One mother's view on fast-track adoption: 'I want my children back'

State Politics Editor, The Sun-Herald


 

Anne had told the foster parents it was only until she was settled. Photo: Kate Geraghty

Anne wants to tell a mother's story. But if she can't find a lawyer to go to the Supreme Court, she fears her children will be adopted without her voice being heard.

The adoption agency Barnardos wants her two oldest children adopted to their foster parents, and has issued Anne with consent papers to sign.

A victim of domestic violence who has pieced together her life to care for their younger brother, Anne instead wants her family reunited.

But the Baird government's new outsourced adoption system, with its focus on fast-tracking, has become her living nightmare.

Anne's saga began when her husband became addicted to ice four years ago. Until then, she says the family was like any other, renovating their home, with children in daycare.

There was little awareness at the time of the dangers of ice and no programs to help, she says. "I had the wool pulled over my eyes," she recalls.

Her husband was jailed, and she got a job as a cleaner to pay the mortgage and childcare fees.

For two years, things worked. Then Anne was falsely accused by an associate of her husband, and faced charges. Court delays meant it was six months before her innocence was proven and the case dismissed. In the meantime, her children were removed.

A shortage of foster care, and her insistence that the children be kept together, saw them sent to Sydney where Barnardos arranged foster parents. Anne was unaware they had entered the Barnardos Find a Family program marketed to childless couples as a path to adoption.

"I sent the foster parents letters at the beginning, thanking them but making it clear it was just until I was settled," she says.

To see her children once a fortnight, she drove for eight hours. By Christmas 2014, the stress became too much.

In the same week she had negotiated the sale of her home while simultaneously buying another house in her new town, she made the long drive to Sydney for a Christmas access visit after finishing a late shift at work. It grated that Barnardos had stipulated what Christmas presents she could bring.

She stopped off in Gosford overnight and drank a bottle of wine. Anne says she took out her frustrations by attacking the local RSL club's Christmas tree.

She was arrested and issued with a good behaviour bond. Anne was instructed not to drink, but lapsed.

When the court case for the return of her children was finally heard after 12 months, the judge saw the alcohol convictions and decided she wasn't ready.

Since then, Anne has completed parenting programs and alcohol programs to prove she can provide a stable home. "I have made significant changes," she says.

FACS caseworkers are satisfied with the care Anne provides for her 10-month-old baby. She moved to Sydney this year to be closer to her older children, set up a new apartment and found a job.

"FACS said Barnardos should be looking at increasing visits, instead they have done the opposite. They are looking after their client," she says.

The head of Barnardos has been granted the same power as the head of FACS to invite foster parents to adopt. Introduced by former families minister Pru Goward as a way to "speed up" adoption, the new law also requires courts to prioritise adoption over foster care, and gives a deadline of 12 months for a decision on family restoration.

Ms Goward promoted adoption as an alternative to IVF for childless couples, and a solution to find permanent homes for the 20,000 children in often revolving foster care. But women's legal services warned the fast timeframes were too rigid, and would disenfranchise mothers.

Anne says she was "gutted" to discover her children would fall under the new adoption law. Looking at the Barnardos website, with photographs of smartly dressed children seeking "forever families", Anne says: "I felt sick my children were in that at one stage. What is this a shop?"

"The adoptive parents would be thinking they are helping a child in need. I understand their point of view. They have been given these children and told they can keep them."

Such is the Baird government's push to increase the rate of adoptions that in February an "adoption roadshow" travelled around NSW to persuade FACS caseworkers to give adoption greater priority. Families Minister Brad Hazzard accused them of having an "anti-adoption sentiment".

But Women's Legal Services NSW executive officer Helen Campbell said: "We are concerned that the emphasis on adoption is the wrong way around. It should be taken as the last resort not the fast resort."

"Speaking to the now adult Stolen Generation we know that although there was a short-term benefit in childhood, when they grow up they experience great feelings of loss and grief. We are not doing them a favour," she said.

Anne doesn't understand how FACS can approve of her mothering for her youngest child, yet Barnardos wants adoption.

She sought Legal Aid but was told she doesn't qualify for any more legal help because she owns a rental property. She says the property, in regional NSW, is unlikely to sell quickly. She has approached another lawyer seeking pro-bono assistance, but time is running short.

A Barnardos spokeswoman said the first priority under the law was restoration to families, and no promises are given to foster parents that the placement of a child will result in adoption.

"The Children's Court decides whether it is safe for a child to return home or not, not Barnardos," she said.

Mr Hazzard's spokeswoman said: "Individual family situations are complex and the Supreme Court is best placed to look at all the issues and decide what is in the best interests of the child with regards to open adoption."

His office said birth families can access Legal Aid or community legal centres.

Community Legal Centres NSW executive director Polly Porteous said its services were facing a $2.9 million federal government funding cut.

 

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