Published in the Herald Sun – 5 August 2016 (subscriber only). Reproduced with permission.
FORMER Western Bulldogs midfielder Brad Murphy chokes up as he talks about the childhood he kept hidden from fans and teammates.
The athletic 31-year-old doesn’t remember much about his mother. Not even the incident that led to her vanishing from his life.
Brad’s foster carer, Debby, told him that when he was four his mum came to pick him up, high on drugs, in a battered old sedan with an exhaust pipe dragging on the ground.
Under the terms of her foster care arrangement, Debby couldn’t stop the woman seeing her son, but she recalls that Brad’s mum only made it a few hundred metres up the road. After sputtering and bumping into the curb a few times, she stopped off at a service station and overdosed in the bathroom.
When we think of orphans, we think of children in far-flung places overseas. But in Australia today, there are more than 43,000 children who can’t live safely in their own home — removed due to abuse or neglect.
The aim these days is to place kids in temporary (foster) care and restore them back to their families as soon as possible.
In reality, 15,000 kids have been in care more than two years and are unlikely to ever return home. Many will spend their entire childhood being shuffled from one placement to another.
Each statistic is a deeply personal story of a childhood ruined.
Brad was born to drug-addicted parents and placed in foster care at 16 months of age.
He was one of the lucky ones who managed to stay with the same foster parents throughout his childhood, only because they “fought tooth and nail” to keep him.
He loves Debby and Brendan, whom he calls Mum and Dad. But others made growing up in care traumatic.
“The thing that chewed me up was not being able to be adopted. I felt I didn’t belong to anyone,” he says.
Adoption would have permanently transferred the legal rights of parenthood from his birth parents to his foster parents. Brad says it would’ve given him certainty and the ability to do things most children take for granted.
“Why aren’t you coming on school camp?” he recalls other kids asking him.
“Not allowed,” he would reply, sounding embarrassed.
His foster parents were unable to sign off on camps or excursions; the forms would be sent to bureaucrats who wouldn’t always get them back in time.
Young Brad was never going back to his birth parents — his mum “did a runner” to Western Australia soon after her overdose, his dad spent most of Brad’s childhood in Pentridge prison.
He wanted to be adopted; his foster carers wanted to adopt him. But his dad wouldn’t provide consent.
Looking back now, Brad thinks his dad knew that he would one day be an AFL player, and didn’t want to see his son in the newspapers with a different surname.
Brad remained in limbo for 16 years, his foster parents constantly having to fight off attempts from the authorities to take him away.
He remembers always being told exactly what to do — when to go to prison to visit Dad; or to see other birth relatives he didn’t know.
He can’t recall even one time when a case worker sat him down and asked, “Brad, what do you want?”.
Victoria, where Brad grew up, has all but eliminated the practice of allowing a carer to adopt their child.
The state recently passed laws to promote permanency for kids in care, but a government fact sheet says there will be no increase in adoptions.
Only in “exceptional circumstances” will an adoption be allowed without birth parents’ consent, such as “situations where both parents are deceased”.
Victoria prefers the use of so-called permanent care orders, which enable a foster carer to look after a child until they turn 18.
But these orders don’t provide certainty for kids, they can be challenged in court.
Fiona Court, a permanent foster carer in NSW trying adopt her child, says it’s awful living with the feeling that at any point in time a lawyer can come “knocking with a crazy scheme of returning a child to danger”.
The other problem with foster care is that payments abruptly stop when a child turns 18.
How hard is it for an 18-year-old to cope without parental support in an era of soaring housing costs?
Half of the young people who leave state care in Victoria every year become homeless within 12 months, according to a recent study by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute.
Jane Hunt, chief executive of Adopt Change, says she is not surprised by these figures.
Before heading the adoption and permanency advocacy group, she had spent 16 years working in the community sector. She encountered a number of adults with lives in disarray — drug-addicted, homeless and chronically unemployed.
These people are often derided as bums and bludgers, but Ms Hunt wanted to find out how they ended up in their situation.
She discovered that there was one thing a “very high proportion” had in common — an experience of foster care.
Through no fault of their own, they had been removed from their parents by a government that failed to provide them with an alternative form of permanent care.
Frustrated at seeing so many disadvantaged adults, Ms Hunt thought she might make more of an impact helping children before they got to that stage. She wants to change a system that’s providing neither permanency nor safety for kids.
The number of abused children who, after being removed from their family, get abused again by their supposedly government-vetted carers is remarkable.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse revealed that there were more than 2600 allegations of child sexual abuse in care in the last two years alone, and “poor” record keeping means governments can’t even confirm how many of these were proven. With so many kids coming into care and never leaving, it’s difficult to provide them all with placements that are both safe and culturally suitable.
NSW is the only state in Australia to have enacted reforms to make adoption easier, although they’ve barely made a dent in a growing foster care population.
Fewer than 100 of the 17,000 children in care in the state were adopted last year. And just seven children were adopted by foster carers in all other states and territories combined.
Ms Hunt says the cautious approach to adoption today is influenced by some dreadful past practices in Australia.
Angela Barra was a victim of these past practices.
Born in Brisbane in 1967, her unmarried mother was coerced into signing a blank piece of paper. Ms Barra was not able to see her mother for another 20 years, nor know anything about her. Although she loves her adopted family, Ms Barra said she always felt a “sense of rejection and disenfranchised grief and loss”.
She says that there is still a lack of support for children post-adoption.
Even worse, she says, is the fact that governments spend “so little” on early intervention services designed to prevent children from being removed.
Ms Hunt says she totally agrees with much of what Ms Barra has to say.
Ms Hunt’s own grandmother experienced a closed, secret adoption; first finding out on her wedding day that the people she had been calling Mum and Dad all her life were not her birth parents.
Ms Hunt said this experience “shook the ground from under her”, the tremors reverberating across generations in her family.
It convinced her that “birth families must be a part of the adoption process, and contact should be made wherever it is safe for a child”, she says.
The law states all adoptions in Australia must be “open” in that sense these days.
Ms Hunt says she firmly believes the preferred option is to keep children with their birth family, and that “far more” should be done to support struggling parents.
“Adoption is only one part of the system, and it’s certainly not for everyone,” Ms Hunt says. But she thinks many state bureaucracies “deselect” the adoption option, or make it too hard due to excessive paperwork and by underfunding adoption support services.
“It can take between four and seven years to adopt a child in your care, and this can be traumatic for all concerned. We need to make quicker decisions that reflect the needs of the child. Sadly, the voices of children often are ignored in our child protection systems,” she says.
Brad Murphy wishes his voice was heard 20 years ago, but he wants his say now.
He says “it would be the smartest thing in the world” if adoption were made easier for kids who grow up like he did.
Life is such a “lottery” for vulnerable children, and he was lucky enough to be placed with two people strong enough to fight a system that tried to break him.
In all, his foster parents took in around 50 children, most of whom were shipped on to other placements or back to birth families.
He is aware of at least three who have since committed suicide.
Brad was finally adopted at age 16, when he could speak for himself in court.
He holds no grudges towards his birth parents and is back in contact with his dad, who has cleaned himself up.
After years of hearing nothing from his birth mother, she recently added him on Facebook.
Since leaving the Bulldogs in 2013, he has been a player/coach for semiprofessional club Melton.
Three months ago he celebrated the birth of his first child, Oliver.
But he has no doubt where he would be if it weren’t for the two strangers who took him in at 16 months and never let him go.
“Dead” is his one-word answer.