Sunday, 5 September 2010

NSW same sex adoption: DOCS minister in support

Labor and coalition members of the NSW Parliament were granted a conscience vote regarding Clover Moore's bill to allow same sex adoption.

A politician strongly in favour of the bill was the Minister in charge of adoptions, Linda Burney, the Minister for Community Services:


In speaking to the Adoption Amendment (Same Sex Couples) Bill 2010 (No. 2) I am conscious that I am one of the very early speakers in this debate. I hope and expect that we will keep this important debate civilised, balanced and respectful in this House—I am sure that we will. I begin my contribution with a true story about a little foster child—we will call her Lily–who was taken into care at the age of 11. Lily grew up in a very chaotic household. Her mum was addicted to drugs and often disappeared. Lily was seriously neglected. She had to get herself to school and could not predict what she would find when she got home. Her mother had many different partners. Lily was exposed to domestic violence and grew up in an emotionally toxic environment. Home was anything but a safe and warm place. Lily's foster parents, however, have remained a constant and stable presence in her life. Lily is now 24 years old and has a 3-year-old baby boy. Her foster parents are actively involved in the life of this little boy whom they consider their grandchild. They now care for their grandson two days a week. They are a lesbian couple.

As Minister responsible for the Adoption Act I take a special interest in this bill, and I commend the member for Sydney for introducing it. I recall very clearly the day I realised as Minister that we had policy inconsistencies regarding our adoption laws in New South Wales. We allow a single gay person to adopt but not a gay couple. We allow gay couples to foster then prohibit them from adopting their foster child. This bill is our opportunity to repair this injustice and give these children the legal and emotional certainty they deserve. I make it very clear that I wholeheartedly support this bill as a member of Parliament, as a Minister and, first and foremost, as an individual. I support this bill because it is a social justice issue, it is a matter of common sense and it removes discrimination.

This bill will amend the Adoption Act 2000 to enable children to be adopted by couples of the same sex. Importantly, the bill includes an amendment to the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 in recognition of the values and beliefs of faith-based organisations that provide a significant share of adoption services in New South Wales. This amendment exempts those organisations from the legal obligation to provide their services to same-sex couples, thereby ensuring the continuation of their important work—I will say more on this shortly. The House may recall that as from May 2009 an amendment of the Adoption Regulation 2003 has been in effect. It makes sure that the primary focus of the assessment of prospective adoptive parents is not their age or marital status but their parenting capacity. This to guard the best interests of the children involved. The effect of this bill is essentially an extension of the amendment. It will allow this "best interest" principle to operate most effectively by allowing adoption by a gay couple where it is the best interest of the child.

The Premier's laudable decision to allow a conscience vote on this bill is testament to the emotions and sometimes also the misunderstandings and fears this bill generates. That is what makes this debate so incredibly important. As elected representatives we must find the balance between logic and emotion, navigating as many personal beliefs and convictions as there are members of this House. We have a longstanding tradition in this Chamber and in Western democracies in general to rate evidence-based policy highly. We do not allow our decisions in this House to be guided only by sentiment. The bill is strongly backed by evidence and independent peer-reviewed research. It is evidence-based.

The inquiry of the Legislative Council Standing Committee on Law and Justice into same-sex adoption investigated the research on the impact of sexual orientation on child rearing. This research shows that it is the way the family functions and not its structure that is the critical factor in promoting the welfare and wellbeing of children. Put another way, having a happy, healthy, well-adjusted child depends much more on what their parents do than on whether they are heterosexual or homosexual. This is consistent with broader child wellbeing research that has shown time and again the importance of a loving, stable, accepting relationship with parents who prioritise the needs of their children and are prepared to work at developing and sustaining a positive attachment. These are the factors that present children with the best possible chance in life.

As Minister for Community Services the advice I have received from child care and protection experts is that same-sex couples are fully able to provide these elements for children in their care. I am not aware of independent peer-reviewed research backing up the view that children suffer or are disadvantaged in some way without a mother and a father. I am convinced that it is our responsibility as representatives to make laws on the basis of evidence. Sometimes we need to make decisions that are confronting for some of our constituents, and then we need to explain our reasons for these decisions.

Many highly regarded non-government organisations such as Barnardos, the Benevolent Society and Uniting Care Burnside have expressed their strong support of this bill. They have done so on the basis of the research and, importantly, on the basis of their own experiences with same-sex parents. I am advised that one- third of the children in Barnardos care are adopted by their foster parents. This is the best outcome for these children, providing them with security and stability. Adoption means they are no longer shuffled around the child welfare system but enjoy the security of a family. These are children who would otherwise have nobody, children who would otherwise be at the mercy of the welfare system. Of the foster carers at Barnardos, 8 per cent are gay. Do their children not have the same rights to security and identity as other children? UnitingCare states:

      We believe that this is consistent with our Christian heritage and beliefs .... the mere fact that the prospective parents are in a same-sex relationship should not, of itself, be a barrier to adoption .

The Benevolent Society says:

      Potential adoptive parents should be assessed on the basis of their suitability to parent, not their sexual orientation.

Three leading child welfare professionals say:

      Children think about who will care for them if their "parents" die, they notice when one "parent" is unable to sign permission notes at school or can't consent to medical treatment; this bill remedies these uncertainties for the child and places them on a level playing field with their friends.

Those experts are Gillian Calvert, former Commissioner for Children and Young People, Associate Professor Judith Cashmore from the University of Sydney Law Faculty, and Emeritus Professor Dorothy Scott, inaugural Director of the Australian Child Protection Centre. These are just a few examples of the countless individuals and organisations who have expressed their support for this bill.

In coming to a decision on this issue we must recognise the diversity of families across our community. Notwithstanding the personal, moral and religious beliefs of members of this House and their constituents, the fact is that gay and lesbian couples do have and will continue to have children, care for children and be parents to children. The current law hurts children with gay and lesbian parents by denying legal and social recognition to their families. At the moment only one parent of a same-sex couple can adopt a child. If something happens to the adoptive parent the non-adoptive parent is left without legal rights and, therefore, the children are left without a legal parent and without security and stability. This bill will provide those children with the recognition and protections through adoption by both their carers—the same recognition and protections available to all other children in New South Wales.

Apart from a social justice issue we are also talking about a socioeconomic issue. This bill will not cost the taxpayer, but it does prevent a significant number of children being dependent on the welfare system for longer than necessary. These children will be able to transfer into more stable arrangements where they will be less reliant on the State for their care. It is relevant to note that this bill will not affect inter-country adoptions. None of the countries that have adoption agreements with Australia allow same-sex couples to apply. Local adoption involves children being put up for adoption in New South Wales. A very important point is that the preferences of biological parents are an important factor in the assessment of prospective adopting parents. Fewer than 20 children in this category are adopted each year.

The bill will have the greatest positive impact on known adoptions. This category includes relationships where a partner of a parent, biological or adoptive, is raising a child and cases where foster parents seek to adopt a child in their care. It is in this category that allowing adoption by couples of the same sex will have the greatest benefit by formalising longstanding family relationships and giving the children of these relationships the same rights that any other child in New South Wales already has. These children deserve our legal recognition and protection as much as any other child. The positive impact of these amendments is significant. It removes uncertainty for these children, allowing both partners to make legal decisions about the children they raise as their own. It gives them greater financial, social and legal security.

Finally, the bill allows children who are in foster care with same-sex carers and are unable to safely return to their parents to have a permanent plan for their future in a nurturing, secure home with positive and lasting family relationships. The amendments proposed by this bill are in step with legislation in other jurisdictions. In the Australian Capital Territory and Western Australia all same-sex couples may apply to adopt jointly. Tasmania allows for same-sex step-parent adoption. Thirty-four out of the 50 American States allow or do not restrict gay couples from applying to jointly adopt. Moreover, gay couples may adopt in Belgium, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

I will now comment on the exemption for faith-based organisations that is included in the bill. In New South Wales four agencies provide adoption services—Community Services, Barnardos, Anglicare and Catholic Adoption Services. Anglicare and Catholic Adoption Services are faith-based organisations. Whatever one's personal beliefs, the submissions of faith-based organisations to the inquiry by the Legislative Council Standing Committee on Social Issues into same-sex adoptions bear out the conviction of religious groups with respect to this issue. The contributions faith-based organisations make to the wider community—for example, their work caring for the dispossessed, the homeless, and the marginalised—cannot be underestimated. They are an integral part of our pluralist society and provide stability, security and guidance to many. Successive governments have built an effective partnership with religious organisations.

New South Wales should be proud of its pluralist tradition. We all expect to live out our beliefs in co-operative co-existence, where our beliefs do not have a detrimental impact on the quality of life of others in our community. I believe what is required in this debate is to find a balance between law and conscience and between equality and freedom. The employees of Anglicare and Catholic Adoption Services do not leave their beliefs at home when they leave for work every day. The question then is: Does the exemption for faith-based organisations, as included in the proposed bill, result in the religious beliefs of faith-based adoption service providers prevailing over the rights and the ability of same-sex couples to adopt a child in New South Wales? The answer is no. Gay couples will have full and equal access to adoption through New South Wales Community Services and Barnardos. Examples in the United Kingdom show negative outcomes where faith-based organisations were not provided with an automatic exemption.

Many people have raised with me the timing of this bill and whether this issue is our responsibility. Of course it is our responsibility: it is up to us because this issue is not going to go away until we address it right here. Most importantly, we cannot allow discrimination to continue when we see it. We cannot allow the children of these families to be treated as second-class citizens. [Extension of time agreed to.]

All independent research refutes the myths that two men or two women cannot be trusted to raise children or that children will end up confused about their gender or sexuality. On the contrary, evidence shows that gay and lesbian couples have the same parenting qualities as heterosexual couples. They are, in fact, boringly normal and face the same struggles, joys and rewards as any parents. As we debate this important bill, I would like to remind the House of the meaning of voting according to conscience. It means voting according to one's own beliefs and principles as an elected representative of this State, protecting the rights and opportunities of the vulnerable and treating all in our community equally. It means making hard decisions based on the best available evidence, while respecting the differing views, experiences and beliefs of our people. It means voting with head and heart. As a member of this House, as Minister for Community Services and as a representative of the people of Canterbury, I believe it is our responsibility to advocate the best interests of our children and justify our advocacy. I also believe it is our responsibility to advocate the principle of ending discrimination with respect to all those in our community, be it children or adults. That is one of the tenets of our society. Finally, it is equally important that the freedoms and liberties of faith-based religious organisations in the provision of services in accordance with their own values and beliefs are protected.

The bill as proposed has no downside. However, it does provide essential benefits to our children. It will first and foremost put the children of same-sex couples on an equal footing with other children. This bill is an important step forward for the children of New South Wales. It is about their right to grow up with confidence and belief in themselves. It is about their right to stability, their right to be safe, their right to be loved and their right to their own identity. It is about their right to feel as valued by society as does any other child. The best interest of our children overrides everything else and underpins everything in this bill. Sometimes one just has to do the right thing. Sometimes in our endeavours as human beings bravery is required. I call on all members of this House to remember that this bill is about those children who currently do not have the same rights as children raised in heterosexual families, particularly foster children. I want members to keep that in mind. This is a time when we have to do the right thing. In my heart I believe passionately that for the sake of the children of same-sex couples, the right thing to do is to support this bill. We know these children. They have a right to be treated as equally as any other child and currently in this State that is not the case. This bill will right that wrong. I urge all members to support the bill. I commend the bill to the House.


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