By Michael Hawton, MAPS.
At the recent Adopt Change national conference in November in Sydney, I heard the former CEO of the UK’s Barnardos, Sir Martin Narey, speak about how they assess the suitability of foster carers in Britain. Sir Martin said that people looking to foster children are assessed as ‘unsuitable’ within six months or as ‘suitable’ within two years. In other words, the UK has a relatively quick turn-around assessing whether or not people can become foster carers or adoptive parents. I am mentioning this because it has been my experience that the judgement about the unsuitability of birth parents in Australia often takes far longer than six months, and it shouldn’t.
Over the years, one of my professional hats has been as a writer of reports in The Children’s Court Clinic. These reports are prepared independently of applications brought before the court by state welfare authorities. The reports issued to the court are used to provide an independent assessment of the parenting capacity of parents, and they assist magistrates and judges to work out what to do next. The court places a lot of weight on these expert reports including removing children from their birth parents care and placing children into long term arrangements.
Having written hundreds of these reports, it has struck me more than once that there are times when many decisions have been delayed for far too long in the hope that the family could be preserved or because The Child Care and Protection Act specifies that every effort should be made to rehabilitate the parents.
I am not making an argument that in many of these cases, these principles of preservation and rehabilitation are not important, but they are not absolute.
While I agree that preservation and rehabilitation should be attempted in most cases, there are some cases where it is all too obvious that the birth parents will never reach an acceptable level of care and the best option is to make an early decision for the children to be adopted.
And the problem with this reluctance to make an early adoption recommendation where it is clearly in the best interests of the child, means that children are often shuttled between parents and temporary carers while their parents are given chance after chance to make good.
At a statutory level, if the option for open adoption is not considered as a relevant option (and not as an option of last resort), children’s rights can be subverted.
Children’s court clinicians’ assessments are often viewed as a way to break a deadlock, just prior to a court date. This can be more than twelve months or more into a matter. But, what I have observed is that this decision about a parent’s capacity as ‘unsuitable’ could have been made much earlier, if it had been considered by a well-trained case worker who knows what to look for. Some parents will never be able to change even if we try to rehabilitate them. Sadly, though, it is only when rehabilitation efforts have failed, that the possibility of more permanent care is considered. While I acknowledge that some states have begun addressing the issue of not giving parents endless chances, it is my view that we can move even more quickly to place children in open adoptions.
In the life of a young child, these delays can be gruelling. The delays can deny a child from forming an attachment with caring adoptive parents. My view is that we need to make these decisions far more expeditiously, especially where young children stand a good chance of making an attachment with an adoptive parent.
There have been all sorts of reasons why welfare authorities have delayed seeing adoption as a more effective way to resolve some child protection issues, but clearly the spectre of ‘another stolen generation’ is raised as a major hurdle by many.
Children who have parents who are not able to be rehabilitated need to be given the quicker option of a ‘forever family’ than is currently the case. If UK authorities can make decisions about the lack of someone’s ability to care for children within six months then clearly this should be done in Australia. Where a family cannot be rehabilitated, clearly the next best option is a timely adoption.