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Jim Poulter Author of Books on Aboriginal Culture and Child Protection
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A birth certificate is not a biological property title

- Has an insidiously persistent idea finally reached its use-by date?

Journal article published in Children Australia, Vol. 32. No. 1, 2007.


Particularly in western societies, the notion that children are biological property has been a strongly implicit idea for many generations. It has therefore also been an idea that has implicitly pervaded our child welfare legislation and practice for generations, despite frequent legal rhetoric about the rights of the child. In this paper I trace the negative effects on welfare practice that this notion of children as property has had over the last half century. In doing so, I call not only on my professional experience, but also on my personal experience as a foster, adoptive and permanent care parent. Some provisions within the new Victorian child protection legislation are examined to gauge their capacity to address the negative effects on practice of this persistent notion, and reason found for some guarded optimism.


As I recount in the article, the insidiousness of the notion that children are property first struck me when my wife and I became foster parents in the mid-1960’s. It was then later reinforced during three adoptive and a permanent care process. The matter however came to a head when we planned an overseas trip with our youngest son, who was by then sixteen. We were informed by the Foreign Affairs Department that because he was on a Permanent Care Order, he had to have a passport in his birth parents name, unless we gained their written permission for him to change his name. This view was supported by both the Department of Human Services and the Registry of Births Deaths and Marriages. My son was mortified that his legal status was somehow different to that of his adoptive siblings. Now highly motivated, I read the old and new legislation closely, noting that the Act uniformly granted a Permanent Care Order ‘to the exclusion of all others’. I then marched into the Births Deaths and Marriages Registry with my wife and son, showed them the section of the Act and submitted the forms for a change of name on his birth certificate. It was duly granted and I then corresponded with the Minister for DHS, demanding that their long held erroneous view of the law be changed. Within a few weeks they conceded that their view of the law had been wrong and new advice would be circulated. However the new policy permeated rather slowly, but after I was involved in some vigorous case advocacy with other permanent care parents, the new policies seem to have bedded down.

The above paper documents the theory and practice around this issue and is available either through the Children Australia journal article, or directly from myself at no cost. It is also a situation that helped form my ideas around the theory and practice a ‘Case to Cause Advocacy’. This form of advocacy is defined and explained in the fifth paper of my brief text ‘Reflective Value Based Ethics in Social Work’ and also in Chapter Twelve of my text ‘An Integrated Theory of Practice in Social Work’.

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