Adoption Amendment Bill 2020
Thank you, Madam Speaker, and I sincerely thank the minster for the work that she, her staff, and all others involved have put into preparing this important set of amendments, including those who have shared their life experiences and provided their feedback throughout the consultation process.
The Canberra Liberals will be supporting this bill today. The changes proposed actually have their origin in a motion moved by my colleague, Ms Lawder, back in August 2016 – four years ago. Her successful motion resulted in the creation of the Domestic Adoptions Taskforce, which reported to this Assembly in February 2017. The taskforce found that there were indeed ‘challenges that face the timeliness of the domestic adoption process in the ACT’ and sought to ‘identify solutions for what should be done to address these challenges’.
The government committed to implementing all of the recommendations contained in the taskforce’s final report, including ‘to develop specialist staff in adoption to improve delivery of services’. Unfortunately, it has been taken awhile for some of these improvements to really be implemented, and as recently as the 2018–19 budget, the government admitted that it might have reached only 40 per cent of its targeted number of permanency placements because of insufficient staffing. Madam Speaker, this is unacceptable in light of the taskforce’s findings.
Another recommendation from the taskforce was to ‘explore possible legislative amendments to dispensation of consent provisions … to align with ACT Government obligations, reform priorities and provisions in other jurisdictions, and to better respond to the complexity of out of home care circumstances’. This recommendation came with the strong suggestion for robust consultation in order to ‘determine the appropriate balance between protecting the rights of birth parents and the best interests of children in challenging out of home circumstances’.
The bulk of this amendment bill seeks to fulfil this recommendation. It does so by first providing a fuller list of needs that decisionmakers should consider when seeking to determine what is in the best interests of a child or young person. This expanded list seeks to provide a clearer picture of what research has revealed to be the issues intimately linked to a child’s wellbeing. It highlights, for example, the ‘continuity and sense of belonging that comes from a child or young person having stable emotional and physical living conditions’.
This statement encapsulates precisely why we should care about the issue of permanency. Children who do not know with certainty from one day to the next if the place where they live now will be the place that they will live tomorrow seldom feel safe or secure enough for proper development to occur. And a huge part of that is forming attachments to specific people – which can only happen when they know – again, with certainty – that the people whom they want to love and trust today will still be there for them tomorrow.
This is, of course, a very complicated area because children also need to have a sense of identity that includes where – and whom – they came from. And that is why these amendments also add in needs like ‘cultural inheritance, personal identity and sense of belonging’ that must also be considered. These amendments also reiterate the importance of including ‘the views expressed by the child or young person’ but specifically include ‘views expressed with adequate and appropriate support to actively participate, to the best of their ability, in consultation related to the decision’. Hopefully this change will help to amplify the voices of children in these matters – and expand the number of children whose views can genuinely be considered.
The central goal of this amendment bill, Madam Speaker, is to place the child more fully at the centre of decision-making. Feedback from many people has been that current legislation focusses more on the adults involved and not on the children. It is to be hoped that these amendments will help to improve that situation.
The bill then goes on to place these best-interest considerations as the grounds for deciding when to dispense with parental consent in adoption matters. Again, this is a difficult matter, Madam Speaker.
In an ideal world, a birth parent’s wishes would never need to be dispensed with. But we do not live in an ideal world, and decisions need to be made. Under current legislation, the grounds for dispensing with consent focus on the perceived failures of the birth parents. This bill seeks to alter that approach by making the wellbeing of the child the focus of such decisions by the court. I hope that the result will be less conflict between birth parents and adoptive parents – especially since a child in most cases is best served by having healthy relationships with all parents and family members.
Across portfolios, I and the Canberra Liberals have consulted with a broad selection of those who care about adoption matters: birth parents, adoptive parents, foster carers, people who have been in out-of-home care, people who were adopted, and various community leaders. Included are those who represent the territory’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, who have very specific reasons to care deeply about this issue, both because of historical events but also because of the current situation in this territory, where child removal is something these Canberrans experience at a rate far higher than anyone else.
The consensus of most stakeholders is that the changes introduced by this amendment bill are a step in the right direction. But many different concerns remain, and we understand that adjustments may need to be made in future. It is specifically for this reason, Madam Speaker, that I am tabling an amendment to this bill today. The clear message that I have heard is that the changes introduced by this bill need to be carefully monitored to make sure that they are working as intended … and not introducing unexpected or undesirable outcomes.
My amendment therefore specifies that two years after these changes go into effect, the minister will review how the best interest and dispensing with consent provisions are working and report back to the Assembly. This minor addition to the amendment bill will provide assurance to those who are not 100 per cent comfortable now that their concerns have been heard and will be formally followed up on. It is important that we provide this guarantee. I am grateful that both Labor and the Greens have chosen to support this amendment as a demonstration of tripartisan support.
Lastly, I wish to note that this bill also makes it easier for adult adoptions to occur by providing a more generous definition of a ‘care-giving relationship’ and allowing for such a matter to proceed even if one only applicant is resident in the ACT. These are positive changes, Madam Speaker. It means that, in some circumstances where there have been insurmountable obstacles to adoption, adults who wish to do so can legally establish who their primary family is.
I commend both this bill and the amendment that I have tabled to the Assembly.
 ACT Government Community Services Directorate, ‘Final report: review of the domestic adoption process in the ACT’, Feb. 2017, p. 1.  Ibid., p. 28.  ACT Government, ‘Budget 2018–19: budget statements G’, p. 28.  Ibid.