I will never fully heal from the grief and trauma of losing my baby the way I did…” (Mother, Kenny et al., 2012, p. 62).
During the 1940s to 1980s adoptions in Australia were at an all-time high. An estimated 9,798 adoptions took place in 1971-72 alone, standing in stark contrast to the number of current-day adoptions, totalling less than 500 per year (Quartely, Swain & Cuthbert, 2013). Adoption during this post-war era in Australia was considered the ideal solution to two prominent social issues: married couples who were unable to conceive their own children, and society’s hostile view of young single women giving birth to illegitimate children. These women were deemed by society as ‘unfit’ to parent their children (Senate Community Affairs Reference Committee (SCARC), 2012, p. 23) and were not provided with any form of alternative option. This was not an informed choice made willingly by the mothers and fathers of these newborn babies as it is today, but a practice that occurred so frequently it became protocol within hospitals and maternity homes across Australia.
Popular during this time was the pioneering work of John Bowlby on attachment theory, whose research was used to formulate key adoption and mental health policies at the time (SCARC, 2012). The ‘clean break’ theory was born and adopted nationwide as ‘best-practice’ in which infants were removed immediately from their mothers at birth, based on the premise that “favourable relationships” between adoptive parents and their new baby would have the best chances of being formed “the nearer to birth that they have him” (Bowlby, 1952, p. 53), while simultaneously granting single mothers the freedom to ‘get on with their lives’ (SCARC, 2012, p. 53). The adopted child’s original birth certificate was sealed and an amended birth certificate issued, establishing the child’s new identity.
Commonly reported experiences and their impacts
“Given away at birth, I was stripped of my innate identity, my intrinsic heritage and formally given a new name and family. I grew up with a profound sense of duality – of being part of a family and yet very much separate from them” (Adopted person, SCARC, p. 78).
The experiences of those affected are many and varied, and the ensuing impacts lifelong and often intergenerational. Mothers were ostracised from society and coerced into believing adoption was in the best interests of the child. They were bullied, lied to, and often psychologically and physically abused within hospitals and maternity homes by medical staff. Mothers have described traumatic labour experiences of being tied down to beds with sheets raised above their faces to shield their view of their baby, being drugged and having their breasts painfully bound to prevent lactation, and often never seeing their newborn or knowing anything about them (e.g., gender, health). Methods to gain consent to adoption were illegally and unethically obtained, laws were unregulated, and mothers were ill-informed about their rights and options.
Fathers were mostly viewed as ‘peripheral figures’ and excluded from all pregnancy and birth-related matters, regardless of whether or not they were in a stable and committed relationship. Under the circumstances of the time many mothers chose not to reveal the father’s paternity to authorities or the fathers themselves, with many only discovering they had a child lost to forced adoption many years later when the adopted person embarked on a search. Many who were aware of their paternity report being barred from hospitals and maternity homes, threatened, and prevented from seeing or speaking to the mother. They were rarely included on their child’s birth certificate and their desires for a family and to be involved in decisions made about their child were disregarded.
Babies were mostly adopted within six weeks of birth; however some remained in hospital nurseries for months prior to an adoption (Kenny et al., 2012). Others were placed in care at the age of four or older, or were institutionalised and deemed a ward of the State for many years before being placed with an adoptive family (SCARC, 2012). There are varied reported experiences of adopted people from being abused within institutions or within their adoptive families, to having a very loving and positive upbringing (Kenny, Higgins, Soloff & Sweid, 2012). However, many adopted people believe that being separated from their mothers at birth caused a ‘primal wound’ or trauma from which many of their current day psychological difficulties have stemmed.
The only large-scale national research study on the experiences, impacts and service needs of people affected by past forced adoption policies and practices was undertaken by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) and published in 2012 (Kenny et al., 2012). The study highlighted a number of universally reported mental health impacts to all groups affected, including:
- Trauma-related symptoms
- Suicidal ideation and behaviour
- Grief and loss
- Disenfranchised grief
- Identity issues and impacts on self-worth
- Relationship and parenting issues
- Substance use
- Physical or medical illnesses
Inquiries and the Government’s response
In response to rigorous lobbying and advocacy by people affected by forced adoption, several inquiries into adoption policies and practices in Australia have been conducted since the late 1980s. Significant legislative reviews and formal parliamentary inquiries have been undertaken, leading to the most recent inquiry by the SCARC into past forced adoption policies and practices released on 29 February 2012.
Twenty recommendations were made in the Senate Inquiry report (SCARC, 2012), seven of which related to issuing statements of apology at the national and State level, as well as by non-government institutions that were involved in adoptions at the time. A National Apology was made by the former Prime Minister Julia Gillard on 21 March 2013 in the Great Hall of Parliament House, Canberra, to more than 800 people. Motions of apology were subsequently moved in both houses of Parliament and carried by Members and Senators rising in their places.
Training needs for health professionals
In 2013, the AIFS was commissioned by the then Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA) to undertake a second study on the support service needs of those affected by forced adoption (Higgins, Kenny, Sweid & Ockenden, 2014). Service providers emphasised a general lack of awareness by health professionals of the history of forced adoption, and a lack of sensitivity to the issues being raised, resulting in the potential for harmful and re-traumatising experiences for those seeking help.
While there is no single recognised approach, researchers and practitioners have proposed the use of a ‘trauma-informed approach’ as a key overarching framework to guide and inform assessment and treatment (Higgins et al., 2014). While not requiring the disclosure of trauma, trauma-informed services are “informed about, and sensitive to, trauma-related issues” (Jennings, 2008, p. 10) and are designed to promote people’s capacity to engage and participate in treatment.
The ‘Guidance and Training on Forced Adoptions for Health Professionals’ project
In January 2015, the APS was contracted by the Australian Government Department of Health to develop a suite of professional resources and tools including national online training, a practice Guidance document, web-based resources and webinars, to better support health professionals delivering services to people affected by forced adoption. The project forms part of the government's response to the Senate Inquiry’s key recommendations.
The national online training program entitled “Understanding and supporting people affected by forced adoption: Training for health professionals” has been developed to meet the needs of a range of allied health professionals and comprises three courses, two of which are relevant for psychologists:
A brief introduction to understanding past forced adoption policies and practices (1 hr)
Suitable for all health professionals who wish to gain general knowledge, but who aren’t currently working or planning to work with people affected by forced adoption.
Working with people affected by forced adoption: Training for mental health professionals (9hrs)
Suitable for mental health professionals who are currently working or planning to work with people affected by forced adoption.
The first author can be contacted at M.Hone@psychology.org.au
To sign up for the training or to find out more about the APS Forced Adoption Project.
- Bowlby, J. (1952). Maternal care and mental health: A report prepared on behalf of the World Health Organization as a contribution to the United Nations programme for the welfare of homeless children. Geneva: World Health Organization.
- Higgins, D., Kenny, P., Sweid, R., & Ockenden, L. (2014). Forced adoption support services scoping study. Retrieved from http://www.dss.gov.au/sites/default/files/documents/06_2014/final_scoping_study_report_2_3_2.pdf
- Jennings, A. (2008). Models for developing trauma-informed behavioral health systems and trauma-specific services: 2008 update. Alexandria, VA: Center for Mental Health Services, National Center for Trauma Informed Care.
- Kenny, P., Higgins, D., Soloff, C., & Sweid, R. (2012). Past adoption experiences: National Research Study on the Service Response to Past Adoption Practices (Research Report No. 21). Melbourne, Australia.
- Quartely, M., Swain, S., & Cuthbert, D. (2013). The market in babies: Stories of Australian adoption. Melbourne, Australia: Monash University Publishing.
- Senate Community Affairs References Committee (SCARC). (2012). Commonwealth contribution to former forced adoption policies and practices. Canberra, Australia.