Our Opinion

Findings of the inquest into the death of Mason Jet Lee – on the question of adoption

In the wake of debate created by a recommendation to “routinely and genuinely” consider adoption as a suitable permanency option for children made by Deputy Coroner Jane Bentley in her findings into the tragic death of Mason Jet Lee, the Federal Government’s Assistant Children and Families Minister, Michelle Landry has waded in and created a furore by making an extraordinary claim. In promoting her own views about adoption, Ms Landry has stated that “child protection systems must have the moral courage to remove at-risk children”.

PeakCare, similar to many other organisations, academics and individuals, has significant concerns about the excessive use of adoption and holds reservations about a number of aspects relating to the Deputy Coroner’s recommendations. PeakCare entirely rejects the notion that our concerns or those held by others are borne out of a lack of “moral courage”.  It is an offensive accusation. Whatever opinions may be held about adoption, it must be assumed that all who participate in the debate hold children’s best interests at heart and they do not deserve to be chided for expressing their views. Ms Landry’s comments are divisive and polarise opinions when, in reality, a much more nuanced discussion is required to explore and research where and when adoption can most suitably fit within the range of options that must be extended and made available to match the needs and circumstances of individual children. There is no place for quick-fix, one-size-fits-all responses to children’s needs, whether that be adoption or any other supposed solution.

PeakCare has no qualms whatsoever about adoption being “genuinely considered as a suitable permanency option”. Our concern is that other options must also receive the same genuine consideration, and this was not stated within the Deputy Coroner’s report. There are very few who would disagree with the goal of achieving permanence in the arrangements made for each child’s care and allowing them to achieve a sense of belonging and connection with trusted adults upon whom they can always rely. This is especially true for very young children under the age of three, as highlighted in the Deputy Coroner’s report.

Regrettably, the Deputy Coroner’s recommendation focuses only on adoption as the means for achieving this. It ignores the other means of achieving permanence and stability in children’s care which, for most children carry far lesser risks than adoption. These risks include irreversible disruption to their lifetime connections with extended family – their brothers and sisters especially, both those who exist now and those yet to be born – and the damage that can be caused to children’s formulation of their identity especially during their adolescent years when many adoptions in the past have failed with devastating impacts to the lives of both these children and their adoptive parents. Of course, this was not the experience of all, but it was the experience of far too many.

Rather than presenting adoption as a means to an end, the Deputy Coroner has depicted adoption as an end in itself – a fundamental flaw and dangerous muddling of the purpose of the child protection system. This is exacerbated by the recommendation that the Department of Child Safety, Youth and Women report to the Coroners Court the numbers of children adopted and the details of those matters, every six months for the next five years. What benefits can possibly be achieved from reporting on this one matter in isolation from reporting on the full range of strategies being employed to achieve the safety and wellbeing of children and the permanence and stability of their care arrangements?

Moreover, why is the Department being required to report to the Coroner’s Court when there is a legislated responsibility held by the Queensland Family and Child Commission to monitor the operations and effectiveness of the child protection system? Surely it is the Commission that is far better placed to monitor and evaluate whether or not adoption is being appropriately used (or mis-used) within the context of the child protection system as a whole. Should this reporting not be directed to them?

It is obvious that the adoption recommendations will have an alarming impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. They more than any other group know what it is like to have had their children’s connections with family, kin, communities and culture ripped apart as a result of adoption practices of the past. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples themselves are, of course, far better placed than PeakCare to speak to their concerns about the Deputy Coroner’s recommendations. Giving credence to the recommendation places at threat significant gains made since the time of the Carmody Inquiry in investing in earlier support to families when struggles start to emerge, and far better and increased use of kinship care when children may be unable to remain in the care of their parents, at least for a while. These are initiatives that benefit not only Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, but non-Indigenous children as well. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities however, acceptance of the recommendation will constitute a breach of the slowly developing, but understandably guarded, trust in the State Government that it is truly committed to self-determination – a trust that will be hard to recover.

PeakCare fully appreciates that questions about the use of adoption can become a contentious matter and there may be a range of opinions held about this matter. PeakCare embraces a diversity of views – it simply means that we must engage in further research, discussion and debate. You are therefore strongly encouraged to enter comments about any of the matters discussed in this blog below, or over on PeakCare’s Facebook page. No matter what view you express, please be assured that PeakCare will not accuse you of lacking “moral courage” in making your views known.

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11 Comments

  1. Lindsay Wegener on June 8, 2020 at 6:42 pm

    Please note that if you are wishing to watch the ABC news edition that featured interviews of Act for Kids’ Katrina Lines, PeakCare’s Lindsay Wegener and Garth Morgan from QATSICPP, it is the 4th June edition. Scroll to 12:00 to locate the interviews.

  2. Parents on a Mission on June 8, 2020 at 11:30 pm

    Parents on a Mission support Lindsay Wegeners view on this matter. As a Parent Representative, I strongly advocate for a Child to be returned to his/her family if safe to do so. Adoption should only be considered as an extreme last resort. Families are torn apart from being in the system and there is a tendency for other permanent options to be focused on when reunification could be looked at and worked on. We need a system that protects children but also protects the family unit in general. My heart breaks for every child that is harmed in any way and what happened to this little boy and others like him is a tradgedy and we need to work together to ensure that this never happens again. Pitching adoption as the main answer and requiring a 5 year feedback around the number of adoptions is not going to guarantee this won’t happen again. It will only put more pressure on Child Protection officers to seek this option over all others. This is unacceptable. My whole goal as the CEO of Parents on a Mission is to help support Parents, Carers and Departmental staff to work together for the benefit of the child. We need to work together more, not create more division among us.

  3. Garth Morgan on June 10, 2020 at 1:35 pm

    The Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Protection Peak is deeply concerned about the implications of the coroner’s recommendation to more routinely consider adoption as an option for children who are not likely to be reunified with their parents within a 24 month period.

    We don’t believe the recommendation makes sense within the context of the particular case. Adoption would not have been an option for Mason Lee because he was not in out of home care. I think anyone who has read the report would agree that he was desperately in need of protection, yet he was failed so completely by a system that exists to ensure his protection.

    The coroner rightly pointed out a system that is overloaded, but the solution is to return children who shouldn’t be in out of home care to their families to ease pressure, not to permanently cut those children off from family. Moreover, we don’t believe that reducing the burden on the system alone will ensure it doesn’t fail children like Mason Lee in the future.

    These recommendations undermine the United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous People because their implementation will have the effect of disproportionately impacting on Aboriginal and Torre Strait Islander children and families. We already have a shameful situation where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children make up nearly 43% of all children in care despite making up only 8% of all Queensland children.

    It is a disgrace that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are 830 percent more likely to be removed than non-Indigenous children in the same set of circumstances. Clearly, there are systemic biases that screen-in Aboriginal children. Many of whom in our view should have never entered the system. These recommendations are so dangerous because it is these children who the system will fail yet again. These are the children who will be adopted and subjected to injustice twice because of a system that has not proven it can take care of the basics of case management.

    There are no safeguards in place to protect the right of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children to their culture under an adoption. Any system-wide increase in adoption of children in care will decimate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities. Our greatest fear is that children will be placed with non-Indigenous families and lose their culture and connection to country.

    Have we not learned from history that the systematic and permanent removal of children from their kin, culture and history causes significant trauma and harm? This harm is not only to the child and family, but it ripples across generations yet to come.

  4. Paul Testro and Chris-Maree Sultmann on June 11, 2020 at 10:12 am

    The Coroner’s report on the death of Mason Lee once again shines the spotlight on our statutory child protection system. In particular, how we as a society seek to prevent harm from occurring and, where it has occurred, how we respond.

    It is a timely reminder that we all share responsibility for the protection and care of children. As neighbours, friends, relatives and parents, we all have a responsibility to value, care for and protect children and support their families. There are many ways open to us in going about this. Reporting our concerns to the relevant statutory authority is important to protecting children. However, if this is our sole response, regardless of the issue, concern or situation, it can simply overburden the system, contributing to the issues that result in systems failure. Tenets such as ‘child protection is everybody’s responsibility’ and ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ are not just slogans to be brought out during Child Protection Week, they are fundamental understandings of how to best protect and care for children and support their families to do so. At times like this we need to share responsibility as a community and examine how we can all contribute to a world in which children are safe.

    In times of tragedy the support of families and the protection of children can be portrayed as a choice between preserving the family or rescuing the child. This ‘choice’ belies the complexity inherent to knowing that, in general, supporting families is the best way of securing a child’s safety and well-being. Yet there are times when despite this, families are still not able or willing to protect and care for their children. There are real tensions in working with this, in judging when and where this is the case and what response is needed – but it is in managing these tensions on a child-by-child basis with a view to their individual best interests that leads to the protection of children.

    The best interests of children lie in providing stability, continuity of relationships and a sense of permanency in their lives. Subject to their circumstances and those of their family, there are a range of ways in which this can be achieved. These include:
    . working with parents to address underlying issues and improve their parenting capacity
    . working with extended family to identify members who can care for the child
    . supporting foster carers to provide long term care
    . transferring guardianship to a family member or foster carer
    . adoption.

    We know that for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, connection to family, community and culture are critical in ensuring stability, continuity and permanency in their lives.

    Each of the options noted above currently exist and have a role to play in our child protection system. Yet none, in and of themselves, are ‘the answer’. It is important to acknowledge that children are, and have previously been, harmed in each of these contexts. There is no easy panacea and no one solution! No response comes risk-free and no outcomes can be guaranteed.

    Laying blame and attempting quick fixes will not keep children safe. Having the maturity to acknowledge the complexity of the issues, to share responsibility for responding to these and to manage the inevitability of uncertainty is the only way forward.

    Paul Testro and Chris-Maree Sultmann

  5. Jenny Whitworth on June 11, 2020 at 10:28 am

    Last week’s Coroner’s Court Recommendation, that “adoption is routinely and genuinely considered as a suitable permanency option for children in out-of-home care” seems to have come out of nowhere.

    The early childhood brain development literature mentioned in the report is contemporary and crucial. “Extensive research has demonstrated the importance of the early years of a child’s life, especially the first three years in laying the foundation for healthy development and resilience. The brain changes throughout life but it’s in the changes in the first three years of life that will have the greatest impact on expressing the brain’s potential”.

    But then I get lost: how does early childhood brain development literature lead to a recommendation about adoption? Instead of to, say, a recommendation for more early support for families?

    I respectfully wonder if this recommendation is a case of ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’.

    When I was a kid, I didn’t really know what adoption meant: a handful of my friends and family were adopted. From my school-age perspective, it seemed to be nice thing. I also thought foster care and adoption were interchangeable (families I knew had foster kids and adopted kids). I reckon if I hadn’t grown up to have the honour of doing child and family work, I’d still think that. As I said, we don’t know what we don’t know.

    But here are some people who’ve given it some thought:
    • “…forced adoption policies and practices have had long-term impacts on the many mothers, children, fathers and extended families who were affected… There is no doubt that our society today is very different and more tolerant to the one that existed when those practices and policies were in place, and that indeed is a wonderful and appropriate thing… Hon. CKT NEWMAN (Ashgrove—LNP) ([then] Premier)
    • “…That is why the apology we offer these women, their children, their families and all of those affected by forced adoption is so critical. It goes some way towards giving them back some of the dignity that was so cruelly ripped away. We are here today on this historic day to say sorry—to say sorry to these mothers, to their now adult children and to their children’s fathers, siblings, grandparents and other family members…. This is a trauma that has harmed families for generations. By acknowledging that terrible trauma and by remembering the past and acknowledging its wrongs, we hope that you can together continue on your journey of healing…. Ms PALASZCZUK (Inala—ALP) (Leader of the Opposition)
    • “…Today we also say sorry to the many daughters and sons who were forcibly separated for whom the right to be loved and raised by their mother, father and other natural family members was denied… Hon. TE DAVIS (Aspley—LNP) (Minister for Communities, Child Safety and Disability Services)
    • “…Whole families felt this loss. Whether they be siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, fathers, this loss left a void in many hearts. … Mrs SCOTT (Woodridge—ALP)
    • “On behalf of the crossbenchers, I rise to endorse the moving words already contributed and to affirm our concerns for each person displaced from their families and parents who endured the loss of their children because of policies in place in the past. Mrs CUNNINGHAM (Gladstone—Ind)
    Source: Record of Proceedings, First Session of The Fifty-Fourth Parliament, Tuesday, 27 November 2012

    And here’s some more – The Apology for forced adoption policies and practices – 27 November 2012 “…To the sons and daughters taken from their mothers, we also say sorry and express our deep regret for the trauma that many of you have suffered. We acknowledge that you were denied the right to experience the bonds between you and your natural mother, father, siblings and other family members because of the practices that took place at the time of your birth. We know that for many of you this has caused immeasurable pain…”

    WE NEED to turn our urgent and collective focus back onto how families are better supported. We can’t waste any more precious time pondering the pros and cons of archaic and punitive ways to pull apart families. “Families are the fundamental group unit of society and are entitled to be protected by society and the State” (Human Rights Act 2019).

    Thanks for the chance for the chat PeakCare
    Cheers, Jenny

  6. Rachael Donovan on June 11, 2020 at 1:25 pm

    Adoption is not an appropriate or relevant response in the tragic case of Mason Jet Lee, as he wasn’t in care at the time. Unfortunately, the coroner’s recommendations have taken this important topic in an unhelpful direction, one which doesn’t address the real issues of this case or the ongoing systemic failings that lead to other poor outcomes for children.

    Any consideration of adoption should be made with the full consent and agreement of all parties, including parents and the child or young person. In the case of young children, participation in such an important and permanent decision would not be possible due to the child’s capacity and age. Children and young people have the right to be fully informed and involved in decisions about their lives. If a young person has the capacity, competence and understands the legal consequences of adoption then they could be supported to pursue this as a pathway of their own determination.

    Adoption should not be used as a ‘one size fits all’ approach to address child protection concerns. The unique needs of every child must be considered on an individual basis, with the child, or young person encouraged and supported to participate in the discussions about their future.

  7. Joanne Roff on June 11, 2020 at 5:06 pm

    Integrated Family & Youth Services (IFYS) is one of five non-government agencies participating in a statewide trial to explore extended family options for children in statutory care. Although still early days, it has been remarkable to see children reconnecting and establishing relationships with aunts, uncles, siblings and grandparents. This trial is an outcomes based model, with the department providing funding to agencies when a suitable placement with a relative has been assessed and established for the child.
    It is widely recognised by child protection practitioners that the establishment and restoration of connections is key to healing for children who have experienced trauma. Assisting families, in particular extended family members, to come together and reunify with children should not only support children and young people in the care system to heal emotionally, but to also build a sense of belonging and provide hope for the future. “Where do I come from?” is a fundamental question for children and young people in statutory care trying to develop a sense of belonging and identity. When children are removed for safety reasons there needs to be a significant investment in reunification practices to assist families to make changes and enable their children to thrive. For children under three years, decisions about placement and with whom has lifelong impacts. When children are unable to safely stay with parents, sufficiently funded support services are required to explore and locate extended family members who are able to care for these children. Our experience has shown that families will often open up more when they are not speaking with statutory officers. Non-government agencies have the opportunity to work with extended family members and explore their capacity and assess their suitability and willingness to care and protect children while still navigating complex family dynamics.
    Fifty percent of children in out of home care are currently placed with kinship carers. There are many more informal carers not involved with statutory agencies who have stepped in to care for relative’s children. Investment in finding and supporting families will have positive long-term economic and social outcomes. Across Australia, there has been an increased drive in policy and practice to place children with kinship carers as the demand for Out of Home Care placements increases. Adoption should be considered as the last option when all other attempts have been exhausted for children to stay within their family of origin, community and culture. Historical adoption practices and their significant detrimental impacts need to be re-examined by government. When children become adults and look for answers about decisions made on their behalf, it should be clearly articulated that decisions were made based on the best interests of that child and their need for life long connections and sense of identity.

  8. (Rev Dr) Wayne Sanderson on June 11, 2020 at 8:42 pm

    I regret that Asst Minister Landry (Children and Families) chose to fire from the hip like this. As a mostly retired clinical psychologist and Uniting Church minister, I’ve been in the trenches (38 years) with fractured families, drug and alcohol rehab,unspeakable violence, crisis intervention and, all too often, the deep frustration of failing repeatedly to get the required attention of political and government leaders who are tragically removed from the action. I am gravely concerned that our current federal government (exemplified by Minister Landry) hurls epithets at community sector advocates – rather than listening, learning and building fruitful collaboration. There is much to learn from the leadership and member agencies of PeakCare, Create and a rich mix of other related agencies. Ms Landry would do well to brief herself thoroughly on the current initiatives of SNAICC and Change the Record. They and many others from the community sector do not settle for the simplistic or the hand grenade.

  9. (Dr) Meredith Kiraly on June 11, 2020 at 8:45 pm

    The concept of adoption is currently having a resurgence in Australia as a sincere but misguided ‘quick fix’ for child protection systems that have long been deeply troubled. The origin of adoption lies in an attempt to regulate some very poor standards of fostering in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This was an era when so-called ‘illegitimacy’ was deeply stigmatised, leading to sole parents being unable to raise their children, and extended families being less able or willing to step in to assist. Adoption also gained favour as a solution to the number of orphans left by the two World Wars.
    Current times are quite different. There are now very few genuine orphans in Australia. Marriage is an option for family formation rather than a requirement; sole parenthood is accepted as one of a number of family types; and the social security net, while inadequate, provides that every parent is entitled to financial support. Community services are much better developed than a century ago. While no alternative care system is ever perfect, foster care is now well-regulated and is financially supported, yet unable to meet all needs for care. The extended family is now more available to assist as needed due to a greater degree of acceptance that parents cannot always manage, and relatively higher living standards. And it is to the extended family that authorities and society in general are now turning for temporary or permanent substitute care.
    Through developments in child psychology we have come to appreciate that children suffer greatly when separated from their families, lessons further etched into our consciousness as we have come to understand the brutal reality of the impact of the Stolen Generations on Aboriginal children and their families, and the impact of forced adoption on so many others. Studies in Australia and elsewhere are consistent in finding that when children cannot live at home, they are better off in kinship care than with ‘stranger families’ where they lose connections to their parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts/uncles, cousins and others who make up the world of relationships that matter to them.
    While most children needing alternative care are now with their extended families either formally or informally, authorities continue to overlook the need to adequately regulate and support these children and carers. As a result, many kinship families live with poverty, inadequate housing, health issues, complex family dynamics and the care of large numbers of children with little respite.
    We do not need to resurrect a ‘solution’ designed for a different century that has been demonstrated to fail. We need to provide support to parents and to their extended families as appropriate to each individual case to ensure that as many Australian children as possible can thrive where they belong, in their own families.

  10. Vish on June 12, 2020 at 3:10 pm

    Anybody who understands the history of adoption in Queensland would understand that adoption without both parents express consent is not a path we want to revisit. We already have strong legislation to create legal and emotional permanency for children who cannot live with their biological parents. This is actually one of the few areas where significant gains have been made recently with significant changes to the Child Protection Act. By focusing the legacy of Mason in this way it is distracting everyone from the real issues that need to be addressed like why Child Safety Officers continue to have excessive case loads, poor training programs, low levels of supervision and support all while trying to work in a system that is at breaking point (some would say crisis).
    Adoption is not only not a solution to the problem, it is not even a pathway to stop what happened to Mason not happen again.

  11. Leith Sterling on June 15, 2020 at 3:56 pm

    There is no greater priority for a society than to ensure that every child develops well. All children have the right to grow up in an environment free from abuse and neglect. However, The Benevolent Society urges caution based on three decades of experience supporting people affected by adoption, including those who have been adopted, parents, siblings, partners and others who have been separated from family by adoption.

    If a child is unable to live safely with their family of origin or kin, adoption may be one option for achieving stability and permanence, provided that the best interests of the child are the primary consideration. The Benevolent Society does not support adoption as a ‘routine’ option within the out-of-home care system.

    Adoption has lifelong impacts and always involves loss and grief for children and families. The impacts of past adoption practices in Australia are significant, and continue to profoundly affect the lives of many people. There is a risk that prioritising legal permanency at the expense of relational permanency fails to consider the unique needs and best interests of individual children, and may block pathways to ongoing relationships with family and kin.

    The issue that should be the main focus for all levels of government is the large numbers of children in out-of-home care. Efforts should be on supporting at-risk families and preventing the need for children to enter the child protection system in the first place. Evidence clearly demonstrates that it is far better to intervene early to prevent problems occurring than to try to address them once they’ve become entrenched.

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