I rise to speak on the Adoption Amendment Bill 2015, which amends the Adoption Act 1984. This is a very important bill before the house this afternoon. It removes an area of discrimination from our statute and is an election commitment delivered by the Andrews Labor government.
The history of adoption in this state has been a fraught one. Our past adoption practices have taken an enormous human toll. Over 19 000 Victorian children have been forcibly removed from their parents. The bond between mother and child is the most primal of bonds, and to have it forcibly severed by the state tears apart a person’s soul. The long years wracked with the uncertainty of never knowing one’s children is something that those of us who have not lived it can only contemplate and attempt to understand. Fortunately we live in more enlightened times, but the human toll is generational.
When legislating on these matters it is of the utmost importance that our laws reflect the society we want to live in and that we act with a consideration and compassion that was sadly absent in the past. We need to be cognisant of the emotions of all parties involved in an adoption.
In this place three years ago an important step was taken to realise these lofty goals. This Parliament made a formal apology for past practices of forced adoptions. I remember that day very clearly. I, along with a number of other MPs and people affected, was over at the Windsor, where we had a screening of what was happening. It was a very emotional and powerful day for everyone involved. Though well intentioned, the legislative follow-up was deficient; it was not sensitive. This bill sets about rectifying that situation.
The bill repeals the one-sided provisions of the Adoption Act 1984 in relation to contact statements. A contact statement is a form on which an adult adopted person may nominate the type of contact they wish to have with a parent. This includes the wish that there be no contact. Contact statements cannot be lodged by parents. The current Adoption Act makes it an offence for a parent to contact, attempt to contact or procure another person to contact or attempt to contact the adult adopted person if their contact statement specifies no contact. The threat that hangs over the natural parent is an $8000 fine. That is like using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut. It creates a law for only one class of people on top of existing laws.
The state secretary of the Association of Relinquishing Mothers, Ms Jo Fraser, summed up the situation most succinctly when she said, as reported in the Age of 7 June this year:
If you stalk or harass someone in Victoria, there’s already legislation to say you’re not allowed to do that, so why create another law specifically for us?
It is legislative overkill, it is discriminatory and it is cruel. We can and must be more sensitive to the raw emotions of those involved in these situations. I believe this bill strikes a fairer balance for all parties. It will respect all existing contact statements. There have only been 16 contact statements lodged since these punitive laws came into effect; 9 of these specified no contact. There have been no known breaches of a contact statement since their introduction in 2013. All the people who lodged these contact statements have been contacted by the Department of Health and Human Services to have these changes explained to them and offered counselling if desired. Adult adoptees and parents will still be able to express their wishes in regard to contact through the Adoption Information Register.
I will set out what the amendments will do. Once these amendments commence, contact statements in place prior to commencement will continue in effect but will not be capable of extension. It will no longer be an offence for a parent to ‘breach’ a contact statement. New contact statements will no longer be able to be made. This is a far more sensitive approach than criminalising a section of our society, and the safeguards that apply to the rest of society in regard to stalking and harassment will apply to parents as they would to anyone else.
In conclusion, while the data on adoption is sketchy, it is believed that over 200 000 Australians are adopted. As I said before, we know that over 19 000 Victorians were forcibly adopted. Every case of adoption is unique. There are different emotions and feelings in each case that must be treated with respect. There are moments of love, happiness, tears and guilt; new lives and new chances; new families created and old bonds rebuilt. It is far too complex a situation for the blunt instrument of criminalising the behaviour of one party.
The parliamentary apology in 2012 was a moment of great opportunity. We just did not get it right then, but we can now. This bill renews and fulfils that opportunity. It will ensure that parents and adult adopted children are equal before the law. This was an election commitment, and I am proud that the Andrews Labor government has seen this issue as a priority. It removes another element of discrimination from the law. I commend the bill to the house.