A newborn baby boy is thrown down a roadside stormwater drain and left to die. A baby girl is found dead, buried in the sand on a beach. In recent years, other newborns have been left abandoned outside ambulance stations, hospitals and family homes in Australia. The community responds with outrage, there are calls for immediate change, and then the news cycle moves on and it seems another opportunity for meaningful, long-term positive reform of our social welfare system quietly slips away.
What drives a mother to abandon her newborn child in such dreadful circumstances? Is it an extraordinary display of selfishness and callous disregard for human life? Or is it the act of a deeply troubled and desperate woman who, for various reasons, believes this is the only choice she has?
For all the insistence on choices for women who feel unable or unwilling to parent their own child, their options in Australia today are effectively only two.
Abortion has become a common and relatively accepted choice for women facing a difficult or unplanned pregnancy. But abortion is not a decision without consequences and there are many women who do not wish to proceed down this path.
The only other readily available option is to place the child in state care. Nearly 40,000 children are currently living in the Australian foster care system — double the number from twelve years ago. Two out of three of these children have been living in foster care for more than two years. Children are also moved in and out of care more frequently. While foster carers make a heroic effort to provide loving care for these children, the lack of stability and permanency has a detrimental impact on a child’s well-being.
Research shows that stability and permanency are crucial to a child’s healthy development. The lack of these factors in a young child’s life has been shown to adversely affect normal brain development. The cost to society and governments in caring for these children and mending the traumatic consequences of their situation is enormous. Why do we continue to tolerate this inadequate approach?
Perhaps because adoption has become almost non-existent in Australia.
Adoption today means an open process in which the birth mother freely surrenders her child to a couple of her choosing and has the option of maintaining a relationship with the child and the adoptive family. This is a positive and humane response to the dilemma of an unplanned pregnancy, and it also provides a safe, loving and stable environment for children in need.
Yet in 2012-13 there were only 339 adoptions in Australia including 129 adoptions from overseas.
Research commissioned by Women’s Forum Australia and carried out by Gregory Pike of the Adelaide Centre for Bioethics and Culture indicates that this is partly the result of an historical hangover that does not do justice to the way adoptions are carried out today or to the international evidence of its benefits to women, children and families in need.
Relinquishing a child – in whatever way — is always going to be marked by sadness, but Dr Pike’s report, Adoption Rethink, shows that birth mothers who consented to an adoption showed high levels of relief and feelings of peace about their decision in the long-term. Grief resolution also improved in conjunction with the degree of openness in the adoption.
Adopted children also benefited. They scored higher on IQ, school-performance, and a lack of behavioural problems than children forced to live in institutions, foster care or with neglectful or abusive birth parents.
Nobody is advocating a return to the forced adoptions of the past. The women and children who suffered as a result of these practices must be acknowledged and supported. But it does not mean that adoption is totally unworkable for our community.
Our report recommends a new legislative approach from State and Federal Governments, the involvement of community groups in providing adoption services and a change to the hostile attitudes towards adoption that have developed within the various bureaucracies in recent years. This must be underpinned by a comprehensive evidence-based education campaign to inform the community about the benefits of adoption for women, children and families.
The optimal situation is for women to continue their pregnancies and raise their own child in a safe, loving and stable environment. As a community we should do everything possible to facilitate this choice and provide women with the necessary financial, health and other support they need.
However, women who feel unwilling or unable to parent their own child need positive alternatives. Women should not feel the only choices they have are abortion, infanticide or a broken social welfare system.
We need an adoption rethink.
Kristan Dooley is the managing director of Women’s Forum Australia.
Adoption Rethink is available for download at www.womensforumaustralia.org/adoption