Family Futures : Issues in Research and Policy
7th Australian Institute of Family Studies Conference
Sydney, 24-26 July 2000



©Susie Kelly.   A copy of this paper may be made for the purposes of personal, non-commercial use or for research and study in educational institutions, provided the paper is used in full, with proper attribution to the author(s).


Adoption in Australia – An Overview

Susie Kelly
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) has been responsible for the collection of adoptions data since the early 1990s. This collection forms part of an agreement with the State and Territory community services departments in which the Institute collects and publishes child protection and adoptions data each financial year. Prior to 1990–91, national data on adoptions were collected by WELSTAT (The Standardisation of Social Welfare Statistics Project) and the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). There were no national data collected in 1985–87. Each year AIHW publishes a national report, Adoptions Australia.

This paper is based on data collected between 1968–69 and 1998–99 and examines trends in adoption. Much of this paper is focussed on the period from 1987–88, because better quality data were available. It includes information about the characteristics of children who are adopted, the birth mothers and from 1998–99, the adoptive parents. From 1992–93, data on contact and information exchange about previous adoptions are also included.

For the purpose of the Adoptions Australia collection, adoptions are classified into the following categories. Placement adoptions, separated into both local and intercountry and ‘known’ child adoptions. Placement adoptions refer to those adoptions where the child and the adoptive parent(s) have had no previous relationship, while ‘known’ child adoptions refer to adoptions by step-parents, other relatives and carers (see Appendix 1).

There are two other types of adoptions that are not covered in this paper because they are not the responsibility of State and Territory community services departments. These are intercountry adoptions by relatives and adoptions where the adoptive parent(s) are Australian residents and have lived overseas for more than 12 months. Information on the latter type of adoption is available from the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs through the allocation of visas. Since 1996–97, there have been 390 of these adoptions.

Trends in adoption 1968–69 to 1998–99

The number of adoptions that occurred in Australia has fallen dramatically since 1968–69 (Figure 1). After a peak of nearly 10,000 adoptions in the financial year 1971–72, the number has dropped steadily with only 544 adoptions in 1998–99. More than 70% of the 104,000 adoptions since 1968–69 occurred before 1980.

Placement adoptions

As is evident in Figure 2, the reason for the decrease in the number of adoptions in Australia is the fall in placement adoptions. Local placement adoptions make up the bulk of this fall, from 1,336 in 1982–83, to 178 in 1997–98.

Intercountry adoptions, on the other hand, have increased overall since 1979–80. They rose from 66 intercountry adoptions in 1979–80 to a peak of 420 in 1989–90 then fell again to 244 in 1998–99, albeit fluctuating in the latter period (Figure 2). Overall, 70% of the 18,000 placement adoptions since 1979–80 have been of local children, while 30% were of children from other countries.

Local placement adoption

In the past 20 years there have been nearly 13,000 adoptions of children who are residents of Australia (local adoptions). As mentioned previously, there has been a huge drop in the number of local placement adoptions since 1979–80. There are many reasons for this decrease which include:

Age of child

As is shown in Figure 3, the number of babies (children under 1 year) being adopted has decreased significantly, from 1,136 adopted in 1980–81 to 60 in 1998–99. While the number of children adopted in other age groups have also fallen, the drop has been nowhere near as marked. One of the main factors in the dramatic fall in adoption is that there are so few babies available in Australia for adoption.

The majority of local placement adoptions are still of children aged under 5 years, but the proportion of children adopted who were aged 5 years and older has increased over time, particularly in the 10–14 year age group. In 1998–99 there were no local placement adoptions of children over 9 years, however this is likely to be due to the fact that carers are no longer counted in this category and it is expected that carers tend to adopt older children (see Appendix 1).

Sex of the child

In regard to sex of the child, there is little difference in proportion of boys adopted and girls adopted, and this has been fairly consistent throughout the last 2 decades.

Birth mother

Information on the birth mother has not been consistently provided throughout the years. Of the data that is available, there are some interesting trends occurring.

Marital status

The obvious trend in marital status of the birth mother is that since 1979–80, there are fewer unmarried women relinquishing their children for adoption, while the number of married women, while fluctuating somewhat, has remained relatively stable (Figure 4). This may be an indication that because of the reasons cited above, unmarried women no longer feel the need, or the pressure, to relinquish their children.

Age of birth mother

As is apparent in Figure 5, the age of the birth mother who has decided to relinquish her child has changed considerably since 1979–80. The proportion of birth mothers who are teenagers and relinquishing their babies has fallen from 65% of all birth mothers in 1979–80, to 28% in 1998–99. The proportion of women aged 25 years and over has increased, while the proportion of the 20–24 year age group has remained relatively stable.

This reflects the trend in the age of mothers in the general population. As is evident in Figure 6, the proportion of all teenage mothers has nearly halved since 1981 from 21, 950 (8%) to 11,849 (4.7%) in 1998. The proportion of teenage women relinquishing their children has also decreased since 1981. This is likely to be related to access to income support and a more relaxed community attitude. The increasing age of birth mothers may mean that the decision to relinquish their babies is possibly a better informed one?


Intercountry placement adoptions

The number of intercountry placement adoptions has increased by 400% since 1979–80. There were only 66 children adopted from other countries in that year, compared with 244 in 1998–99 (ABS 1982 and AIHW 2000). A reason for this may be that since the number of Australian-born babies available for adoption each year has diminished, families now look to another country to adopt a child. It may also be that the plight of children in more impoverished countries is more recognised.

Country of origin

Detailed data on country of origin of these children has only been collected since 1987–88. The largest group (41%) of the 3,475 intercountry placement adoptions have been from South Korea, followed by India (10%), Sri Lanka (9%), the Philippines (7%) and Thailand (7%) (Table 1). It is expected that with the recent bilateral agreement between Australia and China as well as Australia’s signing of The Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoptions, the number of intercountry placement adoptions will increase steadily over years.

Table 1 : Intercountry adoptions by country of origin, 1987–88 to 1998–99

Country of birth

Number

Per cent

Country of birth

Number

Per cent

South Korea

1,417

41

Guatemala

43

1

India

334

10

Romania

30

1

Sri Lanka

305

9

Other Europe

29

1

Philippines

255

7

Bolivia

28

1

Thailand

237

7

Other Americas

27

1

Colombia

200

6

Other Asia

18

1

Ethiopia

131

4

Poland

18

1

Fiji

114

3

Other Africa

15

Chile

75

2

Cambodia

14

Hong Kong

59

2

Oceania

12

Brazil

56

2

Middle East

4

Taiwan

54

2

Total

3,475

100

Notes
1. Other Europe includes: Albania, England, Germany, Greece, Macedonia, Portugal, Serbia, Turkey and Yugoslavia.
2. Other Americas includes: Argentina, Canada, Costa Rica, Honduras, Peru, United States and Uruguay.
3. Other Asia includes: Bangladesh, China, Japan, Malaysia, Nepal, Pakistan and Vietnam.
4. Other Africa includes: Ghana, Mauritius, Morocco, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
5. Oceania Includes: Haiti, Papua New Guinea, Nauru, New Zealand, Samoa and Vanuatu.
6. Middle East includes: Lebanon and Syria.

Source: Unpublished AIHW data.

Age of the child

Since 1989–90 the age of children from other countries who were adopted in Australia has increased. The proportion of babies, as in local placement adoptions, has become progressively smaller, from 62% of intercountry adoptions in 1989–90 to 22% in 1998–99 (Figure 7). In contrast, the proportion of 1–4 year olds has increased over the period.

Sex of the child

The number of males that have been adopted from other countries has increased since
1987–88. In that year, only 25% of the adopted children were male, while in 1998–99 half the children were male.

‘Known’ child adoptions

The number of ‘known’ child adoptions has decreased over the years. Figure 8 shows that after a peak of 2,270 in 1976–77 the number of these type of adoptions fell to 174 in 1998–99. These differences may be overstated, as New South Wales Department of Community Services was unable to provide information on adoptions by step-parents for the years 1987–88 to 1993–94. Thus while adoptions by relatives would still have decreased in this time, they may not have fallen so rapidly. The information also shows that in the first half of the 1980’s there were more ‘known’ child adoptions than placement adoptions.

The majority of ‘known’ child adoptions are by step-parents wishing to incorporate children into the new family. However, these adoptions are not as prevalent as they were in the past. While the number of blended families is increasing, the number of step parent adoptions is decreasing, perhaps indicating that step-parents do not feel it is as necessary to adopt their step-children these days. It may also be an indication that the non-custodial parents is less willing to give consent to the adoption.

Adoptions by other relatives are not as common as non-relative adoptions. This stems from the fact that most State and Territory community services departments encourage the use of guardianship or custody orders rather than adoption when placing children in the care of relatives other than parents (AIHW 2000). One of the main reasons for this is because of the confusion it can cause in biological relationships. For example, if a maternal grandparent adopts their grandchild, the child’s birth mother legally becomes the child’s sister. In most States and Territories, adoption by other relatives only occurs in exceptional circumstances.

Age of the child

As would be expected, children who are adopted by relatives are generally older than those children in placement adoptions. Very few babies are adopted by relatives, and at least half of the children are aged 10 years or older (Figure 9). This would be for a variety of reasons, including the delay in the decision to adopt a step-child, the age of the child when the parent and step-parent form a relationship or as is the case in some States and Territories, the length of time that must pass before a relative is eligible to adopt a child. So while children at the time of adoption are much older than those children adopted by non-relatives, the child may have actually been part of the family unit for quite some time before the adoption was formalised.

Figure 9

Adoption of Indigenous children

Reliable data on adoption of indigenous children have only been collected since 1991–92. Prior to that, only a few states were able to provide these data or they were not collected at all. Only a small percent of adoptions since 1991–92 were of Indigenous children.

As is evident in Table 2, there were 61 Indigenous children adopted since 1991–92; 52% of the adoptive parents were Indigenous, and only 8% of the adoptions were by relatives. Of the 7,093 adoptions since 1991–92, less than 1% have been of Indigenous children.

These figures are not representative of the proportion of Indigenous children in the general population, which is estimated at 3% of children aged 0–17 years. The low number of adoptions would be as a result of the community service departments recognising the fact that adoption is not necessarily an appropriate concept in Indigenous communities (Boss 1992). With the ‘Stolen Generation’ era hopefully behind us, Indigenous communities are now consulted, if appropriate, when a child is to be adopted to ensure that their cultural integrity is not violated (Boss 1992) and that the adoption really is in the best interests of the child. Generally, if a child is orphaned or abandoned, the role of caregiver is generally assumed by an appropriate member of the community (Boss 1992).

Table 2: Indigenous adoptions by relationship to adoptive parents and Indigenous status of adoptive parents, 1991–92 to 1998–99

Relationship of adoptee/Indigenous status

1991-92

1992-93

1993-94

1994-95

1995-96

1996-97

1997-98

1998-99

Total

Relative

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Indigenous

2

1

2

5

Other

Total relatives

2

1

2

5

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Non-relatives

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Indigenous

3

5

6

7

2

1

3

27

Other

3

2

6

5

5

4

1

3

29

Total non-relatives

6

7

12

12

7

5

4

3

56

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Total

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Indigenous

5

5

7

7

2

3

3

32

Other

3

2

6

5

5

4

1

3

29

Total

8

7

13

12

7

7

4

3

61

Source: AIHW 2000.

Information applications and vetos

This is a relatively new area in adoption history. For many years adoptions were done behind closed doors, with little information provided to any of the parties to the adoption. Now, adoption is an open process in all States and Territories, except Queensland, with the birth parent having the choice at time of adoption of being a part of the child’s life. This can vary from information exchange such as letters, or direct contact. In some jurisdictions, it is part of the adoption plan and is supervised by the department.

Because of the change in legislation, people who were party to adoption before the changes are able to find out information about themselves or others which may lead to contact between the parties. If contact is not desired by any of the parties, they are able to lodge a contact or information veto, which prohibits anyone from gaining information about or contacting them. This does not apply in Victoria or Tasmania as no veto system exists. (For a summary of State and Territory provisions for open adoption, access to information and contact vetos see
AIHW 2000).

Data has been collected on information exchange since 1992–93. Since this time, there have been 38,330 applications for information. (It should be noted that there may be more than one application regarding an adoption). On the other hand, there have been only 2,262 contact and information vetoes lodged. There is not a direct relation between information applications and vetoes lodged, as a veto may have been lodged in relation to an adoption for which information may never be requested.

For community service departments, this area now represents a large proportion of their time and energy. By just looking at the number of applications lodged in the past seven years, around 21 information applications were lodged each working day somewhere in Australia.

The number of information applications has fallen from 6,167 in 1992–93 to 4,160 in 1998–99 (AIHW 1994 and 2000). Due to the fact that most adoptions are now open, the number of information applications are expected to decrease over time.

Table 3: Information applications lodged, 1992–93 to 1998–99

Adopted person

2,518

2,432

2,896

2,738

2,621

2,455

2,144

Birth parents

825

736

1,038

810

1,178

711

421

Adopted parents

n.a.

n.a.

94

63

65

61

59

Other birth relatives

n.a.

298

328

309

312

322

30

other adopted relatives

n.a.

n.a.

n.a.

n.a.

n.a.

n.a.

88

Child of adopted person

n.a.

n.a.

n.a.

n.a.

n.a.

n.a.

19

Notes
  1. New South Wales were not able to provide the data for this table.
  2. South Australia did not provide data for 1992–93 and 1993–94.
  3. In 1992–93, it was not possible in the Northern Territory to lodge an information application.
Source: Various AIHW publications.

The majority of information applications were lodged by adopted persons, followed by birth parents (predominantly the birth mother) (Table 3). It is interesting to note that the number of adopted persons applying for information has not decreased greatly over this time. In the same period, the number of birth parents almost halved.

In 1998–99, information was collected on the age and sex of adopted persons applying for information. Of the data that was available 41% of the applications were made by people aged 25–34, with 81% being over the age of 25. 56% were female, and only 3 % were Indigenous (AIHW 2000).

Table 4: Contact and information vetoes lodged, 1992–93 to 1998–99

1992-93

1993-94

1994-95

1995-96

1996-97

1997-98

1998-99

Adopted person

103

242

389

249

146

104

253

Birth parents

36

117

158

115

80

50

168

Adopted parents

n.a.

n.a.

35

61

32

22

12

Other birth relatives

n.a.

2

1

1

Other adopted relatives

n.a.

n.a.

n.a.

n.a.

n.a.

n.a.

6

Notes

  1. Vetos system is not applicable in Victoria or Tasmania.
  2. New South Wales was unable to provide this data for 1992–93.
Source: Various AIHW publications.

Again, the majority of vetoes lodged were by adopted persons, followed by the birth parents (Table 4). The numbers have generally been falling since 1993–94, with an unexpected increase in 1998–99.

New data

From 1998–99, the AIHW collected data on adoptive families (placement adoptions only), more information on the type of adoption – such as information exchange and person giving consent, age, sex and Indigenous status of the adopted person applying for information.

Adoptive families

In 1998–99, the majority of the adoptive parents were aged over 35 years. Of the women, 4% were aged 25–29 years, 20% were 30–34 years, 38% were 35–39 years, 28% were 40–44 years and 11 % were aged over 45 years. Of the men, 2% were aged 25–29 years, 12% were 30–34 years, 33% were 35–39 years, 32% were 40–44 years and 21 % were aged over 45 years (AIHW 2000). The adoptive parents tend to be older than parents in the general population mainly due to the fact that the decision to adopt a child often occurs after other options have been exhausted. Another reason is that the child in 41% of these adoptions was not the first child in the family. In 59% of cases there were no other children in the family, 14% had other biological or natural children, 23% had other adopted children while 4% had both adopted and biological children in the family (AIHW 2000).

The majority of the parents were married, there were no defacto couples and 2% of the adoptions were by single persons. This is a reflection of the departmental requirements for persons wishing to adopt.

Consents taken

Of the consents to adoption that were taken (a consent was taken for each child), 71% was by the birth mother only, 28% were by both birth mother and father, and 1% were dispensations.

Information exchange

Regarding the exchange of information, 32% of the adoptions had both information exchange and contact, 1% had contact only, 57% had information exchange only and 10% had no contact.

Hague convention

Information was also collected on The Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoptions. This information was provided to the Federal Attorney-General’s Department for their reporting purposes. There were 18 of these adoptions between 1 December 1998 and 30 June 1999. 13 of the children were from Romania and 5 from Sri Lanka. Thirteen of the adoption orders were made in the country of origin and 5 were made in Australia.

Summary

Adoption in Australia has changed dramatically over the past 30 years. There has been a huge drop in the number of children adopted in Australia each year. The fall is mainly because of fewer local children under 1 year being available for adoption. The fall in the number of Australian babies available for adoption is due to a range of factors including income support for sole parents, community acceptance of single parenthood, more effective birth control methods and changing policy and practices of community services departments.

The types of adoption have also changed. More children are being adopted from other countries - in 1998–99 there were nearly twice as many children adopted from other countries than local children. Also, due to changing community attitudes and legal changes, fewer step-parents are adopting their step-children.

While there are fewer people lodging information applications, it represents an important area in adoption. There a still thousands of people in the community who were somehow connected to an adoption who may be waiting for information about themselves or someone they are related to. Until these people have done so, it will continue to be an essential service.

Adoption is something that evokes strong emotions in many people. Many are opposed to it, while just as many believe it is a worthwhile, positive practice. Others have no opinion at all. For some children it may be the only way that they will find a loving, stable environment, while for some parents, it may be the only way they will be able to provide a loving, stable environment to a child. Until these groups of children and parents cease to exist, adoption will continue to survive in Australia.


References

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Various years. Births. Cat. no. 3301.0. Canberra: ABS.

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 1982a.Adoptions, Australia 1979–80. Cat. no. 4406.0. Canberra: ABS.

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 1982b.Adoptions, Australia 1980–81. Cat. no. 4406.0. Canberra: ABS.

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 1983.Adoptions, Australia 1981–82. Cat. no. 4406.0. Canberra: ABS.

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 1984.Adoptions, Australia 1982–83. Cat. no. 4406.0. Canberra: ABS.

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 1985.Adoptions, Australia 1983–84. Cat. no. 4406.0. Canberra: ABS.

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 1986.Adoptions, Australia 1984–85. Cat. no. 4406.0. Canberra: ABS.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) 2000. Adoption Australia 1998–99. Child Welfare Series. Cat. no. CWS 10. Canberra: AIHW

Boss P. 1992. Adoption Australia: A comparative study of Australian adoptions legislation and policy. Melbourne: The National Children’s Bureau of Australia, Inc.

WELSTAT 1990.Adoptions: national data collection 1987–1988. Sydney: Standing Committee of Social Welfare Social Welfare Administrators.

WELSTAT 1992a.Adoptions: national data collection 1988–89. Sydney: Standing Committee of Social Welfare Social Welfare Administrators.

WELSTAT 1992b.Adoptions: national data collection 1989–90. Sydney: Standing Committee of Social Welfare Social Welfare Administrators.

Appendix 1

In 1998–99, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare changed the categories of adoption to better reflect the type of adoption that has occurred, and to bring them more in line with the terminology that is used by State and Territory community service departments.

The new categories of adoption used in this publication are:

Previously, adoptions were categorised as either relative or non-relative adoptions. The major difference between the new categories and the categories used in previous years is that adoptions by carers are now included with adoptions by step-parents and other relatives, rather than with adoptions by other non-relatives (see Figure 1).


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