• Roger Sowry
Social Services, Work and Income

Victoria University, Wellington

Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests.

Firstly I'd like to extend a warm welcome to our visitors from overseas who include Professor Rene Hoksbergen, Dr Maurice Greenberg and Dr Joyce Pavao.

It is good to see experts in the field of adoption and healing willing to come so far to share their ideas.

The Children, Young Persons and their Families Service, which is part of the Department of Social Welfare, recognises that a conference like this has the potential to greatly benefit the wider community.

In particular it will assist with the helping professionals to understand the effects of adoption, and to be more effective in dealing with adoption issues in the early stages. It has the potential to help those people currently dealing with adoption, and to assist those coming to terms with adoptions that occurred in the past.

Many of you are involved with the support of families.

If representatives here today can take even a little of what they learn and hear about over the next three days, back to their communities then the conference will have proved a success.

The basis for legislation of adoption in New Zealand is the Adoption Act, passed in 1955.

Since then, there have been significant changes in New Zealand society which have had a major impact on adoption practice.

These include an increase in sole parents following on from increased social acceptance, and the introduction of the Domestic Purposes Benefit. New Zealanders have become more accepting of diverse family types including de facto relationships and reconstructed families.

This has led to more adoptions by step parents and relatives.

More openness is developing in human relationships, we now have greater information sharing and an increased emphasis on individual rights.

And I am pleased to say that that New Zealanders are more accepting of different cultural values.

These changes have led to a significant decline in the number of children being placed for adoption and a change in attitude to the historical secrecy surrounding adoption.

The advent of the Adult Adoption Information Act 1985 has provided greater access to and information sharing between birth parents and adopted people.

Adoption is an area potentially fraught with difficulties.

It is a contentious issue and opinion tends to be polarised between those who support it and those who believe it is an out dated concept.

At one end there are those who hold the view that there should not be any single women raising their children on their own. Nor, should abortion be available for any woman who had an unplanned pregnancy. In such a case these groups believe that adoption should be the solution.

They see adoption as providing better outcomes for children growing up in disadvantaged situations in New Zealand or overseas.

At the other end of the continuum, there are groups which believe that apart from exceptional circumstances there should be no adoptions and the adoption legislation should be repealed. These opponents argue that adoption results in loss of identity and that breaking ties with birth parents causes harm to children and birth parents.

Some argue that the incentives for abuse of the adoption system by adults seeking to meet their needs are high, and occur unless regulation is very tight.

At the centre of the continuum is the Department of Social Welfare's specialist adoption unit whose first responsibility is to comply with the Adoption Act. Its other prime responsibility is the child and to ensure that child's interests are protected and adoption in interests of child.

Considering this position it is hardly surprising that its practice can not please everyone.

Inter-country adoption has also entered the whole equation in New Zealand. Adoption by New Zealanders of overseas children has increased in the 1990s first from Romania, then from Russia which numbered 123 over the past four years.

The decline in domestic adoptions has prompted childless New Zealand parents to look overseas as an avenue for creating a family.

Romania declared a moratorium on intercountry adoptions while it developed new internal procedures to stem the flood of children leaving the country.

The growth in intercountry adoption among a number of countries highlighted the need for a common set of standards and procedures. Hence, the development of the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption - a multi-country agreement for regulation.

In late 1994 Cabinet approved in principle New Zealand's entrance to the Hague Convention.

The Minister of Justice, Hon. Doug Graham currently has legislation before the House so that New Zealand can accede to the Hague Convention. This legislation has been to the select committee, and is progressing through the Committee stage, and is still to have its third reading.

The passing of this legislation will be welcomed by all.

The Coalition Government also acknowledges that the Adoption Act 1955 is an old act and is in need of review.

Work is progressing on this and I am personally committed to seeing it included on the legislative programme in the next twelve months.

Historically, New Zealand has a relatively high rate of adoption.

For many decades before the introduction of the Adoption Act, culminating in the 1960s, our society had the expectation that adoption was the solution to an unplanned pregnancy.

This expectation is reflected in the statistics. 3,500 adoptions in 1969 alone.

So how do New Zealand's recent adoption statistics compare with other countries?

In 1996, there were 114 local adoptions in New Zealand, down from 183 in 1994. That is with our population of 3,720,000.

This compares to 20 to 30 local adoptions in the Netherlands in 1996. Their population is around 17 million.

Closer to home is New South Wales, Australia, where local adoptions numbered 178 last year, and 149 in 1995. Their population is around 6.2 million.

As a response to the awareness of unresolved grief issues within adoption there have been practice changes within a number of adoption services in order to try and minimise the negative impact of adoption.

I am pleased to be here today opening a conference clearly in tune with this aim.

It is particularly encouraging to see people with different perspectives on adoption getting together with the common aim of targeting the helping profession and enabling practitioners to provide more effective services for clients.

Your jobs are difficult ones.

Emotionally vulnerable children, adoptive parents and birth parents make for a potentially explosive triangle. But with support, guidance, honest expectations and an acceptance of differences there is great potential for successful outcomes.

Openness in adoptions is an issue that not everyone agrees with. It must surely be the aim of all agencies, parents and adults that an adopted child grows up with the least minimum impact from an adoption.

In New Zealand, adopted people can have knowledge about themselves as they grow up and access to birth families if they wish.

This works for parents also. Parents with knowledge about their child are better able to parent effectively.

Adoptive parents have moved to the realisation that knowledge about their child's birth families has been advantageous for them and their adopted child.

They are better able to respond to the adoption issues as they arise throughout the stages of a child's development.

Over the past 20 years open adoptions have become a common phenomena here in New Zealand. For some years now the Children, Young Person and their Families Service has provided a birthparents the opportunity to have some input into the selection of adoptive parents.

Birthparents are given personal profiles made up by the adoptive applicants, and have the opportunity to select the parents they would like to parent the child.

This process works better than when a social worker has made a match. The birth parent is often better able to match lifestyle, values and aspirations for family life.

This works for adoptive parents too, as having been chosen by and often met by the birthparents, gives adoptive parents a greater feeling of entitlement to parent the child of somebody else.

I believe that to have strong families we must have an understanding of different views and approaches.

There must be greater communication between various agencies, professionals and families.

The main purpose of your time here is to exchange and discuss ideas. You have an opportunity greatly benefit our wider community.

I hope you enjoy the conference.

Thank you.