It is estimated that up to 250,000 adoptions have occurred between the 1940s and the present day, with a peak of 140,000 – 150,000 occurring between 1951 and 1985.
Social mores of the 1940s dictated that ideal parents were married couples with secure incomes, and there was an emergent sense of ‘entitlement’ for these couples to have children if they chose. Coupled with a moral disapproval of pre-marital sex, these conservative social mores were supported by the legislative framework of the time. This led to unmarried, pregnant teenage girls and women being deemed ‘unfit’ to parent their children and resulted in the forced removal of their newborn babies.
There were many different organisations involved in arranging adoptions, including hospitals, mother and baby homes, and private individuals such as doctors, nurses, clergymen, and social workers. Responsibilities and processes for the administration of adoption varied widely across the states.
Additionally, secrecy provisions in adoption legislation were tightened in the 1960s and supported the view that establishing a ‘clean break’ between mother and child was ideal, resulting in the removal of information that would identify mothers and fathers.
A range of adoption laws were passed in the 1960s to protect the mother’s rights to informed consent to adoption, and to protect mothers from coercion. However numerous reports from mothers indicate that these laws were not properly enforced.
The effects of forced adoptions on mothers, fathers, adopted people and their families, have been life-long, and in many cases inter-generational.
Mothers have described being removed from their homes and taken to religious or benevolent institutions during pregnancy. Many reported being subjected to physical and emotional abuse, the use of illegal practices to remove their children, and experiencing ongoing blame and shame during and after these traumatic experiences.
Mothers have described these experiences as having had an enormous impact on their lives. As a result, many continue to suffer low self-worth, lack of confidence, difficulties with interpersonal relationships, dissociation, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse.
Fathers also expressed lifelong psychological consequences in response to the loss of their anticipated parenting role. Other fathers have spent many years being unaware of their paternity, only to find out through contact initiated by their, now adult, child. These fathers are now faced with more recent mental health challenges as a result.
Some adopted people only became aware of their adoptive status late in life, sometimes through the death or illness of an adoptive parent. This resulted in an immediate crisis of identity which undermined existing relationships with people they consider to have perpetuated the lie surrounding their birth. People affected in this way described a pervasive sense of mistrust that permeated many of their valued relationships.
Other adopted people, although aware of their adoption from an early age, reported never feeling good enough, asking themselves if they were grateful enough and wondering about the identity of their real parents. Many ask, “Why was I given away?”
Through the APS’ consultation process in developing the training, mothers have talked of their experiences in seeking help, and the poor understanding of many health professionals about the impacts of forced adoption. A strong need has been identified for training on forced adoption history, its impacts and a clinical framework so health professionals can effectively support people affected by forced adoption.
With funding from the Australian Government Department of Health, the APS has developed a national online training program to meet this need. Read more about the training here.