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.
The allegations reported on the front page of the Australian newspaper on Saturday, 23 August—that at least 30 children brought into Australia for adoption may have been stolen from their parents as part of a child-trafficking network in India—are of the most serious nature. The report refers to one case in particular in which a nine-year-old Indian girl called Zabeen, stolen as a two-year-old, has been adopted by a family in Queensland, innocent of her origins and the circumstances in which she came to Australia. This appears to be but one of several such cases. The allegations demand a clear and considered response.
The Attorney-General’s statement is the response by the Australian government for which we have been waiting since the reports first surfaced. It is of great concern to the opposition that there has been no clarity or leadership from the government on this important matter. This has unfortunately been compounded by the Attorney-General’s empty statement.
Crimes pertaining to the illegal trafficking of children are among the most insidious imaginable, whether they involve taking children to serve as child soldiers or sex slaves or even to sell them as commodities to overseas adoption agencies. This is only one step removed from the farmers who buy children to work on the cocoa farms of Ghana and the Ivory Coast. These child slaves labour at great risk to their personal safety. They are exploited with no regard to their futures. Such examples generate public outrage, as World Vision’s ‘Don’t Trade Lives’ campaign has demonstrated. On this matter, I note with great concern that the government have declined to support my recommendation that chocolate from non-fair-trade sources be removed from all Commonwealth departmental vending machines. I use this opportunity to again urge the government to reconsider their course of inaction in this area.
Returning to the core subject of the Attorney-General’s statement: although it is far from clear from the vague terms in which the statement is couched, it appears to be the government’s position that, as the child in question is an Australian citizen, the adoption of the child stands, as far as Australian law is concerned. However, while saying that, he has also acknowledged that if the allegations are proven then the birth parents may be able to bring a case in the Family Court for the restoration of the child to India. The position of the government would thus appear to be inconsistent. Is it the policy of the government that the interests of the Australian adoptive parents should prevail over the interests of the overseas parents from whom the child was abducted? Or is this a matter which depends upon a determination by the Australian courts where the outcome may vary from case to case? If it is the latter—
and the Attorney-General confirms that it is the latter—then will the Australian government intervene in such proceedings? And what position will it take if it does? The Attorney-General’s statement leaves all of these issues unclear.
It is not enough to say that the best interests of the child will be the governing criterion, for that statement alone provides no clear guidance as to the policy of the Australian government on any of those issues. It is all very well for the Attorney-General to make his ministerial statement on behalf of the government as if he has done his job in relation to this matter, but all he is doing in reality is deferring the matter to the courts and hoping for the best.
The fact is that he has left a string of key questions unanswered in relation to this matter. Can the Attorney-General assure the Australian parents that they will not face the expense and uncertainty of proceedings in the courts of their adoptive children’s country of origin? For parents concerned about the status of their adopted children, are resources available to answer any questions or specific concerns that they might have? Would Australian government assistance be available to either the birth parents or the natural parents in a circumstance such as the one reported on? Is it a condition of the granting of an adoption visa that the immigration department carry out checks as regards the legitimacy of the adoption agency before the adoption is granted? Are there plans for legislation to deal with the determination of the appropriate parenting orders where there is a dispute as to either the validity of the adoption or the antecedent circumstances in which the adoption occurred? The Attorney-General’s statement provides no guidance to any of these questions.
In addition, there are difficult questions as to the possible conflict of the laws of Australia and the countries of birth of adopted children, compounded by difficulties created by inconsistencies between the different laws of the various states within Australia. A number of these matters were considered by the Bishop inquiry into the adoption of children from overseas in 2005—and I note the member for Mackellar is in the House because of her ongoing and very genuine interest in the issues of adoption, both intercountry and Australian based—and, in September 2006, the previous government accepted the majority of the recommendations, including taking on primary responsibility for the management of intercountry adoption programs and the establishment of new programs. I would refer particularly to recommendation 19 of the report, where the member for Mackellar’s committee found that the responsibility for establishing and managing overseas adoption programs should be:
... transferred to the Attorney-General’s Department in consultation with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs.
Then, further, at recommendation 21, which was very sensible, the committee recommended that:
To assist Australia develop intercountry adoption programs with non-Hague countries, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade authorise AusAID to develop capacity building and governance programs to assist those countries gain Hague Convention accreditation.
These reforms would go a long way towards ensuring that these disastrous cases are not allowed to occur in the future. But I would ask the Attorney-General again: at what stage is the implementation of these recommendations? After 10 to 12 months of government, at what stage are these recommendations that were handed down in 2005 and which the previous government adopted? However, this government needs to take national leadership now to ensure that cases such as this one, where the child has been adopted in Australia from a country prior to that country’s ratification of the Hague convention, do not cause unnecessary trauma to the parents and, most importantly, the child involved. As the Leader of the Opposition said on 23 August:
... we mustn’t undermine confidence nor the ability of Australians to be able to adopt children from overseas. Many of these children desperately need homes. They can only dream of living in a country like Australia with a loving Australian family, and whilst the investigation continues, and we should get to the bottom of it and find out what went wrong, under no circumstances should we move away as Australians from our ability to be able to adopt children from overseas.
Australia’s overseas adoption programs are important. They make lives better. To ensure confidence into the future, and to clarify the situation as regards those affected now, the Attorney-General must take leadership and clarify the policy position on behalf of the government—which, unfortunately, his ministerial statement has failed to do. I seek leave to move a motion to take note of the document.
That the House take note of the document.