We are family

Relates to: 
Date: 
2008-06-08

Adopting children should be a right, not a trauma, says film star Deborra-lee Furness, who has been fighting for less red tape.

By: Christine Sams

Dressed in an all-white outfit, her face made up, Deborra-lee Furness pauses to look at pictures of models displayed on the wall of the photo studio: "Who are all these skinny women?" she declares, loudly. "Don't worry ... they're all about 15," mutters one of her companions. "They need to photograph a few more chunky women," says Furness, with a determined smile.

Forthright in personality, strong in presence and outspoken, Furness is no shrinking violet. At 52, she is married to Hugh Jackman - the hunky star 13 years her junior - and is mother to children, Oscar, 8, and Ava, 2.

Furness doesn't fit the Hollywood mould, but she doesn't appear to care. Her current interest lies in using her profile to help other women. That's why she embarked on a campaign to highlight the need for the adoption processes in Australia to be improved, particularly with regards to inter-country adoption.

"Adoption shouldn't be seen as a second choice," Furness says. "This is part of what I want to do, to educate the community. I mean, I have adopted children - but we were always going to adopt anyway if we had children or not."

So will they adopt again? "Depends what day you ask me," she says, with a laugh. "No, I've got my hands full. I have two extraordinary children."

It is well-documented that Jackman and Furness struggled to have children after their marriage in 1996. After repeated miscarriages, they tried IVF, then because of bureaucratic problems in Australia, ended up adopting their children in the US.

Late last year, Furness began speaking out in the media about the "anti-adoption" culture in Australia and politicians started taking notice.

She has since met the Attorney-General Robert McClelland and been part of a working group in Canberra to address what she sees as a pressing issue.

"I mean this is not my usual arena, the old politics, going to Canberra, you know, it wasn't Hollywood. It was so different," says Furness, looking wide-eyed.

"It was an interesting experience for me. Politics! I'm not a politician, you know, I'm a humanitarian, I have views and opinions.

"You've got to apparently strategise and do all that. I'm a Sagittarian, we just blurt it out, we just tell it how it is. I'm not known for my diplomacy."

Many people raise their eyebrows at celebrities publicly speaking out for a cause or standing up for what they believe in. Furness, a well-known actor in her own right, says she has a right to express her personal opinion.

She fiercely defends stars such as Madonna who have been criticised for adopting disadvantaged children, in the glare of the public eye.

"I see it as an act of generosity," she says of Madonna's adoption of baby David Banda from Malawi.

"You take a child into your heart and people say it's a publicity stunt - give me a break. Like Madonna needs the publicity.

"Like it's a publicity stunt when you're changing diapers and got a sick child at three o'clock in the morning. Believe me, you do not take a child on for a publicity stunt, it's a lot of hard work.

"This is an act of generosity, this is an act of humanity, to take a child in need and to say, 'Yes, I will take that child on with all the work that's involved with raising a child.' The creativity, the energy, the intelligence it takes to raise a child - it's extraordinary. You don't do that lightly. All the celebrities [who] get slack, give me a break. They could be out dancing at parties."

Furness, who is friends with Nicole Kidman, says the two stars have not discussed the adoption of their children, mainly because it is an issue that is secondary in both their minds.

"It's not important to us, they're our children. The adoption is secondary, it's not of significance to us. We both have adopted kids, yeah, it's not relevant," Furness says.

She says amid fervent interest surrounding Kidman's natural pregnancy, it is disheartening to read the implications in women's magazines that Kidman's two other children (Isabella and Connor, both adopted) somehow don't count as much as the impending arrival.

"To me, that's ignorance, it's ignorance," says Furness, emphatically. "To differentiate ... I mean, what is 'real children'? Even if it comes through your loins, it's not your child, you don't own a child, you're a spiritual guide - I truly do see it like that. My children, their destiny was to come to me in an unconventional manner. That's how I see it."

Away from her celebrity friends and her own circumstances, Furness is trying to provide a public voice for the countless number of everyday Australian women (and their partners) affected by adoption laws.

"I realised this community has been fighting for years to be heard," says Furness, who admits expressing her views has already had an extraordinary effect: she was inundated with emails and letters from women all over Australia, not to mention being approached in the street. "This is what propelled me to keep going. No one was listening, they weren't getting attention. Because I have a little bit of a profile - that's why I feel a responsibility, because I can see the injustice there, it's not working the way it is."

Furness says having adopted children herself has little to do with her campaign. She again describes it as "secondary". Driven by concern for orphans overseas, she is fighting for the rights of all Australian women - whether they already have children or not - to have adoption as an option, without the harrowing amounts of red tape currently in place.

"This is a responsibility for us, this is a global crisis," Furness says. "Look at Africa, look at Asia, there's war, there's disease, there's unheard of situations that are causing two-year-olds to be walking around the streets by themselves. And people want to take this on. A lot of people here say, 'I'd love to do that', but it's too hard, too expensive. So many people have started a process, then been deterred along the way.

"There is a new generation, women who have been professionals - even if they're in a couple - who are leaving it to later, so fertility is gone," Furness says. "As far as I can see, there are huge fertility issues. I don't know if there's something in the water but there's a lot of people having trouble getting pregnant. And I reiterate, there are people who can get pregnant who still want to adopt a child. Australia needs to step up to the plate, we need to cut down the bureaucracy and make this speedier. If they fix this in 10 years' time, how many kids have slipped through ... I see this as urgent, it's urgent," she says.

In person, Furness appears to conduct her life at a frantic pace. She has a personal assistant, Ryan, who is often by her side checking scheduling issues, and she speaks with the brisk tones of a woman who doesn't have time to muck around. (Her accent is still primarily Australian but she occasionally displays some rounded American vowels, reflecting the amount of time she and Jackman have spent in the US.)

Furness's mum, Fay Duncan, who has been up from Melbourne "visiting the grandkids", is also by her daughter's side at The Sun-Herald's photo shoot.

Duncan says she is proud of her daughter's efforts in trying to highlight the need for a change in how adoption is dealt with in Australia. She describes how Furness sits up until 1am answering emails from women and couples trying to adopt.

"I'm very proud of what she's doing for this. She's got two lovely children but she can see the devastation of the children overseas - they really need a home," Duncan says.

"I think she's an absolute perfect mum. I know that sounds silly coming from her own mum, but she has 100 per cent interest in the children at all times," she says.

"She has a busy life, trying to do other things, but she actually puts such a lot of care into everything she does with the children. And the love for the kids: when we had the first one, we had Oscar ... it was just the most amazing thing in her life. And then to have Ava come along. She finds she has to share her love but somehow she always manages to give them both something."

Both Jackman and Furness were primarily raised by single parents - Jackman by his dad, Chris Jackman (his mother left home when he was eight), and Furness by her mum. Furness admits it has affected the couple's parenting choices but it is a continuing learning process.

"It was very interesting for us, Hugh and I, coming from our backgrounds, with parenting. I probably shouldn't say too much but anyway ... I was at the airport once and I bought Oscar a little aeroplane and Hugh said, 'Why did you get Oscar that?' I said, 'Because he wanted it.' And Hugh said, 'He's going to have to learn that he can't get everything he wants' and I said, 'What a concept!'

"Hugh came from a very disciplined background and I had the single mum, who was like, 'What else would you like?', so I didn't have that discipline. That's what I'm saying, these children teach you things. I'm having to learn now, realising my child needs the discipline," says Furness, with a smile.

Furness has a clear vision on how adoption processes should be changed in Australia: she wants the entire process handled by one government department, preferably the Attorney-General's office.

In the meantime, she will keep speaking out about adoption rights, fully supported by Jackman. "He always supports me. Hugh supports me in any of the endeavours I believe in. If it wasn't something he didn't believe in, he wouldn't ... obviously we've come together because we're pretty like-minded," she says.

Furness says she will continue to press for change to adoption rules for as long as the issue needs addressing.

"I can talk a lot, so I'm out there talking," she says, with a laugh.

The actor, who has a leading role in the coming Australian film Beautiful, is planning an imminent return to New York with Jackman.

The couple are still unsure of exactly when they will jet off. "Speak to us Thursday, speak to us Saturday, you'll get a different answer. We are literally a Bedouin tribe. We're in showbiz. Who knows ... I get a film tomorrow, we could be in Peru," says Furness. "We live an unconventional lifestyle but we're always together as a family - the rest is geography."

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