The workshop will bring new research knowledge to bear on policy debates and practice in the changing field of intercountry adoption (ICA), inform policy debate, and set directions for future research. It is a response to issues emerging in international research which are yet to be addressed by social scientists in Australia; and, current and emerging policy challenges identified by the Intercountry Adoption Branch of the Office of the Federal Attorney-General (the Central Authority on ICA in Australia under the Hague Convention). The workshop will provide a critical social science framework for the discussion of a range of policy issues in this field, including: the trend in sending countries to restrict children for adoption to older children and special needs children; the moves in child welfare and Family Law for increased recognition of children’s voices and their views; the demands within receiving countries for more inclusive eligibility criteria for adoptive parents; and the persistent expectations of adoptive parents for exclusive and closed adoption arrangements through ICA; and the indications that this group may turn to other arrangements such as overseas surrogacy and other trade in unborn children to meet these needs. Time will be devoted to the formulation of policy recommendations at the conclusion of proceedings.


Internationally, the movement of children for the purposes of intercountry adoption has been described as a quiet migration. Australia has been an active participant in this migration since the 1970s, with the 10,000th ICA child entering the country in 2008. ICA maintains a high public profile with the 2005 House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Human Services inquiry attracting nearly 300 written submissions. However, neither adoption nor ICA in particular has received much attention outside the practice-oriented disciplines of social work and psychology. Australia has no comprehensive history of adoption, and no sustained studies of ICA which now accounts for over 70% of all adoptions. The workshop will provide an opportunity for established and emerging scholars (including adult intercountry adoptees who are now researchers in the area) and professionals involved in the management and regulation of ICA, to share existing knowledge, address emerging challenges, and develop new research networks and agendas.

Importance and Relevance

Adoption provides a unique window onto a range of key social issues, such as family formation, identity, social policy and social attitudes with respect to children. ICA extends this window to encompass considerations of race, nation, and inclusion. A consideration of ICA within social scientific frameworks provides a lens through which to view the changing Australian family, changing attitudes to children, and changing understandings of race, of what it means to be Australian, and social inclusion from the mid-1970s to the present.

The history of ICA in Australia has been marked by shifts in response to changing global conditions and attitudes to children, family and adoption itself which are yet to be fully documented. Although legislation with respect to local adoption has been dramatically reformed during this period, ICA remains largely resistant to such reform and stands at odds with other legal interventions in the lives of children which are increasingly making spaces for children’s voices to be heard. Initially understood primarily as an extra-ordinary, humanitarian response to the plight of children in war or other emergencies, ICA has been normalised as a route to family formation. Its appeal in this respect derives, in part, from its capacity to offer Australian couples and individuals access to children of a generally younger age than those available for adoption within Australia, without the expectation of continuing family contact. This feature is clearly articulated throughout the submissions to the 2005 House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Human Services inquiry, and is succinctly expressed by this witness to the inquiry:

The beauty of intercountry adoption is that, in most cases, while the records are there, as far as the child is concerned it really has only one set of parents to deal with. You have a much more natural situation. As a couple, you can bring them up in the way you believe is appropriate […] So, yes, if that is what you mean by finality, I think it is a very positive thing about intercountry adoption.

However, this looks set to change with increasing numbers of sending countries limiting the availability of very young children and offering instead older children, children with special needs and sibling groups. Adoption for such cohorts of children, many of whom may have memories of birth family and of birth cultures, is a markedly different proposition from the adoption of infants and very young children.

For policy makers, service providers and scholars, these developments in ICA raise new and challenging questions. For example, research is needed to establish whether there is an age beyond which ICA can in any way be considered in the best interests of the child. Given the high premium placed on infants and very young children in contemporary family formation, further questions arise as to whether the trend toward older and special needs children in ICA will change the profiles of future ICA applicants. Further, while ICA has remained largely resistant to the openness which has marked domestic adoption in Australia since the early 1980s, how well does the closed and exclusive mode of adoption suit the needs and interests of older children and sibling groups? And, conversely, given that it has been the capacity of ICA to offer both very young children and a closed and exclusive mode of adoption which has suited the market which has driven it for much of its history, what do these trends portend for the future of ICA? Will we see growth in demand for unborn babies and surrogate births take the place currently occupied by ICA as an alternative mechanism for family formation in the Australian community? Or, is it possible that the couples and individuals now waiting for children through ICA may be re-directed to consider offering family-based care to Australian children in need?