Adoption will replace long-term foster care as the preferred method for finding homes for increasing numbers of children in NSW who cannot live with their own families, in a proposed historic shift in government policy.
The Family and Community Services Minister, Pru Goward, will release a wide-ranging discussion paper on Thursday on proposed reforms to child protection. It includes finding permanent, adoptive homes for children who have been removed from their birth families as one of her department's central responsibilities and aims to make the process of adoption quicker and easier.
Ms Goward said the changes come in recognition of the toll multiple foster care placements take on a child and the need to provide children with stability and a sense of belonging.
What children really need, the ideal, is a home for life.
''What we're now recognising is that keeping a child safe is not enough, a child needs more than to be kept safe, a child needs a permanent home, people who love them, and understand them, that they trust and all that can only occur in a permanent arrangement, not a short-term one,'' she said.
''What children really need, the ideal, is a home for life.''
There are now more than 18,000 children in out-of-home care in NSW, with almost 60 per cent of those placed with two or more foster families since being removed from their birth parents.
Restoring children to their natural parents would remain the first priority for the department, with finding a carer in the same extended family the second course of action. But the Care Act would be amended so adoption was officially recognised as the third preferred option, ahead of handing parental responsibility to the minister. A court could only make an order for parental responsibility to be given to the minister if adoption or long-term guardianship had been ruled out.
The paper also proposes to legislate time frames of six months for babies and one year for older children for the department to determine the feasibility of restoration before other options are explored. At present there is no mandated time frame.
Rates of adoption in NSW are low. There were 65 children adopted from out-of-home care in 2011-12, a rise from 45 the year before. There were 16 local adoptions and 46 international adoptions, down from 70 in 2010-11.
Ms Goward said she hoped the proposed changes would allow more foster carers to adopt and appeal to people who could not conceive their own child and might otherwise have looked to international adoption.
''We think by doing this we can increase the pool of people who will put their hand up for adoption,'' she said.
Other measures to speed up the process include allowing foster carers to be assessed for adoption during their initial assessment, and moving responsibility from the Supreme Court to the Children's Court for out-of-home care adoptions.
Asked whether the move could disadvantage birth parents who may later develop the ability to care for their children, Ms Goward said such cases were very rare.
The paper also proposes the creation of guardianship care orders for cases where adoption is not appropriate, such as is often the case with Aboriginal children, which would transfer legal powers and duties of parenthood to another person without them officially being made the parent.
The discussion paper is open for public consultation until March 8.
'How can I get on to that Medicare card?'
THhe difference between being Shaye's foster mum and his legal, adoptive mother was a subtle shift, Patricia Economos says.
''We would think what could possibly change? We love each other to death, we're happy,'' she says.
''It's a little bit like if you're living with somebody, and then you marry them … you don't love them any more, but there's a real security that comes with it.''
Ms Economos is one of the limited number of foster parents in NSW who has, after many years, adopted her foster child. The government hopes the changes proposed on Thursday will encourage many more.
When Shaye arrived at Ms Economos's home as a toddler a decade ago, his body was so small he was ''just a head'', she says.
''He was so thin and so undernourished and his digestive system was completely shot,'' she recalls.
''The one thing that he would do was climb into the fridge and hide in the fridge … just to be close to the food.''
Ms Economos and daughter Jayde originally decided they would take in foster children because they wanted to help, to give something back. Their house has been home to 10 such children but only Shaye has stayed in the long term.
As he grew older, Shaye, who is now 12, began to notice little things that set him apart.
''He always wanted to get on my Medicare card. Jayde was on it, and he'd go 'how can I get on to that Medicare card?','' she says. ''That was his focus.''
He maintained contact with his birth mother until she died, and still sees his father, who is in and out of prison, occasionally.
''I've kept it very, very real so there's no Oprah moments,'' says Ms Economos.
Since the adoption was finalised Shaye has been christened in Ms Economos's church and she no longer needs to get government permission to take him on overseas holidays.
''Nothing changed, but then everything changed,'' she says.