Deborra-lee Furness on adoption and our unwavering ignorance.

Video via MWN

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It’s not often an actor is honoured by the United Nations.

Then again, it’s not often an actor does what Deborra-lee Furness has to help change the future for vulnerable children.

Since adopting two children, now 11 and 16, with her husband Hugh Jackman, Furness was compelled by a desire to help other boys and girls have the chance to be raised by a loving, nurturing family.

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Having founded local adoption advocacy group Adopt Change, the Australian actor and producer more recently launched Hopeland – a global organisation that endeavours to raise awareness and encourage solutions to improve the plight of abandoned children.

It is for this that the 61-year-old was on Saturday presented with the United Nations Women For Peace Association Award in New York.

deborra lee furness adoption UN
Deborra-lee was presented the award by fellow actress Cate Blanchett. Image: Getty.

Furness spoke to Mamamia about the challenges facing Australian couples looking to adopt and the incredible work she's doing to help overcome them.

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First of all, congratulations on winning the award. What does it signify to you about the success of your work in this field?

"Thanks for the congrats!

Through my education over the last 10 years and the complexities of adoption and realising why so many children end up in foster care or on the streets, I wanted to go downstream and support that community before the damage was done.

Hopeland was created to address the root problems for why children were being separated from their families – poverty, disease, domestic violence, war – to name a few, and work on how to strengthen the family structure through community development and access to health and educational services.

We need to support families so they are not faced with the shocking choice to relinquish their children. However, when the need for adoption is the best possible solution, then create a gold standard, ethical, expedient system that supports the best interests of the children and supports the family."

deborra lee furness adoption UN
Image: supplied.

What motivated you to embark on advocacy work in this field?

"I actually didn’t embark on advocacy work, it embarked on me. I felt like I was led. I hate injustice and especially when it’s to do with kids.

The more I found out about Australia’s history with adoption, the more I felt the need to shed light on the truth; that placing children in permanent loving homes was not a priority, that the system was deeply flawed and under-resourced and lacked leadership and innovation.

Putting a child through 10 placements in foster care and not finding a permanent home (when that child has been permanently removed from their biological parents) is not in the best interest of the child."

What does success in this field look like for you?

"Success looks like happy faces on children who belong in a permanent loving family."

What are the barriers that currently stand in the way of this?

"There are a number of barriers in Australia standing in the way of permanent, loving and safe homes for children.

Unfortunately, the biggest is children being stuck in the out of home care system and moving far too many times, due to a lack of access to adoption as a preferred option for these children.

This is due to a number of factors including a negative perception of adoption based on past practices, way too much red tape and bureaucracy (with legislation varying in each state) making the process difficult and unattainable for many children and prospective parents, a lack of capacity in the sector to know how to navigate the system... the list goes on, and it’s not short."

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To what do you attribute the decline in adoption rates in Australia?

"One reason for the decline in adoption in Australia, in my opinion, is still the inertia of the bureaucracy to step up and be proactive and innovative in finding permanent placements for children.

It is also partly due to the decrease in inter-country adoptions, as countries are moving towards looking at in-country solutions, which is not necessarily a bad thing, and it’s definitely influenced by how difficult it is to adopt as well, even for people who have had a child with them for many years through foster care.

The most serious problem is that while the numbers of adoptions continue to decrease, the number of children going into the out of home care system is on the rise."

How does Australia compare to the rest of the world when it comes to adoption rates?

"We are one of the lowest participants in adoption in the world.

There is no gold standard anywhere, which is why we need people in positions of power to lead the charge towards a more ethical, expedient child-focused system, and one of the reasons we have taken the cause global with Hopeland."

What about attitudes toward adoption - what stigmas still exist? Did you encounter any of these personally?

"I think there is still a lot of ignorance around adoption. I have personally encountered people saying uninformed and insensitive things in relation to adoption.

In some countries, adoption is culturally shunned, and I do think the shame still exists. However, through creative re-positioning of perspective, I believe this can be addressed and shifted."

Looking beyond the numbers, how does the current system/legislation impact vulnerable children?

"The current system and legislation, whilst shifting, is not shifting fast enough and is still not serving children in an ethical, gold-standard, expedient way.

We have too many children growing up without a permanent, loving family to support them through their early lives and into adulthood."

For Australians looking to adopt, what are they currently up against? What advice do you have for them, as someone who has dealt with the system?

"Potential adopters are currently up against a very slow moving system that needs a major overhaul.

Australians who care about vulnerable children, and particularly those wanting to adopt, need to be vocal and outspoken with their political members - by speaking out you are advocating for a child to find a home."

What makes you hopeful about the future of adoption in Australia?

"I am hopeful because I do feel this issue is back on the agenda and there are some energetic, courageous politicians who will go to bat to ensure we create a system that serves children.

We also need the greater community to jump up and down to make sure that this issue doesn’t sit on a desk for another decade, endlessly debating how to solve the problem.

Let’s get in there and start solving it, create innovative policy, think out of the box and find solutions that will serve the children."

Responses have been edited for length.

Have you had an experience of the Australian adoption system? Tell us about it below.

Mamamia's Infertility Week shines a light on the joy, the pain and everything in between when it comes to creating  families. To read more from Infertility Week, click here.

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