Speech on the Adoption Amendment (Same Sex Couples) Bill 2010

In Parliament | 08.09.10

The Hon. PENNY SHARPE (Parliamentary Secretary) [3.32 p.m.], in reply:

It is a rare occasion in our Parliaments when there are free votes on individual bills. Such bills are confined almost exclusively to issues considered to be matters of individual conscience.

The debate today has shown again that members have engaged in deep and thoughtful reflection on the issues considered in the Adoption Amendment (Same Sex Couples) Bill 2010 (No.2). This is entirely appropriate when considering some of the most vulnerable people in our community—our children. The bill asks members to consider what is in the best interests of children in New South Wales and throughout the debate each of us has come from a different perspective to form different views on these issues—although I note that some of us have formed views easily and some of us have had a great deal more difficulty.

I place on record my thanks to all honourable members who contributed to debate on the bill. Adoption confers rights and protections on adoptive parents and adopted children that are not covered by any other mechanism. It is a permanent change but it must be in the best interests of the child. Despite the hundreds of emails, letters and phone calls for and against the bill, the reality is that adoption in New South Wales is very rare. In 2007-08 there were 52 adoptions: 37 children were adopted by either their step-parent or their foster parent or parents, three were adopted by other family members and two were special-case adoptions. In 15 cases the biological parent or parents entrusted the love and care of their child to a parent or parents via adoption agencies.

In all cases the individuals and the couples who adopted the children had to go through an extensive, rigorous application and assessment process. In all cases the final adoption was overseen and finally approved by the Supreme Court. The only test the Supreme Court could consider was what was in the best interests of the individual child, taking into account that child's individual circumstances. That is exactly how it should be. The process to adopt a child must be rigorous, and ideology has no place in the decision. The only thing that should matter is what is best for each individual child in his or her individual circumstance. Passage of this bill will not change any of these rigorous processes.

In New South Wales it is estimated that 1,300 children are currently living in families headed by same-sex couples, including parents of the biological or adoptive child of the other parent—that is, step-parents—and same-sex couples caring for foster children. For these children who are in existing same-sex parented families, the bill will do two things. First, it will give children who live with their biological parent the ability to be adopted by the second parent of the same-sex couple—known as their step-parent. It will mean that a young woman named Brenna—many members have spoken about her—can finally be adopted by her mum Jackie. Jackie has been Brenna's mum for the past nine years. Brenna, who is now 14, wrote to all of us. I know that her words have been put on the record extensively but I want to quote her in my speech. She wrote:

I can see no valid reason why my parents cannot legally be my parents. It is my life and it's a pretty good one too. I am well off. I am happy. Surely love makes a family not 'man, woman and child' and I can tell you there is plenty of love in mine.

It is really important to me that my family is recognised as one.

The bill will also allow same-sex couples who are providing foster care to children together to adopt those children. Currently the only protection these very vulnerable children have is the ability to be adopted by only one of their parents if their parents are the same gender. It has been very difficult to have the voices of same-sex foster carers and their children heard in this debate.

The foster parents I have been in contact with have watched this debate intensely, frustrated by their inability to enter the debate and tell their stories. But there is one very good reason for that: the children who are being cared for by these couples are not allowed to be identified, and those foster parents take this responsibility extremely seriously. The children are in their care because it is no longer possible for those children to live safely with their biological parents. The ongoing protection of the privacy of those children is paramount so that they can have the best chance to find the peace and security previously denied to them. While they have so much to gain for their families, these couples have remained resolute in protecting the children in their care and have not entered the public fray of this debate—although I know that some very courageous people have done so, and they should be acknowledged. I have the utmost respect for these families and acknowledge what has been a stressful and anxious time for them while the Parliament has been making this decision.

Perhaps the aspect of the bill that has provoked the most debate is the issue of the approximately 15 children per year whose birth parents, via adoption agencies, voluntarily entrust the care and protection of their children permanently to either a single adoptive parent or a heterosexual couple. This form of adoption is known as local or unknown adoption. I acknowledge and strongly support the right of the birth parents to have the absolute right to decide to whom they will permanently entrust the care of their child. I acknowledge the deeply held belief of individuals that all children in these circumstances are best placed with both a mother and a father. I acknowledge the concerns raised by faith-based agencies. This bill does nothing more than allow same-sex couples to be given access to the application process for adoption. That rigorous process will continue to be overseen by the Supreme Court.

The passage of this bill will allow couples to be assessed for their suitability as adoptive parents. If they are assessed as suitable they will be able to be considered by agencies to be put forward to parents who are giving up a child for adoption. No birth parent will ever be forced to have their child adopted by a same-sex couple against their wishes, and nor should they be. With the exemptions built into this legislation, no faith-based agency will ever have to consider or assess a same-sex couple to be put forward to the birth parents using their services. I understand that one of the amendments that will be moved in Committee asks the Parliament to remove the ability of same-sex couples to access the process for unknown adoption. I will have more to say about that in Committee, but at this stage I ask members to reflect on the rights of a parent who wants a same-sex couple to adopt their child. Will we deny them that option? We must also consider that scenario.

The bill was introduced in the other place for the second time on 1 September 2010 by the member for Sydney as a private member's bill. It was defeated in 2000 by both major parties in the other place. I am pleased that she was willing to introduce it again for consideration by the Parliament when many told her that it was too hard and had little chance of success. I acknowledge the representations received from child protection experts, child welfare agencies, fostering agencies, the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby and others whose practical experience has reinforced that the rights of children will be promoted through the passage of this bill. I acknowledge the individual families who have courageously told their stories about why this bill will make a difference to their children. I also acknowledge the hard work done by the Standing Committee on Law and Justice under the thoughtful and inclusive leadership of the Hon. Christine Robertson. The committee's report has laid the groundwork for much of this debate and this bill.

I also acknowledge the members of Parliament who have worked very hard across parliamentary lines—it was scary for all of us at times—to promote the passage of this bill. I particularly acknowledge the commitment of Clover Moore, Linda Burney, Nathan Rees, Gladys Berejiklian, the Hon. Don Harwin, Russell Turner, the Hon. Ian Cohen and the Hon. Trevor Khan. I also recognise the Attorney General for his forensic approach to the issues surrounding what we will now call the "Frank Sartor amendment". The Attorney General has closely examined the amendment and identified significant unintended consequences that will impact on the way in which anti-discrimination law operates in this State and he will move an amendment to deal with them in Committee. I have consulted with the member for Sydney and she supports the amendment, as do I. Finally, I acknowledge the leadership shown by the Premier and the Leader of the Opposition in being prepared to support that which is not necessarily popular but which is absolutely necessary to promote the best interests of all children in all their individual circumstances in New South Wales. I commend the bill to the House.