Past Adoption Experiences

Reporting on adoption

Media backgrounder

This page outlines some of the key issues in reporting on adoption experiences in Australia, particularly closed adoption. It has been prepared as part of a national research study on the service response to past adoption experiences.

It is intended for journalists, news commentators and other media presenters including bloggers.

It outlines three important issues:

  • What is closed adoption?
  • Who is affected?
  • What are the sensitivities?

Report now released - Past Adoption Experiences: National Research Study on the Service Response to Past Adoption Practices

Closed adoption

Closed adoption was the practice of sealing a child’s birth certificate and issuing an amended birth certificate instead.

It effectively hid the identities of the mother and child and established the child's adopted identity and relationship with their new adopted family. The intention was to help the child settle into the adoptive family.

This issue becomes particularly distressing in cases where mothers were forced to give up their baby. Others chose or felt compelled to offer their baby for adoption. Many children were brought up unaware that they were adopted.

The issues around adoption are closely interwoven with traditional societal expectations at the time. 

Some experiences of adoption have been very negative and distressing throughout life.

Who is affected

It has been estimated that 1 in 15 people are affected by closed adoption including:

  • mothers;
  • fathers;
  • adoptees, their families and children;
  • adoptive parents and families; and
  • the extended families of all of these people.

Adoption rates peaked in the early 1970s when traditional societal expectations put pressure on unwed mothers to place their child for adoption.

In 1971-72 almost 10,000 children were adopted in Australia, compared to 384 children in 2010-11. Now, more than half of adoptions are inter-country adoptions.

For more information on the history and changes to adoption patterns in Australia read the facts sheet, Past and Present Adoptions in Australia.


Closed adoption is inextricably linked to deep emotions for all concerned.

Cases of unauthorised separation (“forced adoption”) are being raised at the Senate Inquiry into the Commonwealth Government’s Contribution to Former Forced Adoption Policies and Practices. Some of these experiences are also being reported through media outlets.

When interviewing people or writing on this issue, please be mindful of the grief and heart-ache many have experienced.

The issue is steeped in sensitivities such as:

  • there may be unresolved grief on the part of the birth mother, the adopted child or other people involved;
  • societal pressures at the time concerning pregnancy outside marriage, legitimacy issues for children, etc; and
  • secrecy and non-disclosure of the issue might still be relevant today for some birth mothers.

If possible, please provide an opportunity for them to read/see any story based on their experiences before it is published or aired publicly, to ensure they are comfortable with the way their very personal story is told.

With any coverage of this issue, please include a referral to a counselling service, such as Lifeline 13 11 14, for anyone who might be suffering from anxiety or depression.

Study into Past Adoption Experiences

Listen to Daryl Higgins (AIFS Deputy Director-Research) talk about the importance of the research into past adoption experiences that is currently underway.

Something positive can come from this: people who have experienced adoption have told us about the support and services they need.

  • The national survey of past adoption experiences was conducted. Its purpose is to understand the current needs of people affected by past adoption experiences, particularly the closed adoption processes in place until the 1980s.
  • Input was sought from people who were involved in any way, such as mothers and fathers, people who were adopted, adoptive parents, and other family members including other children, spouses and grandparents. The people affected could be living anywhere in Australia, aged 20 to 80 years.

Important additional material

Facts sheet: Past and Present Adoptions in Australia outlines the changes to Australia’s adoption rates and practices over the last 30 years, which coincided with shifts in legislative, social and economic factors.

An article outlining the key issues from Australian research on the impact of past adoption practices Unfit Mothers Unjust Practices? Key Issues from Australian Research on the Impact of Past Adoption Practices.

AIHW’s statistical report Adoptions Australia 2010-11

Senate inquiry - Commonwealth Contribution to Former Forced Adoption Policies and Practices

Media contacts

Email: Media inquiries

  • Aileen Muldoon 0419 112 503
  • Luisa Saccotelli 0400 149 901