I speak in debate on the Adoption Legislation Amendment (Integrated Birth Certificates) Bill 2020. The introduction of integrated birth certificates is a good thing for children and their adoptive parents and for families across New South Wales. The bill amends the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1995 and Adoption Act 2000 to establish a new integrated birth certificate that lists on an adopted child's birth certificate information about their birth parents and siblings. The bill does not change the practice of adoption in New South Wales; rather, the ways we record and disseminate information to those impacted by adoption practices. It reflects a shift in adoption practices towards open adoption where there is transparency around adoption in families and acceptance that a child has both birth and adoptive parents, and a willingness to connect, exchange information and build relationships.
Every decision we make in this place about families is important and the interests of the child must always be the priority. Open adoption is in the best interests of children, so too is the introduction of integrated birth certificates. Currently when a child is adopted they are issued with a post-adoptive birth certificate—otherwise known as an amended birth certificate—which lists the names of the adoptive parents and any siblings post adoption. The bill introduces a new kind of birth certificate: an integrated birth certificate, where information about a child's birth parents and siblings is listed alongside that of their adopted family. Adopted children will receive both certificates.
The bill updates both relevant Acts to extend existing provisions around the advance notice system and contact vetoes to integrated birth certificates. The advance notice system, where the adoption occurred before January 2010, allows for birth parents or children to be notified when a person attempts to access their information, acknowledging that either party may require a period of time to inform others or prepare for such a discourse. A contact veto, where the adoption occurred before October 1990, allows for birth parents and adopted children to prohibit their information being shared. The bill requires applicants, where a contact veto is in effect, to sign an undertaking that they will not contact the other party before receiving an integrated birth certificate and it extends the existing penalties for failing to do so.
Finally, the bill acknowledges the need for an extensive information campaign with government departments, schools, childcare centres, hospitals and stakeholders. It provides a period in which those in the community can update their systems and processes around the new certificates. Since 1965 the legislation governing adoption has changed significantly, while the legislation determining how birth certificates are issued has not. In the past adoptions were often closed, only predicated on a "clean break" theory whereby children were separated from their birth mothers at birth with no further contact. We have now moved to a framework of open adoption whereby all parties are allowed a degree of contact or information exchange.
In 2018-19 a total of 134 adoptions were finalised in New South Wales. In the same year around 88 per cent of local adoptions across Australia were classified as open adoptions. An open adoption can take many forms. In some instances there is direct contact between adopted children and their birth families. Families may meet up occasionally, arrange for phone calls or other contact on special days and, in some instances, they may become fixed occasions in each other's lives. In other cases, cards or photographs, or indirect contact is facilitated so that families can check in and remain known to one another but not in a physical presence in each other's lives.
The degree to which an open adoption is open often depends on the circumstances around which the child is separated from their birth family or enters out-of-home care, and that may change over time. However, what remains constant is an acknowledgment that adoption helps to shape a child's life and their family circumstances. While in the past adoption was steeped in secrecy, albeit often with the intention of protecting a child, we no longer support the adoption practice where a child does not know that they are adopted. The Benevolent Society explains that a person who discovers that they are adopted can cycle through disbelief, confusion, anger, sorrow and loss. I quote:
You are reacting to finding out something vital about yourself that has been concealed from you. This can lead to an extended period of adjustment whilst you come to terms with this whole new perspective on who you are; how you began your life, how secrecy in your family may have impacted on you, how you feel about those who kept the secret, and the long term implications of this revelation for your own identity. Experiencing feelings of sorrow, disbelief, confusion and anger are a normal and expected part of this process.
Open adoption seeks to remove the shock and trauma of discovering one's adoption status by ensuring the information is woven through a child's life from their earliest consciousness. The information is shared in an age‑appropriate way and allows for a greater acceptance of how a child's family and identity is formed. One adoptive parent from my electorate who spoke to me about this bill put it this way:
Our kids know we are their family, but they also know we are not their only family.
Open adoption has meant that our family is built on honesty and it's given us all a greater appreciation for how we have come to be a part of one another's lives.
While we don't have direct contact with the kids' birth mother for legal reasons, we talk about her every day; we wonder what she is doing and we get sad about why she isn't more a part of our lives.
We are all grateful for everything she has given us, even though she was unable to parent our kids in the way I am sure she had hoped.
We've had difficult conversations about why our kids came to be adopted, but that has meant they have learned to accept and process their past experiences and trauma.
While it isn't always easy, there is no question it has made us a stronger and more resilient family.
When their friends ask our kids about why they're adopted or why their family looks different to others—our kids are armed with the most powerful defence we could give them: the truth.
That lines up with what we know is one of the key advantages of open adoption: It helps adopted children to manage the psychological impacts of separation. We now know that adoption can have lifelong psychological impacts, including grief, guilt, attachment and personality disorders, anxiety and even post‑traumatic stress. Each of these can be exacerbated when the information about adoptive status comes as a surprise or shock. Open adoption can foster a child's sense of affirmation, self‑identity and confidence, and weaken feelings of guilt or abandonment. Open adoption can connect a child to the birth family and spark relationships with birth siblings and extended family, cultures and networks. On a basic level, it helps to ensure children have genetic and medical information that can save their lives. While we have moved towards open adoptive practice, the way we document adoptions and family arrangements in New South Wales has remained stuck in the past. This bill will ensure that all adopted children have access to information about how their family was formed. It enshrines best practice and I hope it will further diminish any lingering stigma in our community around adoption or fostering.
It would be remiss of me to speak about adoption without acknowledging the impact of forced adoption practices in our country's past, and particularly their impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Forced adoptions—removing children from unmarried mothers—was a common practice from the 1940s through to the 1980s. The Australian Senate has estimated that as many as 250,000 children were forcibly removed over that time. We do not need to wonder about the pain and profound hurt that that would have caused those mothers and children, because I saw it on the faces of those present in 2013 when former Prime Minister Julia Gillard issued a formal apology on behalf of the Commonwealth of Australia. We know the terrible scars caused by the forced removal of Indigenous Australians across our State and across the country. The Bringing Them Home report indicated that from 1910 to 1970 between one‑third and one‑tenth of Indigenous children were removed from their parents and families by governments, churches or welfare bodies to be adopted and raised by white families.
We know the impacts on the Stolen Generation. Of those aged over 50, 89 per cent were in ill health; 50 per cent had been charged by police at some point in their lives and 20 per cent had been incarcerated; and 14 per cent had experienced homelessness. It is important to remember that the trauma of that period reverberates still today. Out-of-home care and common adoption practices need to be mindful of what we have subjected our Indigenous Australians to. We know that Indigenous kids currently make up one in 10 of those in out-of-home care across our State. [Extension of time]
Neither forced adoption practices nor the policies that led to the Stolen Generation can be separated from current discourse around adoption practices, and we must rightly be guided by the long shadow they cast. This week marks the tenth anniversary of the passage of same-sex adoption legislation by this Parliament. The Adoption Amendment (Same Sex Couples) Bill 2010 removed the prohibition on same-sex couples adopting and was introduced by Clover Moore—now Sydney's Lord Mayor—following a Legislative Council inquiry referred by then Minister for Community Services Linda Burney. It was shepherded through the Parliament by the Hon. Penny Sharpe, with bipartisan support from former Premier Kristina Keneally, Attorney General John Hatzistergos and then Leader of the Opposition Barry O'Farrell. The bill recognised that all families have value and that love makes a family.
Importantly, the bill built upon research that shows children fare just as well in a same-sex parent household and that a person's sexuality or gender does not determine their worth as a parent. I cherish the opportunity to see children thrive in same-sex parent households across my electorate of Summer Hill. On the anniversary of the passage of that important legislation through Parliament, I congratulate all those rainbow families across New South Wales who have formed their families through fostering and adoption. That reform is a shining example of how we progress adoption practices in New South Wales to best meet the needs of children across the State. I am proud to support this bill today in the same vein. It will further embed open adoption practices and better support the emotional and psychological wellbeing of children whose lives are shaped by adoption. It is about truth, it is about compassion and it is about integrity. I commend the bill to the House.