Adoptions plummet despite reforms making it easier for carers to adopt

Original source: Sydney Morning Herald

Author: Caitlin Fitzsimmons

The number of children being adopted out of the child protection system has plummeted by 60 per cent since 2020 despite reforms to make it easier for foster carers to adopt.

In 2022-23, just 60 children were adopted from out-of-home care – which includes foster families, kinship care and residential institutions – across NSW, down from 89 the year before. There are about 15,000 children and young people in state care overall.

The former Coalition government changed the law in 2018 – opposed by Labor and the Greens at the time – to cap temporary care at two years before caseworkers must look for a permanent arrangement. After the reforms, carer adoptions hit 142 in 2018-19 and 162 in 2019-20.

The number of carer adoptions is now lower than before the reforms – there were 67 in 2015-16.

The figures revealed by the Department of Communities and Justice come as the Minns government undertakes extensive reform of the child protection system. The Sydney Morning Herald can reveal the department is also reviewing its arrangements for the dwindling number of voluntary local adoptions.

Actor and adoption advocate Deborra-lee Furness called for a refocus on permanency, given the large numbers of children in NSW growing up without families.

“There are children as young as two years old living in motels and residential group settings – essentially ‘pop-up orphanages’ with shift workers – and yet the rates of permanency for these kids appears to be on a continued decline,” Furness said.

“We’re talking about precious children who have come from traumatic situations, who need stability and love to heal.”

Furness, who recently appeared in Force of Nature: The Dry 2, is an adoptive mother of two now-adult children with her former husband Hugh Jackman and founder of Adopt Change, a charity advocating for permanency for children in care.

Permanency includes restoration to the biological family, guardianship orders that make the carers rather than the government the legal guardians, and adoption, which establishes a legal familial bond, including for inheritance. All adoption in NSW is open adoption, where the birth parents remain known to the children.

Back in 2020, the former government touted the spike in adoptions as a result of its policy focus on adoption and permanency.

However, NSW Minister for Families and Communities Kate Washington said the former government addressed a backlog of adoption matters from 2016 to 2020, and she was advised that the backlog no longer existed.

Washington said the government was committed to reducing the number of children in out-of-home care, but was not continuing the “failed” Coalition-era permanency taskforce, established to increase the number of adoptions and guardianship orders. She said the taskforce was funded $12 million in 2021 and adoption and guardianship orders then fell by a third.

“The government inherited a broken child protection system where vulnerable kids are paying the price,” Washington said. “But the solutions aren’t simple. The system was left to spiral out of control for years, so it will take time to turn it around.”

Adopt Change chief executive Renee Carter said there might not be a backlog now, but there was a strong argument that the number of children in care who could benefit from adoption would be more than 0.05 per cent.

She said the biggest barrier to permanency was the fact the private fostering and adoption agencies were paid for the number of children on their books rather than given incentives to help them leave the child protection system.

Carter said the largest cohort of children entering state care are younger than five years old, and most never return home, but instead “bounce around the system and end up ageing out into terrible outcomes”.

In 2022-23 there were 2175 children taken into care, and 918 young people who aged out of the foster system.

Nationally, more than two out of five children in out-of-home care are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare data shows.

Indigenous organisations, including NSW peak body AbSec, are strongly opposed to the adoption of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care as part of a history of “cultural genocide”.

AbSec chief executive John Leha called for more investment in Aboriginal community-controlled organisations to prevent children being taken into out-of-home care and work on family restoration.

“While we acknowledge that some children do need to be removed for safety and wellbeing, it is in the interests of all parties that they remain in the care of kin and community, with the opportunity to return home,” Leha said.

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