
For more information on fostering with a view to adoption, download our Fostering for Permanency ebook.
Advice from the experienced
Emma shared some advice for potential carers and adoptive parents, as did foster carer and adoptive parent Sue Coutts. Here are their top five tips.
- No expectations. Sue said that no matter how long it has been since you cared for a child, whenever you get handed a baby you are starting at square one again. “Age has nothing to do with it,” she said.
- Contact Challenge. If you are considering adopting, Emma suggests discussing your options openly and honestly with your caseworker. "If there is any aspect you feel apprehensive about, just ask,” Emma said.
- Be an advocate. Sue said that if you are going to care for children, you must do everything in your power to get the support they need, learn everything you can about their situation and advocate on their behalf.
- Be open. Emma said foster carers and adoptive parents needed to be open to contact with the birth family. "Carers have to approach the birth family in a non-judgemental way and have a genuine love for the children in their care," she said.
- Care for the carer. Respite is essential for both carers and children. “Don’t try and do it on your own, caseworkers are there to support you, but you also need to learn from other foster carers as well,” Sue said.