Sasha Borissenko: Adoption bill seeks to put children first


One of the main reasons why Labour Party MP Paul Eagle entered politics was to change the Adoption Act 1955. While practices have advanced, the legislation continues to undermine and discriminate against all parties, but particularly the child in question. This could all change under the Labour Government.

Adoption is a personal issue for Paul Eagle. The Rongotai MP was adopted in 1972 by Brian and Judith Eagle; he was handed over to his new parents fresh out of the womb, with no information about his birth parents or their health history.

It was a time where adoption was rife, where “illegitimate” children were seen as shameful and women were forced or encouraged to give up their children without any knowledge as to where they were going and to whom, Eagle says. In fact the practice meant about 90,000 babies were taken from their mothers and given to strangers between 1950 and 1980.

“It was considered ideal to put coloured children to Pākehā families to assimilate them into ‘white society’. The adoptions were closed, and there was a firm belief that these children would be better in a white home. For me, I knew no better.”

While his parents were open about Eagle’s adoption and he had a happy childhood, there was always a sense of disconnect around his identity. He remembers going to a marae on a school trip and when he was asked what iwi he was from, he had absolutely no idea.

“I became quite overwhelmed by the sense of vulnerability of not knowing my identity. I didn’t even know whether I was Māori. I didn’t get into trouble but existentially, I was timid, quiet, and lacked confidence. It’s crazy to think I’m a politician now.”

He avoided embracing Māoridom as a result until he turned 18, when a woman from the (then) Department of Welfare hand-delivered a highlighted piece of paper documenting his birth parents’ details. While studying fine arts in Auckland he started his journey to find his whakapapa.

“I was born to Madeline Miller and Jack Kingi. It was momentous as I finally knew that I was Māori, from Waikato-Tainui. I found some connection to the land, and to the country. I felt so relieved since my identity or lack thereof had been on my mind all of my life.”

It shouldn’t have been this way, he says. “My birth mother told me that she used to look for me in shopping malls, which was quite painful to hear. Eighteen is too late to start a relationship – think of all the birthdays you’ve missed and the experiences you could have had. I guess I’ve always been envious in a sense.”

The Adult Adoption Information Act 1985 changed the game in some respects as it attempts to facilitate a connection between the birth family and adoptee, but there’s a veto clause, which allows parties to opt for non-disclosure of information. Denying biological history means going to a doctor can be an issue, and from an inheritance stand-point, adoptees can be denied any claims to their birth parents’ estate. A veto traditionally lasts for 10 years and has to be re-issued; which means adoptees can repeatedly face rejection.

We must remember that at the time of drafting the legislation, there was still significant shame and stigma associated with adoption, Eagle says.

Fast forward to 2015. When Eagle and his partner Miriam couldn’t conceive children, they opted for adoption, which seemed to be impossible, he says. Adoptions are far and few between now, thanks to the advent of the Domestic Purposes Benefit in 1973 under Prime Minister Norman Kirk and significant advances in contraception technology.

Having “won the lottery” he got the call on a Thursday and became a parent the following Monday. But there were still significant legal hoops that had to be jumped through and issues around transparency. While the birth mother included her whakapapa in the documentation, there’s no mention of the birth father’s details or health information.

“We are prevented from accessing this information. There’s a child at the centre of this, yet the child misses out. The child can’t participate and they subsequently don’t know who they are. They don’t have any agency.”

In 2016, the Human Rights Review Tribunal ruled that a number of provisions relating to who can adopt and accessing information in both pieces of legislation were inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act, for example. There have been a number of cases before the courts, and it’s also been found that the legislation is in direct contravention to the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, to which New Zealand is a signatory.

Former MPs Kevin Hague and Nikki Kaye tried and failed to completely overhaul the adoption legal framework in 2012. Jacinda Ardern tried to do so too via her Care of Children Law Reform Bill in 2011, in response to recommendations from the Law Commission. The Bill was voted down because of priority issues.

“People have tried but there’s never been the political will to get the changes across the line,” Eagle says.

But this year Justice Minister Kris Faafoi has given the go-ahead to review the 1955 Act. Public engagement will commence in June, and there’s a desire to have a new piece of legislation passed before the next general election, Eagle says.

In the meantime, Eagle is drafting a member’s bill that aims to tackle the issue around accessing information.

“Before these reforms come into effect kids are still being adopted, so it’s important that I try to improve what we’ve got, notwithstanding issues around reproductive technology, cultural issues, and international constraints. But If we can open the door so that kids can access all of the information that would be wonderful.

“I don’t believe Aotearoa New Zealand was in a space to have the courageous conversations that we are having now. If we are firmly saying New Zealand is the best place to raise a child, we need to ensure this is actually the case.”

Sasha Borissenko is a freelance journalist who has reported extensively on the law industry.

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