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Insights into the care system

First and foremost, I love my son. I couldn’t imagine life without him.

He’s bright, funny, loving, has a killer sense of humour and is extremely caring and kind. He’s also traumatised, confused, has a quick and violent temper, ADHD and oppositional defiance disorder. He’s made us a family, but he still worries about going to live with someone else – that was his life before us, and it’s a tough thought to shake. No matter how many times we tell him we’re a ‘forever family’ he doesn’t quite believe it.

Our son was removed from his birth mother at six months. He has several older siblings who were also removed over a period of several years. We’re not exactly clear about what happened after that – he went back to his mother, we think, at one point and was in foster care before he came to us at age four.

We are permanent carers, which in Victoria is the equivalent of long-term foster care. Permanent care (PC) was devised to stop kids bouncing around the foster system. Having said that, it took four years before our son was placed with us – following a failed PC placement which we weren’t told about until well through the process. So he’d already had one family that was far from forever.

An image of the Making Adoption Easier show

Last night (4 March 2014) SBS TV show Insight examined whether adoption should be made easier in Australia, on the back of suggested reforms to the New South Wales system. The program included brave teenagers, birth parents, carers and adoptive parents, all speaking about their experiences. Their stories were emotive, truthful, raw and all different – and proved that every case is individual.

The program was also important as it gave a voice to an issue that is widely ignored – those involved in the system cannot speak specifically due to privacy issues, and the media can’t publish or broadcast any information that identifies a child under state care – and in many cases these children are deliberately ‘hidden’ from their birth parents and are under a protective order.

So you’re probably wondering why I’m writing this. First, I’m not using specifics. Secondly, Alex Fairhill is not my real name. It is my pen name – and as I intend to write about this issue and write books for children who’ve faced trauma and the care system, a pen name was needed to protect my son’s identity, as well as that of his birth family.

In my experience, the process, the terms and differences between care types are hugely misunderstood, along with the issues faced by children who’ve been in the system.

I can only attest to my experiences in Victoria. To be accredited, my husband and had to attend three days of training for PC, and two for adoption, as we did a dual application. We heard about how difficult it was for the birth parents; that often they don’t want to relinquish a child because they feel that would be ‘giving up’ or saying they didn’t love the child, and therefore the child was removed and placed in the foster system. We were told that relinquishing a child was the hardest decision a parent would have to make. We heard about the attachment, social, behavioural and emotional issues a child might face, and the higher degree of this if the child had suffered psychological, physical, sexual or verbal abuse. The impacts would last, in some degree, for years, if not for the rest of the child’s life.

It was stressed that we should look after ourselves first – as we couldn’t care for a child if we were stressed or ill, and to draw on our support networks, friends and family. We were subsequently told that if anyone was to stay overnight at our house – in this case our parents – they would need to have police checks done first, and our son couldn’t stay elsewhere unless the residents were accredited carers or we were also present. It didn’t help us feel supported, and that information was later refuted by a carers’ organisation.

We had to write lengthy – and I mean thesis-length – life stories, undergo a series of interviews, and front an accreditation panel. The process included medical and financial examinations, and questions that delved into our families’ pasts, our infertility, and our sexual relationship. I understand the need to thoroughly vet applicants, but this went way past invasive.

I felt that anything remotely negative was jumped upon, and by the end of it I felt I was an unfit human being, completely unable to parent a child.

Much of the training concentrated on the issues we might face as carers – and it was stressed that there was no such thing as a perfect parent. However, I feel we are expected to be perfect parents – that we have to be saints; not take it personally when repeatedly hit or kicked by a child; and that debriefing over a glass of wine at the end of a stressful day is a sign of alcoholism. I understand completely the adoptive parent on Insight who felt she couldn’t admit any of her fears or stresses to her social worker because she feared she might lose her children, as I’ve felt that too.

We were told in training that PC and adoption were effectively the same thing, except with PC the child had no inheritance rights and the order was only valid until the child turned 18.

Adoption is when the birth parents have relinquished the child; permanent care is when the child has been removed from the birth parents. To me, this is a distinction that benefits only the birth parent. Adoption is a term understood as permanent; and understood throughout the community. Permanent care isn’t. The fact that the two terms exist promotes that seed of doubt that permanent care may not in fact be permanent. Adoption, however, is.

We are told that we are the child’s parents; that the birth parents have lost all parental rights. However, we cannot change the child’s name – which is an important step in claiming the child as your own and in forming the child’s identity (or in some cases removing a constant reminder of abuse) – without a birth parent’s permission, although this rule seems to be constantly in flux. But it appears that a child who has no contact with birth parents must still retain that family name, despite living with a new family. We were lucky – we got in during one of those uncertain periods and our son has our surname, and very proudly so. It was especially important in his case as it turned out that his legal surname was not one that had been used, and had no meaning for him.

Last year we tried to get a passport for our son. We’re not named on his birth certificate, which we would be if he was adopted, and were told by the passport office that we would need proof of his citizenship – and for this we needed his birth parents’ birth certificates. Even if this were possible, it seems ridiculous that we need to ask permission from the birth parents – who have lost parental rights – in order to give a child that experience. You try explaining to a child that he can’t go overseas because of ‘permission’ needed from one parent he sees a few times a year and one he doesn’t see at all. In the end the trip was call off, rather than us going without him.

Permanent care is not quite foster care, and not quite adoption. Many government departments are not set up to deal with PC. The Department of Education has an Education Maintenance Allowance, which is available for foster children. PC is legally long-term foster care, yet children under PC are not eligible for this.

At every encounter with a government department, we’ve had to explain what PC is – as it is legally different to adoption and is treated differently – and we’re often explaining this in front of our son. It’s a constant reminder, to both us and him, that we are not legally his parents, but are merely his guardians until he turns 18. This is definitely not how we see it – he is our son, and always will be.

I believe that if a child is no longer able to live with his or her birth parents that that child should be adopted. It doesn’t matter if the child was relinquished or removed, the end outcome is the same – THE CHILD CANNOT LIVE WITH ITS BIRTH FAMILY.

A system in which a child is treated differently under law purely because of the way in which that child entered the system through the actions of those who no longer have parental rights astounds me. In other countries, it is adoption – that’s it. No question.

There is no reason that adoption orders can’t contain the same visitation agreements that exist in permanent care orders. It is important that the child knows his or her birth parents – as long as there are no safety issues – in order for the child to form a proper identity.

Once the court has decided a parent cannot care for a child – which comes after years of offered help, courses, rehab and whatever else is necessary to keep the child with the birth parent – that parent should not be able to contest the decision to place the child with another family in court on a day which should be a happy one for the child and its new family.

More support is needed after placement. I know of a placement of a high-care child which recently broke down after several years. The parents were constantly seeking support from the relevant agencies and authorities. It was only after the family was on the verge of a breakdown and they relinquished the child that they were offered support, by which time the relationship was irreparable.

I don’t want this to sound like a ‘poor me’ sob story, because it’s not. We’ve had extremely rough patches, and have come through, and if anything happened to my son it would destroy me. We knew what we were signing up for, but now, after living with and in the system, I believe it needs to be changed.

The number of speakers on Insight who were in long-term foster care and asked to be adopted proves that there is a difference. Those who decided they wanted to be adopted did so because it made them feel more secure. And I can't see our son in future telling people he's 'permanently cared-for' rather than adopted.

The system is meant to be what’s best for the child. The fact they cannot stay with their birth parents will cause them distress for the rest of their lives. Our son still doesn’t understand why he can’t live with his mum, because he thinks he can look after her.

But a system that prolongs the time a child is in state care, doesn’t provide that child with the professional help needed, fails to support the carers, and drops out as soon as the permanent care order is signed off in court is not in the best interests of the child.

In the interests of promoting stability, attachment, and a firm identity for the child, permanent care needs to be the same as adoption.

This is a conversation that needs to continue. There was a long and important discussion on Twitter during and after the program last night – #insightsbs – and hopefully this is the start of much-needed changes to the system.

If you would like to comment on this blog post (I know the comment functionality is dodgy), please do so at either my Facebook page, or through Twitter, @AlexFairhill.

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