A group of families involved with the now-defunct adoption program with Ethiopia claim they were duped by Australia's former government.
By
Kerri Worthington

Source
World News Radio
19 Dec 2013 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 20 Dec 2013 - 12:16 PM

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

The families say they were told no children had been referred for inter-country adoption at the time of the program's closure in June 2012.

But, as Kerri Worthington reports, several families on the waiting list to adopt a child from Ethiopia say evidence has come to light that shows the program was shut under false pretences.

(Click on audio tab above to hear full item)

Families affected by the former Labor government's closure of the Ethiopian Australian Inter-country adoption program are hoping the Coalition government will reverse the decision.

They say documentary evidence confirms that at least ten Ethiopian children had been referred to the inter-country adoption program between Ethiopia and Australia at the time the former Labor government closed the program.

Lawyers acting on behalf of the families say at least seven of those children had already been matched with Australian families and were preparing to come to Australia.

The then-Attorney General's department had explicitly stated that "no children had been referred to the program for intercountry adoption at that time".

Gaylene Cooper is the past president of the Australian African Children's Aid and Support Association (AACASA).

Ms Cooper says families were told the program was too difficult to manage, which she understood to mean too expensive.

"I can only really assume that that's the reason because we've asked questions why. They can't seem to give us a straight answer other than to say that the program was very difficult. With Ethiopia in particular, there were quite a few delegation visits to Ethiopia by the Attorney-General's department. I think it's good to go to the country and try to meet the people that you're going to be working with. However, quite a few years back the program was suspended so there was a trip back there to look at how they could re-open it. So just probably the travel, the time that it takes communicating between their department and Ethiopia."

The families say their calls for the Labor Government to review its stance were ignored.

Lawyers say the government is breach of a bilateral agreement with Ethiopia.

Melbourne-based lawyer Michael Garner says a decision to close the 22-year old adoption program has had life-changing consequences for at least one little would-be adoptee.

"The four year old girl is back living on the street with her mother who is a beggar. She has malnutrition, she lives on the street and the four year old girl is with her begging on the street. She would have been in Australia living with a family today but for the closure of the program."

Mr Garner is representing several Australian clients who say they are baffled at the decision to shut down the inter-country adoption program.

He says most of his clients expected they would successfully adopt an Ethiopian baby or child after passing the intensive eligibility test.

Gemma Pilcher was a waiting adoptive parent in the Ethiopian adoption program before it was closed.

She says documentation she's seen shows that a little boy had been matched with her family and was being prepared to come to Australia.

"We actually know somebody that had visited Ethiopia in February of this year, so some time well after the program was closed, and had been introduced to a child at the orphanage as a child who should have gone to a family in Australia. And then following that we were shown a matching list where our names were against a child's."

Ms Pilcher says the documents, obtained by lawyers, confirmed suspicions that Australian officials were not being honest about the reasons for closing the inter-country adoption program.

"I felt angry that we had quite clearly been told that no children would be affected by this decision. And clearly, seeing that evidence and then seeing the photographs of the children with koalas behind them, it was obvious that children were being prepared to come to families in Australia. So I guess we felt quite deceived and devastated, not only for us but this is nine months after the program closed that this child is still in the orphanage. This child is there because he was in the Australian program and was caught up in that."

Around the time of the suspension of the Ethiopia-Australia adoption program, former Attorney-General Nicola Roxon gave a speech at an Institute of Family Studies event.

She suggested the government was concerned about the welfare of the children available for adoption.

Gaylene Cooper, from the Australian African Children's Aid and Support Association, says the program was well run and its Australian participants had the best interests of the children at heart.

"Each family that chooses to adopt, it's part of their journey to learn about the country. That is something that I believe each state and territory certainly encouraged families to do that. Which is what makes this decision even more cruel; to then have their files sent back after ensuring that these families dedicate everything to this particular country. You know, they can't even go through IVF, they can't go through any fertility treatment, you know?"

The United Nations children's agency, UNICEF, estimates there are five-million orphans in Ethiopia.

It says it conditionally approves of inter-country adoption.

UNICEF CEO Doctor Norman Gillespie says the rights of the child must in all circumstances remain the priority.

"If the authorities are competent, if all the parties have consented, if the same safeguards that would be apparent in a national country are apparent in these agreements - and, most importantly, there's no improper or undue financial gain for those involved - there is no reason why this should not be taking place because really there are so many children in need."

Gaylene Cooper's 16-year-old daughter was adopted from Ethiopia as a baby.

Ms Cooper says the adoption program's closure is distressing for her daughter.

"We've taken her back to Ethiopia on eight occasions and she's seen it and worked and volunteered in orphanages and she has seen the need that there is over there. She can't understand why Australia has made this decision. She said 'What's wrong? What's wrong with the children, what's wrong with the country?', you know? So it sort of reflects on her personally."

Ms Cooper says she had spoken to Attorney General George Brandis when he was in opposition and he was well-briefed on the issue.

But she says he has not responded to requests to discuss the program now he's in government.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott say the topic of overseas adoption will be on the agenda at the next COAG leaders' meeting next May.

Ms Cooper says she plans to keep lobbying.

"Some of the families that are personally affected by this, they're exhausted from this fight. For me personally, my family is complete and I'm more than happy to continue this fight for these families and for the children in Ethiopia, and for my daughter. So we will continue to lobby. We're hoping that the government will eventually listen and understand that Ethiopia is a very worthy country. And yes, it is difficult but we had a program for many years working successfully and I'm sure we can do that again, so we won't give up."