"In the Best Interests of the Child": Mapping the (Re) Emergence of Pro-Adoption Politics in Contemporary Australia

By Murphy, Kate; Quartly, Marian et al. | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, June 2009 | Go to article overview

"In the Best Interests of the Child": Mapping the (Re) Emergence of Pro-Adoption Politics in Contemporary Australia


Murphy, Kate, Quartly, Marian, Cuthbert, Denise, The Australian Journal of Politics and History


Introduction

In September 2007 the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Human and Family Services released its report, The Winnable War on Drugs: The Impact of Illicit Drug Use on Families. The report made the news chiefly due to its controversial recommendation that the children of drug-addicted parents should be removed for adoption. (1) Chaired by Liberal MP Bronwyn Bishop, the inquiry specifically recommended that a national adoption strategy should be implemented which recognises adoption as a way to give a "significant proportion" of children of drug-addicted parents a stable home. It proposed that adoption should be the "default" care option for children aged under five, in cases in which illicit drug use is reported as a factor in a child protection notification. In these circumstances it would fall on child protection authorities to prove that adoption was not in the "best interests" of the child or children, reinforcing the implication that adoption would be naturalised under these proposed guidelines. (2) Until very recently, such a proposal would have been virtually unthinkable.

In an article published in July 2004, Rosemary Pringle observed that a "climate of apology" surrounding adoption in Australia, linked with understandable shame regarding past adoption practices and the "stolen generations" of Aboriginal children, meant that it had become "almost impossible" to endorse adoption as a policy option. (3) This article seeks to understand, in historical and international perspective, recent governmental moves to re-instate adoption in Australia as a viable policy option for the care and placement of children; and within the social/cultural domain, to re-establish it as a valid way of "forming or adding to a family". (4) Our intention is not to speak specifically to social work practitioners and policy insiders, but to introduce these shifts to a broad audience of readers interested in the current directions of family policy formation and the role of adoption in these changes.

Changing Attitudes 1970s-1990s

Adoption was, as Pringle observed, an "impossible" policy option, and public sentiment ran against it, because it had been thoroughly discredited. Recognition of the damaging effects of previous adoption policies had burgeoned in the 1970s and 1980s. While the first adoption legislation in Australia in the 1920s fostered relatively "open" adoptions, a second wave of legislation passed in the 1960s had emphasised the importance of a "clean break" from birth parents and enshrined the principle of secrecy around the adoptive status of children, who were to be raised by their adoptive parents "as if born to them". (5) This principle was meant to provide adoptive parents with heirs without fear of stigma or interference from the biological parent/s, but also operated to allow the unmarried mother, her child, and her family, to be shielded from the shame of an "illegitimate" birth.

However, by the 1970s a number of factors, including the complex social changes occasioned by feminism, saw adoption practices come under challenge as the impacts of these policies, on both relinquishing mothers and adopted children, became better understood. The social stigma associated with unmarried motherhood was brought into question and ultimately reduced, in part as a result of the introduction of the Mother's Benefit for single mothers (1973). This was part of a raft of legislative and administrative reforms made by the Whitlam Government which effectively redefined "family" in Australian legal practice in the interests of women, children, and diversity. (6) The growing cultural value placed on female agency created a climate in which the stories of unmarried mothers who had been coerced into adopting out their children could be told.

In the ensuing public conversations about adoption, the voices of adopted adults and relinquishing mothers dominated. Adoption came to be viewed as the exploitation of young single mothers for the benefit of middle-class couples with fertility problems. …

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