by Chris Griffith
Published 2 June 1996 in The Sunday Mail
For centuries, islanders have practised customary adoption -- a system where ties are not altogether severed between a child and its natural parents.
Because islanders regard families with too many children as greedy, large families give away their children to childless couples and even single people.
Children also are adopted to maintain a family bloodline, to strengthen alliances between families, to distribute boys and girls more evenly, and to give grandparents someone to look after when their grown-up children leave home.
Adoptions usually take place within the same extended family, and adoptees eventually discover who their natural parents were.
But Australia's legal system has brought the system a cropper.
Islanders living on mainland Australia have not had access to traditional dispute- solving mechanisms when arguments have arisen about inheritances and custody.
Further, children have grown up to find their name did not match the name on their birth certificates.
To overcome this, in the late 1980s Torres Strait Islanders began lobbying both state and federal authorities to officially recognise customary adoption in Australian law.
Last year the move was backed by Family Law Chief Justice Alistair Nicholson, who called for the Commonwealth's Family Law Act to recognise traditional customs.
The previous federal government too showed an interest last year in recognising customary adoptions and other customary laws -- for example tribal marriages.
And the Goss Government was also publicly supportive. Discussion between the Family Court, the Registrar General, the Public Trustee, and the Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs took place in 1994.
The state government commissioned a consultant's report on the legal problems thrown up by customary adoption.
But supporters said no real progress towards implementation occurred.
"The only time the government addressed the issue was at a conference in November 1995," said Paul Chantrill, the last state public servant employed to find ways overcoming the legal impediments.
"At that time the Queensland Government was not in a position to give an undertaking and the minister [Margaret Woodgate] was not fully briefed."
But Mr Chantrill, now an academic at the University of New England, said there had been opposition from other arms of government.
"The minister was supportive to develop a plan to get the issue sorted out sooner rather than later.
"Certainly parts of the department didn't want the adoption system tampered with."
He said this included the Children's Protective Services section responsible for managing legal adoptions.
Mr Chantrill left the Family Services Department in March. The project languished as the department's Office of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs tackled its major priority under the new Borbidge Government: accountability.
Departmental officers and members of the Torres Strait Islander community believed it had been shelved altogether.
Yesterday a spokesman for Family Services minister Kev Lingard told The Sunday Mail a new project officer would be employed to resurrect the study starting Monday week.
"The objective will be to have a look at it and make recommendations for the minister to consider.
"There's no timetable, but the issue hasn't been left to die."
A spokesman for the IINA Torres Strait Islander Corporation, Steve Mam, said government had been "beating around the bush" about recognising customary laws.
But he said both Mr Lingard and new Federal minister Sen John Herron had been "only too pleased" to talk with Torres Strait Islander people about their problems.
"It [customary adoption] is a very high priority for us."
Mr Mam said his sister Florence Captain had been unable to claim her Thursday Island home after her adopted father died around five years ago.
"I want a tribunal recognised by our people.
"We have to say that when something goes wrong, here's a tribunal."