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History Made: Torres Strait Adoption Bill passes

Today, 8 September 2020, the child rearing practices of Torres Strait Islanders were given recognition in the law of Queensland.

Growing up as a child, a Torres Strait Islander, I had cousins, Aunties, Grandparents, we were a family. That was it. As I grew older into my teenage years I came to be told by my father about a part of our way where families share in the care of children. Sometimes, one family member would give their child to another family member to be their child and be raised as their child.

In my twenties, as a university student I became aware of a group of Brisbane-based Torres Strait Islander Elders seeking to have our way of sharing the care and raising of children legally recognised. At that point, I didn’t quite know the reason for the advocacy or urgency but accepted the wisdom of the Elders.

In my thirties, working as a solicitor on Thursday Island I came to understand the reasons for the Elders call for the legal recognition of our child rearing practices. Client after client would come to me as a solicitor with heartbreaking dilemmas about telling their child they were not their biological parents. It was awful. It was a circumstance brought about by the Queensland law’s failure to recognise our child rearing practices.

Practical consequences flowed from that legal failure. Names of parents could not be changed on birth certificates. Birth certificates were needed to get driver’s licences. Driver’s licences were needed to get work. If a parent passed away without a will children were left out of parent’s estates. The implications of this failure in the law was relentless.

Now, in my forties, I work as an academic researching and writing papers about the law and Indigenous people’s experience of it. In 2015 in doing this work I found a peculiar court of appeal case reported in Queensland. The case determined that neither Aboriginal nor Torres Strait Islander ‘traditional adoption’ or ‘customary adoption’ was capable of being recognised by the law in Queensland.

I became outraged and indignant. Until then, I had hoped as a solicitor and a Torres Strait Islander that the law in Queensland could indeed recognise our child rearing practices. As my outrage and indignancy subsided into a determined calm I did the work that academics do, I researched and I wrote.

I had colleagues that toiled with me in this work. We wrote papers, we spoke at conferences, we presented seminars and we hoped. Then, 25 years after hearing those Elders advocating for the urgent legal recognition of our child rearing practices, it happened.

Ms Cynthia Lui became the first ever Torres Strait Islander person elected into the Queensland parliament. The Labor government made an election promise to introduce a bill into the Queensland parliament to legally recognise our child rearing practices. A panel of Eminent Persons was formed comprised of Mr Charles Passi, Ms Ivy Trevallion and the Honourable Alastair Nicholson AO RFD QC. A Queensland government discussion paper and consultations ensued. The bill was introduced into Queensland’s parliament on 16 July 2020. A Queensland parliamentary committee was charged with a detailed consideration of the bill. It received submissions on the bill and conducted public hearings. Its report was tabled on 28 August 2020 recommending the passage of the bill.

Today, 8 September 2020, the child rearing practices of Torres Strait Islanders were given recognition in the law of Queensland by the passage of the Meriba Omasker Kaziw Kazipa (Torres Strait Islander Traditional Child Rearing Practice) Bill 2020 through parliament.

It is the first piece of legislation of its kind to align Torres Strait Islander lore with Queensland law. Practices that have always been, are now being recognised.

Years of Torres Strait Islander Elder advocacy have led to this extraordinary outcome. There are feelings of exhilaration. Though, through all of this, nothing within my family, our families have changed. We are still the same and that is it.

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