Family Relationships Quarterly No. 19

AFRC Newsletter No. 19 – August 2011

Current trauma: The impact of adoption practices up till the early 1970s

by Daryl HIggins

Although reliable figures are not available, in the decades prior to the mid-1970s, it was common in Australia for babies of unwed mothers to be adopted. Understanding the grief, loss and ongoing trauma associated with past practices is essential to be able to provide appropriate services to meet the needs of those affected.

Over the past century, adoption practices in Australia - and society's responses to unwed pregnancies and single motherhood - have undergone considerable changes. Until a range of social, legal and economic changes in the 1970s, unwed (single) women who were pregnant were encouraged - or forced - to "relinquish" their babies for adoption. The shame and silence that surrounded pregnancy out of wedlock meant that these women were seen as "unfit" mothers. The practice of "closed adoption" was seen as the solution - where the birth identities of adopted children were effectively erased to allow the children's identification with their new adopted family. Mothers were not informed about the adoptive families, and the very fact of their adoption was usually kept secret from the children (see Swain & Howe, 1995).

Box 1: A new national research study on the service response to past adoption practices

On 4 June 2010, the Community and Disability Services Ministers' Conference (CDSMC) announced that the Ministers had agreed to a joint national research study into past adoption practices, to be conducted by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS). The focus of this study will be on understanding current needs and information to support improved service responses. It is anticipated that this will be the largest study on the impact of past adoption practices ever conducted in this country. The aim of the research study is to utilise and build on existing research and evidence about the extent and impact of past adoption practices to strengthen the evidence available to governments to address the current needs of individuals affected by past adoption practices.

Information will be collected using an online survey, hard-copy surveys and in-depth interviews, integrating results from across the different elements of the study.

The study will commence in mid-2011, to be completed by mid-2012.

For more information, see: National Research Study on the Service Response to Past Adoption Experiences <>.

This study will complement the work of the History of Adoption Project at Monash University, which is focused on "explaining the historical factors driving the changing place, meaning and significance of adoption", particularly through its collection of oral histories. See: <>.

History of adoption laws and policies

Understanding the true extent of past practices, or its ongoing effects, is problematic. There are no accurate data on the number of Australians who have been affected (Higgins, 2011). There is a wide range of people who may be affected by past adoption practices, including:

  • mothers;
  • the adopted children;
  • fathers (anecdotal evidence from case studies suggests that often mothers knew who the fathers were, including boyfriends and even husbands);
  • the mother's family (who may have failed to provide support or actively demanded relinquishment, silence and censure);
  • subsequent partners of the mothers;
  • siblings; and
  • the adoptive family.

The range of people involved suggests therefore the potential for wide-ranging impacts, including the possibility of the effects of past adoption practices on these individuals in turn "rippling" through to others, including other children and family members. Commentators, professional experts, researchers and parliamentary committees have all accepted that past adoption practices were far from ideal, had the potential to do damage, and often did.

Box 2: Legal and policy milestones regarding adoption and single mothers in Australia

  • Legislation on adoption commenced in Western Australia in 1896, with similar legislation in other jurisdictions following.
  • Before the introduction of state legislation on adoption, "baby farming"* and infanticide was not uncommon.
  • Legislative changes emerged from the 1960s that enshrined the concept of adoption secrecy and the ideal of having a "clean break" from the birth mother.
  • The Council of the Single Mother and her Children (CSMC) was set up in 1969, which set out to challenge the stigma of adoption and to support single and relinquishing mothers.
  • The Commonwealth Government introduced the Supporting Mother's Benefit in 1973, coinciding with a rapid decline in adoptions from the peak of 1971-72.
  • The status of "illegitimacy" disappeared in the early 1970s, starting with a Status of Children Act in both Victoria and Tasmania in 1974 (in which the status was changed to "ex-nuptial").
  • Abortion became allowable in most states from the early 1970s (the 1969 Menhennitt judgement in Victoria and 1971 Levine judgement in NSW).
  • Further legislative reforms started to overturn the blanket of secrecy surrounding adoption (up until changes in the 1980s, information on birth parents was not made available to adopted children/adults).
  • Beginning with NSW (in 1976), registers were established for those wishing to make contact (both for parents and adopted children).
  • In 1984, Victoria implemented legislation granting adopted persons over 18 the right to access their birth certificate (subject to mandatory counselling). Similar changes followed in other states (e.g., NSW introduced the Adoption Information Act in 1990).
  • By the early 1990s, legislative changes in most states ensured that consent for adoption had to come from both birth mothers and fathers.
  • The majority of local adoptions are now "open".

* "Baby farming" refers to the provision of private board and lodging for babies or young children at commercial rates, a practice that was often abused for financial gain, including cases of serious neglect and infanticide.


As noted by Connor and Higgins (2008), many people who experience potentially overwhelming or horrific life events appear to adapt, and survive without developing a psychiatric disorder or other disability. But despite the capacity that humans have to adapt and survive, these "traumatic experiences" can so profoundly affected people that "the memory of one particular event comes to taint all other experiences" (van der Kolk & McFarlane, 1996, p. 4). As a diagnostic category, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) "created an organized framework for understanding how people's biology, conceptions of the world, and personalities are shaped by experience" (van der Kolk & McFarlane, 1996, p. 4). PTSD was a way of recognising the effects of trauma on the veterans of the Vietnam War, but there was growing recognition that similar stress reactions can be seen in response to other traumatic experiences, including childhood sexual abuse and adult rape. There are similar parallels in relation to women's experience of past adoption practices.

Much of the research and case-studies have focused on the issues of grief and loss experienced by these mothers, but experiences may be better understood through this lens of "trauma". For example, Higgins (2010) noted that issues relating to consent and coercion point to some of the reasons why trauma may be evident. These issues include:

  • administration of high levels of drugs to the mother in the perinatal period (including pain relief medication, sedatives and a hormone that suppresses lactation) that were believed to affect her capacity to consent;
  • not allowing the mother to see the baby (active shielding with a sheet or other physical barrier during birth, or removing the baby from the ward immediately after birth);
  • withholding information about the baby (e.g., gender, health information, or even whether the baby was a live birth);
  • discouraging the mother from naming the baby;
  • bullying behaviour by consent takers (seen as the "bastions of morality" who are protecting "good families");
  • failure to advise the mother of her right to rescind the decision to relinquish;
  • failure to adequately obtain consent from the mother (being too young to be able to give consent interactions with other issues raised above that impaired the mother's ability to give fully informed consent; consent given while under the influence of drugs; not being fully informed of rights etc.);
  • treating the mothers differently from married women - with social workers and medical/nursing staff making assumptions that all unwed mothers' babies would be adopted;
  • abandonment by their own mothers/families;
  • the closed nature of past adoption practices (secrecy, and the "clean break" theory);
  • assumption of a married couple's entitlement to a child (adoption was a mechanism for dealing with the joint "problem" of illegitimacy and infertility); and
  • experimentation on newborn babies with drugs, with children dying or being adopted without any follow-up of these experiments.

One issue of particular importance is the trauma of the separation of mother and child. Mothers - particularly those who have not had any contact - continue to be traumatised by the thought that their child grew up thinking that they were not wanted. In the words of one mother: "It wasn't the children who were not wanted. Mothers weren't wanted because they were unmarried" (cited in Higgins, 2010, p. 13).

The grief and trauma is seen as "unresolved", due to the silence surrounding "closed" adoption that prevented the mother from being able to mourn her loss (Goodwach, 2001; Rickarby, 1998). For mothers, the ongoing silence means knowing that her child is out there, wondering how they are, and knowing that there is a possibility of reunion - not the "severed bond" as promised by the clean break theory that shrouded the event in silence (Iwanek, 1997). In describing the grief and trauma, many authors have drawn on related bodies of research, using recent infant-mother attachment research to support their contention that separation causes emotional damage to both mother and child (e.g., Cole, 2009). It is somewhat ironic that earlier research in this same field (e.g., Bowlby, 1969) was used to justify the practices of the time (i.e., not allowing the child to bond with the birth mother so as to provide a "clean break" that encourages bonding with the new adoptive parents).

Time (does not) heal all wounds

Contrary to the popular myth that "time heals all wounds", one theme that was fairly consistent across the different studies and methodologies reviewed by Higgins (2011) was the notion that the pain and distress of mothers' experiences of adoption did not just "go away" with the passage of time. In his qualitative study of women recruited through a support group for relinquishing mothers, Condon (1986) found that "the majority of these women reported no diminution of their sadness, anger and guilt over the considerable number of years which had elapsed since their relinquishment" (p. 118). However, the healing effect of time is exactly what practitioners expected during that period.

Reinforcing the notion that the feelings do not just "go away", on the basis of his data from adoption information service users, P. Swain (1992) claimed that most birth mothers "go on wondering and worrying about their child for the rest of their lives. For almost all, the contact with their child brings immense relief" (p. 32).

In a recent qualitative study with a limited, non-representative sample, Gair (2008) observed the feelings of powerlessness, low self-worth, depression and suicidal feelings/behaviours in people affected by past adoption practices in Australia, including adoptees, birth mothers, a birth father and an adoptive mother. However, the extent of such effects in a representative sample has not been measured.


As past adoption practices cannot be "undone", one of the steps in the journey for both mothers and children given up for adoption is the choice around reunion. Given the variation in responses provided in the case study literature, and the absence of any systematic empirical evidence, this is an area where further research would be of particular value. Services attempting to support those affected - including professional counsellors, agencies and support groups - would all benefit from a greater understanding of typical pathways through the reunion process, estimates of the number of reunions that have occurred, the perspectives of those involved, and factors that are associated with positive and negative reunion experiences.

Apart from these issues relating to reunion, there are other ongoing issues for mothers affected by past adoption practices, including problems with:

  • personal identity (the concept of "motherhood" and self-identity as a good mother);
  • relationships with others, including husbands/partners, subsequent children;
  • connectedness with others (problematic attachments); and
  • ongoing anxiety, depression and trauma (Higgins, 2011).

The needs identified by writers in this field are consistent with the broader theoretical and empirical literature on other forms of trauma, such as the field of child abuse and neglect or adult sexual assault (Connor & Higgins, 2008; van der Kolk & McFarlane, 1996). As with other groups who have experienced pain and trauma, having society recognise what has occurred (i.e., naming it, and understanding how it occurred and its impact) is an important element in coping with and adjusting to the deep hurt they have experienced.


  • Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment: Volume 1. Attachment and loss. London: Hogarth.
  • Cole, C. A. (2009). The thin end of the wedge: Are past draconian adoptive practices re-emerging in the 21st century? Public submission to the National Human Rights Consultation (PDF 96 KB). Retrieved from <$file/Christine%20Cole_AGWW-7T29E8.pdf>.
  • Condon, J. T. (1986). Psychological disability in women who relinquish a baby for adoption. Medical Journal of Australia, 144, 117-119.
  • Connor, P. K., & Higgins, D. J. (2008). The "HEALTH" Model - Part 1: Treatment program guidelines for Complex PTSD. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 23(4), 293-303.
  • Gair, S. (2008). The psychic disequilibrium of adoption: Stories exploring links between adoption and suicidal thoughts and actions. Australian e-Journal for the Advancement of Mental Health, 7(3), 1-10.
  • Goodwach, R. (2001). Does reunion cure adoption? Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 22(2), 73-79.
  • Higgins, D. J. (2011). Unfit mothers ... unjust practices? Key issues from Australian research on the impact of past adoption practices. Family Matters, 87, 56-67.
  • Higgins, D. J. (2010). Impact of past adoption practices: Summary of key issues from Australian research. Canberra: Department of Families, Housing Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. Retrieved from <>.
  • Iwanek, M. (1997). Healing history: The story of adoption in New Zealand. Social Work Now, 8, 13-17.
  • Rickarby, G. (1998). Adoption grief: Irresolvable aspects. Separation, reunion, reconciliation: Proceedings of the Sixth Australian Conference on Adoption, Brisbane, June 1997 (pp. 54-58). Stones Corner, Qld: J. Benson for Committee of the Conference.
  • Swain, P. (1992). Adoption information services: Myths and realities. In P. Swain & S. Swain (Eds.), The search of self: The experience of access to adoption information (pp. 25-37). Sydney: Federation Press.
  • Swain, S., & Howe, R. (1995). Single mothers and their children: Disposal, punishment and survival in Australia. Oakleigh, Vic: Cambridge University Press.
  • van der Kolk, B. A., & McFarlane, A. C. (1996). The black hole of trauma. In B. A. van der Kolk, A. C. McFarlen, & L. Weisaeth (Eds.), Traumatic stress: The effects of overwhelming experience on mind, body, & society (pp. 3-23). New York: Guildford.

Daryl Higgins is Deputy Director (Research) at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

This article is based on a report, commissioned by the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (Higgins, 2010), Impact of Past Adoption Practices: Summary of Key Issues from Australian Research, available at: <>. The report has also been reprinted in the Australian Journal of Adoption, 2 (2), available at: <>.