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Adoption is coloured by the past

By Debbie Garratt - posted Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Australia's history of forced and coerced adoption practises and the ensuing cloud of maternal grief and anger permeate current perceptions and representations of adoption, and portray the practise as one which disempowers mothers, denies children their right to a biological family and leads to inevitable long term suffering for both.

The suffering of those mothers subject to the cruelty of forced removal of their infant children is undeniable, as is the suffering of many of the children who later came to understand the details of their adoption. The 2011 Senate Inquiry into Forced Adoption Practises revealed disturbing and distressing experiences from mothers, children and other family members.

Many of the submissions received by the inquiry expressed such great trauma and suffering that it is easy to see how adoption became to be perceived so negatively. It is in the light of the following kinds of stories that current practise is undertaken:


'I had blankets piled over my face.. …my baby was whisked away without me seeing him..' (Nonas, 2011)

'I was strapped to bed with my leg in stirrups. At delivery of (sic) my child was then taken immediately away from me no first cry or even allow (sic) to view or hold.' (Littlehawk, 2011)

'When the baby was born it was rushed from the room despite me saying "I want so see my baby." The staff told me "it's best for you not to". I never saw her or heard her cry. I asked if I had a boy or girl. The staff refused to tell me saying "It's best if you don't know. I was denied full access to my baby.' (Cohen, 2011)

There are many more stories describing women being drugged both during and in the days after the births of their babies, and being overtly and subtly pressured to sign adoption papers, having never seen their child. Social norms and expectations during the decades preceding the 1970's-80's created enormous stigma for women who were pregnant outside of marriage and it was often deemed in their best interests that an adoption be undertaken swiftly and that women's suffering would be lessened if they didn't view their babies, returning to their normal lives as quickly as possible.

Even today discussion about adoption, unless the discussion supports a negative view, quickly generates a consistently negative and hostile commentary as evidenced by the comments on this recent news article. Gravatar21 says, "Giving your baby away is NOT a natural choice…. ….Adoption is a cruel man made system out to violate women (sic) rights and ultimately the end result is violation of human rights."

It is understandable that there is still so much pain in our communities for those affected by past adoption practise. The loss of a child leaves a lifelong impact and the horror of some of these women's stories is greatly traumatising.

Research undertaken in the mid 1980's taught us that the suffering of women not only continued, but often increased over time. As traumatic stories came to light, adoption practise became responsive to the needs of children to know their origins, and mothers to be fully informed about what the future held for them in adopting.

Victoria led the way in changing legislation in 1984, to open adoption records so that adopted children could access information about their origins. Since that time other Australian states and territories have enacted legislation that allows for varying levels of openness in adoption and that works to ensure that women make considered and informed decisions about adoption.


Adoption numbers have fallen dramatically from the high of almost 10,000 in 1971-72, to only 55 out of family adoptions in 2011-12.

Adoption processes are much stricter today, with consent not taken until after the birth of a child, compulsory counselling, and waiting and revocation periods all in place. In many cases, adoptions aren't finalised until an infant is several months old and therefore is not placed with their adoptive family until that time. There are also other significant differences between states in Australia where 'openness' in adoption can include being able to have significant input into the selection of an adoptive couple and have ongoing contact with your child. However, whilst these may appear to be positive and inclusive provisions, the contact arrangements that are made are not always legally binding and can be ended by the adoptive parents at any time.

Whilst research and the media continue to focus exclusively on stories of adoption from the past, we may be failing those women and men who consider or consent to adoption today. We cannot know whether adoption today is experienced in coercive ways, or whether the current systems are supportive or obstructive to adoption decision making. We also cannot know how the continuing negative representation of adoption, a true representation of the time, is impacting the way in which women and men may perceive adoption as a choice today. Until we understand the experiences of families under the current system, these questions remain unanswerable.

With state and commonwealth apologies for past adoption practises given, legislation changed, and adoption numbers low, it is time to take a closer look at whether what we are now doing is any better than how we did things in the past.


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Debbie Garratt is currently undertaking a PhD study to understand the experiences of adoption today for consenting mothers and fathers. Further details can be found here.

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About the Author

Debbie Garratt is the Executive Director of Real Choices.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Debbie Garratt

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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