The Hall family - Barnardos Australia

Julie Hall and four adopted children.

One needy baby meets loving new parents. Who says adoption is taboo?

Charlotte Schibler is cuteness on pudgy legs that propel her in wobbly spurts around the sunlit deck of the Brisbane home where she is doted on by parents who are not her biological kin.

Loving the attention, as well as the freshly made muffins, the one-year-old shows no interest in the story they tell of her beginnings. By the time she is old enough to understand all that they are saying she will know the sequence of events by heart.

Couples waiting for years to adopt from overseas, or foster families wishing to make children in state care their own, would be flummoxed at the story of a teenage mother handing her newborn over without a single red-tape hiccup to the care of Andreas and Donna Schibler utside the front door of a Queensland hospital last year.

Lawyer Shannon Daykin, who designed a bespoke, legally binding agreement for parenthood, believes this novel approach could help other couples stuck in queues going nowhere and children destined for uncertain futures. “There are a heartbreaking number of people who yearn to have children,” she says. “These people desperately want to be parents but so many doors are shut to them. IVF may not work, they may be too old to register for adoption, domestically or overseas, or they can’t find someone to give them the gift through surrogacy, yet there are so many children in unfortunate circumstances. The child protection system is overloaded.”

Adoption in Australia is at its lowest since data collection began in 1968, while the number of children who have been removed from unsafe homes has never been higher. This paradox has gingered support for more open adoptions, shirking the taboo that has immobilised a country still grappling with its sorry history of forced adoptions and stolen generations. Given what we know now about the critical link between attachment in early childhood and healthy neurological development, advocates are demanding a better model for securing children at risk.

Swiss-born Andreas Schibler, 51, an intensive care pediatric specialist, remembers the whistle announcing a delivery in the baby hatch at a hospital in his homeland where mothers could deposit unwanted offspring anonymously. These drop-off boxes got publicity here late last year when a boy barely five days old was salvaged from the bottom of a storm water drain near the M7 motorway in Sydney’s Quakers Hill.

In the Brisbane hospital where Andreas is on call he sees children too broken to be spared. “Recently I had a case where a two-year-old boy died in the care of his mother. Her other children had been given away to foster care. Why would the department leave this child in her hands when she couldn’t deal with the other siblings?” he asks.

Donna Schibler, 46, a pediatric nurse, talks of autopsy scans she has seen revealing a history of physical abuse. “These children should not have been put back into the family’s care. That’s how we feel, particularly as clinicians looking after them. We’ve had Charlotte since she was 18 hours old. I find it so difficult now knowing these children could be in loving homes.”

Charlotte was not at risk of any harm; arrangements for her care were in place before she was born to the teenage girl who, at 16, was unprepared to become a mother. She heard of the Schiblers through an aunt who introduced her to the couple desperate for a second child. At the first meeting they shared personal stories, keen to build a relationship of trust. The teenager brought along her ultrasound scans while Donna revealed she’d just been through another failed IVF cycle. Once there was agreement to proceed, lawyer Shannon Daykin came on board. Everything from prenatal care to the frequency of contact beyond the womb was set out in collaborative agreements giving the Schiblers full legal rights and responsibilities until she turns 18.

Donna scrolls through photos on her laptop of the birth mother still flushed and sweaty from the exertion of delivery with a tiny, quishy bundle in her arms. The narrative of her life is in the air Charlotte breathes. Known affectionately as “chubba bubba”, the burbling dervish cheerfully tolerates boisterous play from three year- old Ollie, who was conceived via IVF.

Initially the Schiblers lived in fear the young mother would appear at the front door after a change of heart. She had met with a clinical psychologist to ensure there was no coercion or ambivalence. The Schiblers keep in regular contact, texting photographs and updates, unsure how much is too much information. Listening to Donna’s maternal concern for the girl’s welfare, it’s almost as if she were parenting mother and child.

“There will never be any doubts or secrecy,” says Andreas. “We have the link with the birth mother and we will nurture it.” They tell everyone Charlotte is adopted to cut a long, complicated story short. Yet the poignancy of how one person’s misfortune became a couple’s miracle undoes Andreas whenever he describes the handover of this tiny bundle in the hospital car park. “The emotion, it’s terrible,” he says, apologising for the sobs that well up as he recalls the young mother hugging his wife as Charlotte was given to them. His tears are a profound expression of joy, but they also testify to the wrench of passing a little life from one to the other, even with the mother’s blessing, even with the baby’s future at heart.

A Senate inquiry into out-of-home care will report in August after travelling around the country listening to social workers, foster agencies and departmental officials who muster on the front line of child protection. At hearings in every state the evidence sounded depressingly familiar: a shortage of foster parents; children presenting with increasingly complex behaviour; children entering the system younger and staying longer; social support services delivered too late; capacity stretched to unsustainable levels.

There were 43,009 kids in out-of-home care at June 2014, up from 35,895 four years ago. The phrase covers children who have been removed from parents because of abuse or neglect and placed in foster care, with relatives or in residential accommodation. One former social worker admits she was so short of options she resorted to “hotels with nannies… sometimes caravan parks.” Indigenous children are disproportionately represented and while the principle of placing them with indigenous kin is an imperative, there are not enough households to spare.

Almost every state in Australia has held an inquiry into child protection during the past decade but with the exception of NSW, none actively pursues open adoption.

Dr Jeremy Sammut, a research fellow of the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney, who champions local open adoptions as a solution for the kids who will never return to their family, chafes at the political resistance: “Too many children are being left in dangerous situations due to the misguided bias towards keeping abusive and neglectful families together, which has swung the pendulum too far in favour of protecting the ‘rights’ of dysfunctional biological parents at the expense of the best interests of the child.”

Preserving families wherever possible is the noblest of goals but the number of children living away from home continues to grow, largely because every year fewer children are returned to birth parents. The proportion of those who have been in care for five years or more is rising; so too are the numbers of babies less than a year old.

These are worrying trends given what we know of the neurological harm from early trauma and insecure attachment during the first three years of life. “While the basics of food and shelter are essential to survival; the importance of stable, attuned care-giving adults cannot be overstated,” warns the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists in its submission to the Senate inquiry. “Infants who experience extremes of abuse or neglect are at risk of failure to thrive, reduced brain size, impaired development… that can lead to ongoing mental health issues.”

When the Senate Inquiry met in Perth, Basil Hanna, CEO of Parkerville Children and Youth Care, noted that children were often placed in homes where they were not safe. “And what happens is that the placements break down and children bounce around. One wonders if we were sitting here 20 years from now, if there would be a royal commission about the system abuse that is occurring today.”

Labor senator Claire Moore cut to the chase. “Where do you go?” she asked. “One side talks about early intervention and the other side led by one of those fabulous think tanks talks about the need for adoption… which I have to admit scares the hell out of me.” She dug through her papers to find a quote from Dr Sammut championing more local adoptions. “It’s a red rag question,” confirmed the committee chair, Greens senator Rachel Siewert.

Adoptions have sunk to record lows. Of 317 adoptions in 2013-14, 114 were sourced overseas and 203 were local. Of these, 46 were arranged privately, 68 involved stepparents or relations formally adopting a child, and only 89 confirmed new parents for children from out of home care. National children’s commissioner Megan Mitchell has urged the senators to look at the US and UK, where policymakers have aggressively pursued adoption for children in care. “Foster care is a temporary setting and not a place for children to grow up in,” she insists. “We know that lots of children wash around the system… they cannot attach to a school or an educational pathway or particular carers.”

Since the Clinton Administration’s Adoption and Safe Families Act tilted policies away from reunification in 1997, there have been around 50,000 adoptions in the US annually. Britain boasted a record 5000 in 2013-14 as part of the “adoption revolution” trumpeted by Prime Minister David Cameron. “Frankly, people have sometimes found it easier to fly halfway around the world to adopt than wait for the care system at home to finish agonising about placing black children with white families and vice versa,” Cameron said of his government’s efforts to streamline a process “too difficult, too bureaucratic, too time-consuming”.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott this month announced a new federal agency to assist couples to adopt from overseas. Adoption has been in the too-hard basket for too long, he said. But little has been done at home to break the logjam. Even in NSW, where former family and community services minister Pru Goward introduced new laws in 2014 to expedite adoption of children from foster care, prospective parents are frustrated by setbacks and delays. Only 12 officers staff the division processing adoption and progress can be disrupted if the birth family, supported by legal aid, appeals for the child to be returned.

Fiona and her husband took three and a half years to adopt a baby girl from China. Heartened by the promise of open adoption in NSW, they also took on a young boy who had been twice removed from his mentally ill mother shortly after birth. Caseworkers told Fiona [surname withheld] the boy had experienced “only” a few moves within the system but she traced his passage through more than 20 different homes since his birth. “He was hysterical when we got him,” she says. “It took us a year to turn him around.” Now six, he still occasionally asks to be hand fed and displays anxiety.

The birth mother sought to overturn the foster care arrangement. Her lawyers and psychiatrist told the District Court the mother’s chances of relapsing into the psychosis that prompted her child’s removal were diminishing but remained. A court-appointed expert argued the boy should stay put since he was happy and settled and appeared to be recovering from his ragged placement history. Such agonising decisions between flesh and blood ties and the bonds of stable attachment were acknowledged by the judge, who referred to “the heavy responsibility” of preferring the foster family in the interests of the child’s stability. An application for adoption is making its way through to the Supreme Court.

Fiona is committed to contact with the mother. “She’s a really good person,” she says. “I support her emotionally. Our son needs to know who his parents are. Adoption is not about stealing children. Open adoption bears no similarity to the stolen or forgotten generations. Those actions had terrible consequences.” She had the resources and smarts to intervene in the court hearing over her foster child’s future. Other parents who took the NSW government at its word in signing up to foster children with a promise of permanency were unprepared for court challenges funded by legal aid from birth relatives.

Another couple rues their decision to become entangled with the state system. Five years ago they took in two young siblings from care with the prospect of adoption, happy to supervise four contact visits a year. Following appeals from the children’s birth grandparents, these visits have increased to weekends and school holidays. Now they face a legal bid to return custody for these children. “We love these kids,” the foster mother says. “We’ve raised them since they were born. Now we’ve got to manage something that we never imagined in our wildest dreams, saying ‘sorry kids, bye-bye’ because the mother says she has straightened herself out.

“There is a strong anti-adoption culture in the department. They do their utmost to ensure reunification. The whole thing has put enormous stress on our family. We only took this on because the department told us heaps of kids in care need permanent placements. It’s a joke. There’s no permanence. The government can have a policy on adoption but unless it’s implemented it’s just empty words. The worst thing is the kids feel like they’ve been betrayed yet again.”

Sharon Glen, an Adelaide-based foster care consultant with Anglicare, speaks of “a deeply pervasive politically correct agenda among some in the child protection hierarchy that removing children is tantamount to stealing them from basically good parents who just need a lot more ‘support’.”

Social workers prefer early intervention programs that aim to prevent children coming into care. These programs are notoriously underfunded, with outof- home care costs swallowing 65.4 per cent of the $3.2 billion child protection budget, and there is a lack of convincing evidence they work.

In April, South Australia’s Coroner Mark Johns called for cultural change when he reported on the chilling circumstances of Chloe Valentine, who died, aged four, in the care of her drug-addicted mother. “Permanent removal to adoptive parents must have a place in the child protection system,” he concluded, while noting the “limitless opportunities” given to Chloe’s mother Ashlee as caseworkers tried to preserve the family unit.

Barnardos Australia’s retiring CEO Louise Voigt has worked alongside disadvantaged families for 30 years. “The problems that bring children into out-of-home care are dire and entrenched and frequently beyond the capacity of low-level early interventions.” A passionate believer in open adoption, Voigt says support services are a great investment in prevention for some families but ill-suited to hardcore cases of dysfunction.

“Those who oppose adoption need to confront the question of how long we can wait for an adult to ‘turn their life around’ and how much damage they wish to see children experience. Developmental needs mean there is very limited time for parents to regain their capacity to care for children before broken attachments and ongoing disruptions cause irreversible damage.”

The agency is in the early stages of studying the outcomes for 200 children who were placed in open adoptions from state care. “We argue adoption gives a greater sense of belonging than long-term foster care.” Voigt says social workers struggle with adoption because of past mistakes. “Even in NSW we have a long way to go. Social workers have not focused on the child. They are so used to working with families and adults.”

Methamphetamines, mental illness and domestic violence have created a more complex and challenging mix of problems. “We are seeing quite a different population now, people with chronically lapsing addictions,” says Dorothy Scott, who was a member of Victoria’s Protecting Vulnerable Children Inquiry in 2012. “Even when we offer the best services these may not be sufficient.”

The Victorian inquiry recommended adoption in cases with little prospect of reunification. “But the government is not ready to bite the bullet,” Scott says. She bridles at talk of a “second stolen generation”, concerned that this will strong-arm caseworkers to shy away from secure placements so integral to children’s wellbeing.

Our past encourages paralysis. Western Australia and the Northern Territory, the states with the highest proportion of indigenous kids in out-of-home care, struggle to find enough kinship members to foster children removed from unsafe homes. The remoteness of communities complicates ongoing contact with a child’s birth family. We can’t even agree on what constitutes neglect in indigenous culture. Aboriginal caseworkers in NSW are often criticised for being less interventionist. Maree Walk, a senior NSW government official, told the Senate inquiry, “There are comments sometimes… that we leave Aboriginal children in circumstances that we would never leave non-Aboriginal children in.”

For all the wrangling, the consensus is that a sense of belonging from an early age is best. Julie Hall had four children of her own when she adopted other kids. “We don’t change, we tame,” she jokes of a job she adores. “These kids have great personalities but they don’t trust because they’ve been abused by big people and handed around.” She points to the difference between Cody, seven, who came to her as a baby in a basket, and Brendan, 17, who had an unstable upbringing before arriving on her doorstep as a three-year-old. “Cody has been with us since the get-go and when you get them really young you grow with them and know them,” she says.

“When they are that little bit older it’s difficult to bond with them. Brendan had hives everywhere, because of allergies, which we didn’t know about because there is little family history provided. He didn’t have much language because he was tongue-tied and he suffered a lot of anxiety which led to behavioural problems,” she recalls.

“Every time there was a knock on the door he would run to his room and hide under the bed because he thought someone was going to take him. It took him a long time to trust. I used to tell him if anyone came to take him away I’d put him in the roof. I’d say, ‘We are your forever family and you’re not going anywhere’.”

“The forever family” is a phrase that resonates with a Melbourne social worker who, with his wife, has permanent care orders giving them responsibility for a son and daughter who arrived from child protection. He loathes the word “carer”. “I’m not a carer, I’m their dad,” he says.

“If you try telling my 10-year-old son that I’m not actually his dad but I’m his ‘permanent carer’ he would wonder what you are talking about. What is important to him is that he has a real life, genuine, loving mum and dad… He knows we weren’t there when he was born but he knows who he is, where he’s come from, and that his mum and dad are going to be travelling alongside him to wherever he is going,” he wrote in a proposal for a “third way” – somewhere between adoption and permanent care orders that better bestows the benefits of belonging to a family.

Most states provide a version of permanent care orders that can be granted by the Children’s Court to skirt the finality of adoption. These orders do not require parental consent or involve changing birth certificates. They are a means of transferring legal responsibility for foster children until the age of 18 with court mandated arrangements for contact with biological kin. He believes these orders fall short of confirming security for children who desperately seek it.

His son wanted the same surname as his parents when he started school. “He wanted our name. We wanted that too. We went to the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages but were told we had no right to do this. They said, ‘We don’t want to create another stolen generation’.” When the registry realised it was not about wiping the birth mother’s details from the records, they facilitated the request.

The family has been diligent in tracing the boy’s mother when she changed address unexpectedly without notifying them. “We did not need the court to tell us this was necessary; our love and deep understanding of our son’s needs told us this was the right thing to do,” he says. “His mum now lives in the same suburb. We run into her at the shopping centre. He just likes to know she’s OK. The important thing is that kids know about the biological stuff. Once, people never found out.”

This experience confirms early placement is the key. Like Julie Hall, the couple found the child who came as a baby settled more quickly than the daughter who arrived aged three. They tell people both their children are adopted, just as the Schiblers use a term that may have fallen out of favour but conveys better than any euphemism the tightness of family bonds.

State Governments contacted by The Weekend Australian Magazine spout the language of a bureaucracy resistant to change. Committed to preserving kinship circles with provision for permanent foster placements where children cannot return home, they would rather pursue early intervention through grass-roots programs than aggressively grasp the nettle of adoption.

Carolyn Curtis, now director of the Centre for Social Innovation, resigned from Families SA five years ago because she couldn’t stand another day scrambling to find places for children at risk. “I was removing children from one dysfunctional system to another. We haven’t cracked the answer to a really fundamental problem of how do we enable children to reach their potential,” she says.

“We have a system built decades ago that is not able to promote best outcomes. We have to build the capacity of not-for-profit agencies and, whether it’s adoption or new approaches to intervention, we have to do better as a country.”

The Schiblers wonder why the route they took can’t be reproduced. “It seems as if common sense has got lost,” says Andreas. “This way you empower people to make their own decisions without getting entangled in a departmental structure.” He suggests a role for an independent broker to operate like a matchmaking agency, bringing together unwanted babies with willing parents.

Charlotte got lucky. “She’s beautiful,” swoons Donna. “She’s a dream,” Andreas agrees. They don’t know how smoothly her life will unfold. He teases Donna about how she will cope in teenage years if Charlotte rounds on them and yells, “You’re not my mother so don’t tell me what to do.”

Donna says, “I’m waiting for it to happen.”

“I’m sure it will happen,” Andreas laughs.

“It will break my heart,” Donna concedes.

When they were in the hospital lift with the birth mother, carrying Charlotte swaddled in a capsule, an elderly stranger squeezed in beside them. “He didn’t have a clue about our little group but he looked at Charlotte and said, ‘Babies all look sweet when they are little but wait until they grow up’,” Andreas recalls. “How true is that.”

How true indeed. You can never be sure how children will turn out but a safe home with loving parents is a damn good start.

(This article was first published in The Weekend Australian on May 30-31, 2015 and was written by Kathy Legge.)