How to adopt a child in Australia

If you’re considering starting your family through adoption, you may have already done some general googling about how to adopt a child in Australia. If you walked away from that search with more questions and confusion than before—you’re not alone there.

Adopting a child in Australia is a complex and lengthy process involving lots of overwhelming legal language. It’s also not as common as it once was, with only around 300 adoptions per year across the country. But, if you’ve got your sights set on becoming a mama through adoption, it IS possible to navigate this process. 

We’ll add: Possible, but not easy. Which is why it’s NEVER OK for people to brush off fertility challenges by saying ‘you can always adopt’. (FYI: We’ve got some better advice on what to say to someone experiencing infertility.)

In this article, we’ll outline how to adopt a child in Australia, who’s eligible to be an adoptive parent, and how the whole complex system works. And we’ll even try to minimise the overwhelming legal talk, promise.

So… why is it hard to adopt a child in Australia?

As frustrating as it may be, it’s actually a good thing.

Child adoption in Australia (and in general) has a bit of a questionable past. Just binge the Aussie TV series Love Child to get a bit of insight into it. 

The truth of the matter is it shouldn’t be easy to transfer legal parenting rights away from birth parents. Australia’s adoption policies centre around a child’s welfare, so they’ll only be adopted when it will genuinely benefit them. 

Let’s explore the details of this a little more.

The fine print around how to adopt a child: Australia’s policies

Open adoption only

Closed adoption (where the adopted child is never allowed access to their birth parents) was common practice in the 1920s, and wasn’t fully outlawed until the 1980s, or even 1990s in some Australian states. It was a bit of a sh*t way of doing things, as it left lots of people disconnected from their origins, culture, and identity. 

Thankfully, open adoption is now the only legal option in Australia. This means that children are allowed to know the identity of their birth parents, and can make contact if they wish to. 

That’s something to keep in mind if you’re considering adopting. Of course your adopted child will always be your child, but they may wish to meet their birth parents someday—you need to be OK with this.

Three types of adoption

There are three legal ways to adopt a child in Australia.

1. Intercountry adoptions This is what it’s called when you go through the process of adopting a child from outside Australia. Due to ethical concerns and improved local adoption practices in other countries, this type of adoption has been declining in Australia since the 90s. But it still happens here, for sure. Australia has adoption agreements with 13 partner countries.

2. Local adoptions – This is when you adopt a child that is born or permanently residing within Australia, whom you have no previous connection with. This used to be more common through local adoption agencies, but not so much now. Policies try to keep kids in their local community, and amongst relatives where possible.

3. Known child adoptions – This is when you adopt a child that you already have some sort of connection with. For example, a foster child, a relative, or a step-child. This is the one form of adoption that’s increasing in frequency in Australia. But it’s still only allowed if it’s in the child’s best interests—not just for the hell of it.

Eligibility for adoption

So who can adopt a child in Australia?

Specific laws about eligibility vary from state to state, but in general adoptive parents must be:

  • Over 21 years old, and at least 18 years older than the child.
  • Healthy and able to provide for the child until they reach 18 years of age.
  • Able to pass all Police and Working With Children Checks.

Sexual orientation of adoptive parents

Attitudes towards same-sex couples have (thankfully) shifted over the last few years, and adoption is available in all states and territories. Good stuff.

Relationship status of adoptive parents

Can a single person adopt a child in Australia?

Yes, but it’s possibly a bit complicated.

If you’re keen to start a family on your own we think that’s fricken awesome, for the record! If sperm donation and getting pregnant aren’t possible for you, adoption could be an option. However, it’s well known that in some states, adoptive parents that are married or have been in a de facto relationship for over two years are given preference over single parents looking to adopt.

The typical process of child adoption in Australia

Okay, so here’s what you do to apply for adoption.

1. Check your state’s laws, and your eligibility

Bypass the confusing google search this time by going straight to your state’s legislation on child adoption. Here it is, for your convenience:

These websites may not be an exciting read, but they’ll outline the specific details of who can adopt, and how it works in your state.

2. Submit an Expression of Interest (EOI)

Yeah, the wording’s a bit off with this one, but it’s seriously called an ‘expression of interest’. Like you’re purchasing property. Anyway, we’ll let it slide.

This form can be found through your state department, or an adoption organisation if your state has one. It will be relevant for 12 months from when you fill it out, and basically contains details about your living situation, and your reason for wanting to adopt a child in Australia.

3. Attend an adoption preparation seminar

You’ll be directed towards the relevant adoption education services in your state—and this is homework you literally can’t skip. It’s required by law, and is a chance to learn more about the adoption process, the legalities, and how you’ll be supported when adopting a child. 

4. Submit your formal application and go through screening

During this stage, your adoption program manager will collect evidence about your medical status, conduct interviews and gather personal references about you, as well as carry out all necessary criminal record checks. The process will take around three months, and is designed to ensure you’re a suitable candidate for adoption.

5. If you’re accepted, meet your child

If your application is accepted, your program manager will help you arrange the best time and way to introduce you to your adopted child. It won’t be an overnight thing, where they suddenly come and live with you. It’s all based on the child’s needs.

If you haven’t been approved for adoption, you’ll get a report detailing the reasons why. And you can ask to have this decision reviewed.

6. Continue to seek support

Adoptive parents are still ‘new parents’ so first things first: See if you’re eligible for Parental Leave Pay from the government to help you transition to parent life. This will be particularly necessary if you’ve adopted a newborn and need to care for them round the clock.

Raising an adopted child comes with its own unique set of challenges. The Raising Children Network has some great advice on this, and you can also access ongoing support as adoptive parents through these resources:

How much does it cost to adopt a child in Australia?

A bulk of the cost when it comes to adopting a child in Australia is legal fees, which can vary depending on who you work with. There are also different state-based adoption fees.

As a general guide, you can expect to pay anywhere between $3,000 to $12,000 for your adoption application, including legal and departmental fees. If you’re adopting a child from overseas, there will also be fees to pay to the partner country, and additional costs like airfares and visas.

Intercountry Adoption Australia offers a very useful chart that breaks down the costs of adoption state by state.

How long does the adoption process take?

Adopting a child in Australia doesn’t happen quickly. It could take years to move from submitting your EOI, to settling your little one into their new room. 

The more open you are to adopting a child of any age, background, and ability (i.e. kids with special needs), the faster you may have a child placed. Siblings are generally kept together during adoption, so accepting multiple children could also open you up to a quicker adoption process.

If you’re adopting a child outside Australia, be prepared for the process to take even longer—it’ll mean contending with the bureaucracy of two countries.

What do you do if you can’t adopt?

If getting pregnant isn’t an option for you, and you’re not able to find a surrogate mother to carry a baby for you, adoption might seem like your last resort when it comes to starting a family. But this isn’t the case, mama!

Remember, the adoption system is set up to provide care for children, not to supply parents with kids. When you view it like this, it may not seem as important that you officially ‘adopt’ a child. You’re still a mother, even if the legal documentation doesn’t say that!

Your other options for becoming a mum and providing a loving home for a little person include:

  • Fostering – When children have been taken into care by the government, foster parents take charge of their care until they’re able to go back to their birth parents. This is a temporary care situation, but it can sometimes turn into permanent care or adoption if circumstances change.

  • Permanent care – This is similar to foster care, except there’s no intention for the child to eventually go back to their birth parents. If you’re accepted as a permanent carer, you’ll be given legal guardianship over a child in regards to their education, health and cultural experiences until they reach the age of eighteen.

A personal anecdote to end on: my mum was adopted

This was back in the 60s (sorry for revealing your age, Mum), when child adoption in Australia was much easier and more frequent. Adopting through an agency was fairly simple and straightforward back then, and my grandparents got four kids that way. But it wasn’t as well regulated as it was now.

There are accounts of women being forced to give up their babies, and closed adoption practices meaning thousands of kids grew up never knowing their birth parents and lacking a key sense of identity. Thankfully, those things don’t happen anymore. Adoption is very well regulated to ensure everyone involved is safe and supported.

My mum was a lucky one. She always knew she was adopted. She grew up in a loving household, had a great childhood, and went on to have an amazing family of her own. (I hear that her second child is especially magnificent.) 

So please take this as evidence that adoption can truly have a happy ending. It may not be an easy process, but it can certainly be worth the effort. I hope that encourages you. If you’re on this journey, stay hopeful mama. You’d be an awesome mum, we reckon.

Read next: Surrogacy in Australia: How it works & what it costs

Australian Institute of Family Studies, Past and present adoptions in Australia 

The Raising Children Network, Raising adopted children 

Unified Lawyers, How to Adopt a Child in Australia: The Legal Process

NSW Government Family & Community Services, Thinking About Adoption

Australian Government Intercountry Adoption Australia, Adopting a child from overseas

The Conversation (Patricia Fronek, Senior Lecturer, School of Human Services and Social Work, Griffith University), Explainer: how hard is it to adopt in Australia?

The Conversation (Patricia Fronek, Senior Lecturer, School of Human Services and Social Work, Griffith University), Privatising adoption: easier for parents, riskier for kids

Australian Broadcasting Corporation, What is the adoption process in Australia and why don’t more children get adopted?

Adopt Change, How Adoption Works in Australia

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