OPINION: "You can't change poverty one adoption at a time."


Amy in Ethiopa





Last week, Mamamia ran an interview with Deborra Lee-Furness, who has just been announced NSW Australian of the Year for her work to change Australia’s rules regarding inter-country adoption. Our Weekend Editor, Amy Stockwell, who has worked in the development sector and has a Masters in International Law, has a different take on the issue. She’s not sure that making inter-country adoption easier, quicker and cheaper is necessarily the best way to go for the world’s most vulnerable children. Here is what she has to say….



It seems like such a simple proposition. There are too many orphans in developing countries who find themselves forgotten, living in crowded orphanages or barely surviving on the street. There is a large number of people in Australia who are desperate to be parents and are in a good position to provide for a child. Why not bring them together?

It’s an idea that is easy to just accept, especially when trusted, high profile people are telling you how easy it can be. But the reality is far from simple.

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Tony Abbott stood beside celebrity advocates, vowing to make the inter-country adoption system quicker, easier and cheaper. “The idea is we will make it easier and significantly less costly for Australians to adopt from overseas,” Mr Abbott said, announcing a new agency that will be designed to reduce adoption waiting times.

But while fast, easy and cheap adoptions may be in the best interests of prospective parents, it is not necessarily in the best interests of children. In fact, a faster, easier and cheaper system could actually put vulnerable children at even greater risk.


To that you might say: surely a child is better off in Australia than in the dire conditions of their own country? Yes, that child may be able to access a better education, a stronger healthcare system and greater physical comforts with a new family in Australia. But this was the same explanation that was given to justify the theft of Aboriginal children and the babies of unwed mothers that resulted in the lifelong damage endured by the Stolen Generation and children of forced adoption.

You might say: “But this is different! These children have no families!” Well, the sad fact is that we really don’t know that is the case.

Many adopted children are not orphans. A study by Save the Children found that as many as four out of five children in orphanages have at least one living parent. There are stories of children placed in orphanages temporarily during tough times whose parents have returned to find that their children have been adopted out.

It seems that poverty is the primary reason why children are in care – not death of a parent. Kirsten Anderson from the Coram Children’s Legal Centre, who has experience working with vulnerable children in Eastern European and Asia, says “a lot of the children I have encountered in orphanages around the world have at least one living parent or other close family member. Many are not living at home because their parents can’t afford to take care of them”.


Anderson is also concerned about the fact that developing countries can be a magnet for dishonest people who are eager to make a buck by exploiting desperate and vulnerable people. “Some adoptive parents are charged an average of 20,000 Euros by adoption agencies to facilitate an international adoption – but because of the large sums of money involved, children are at risk of being exploited for financial gain,” she says.

This is disturbing – but not altogether surprising. Any time Westerners turn up in a developing country with a need and a handful of cash, there will always be people rushing to meet to that demand – at the right price. Child trafficking is not uncommon in countries that are offering children for adoption – and those countries tend not to have the resources, the structures or the political will to stamp it out.

Overseas adoption can also drive children into orphanages – many of which are desperately unsafe. A 2002 study in Kazakhstan found that 63% of children in children’s homes had been subjected to violence, and a 2000 study of 3,164 children in residential institutions in Romania found that nearly half confirmed beating as routine punishment. More than a third knew of children who had been forced to have sex.

Not all kids in care are this happy.

It’s also important to remember that even if children have no living blood relatives or have been permanently abandoned by their parents, they still have a culture. The primary response to orphaned children should be adoption or placement within their own country and their own culture – not immediate displacement to a foreign country. Amy Lamoin, a child protection specialist from UNICEF Australia who has experience working in Asia, Africa and Syria, points out, “South Korea, China and India have all moved towards limiting inter-country adoption”.


Children younger than two years old have a better chance of being re-homed within their own country – but it is often these children, the cute babies, that Westerners want. The children that are the most vulnerable are those who are older, traumatised, with disabilities or complex needs, but these children tend to be a less attractive option for adoption.

There is also increasing evidence about the life-long support that is needed by adopted children after they are removed from their own country and culture. Research suggests that adoptive children can often feel as if they are strangers in their adoptive families, and they are over-represented in mental health settings, courts and prisons. Far too often, the voices of adoptees are not heard in this debate. They are expected to simply be silently grateful for being ‘rescued’ – but it is clear that their experience is rarely so simple.

It is an absolute fact that there are millions of children around the world living in poverty. Through inter-country adoption, a relative handful might find a better life in the West. But as Lamoin says: “you can’t solve poverty one adoption at a time.”

Imagine if the money that is spent on inter-country adoption ($30,000AUD for each adoption in some cases), or the money that will be spent on the new agency announced by Tony Abbott, was spent on addressing poverty in these countries, in strengthening child protection systems, in improving education and health outcomes.


Imagine if every celebrity that helicoptered in and adopted children spent their money on improving the lives of many children, instead of one or two (or in some case four or five). Imagine that and you’ll see more children being raised by their own families, living safely in their communities, rather than seeing just a lucky few who are carried off.

It’s no accident that I have not yet mentioned the desperate desire that many childless couples in this country have to parent or the desire that good people have to help children in need. That is because, as moving and heart-wrenching as it is, it is largely irrelevant to this discussion. Inter-country adoption is not a family building service for people who want to have children but can’t through any other means. It is not the best way to help the millions of children living in poverty in the world. Inter-country adoption should always be an option of last resort for re-homing vulnerable children whose needs cannot be met elsewhere.

When Tony Abbott talks about making the process easier, faster and cheaper, he misses the point about the purpose of inter-country adoption. In the majority of cases, there is a reason why the system is slow. What may seem like bureaucratic red tape for parents desperate for a child is actually a system of checks and balances designed to protect children.  The children who require our assistance are extremely vulnerable and will need ongoing support to thrive.

Perhaps, these processes could be streamlined, but they should always be measured, detailed and deeply considered.

Moving kids between countries should never, ever be easy.