Finding a forever family

with their kids

Aren’t you big enough to be in a normal seat by now?” says Margaret as she struggles to secure Holly into her car seat. “Now you’re a real mum, you need to know the road rules,” smiles Holly. Holly was removed from her birth mum when she was only 10 months old so a mum was what she was looking for. Enter Margaret, who with husband Craig, already had three older children (Anthony 24, Nick, 22, and Brianna, 21) and a busy tyre and auto shop in Wallaroo. For many years Margaret had been saying to Craig that she wanted to be a foster carer. She knew there were kids out there that needed to be loved, but did not quite know the enormity of it. Her first experience was confronting. They picked up Holly from the Women’s and Children’s Hospital. She had a broken femur and bite marks over her face and back. “She was so scared coming to us, she threw up,” Margaret says, blinking through tears. “We took her back to my mum’s place in Adelaide to bath her before heading home to Wallaroo (160km northwest of Adelaide).

“My second son was 17 at the time and Holly just went to him. The first two nights, he slept on our recliner chair with Holly on his chest. “That is all she wanted. I was trying so hard because the second I got Holly, I instantly fell in love with her,” she says, tears streaming down her face. So began the journey to build their forever family. At the time, though, they had little idea just how big it would become.

Historically in South Australia, children who could not be restored to their birth parents were placed in long-term foster care, often moving
between multiple placements, exacerbating the trauma they had already suffered.

The adoption legislation enables adoption from foster care in South Australia, but it has never been state government policy. At a federal government inquiry into local adoption in 2018, peak bodies for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families made it clear they were not in favour of adoption for their children.
SNAICC – National Voice for our Children was concerned about the large number of Aboriginal children likely to be in foster care and that it presented harrowing echoes of the Stolen Generation. In addition, studies by the Australian Institute of Family Studies revealed the practice, up until the mid-1970s, of forcing unwed mothers to adopt their baby out to childless, married couples, caused unresolved loss and grief to mother and child. This has made practitioners increasingly reluctant to consider adoption for children in foster care. The one exception has been Barnardos, an adoption service provider in NSW, which has been successfully transitioning children from the foster care system to loving and stable families since the 1980s.

In late 2014, NSW could no longer ignore its success and child protection legislation was amended to make permanency the end goal. For children not able to return to their birth parents, the child is placed under the guardianship of kin or other relatives. But, if that cannot happen, open adoption is now preferred to long-term foster care.

In 2020-21, there were 96 adoptions from foster care in NSW. The key to that success has been open adoption, where the child remains in contact with their birth family. Chief executive officer of Barnardos, Deirdre Cheers, in her submissions to the federal government inquiry, said the legal security provided by adoption was important, particularly for the child. “It’s the only way, and our children tell us this, that children feel safe that a social worker is not going to come and knock on the door and say ‘You might be going somewhere else’,” she said. Despite the progress, a 2019 study of people living in NSW revealed a lack of understanding about open adoption in Australia, including the fact that adoptive and birth families may exchange information and that there are opportunities for the child to stay in contact with birth family members.

There is a perception these children have difficult behaviours and may not accept the adoptive parents, as well as the impact the adoption will have on their finances and the existing family. It found marketing strategies are needed to address these specific concerns with reliable information about the diverse range of people who end up in out-of-home care, why they are there and the benefits of adopting a child from out-of-home care, both for the child and their adoptive parents. The public must also be informed about ongoing financial support for the child. And policy changes are needed to reflect the need for post-adoption support services. Nine children adopted by their foster carers in New South Wales, when interviewed for a study (Adoption Quarterly, 2018), said they felt treasured by their adoptive parents. They had a strong sense of security and belonging with their family. The openness of their adoption, contact with birth family members and the support of their family to discuss adoption issues contributed to their strong sense of identity. They felt they were given a second shot at life and had opportunities that would not have otherwise arisen.

For Margaret, there was never any doubt about the path they would take, nor the end goal. “I just had this thing with Holly from day
one that I was going to protect her with my life, probably because I could see some of her injuries,” she says. “That was really confronting
and hard to deal with. But within a week, Holly started to bond with me, she was coming to me and hugging me.”

Margaret was asked by the Department of Child Protection staff to take Holly back to the “baby stage” as much as possible: “I was feeding her in my arms holding the bottle treating her like a newborn. I held her so close to me, she’s now attached to my hip.” During visits to the Women’s and Children’s Hospital, the occupational therapist and the head psychologist could see the bond forming and, within 12 months of starting occupational therapy, they stopped it. “They said, ‘We don’t need to see you anymore. Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.’ All we’re doing is loving her. We all just loved her,” she says. It wasn’t always easy; Holly was still suffering the after effects of early trauma. “When I put Holly in the shower, she had a meltdown, screaming, crying,” Margaret says. “I later found out this had been a traumatic experience for her.”

Another time, Margaret was playing a game she had played with her older children where she would say “I’m gonna eat you up” and then pretend to eat their arm. “She had another meltdown. She thought I was going to bite her,” Margaret says. After two years, Margaret and Craig wanted to start the process for long-term legal guardianship. But the department rang Margaret and told her the birth mother was pregnant. This baby, too, was planned for removal, so they knew instantly what they needed to do. “We were going to have the baby. There was no question. She was Holly’s sibling,” Margaret says. With the mum in labour, Margaret, her older daughter Briana, and Holly went out shopping for baby clothes. The next morning, Holly’s sister, Havana, was born. “So we jumped in the car, I was so excited for Holly. I’m saying to Holly ‘You’ve got a baby sister’,” Margaret says. Havana settled into the family, and about a month before she turned one, the process began again for Margaret and Craig to become the legal guardians for both girls. The couple was thrilled to have the security of knowing the girls were going to be with them long-term. But it still wasn’t enough. They wanted to adopt their girls. “With legal guardianship, when the girls turn 18, they are no one’s kids. We didn’t want that. We wanted them to know they were part of our forever family,” Margaret says.

The family was police checked, had to receive medical clearance, and underwent first aid and mandatory reporting courses. Department bureaucrats quizzed them, both as individuals and together, about such things as the relationships with the siblings and the things they did as a family. “They interviewed our older children and asked them questions about how we parented them,” Margaret says. “They told us what to expect parenting the girls and asked questions about how we intended to parent them.” The interviews ran for eight weeks. Finally, in 2019, Margaret and Craig got their wish. They were one of three families selected to apply for adoption as part of a pilot program to test adoption from foster care under the adoption legislation. The birth parents consented to the adoption. “We provided some further information, mostly around our financial affairs, but otherwise it was a relatively straightforward process,”

Margaret says. She told Holly about what they were doing. “I asked Holly, ‘Do you know what adoption means?’ and she said, ‘Oh, it means you’re going to be my mum forever and ever and ever’,” she says. “We did have some deep conversations. One night Holly said to me, ‘So
why did mum sell me?’ ‘She didn’t sell you honey.’ ‘Well how did you get me? Did you buy me?’ ‘No, she just couldn’t look after you’.” They made the adoption – the first of its kind from state care in SA in more than a decade – a big deal. The girls wanted to stay in a hotel with
a swimming pool, so the afternoon before the orders were to be made in the Youth Court, the family, including Margaret’s mum and her
partner, checked into a hotel. The next day, August 30, 2022, the girls dressed in their new Country Road outfits, stepped into the courtroom with their family proudly watching from the gallery. “When the magistrate made the orders, we were just so excited and happy,” Margaret says. “Everyone was crying.

That night 45 of our extended family celebrated at my mum’s house. “Holly and Havana were given beautiful little bracelets with the date engraved on the back from my brother and sister-in-law and necklaces with their initials engraved on them from a cousin. “It was a special time and huge for all of us.” Margaret encourages the birth mum to stay in contact. She sometimes will ask for photos of the girls. “It would be very difficult to have your children removed and she has been really good and supportive,” Margaret says. “I think it’s her way of giving to her children. We also have contact with the birth mother’s twin sister. Holly understands that her aunty is her birth mum’s sister and her children are her cousins. We talk regularly with aunty on the phone or FaceTime. We catch up for birthday parties and family events at Christmas and Easter time. They are our extended family and we make it as normal as possible for the girls.”

Margaret and Craig

It is unclear whether adoption from foster care will become the state government’s preferred policy for South Australia’s 4740 children in out-of-home care, as it is in NSW. A full review of the child protection legislation is underway and Child Protection Minister Katrine Hildyard says the consultation process will address a broad range of issues, including adoption. That consultation process will finish at the end of this year and the state government will then receive a report on recommendations in February. Legislation will be developed in response to those recommendations.

“I want as many children as possible to have the experience of a safe, loving, stable home,” Hildyard says. “A review of the child protection
legislation is the perfect opportunity to consider these issues. I am viscerally determined to make change. I come back to the same question:
‘What is the best thing for these vulnerable children?’ These children and young people are often dealing with intergenerational trauma,
poverty, domestic violence, mental ill health, substance abuse – the complexity of those issues is huge.” A change would represent a significant shift in government policy. The state government has been reluctant to support adoption for kids in state care. In 2016, the state’s Child Protection System Royal Commission stopped short of recommending increased adoption. Commissioner Margaret Nyland recommended the government increase the use of “Other Person Guardianship”. With OPG, the foster carer, after two years caring for the child, can be made the legal guardian of the child until 18 but, beyond that, have no further responsibility.

As at June 30 this year, 327 children and young people in SA were under an OPG. In September 2018, then child protection minister Rachel Sanderson announced the government’s plan to increase adoptions of children in state care. Sanderson introduced an Amendment Bill to the child protection legislation with the intention to simplify and speed up the process of adoption from foster care. The Bill got through the House of Assembly, but not the Legislative Council and so did not pass into law.

Today, the state government continues to support the small number of families in the pilot program testing adoption from foster care.
Financial support is provided to foster and kinship carers who adopt a child or young person from care. Post-adoption support services are available through Relationships Australia. Families can access counselling; therapeutic and skills-based education programs to enhance personal and social development; mediation; and other appropriate resources.
What is clear for Holly, now 6, and Havana, 4, – and their family – is that, for them, the change could not have come soon enough. Both are thriving. Energetic, happy kids, who know they are loved. “Holly struggles a bit with reading and writing at school, so we have a tutor that comes in once a week and she’s making progress,” Margaret says. “Other than that, she plays sport. She’s social. She’s got lots of friends. I cannot pick up on anything.”

In a school project for the class, Holly was asked to draw a picture of her family and what they did on the weekend. It happened to be just
after her adoption. Holly drew her mum, dad, two brothers and two sisters. Beneath the drawing, she wrote: “On the weekend I got adopted. I got some special things. Nothing is going to change.”