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After decades of lobbying, the ancient practice of island adoption is set to be legally recognised — but how will this impact families in the Torres Strait?
Ella Archibald-Binge

25 Oct 2018 - 10:44 AM  UPDATED 25 Oct 2018 - 10:44 AM

Ella Kris was looking for her birth certificate when she stumbled upon a life-changing revelation: the woman she called 'mum' was actually her biological aunty. 

"For me it caused a lot of issues growing up," she told The Point. 

"As a 17-year-old, this is who I was and all of a sudden it wasn’t.

"[I was] really trying to find my identity and searching for that answer as to why it happened."

Like many Torres Strait Islander children, Ms Kris is the product of island adoption - a tradition practised in the Torres Strait for thousands of years.

Before a child is born, senior family members look at a number of factors to decide if that child should be raised by another relative. Reasons might include:

  • To carry on the family name;
  • Strengthen family ties;
  • Ease the burden on a young mother;
  • Give an infertile relative the chance to raise a child, or;
  • Provide comfort and care to an ageing family member.

In most cases, the adoption isn’t openly spoken about, and there are strict cultural protocols around when and how the child will be informed.

It took Ms Kris 20 years to feel confident in her identity, but she takes comfort in the fact that she was adopted to strengthen family ties. 

"I’ve built a positive life for myself and I tell myself that I am the bond between my families," she says. 

The Thursday Island mum says her experience would've been easier had island adoption been legally recognised, and she'd found out through the proper cultural channels.

'It's a gift that you share... you do it from the heart.'

Without legal recognition, newborns are registered under their biological name. Sometimes, their births aren’t registered at all.

In the absence of a birth certificate, children can't attend high school, receive their senior certificates or obtain a driver's licence or passport. 

The adoptive parents are also left without rights. 

"It doesn’t enable the parents of the child to be recognised," explains Torres Shire Mayor Vonda Malone.

"They cannot go and authorise anything to do with that child’s wellbeing, they’re not able to be in receipt of support services through Centrelink, they just don’t have the authority.

"You feel as though you’ve taken responsibility for this child, but you’re not able to make decisions on behalf of this child."

Ms Malone is another product of island adoption.

She was raised by her grandparents until age four, when her non-Indigenous stepfather legally adopted her through formal channels.

She says legal recognition is "long overdue". 

"It doesn’t give the island adopting parents the right to retain that child, when the biological parents want that child to be returned," she told The Point.

"It can be very distressing also for the child not knowing where they sit, and having to respect both parties... but I’ve also been very blessed and it made me a richer and stronger person being able to be brought up in both worlds."

The long fight for recognition

For more than 30 years, the community has been lobbying for legal recognition of island adoption through the Kupai Omasker Working Party - led for decades by highly respected Elder, the late Uncle Steve Mam.

In 2017, the Palasczcuk Government invested $1 million over three years as part of an election promise to introduce new laws to recognise the practice. 

Community consultation will begin next month, and advocates hope the new legislation will be passed by 2020 - with the backing of Queensland Labor MP Cynthia Lui, Australia's first Torres Strait Islander parliamentarian. 

"It would be a very proud moment for me as a Torres Strait Islander, and as a parliamentarian it would go down in history as setting a precedent," says Ms Lui, whose own family has been touched by island adoption. 

"When you talk about reconciliation, this is us moving forward."

Current chair of the Kupai Omasker Working Party, Ivy Trevallion, says she'll be dancing in the parliamentary gallery if the laws are passed. 

She says the biggest challenge in legalising island adoption has been explaining the cultural ideology to non-Indigenous officials. 

"It’s understanding giving is in our custom," she explains.

"You have to understand it from where we’re coming from, not the other side.

"Once you start talking about it from the western side, you will mess your head up."

Ms Trevallion says westerners often question how a mother could give up her child, but she's quick to point out that the child is still raised in the family - with the biological parents often acting as an aunty or uncle.

"It's a gift that you share... you do it from the heart."

Queensland Labor to provide legal recognition for Torres Strait Islander traditional adoption
Queensland Labor is promising to introduce new laws to recognise Torres Strait Islander families' continued use of traditional adoption if re-elected.