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Family Formation: Adoptions
Trends in adoption
Australia-wide statistics on the number of adoptions have been available since the year ended 30 June 1969. The number of adoptions in Australia peaked in 1971-72, when 9,798 adoptions were recorded. Four years later this number had halved (4,990 in 1975-76), by 1979-80 it had dropped to one third (3,337) and by 1995-96 there were only 668 adoptions recorded in Australia.
Since overseas adoptions made up only a small proportion of all adoptions until the mid 1980s, the decline since the 1970s can be attributed to the fall in the number of Australian-born children available for adoption.
The major turnaround in the number of adoptions after 1972 occurred at a time of rapidly changing social attitudes surrounding the plight of young unmarried mothers. The introduction of the Supporting Mothers' Benefit in July 1973 meant that single parenting for young unmarried mothers became a realistic option, thus reducing the pressure to relinquish their child for adoption.
The turnaround also occurred at a time when attitudes and laws relating to the termination of unwanted pregnancies were changing. The conditions under which a pregnancy could be terminated were relaxed in Victoria in 1969 and New South Wales in 1972 (the two most populous States in Australia).
General practitioners, in line with changing community attitudes, had started prescribing the contraceptive pill (previously restricted to married women) to young unmarried women. This, together with the emergence of family planning centres (see Australian Social Trends 1998, Family planning) and sex education classes, had a big impact on the ability of young women to avoid unwanted pregnancies.
In addition, the number of women in the workforce has increased over the last two decades, as has access to child care facilities.
This has further improved women's economic independence and their ability to support a family on their own.2
As a result of these changes, the supply of new-born babies available for adoption dropped sharply. In 1979-80, when information about the ages of adoptees was first available, adopted children aged under one year represented 81% of all adoptions of Australian-born children by non-relatives. By 1995-96 this had dropped to 33%.
The more recent development of alternative reproductive technologies, such as in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) and gamete intrafallopian transfer (GIFT) have avoided the need for adoption for some couples unable to conceive a child naturally, although the number of such cases is small. In 1994 in Australia there were 2,715 births following IVF or GIFT treatment.3
RELATIVE AND NON-RELATIVE ADOPTIONS, 1980-81 TO 1995-96
Year ending 30 June
Source: AIHW, Adoptions Australia, 1995-96, 1997; AIHW, Adoptions Australia, 1994-95, 1996; AIHW, Adoptions Australia, 1993-94, 1995.
Changes in legislation
Recent changes in legislation are likely to affect the number of adoptions in the future. First, the introduction of the Family Law Reform Act (1996) and changes to individual State and Territory laws have restricted adoption by relatives, particularly those by step parents. Step parents adopt children to legally integrate the child into a new family structure by changing the child's name and giving full legal rights and obligations to the step parent.4 The restrictions now allow non-custodial parents to retain rights of guardianship, access or custody.5
Adoptions by relatives other than step parents are also now discouraged as they can distort biological relationships. For example, if a child is adopted by a sibling, the birth mother would then become the child's grandmother. Most States and Territories have policies in place which promote the use of guardianship or custody orders, rather than adoptions, to place children in the care of non-parental relatives.5
Second, alternative legal orders have been introduced that transfer guardianship and custody of a child to another person without changing the child's legal status. For instance, in 1995-96 in Victoria, 110 permanent care orders were granted, compared to 74 adoptions of Australian-born children. As a result, adoptions by relatives have dropped more sharply than those by non-relatives.
The number of Australian-born children adopted by relatives had already been declining at a faster rate than those adopted by non-relatives since 1980-81. In most years since 1988-89 there have been more children adopted by non-relatives than by relatives.
AUSTRALIAN-BORN CHILDREN ADOPTED BY NON-RELATIVES, BY AGE
Source: AIHW, Adoptions Australia 1995-96 and 1979-80 (cat. no. 4406.0).
Australian-born adoptees in 1995–96
During 1995-96 there were 394 adoptions of Australian-born children. Of these, 217 adoptions were by non-relatives and 177 were by relatives, mostly step parents (167).
Australian-born children who were adopted by non-relatives were generally younger than those who were adopted by relatives. Two thirds (66%) of Australian-born children adopted by non-relatives in 1995-96 were under five years of age, compared to 8% of children adopted by relatives. Most Australian-born children adopted by relatives were aged between 5 and 14 years (72%), while only 29% of children adopted by non-relatives were in this age range.
In 1994-95, nuptiality details were known for 298 of the 311 Australian-born children adopted by non-relatives. Of these, the majority (82%) were born ex-nuptially.
Adopted ex-nuptial children were more likely (68%) to have younger birth mothers (aged under 25 years) than those born nuptially (23%). Conversely, 31% of adopted children born nuptially were born to mothers aged 35 and over. While for every age group of birth mothers, the number of adopted children born ex-nuptially exceeded the number born nuptially, the difference declined as the age of the mother increased.
OVERSEAS-BORN CHILDREN ADOPTED BY AUSTRALIAN NON-RELATIVES, 1990-91 TO 1995-96
The adoption of overseas-born children (by non-relatives), known as inter-country adoption, essentially began in Australia in 1975 when orphans from the Vietnam War were sent to Australia.10 The number of overseas-born children adopted in Australia increased from 66 in 1979-80 to a peak of 420 in 1989-90. It then declined to 222 in 1993-94, before rising again to 274 in 1995-96. The net increase in adoption of overseas-born children over the past two decades contrasts with the decline in the number of adoptions of Australian-born children during this time.
In 1995-96, 56% of the 491 children adopted by non-relatives were born overseas, and the majority of both the overseas-born (80%) and Australian-born (66%) children were aged under five years.
Adoptions of overseas-born children by relatives are governed by the relevant State or Territory Child Welfare legislation, but the numbers are extremely small and are therefore excluded from adoption statistics.
In every year since 1988-89, the largest proportion of overseas-born children adopted by non-relatives has come from Korea (60% in 1988-89 and 34% in 1995-96). In 1988-89, the next largest proportions came from Sri Lanka (9%) and India (7%). However, by 1995-96, these countries provided only 5% and 7% respectively of the total, and Colombia (15%) and the Philippines (8%) were providing the next highest proportions after Korea. The decline in the number of adoptions of overseas-born children between 1990-91 and 1993-94 can be partly attributed to countries such as Korea and the Philippines restricting adoption applications.
Overall for most years, there were similar proportions of boys and girls born overseas who were adopted in Australia. However, from some countries there have been higher proportions of girls adopted each year. From 1990-91 to 1995-96, 71% of children born in India and 60% born in Korea who were adopted in Australia by non-relatives were girls, while only 35% of adoptions from Thailand were girls.
1 Goulding, T. (5th Ed.), 1995, The Law Handbook, Redfern Legal Publishing Centre, Sydney.
2 Boss, P. Edwards, S. & Pitman, S. 1995, 'Substitute care and adoption' in Boss, P. Edwards, S. & Pitman, S. (eds), Profile of Young Australians: Facts, Figures and Issues, Churchill Livingstone, Melbourne.
3 Lancaster, P. Shafir, E. Hurst, T. Huang, J. 1997, Assisted Conception Australia and New Zealand 1994 and 1995, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare and the Fertility Society of Australia, AGPS, Canberra.
4 Harper, P. 1984, Children in Stepfamilies, quoted in Bates, F. 1987, An Introduction to Family Law, The Law Book Company Limited, Sydney.
5 Bentley, R. & Broadbent, A. 1997, Adoptions Australia, 1995-96, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, AGPS, Canberra.
6 The Law Reform Commission 1986, The Recognition of Aboriginal Customary Laws, Volume 1, AGPS, Canberra.
7 Ban, P. 1993, 'Torres Strait Islander Family Life' in Family Matters, No. 35, August, 1993, pp. 16-21.
8 Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 1997, Bringing them home, Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, Sterling Press Pty Ltd, Sydney.
9 Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1995, National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Survey 1994, cat. no. 4190.0, ABS, Canberra.
10 English, B. A. 1990, 'Inter-country Adoption: The Context of Recent Developments and the Need for Research' in Children Australia, Vol. 15, No. 1, 1990, pp. 16-20, NCBA, Notting Hill.