“We don’t say the A-word here anymore,” a social worker once told me when I dared to ask why there are hardly any adoptions in Australia.

But, with our foster care system in crisis, it’s time to talk about an alternative option for the increasing number of children removed from their home due to abuse or neglect.

Adoption is so tainted by its dark history in Australia that it remains a taboo. To many, it conjures images of rich white couples sauntering into orphanages, picking out the cutest brown babies and whisking them away before the impoverished birth mothers know what’s happened.

In reality, many ordinary Australians spend years fighting bureaucracy and making sacrifices to earn the right to take care of traumatised children nobody else wants.

It is appropriate that National Adoption Awareness Week in Australia coincides with Hillary Clinton’s likely election as president.

Clinton helped transform the US child protection system to favour (permanent) adoption of children in preference to (temporary) foster care.

In her 1996 book, It Takes a Village, she expressed concern at the number of kids yo-yoing between different homes. She highlighted the need to “make decisions about terminating parental rights of abusive parents more quickly, rather than removing and returning abused children time and again”.

Her work underpinned the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, signed by the then president, Bill Clinton. The new law provided for fast-tracking of decisions on permanency for children. Importantly, the reforms included provisions for financial assistance for both birth families (to help them keep their kids) and adoptive families (for post-care support).

The Washington Post hailed the act as “the most significant change in federal child protection policy in almost two decades” because it turned an adult-focused system into one that made child safety a “paramount concern”. The new law led to a big drop in the number of children in foster care and a corresponding rise in those adopted.

Australia has moved in the opposite direction. The number of children in foster care has skyrocketed – there are now 43,000 kids living without a permanent home. Many spend their entire childhood being handballed from one placement to another before transiting into juvenile justice. Yet there were fewer than 100 foster care adoptions last year and just seven outside NSW.

Adoption is not viable for all foster kids. Some have been so damaged by constant moves and re-abuse in care, they’re now unable to settle in a family home. Others remain emotionally attached to birth families and could be returned if it weren’t for our woeful underfunding of social support services.

But there’s a third subset of children whose parents are deceased, remorsefully abusive or simply unwilling to care for them. In most states, adoption is not pursued even for them.

This is typified by the case of the former AFL player Brad Murphy, who grew up in state care because his dad was in jail and his mum didn’t want him. He desperately wanted to be adopted by his loving foster parents but the Victorian government wouldn’t allow it because his birth father wouldn’t provide consent.

Murphy remained in the oxymoronic state of “permanent care”, where care rights are granted to one family for 18 years. Such rights can be challenged in court. He was in constant fear of hearing a knock on the door from someone who might take him away. He felt he never truly belonged to anyone. His athletic prowess and determination allowed him to become a rare foster care success story but he’s aware of four others who transited through his home that have since taken their own life.

Australia’s pre-1980s history of forced adoptions – where Aboriginal and single women were coerced into handing over their babies and denied future contact – helps explain today’s status quo. NSW has been the only state to pursue pro-adoption reforms and this led to cries that government is once again trying to steal children.

But adoption as practised today is different from the past. Laws mandate transparency and contact with birth families is maintained wherever possible. Indeed, there is so much rigour and paperwork that an adoption takes, on average, four years to process, according to the lobby group Adopt Change. This deters many prospective adoptive parents. If state bureaucrats are trying to steal children, they ought to appear on an episode of World’s Dumbest Criminals.

Four years is a long, uncertain time in the life of child. There is an urgent need for laws, practices and attitudes to change to put children’s interests first and enable timely processing of adoption for those who want it. On this issue, we are 20 years behind Clinton. Our most vulnerable children should wait no longer.

National Adoption Awareness Week is between 6 and 12 November.

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