Adoption law and practice deeply and intimately affects those to whom it applies. The effects are life-long. They do not cease upon the adopted child reaching adulthood. They have intergenerational impacts and consequences. The effects reverberate widely. They involve significant social and moral issues affecting society as a whole. Although the actual number of adoptions in contemporary times is small compared with half a century ago—in 1971–1972 in Australia there were almost 10,000 adoptions, whereas in 2015–2016 there were 45—each adoption is of profound significance.
In December 2015, the Victorian Attorney-General, the Hon. Martin Pakula MP referred to the Commission for consideration and report the modernisation of the Adoption Act 1984 and the Adoption Regulations 2008.
The terms of reference state that it is timely to review the Adoption Act to ensure that the best interests of the child are paramount; there is consistency with contemporary law in relation to family and community; and it is in harmony with other relevant areas of law that have changed since 1984.
This the Commission has done. This report sets out the extensive consultations undertaken by the Commission, the valuable submissions received, the research undertaken, and the reasoning and recommendations of the Commission upon the reference.
Unsurprisingly, adoption arouses strong views and passions, often of different or opposite purpose and direction. In conducting the reference, the Commission approached the issues with open mind and open ears. In particular, the Commission sought to listen to the voices of adopted people and persons affected by adoption, and to give them respect and care. The Commission expresses its thanks to the many persons and entities who made substantial contributions to this reference.
In consultations and submissions, four themes arose repeatedly. First, there was overwhelming support that adoption should be about the best interests of the child, and the adult the child becomes. It was recognised that determining a child’s best interests can be a subjective as well as an objective assessment and is something about which decision makers should be given better guidance. Second, birth certificates are of major significance as documents of identity and history. Third, post-adoption support is important, including assistance in maintaining appropriate contact between natural and adoptive families and helping parties manage the effects of adoption. Fourth, access to information is inconsistent and needs to be more open and available.
The major recommendation of the report is that there should be a new Adoption Act. Piecemeal amendment is not enough. Modern knowledge, thinking and values require no less. Other recommendations aim to facilitate greater openness in the adoption process, while providing for appropriate protection for those who may be at risk of harm. The report also addresses the need for professional and financial support before, during and after the adoption process.
I express my warm thanks to the Commission’s team leader on the reference, Helen Rechter; to policy and research officers Kirsten McKillop, Joanna Rolfe, and Lachlan Zangari, and to research assistants Claire Leyden-Duval and Jessica Valentine, all of whom worked assiduously on the reference and report; and to the other members of staff who contributed also. Once again, I express my debt to all Commissioners, who continue to guide, guard, and contribute to the ongoing work of the Commission, in this and in manifold other respects.
I commend the report to you.
The Hon. P. D. Cummins AM
Chair, Victorian Law Reform Commission