Tuesday, 2 September 2008
Today I would like to address some very serious allegations that have arisen over the past fortnight in regard to intercountry adoption. As members would be aware, allegations have arisen that relate to cases of child trafficking within India and the subsequent adoption of those children to Australia. This is clearly a tragic set of circumstances for the parties—and particularly the children—involved. In working to resolve these issues, we must not lose sight of the best interests of the child and the need to be sensitive to the concerns of both the Australian adoptive families and the birth families in India.
Firstly, I would like to reassure the House that Australia no longer has any dealings with the agencies involved, neither the Malaysian Social Services nor the Madras Social Service Guild. The last child adopted to Australia from either of these agencies was in 2000. After this time, in 2003, India ratified the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in respect of Intercountry Adoption which focuses on the need for countries to work to prevent the abduction, sale, or trafficking of children. It does so by establishing principles for countries to follow that focus on the need for intercountry adoptions to occur only where it is in the best interests of the child and with respect for his or her fundamental rights, and of course with appropriate safeguards and procedures. Australia has an international reputation for high standards with respect to our intercountry adoption programs and only deals with those countries that meet the standards of the convention, even if they are not signatories to the convention itself.
We are taking action in a number of ways to secure a response from the Indian authorities regarding these disturbing allegations:
- at the government-to-government level, I have written to the Indian Minister of State (Independent Charge) to raise directly my concerns about the allegations and seek additional information about the monitoring of agencies;
- my department has raised this issue directly with the Indian central authority responsible for overseeing adoptions in that country;
- the Australian High Commission in New Delhi will call upon the deputy director of the Indian central authority to discuss these concerns; and
- my department has raised the allegations with the Permanent Bureau of the Hague Conference on Private International Law.
We are also considering ways that we can help to support the parties involved through this difficult time. The birth parents of the children may wish to establish contact. However, I am very aware that the Australian adoptive families need time and support to consider how to react to the allegations. These needs and most importantly the needs of the children must be taken into account when exploring any opportunities for adopted children to better understand their origins and explore their identity. Taking these considerations into account, there could be opportunities for birth parents and willing adoptive parents of children to establish communication. The opportunities could also be pursued by children when they reach the age of 18 and are able to make a decision for themselves. Again, the government is prepared to provide every reasonable assistance for that to occur.
The intercountry adoption program between Australia and India remains open. Australia will continue to work with a number of reputable agencies in India to find Australian families for children in need. However, in light of these allegations, we will be very carefully monitoring the agencies with which Australia has working relationships. In order to ensure that children are protected, we are seeking information and assurances from the Indian authorities about their mechanisms for supervision and standards of agencies. We are liaising with the permanent bureau of the Hague conference, as well as other countries that may offer an insight into the Indian program and the recent allegations.
I have already initiated a process of freezing any prospective adoptions for agencies where my department believes there are credible concerns about practices. This process will continue and will ensure that no new adoptions are undertaken with any agencies that the government has credible concerns about. Files will not be processed until such time as we can confirm the agency’s reliability and adherence to the standards of the Hague convention.
To help families who are in the devastating situation of having to deal with questions about their child’s adoption, we are developing a protocol to seek answers and provide information for the direct support of families.
Australia has an excellent international reputation for its high standards and preparation of families to parent children through intercountry adoption. The recent allegations—which occurred prior to the Australian government’s involvement in intercountry adoption—clearly demonstrate why we must continue to insist upon rigorous procedural safeguards for all programs. While some concerns have been aired regarding the delay of the intercountry adoption program, clearly we need to take care to ensure the integrity of the system of whichever country we are dealing with.
To assist the development of such systems, the Rudd government contributed $200,000 to an initiative managed by the permanent bureau of the Hague conference earlier this year. The money will assist countries that are planning on joining the convention with effective implementation of their requirements. The provision of this assistance is an important way for Australia, as a receiving country, to support partner countries. We must ensure the integrity of each stage in the system to prevent the exploitation of children.
I stress again that it is important that we have confidence in the consent process for adoption, confirmation that children are in need of an overseas family and guarantees that no improper financial gains derive from the process. In accordance with the Intercountry Adoption Strategic Plan, my department regularly reviews the viability of all our programs, including making assessments against the Hague convention principles.
Where appropriate, intercountry adoption can be a great outcome for children and their families. We should not lose sight of the benefits of providing a child in need with a loving and secure family environment—and there are many, many examples where that has been successfully achieved. In doing so, we support the Hague convention principle that intercountry adoption should be a last resort. However, for those children who cannot be raised by their own families, or within their own country, an appropriate family environment should be sought in preference to long-term institutional care. I have every confidence in the work that our state and territory colleagues do to prepare Australian families to care for adopted children. This includes promoting openness in adoption through training and education for potential adoptive parents. In particular, the focus on the program is to ensure that the benefits of ongoing contact with birth parents or culture can be recognised.
The government is also eager to move forward in strengthening the intercountry adoption system in Australia. We are progressing a number of important initiatives to reform the bureaucracy associated with intercountry adoption in Australia. This is occurring while always keeping the interests of the child as our primary concern. In order to make improvements, we are implementing the recommendations of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Human Services 2005 report, Overseas adoption in Australia, to which members from both sides of the House made a valuable contribution.
A new Commonwealth-state agreement has been negotiated with the state and territory governments. The agreement provides an excellent framework for all jurisdictions to work cooperatively to improve intercountry adoption in Australia. This includes establishing a working group to harmonise fees and procedures across jurisdictions and to examine alternative models of service provision. I note that the states and territories continue to have responsibility for all adoption applications in Australia, both domestic and intercountry.
I am also very pleased that the National Peak Overseas Adoption Support Group is up and running. The group draws together a diverse range of people who all have relevant life experiences as adoptees, adoptive parents and professionals. The members have skill, insight and practical knowledge of adoption. The group is already providing valuable advice to the government on the priorities of the intercountry adoption community and I look forward to their continued input on these complex matters.
In recent weeks there has been discussion in the media and indeed political commentary as to what the destiny of these children should be, in respect of allegations that these children were the subject of trafficking. The position at law is that the birth parents of those children have rights under the principles of the Hague convention to seek a return of those children. Equally, the adoptive parents have rights in respect of their position to meet any such application made by those birth parents. And, of course, the primary rights that will be considered by a court adjudicating on those matters will be the best interests of the child. That is vitally important.
While all these situations are distressing, we must bear in mind that in respect of, in particular, a child in question it seems that child may well have been in Australia for some eight years, be regarded as a citizen of Australia and have English as their primary if not only language. The court would obviously consider these factors, would consider the length of time that the child has been in Australia and would consider the consequences for a child of that age in being returned to an environment with which they are not familiar and in not possessing capabilities—certainly language capabilities—to meet that. These are not issues for politicians to deliberate on; they are heart-wrenching issues for a court to deliberate on, and that is appropriate.
Finally, I note that this week, the 9th Australian Adoption Conference will be held in Sydney. The theme of the conference is ‘Connecting Past, Securing Future’. A number of our international colleagues will be attending. This is an important opportunity to share information and best practice as well as general knowledge that is fundamental to the operation of adoption. And it is a chance to demonstrate to our overseas partners Australia’s commitment to developing best practice in this area. Quite clearly, underpinning that best practice is working towards the best interests of each and every child individually as well as children generally.
I ask leave of the House to move a motion to enable the member for Sturt to speak for 12 minutes.
That so much of the standing and sessional orders be suspended as would prevent Mr Pyne speaking for a period not exceeding twelve minutes.
Question agreed to.