The effects of a forced adoption can be psychological, social, physical, and economic. The effects will vary from person to person, as will the severity. A person’s age, education and socio-economic status will have a bearing on how the individual is affected.
Аustralian Institute for Family Studies (AIFS)
The majority of the information in this section comes from Past adoption experiences, a report published by AIFS. The report was commissioned by the then Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (now the Department for Social Services). It states that:
…the key focus of the study [was] to improve knowledge about the extent and effects of past adoption practices, and to strengthen the evidence base available to government to address the current needs of individuals affected by past adoption practices…
The research shows that people will experience the effects of adoption at different stages of their life, and that these will be lifelong and intergenerational. Further, the research suggests that people affected by adoption, especially forced adoption, experience higher than average mental health problems. Some effects are common to everyone, such as issues with self-esteem and identity, but there are differences. For example, the impaired self-esteem of some mothers may have resulted from an inability to defend themselves against bullying. But an adopted person’s impaired self-esteem may derive from a belief that they were unwanted by their parents. The effect is similar, but the cause different.
Effects on Related persons
To date, little research has been undertaken to understand the impact of adoption on other family members, such as grandparents, spouses, siblings or children. What has been done by AIFS suggests that ‘a ripple effect’ exists. The following are some of the problems raised by respondents to the AIFS study:
- Subsequent children of mothers report their parent had psychological difficulties that affected them in their childhood.
- Siblings of adopted people report that growing up with a troubled adopted sibling often left them in the shadows. Other difficulties included fractures between siblings when the adopted sibling searched for, or was contacted by, a member of their natural family.
- Spouses are affected because they must cope with the fluctuating emotions of their partner as they undertake to search for, and attempt to rebuild relationships with, their lost parents. They also have two sets of in-laws.
- Some parents who were supportive of their daughter/son keeping their baby, but were unable to do so because of illegal or unethical practices, report lifelong sorrow at not getting to know their grandchild.
Further research on the impact of adoption on other family members would contribute to a better understanding of broader societal effects of adoption.
Secrecy in adoption practices has contributed significantly to the negative effects of adoption. From the moment an unwed mother realised she was pregnant, an emphasis on secrecy fostered shame, guilt, loneliness and fear. From the moment the child was born, secrecy generated feelings of grief, confusion, loss and abandonment.
The legacy of secrecy in record keeping continues to contribute to the stress experienced by parents and adult adoptees finding and connecting with each other. Many people who contributed to the Senate Inquiry and the AIFS research affirmed that being open and honest about their experiences had had a positive impact on their life, whereas secrecy reinforced negative feelings they had about themselves.
The word trauma is widely used in relation to adoption, and especially to forced adoptions.
The Oxford English Dictionary provides two definitions for trauma, one physical and one psychiatric. The latter definition is:
A psychic injury, esp. one caused by emotional shock the memory of which is repressed and remains unhealed; an internal injury, esp. to the brain, which may result in a behavioural disorder of organic origin. Also, the state or condition so caused.
In the first historical example the dictionary gives, it cites William James in 1894 describing traumatic repressed memories and ‘thorns in the spirit, so to speak’.
Trauma can result from a wide variety of experiences, such as violent assault, surviving a natural disaster, experiencing war, physical accidents, and so on. Generally, the emphasis has been on a direct or indirect threat to survival, or being a witness to death and serious injury. Since the 1970s, however, trauma has become more widely known and understood. In particular, veterans of the Vietnam War have presented with a diverse range of mental health problems. More recently, events that are not life threatening but impair psychological integrity and wholeness are referred to as trauma. Forced adoption is considered to be in this category.
Some trauma survivors develop a condition known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is defined as:
a condition which can develop following exposure to an extremely stressful situation or series of events outside the usual range of human experience, which may manifest itself in recurrent nightmares or intrusive vivid memories and flashbacks of the traumatic event, and in withdrawal, sleep disturbance, and other symptoms associated with prolonged stress or anxiety. (Oxford English Dictionary Online)
It is important to understand that not everyone who suffers trauma develops PTSD, and that not all people affected by forced adoptions consider themselves victims of trauma.
In relation to adoption, PTSD is much more common in mothers who experienced forced adoption. The age of the mother at the time of birth and the harshness of her experience are key factors in the likelihood of her developing PTSD. The little known about fathers affected by forced adoption suggests that rates of PTSD are also likely to be higher than the national average. In adopted people, the AIFS study concluded that one in five exhibited symptoms of a severe mental disorder, such as PTSD.