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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.

Šustralian 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.

Higher rate of mental and physical health problems

The AIFS study asked mothers to complete four tests to assess their overall mental health. The tests were: a Quality of Life assessment; Psychological Distress Test; impact of events scale; and life satisfaction survey. The results were then compared with the findings of the most recent National Health Survey.

While there are differences among the mothers who responded, the picture that emerges is negative. Compared to women who did not go through the adoption system, these mothers consistently had more mental health issues. Fifty-seven per cent of respondents showed symptoms of PTSD, and many reported lower life satisfaction than the national average.

Generally, the younger the woman at the time of the birth of her child, the more likely she is to still experience distress. Higher levels of distress were found to be common among those mothers who had little or no support during pregnancy and birth, and among those who experienced unethical or illegal treatment by doctors, matrons, social workers, nurses, and other professionals. Distress levels were mitigated by being able to form an ongoing relationship with their lost son or daughter.

Impact on parenthood

In the AIFS study, 14 per cent of mothers reported that because their experience of adoption had been so hard, they were unable or unwilling to have other children. Others who did have more children found that the subsequent births were difficult, re-triggering the original trauma or bringing repressed grief to the surface. Mothers reported that this made them less able to respond to the needs of their new babies because, for example, they became depressed or anxious. In turn, this reinforced beliefs established during the first pregnancy of being unfit to be a mother.

Impact on relationships

A variety of the difficulties mothers experience in their relationships are attributable to forced adoption. For example, the relationship a mother has with her parents and relatives is fractured. For many parents, having a pregnant unmarried daughter was a great source of shame and they responded by trying to hide their daughters. About one-third of mothers were sent to homes, some went interstate to relatives, and others were hidden away as much as possible. The women report that being treated like a shameful secret by their parents induced long-held feelings of abandonment, anger and sorrow.

Where a mother was in a consenting relationship with the father of their child, the relationship often did not survive the adoption process. For a woman who formed a new relationship, the secrecy surrounding adoption created other difficulties. If she risked telling her new partner, or if he noticed that her body told a story of birth, the fear was that she would be judged negatively again. Two-thirds of the mothers who responded to the AIFS study indicated that their experience had affected their relationship, and one-third identified it as a contributing factor to its demise. 

Interruption of grief

Grief is a natural and healthy reaction to a significant loss. Its disruption or suppression can lead to serious mental health problems. The overwhelming majority of mothers were told to forget they had given birth to a child and to move on with their lives. Many were deprived of the right to express grief over their lost child and, in order to cope, suppressed their feelings. This was a key factor in many developing mental health issues.

Self esteem

Mothers frequently report that the experience of forced adoption has fundamentally affected their self-esteem. The widespread societal disapproval of unmarried mothers combined with targeted shaming led mothers to believe they were worthless. This has had a substantial impact on many aspects of their lives.

Feelings of poor self-esteem and worthlessness can lead to disinterest in caring for one’s physical health, including serious issues of substance abuse. It can hinder one’s confidence in future decision making and lead a mother to do less than she might otherwise have done, for example, avoiding further studies or not seeking promotions because she does not feel worthy. One mother quoted in the AIFS report stated that the effect had been to open her to further abuse in later life.

The intense secrecy that accompanied forced adoptions exacerbated feelings of low self-esteem for many mothers, highlighting the shamefulness of their out-of-wedlock pregnancy. The inability to talk about such a significant event in their lives made many mothers feel unimportant, intensely isolated and alone.

As a consequence of being told that the adoption of their baby was in the best interests of them and the child, some mothers reported having significant issues with authority figures. They find it extremely difficult to trust, which can have an adverse impact on their day-to-day life, especially in the workplace.