Reporting on adoption

Reporting on adoption

Media backgrounder— February 2012
Reporting on adoption

This page outlines some of the key issues in reporting on adoption experiences in Australia, particularly forced adoption. It has been prepared as part of a suite of studies undertaken by the Institute relating to past adoption and forced removal policies and practices.

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

It outlines three important issues:

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 with the intention of establishing the child's adopted identity and relationship with their new adopted 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.

Forced adoption

The Senate Committee Report on Former Forced Adoption Policies and Practices defines 'forced adoption' as an 'adoption where a child's natural parent, or parents, were compelled to relinquish a child for adoption'.

Forced adoptions occurred through maternity homes, hospitals, adoption agencies as well as privately, and were carried out by doctors, nurses, social workers and religious figures. Others, particularly their own parents, were often complicit in coercing the mother (and father) into 'consenting' to the adoption.

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 between 1971-72, when 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.)

What happened to the people involved?

The Senate Inquiry established that forced adoption was common in Australia, particularly during the 1950s and 1960s. These practices were illegal, unethical and immoral.

The Inquiry established incontrovertible evidence of:

  • mothers being used for training of medical students;
  • mothers being sexually assaulted by medical professionals;
  • mothers experiencing medical neglect or maltreatment;
  • mothers being tied to beds, forcibly held down, having pillows placed over their faces and having sheets held up to shield the view of their son/daughter during labour;
  • mothers being administered drugs that caused impaired judgment/capacity to make informed decisions;
  • mothers and fathers being informed that their son/daughter was deceased when they were not;
  • the unethical and illegal obtaining of consent to adopt (or no consent obtained at all);
  • adoptees as babies being used for medical experimentations;
  • adoptees being placed with abusive adoptive parents; and
  • adoptees being lied to regarding the circumstances surrounding their adoption, including the obtaining of consent from their parents.


Adoption is inextricably linked to deep emotions for all concerned. When interviewing people or writing on this issue, please be mindful of the grief and heartache many have experienced.

Some of the terms used in relation to adoption are perceived as "value-laden" (such as 'relinquishment', or 'birth mother'). The terms we recommend be used where possible are as follows:

  • Mothers (avoid the term "birth mother")
  • Fathers
  • Adopted persons
  • Adoptive parents
  • Other family members

In addition, many of the past practices associated with adoption also occurred even when children were not adopted; some young, single mothers where forcibly separated from their child but the child was not adopted and instead was placed in a children's homes or other residential facility. Some people prefer to use the term 'forced family separation' to include such practices, along with those that led to adoption.

With any coverage of this issue, where possible, please provide a warning that the content may be distressing for some viewers/readers, and include referral information to a counselling service, such as Lifeline 13 11 14.

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.

AIFS research into past adoption and forced family separation

Important additional material

AIFS Past adoption and forced family separation webpage

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 2012-13

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

Some of the coverage of this issue

Here's just a few stories:

Media contacts

If you wish to contact AIFS regarding past adoption practices, forced adoption and family separation issues:

Email: Media inquiries

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

Publication details

Media backgrounder
Published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, February 2012.

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