Overview of forced adoption practices in Australia

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    This page provides an overview of forced adoption practices in Australia. It includes a summary of the findings of the Senate Inquiry Report, Commonwealth Contribution to Former Forced Adoption Policies and Practices, 2012, but is not exhaustive. 

    The Senate Inquiry Report

    The Senate Inquiry Report defines ‘forced adoption’ as an ‘adoption where a child’s natural parent, or parents, were compelled to relinquish a child for adoption’. The Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs found that forced adoptions predominantly took place between 1950 and 1975, although it also examined documents and received testimony about forced adoptions that occurred outside this time period.

    The Senate Inquiry Report estimated that between 210,000 and 250,000 adoptions took place between 1940 and 2012; 1940 was the first year for which the Committee found records. These records came from New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia. The records of other states and territories were not available. The Committee found that the records they examined had been poorly kept – for example, they did not include details of how or why an adoption took place or whether consent to the adoption was given willingly. This means it is impossible to determine exactly how many forced adoptions took place. Nonetheless, it is known that tens of thousands of mothers, fathers, adopted persons and their families have been affected, with the consequences of forced adoptions continuing to ripple through the generations.

    Forced adoptions occurred under a variety of circumstances. They were carried out by doctors, nurses, social workers and religious figures. Family members, primarily the mother’s parents, were often complicit in coercing the mother into the adoption. Many parents, for example, refused emotional and financial support to their daughter and grandchild. Forced adoptions took place through hospitals, maternity homes and adoption agencies, both secular and religious, government funded and private. A number of these institutions have since closed or been renamed, making it difficult to find records.

    Legislation

    Legislation regarding adoption was, and continues to be, a matter for state governments. However, in the Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory, adoption was covered by Commonwealth legislation passed prior to these jurisdictions attaining self-government (in 1978 and 1988 respectively).

    Secrecy provisions were common in adoption legislation until reforms in the 1980s. The legal effect of adoption was to sever relations between parent and child. The rights and responsibilities of parenting were legally transferred to the adoptive parents, including the right to name the child. The original birth certificate was sealed, and a new one issued in the name given by the adoptive parents, who were listed as if they were the ‘natural’ parents. This erasure was done under the assumption that it was ‘in the best interests of the child’.

    Adoption laws passed in the 1960s stipulated that consent to adoption was illegal if it was given under duress, without proper information about the mother’s rights, or signed before or within a certain period after the birth. This varied from three to seven days in each state. The legislation also specified that consent to an adoption could be revoked by the consenter (most commonly the mother) within 30 days, or until the adoption order was made. The legislation usually included a ‘whichever is sooner’ qualifier.

    These laws were intended to protect the mother from coercion and give her the ability to make an informed decision about her own and her family’s future. In practice, the laws were not properly enforced, allowing illegal forced adoptions to take place. Many women who have received their records have found their file was marked BFA, which meant Baby For Adoption, upon admission to hospital or a maternity home, regardless of their intention.

    Consent and revocation

    There are numerous accounts of mothers signing consent for adoption papers before the legally required time after the birth, while sedated, without having their rights explained to them or when they were under the age of consent. Other mothers recount being tricked, believing they were signing a form to register the birth or authorise a medical procedure when it was actually the adoption consent. There are other instances of mothers who do not recall signing a consent form and allege that their signatures were forged.

    In some cases, women were lied to about their rights to revoke consent. Many mothers report returning to the hospital or adoption agency to revoke their consent within the 30–day period and being told that the child had already been adopted. In numerous cases, an adoption order had not yet been made, the baby was still in the hospital, adopted home or institution, and the mother had the legal right to collect her child. Many other mothers report they were never informed of a revocation period and were devastated when they discovered years later that they had not known about this opportunity to reclaim their child.

    Coercion and physical force

    The Senate Inquiry Report found that mothers were made to feel powerless and undeserving of their child. In many cases, girls were sent to unmarried mothers homes to live until after the birth of their child, usually far away from their family, the father and their community. This sense of isolation added to the disempowerment they felt. They were often made to perform hard physical labour, and were emotionally and physically abused. In some instances, they were victims of sexual abuse by doctors or others in positions of power. Mothers were asked humiliating questions about their sexual relationship with the child’s father. They were told they had committed a terrible sin about which they should be ashamed, that they would be unable to raise their child, and that they were undeserving of their child. 

    Accompanying this bullying, and an essential part of the coercive tactics employed by social workers, doctors and nurses, was the constant message that a married couple would be able to give the child a better life. Mothers were consistently told that their babies would be raised in loving and financially secure marital homes that they would never be able to provide.

    Mothers were often physically restrained during birth – shackled to the bed or held down by a nurse – and their view of the baby obstructed by a sheet or pillow. Immediately following birth, the baby would be removed from the room. Often the mother was provided no information about her baby’s health or even told the gender. These babies were kept in a separate room and the mothers were not allowed to see or hold them. The basis of this practice was the ‘clean break’ or ‘blank slate’ theory, which advocated early and uninterrupted bonding between the adoptive mother and the baby to establish an attachment. It was assumed that the ‘clean break’ would save the mother and child from social stigma and, incorrectly, it was thought mother and child would forget each other and ‘move on’ with their lives.

    Support for mothers at the time of adoption

    Support from the mother’s family and the father of the child were also a factor in forced adoptions. Some women report having the full support of their parents to keep their baby. However, parental support was often ignored by hospital or maternity home staff and by case workers, and adoptions arranged. In such cases, a woman’s parents were often unaware of their legal rights. 

    Many more mothers recount having insufficient or no emotional and financial support from their families. Parents frequently thought that having an illegitimate child in the family, or even the community knowing their daughter was pregnant, would ruin their reputation. In addition to refusing financial support, parents refused emotional support, telling the mother that she was unfit to raise a child.

    Fathers

    In some cases, the father did not want to be involved in the mother’s or child’s life. In others, the father was unaware that his girlfriend was pregnant. In many cases, the father was committed to his relationship with the mother and to raising their child together. However, the father often faced threats of violence or legal action and was deliberately excluded from the mother’s life by her parents or from the maternity home or hospital. The fathers, like the mothers, were routinely judged as having committed a sin and being underserving of raising the child. Many fathers were just as unaware of their rights as the mothers.

    Mothers report not registering the father’s name at birth due to threats that he would be charged with ‘carnal knowledge’ and risked criminal penalties. In other cases, the mother insisted on having the father’s name registered, only to find later that it was omitted by the social worker, nurse, or doctor who completed the form. The father’s consent to adoption was only legally required if he was listed on the registration. If he was not registered, the father had no more choice in the adoption of the child than the mother.

    Adopted persons

    Adopted persons affected by forced adoption have had a variety of life experiences, both positive and negative. Many have had loving and fulfilling relationships with their adoptive families. Others report emotional or physical isolation, neglect or abuse, and extremely difficult life situations in their adoptive families. Many have believed that their mother abandoned them and had never loved them.

    The majority of adopted persons, regardless of the positive or negative relationship with their adoptive families, say that they have experienced a range of negative issues as a result of their adoption. This is particularly so for people who found out late in their life that they were adopted. They frequently report a strong sense of betrayal, have problems forming lasting or meaningful relationships, experience feelings of isolation or abandonment, and suffer identity issues. 

    Accessing adoption records

    Difficulties accessing adoption records and a lack of information about the circumstances of adoptions have meant that many adopted persons have been unable to learn the identity of their mother and father or whether their adoption was forced. For adopted persons trying to manage health issues, a lack of records, or inaccurate records, creates significant problems.

    Reunions

    For those mothers, fathers and adopted persons who attempt reunions, the difficulties are not automatically resolved. For some, contact vetoes can prevent reunions altogether. Of those who do meet, building a relationship can be hard work. The parents and their adult child must negotiate various issues and complexities caused by the forced adoption and, while some are able to do so, others are not. A happy ending is not guaranteed.