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Adoption and foster care

Although adoption in Australia has dropped dramatically since the late 1960s, nearly 300 children are adopted every year.

Adoption

Adoption is the legal process which permanently transfers all the legal rights and responsibilities of being a parent from the child’s birth parents to the adoptive parents.

The Australian Attorney-General’s Department has primary responsibility for managing intercountry adoption arrangements with other countries and this responsibility is shared with the various state and territory government departments (see links below). Adoption within Australia is handled by the state and territory governments.

All parents have problems raising kids, and the problems of adoptive parents are much the same as those of ‘natural’ parents. We expect to be able to have children biologically, and it’s a great loss when this can’t happen. Researchers and professionals working in this area have come to believe that adoption works best when adopting parents have openly faced the grief associated with infertility and come to accommodate or accept their situation, even if sadness associated with infertility never fully goes away.

It seems it's easier for parents to bond with their adopted child – and also to cope with the child’s natural curiosity about their origins when that arises – if the goal of becoming a parent has become more important than how you become a parent.

The adoption process

Adoption assessment can be very stressful. Being evaluated for suitability to adopt can involve intense levels of scrutiny from an outside agency. It involves a ‘waiting game’ that can lead to parents feeling anxious or low in self-esteem.

Some parents may also feel there’s a stigma attached to adoption – that it’s a ‘second-best option’. Others can feel there are fewer role models for adoptive parents compared to biological parents.

Discussing the adoption with the child

One of the biggest issues parents face is discussing the adoption with their child. Parents can worry about when and how to start talking about adoption, and about how the child will deal with the information.

As they enter school and get better at figuring things out, children are likely to become more curious about their biological heritage.

Once your child turns 18, they can access records about their birth parents, and birth parents can look at their records as well. Your child won’t need your permission to do this.

Bonding with the child

Research shows there’s little difference in the quality of attachment between adopted children and non-adopted children. The exceptions are when a parent has difficulty accepting the child as their own and feels as though they have a lack of support for the process.

Meeting the challenges

As with all parenting situations, the positives associated with adoption help to buffer the negatives. Often adopting parents are older. As a result, they may be more financially stable and might tolerate differences in their partner more comfortably than younger couples, which can mean less family conflict. If they’ve struggled for some time to have a child, they can also feel a heightened sense of fulfillment as a result.

If your child was adopted from overseas, it can help a lot for your family to get involved in your child’s culture. If you live in a big city, look for cultural organisations from your child’s birth country. You might like to visit their birth country when they are old enough to appreciate it. It can also help to link up with other parents who’ve adopted children from your child’s country so they have a support network throughout their life.

Tips for parents facing adoption

  • it’s normal for a child to feel all kinds of emotions when they discover they were adopted. These emotions are often associated with coming to terms with the loss of their biological family
  • understanding and guiding your child through their grief can help avoid long-term emotional issues about being adopted
  • talk and listen to your child about their adoption
  • be positive with your child about their biological origins
  • respect their curiosity about their biological heritage
  • respect differences between your child’s current environment and their biological origins. Help your child understand and know themself, both as your child and as a child of their original culture.

Resources

To find out more about adoption in Australia, please contact the following government agencies:

Foster care

Foster care is provided to children and young people who are unable to live with their own families. Foster carers take on the responsibilities of a parent for a period of time, to provide a safe, nurturing and secure family environment for children and young people needing care.

Becoming a foster parent is a big decision and can require significant commitment. Foster parenting is often described as being more than a parent. The rewards include contributing and making a difference to a child’s life, but fostering can be challenging in ways that can affect carers physically, emotionally and financially.

Why children are fostered

Children require fostering or out-of-home care for several reasons. Some of these are:

  • the home life of the biological parent is unhealthy or inadequate for the child
  • there might be domestic violence or a history of sexual assault or physical abuse
  • parents might be in jail or suffering from drug abuse issues
  • parents might be suffering mental health issues or intellectual disability.

Sometimes foster parents don’t know how long they’ll be looking after the children in their care. This uncertainty can contribute to feelings of instability for everyone – biological parents, children and foster parents. Sometimes care can be for only a matter of days, or it may be permanent, depending on the biological parents’ situation.

What makes it hard

All parents – biological and foster – face challenges, but foster carers may have additional stresses that include:

  • feeling there’s no one to talk to when a crisis occurs, and finding it stressful to deal with children’s complex needs
  • feeling there’s inadequate training and support for dealing with foster children’s specific needs
  • feeling frustrated they can’t access information about foster children in relation to difficult or problem behaviours or health problems
  • finding it difficult to cope with the costs related to children with special needs
  • being unsure of how to deal with the complex emotional reactions of children after they’ve seen their biological parents
  • having mixed feelings towards the biological parents of the child in their care
  • having difficulty with their own feelings of emotional attachment to the child in their care
  • dealing with social and government agencies.

One of the main issues for foster parents is dealing with foster children’s difficult behaviour, which may be violent, antisocial or sexualised. Behaviour management can be a new or out-of-practice skill for foster parents, but there are simple strategies that can help.

Foster children may display disturbing behaviour because they experience many complex and disturbing emotional issues, including:

  • blaming themselves for being removed from their birth parents
  • wanting to return to their birth parents, even in abuse cases
  • feeling unwanted or rejected, particularly if they’re waiting to be adopted
  • feeling unsettled about changes in foster parents, or having mixed feelings about their foster parents
  • feeling uncertain of their future or identity
  • being traumatised from episodes of abuse or neglect.

Contact with biological parents

It’s important to maintain continuity of all relationships in a foster child’s life in order to help them feel safe and loved. These include relationships with foster families, friends, role models and other family members.

It’s widely recognised that maintaining contact between children and their biological parents and siblings is the most important factor influencing outcomes for children in out-of-home care. This contact is a key factor in the development of children’s identities and resilience, and their perceptions of security and stability. It also prepares them for being reunited with their birth families.

Foster carers may find contact challenging when they have mixed feelings towards the biological parents, or if they feel the biological parents resent them. They may also feel uncomfortable if children have mixed feelings about their biological parents, or develop conflicts of loyalty between their foster and biological parents.

Financial hardship

Foster carers demonstrate great commitment and provide a valuable service to the community in a society that has seen a shift away from institutionalised care to home-based care. But many feel the allowances to help cover the costs of caring for foster children are inadequate, particularly for children with special needs. In these circumstances, it’s worth remembering that basic money management and budgeting can make a real difference to making ends meet.

For those foster carers with children in kinship care (placement with relatives), the financial and physical responsibilities related to full-time care of children may interfere with retirement or other life plans.

Resources

To find out more about foster care in Australia, please contact the following government agencies:

 

Children in Care - Australian Institute of Family Studies, June 2012

Last reviewed: November 2016

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