Past adoption experiences

Past adoption experiences

22 August 2012

During the early 1960s and 1970s in particular, adoption was prevalent in Australia. Single women who were pregnant were encouraged - or forced - to "give up" their babies for adoption.

The shame and silence that surrounded pregnancy outside marriage meant that these women were viewed as “unfit” mothers. The practices at the time, called “closed adoption”, were seen as the solution.

“Closed adoption” involved an adopted child’s original birth certificate being sealed forever, and an amended birth certificate issued that established the child’s new identity and relationship with their adoptive family.

Recent research at the Australian Institute of Family Studies aimed to improve knowledge about the extent and effects of past adoption practices, and to strengthen the evidence available to governments to address the current needs of individuals affected by closed adoption.

The AIFS study surveyed 1,528 individuals affected by closed adoption, including:

  • 823 adopted persons;
  • 505 mothers;
  • 94 adoptive parents;
  • 94 other family members; and
  • 12 fathers.

The findings of the study reveal that the long-term effects of past adoption practices cannot be understated.


Mothers1 in the study described a range of areas where their experience of adoption continue to affect them now, including:

  • the birth process;
  • differential treatment from married mothers;
  • experiences of abuse by hospital and/or maternity home staff;
  • administration of drugs that impaired their capacity;
  • lack of ability to give or revoke consent;
  • not being listened to; and
  • being made to feel unworthy or incapable of parenting, particularly from authority figures.

The research also found that close to one-third of the mothers showed a likelihood of having a severe psychological disorder at the time of survey completion, and over half reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Persons who were adopted

The majority of the adopted participants described experiencing problems with attachment, identity, abandonment and the parenting of their own children.

The adoptees reported lower levels of wellbeing and higher levels of psychological distress compared to the general population, and almost 70% of these respondents agreed that being adopted had resulted in some level of negative effect on their health and wellbeing while growing up. These negative effects included:

  • hurt from secrecy and lies surrounding their adoption and subsequent sense of betrayal;
  • identity problems;
  • feelings of abandonment;
  • feeling obligated to show gratitude throughout their lives;
  • low levels of self-worth; and
  • difficulties in forming attachments to others.

Many adoptees also continue to face significant barriers to finding information about their families of origin.


Although the number of fathers who responded to the survey was too low to make generalisations, almost all of those that did participate showed some signs of post-traumatic stress.

The lack of consultation and involvement in the decision at the time of the pregnancy and birth of their child was highlighted as being particularly difficult to deal with and many have suffered adversely as a result.

Other family members and adoptive parents

The impacts of closed adoption don’t just affect those who are in the immediate ‘circle’ of adoption, but also other family members such as spouses, parents and children of those directly affected. Participants in the study expressed the lack of support options available to them in helping them better understand the issues associated with adoption that are being experienced by their loved ones, but also how they can best be of assistance to them.

Adoptive parents in the study were primarily focused on the needs of their adopted children, particularly with regard to access to records and family medical histories. The experiences of adoptive parents in relation to the process of adopting their children were largely positive, although many felt that there was little information provided to them regarding how to appropriately respond to their child’s desire to search for their family of origin.

Key needs and priority actions

The study revealed important areas where the majority of participants united in identifying the needs and priority actions for responding to the ways in which closed adoption has affected their lives. The service providers who participated in the study largely mirrored the views of people affected by past adoption experiences, including the need for:

  • acknowledgement and recognition of past adoption practices (including the role of apologies and financial resources to address current service and support needs);
  • raising community awareness of and education about past adoption practices and their subsequent effects;
  • specialised workforce training and development for primary health carers, mental health and broader health and welfare professionals to appropriately respond to the needs of those affected;
  • a review of the current search and contact service systems, with a commitment to develop improved service models;
  • improved access to information through the joining of state and territory databases, governed by a single statutory body;
  • improved access to and assistance with costs for mental, behavioural and physical health services; and
  • ensuring that lessons from past adoption practices are learned from and translated where appropriate into current child welfare policies, and that adoption-specific services are created or enhanced to respond to the consequences of past practices.

To access the full report, see – Past Adoption Experiences: National Research Study on the Service Response to Past Adoption Practices

1. For the purposes of the report, the terms “mother” and “father” refer to biological parents.


I was so very disappointed in the results of this survey. My sister filled in this survey, it took her over a week to do it because she was so upset and when reading this, neither of us can see anything that even comes close to her answers. I know many mothers were reluctant to fill it in but my sister thought she was doing the right thing and the results have sent her into a bad depression. All this report is about is taking what people have said and making it all look good for the people who ran the survey. Very disappointing.
Dear Sue, Thank you for taking the time to read our report, and responding to us with your views. We are very sorry to hear that you are not happy with the report of our survey. We have tried to reflect themes that were common across many participants, as well as capturing the diversity of responses. But given that we had over 1500 participants, it was very hard to try and distill that down to a 300-page report while retaining a sense of every participant as unique. As we note on page 8, our focus was mostly on identifying the key areas relating to current needs and priority actions where the majority of participants' views aligned. Also, it is important to note that our study was not focused so much on recording the variety of experiences, but on identifying the current service needs of all people affected by past adoption experiences. Please let your sister know that she is free to respond back and post a message here, anonymously, that conveys her current needs that she feels were not adequately covered in our report. We are always sorry to hear about disappointment that may have arisen in the process of participating in our research. We greatly appreciate the generosity of all those who took the time to complete the survey and recognise from the responses that, for many, this was a very difficult thing to do. For anyone reading the report, please remember: If you are distressed or depressed and need support - please contact LIFELINE on ph. 13 11 14. Kind regards, Daryl - on behalf of the study team
Daryl Higgins

Add a comment

Related topics

Need some help?

CFCA offers a free research and information helpdesk for child, family and community welfare practitioners, service providers, researchers and policy makers through the CFCA News.



Sign up to our email alert service for the latest news and updates