Guest blog: Lessons from Australia
What is, is possible!
One of the things that can inspire activists in their long march through our social institutions is to know that the way things are now has not always been that way and that alternative social realities are possible. Somewhere between the despair of nothing ever changing and an ever-frustrated optimism lays a middle path of realistic and hopeful engagement with the powers that be.
Many of you struggling for your adoptee rights in the USA might look upon the current Australian scene with envy. For example, in my home state of Queensland, we have a right to access our identifying information; we can access an original birth certificate; original parents and their sons and daughters can state a contact preference, which should be acknowledged by the other party, but no penalties are in place for breaching that request. The names of putative fathers held on adoption files are also given to adoptees, and if the relevant parties are deceased, information can be requested by their children and grandchildren.
Naturally, all this can generate a lot of anxiety, so the state government funds post-adoption support services to help those affected by past and current adoption practices find their relatives and negotiate their new relationships; that is, if they want such help; it is not compulsory.
As a nation, Australians have confronted the realities of past adoption practices, acknowledging that those practices were in many case done illegally and unethically, usually without the kind of fully informed consent that we expect today. Each Australian state government and the Commonwealth parliament issued a formal apology for past forced adoption practices and the federal government allocated funds for professional education, direct service support and assistance to peer support groups. How good is that!
Of course, this didn’t all happen overnight and a lot of people have contributed over the years to achieving these changes, including our brothers and sisters in the USA. Our politicians are no more enlightened that yours are, and our bureaucrats are required to be just as bureaucratic as yours are. Of course, the journey is not yet complete. There are still to be addressed issues around discharging adoptions, providing redress for past wrongs and the future of adoption practice in providing permanency for children, given that we do not want to repeat the past.
All these changes have been the work of many hands and, with some sense of satisfaction, I am glad to have played my small part. I was a product of the closed system of adoption, where official records were sealed forever. My adoptive mother took full advantage of that by not revealing my adoptive status. My adoptive father thought differently, and when my mother died, he gladly disclosed the secret. I have lived through successive adoption information regimes that have provided non-identifying and identifying information. I had a deeply personal desire for changes in policy that I combined with my professional interest in applied ethics in public and professional life. I was also able to make personal connections with activists in the USA and Europe.
What are some of the things I have learned over the years that may have helped to contribute positively to these changes in adoption policy and practice here in Australia? I offer these as a personal reflection and in no particular order.
Offer solutions not just problems. Everyone has a gripe and those gripes don’t always line up. Those who oppose your point of view have their gripes. Let policy makers know what you would like to see happen and why. Provide them with simple talking points, backed up with information and evidence. If you sell the idea to them they can sell it to others.
Listen carefully for the problem as the policy-maker sees it. If you think their viewpoint is wrong, then counter it or neutralise it if you can. Show respect for the person when doing so. Being respectful towards others is particularly helpful in influencing the undecided middle.
It is important to let policy-makers know the emotional impact of their policy and practice, but don’t overdo it. Your opponents can get teary too. Passion is important but it only gets you so far.
Support principles rather than positions. You can negotiate on the basis of agreed principles or shared values, but with positions you can only take sides.
Adoption affects a lot of people, but it is a minority issue, so sheer numbers will never carry the day and will not force a policy-maker’s hand. Lasting adoption law reform will require bipartisan support.
Politicians can change their minds when they have personal encounters with someone affected by an issue who is similar to them. Diversity within the activist ranks can be used to build bipartisan support.
So, let a thousand flowers bloom. Work together, seek agreement, but don’t disrupt the energy and commitment of existing groups by creating an artificial and cooptable single voice.
Try to be the reasonable person in the room. Listen with respect. Offer constructive ideas. Affirm the contributions of others, but also set clear boundaries.
Try to find out who has ‘their fingers on the keyboard’; that is, who is actually doing the work on the policy issues, researching it and presenting it for discussion or approval. Give them as much information as possible, preferably in the form of evidence and reasoning.
Be wary of over-personalising the problem. Don’t focus on one politician or political party. We all need our champions, so it is worthwhile cultivating positive relationships with decision-makers, but try to avoid putting all your eggs (expectations, etc.) in one basket. In my experience, sometimes positive policy outcomes can be delivered by politicians you otherwise despise--and visa versa. Sometimes your political hero on other issues can drag the chain on adoption reform. Try to get bi-lateral support.
On an issue that will not bring in many votes, politicians in power are looking to associate themselves with good news stories; politicians out of power are wanting bad news stories.
Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
There may be times when direct action is appropriate. Gene Sharp famously researched 198 methods of nonviolent direct action, but they are tactics which all require sound strategic thinking and, above all, organisation and discipline to implement effectively.
Trevor Jordan is President of Jigsaw Queensland, located in Brisbane, Australia.