Adopted from an Indian orphanage as a baby, Latika Bourke joined a large, happy family in country New South Wales. Here, Latika and the people closest to her share their experience of adoption with Melissa Field.

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"This is my country, this is my family"

Latika, 24, is a news reporter for radio station 2UE in Sydney. She was adopted by Penny and John Bourke when she was eight months old.

"I know very little about my biological family. My adoption papers state that my birth mother was only 14 when she had me, and I also know that either on the day I was born or very shortly afterwards, she and an uncle took me to the Catholic orphanage, run by nuns, at Bettiah in rural north-eastern India. I don't know anything about the circumstances that led to my mother taking me to the orphanage or who my father might be. They're unanswerable questions, and given that my mother was only 14 when she gave me up, her situation can't have been good. Because I was so young, I have no memory of that time.

My adoptive mum says that when I came to my Australian family in December 1984, I was a good baby, very loving and affectionate, probably because I'd been starved of both by the nuns, who had their hands full caring for the hundreds of needy children in the orphanage.

Until I was seven, I lived with my family on a farm just outside of Bathurst in NSW, then we moved into the town itself. Mum and Dad are schoolteachers and when they adopted me, they already had two biological children: my older sisters Melissa and Catherine (who are now 36 and 34). They'd also already adopted two other Indian children - my sister Rani, who's now 30, and my brother Damian, 26. None of my adoptive siblings are biologically related but Damian and I came from the same orphanage in Bettiah. My mum and dad then went on to have three more biological children - Dominic, 19, Gabriella, 16, and Joe, 12 - so not only did we stand out in Bathurst because there were eight of us kids, but some of us also looked a bit different to one another. As I wasn't the only adopted child, I never felt any less a part of the family.

Growing up in a country town meant there weren't too many other Indian faces around. At school, I was probably only one of a handful of non-white pupils, yet I was incredibly fortunate not to have been teased by the other children about the fact I looked different or was adopted. On the odd occasion it did happen, it didn't affect me, as we had a lot of light-hearted teasing at home!

My parents never allowed adoption to be an excuse for bad behaviour or an issue to dwell on. Instead, the conflicts I faced were those of a child fighting for attention in a large family. Whose turn was it to get into the bathroom? Who dried the dishes last? Like any child, I'd fight over the most mundane issues with all my brothers and sisters regardless of where they came from. Once, when I was a bratty 10 year old, I screamed at my older sister Melissa that she couldn't boss me around "because she wasn't my real sister, anyway" but to her credit, she never threw it back in my face. I used to like to think I was extra special because Mum and Dad had gone to such trouble and expense to get me. I was chosen.

Sometimes, I try to imagine what my life would have been if I hadn't been adopted. I wonder what character traits I might have inherited from my biological parents. I'm pretty determined and strong-willed, but have I developed these characteristics from my birth mum or my adopted parents? Certainly, Mum and Dad always brought me up to believe I could achieve anything I wanted, and encouraged me to pursue my dreams of working as a journalist. I also wonder what my life would be like if I'd grown up in India. I could be living on the streets in extreme poverty or even dead now, because the orphanage could never have provided me with the advantages I've enjoyed here in Australia. Instead, I've been blessed with a loving family and an education.

I have so little information about my birth mother, and no real desire to track her down. To be honest, I'm a bit scared of what I might discover if I did. I don't even know if she's still alive. I also feel that even if we did meet, I would be meeting a stranger. I feel similarly about my country of birth. I haven't been back there and I just don't associate myself with India. I feel very at home here, actually. I'm proud to have been adopted and I'm proud to be Australian. If I do decide to have children when I'm older, adoption is definitely the way I'd want to do it. There are too many little souls out there desperate for a home. After all, if I hadn't been adopted, who knows where I'd be today?"

"I love all my children the same, regardless of how they came to me"

Penny Bourke, 57, pioneered intercountry adoption in Australia when she and her husband adopted three Indian orphans more than 20 years ago.

"For as long as I can remember, I'd always been keen to adopt a child from overseas. When I was a child, I spent a short period of time in India on my way to Australia from England and the poverty of the children I saw contrasted with the conditions in which I'd grown up. It didn't occur to me that adoption might be difficult or not the norm. As I saw it, there were too many kids out there who needed a loving home and both John and I were more than willing to provide one. But, as we discovered, helping those children was much harder than we'd ever imagined.

We already had two children when we adopted Rani. My eldest daughters Melissa and Catherine were five and four respectively when Rani came to us as a two year old. Because the girls were all young, they didn't resent the arrival of this new adopted sibling; instead, she just became their new little sister, albeit one who didn't resemble them, and they loved her.

Both John and I always felt that adopting more than one child from the same country was a sensible way to ensure that our adoptive children didn't feel left out, but bringing Rani, Damian and Latika home wasn't easy. If intercountry adoption is difficult, expensive and time-consuming today, you can only imagine what it was like in the 1970s. After we'd received in-principle approval to adopt by the Australian authorities, we were then left almost on our own, making our own contacts with orphanages overseas.

In the days before email, progress was incredibly slow, but after we contacted an orphanage in Madras in late 1977, Rani was finally brought to us in 1978. Back then, the Indian authorities didn't like you to collect your child because it upset the locals to see 'their' children with white foreigners, even if these kids were languishing in orphanages and would most likely be on the streets once they turned 12. Instead, an official escort brought Rani to us in Australia.

Both she and Damian, who arrived two years later, were very sickly when they got here. Rani had measles and scabies and Damian was covered in boils. He was so tiny we couldn't figure out how old he was. It was heartbreaking to hear these tiny children cry and all we could do was try to cuddle them and nurse them back to health. Rani was so sickly when she came to us that for a while we couldn't believe she'd ever be well, but thankfully, over time, both she and Damian began to thrive.

When Latika arrived three years later, it was almost like bringing our own newborn home because she was only eight months old. She was a gorgeous baby. All three adoptive babies were very well behaved. In the orphanage they had to be, as crying or temper tantrums didn't win them any attention. They were all starved of affection. The nuns who'd raised them had done the best they could but there was no way they could feed, clothe and bathe all the children in their care and dish out cuddles, too. Latika clung to me when she came home and to this day, we're still very close.

If any of my adoptive children wanted to seek out their birth mothers, I wouldn't have a problem with that. You don't own your children, all you want is for them to be happy and comfortable with who they are. If Latika ever wanted to find out more about her background, I'd give her all the help she needs."

"I said she was my big sister, but they didn't believe me"

Gabriella, 16, is Penny and John's youngest daughter. She is currently at high school in Sydney.

"When I first meet a new friend, they're usually pretty curious about my family, and over the years, I've been asked some pretty strange questions about my background. In primary school, some of the kids would say that maybe I was adopted, too, or they'd wonder if my dad was Indian or an indigenous Australian because he's got olive skin, and perhaps that explained why I had three dark skinned brothers and sisters. People have some really weird ideas. The thought that I was part of a family that included biological and adopted children just seemed too strange for some of my school friends to comprehend.

I was born after Latika was adopted, so she's always just been my big sister, regardless of where she came from, so sometimes I forget that people may wonder why we look different. Not long ago, I was showing some friends at school a photo and when they asked who Latika was. I just went, 'Oh, she's my big sister,' but they didn't believe me. What I usually say to people when they ask me about my family is that if my adopted brother and sisters didn't look so different to me, and if I hadn't been told from the earliest age I can remember that, yes, they're adopted, I genuinely wouldn't know that we weren't biologically related. We fight like normal brothers and sisters and I love them just as much as I love my biological brothers and sisters. Latika and I are very close - she's an awesome big sister, regardless of how she came to be part of our family."

"She's my best friend. The things we have in common far outweigh the differences"

Jane Clarke 24, met Latika at school when they were 15. She lives in Orange and is a rehabilitation consultant.

"When Latika and I were about 16, we both had casual jobs as fitting room attendants in Big W. I remember a lady came in, took a look at Latika and said, 'So, where are you from then, dear,' as if she couldn't understand English. Latika was so offended and replied indignantly in her strong Australian accent: 'I'm Australian, actually.' That incident made us realise that people may see Latika very differently to how she - and I - see her. It came as a shock. To me, Latika is simply my best friend. The things we've got in common - like being the fifth in line in a large family and growing up in Bathurst - far outweigh any differences between us.

Latika is very articulate and intelligent, so when we were at school together, if any of the other kids gave her a hard time about the colour of her skin or the fact that she was adopted, she could usually joke and talk her way out of any hassle. It just wasn't an issue to her so she wouldn't let it be an issue for anyone else. At the time, that incident in the changing room really made us both think about what it means to be Australian and we both came to the conclusion that if you feel this is your home and your heart is here, then you belong, regardless of what others may think or where your cultural heritage lies.

Latika and I have had conversations where we've speculated on what her life would have been like if she'd never come to Australia. It's kind of strange to think that we would never have met and become such good friends, and it's upsetting to realise that if she'd grown up in the orphanage, she wouldn't have had such a good education and it's unlikely she'd now be a journalist. Latika has admitted she'd scared of visiting India. For her, it wouldn't be a nice touristy, sightseeing holiday; instead, she'd be confronted with her parallel life, and what might have been if she hadn't come to Australia and been brought up in such a close and loving family. I often think that it was fate that brought us together and I'm so grateful to have her in my life. She's a very special friend."

Adoption: Making A Difference

Earlier this year, we highlighted the difficulties Australians face when adopting children from overseas, and talked to actress and mother to two adopted children Deborra-lee Furness about her campaign to make the process easier. Slowly, it seems government is starting to take notice.

The NSW government has since tabled changes to the Adoption Act in parliament which include:

  • Reducing the number of DoCS assessments required before a family is approved to adopt from overseas.
  • Allowing women to continue their involvement in a fertility programme while trying to adopt at the same time (previously, they had to stop fertility treatment to go on the adoption list).
  • Making it easier for foster parents to adopt the children they care for.
Federally, the Rudd government has established the National Overseas Adoption Support Group, and will extend the baby bonus to adoptive families with children aged two to 16 from 2009. But there's still a way to go. Furness's lobby group, Orphan Angels, wants one federal agency in charge of adoption, rather than individual states, and believes the adoption process should be much quicker - from the current six years to a matter of months. "Our timelines for programs still needs to be greatly improved in line with world standards," says Orphan Angels President Janine Weir. "National Adoption Awareness Week aims to highlight this."

National Adoption Awareness Week is November 17-23. Visit www.orphanangels.com.au and www.adoptionawarenessweek.com.au for details.