‘Through thick and thin’: Landmark study backs open adoption

Damien Fitzpatrick says adoption changed his life. IMAGE CREDIT:NICK MOIR

Damian Fitzpatrick bounced between foster families between the ages of three and six after he was badly injured by his mother’s boyfriend. He was told the families would be permanent – but they weren’t. “You start not to believe the things the adults in your life tell you,” he said.

Then one couple finally adopted him, making Mr Fitzpatrick (his biological father’s name) their legal son while agreeing to facilitate contact with his biological mother. “It changes your life,” said the 35-year-old. “It takes a while to sink in [that] they can’t give you back.”

Oxford and Loughborough universities on Wednesday published a study of 210 children, including Mr Fitzpatrick, who were involved in a NSW program that allowed the adoption of abused, neglected, non-Aboriginal children between 1987 and 2013, but mandated contact with their birth family.

The study was done in partnership with Barnardos Australia, which ran the program, and found that educational and employment outcomes for the children were significantly better than for those who remained in foster care, and almost as good as the general population.

While the adopted children were more likely to have estranged or minimal relationships with their adoptive parents than the general population, those relationships were twice as likely to persist into adulthood as those between care leavers and foster parents.

“One of the most significant findings was the extent to which the adoptive parents acted as a protective factor for the children. They stood by them through thick and thin,” said Harriet Ward, Emeritus Professor of Child and Family Research at Loughborough University.

A key focus for researchers was the contact between children and their birth parents, as in other jurisdictions that contact is rare and often takes the form of letters.

Almost all birth parents of children in the study were struggling with issues such as mental illness and drugs and alcohol, and serious maltreatment was the main reason for removing more than 90 per cent of children from home. Like Mr Fitzpatrick, many had multiple foster placements before they were adopted.

More than 85 per cent of adoptees had continuing contact with at least one birth parent, and 87 per cent continued to see a grandparent or other relatives. In 40 per cent of cases, contact visits went smoothly, but more than half of the adoptees and their parents found them problematic. Nonetheless, two thirds found them beneficial.

Issues included birth parents’ behaviour during contact – some arrived affected by drugs or alcohol, and some brought the person who abused the child. Two thirds of decisions to cease contact were made by the child themselves.

“It’s not about creating happy families,” said Professor Ward. “Everyone had to confront the issues they had. Adoptees had to learn why they had been placed for adoption. Birth parents had to confront their views of adoptive parents.

“The myths dissolved. They came to see that their birth parents were people who had many difficulties in their lives. The birth parents came to see the adoptive parents as people who loved their children.

“The adoptees could see that the grass was not greener on the other side. A lot of them had good relationships with grandparents, and because of mandatory contact.”

Professor Ward said the study demonstrated that when the choice was between adoption and foster care, an adoptive placement “is more beneficial for the child. It’s more likely to last, and the outcomes are better.” However, she said permanent fostering could give children security if it was well-supported, and cited Scandinavia as a region in which this was done well.

Adoption remains a highly sensitive and contentious issue in Australia, due to the trauma faced by stolen generations of Indigenous children and decades of forced adoption last century. Barnardos refers all Aboriginal children to Aboriginal foster agencies.

In 2014, NSW introduced reforms to make adoption the preferred option for children who are removed by courts from their families, and where no other relative can care for them. Only the ACT has similar laws.

Barnardos chief executive Deirdre Cheers hoped the study would prompt other states to consider NSW’s model, and prompt NSW to make the adoption process smoother.

“Foster care is not permanent,” she said. “Some states have permanent care orders, but the reality is they can be challenged over and over again in the court, and that is very destabilising for children and foster carers.

“We are seeing very few open adoption care plans going to the children’s court, we’re seeing lawyers who are advocating strongly on the basis of adult rights, and not considering the children’s rights issues.”

Professor Amy Conley Wright from Sydney University said adoption – which permanently severs the legal relationship with the birth family – worked for some children, but not all.

“It is particular for the individual, that’s why you always have to be cautious in saying there’s a simple solution,” she said. “That’s why it’s good to have different types of arrangements for different circumstances.”

This article first appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald here.

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