By KATE LEAVER
Deborra Lee Furness has just found out she’s the NSW Australian of the Year and she’s on the phone from New York.
It’s perfect timing, of course, because it’s National Adoption Awareness Week here. The exact cause she’s being honoured for working on.
“Awards are nice, obviously. It’s an honour,” Furness says. “But it’s also just such a great excuse for me to talk about what we can do next, what we’re doing with adoption, what’s important.”
And that’s exactly what she did. In fact, she barely draws breath before she launches into an infectiously passionate monologue. She and her very famous husband Hugh Jackman are parents to two adopted children, Oscar, 14, and Ava, 9, and she’s got a wonderful fierceness in her voice when she talks about the issue.
“Do you know how many people come to me saying, ‘we want to adopt, but we can’t’?” she says.
“There are Australians desperate to be parents, but the waiting time is an average of five years! That’s ridiculous when you think that there are babies languishing in an orphanage. While we’re doing the paperwork, those children are developing severe emotional issues. What I want to do is speed up the process, and we need to do that as expediently and graciously as possible.”
After many years campaigning for law reform to make overseas adoption more efficient, Furness finally has Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s ear on the issue. She met with him in New York recently, and consequently he has introduced a bill to amend the Australian Citizenship Act of 2007, so that children may be adopted via direct bilateral agreements between countries.
Deborra-Lee and Hugh with the Clintons.
It means contravening the United Nations convention to protect the child, which seems counter-intuitive. Some experts argue that the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Intercountry Adoption) Bill could leave some children vulnerable to trafficking, essentially if awful people manipulate what is otherwise an altruistic reform.
But Furness says it’s the only way we can match vulnerable children with loving parents.
“Australia is one of the lowest performers in the world when it comes to overseas adoption, and that needs to change,” she says.
“There’s a stigma and real shame attached to adoption here, because of the Stolen Generation and because so many young, unwed mothers were forced to give up their kids by the government. I’ve educated myself, I’ve spoken to so many other mothers in the adoption community, and we’ve always said we need a champion in government – so why not go straight to the Prime Minister? Tony Abbott, thank God, has stepped up. We’re starting to talk to other countries, put the due diligence and the energy into it so that we can facilitate adoption here ethically and efficiently.”
Furness rejects the idea that she is making adoption “easy”. It’s never easy. It’s a complex, delicate process – as it should be. Transferring the responsibility for a child’s life from their biological parents to another couple or person is huge. There are few processes more emotional, or more important.
“We are not making it easier; we’re cutting the bull,” she says. “What I’m saying, what I’ve always said, is that we need to create a more ethical practice for adoption. As if we would ever do something that would endanger a child. As if I would ever push for anything other than the right for all children to be safe and loved and nurtured.”
We need better education for adoptive parents and greater post-adoption support from social workers – for the parents and the children. That’s why the next priority for Furness and everyone she works with is the Centre for Excellence, which will roll out education programs in universities.