We’re handing over our Instagram platform to vital voices who deserve a wide audience. Zufi Emerson is one of those voices – a Premium member of Business Chicks, actor, and passionate ambassador for Adopt Change.
Zufi’s story is an incredible one, so we’re revisiting our chat last year where she shared her work in changing the adoption process in Australia. Born in Ethiopia and adopted to Australia at five months old, Zufi believes that wherever a child is safe and loved is their home. Right now Adopt Change are working towards ensuring vulnerable children in Australia aren’t getting left behind during COVID-19. There’s enough children going into emergency out of home care to fill the SCG, each carrying belongings in a plastic bag or what they can take on their back. Whilst family members and carers provide stable community, most aren’t able to cover essentials for the first night of care.
To start right off, can you tell us a little bit about Adopt Change and the work it does?
Adopt Change is a not-for-profit organisation that’s work is aimed to ensure every child has access to a safe, nurturing, and importantly, stable home. Adopt Change works with government and within communities to enact change in legislation to ensure we act in the best interest of children in out of home care. Adopt Change also provides support for families, particularly foster and adoptive families, so children who have experienced trauma can heal and thrive.
What does your role with Adopt Change look like?
I first became a youth ambassador for Adopt Change in 2014 and am very proud to be involved with the organisation over four years later.
As an ambassador, my role can vary from speaking at events to getting involved in promotional campaigns such as the #AHomeforEveryChild campaign for National Adoption Awareness Month.
I have also recently been helping out with the “MyPacks” initiative, which is helping children who find themselves suddenly in emergency foster care with little more than the clothes on their backs to have their own little essentials pack and not feel so alone.
On the Adopt Change website you describe your adoption story as a “happy one”. What does it mean to you to have a “happy” adoption story?
I say my story is a happy one because I am aware of the challenges and length of time involved in the majority of international adoptions and, thankfully for my brothers and I, this was not the case. We came from less than fortunate beginnings in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. We were all put into care before six months old, and then found our way to our home in Australia. My mum and dad certainly had a difficult time during the waiting process, with many written and phone exchanges as they waited in limbo but it was a relatively short time compared to others.
With mum and dad we found a chance to live in a happy, loving and permanent home. We share joys, and joys of many fights just like any other family but at the end of the day we have never had to worry about missing out on an education, healthcare, building lasting friendships or family holidays and importantly, never had to question if we are loved or truly belong.
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I’m very aware that not every child who is unable to live with their family of origin gets the same opportunity. I know each child birth parent and foster carer trusting in our system deserves better than this traumatic process and stigma surrounding this conversation.
Many children who are unable to live with their birth families due to abuse or neglect have been exposed to some level of trauma and then once they hit the out of home care system, have no guarantee of where they will end up or how many different homes they might end up in before they turn eighteen.
Our legislation and policies shouldn’t make it more difficult than it already is nor be reason for any person to question the legitimacy of their belonging just because of how their family was formed. These kids deserve for our policies to ensure we act in the child’s best interest doing what makes them feel safe, loved and belong in a permanent home and our conversations around adoption to hold this as priority.
My brothers and I are proof that where it’s not possible to be reunified with your birth family, adoption can work and can provide a permanent and loving home environment to grow up and thrive.
How did you decide to take your personal story of adoption and use it to create change in the broader community?
In 2013, founder Deborra-lee Furness spoke at a press conference in my home town of Canberra. I was 16 at the time and my mum encouraged me to get up and ask the panel a question. I was so nervous but I did it anyway. I remember saying, “I am adopted and have a legitimate loving family with brothers who I love (95% of the time), so why does the Australian government not consider adoption to be a legitimised way to form a family? ”
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Deborra-lee smiled, said a few words and then handed the question over to a member of parliament in the audience to answer. I barely remember the response because I thought that was so cool! I’d heard Deborra-lee speak throughout my primary school years about adoption and at the launch of National Adoption Awareness Week (NAAW) in 2008, so I couldn’t believe she truly listened to what I had to say as a high school student AND gave me a seat at the table – I thought that was a rare and incredible thing to do. I stayed in contact and in 2014 Adopt Change asked me if I would like to become a Youth Ambassador for them. I immediately said yes because I cannot fathom that kids overseas in my situation do not get this opportunity, let alone kids here in Australia. I wanted to do everything I could to support the organisation and make permanency for more children a reality. That has included speaking at events, sharing my story with friends, family, the media and complete strangers.
In 2014, at the launch of Adopt Change, Deborra-lee Furness recalls your message to politicians to fix the system was, “Just do it”. Are those three words still true for you?
Yes! I had people tell me I was naive, too idealistic, uneducated on our past history and had the right idea but didn’t quite understand the process. All I could think was ‘Hello – I’ve lived this process!’ At the launch this came out without a filter. I was fed up with those particular perspectives and it was the politest way I could be transparent.
I still stand by those words because while I recognise that adoption is not be for every child, each child deserves a loving and permanent home. Right now there are around 35,000 Australian children who are have been unable to live with their birth families for two or more years and last year only 330 were adopted. That’s not good enough for any country let alone Australia those numbers do not add up.
There are also millions of orphans globally who have lost both parents. In situations where these children are unable to be placed with a family in their country, alternate family arrangements should be accessible instead of being placed in institutions. It needs to be a high priority on our political agendas – one that is acted upon, not just talked about. There are already so many issues caught in Australian politics, covered in bureaucratic red tape that we need to address and solve. How people choose to form a loving family must not be one of them any longer.
Tell us about the Adopt Change Foster Care packs that you’ve been involved with? We’ve seen some Instagram photos of you packing…
On the Ellen DeGeneres show, I saw a brand in the US called Comfort Cases where they did a similar thing. I contacted Adopt Change CEO Renee Carter and sent her a rough proposal of how I thought this could work in Australia, only to find out they had already been looking into what was needed here for children and young people in foster care. Unfortunately, many children in at risk situations were entering foster care with only garbage bags or what they were wearing. MyPacks contain essentials for that first night; toothbrush, toothpaste, size appropriate underwear and pj’s, a book, a teddy bear and a hand knitted blanket. These items are really important when kids first arrive in care as it can be at unexpected times and carers aren’t able to run to the shops and grab these supplies immediately. Adopt Changes MyPacks help give these kids a little bit of comfort in unfamiliar surroundings.
As a Premium member of Business Chicks, I’m sure fellow members would love to jump on board. How can members get involved and help support this initiative?
In 2019 donating any of the following items would be a huge help to reach as many children at risk directly as possible!
Alternatively, you can provide a tax deductible donation via our website to contribute to our ongoing work, including the MyPacks.
• Underwear (both boys and girls – any size)
• Summer pj’s (both boys and girls – any size)
• Books/ Colouring or craft books / journals
• Pencils, pens or textas.
All donated items can be sent directly to Adopt Change, PO Box 595 Dulwich Hill NSW 2203.
You’ve also recently had the launch of the Parliamentary Friends of Adopt groups, which is a bipartisan group. How much does it mean to you gain bipartisan support on this?
Deborra-lee Furness launched National Adoption Awareness Week (NAAW) in 2008 to start a national conversation about why children in need of permanent loving families were not being given that.
Families wanting to adopt children found it virtually impossible to navigate the bureaucratic mire of paperwork and children were unnecessarily stuck in foster care limbo with multiple placements over far too many years. Ensuring children grow up in a safe family home is essential. If a child can’t be safely returned to their birth family then we need a better system for supporting them and also the families and people who care for these children.
As you have said, it has been an incredibly long process from when you were in early high school to see changes in the adoption and foster care space. Personally, how do cope when it feels like change is so slow?
It can be disheartening because I know these statistics aren’t just numbers, they are children, just like my brothers and I were. I understand that these things take time and ten years ago at the first National Adoption Awareness Week, Deborra-lee made it clear this wouldn’t happen overnight.
I remember back to when I first spoke for Adopt Change and Deborra-lee said something along the lines of “don’t be nervous, we’re not speaking for us. We’re speaking for the children in need and hoping we can come together to figure it out.