Past Adoption Experiences

National Research Study on the Service Response to Past Adoption Practices
Research Report No. 21 – August 2012

You are in an archived section of the AIFS website. Archived publications may be of interest for historical reasons. Because of their age, they may not reflect current research data or AIFS' current research methodologies.

5. Mothers separated from children by adoption

5.1 Introduction

The aim of this national research study is to utilise and build on existing research and evidence about the extent and effects of past adoption practices to strengthen the evidence available to governments to address the current needs of those affected. The literature pertaining to the effects of separation from their child for mothers highlights the importance of their stories being told as one means of healing and recovery (Higgins, 2010). By hearing people's stories, their journeys and their perspectives of their adoption experience, it is possible to begin to understand more meaningfully the effects of these experiences as they pertain to what would be effective strategies of support and intervention. These past experiences are therefore a strong focus in the delivery of the study findings.

Accordingly, the results will be presented by first re-visiting mothers' experiences of: pregnancy; birth; the adoption process, including the main reasons for the adoption and process of obtaining consent; and the search and contact process (see Attachment B for detailed data tables). This is followed by an examination of the effects of these experiences on mothers' wellbeing and other aspects of their lives. The chapter finishes with a discussion of mothers' current service and support needs as a result of their experiences.

The information is drawn from the responses of the 505 mothers who took part in the quantitative survey and those respondents who participated in follow-up discussions.

We didn't know what was going to happen. We were women that were left by everybody. (Mother, Qld)

5.2 Pregnancy

As detailed in Chapter 2, there was a steady increase in the number of adoptions in Australia in the late 1960s, peaking in 1971-72, with almost 10,000 adoptions recorded that year. The respondents to the survey reflected this trend, as shown in Figure 5.1. (The data from the study have been scaled up by a factor of 100 in order for the two series to be compared more easily.)

Relationship status

Over 70% of the surveyed mothers indicated that at the time of their pregnancy, they were in a relationship with the father of their child (see Table B1). A further 19% stated that the father was an acquaintance or relative. Only a small minority indicated that the father was previously unknown to them. Many mothers who participated in the focus group discussions said that they planned to marry the father of their child and that, although the pregnancy was unplanned, they were committed to raising the child together:

I was in love (and still am) with my daughter's father and would have loved to have been a family together. That was not to be. (54, 2011)

When he saw me, the fear subsided and we became very very close and very determined to get married and have the baby - to keep the baby. And I thought that was the end of the matter. And that's the story I have lived with for forty-three years. (Mother, WA)

Figure 5.1: Number of adoptions in Australia and trends based on study respondents, 1950 to 1993

Figure 5.1: Number of adoptions in Australia and among study respondents, 1950 to 1993 - as described in text

Note: Data from study has been scaled up by a factor of 100 to allow comparison of trends.

Source: Senate Inquiry, 2012; AIFS, 2012

Some mothers did go on to marry the father of their child and had subsequent children together who were not adopted:

My husband is the father of my son. We have been married 42 years. (Mother, WA)

My boyfriend and I wanted to be married and keep our daughter. We did marry two years later. (1276, 2012)

I ended up marrying the father of my adopted son and had three other children. We didn't have any other children for 9 years as we felt such a sadness of losing our son. We weren't given the chance to decide; it was taken from us, and it affected us, and it still does. (1683, 2012)

Many of the fathers who had been acquaintances or comparative strangers were either unable to be informed, or it was inappropriate to inform them of the pregnancy (for example, in the case of women who were pregnant as a result of being sexually assaulted). Survey participants were asked whether their pregnancy was a result of consensual or non-consensual sex (see Table B2). A small proportion of participants declined to answer this question (7%). Although the large majority (82%) of responses indicated the pregnancy was a result of consensual sex, 11% reported conception was the outcome of non-consensual sex. Anecdotal accounts from the focus group discussions ranged from feeling pressured from their boyfriends to have sex but not knowing how to say no to them, through to extreme acts of violence from a stranger, acquaintance or relative.

Place of residence

Although there was parental knowledge of the pregnancy in the majority of cases within this sample, only around one-quarter remained in the family home for the duration of their pregnancy (see Table B2). Almost three-quarters of survey respondents indicated that both their parents were aware of the pregnancy. Where only one parent knew, it was more common for the women to report that their mother - but not their father - knew about the pregnancy. Just 11% of respondents said neither of their parents had any knowledge of their pregnancy.

Over a third of participants spent their pregnancy residing in a maternity home run by a church or charity (see Table B2). A small proportion of mothers (16%) were living independently (working either as domestics for board, or living by themselves as they were gainfully employed). The remainder lived with relatives, friends or the father, or in hostels associated with the hospital, other types of institutions or group houses, or with family friends.

Unmarried mothers homes

I didn't see the other girls for very much interaction. I don't know what I did very much during the day - I was left in a room in the convent and stared out the window most of the time (Mother, NSW)

Focus group participants' experiences of unmarried mothers homes varied; however, the majority of women who had stayed in these homes informed us that they were treated poorly. They viewed this period of time as being a largely negative experience that subsequently affected their view of themselves and their belief in their capacity and right to raise their own children.

A range of factors contributing to this viewpoint are summarised below, illustrated with comments provided by mothers in their responses to open-ended questions in the survey:

  • The stigma and shame of their pregnancies:

I was only 17 and society did not accept unwed mothers. (1666, 2012)

I was told, being unmarried, I wasn't fit to be a mother. (1846, 2012)

I was a teenager who felt guilty, ashamed, unsupported and therefore, incapable. (146, 2012)

Shame in my family - religious stigma. (187, 2011)

My father did not want to tell his family. (313, 2012)

Because I was unmarried, it would be awkward to return home carrying such a stigma. (253, 2012)

  • The inability to stay in their family home and instead being "sent away":

I was incarcerated into an unmarried mothers home. (187, 2011)

I was sent interstate so as not to disgrace good Catholic relatives. (1835, 2012)

My father registered me at the home while I was 20 years old and still living under his roof. He refused permission for me to marry. (1854, 2012)

  • Family rejection, both overtly and covertly:

Parents decided - family shame. (335, 2011)

Parents didn't want someone else's child in their house. (147, 2011)

My family would not allow me to keep my baby. (173, 2012)

I felt I could not shame my mother by asking to keep my baby. (71, 2012)

Catholic parents who were unable to support me because of stigma and shame. (1183, 2012)

  • Being isolated from their families, friends and the father of their child, with no visiting rights granted for the duration of their stay:

I wasn't allowed to have visitors apart from my mother and father … They would put us in this little room where we had to sit. And we would sit there and it was pretty horrendous - the shaming. (Mother, NSW)

Being locked up in an institution with no choice, no support, and treated like I was nothing. (739, 2012)

There were accounts of being unable to leave the homes at all unless it was to attend hospital or social work appointments. Mothers frequently described the treatment they received from staff as "cruel" and "judgemental". Attitudes towards the women reflected and sometimes accentuated or became the vehicle for the broader societal view of unmarried mothers, which resulted in feelings of shame, guilt and an unworthiness to raise their child. Certain establishments required residents to undertake manual work tasks such as laundry and cleaning duties right up until the birth of their child:

I was made to work full-time at the hospital for 5 months - in the laundry lifting heavy loads, in the linen repairs, in the kitchens as kitchen hand, and the serveries plating meals for patients. Sometimes on split shifts you would start by 7 am and finish after 7 pm; so exhausted, I had to go up the stairs to bed crawling. I expected I would be paid for this and it might have helped when my baby was born, but I was never paid and my baby was taken … The food and lodging provided was poor and no clothes were provided, despite the need for maternity garments, which I had two of, discarded by others and in poor condition. It was slave labour virtually. We were seen as "sluts" or "fallen women" in need of some redemption. (381, 2012)

At the home we had to work very hard for our keep. We were treated as if we were in gaol. We were constantly told how selfish and bad we were to think about keeping our babies when there were wonderful parents, waiting to adopt them. (1837, 2012)

There was often the requirement to meet with social workers, who consistently applied pressure on the women to accept that the placement of their child for adoption was their only option:

Constant reinforcement by the social worker that it would be wrong for me to keep my baby; that it was best for her - she needed two parents. (1853, 2012)

Told by social worker I had no financial aid and I could not raise a baby. (1145, 2012)

The social worker told me that the baby would be better off with someone who could take care of it better than I could. (352, 2011)

Little - if any - access to information was provided regarding what to expect throughout their pregnancies or the birthing process itself:

And when the child was born, we weren't prepared for anything that was going to happen. You know, you got these pains and you sort of knew you were having a baby. (Mother, Brisbane)

Conversely, a small proportion of study participants regarded the homes as a place of protection from a society that would not accept them; that, in fact, these establishments were the best places for them to be during their pregnancies as they provided a level of comfort through enabling them to be removed from the societal and familial judgements of their situation (i.e., unmarried and pregnant).

Some participants told us that they had relative freedom to leave the premises and receive visitors, and they reflected on the time spent with other residents as being quite positive, as they were able to forge supportive friendships:

My parents sent me there to protect me. I was glad to have the sanctuary and protection of the home. We were treated with respect and dignity and I was able to form good relationships with the other young women. (Mother, ACT)

Another mother described her experience with the staff:

Some staff were really nice. I was allowed to go into the chapel and play the organ, which gave me some solitude and solace. (Mother, NSW)

Remaining in the family home

Those who remained in the family home experienced different challenges to those who were sent to maternity homes or to stay with relatives. However, this group also felt high levels of secrecy and shame, and consequent effects, particularly on their emotional and psychological wellbeing.

Focus group participants spoke of how the belief that they were not good enough and not deserving of the right to parent their own child was reinforced in their own minds during this time. The message that they received from their families was that they were an embarrassment; they were bringing shame on the family, and were regarded as "fallen women" or "damaged goods". Frequent accounts were received of the women essentially being hidden from the community for the duration of their pregnancies, and it was not uncommon for them to be made to hide away (e.g., in their bedrooms, or a cupboard) when visitors came to the family home:

I was kept at home, but had to hide if visitors came. I had to stay inside. Neighbours, nobody was to know that I was pregnant. (Mother, Tasmania)

I was hidden away. If any visitors came to the house I would go into my bedroom, and if someone was going to say hello to me, I was in bed. (Mother, Victoria)

I had to hide in the cupboard if someone came to the door. (Mother, Victoria)

5.3 The time of birth

At the time they gave birth, the average age for the mothers who responded to the survey was 19 years. Almost half of the respondents (48%) were 18 years of age or under (see Table B2). The almost equal proportion of respondents who were aged 19 years and over is an interesting finding in the context of the broader societal assumptions that these women were "teenage mothers", and will be discussed in further detail later in the discussion.

Hospitals were the most common place for survey participants to give birth (89%), with most of the remaining births taking place in a maternity home (8%) (see Table B1). The accounts relating to the treatment received by mothers in this study in the hospitals were often concerning, and we examine some of these experiences in detail in the following sections.

Note: The following accounts contain information that may cause distress to the reader. We advise that those who have been affected by past adoptions or are sensitive to trauma issues may wish to avoid reading them, or ensure that appropriate support is available.

Mistreatment in hospitals

We were labelled as a group called "unmarried mothers". A system was put in place at the hospitals where the married mothers went to the right and were treated with respect, care and nurturing as they prepared for the birth of their child. They were seen by the gynaecologist regularly, they attended prenatal classes, and were shown how to change a nappy, breastfeed, and how to care for their child after it was born. They received all of the other rights and privileges afforded to the "mother-to-be" that we were denied. The unmarried mothers went to the left in the hospitals and were ushered into the social workers office, where they were asked all about their family life. And if there was a hint of a problem with that life, the girls were labelled as social deviants. Severe judgement was handed down. (Mother, NSW)

Overwhelmingly, study participants had negative views concerning their experiences of hospital policies and treatment from individual staff during their labour and in the postnatal period. Both survey and qualitative data provide detailed accounts of cruel and often negligent treatment of many of the mothers who participated in this study. Reports of positive and caring treatment by medical staff were an exception. The Senate Inquiry's (2012) findings reported similar accounts.

Survey respondents were asked whether they felt they had been treated with the same level of care as other mothers giving birth at the same place. Three-quarters of the participants indicated that this had not been the case, and in fact, they felt they had been actively treated with less care because of their marital status, age and social/economic status (Table 5.1).18

Table 5.1: Reasons mother thought they were treated less well than other mothers
  Not at all A little Moderately Mostly Completely Missing No. of observations
Marital status 2 4 19 47 278 16 366
Age 41 28 37 61 140 59 366
Social and economic status 74 29 25 45 107 86 366
Religion 179 19 12 10 21 125 366
Race/ethnicity 208 4 6 4 12 132 366
Other 77 3 8 8 45 225 366

Note: Only includes mothers who thought they had been treated with less care than other mothers (n = 366).

During the focus group discussions and interviews, mothers often provided accounts of being placed in the same room/ward as married women, yet subjected to different treatment; being used for training medical students; being held down during labour; having pillows placed over their faces; having sheets held up to shield the view of their son or daughter; and experiencing medical neglect or maltreatment.

The recalling of such events was often distressing for both the mother providing the information and for other group participants. However, many mothers were insistent on telling their stories and having them heard and recognised. Some of these accounts are provided below:

I was mutilated by the doctor who stitched the birth tearing. I had stitches designed to increase discomfort. At my request, a nurse removed them. The consultant examined me internally with students - perhaps to teach them how to deter unwed mums. (1540, 2012)

The actual birth was very difficult and I still have some physical problems. I can't help thinking this may have been due to deliberately poor health care. (1097, 2012)

I have gone through my life feeling guilty about my daughter being given up to adoption … If only I was able to have more support instead of being forced … From the time my hands were shackled to the bed to stop me from touching my baby's head while she was being born, and pillows and sheets being put over my face until I was in a drug-enforced sleep to stop me from being a nuisance … Then the memory of waking up in a ward with three other young girls, … all in the same position as me … That room had baby weighing scales in there … The nurses brought babies in there to weigh them … We would all sit up and try and see the babies … We were all told not to bother because the babies weren't ours … I will never ever forget that!!! I couldn't understand why we were in that room … How could another human being be so cruel to another … Such painful memories. (49, 2011)

I will never ever forget being placed in a home in 1966, aged 14, and giving birth at 15. I will never forget how horrific it was to give birth. I was told to shut up and get on with what I was in there for. I was hit by a nurse and told that's what I deserved for playing around. "I bet you think twice next time." Then given a knock-out drug when they took him away. Also being made to breastfeed someone else's baby while I was in the hospital, as some other mothers couldn't feed their babies. As a result of that I couldn't bring myself to breastfeed any of my three children in my marriage. I remember all my check-ups at the hospital, taking a number, having urine, blood and many internal examinations, each time by young interns. Very painful, very intrusive. No privacy. (944, 2012)

Similarly, some mothers recounted experiencing verbally or emotionally abusive behaviour at the time of, or subsequent to, the birth of their babies:

The hospital experience was horrendous, resulting in post-traumatic stress disorder. Because of the fact of being denied the baby, not being given any information about her sex or anything like that … I think it took me three days to find out I'd had a girl. I think if you can try and imagine what that's like. I was put in a ward with mothers and their babies - so everybody else had a baby and I had nothing. And I consider that part of the punishment … The whole hospital experience - I was nothing and no one. I literally think I ceased to exist after I had the baby, because the baby was earmarked for this deserving married couple. (Mother, Tasmania)

To have been treated like an outcast and placed in a maternity ward with seven other new mothers, and have my curtains drawn so I could not be seen by visitors. To be used by medical trainees to prod and poke my private area for their experience and curiosity. Was told I had to cope with hearing other newborn babies cry. (299, 2011)

I told the nun I was scared. Then being told, "Well you should have thought about that nine months ago". I had my child. I had the full sheets up. I heard him crying and he was whipped across the room and off he went. I was taken back to the staging room, where I was left 'til about 10 o'clock in the morning when they remembered that I was there. Then they moved me from there across the main part of the hospital, where I was stuck in a two-bed room with a dying nun. So I had a whole stream of her friends - and them telling me to stop crying. (Mother, WA)

Administration of drugs

Use of drugs prior to, during and post-labour was reported by 63% of survey participants who responded to this question (n = 487) (see Table B3). Almost half of those mothers reported that the types of drugs used affected their capacity to make decisions about their son or daughter, although a similarly large portion (45%) did not believe that the drugs used had this effect. Twenty-nine per cent of mothers who said that they had been administered some form of drug, were unaware what type of drug this was. Eight per cent indicated that they had suffered memory loss or were rendered unconscious as a result of the drugs administered to them, and almost one-third of respondents reported that they had experienced ongoing health effects from the use of the drugs administered at this time. The Senate Inquiry's (2012) findings reported similar accounts.

The most common types of drugs mothers reported being administered were milk suppressants, such as Stilboestrol, barbiturates/sedatives, opioid analgesics, nitrous oxide ("happy gas"), general pain relievers and benzodiazepines. Around 5% also indicated they had been given anti-psychotic drugs.

The nursing staff through the labour and delivery were awful. I am sure that I was drugged because I can remember one of the nurses saying, "Stop all that noise because you are upsetting all the other ladies", and I don't remember making the noise. When she was born, somebody screamed out that I wasn't allowed to see the baby, a mask was plucked on my face, and you were gone. (Mother, Tasmania)

The significance of such incidents for many women in this study was what actually drove them to go back and seek documentation about their time in hospital. The lasting effects were so serious that they wanted to see their records in order to confirm their recollections of the treatment to which they had been subjected.

According to my hospital notes, I was loaded up with enough sleeping tablets to knock out a horse. Plus, a whole lot of other things prior to delivery, including antipsychotics. You tell me, why give me antipsychotics half an hour before delivery? (Mother, WA)

One mother described the lack of use of any drugs to assist with the labour pain:

No drugs were administered. I was left for hours on my own during the last stage of labour and a gas mask was put over my face. I screamed for someone to help me. I was told to stop pushing because [the nurse] didn't want to clean up my mess. (1540, 2012)

Contact with the child

Most respondents (over 70%) stated that their child had been separated from them immediately or within a very short time of the birth. Fewer than 20% were separated within the first week of the birth, and a small proportion of participants said they were either not separated for up to a month or that they had their child with them for over a month (fewer than 10% combined).

Mothers were asked whether or not they had been given the opportunity to see their child after giving birth, and over half of those who responded to this question (n = 487) said that they had not (57%) (see Table B7).

When asked whether or not they had been encouraged to spend any time with their child at the time of the birth, almost two-thirds of women (61%) who responded to this question stated that they had been actively prevented from having any contact with their son or daughter (see Table B7). Just over one-third of respondents (34%) said that they had been advised against having any contact with their son or daughter, and only very few (4%) said that they had actually been encouraged to have contact. A small portion of the study participants (11%) indicated that it had been entirely their decision whether or not to have contact with their son or daughter.19

Those mothers who had had contact with their son or daughter at some point after the birth (n = 209) were asked to describe the nature of this contact (see Table B8). Just over half of these mothers had been able to hold their child (52%) and 21% had been able to feed their child. Fewer women had been able to either nurse or bathe their babies (14% and 9% respectively).

Mothers were also asked whether they had been encouraged to name their son/daughter at the time of the birth (see Table B7). Of the 203 women who responded to this question, just over half said that they had been encouraged to do this; however, they did not always know whether these details had been included on the original birth certificates.

Truth of information

Years later I found out more of the truth: I was lied to, cheated, betrayed, belittled and berated by my parents and church. I was led to believe that I was damaged goods - don't ever tell anyone or you will never find a husband. The secrecy was deadly. (277, 2011)

Many women responding to our survey had been given information or told things about their child at the time of the birth that they later found out to be untrue. The Senate Committee's findings reported similar accounts.

Survey respondents were presented with a series of scenarios in the survey, and were asked to indicate whether they had been given this information, and whether they later discovered this information to be untrue. For example, over one-quarter of mothers had been told their child had already been placed with a new family, and of these mothers, more than two-thirds later found out this was in fact untrue. (This issue will be discussed in more detail later in this chapter, as it relates to obtaining consent.)

My child was stolen from me at birth and I was denied access and information as to her whereabouts or details about her. I was told my baby was gone. I have little recollection of my stay in hospital or even going home. I believed my baby was no longer at the hospital and that they were allowed to take her. And I was made to believe that I was worthless and I deserved to be punished. I believed that I had no rights - indeed, I did not know what rights were. I was just sixteen and a student. My parents were prevented from visiting me and were told I was sedated. It was standard practice to keep family members out of the hospital. (97, 2011)

Similarly, 24% said that they had been told that they were medically or emotionally unfit to make decisions about their child, and more than two-thirds of these mothers later found this to be untrue (see Table B5). Almost half (48%) of the mothers indicated they had been told something else (unspecified) that led them to believe they could not decide their child's future, and 81% of these later found this information to be untrue. Comments provided in the "other" option in the survey indicate that many were referring to being told (or not being told) about any financial assistance that may have been available to them. For example:

I learned some time later (years) that there was some payment available. If there was social support available also, and with a payment, I could've left home … perhaps. (219, 2011)

The last few months of my pregnancy I applied for unemployment benefit. It came to $3 a week. I was never told that I could receive anything after the baby was born. I was made to feel I was cheating the system receiving anything, as obviously I couldn't work as I was pregnant. (321, 2011)

5.4 Main reasons child was adopted

Our treatment as unmarried mothers was not just about social expectations of "these girls", nor was it about applying mild social pressure that is not strictly enforced or put into law. This was about breaking the law, kidnapping babies at birth, drugging young, defenceless girls during and after labour - a premeditated designed system to coerce a young, impressionable person that they were unfit to be a mother during their pregnancy. The visit to the hospital during pregnancy and the conversations with the social workers at the hospitals was designed to convince the girl that the baby she was carrying was not hers. She had no right to it, she was not fit to be a mother and she was asked repeatedly to sign adoption papers before her child was born. (Mother, Brisbane)

Prior knowledge of child being placed for adoption

Consistently, mothers spoke of having no prior knowledge or awareness during their pregnancies that their son or daughter would be placed for adoption. Many talked about how they planned or very much wanted to keep their child. Based on survey responses relating to reasons their child was placed for adoption, a very small number stated that this decision was their own (around 5%).

I knew that I could not care for her in the way in which I felt she deserved. I was very young and had no financial capacity, let alone all of the rest that goes along with bringing up a child. (15, 2011)

Many respondents had been in a stable relationship with the father of their child at the time of pregnancy, and planned to marry him in the future. They had made purchases in preparation for the baby's arrival, such as cots and clothing. Placing their child for adoption had not been an option in their minds:

I had made full arrangements to keep him. I had clothes, cot, pram, high chair, bath, bottles and a bassinette for car travel. (1296, 2012)

My boyfriend [the baby's father] and I discussed getting him back, but we believed it was too late because at Carramar we were always told we only had one month to change our minds. We were both very upset. (1186, 2012)

Both her father and I would have loved to have had the opportunity to love and raise our daughter. He has never had another child. (658, 2012)

When I was leaving, I had made a layette for my child. I was leaving there and went into the office to sign what I had to sign and leave there with my baby. And the baby? Two other people came in and took this baby. (Mother, WA)

Some mothers provided accounts regarding their discovery that their children's birth records showed that they were "marked for adoption", without their knowledge, on admission to the unmarried mothers homes and/or the hospitals where they gave birth. As discussed by the Senate Inquiry (2012) in their final report, "BFA" was the commonly used code marked on the women's files that indicated that their child was a "Baby for Adoption".

File marked BFA and then hospital protocol commenced. (1193, 2012)

I told the social worker that my father and I decided to keep my baby. She said that the baby already had parents waiting. This was four months before the birth. (139, 2011).

The adoption was arranged very early in the pregnancy, and I was then told that it would be unfair to disappoint the prospective adopters. (2041, 2011)

It was more common for study participants to have retrospectively discovered information about their baby being marked for adoption once they had obtained their medical and/or institutional records than for them to have realised this at the time. One mother told us of such an experience after receiving her records in 2009:

And when I got those, I realised that my baby had been marked for adoption one day after I got there. I went there on the 2nd of April and I had my baby on the 29th of September. Some black market kidnapper marked my son for adoption the day after I got there [the unmarried mothers home]. (Mother, NSW)

Some mothers also described how the fact that the baby had been identified for adoption was marked above their beds in the hospital. As they often shared the same ward as married mothers, this added to their sense of shame, as it was not only visible to staff, but to all visitors. One adoptee told us about her own mother's experience of this:

Up above her head was a sign that said, "giving up for adoption", so everyone knew. (Adoptee, NSW)

Based on survey responses and information obtained during focus group discussions, the majority of mothers participating in our study said that at the time of their pregnancy, they had not wanted their son or daughter to be placed for adoption. There were a number of consistent factors contributing to adoption being the eventual outcome (as discussed below), despite it not being the mother's intention. A minority described a fully informed and consensual decision for their child to be adopted, but this was certainly an overall exception to the broader experience of participants.

Two-thirds of mothers in this study said that they had wanted to keep their son or daughter and one-quarter of the sample said that they had been uncertain (see Table B10). Only a small proportion said that they had wanted to place their child for adoption. Almost three-quarters of all respondents believed that if they had had sufficient financial and other support at the time of their pregnancy, they could have kept their baby; however, other respondents (17%) said that they were uncertain as to whether these kinds of support would have made any difference in their decision to place their child for adoption (see Table B10).

Three main reasons for child's adoption

I had nothing to offer her but myself, but [I was told] that was not enough. (1228, 2012)

Survey participants were asked to list the three main reasons for their son or daughter being adopted. Mothers provided 1,373 responses across the three options, which were thematically analysed and grouped by frequency into sub-categories.

The most commonly identified contributing factors to their child's ultimate adoption were:

  • family pressure and/or the lack of family support (22%);
  • economic factors, including lack of appropriate housing (15%);
  • pressure from authority figures (13%);
  • the mother's age (9%);
  • being an unmarried/single mother (9%); and
  • believing or being told there was no other option (7%).

Some descriptive responses also included in less detail that their child had been removed without consent (6%), and a further 6% were either told or they believed that they had been unfit to raise their child. Just 5% stated that it had been their own decision to place their child for adoption, and 5% mentioned that the lack of support from the father had been the main contributing factor in the adoption of their child.

Although the issue of forcible removal did not rate highly in these short-response items, the survey did ask participants specifically to describe their adoption experience as it related to their choice in the adoption of their son/daughter. These results will be discussed later in the chapter in a stand-alone section.

Pressure from others

The pressures placed on mothers by family, social workers, members of a church (commonly Catholic) and the broader society, left many with the understanding that there was no other option than for their child to be placed with a family that was able to provide two parents and all the benefits of a financially stable environment. Respondents described how these messages had been an important contributor to their belief in their lack of capacity to keep their child. Many mothers felt that these messages were "propaganda", intended to influence their belief in themselves and their "decision".

The propaganda fed to you: "Your baby will be better off", "How can you look after a baby?" (1186, 2012)

Although there were only a small number of people who identified stigma as being a reason in itself, most responses reflected the effect of social stigma in the pressures applied by family and others who held positions of authority. For example:

I was from a small country town where my family had their business and a standing in the community. And the stigma of having a baby, not married, as a single mum, was just too much for my mother to cope with. (771, 2012)

Parental influence and lack of support

The shame of illegitimacy and being an unmarried mother was frequently reported as driving the lack of support from parents to keep their children. The family's standing in their local community and church, which would be affected by their daughter's pregnancy, was a common theme reflected by mothers in our study:

My parents had money and were horrified at the thought of an illegitimate child. (1291, 2012)

Catholic parents who were unavailable to support me because of stigma and shame. (1183, 2012)

Family sense of shame and fear of rejection if I kept my baby. (200, 2011)

Forced by parents. I was told to adopt my baby and get on with my life. (1774, 2012)

My parents had decided, against my wishes. (121, 2012)

My mother told me that I had to adopt the baby to someone else who could really care for the baby and provide her with what she needed in life. (658, 2012)

Many mothers reported that their parents also expressed opinions to them that a child would be better off in the long-term if it were raised by a married couple:

I was raised to believe it was the right thing to do [place the child with a married couple]. I didn't have a choice presented. (411, 2012)

I was told that I could not provide for the child as well as the family that would like to adopt him. (1729, 2012)

Other factors contributing to a lack of support from the families included the financial stress that they were already under. Some mothers felt that their family may have been supportive of their daughter keeping their child, but they were not in a position financially to do so. However, it was not always clear that this message was communicated explicitly, or rather that the financial circumstances of the family was well known to the young woman, who then felt that the additional burden of her pregnancy and raising a child would just not be possible:

My parents didn't have any money to help me if I had kept the baby. (930, 2012)

Both sets of parents claimed they could not afford to help assist us to stay together as a family. (1860, 2012)

Unfair to expect parents to raise another child as I would have to go back to work. (1457, 2012)

My parents were poor, working class, so could not support me financially. (1766, 2012)

Some participants described their home environments as being inappropriate for bringing up a child because of existing parental abuse, alcoholism, mental health issues or overcrowding:

As I was part of a large sibling group, with extended family also living in the house, it was thought that a baby would be too unsettling in the home. (21, 2011)

My father refused to have the child in the house. My mother was ill and he was an alcoholic and believed I should have married the father of the child. (1205, 2012)

To prevent him from the abuse I experienced as a child growing up. (219, 2011)

My mother was an alcoholic. (1473, 2012)

Authority figures

The majority of mothers who participated in this study believed that the messages they received from those who were in positions of authority were an attempt to convince them that they had no other option than to place their child for adoption. These communications had been delivered at times of extreme vulnerability. Continued reinforcement of negative messages (e.g., that they were not worthy, capable, or deserving of raising their own child) was one of the issues the mothers discussed most frequently, both within the survey responses and during the focus groups and interviews. Many also said that they had not been presented with any other choice/option for keeping their child:

Absolutely pressured by authorities on an emotionally weakened, frightened 17-year-old girl. (1857, 2012)

No other option given. (34, 2011)

No one would help me keep him. I had a government job, was over 21, but had no support from any suitable family members. (78, 2011)

Coercion by social workers, family. And the general belief that it was the best thing for my child. (239, 2011)

I was convinced I had no other option. (256, 2011)

Many felt that they had been in a "no-win" situation regarding their ultimate decision to raise their children. They had been told that if they chose to keep the child they were being selfish, doing their child a disservice and not giving him/her the best opportunity in life. In addition, they had to face the reality of being stigmatised for being a single mother and their child having the title of "bastard":20

Told over and over by nuns that the only option was two parents. Anything else was selfish. And also told over and over he would be a "bastard". (993, 2012).

I was told that if I loved my baby, I would give it to a married couple who would be able to give him everything that I could not. (71, 2012)

I was told the only way to remove the stigma of "bastard" was allow a married mother and father to raise him. (1819, 2012)

It was expected and assumed automatically by the people I'd approached for help. (439, 2012)

This account provided by a mother in a letter to project staff, is representative of the majority of survey responses, highlighting the way in which mothers were either implicitly or explicitly told they weren't as worthy or capable as a deserving married couple:

We were told that we could not possibly look after a baby all on our own. I was asked if I wanted the best life for my baby and naturally said, "Yes". Then I was asked how I was going to manage, where I would live, who would give me money and I said, "I don't know". I was then told that I was selfish thinking that I could look after my baby, and I was asked to sign the adoption consent so that a "happily married couple, who could offer my baby everything I could not offer him, could look after him". On another day I was told that I could have a child of my own. I did not see a doctor or nurse on these visits and I left depressed and crying. (Mother, NSW)

The frequency of responses in this vein is indicative of the shared experiences by so many who completed the survey:

I was told I didn't love her if I kept her. (1228,2012)

Told it would be harmful to her if I kept her. (1482, 2012)

I was not consulted, but told. (1568, 2012)

Believing: "If you really love your baby, you will give it to a 'real' family". [I was] being told this constantly awaiting labour. (1820, 2012)

Constant reinforcement by social worker that it would be wrong for me to keep my baby; that it was best for her. She needed two parents and I couldn't provide for her. (1853, 2012)

I was told there was no alternative - the professionals told me this. (1857, 2012)

I was told no one would marry me with an illegitimate child. (78, 2011)

Another man would not want me with a child. (147, 2011)

Told I would hate the baby and I was to get back and finish my nurse training. (1194, 2012)

I was told that I had to make up for what I had done; i.e., getting pregnant. (241, 2011)

I was told I had already harmed him enough and if I really loved him, I would give him up. (470, 2012)

Church said it was shameful. (739, 2012)

Social worker advised me that my child would reject me later in life as I wasn't married. (1082, 2012)

Focus group discussions were largely consistent with the survey responses, emphasising the negative messages that these pregnant girls and young women received about themselves, their rights, and their capacity to parent a child:

I was told by the doctor, "You will have other babies. Just get on with your life and forget about it". And I was told things like, "A baby needs two parents, what right do you have to keep your baby?" (Mother, Tasmania)

I had a lot of comments from staff, which I understand now, but didn't understand then. I believed everything they told me then - I was a naïve 18-year-old. I got lots of comments from staff like, "What can you give the baby? How can you look after the baby? No one is going to want to marry you. If you love your baby, you will adopt it". All of these things which I now understand are coercion under duress. And I walked away from all that understanding that I was a very, very bad person. And I was totally ashamed and guilt-ridden. (Mother, Tasmania)

Other methods of pressure were applied, in the form of threatening either to involve welfare authorities or the police if they did not sign a form consenting to the adoption:

Told by welfare she would grow up in an orphanage if I didn't sign the papers. (45, 2012)

I was told I was too young to legally make a decision to keep him. (489, 2012)

The police told me in the hospital ward that I was not allowed to keep my child as I was underage. (1360, 2012)

Once I was put in the home, I told the matron I was leaving to live with my gran and marry. She threatened me with police and welfare. (1854, 2012)

Told my son would be put in a home if I didn't sign the consent. (151, 2011)

Economic pressures

For many women who participated in the study, the lack of financial support or knowledge of what financial benefits might have been available to them were significant factors in the reasons for their child being adopted. This was the second most common reason provided for the ultimate adoption of their child.

Not emotionally or financially ready for children. (548, 2012)

I had no income. (119, 2011)

I had no means of support. (285, 2012)

Financial - I had no way of supporting him and was unaware of financial assistance. (1082, 2012)

Not being told that there was any support available to me at the time. (496, 2012)

They didn't tell me how I could get a pension. (1293, 2012)

Sometimes it was not so much their own view of their economic circumstances and capacity to adequately care for their child, but the external perspective of their families and other authority figures (such as social workers and nursing and maternity home staff) that mothers reported as being a significant influence on their decision:

I was told by the matron of the home that financially I could not look after myself, so I was not capable of handling the situation. (1185, 2012)

I was told by the social worker I had no financial aid and I could not raise a baby. (1145, 2012)

I was told there would be no support from the government. (1181, 2012)

I was told I had no choice with any assistance being available to me from any government department. (1079, 2012)

Many participants expressed their frustration, shock and anger to have learned retrospectively that financial assistance may have been available to them at the time of their child's birth; however, they reported that this information was either not made known to them, or was actively disputed as an option:

I was lied to - told there was no government assistance and that welfare would just take him if I didn't sign. This was lies. In 1975, the Supporting Mother's Benefit was available. Who deemed that I was not worthy of assistance? (1233, 2012)

Angry at the lack of information regarding welfare payments, housing etc. that was available at the time but was never passed on to me. (1266, 2012)

I was very angry at various stages because I had a nice, successful career there, and before long, it was apparent to me that I could have afforded to keep her. And that really pissed me off - that I gave her up. Because I could have made a life for us. And it wouldn't have been a deprived life, it would have been a good life. (Mother, Qld)

Mother's age

As previously mentioned, the most common age for survey respondents at the time of the birth of their baby was 19 years (see Table B2). In addition, almost one-third of the participants were aged 20 years and above, which, in the context of this discussion, is a somewhat interesting finding, given common societal references to "teenage mothers" and the presumption that young, single mothers were incapable of raising a child (e.g., see Swain & Howe, 1995).

Where mothers' responses to the open-ended question about the respondents' main reasons for the adoption related to age, they can be summarised into three key themes:

  • the mother's own perception of her capacity to parent;
  • the societal view of her capacity to parent; and
  • the families' view of her capacity to parent.
Mothers' own perception of capacity to parent

Some mothersheld the view that they were too young to be able to raise their child, due to a number or factors. For example, some felt that they were not old enough to do it alone and did not have the maturity to raise a child given their own age:

I was too young to rear a child. (349, 2011)

I was too young to care for him. (657, 2012)

I was too young to bring up a child on my own. (384, 2012)

I believed I was too young to cope with the responsibilities of raising a child as a single mum. (771, 2012)

Didn't believe I was a good mother because I was young and unmarried. (809, 2012)

Societal views of mothers' capacity to parent

Where mothers simply stated their ages - such as "I was 16", "I was 17", or "I was still in school" - these results are a possible indication of the societal view of what you were supposed to do if you were young, unmarried and pregnant;21 it was an assumed course of action:

I was only 17 and society did not accept unwed mothers. (1666, 2012)

We were considered too young to know our own minds. (1860, 2012)

It was automatic … 17 years old and unmarried. (405, 2011)

Too young. Didn't have a choice. (1293, 2012)

I was told I was too young. (167, 2011)

I was underage and not permitted to make decisions. (146, 2012)

I was told I was too young to keep my son. (489,2012)

Too young to assert own wishes. (937, 2012)

I was made to believe I was too young. (1804, 2012)

I was told I was too young legally to make a decision to keep him. (489, 2012)

Families' views on mothers' capacity to parent

Although parental pressure/influence has been discussed earlier in this chapter, many survey respondents provided more specific detail in relation to the significance their age had in their parents' attitudes toward their capacity to keep their child and be an effective parent:

Too young. It was my parents' decision. (204, 2012)

I was told I was too young and incapable of raising a child. (1285, 2012)

I was only 16 years old. My mother would not have me with the child. No other options given. (1779, 2012)

Nuns and some family members said I was too young. (1143, 2012)

Family and environment all pressured that I was too young. (1823, 2012)

Social stigma

The broader societal judgement of unmarried mothers that has already been examined in detail throughout this chapter (and see Higgins, 2010; Swain & Howe, 1995) commonly featured as one of the main reasons identified by participants as contributing to the placement of their child for adoption. This was exemplified by the belief that adoption was their only option, and that many participants subscribed to the messages that they were unfit to be mothers:

The stigma of being an unmarried mother. (910, 2012)

It was socially unacceptable for an unmarried person to have a child - so I got told from day 1. (1266, 2012)

I just knew that that was what happened if you were pregnant and not married. (71, 2012)

It wasn't even something I considered - believed that was the only alternative as I was an unmarried mother. It was just what you did in those days. (1313, 2012)

I wanted to do the right thing by my son, even though I knew it wasn't the right thing for me. (613, 2012)

It was what you did! (1836, 2012)

I thought that it was the thing I had to do to give her the best life. (1530, 2012)

Own choice

Notwithstanding the external pressures (both overt and covert), a small proportion of survey participants (just 5%) said that it was entirely their own decision to place their child for adoption and they felt it was the best course of action for them at the time. However, one mother reflected on the difficulty she had in making the decision to keep or adopt her child:

I didn't know if I would love him or resent him. (1890, 2012)

For some, they felt that they were not ready or mature enough to become a parent; others wanted to focus on their studies and career:

I needed to grow up, leave home, work and become a good teacher before settling down to marriage/children. (1159, 2012)

I was doing my nursing training. (816, 2012)

Education not completed. (1692, 2012)

I wasn't ready emotionally. (780, 2012)

I had no idea how to care for a child. I was still a child myself. (1262, 2012)

I wanted the best for my baby. I felt I could not do that. (1102, 2012)

The importance of their child growing up with two parents was significant in their decision to place their child for adoption for some mothers, who believed that adoption was the best thing for their son or daughter:

I wanted my child to have a father. (56, 2012)

I wanted my baby to have a mother and a father. (1184, 2012)

I believed a family could give my son a better life. (295, 2012)

I realised it was the only way my child could have a good upbringing and education. I was very strong on who I would see as appropriate parents. (448, 2012)

I wanted a better life for my baby than what I could provide as a single mother. (1184, 2012)

I wanted to give my daughter the best opportunities for her life going forward. (1327, 2012)

No support from father of child

Despite the likely viewpoint that would have been held by many at the time, that the fathers "abandoned" the mothers once they became aware of the pregnancy, just 5% of mothers said that this was a contributing factor to their child's ultimate adoption. However, for those mothers who did indicate that there was lack of support from the father of their child, the main explanation was that he had ended the relationship upon discovery of the pregnancy (almost half):

Because my boyfriend had abandoned me. (1040, 2012)

Father would not support me emotionally or financially. (1540, 2012)

No support from father. (1170, 2012)

For others, the relationship had ended prior to the discovery of the pregnancy and the mothers did not want to resume that relationship, or there was pressure applied from the father's family for the child to be placed for adoption:

Son's family insisted. (267, 2011)

Relationship had ended. (142, 2012)

I had split from the father and did not want to resume the relationship. (695, 2012)

For some mothers who stated lack of support from the father of their child as one of the three main reasons for the adoption, the fathers were in fact already married and therefore the scenario of a continuing relationship with the mothers that involved raising a child was not a possibility:

Married man and he was my boss. (1841, 2012)

Forced removal

I never actually said that I wanted to adopt my baby, but it was like you were on a train that had one stop, and the only stop was adoption. That was where the train was going to stop and that was what was going to happen to you. (Mother, Tasmania)

Overt force and coercion was identified as a reason in and of itself by around 5% of mothers in this question as the main reason their child was ultimately adopted; however, the other accounts of pressure, stigma and lack of support (both financial and emotional) were also identified as being forms of coercion and force - just more covert:

Traumatised from baby being taken at birth. Physically, mentally, emotionally overpowered and overwhelmed. Drugged, then shamed into silence, parents prevented from visiting. (97, 2012)

She was taken from a receiving home I had placed her in while I was recovering from mastitis. (51, 2011)

I didn't adopt my daughter - everyone else did. (405, 2011)

Forced signing of papers, and [they] covered sections. (413, 2011)

I was told I couldn't change my mind after I woke up after the birth, when I asked to see my baby and they told me I had previously signed the form to give him up. They said I couldn't be discharged from hospital unless I signed a release form. (271, 2012)

Theft. Stolen at birth. (305, 2012)

I was stood over by the matron and told I must sign a paper that I could not read due to distress and being kept in bed. And I was told to sign as I couldn't be discharged from hospital until I did. (381, 2012)

She was stolen from me. (789, 2012)

I was tricked out of custody. I was told it was permission to have tonsils out by child welfare in 1965. (846, 2012)

She was stolen from the birth table. They covered my face. (1042, 2012)

I never wanted my son adopted. I was taking him home! (1296, 2012)

Provision of consent and further details of the circumstances leading to the adoption of respondent's children will be explored in more depth in the following sections.

5.5 Adoption

Organisation of adoption

The majority of survey respondents indicated that the adoption of their son or daughter was organised through a formal institution (see Table B10). There was more than one agency involved for some study participants. Almost one-third were arranged by the hospital in which the mother gave birth and other common arrangements involved government departments (28%), a church (26%) or the maternity home where they had been living prior to the birth of their child (19%). A small number were organised through a government home for children if the mothers were wards of the state at the time of their pregnancy (4%).

Private adoptions were reported in a smaller number of cases (19%), and were arranged by either the mother's parents, a family GP, a private adoption agency or a family lawyer. Individuals were also identified as organising the adoption; however, it is unclear as to whether they were individuals acting of their own accord, or whether they were attached to a formal institution. These individuals were most commonly identified as being a social worker (19%), with a very small number of participants saying the adoption was arranged by a doctor, member of the clergy or family friend (less than 2% combined).

Fourteen per cent of mothers responding to the survey said that they were unaware of who had organised their son or daughter's adoption, and 20% said that the adoption was arranged by someone other than the options provided in the survey.

Adoption advice and information

Over half of the survey respondents (56%) said that they had not received any information regarding options that may have enabled them to keep their child, particularly any financial support available and the capacity to revoke their consent to adoption (see Table B9). A small proportion (14%) had been told that their consent must be given freely and voluntarily. Very few had been informed about the financial support that was available to them if they kept their child nor told about the possible long-term effects of their child being adopted; nor had they been asked if anyone was pressuring them into placing their child for adoption (2% each). Similarly, very few had been asked if they needed more time to think their decision through (2%).

However, 21% of respondents said that the legal effect of consenting to adopt had been explained to them and another 21% stated that they had been informed that they could revoke their consent in a given timeframe and had been provided with information as to how to do this. Given the accounts of so many of the women in this sample, however, the provision of information regarding revocation of consent may have been used as a form of coercion into convincing mothers to sign the consent form. This will be discussed in more detail in the following sections.

These survey results are consistent with the accounts of focus group participants, who overwhelmingly described not receiving any information of this nature. It was actually common throughout the course of these discussions for participants to be hearing for the first time about government benefits that may have been available to them.

Provision of consent

Nearly 22% of survey respondents said that they recalled freely and voluntarily consenting to their son or daughter's adoption and signed the documents they were given (see Table B9). However, 68% said they recalled signing something, but felt that they didn't have any other choice, and a further 18% said they recalled signing a form but had not fully understood what it was. Some believed the drugs administered to them during labour affected them at the time the process of consent was undertaken (18%), and a few could not recall whether they had signed any documents consenting to the adoption of their son or daughter (9%). However, for those who did recall signing something, the majority of anecdotal accounts indicate that they were generally not shown the paperwork, or the paperwork was partially covered when they were providing their signatures:

I had no idea about signing consent forms. I was led down a corridor. I was told to sit at the table, and there was a GP sitting behind the table and the matron was there. I started to cry and a piece of paper was pushed in front of me and I was told to sign my name. And I just sat there and sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. But nobody really cared about that because all they needed was my signature. I should have been asked if this was what I wanted to do. I had no counselling beforehand. Nobody gave me any options other than adoption. There was never a word mentioned about me keeping my baby. Why would I keep my baby? Because (a) I was a terribly bad person, and (b) there was this deserving married couple who were waiting for my baby. So I signed the forms, and again, nobody took any notice of me. (Mother, Tasmania)

The hospital broke the law when they denied me my child. The hospital broke the law when I was given no options other than adoption. The Adoption Act was contravened, because I was supposed to be given all the options to enable me to make a free and informed choice. I wasn't given that. (Mother, Tasmania)

When asked whether the opinion of the father of their son or daughter had been taken into account in the placement of their child for adoption, over half of the mothers indicated that this had not occurred, with a further 14% of survey respondents indicating that the father of the child was not aware of the pregnancy (see Table B10).

Although laws varied across the states and territories, there was consistency in the fact that consent to adopt could not be taken from a mother within a minimum timeframe after the child's birth (usually between 5 and 7 days). However, we received numerous accounts of these processes not being adhered to by those in charge of obtaining consent:

I signed the adoption papers the day after he was born. (Mother, Tasmania)

The consent - that was shocking. Mum and Dad insist they weren't in the room. That was on the morning of the 4th day. (Mother, NSW)

I left the hospital after three days, but she was taken as soon as she was born. Her adoptive mother had gone into the hospital for a week and seen her and fed her every day for a week before they took her home. It had all been set up and ready to go. (Mother, WA)

Revoking consent

Although there were variations across states and territories as to the length of time during which consent could be revoked, it was usually a 30-day period. Accounts of being informed about the 30-day revocation period were minimal. Over 40% of respondents said that they had been unaware that this was even an option available to them (see Table B9). Just over 20% of respondents indicated that they had attempted to revoke their consent to adoption and have their child returned to them; however, almost all of these attempts were unsuccessful (93%):

I since received my notes from hospital and there is clearly a note in the margin that says "mother is not to speak to anybody without parents present". So they didn't bother to speak to me at all. Except to take me into this room on day 4. "Sign this." "What is it?" "Adoption." "I am not signing it. Not unless I see my child." They brought me in the baby … I suppose it was mine. I got told, "Here is a piece of paper. 30-day revocation period, but you're underage so it doesn't apply to you". I was 15. There was a nun holding [my son], and two or three other gentlemen. Don't ask me who they were. (Mother, WA)

A very small number of survey participants indicated that their child was returned to their custody as a result of revoking their consent (n = 5); however, we were only able to meet face-to-face with one of these mothers in a focus group discussion. Her experience of this process was complex and she informed us that the pressure applied to her at this time to not go ahead with the revocation was immense.

I revoked my consent at 30 days, but I still felt like I was doing the wrong thing. It felt like the wrong thing to do because they kept trying to convince me to adopt. (Mother, NSW)

Some mothers spoke about going home and only then realising that their babies weren't going to be in their care. When they attempted to get their babies back, they were told that it was too late; that the child had already been placed with a family. For many, they later found this information to have been untrue:

They said I had 30 days to decide. They didn't give me any information on how I could actually do something about it if that happened … Then I came to Dad the day before the 30 days was up. And I said, "Dad, please can we go and get him, I want to bring him home". And Dad said, "It's too late - don't be ridiculous, it's too late. The arrangements have all been made". (Mother, NSW)

Survey responses revealed some women being threatened with welfare and/or police involvement when they returned to the hospital to retrieve their son or daughter:

I had doors locked in my face and police were called. (1144, 2012)

I was threatened by police action; that I would be incarcerated. (51, 2012)

I was told by both children's services and hospital there were no records of me having a baby. There was no paperwork and they had never heard of me, and go away or I'd be arrested for being a nuisance. I went to the police and they did nothing. (1296, 2012)

When I tried to leave the home with my baby I was told I had signed him away to new parents. And I was breaking the law and the police would be called if I tried it again. I signed under duress. I can remember crying hysterically and a voice telling me to calm down, it was for the best and that time heals all. (1837, 2012)

The following is an account of one mother's experience that reflects similar stories shared throughout the study. It provides an example of how many women felt that they were systematically "worn down" over extended periods of time, to the point where they did not have the strength to fight against those who held positions of authority. The subsequent use of the 30-day revocation period was presented as a "safe option" for the mothers for the time being, so that they would agree to sign the consent:

It was the day after my 16th birthday, and I was taken to the Salvation Army hospital. I didn't really know all the things that were going on. I actually didn't even acknowledge to myself that I could have been pregnant for a long time. So I was taken up there. I was given work to do. My baby was born. I was going to keep my baby. I loved her right at the beginning and had no intention whatsoever of not having her in my life. I had her for seven days, until my parents told the authorities up there that there was no way I was going to keep her. So that is when the social welfare people started meeting with me every day. And bullying me, telling me some pretty awful things about myself and what would become of her and I etc. And that no man in the future would want me. Some pretty horrible things. So, after that seven days, I was pretty exhausted. Then somebody told me that I would have 30 days to do something about it and get her back. So, as I said, I was pretty exhausted. So I thought, I will sign the papers and then I will go home. I will start feeling stronger, and in a week or so I will come back and get her. And I did that. But nobody would to talk to me. She was gone. (Mother, Tasmania)

There was a minority of study participants who truly believed it was the best thing to do for themselves and the child and who felt completely informed of what they were entering into. But most of them conceded that if they had received the appropriate support, they would not have made the same decision. For some, the adoption was an economic decision as opposed to an emotional one:

I think being brought up in a big family and feeling like I was neglected - I didn't want to do that to her. How was I going to get someone to look after her when I went to work? Where was I going to live? If I stayed at home then they would put the rent up because my mum would have had someone else living with her. It was just impossible. (Mother, WA)

When asked which statement best described their adoption experience, a quarter of survey participants said that their child had been stolen from them; one in five felt that they had lost their child to adoption; and 15% said that their child had been taken from them (see Table B10). Conversely, 21% said that they had given up their child for adoption and 12% said they had surrendered their child.

Even with around one-third of survey respondents describing some level of voluntary relinquishment, four out of five of all mothers who responded to the survey were either completely (67%) or mostly (13%) dissatisfied that their interests had been looked after in the adoption process (see Table B10). Only a few of the mothers had been completely satisfied/mostly satisfied with the adoption process (7%).

Receipt of birth certificates

An area of concern for many study participants was the fact that they had not had any documentation that acknowledged the birth of their son or daughter. Ninety-four per cent of survey respondents said that they had not received a copy of a birth certificate when their child was born, and many were unaware that this had even been an option or a right of theirs (see Table B10). In the majority of instances where a birth certificate had been received (49%), mothers said that the father of their child had not been named on either the birth certificate or birth registration form. Eighteen per cent said the father was named on the birth certificate only and 12% said that the father was named on the birth registration form only. Finally, 9% of mothers said that they either didn't know or couldn't remember if the father of their child was named on the birth certificate.

Some mothers told us that the reason they had not revealed the identity of the father of their child was because they had been concerned/threatened that he would be charged with carnal knowledge. The fear of police involvement was a serious issue for many of these young mothers, as sometimes their boyfriends were adults, and they were below the age of consent. The fear of criminal prosecution - and the attention this would bring to themselves, their boyfriend, and their families - was a legitimate fear, given the laws of consent in place at the time.

The desire to have their child's birth certificate was also identified as being a significant issue for mothers in this study in relation to their current needs; that having this documentation is important as it is recognises that they did in fact give birth to their child and that they are the mother of that child.

5.6 Support during pregnancy, birth and adoption

Survey participants were asked to recall their experiences of any significant issues associated with their physical and/or mental health and wellbeing during their pregnancies. A large majority of the respondents (82%) said that they had suffered significant stress/anxiety, and around two-thirds said they had suffered from depression and/or another mental health issue throughout their pregnancy. Despite this, 43% of respondents said that they had not had any supports available to them throughout the time of their pregnancy and the birth of their child (see Table B11). A very small proportion (1%) said that they had not needed any support.

The remainder of respondents identified their parents, other family members, friends and the father of their child as the most common sources of support (see Table B11). As would be expected, there was very limited professional support either available or utilised; however, a small number of respondents reported receiving support from a social worker or counsellor, a general practitioner, a registered psychologist or psychiatrist, or a support group.

Overall, most of the instances of support given were seen as being either very or somewhat helpful (70%) (Figure 5.2 and Table B12). However, in 13% of cases the "support" was viewed as being very unhelpful. This occurred more often with social workers and counsellors, and with parents.

Figure 5.2: Sources and levels of helpfulness of support given to mothers at time of birth

Figure 5.2: Sources and levels of helpfulness of support given to mothers at time of birth, described in text

Emotional and financial support were the most common types of support received. Less common types of supports were psychotherapy or counselling, family planning advice and legal support. These various supports came from a range of different sources.

5.7 Search and contact

Although the word "reunion" is generally the standard term that is used to describe both services and the actual act of engaging with lost family members, there has been opposition to its use by many people participating in this study. As one mother who was a victim of forced separation from her child explained:

Reunion? How can you be reunited with someone you never saw in the first place? (Mother, Victoria).

Also, "reunion" implies an emotional (re-)connection, and (re-)establishment of a bond. However, after having made contact, not all parents and their sons or daughters separated by adoption continue to see each other or maintain a close relationship. Accordingly, for the purposes of this discussion, we have used the term "contact" in reference to any communication or connection between those separated from others by adoption, whether or not it has led to a "reunion" or establishment of new and positive connection between parents and their sons or daughters.

Most of the survey respondents (86%) had tried to find information about their child from whom they had been separated and, of these mothers, 88% had actively engaged in a search process (see Table B13). The majority of the survey respondents (85%) had had some form of contact with their son or daughter.

We will now examine participants' experiences of search and contact, beginning with use of services to assist in this process.

Service use

For those mothers who had tried to search for their son or daughter, the most common type of service utilised in the search and contact process was a government department (including the Registrar of Births, Deaths, and Marriages and the Electoral Commission), followed by a non-government organisation (Adoption Jigsaw in most instances) or the institution through which the adoption had been organised. Peer support groups and post-adoption resource centres had also been utilised in the search and contact process.

Mothers were less satisfied with search and contact services than other respondent groups, and felt the frustration of not being entitled to information about their son or daughter due to privacy restrictions such as contact vetos that are in place across the jurisdictions.22 In addition, there were many impediments to obtaining information from services that were largely focused on accessing records from the time of pregnancy and birth:

Disorganised would be the better word for it. [The application for information] was declined because of the very inexperience of the social worker. (Mother, WA)

Many mothers have been told that their records no longer exist, that there are restrictions on what information can be released or that the records have been destroyed (such as in fires/floods):

I remember when I contacted [church run maternity hospital] I was told my notes didn't exist. I kept phoning up and getting more and more irate. And then I got told they legally have to keep them in [state]. Then there's an apology [from the church], and like magic, that afternoon, I got a call from medical records, and they said they had found them. (Mother, WA)

Mothers often have also had to deal with a high turnover of support workers:

In the adoption field, the turnover of workers is very high, and they are the ones that are supposed to provide the post-reunion counselling. (Mother, Victoria)

The complexities of navigating the varied state/territory government systems if they or their child were living in a different jurisdiction from where their child was born or now lived was also raised as an issue. These sorts of experiences have made some mothers reluctant to re-access search and contact services, such that they have either not continued with their search, or have had to continue the process on their own, through the use of social media and the Internet, or even the employment of private detectives, to try and find information about their child.

Satisfaction was highest with search and contact services when staff appropriately and sensitively managed the process and when the mothers were kept informed of progress regularly. However, we did not get the sense that this level of professionalism was the normal experience for mothers in this study:

I have to say, [at the agency], the only woman I spoke to there - she was fantastic. And she would ring me if nothing was happening for a few weeks. She was totally different from the people who provided the original support. And she followed up. (Mother, Qld)

Despite the high level of search and contact service utilisation by mothers in this study, much of their focus in the discussions we had with them was centred on the actual relationships they have with their son/daughter. Most of the mothers did not wish to describe in any detail their service use at the time of searching; the level of detail in describing their experiences with search and contact services was, for the most part, relatively "surface level", and related to whether or not the service was successful in locating their child or providing information that would enable them to make contact themselves. Given that over two-thirds of mothers' first contact with their son or daughter occurred prior to 2000, this lack of detail is not overly surprising.

Inhibitors to search and contact

Some of the most significant barriers to searching for and possibly making contact with their son or daughter were mothers' own fears and feelings of unworthiness; that they were not deserving of having a relationship with their son or daughter. Some women spoke of the effect that the continued secrecy and shame they carried in relation to their pregnancies and adoption of their child had on their willingness to make contact. Some of those who had carried the secret for their entire lives feared that they would suffer rejection from their partners and other children, friends and family members if they were to now find out they had given birth to a child who had subsequently been adopted.

For those who had not had any contact with their son or daughter (n = 69; 14% of all mothers), 23% stated that the reason was because their child had rejected the possibility of contact and 16% said that there was a veto in place preventing contact (see Table B13). Other common reasons were: that the mother believed it was her son or daughter's choice to have contact and she was waiting for this; that she does have some information about her son or daughter, but they have not yet met or had any communication; and that she is fearful or emotionally vulnerable about the possibility of having contact. Some said that it was simply because they have not been able to find any information about their son or daughter.

5.8 Contact

As previously mentioned, a large majority (n = 427) of mothers who responded to the survey had had some level of contact with their son or daughter (see Table B14). Of these mothers, more than half had had their first contact by the time they were in their mid-forties (see Table B14). Some, however, had to wait until they were over 65 years old before having contact.

In a similar manner, 69% of the adopted individuals had had contact by the time they reached 30 years of age, while a small number (7%) were aged over 50 years before they first had contact (see Table B14).

When asked to describe the type of contact they had with their son or daughter from whom they were separated, almost two-thirds of mothers said they had an ongoing relationship (64%); however, one-quarter of mothers said that although they had met their son or daughter, they did not have an ongoing relationship (see Table B13). A much smaller proportion of respondents said that they had had some form of contact with their son or daughter, but had never met face-to-face (6%).

We also wanted to gain a sense of how making initial contact, or establishing a relationship with their son or daughter had affected the mothers' relationships with others in their lives. According to mothers, their subsequent children, spouses and other family members had mostly experienced positive effects from the contact that they had made with their son or daughter that was adopted (see Table B15). Negative effects were, for the most part, experienced by the mothers' parents.

Whether the mothers who participated in this study had had positive or negative experiences in their contact/relationship with their children is certainly not a black and white picture. The complexities associated with contact and the establishment of a new relationship are significant. In addition, the triggering of trauma-related issues for some mothers as a consequence of making contact with their son or daughter was identified in this study. In both the survey and focus groups, mothers frequently discussed the quality of the relationships with their children from whom they had been separated in terms of how this has affected their current wellbeing. It is therefore an integral part to this broader discussion in terms of current service and support needs.

Positive experiences

I am very fortunate that my son is a big part of my life. He fits in with my family and we see each other often. I believe I am one of the lucky ones. (248, 2012)

For many mothers, making contact - even if a new relationship with their son or daughter has not been established or universally positive - has been fundamental to their capacity to heal and move forward from the debilitating effects of separation by adoption:

Grief and loss do not go away, however after 18 years of contact, the joy my daughter has brought me and my family has filled that empty place. The scars are still there, but I choose to focus on what I have now, rather than what I lost. I make a point of sharing my story. (969, 2012)

I also feel very positive about meeting with my daughter, even though she has now rejected contact, mainly due to the effects upon others within her family who have pressured her to discontinue contact. It has been an insightful journey though difficult, but I would recommend that the journey be taken. It is worth all the risks to at least meet your child, and for me, important to face and understand the terrors of the past. (146, 2011)

I am grateful that my daughter and I have been reunited. The years between her birth and meeting her were difficult, but a great deal of that pain was healed, and overall, I feel that I am probably a better person, and certainly more understanding because of the experience. (205, 2011)

Some mothers discussed the importance of the role of their child's adoptive parents in the successful establishment of a relationship with their child. The removal of any concerns around where their child's loyalties should lie or what role each of the parties play in their son or daughter's life was viewed as being a very important aspect of the relationship they now share:

His adoptive parents were very loving and supportive. They were both very accepting of my husband and I and our children, who were our son's full brother and sister. We felt we were very fortunate in this. His mother and I still communicate on his birthday and at Christmas. (470, 2012)

After the terrible heartbreak at the time, I was so blessed that my daughter's adoptive parents were willing to allow me to keep in touch via the social worker for all the years until we were able to write directly to one another when my daughter turned 18. We then developed a very close relationship with her family, which has enriched all our lives. I am still sorry I couldn't have brought her up, but things have turned out pretty well. (795, 2012)

I have been extremely lucky in that my daughter took steps to find me. And I have been very lucky in that her adoptive parents supported her in trying to find me. I have been very lucky that her adoptive parents and I have endured a lasting friendship and that they have been very generous in sharing her life with me and with that of her siblings. (978, 2012)

Even though many mothers spoke of the positive outcomes of having contact with their son or daughter, they also emphasised that this success has required a lot of commitment from both sides, and that it is an ongoing work in progress. Some participants detailed the intricacies of how their relationships work:

Eight and a half hours later we got off the phone. And that phone call was he to me, me to he. We said never again in our lifetime would anybody, regardless of who they were, ever come between the two of us again; that if we had an issue with one another we were open and honest and talked about it. And that eight-hour phone call of telling him what I expected of him and what he expected of me. (Mother, Qld)

Although we have been reunited for 22 years, it is still a minefield through which we both walk, balancing each others needs and those we love. (95, 2012)

But you are walking on eggshells all the time, and you really have to meet a very high bar of behaviour. Way more than any other mother. (Mother, Qld)

They say that a lot of adoptees act out because they are pushing you. But I don't know if him not calling me for the last month is because he's just a 40-year-old who doesn't like getting on the phone. But you can't push. I'm really scared that I'm going to lose him again. (Mother, Victoria)

Our children started taking on issues about their identity past their teenage [years]. We "received" our children at the point where you would normally be separating from them (early adulthood). So you have to bring your child close and push them away at the same time, because that's the natural process for that age for them. (Mother, Victoria)

Other experiences

For some mothers who participated in the study, the actual experience of having contact with or meeting their son or daughter was a trigger for reactivating the grief, loss and trauma that they had managed to suppress, for the most part, since the initial separation:

I had a massive breakdown when my daughter found me. I understood for the first time what had happened all those years ago and how that led to alcoholism, and finally, sobriety. (419, 2012)

The trauma was compounded for the mothers who discovered that their children went to unloving, unstable or abusive homes. For some mothers, the knowledge that they were forced, coerced or manipulated into being separated from their son or daughter, as adoption was supposed to give them a better life, only to have their child experience hardship, coldness, neglect or even abuse, was a bitter pill to swallow:

The coerced and closed adoption of my daughter led to permanent changes in my own personality and capacity to engage with "normal" life. It also led to a terrible upbringing for my daughter, at the hands of a mentally unstable woman of two other adopted children besides my daughter. By the time I made contact with my daughter she was a drug addict and had spent several periods in juvenile detention and prison. The disastrous effects upon her were a further cause of trauma for me when I learned about them, and when I became aware that I could have kept her and brought her up myself if I had not been denied information about revocation of consent and availability of services. (146, 2012)

I still struggle, as my daughter suffers the effects of an abused childhood, and the effect it has on my three grandsons. (1031, 2012)

Finding my son very troubled - is gut-wrenching - and I feel it is all my fault. (1487, 2012)

I wish more care had been taken in my son's placing. He was given to a woman who was not suitable and he then suffered a childhood of abuse at her hands. I found this the hardest thing to come to terms with. (613, 2012)

Again, the complexities associated with negotiating new roles with each other was raised as a contributing factor to the quality of the relationship between some mothers and their children:

You believe you don't have the right to validate it as a legitimate relationship; that I am allowed to say these things to you, because all this time I've been told I'm not allowed to have you in my life. And you know, you are almost tippy-toeing because you don't want to upset your child and you are scared of fracturing the new relationship - you've only just found each other. This can knock you and make it hard to form a relationship with them. (Mother, Victoria)

Tensions between the adopted individuals, adoptive parents and the mothers has been a common issue raised throughout this study, in terms of the effects such tensions have on the capacity to establish and maintain positive relationships between those who have been separated by adoption. This issue will also be visited throughout the ensuing chapters.

From the information that has been provided to us in this study by some mothers who have experienced these tensions, some common contributing factors appear to be a lack of communication between all parties regarding their respective roles, needs, and how to navigate dynamics between new family members:

She calls me "that woman". But I respect the boundaries and things. But it's not about them, it's about my son. So he is caught in the middle, and I believe most adoptees are in between two families. The fact that she will not acknowledge me means that I tend to give way. (Mother, Victoria)

Even though I have good contact with him, his adoptive parents have never rung me or written to me or asked to see me. I feel like I am still an embarrassment. They didn't want him to invite me to his wedding because they would have to explain who I was. This meant they pretended forever that he was their natural child and they lived a lie. (256, 2012)

I've been told by the adoptive mother that she gave birth in her heart and that she never wanted her daughter to find us. I've been told by my daughter that her adoptive parents don't understand the process I went through to deliver and adopt my baby. As far as they are concerned, they were told to come to Sydney to collect their new baby and the rest was history. They wanted nothing to do with me. To be honest, I'm very disappointed about their attitude toward me and my subsequent children. (1374, 2012)

[At my son's wedding] some people made me feel welcome, some didn't. I know that and I have always said, on those few occasions, my place is not in the front row. I surrendered that to you [adoptive parents] - I am in the back row. And you know he still loves you - just because he found me doesn't mean he doesn't love you. I've always said that you [son] can take whatever you want to do with that family and we can take what's left. (Mother, NSW)

One mother who had been invited to speak to a group of prospective adoptive parents to share her experience of being separated from her daughter gave the following account:

I was trying to get the message through to these prospective adopters that the first separation hurts [for mother and child]. But they are in denial. They don't want to know. One of them came up to me and said, "But didn't you ever think of the gift you were giving?" (Mother, WA).

Unclear messages can also lead to a complete lack of understanding of the feelings/experiences of the other parties:

I've had adoptive parents say, "But you've had other children". So I explain it by saying, "Each child comes into your life and they take a part of your heart. Which one of yours would you want to give away?" (Mother, Victoria).

5.9 Sources of support since separation

Compared to the time of their pregnancy and the birth of their child, fewer than one-quarter of respondents said they had not had any supports to assist them with issues arising from the separation of their son/daughter (or with contact and reunion) (see Table B16). Just 5% said they did not need or want any support.23

Of those who did have support, this was usually provided informally by their friends (31%), which is consistent with the most common source of support at the time of pregnancy and birth, that is, informal support.

Professional/formal supports were, however, utilised by a significant proportion of respondents. Twenty-nine per cent of mothers have engaged with a registered psychologist or psychiatrist; 26% have used a formal support group; social workers or counsellors have been used by 22% of mothers and 19% said they had received support from a registered search/support organisations. Other types of support included support from other family members, from the father of the child, from parents and GPs. The least common type of support was support from a church group.

Emotional support was the most common type of support given (60% of instances), followed by psychotherapy or counselling (25%).

Overall, most of the instances of support given were seen as being either very (48%) or somewhat (36%) helpful (Figure 5.3 and Table B17). In only 5% of instances, the "support" was viewed as being very unhelpful. Support groups were, on whole, the most helpful sources of support, parents among the least.

Figure 5.3: Sources and levels of helpfulness of support given to mothers since separation from child

Figure 5.3: Sources and levels of helpfulness of support given to mothers since separation from child, described in text

The level of engagement in some kind of formal support since the separation from their child is a significant finding, as it relates to the ongoing effects that this life event has had on mothers. Although we have provided a great level of detail as to what this experience was like for many mothers who participated in the study, the following section focuses on the ways in which these experiences have played out over time.

5.10 Effects of separation

We all survive - I survived … But I don't live. (Mother, WA)

Clearly, the effects of separation have been identified as being significant and widespread:

I am angry at the time of my pregnancy doctors and social workers convinced me that my son would be "better off" in a real family. This was not true. My self-esteem eroded to a point where I believed that to keep my son would be selfish and that if I loved him he needed to be with two legally married people. I also tried to believe it when I was told, "You'll soon get over it", as if giving birth and losing my baby was no more than a dose of the flu. The ripples affect my life and relationships every day. (46, 2011)

Many respondents described the effects of their adoption experience on relationships with their families as being longlasting. It was an assumption in many of the participants' families that the issue was never to be spoken of again, which in turn perpetuated the continued silence, secrecy and shame that the mothers had carried throughout their pregnancies and birth of their child, and had lifelong consequences:

I was told to keep adoption and my daughter a secret. It has caused me to live a double life where I didn't ever tell anyone about my daughter lost to adoption. (88, 2011)

I was told to get over it and get on with my life, and I think that planted a thing in me that you are no good, you don't deserve to be part of the family. You go and do the best you can to go to the places where you are not constantly reminded. So a large part of my life I lived away from my family. (Mother, WA)

Because of my mother's actions of pretending it never happened, and being told I was to never mention it, it made me very angry with her, which I still carry to this day, even though she died three years after I had my baby. (849, 2012)

Being forced to give my son away was the most shattering experience of my life. It has left me with a hatred for my mother and father. It prevented me from ever feeling fit to have other children. (1032, 2012)

I knew I had to do something about it, because at any point, mum and dad were getting frail and I wanted to have a conscious conversation with them. And I knew if I left it too late it would never be resolved. My father displayed similar words and attitudes to what prevailed in the 1970s: "What sort of life would you have had? It was for your benefit. It was a better outcome. It's too late for you to do anything about it now". (Mother, WA)

A smaller number of mothers provided us with accounts where there was admission of guilt or regret later in life from their parents as to the role they had played in the adoption of the mother's child:

So what happened after our babies were gone? Our parents, it really hit them what they were involved in. So instead of being ashamed over us, they became ashamed that they were ashamed. And so they started to make other excuses, like, "She was too young, she was incompetent, she was this and that". [Years later], my father said to me, "I remember the day we took the baby. He was so beautiful. But it was my pride. How bad I felt, how ashamed I felt". (Mother, NSW)

One mother described a poignant moment when her parents were able to take responsibility for their role in the adoption of her son:

I was going to see Mum that morning [of] my first meeting with my son, and she said, "Dad's written this letter he wants you to give him, and he wants you to read it first". And it basically said that I had no choice, that it was completely their decision to have him adopted, and if he wants to place any blame, it's got to be on them. (Mother, Victoria)

5.11 How did these experiences affect the course they then took in life?

The decision in 1975 meant that for the rest of my life I could not admit to my deep desire to have a family of my own. I was desperate to have a baby. I was desperate to find out about the baby I gave away. I always looked for him. I always thought about him and his mother. I broke my heart and I hope I didn't break his. I understood I had no rights, so I tried to move on. I denied myself the experience of motherhood because I had my chance and I made my choice. I had to live with that choice and try to be positive about my later life choices. (343, 2012)

As we have learned through hearing the often challenging and confronting stories of the mothers who participated in this study, their experiences have left many feeling they were the victims of a systematic approach to recruiting "undeserving" mothers to service the "deserving" married couples:

I was never the same again … my emotional health was destroyed from it. (345, 2011)

I have always felt like a second-grade person because of the way I was treated at a most vulnerable time in my life. This allowed me to put up with abuse because I felt I deserved punishment. (1367, 2012)

I think it has stopped me being the person that I could be. (1618, 2012)

I still feel like I am what they told me I was. Dirty, a slut, a whore. You will be back here next year having another baby. (Victoria, 27/10)

For many, the betrayals they reported having experienced from those they trusted - their families, members of a church, hospital staff, social workers - resulted in the inability to trust, form and maintain healthy relationships, and reach their full potential:

I want to go back to then and grow the way I might have grown without this experience. It was like, at the time it happened, my emotional growth stopped. And I chose to stay in the middle, neither having highs nor lows, and stay on that road because that was the least painful. And to be grateful … that I did marry and have children, because I guess I viewed myself as damaged goods. (Mother, Victoria)

My life post-adoption has been a tumultuous journey of alcohol, drugs, depression and anxiety due to my adoption experience. I was made to feel guilty, worthless, unclean and a second-class citizen - not fit to be a mother in society if I placed my baby for adoption, or selfish, cruel and thoughtless if I chose to keep my baby. (444, 2012)

Continued secrecy and capacity to grieve

What can you grieve that you never saw/touched/held? How can you grieve something that you were told to forget as though it never happened? (Mother, Victoria)

The continued silence and shame that so many mothers were left with after their child's adoption made it difficult for them to grieve the loss of their child. Many respondents talked about how, throughout the subsequent years, they carried the weight of their "secret" by themselves, and without the option of openly expressing what they had lived through:

As I have now reunited with my child and have a relationship with him, I can better recognise the feelings I was having during the separation. All those 29 years I was grieving, and there seemed to be no one to understand how I felt … Unrecognised grief affected my life in many ways. (695, 2012)

I have spent years in counselling. I have been diagnosed with PTSD, depression, and complicated grief. I will never fully heal from the grief and trauma of losing my baby the way I did. Shame on the professionals which were supposed to assist me, and instead destroyed the young girl that I was. (1087, 2012)

I felt in retrospect, that in the years between adoption and reunion, that I was emotionally numb, even though I had married and had five other children. It was as though I "woke" from that numbness and started to come alive. (1147,2012)

The suppression of the adoption experience for many years affected all areas of my life. There was not only the loss of my child, but also the loss of trust in any sense of community available to me. I have had to reconcile these two issues first before I have been then able to deal with the huge emotional loss incurred in the experience. (1183, 2012)

The main thing is the shame you were made to feel and having to keep it secret for years, and the affect this has had, [manifesting] in low self-worth, self esteem, etc. (993, 2012)

One mother described how the experience of being separated from her son had such a significant effect on her that she was willing to go to extreme measures to ensure she did not have to go through it again:

It was about 7 months after I had [my son] and he was taken. And I went on holiday with a friend and we hitch-hiked. In those days I was 17. I got raped by the chap who was the driver and didn't say anything to anybody at all and came home. And every night for the next month, in case I was pregnant, I got the biggest knitting needle I could find and used it on myself every single night until I couldn't stand the pain. And I went to work every day, and I don't know when I aborted it or not. If I did, it was in the station toilet. I never told a soul. I got home and said I've got a very heavy period and went to the same doctor who was the one who I told in the first place, and he couldn't look me in the eye. So I'm very lucky that I went on to have two more boys. That's how desperate I was. I had nobody to turn to, not a soul. (Mother, WA)

Subsequent children

Almost all the survey respondents (97%) had been first-time mothers when their child was placed for adoption, and 56% said that their adoption experience either mostly or entirely influenced their ability or their decision to have further children (see Table B21). Some (14%) indicated that the child who had been adopted was the only child they ever gave birth to:

I never married or had other children. My nuclear family have passed on and I now lead a somewhat lonely life. (444, 2012)

The only way I could move on was to suppress any maternal feelings. I was so successful that as a result I do not have any other children. (756, 2012)

My story is a common one for the times. I found from reports that there were other women who did not go on to marry and have more children. It is only now that I am in my 60s that I can see the long-term effects of what happened to me and my family. (1766, 2012)

Some mothers told us how the experience of giving birth to their subsequent children was re-traumatising, or triggered the grief they had not experienced at the time they had been separated from their first child:

I had bad depression and hyper-mania when I had my second child, as I grieved really for the first time - that I found what I had lost, and for the first time felt the overwhelming love I have for my son. I didn't see or hold my adopted son, so I didn't feel anything - no love, no grief, no nothing, just a void. Finding out how a mother feels devastated me. I really grieved then. (256, 2012)

It has negatively impacted all aspects of my life - the way I raised my second child, the man I married. (354, 2011)

When I had my [other] children, I felt as though they were going to be taken from me, even though it didn't make sense. And I feel my mothering experiences were affected. (648, 2012)

Continued guilt and shame

Emotions such as guilt, shame, regret and self-anger permeated the responses from mothers. Sometimes the focus of this was their own lives and the effects they had had; other times, the focus was on the effects they saw on their son or daughter, and wishing they could have avoided the pain:

For my son that is so damaged … you know that primal wound. You think, well no one told me this would happen. But still your heart says, if I hadn't signed the papers, even though I don't remember, it wouldn't have happened. He wouldn't be like this. He would be whole. (Mother, Victoria)

It has and will continue to have a lifelong impact on my life. I have never known what it feels like to be happy or to bond with my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. It has robbed me of the continuation of my family name and the future generations of my family. It has left me with no faith or trust in God, or the institutions that [were] there to benefit the good of society, and has left [me] with an anger and bitterness that is difficult to resolve. (305, 2012)

It has deeply killed me. Forty-five years I was told to move on with my life, don't discuss any of your past with anyone … Well, I did just that, always feeling very guilty, ashamed, emotionally shattered, so alone, anxious all the time, angry - so very angry. I hate being controlled by anyone. Affected? I am deeply affected by my child's adoption. I will never get over it. I feel sad to know my baby's adoption could have been prevented with help, loving support and loads of compassion. (405, 2011)

I have a huge sense of guilt that my son has got many problems due to him being adopted, and feel sad that I am to blame for this. I feel hate towards the system that told me he would be "better off" with a family, and hate the fact that nobody told me at the time that I would suffer sadness and pain for the rest of my life due to our separation. (56, 2012)

I still believe all those things that I was told about myself. (Mother, Qld)

Effects on relationships

The effects of mothers' experiences of closed adoption can be seen in a range of relationships, including with their parents, partners and subsequent children:

Most of all, I would like to find my self-worth again. I feel I have made choices in life which always reflect on the adoption and that I have chosen partners that are unsuitable for me. I have continually punished myself over the years by lack of self-esteem and have passed this on to my other children, and they have suffered for it. (72, 2012)

I'm trying to make it up to my subsequent children because I wasn't there for them when they were growing up, due to depression. So they all have anxiety disorders to varying degrees … I felt like I let them down. (94, 2012)

I feel sad for my other children that I could not give them everything they should have had from me. When they were little I was always depressed, couldn't cope. I was not always there in body for them. I was always feeling low and worthless. I love my children with my life and we have a relationship that others envy, but part of me was not there. At the time I could never work out what was wrong with me. I now know I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. This is not a clinical evaluation. It has just been proven to me over the years. If not for my other children, I believe I would have taken my life. (988, 2012)

Some mothers are also very protective of their parents, not wanting to hurt them by being seen to blame them for the adoption:

About five years ago, my father said to me one day, "Do you think we did the right thing?" And I said, "It was what happened at the time". And he said, "That didn't answer my question". Because he knew. He's not stupid. But I can't say it, I can't hurt them. They were doing what they thought was best for me, what was best for them and what was best for the baby. (Mother, Victoria)

Life events

Survey participants were asked to indicate on a list of common life events, whether they believed their adoption experience had played any part in contributing to these occurrences (see Table B22). Almost two-thirds indicated that this was true in relation to their marriage, with over one-third specifying that their adoption experience had played some role in their marital separation or divorce. Over half of the sample reported experiencing disruption to either their employment (36%) or their schooling (18%). Almost one-quarter of the sample said they had suffered major personal injury or illness that was in some way attributable to their adoption experience. Conversely, a smaller number indicated that they had experienced outstanding personal achievements that were in some way related to their adoption experiences (16%). Only 11% reported that their experience of adoption had not affected any of the events listed.

Around half of the mothers who participated in this study were engaged in either full- or part-time employment at the time of survey completion (see Tables B23-26), and over one-third indicated that their main source of income was a government benefit. Given that more than half of the mothers who participated in the survey were aged 60 years and over, examining the relationship between their capacity for employment and the effects of the adoption experience is difficult.

As discussed earlier, many women experienced a mistrust of authority as a result of their treatment by authority figures at the time of giving birth. This can have ongoing effects in terms of their capacity to operate in the workplace, and to respond appropriately to authority figures, and organisational structures and requirements:

I find it difficult to make decisions for myself - difficulties in filling in and signing documents, e.g. bank and government docs; extreme difficulty in handling change, especially when it is out of my control; extreme difficulty with bureaucracy and large organisations, such as government, Telstra, banks. (52, 2012)

Engagement in further education was common within the sample, with almost 60% having completed a diploma/certificate/trade qualification, an undergraduate degree, or a graduate/post-graduate qualification (see Tables B23-B26).

Anecdotally however, some mothers indicated that their ability to engage in meaningful employment and/or education had been problematic, and attributed this to the effects of being separated from their son or daughter by adoption:

The emotional stress has compromised my ability to master some of life's demands, particularly work. (1709, 2012)

The pain of it all is exhausting physically and mentally. I no longer work because of my post-reunion outcome. It has nearly killed me. (1843, 2012)

In the survey, mothers reported a number of occasions through the year that were especially difficult for them (see Table B19). Two-thirds of the mothers said that the child's birthday was especially difficult for them, and other difficult occasions include:

  • Mothers' Day (60%);
  • Christmas (46%);
  • their own birthday (23%); and
  • Fathers' Day (17%).

Almost half of the mothers said that they were "always" thinking of the son or daughter from whom they had been separated by adoption, and 44% said they "often" thought of them (see Table B18).

Health and wellbeing

Poor mental health has been highlighted as a particularly common issue for the majority of study participants, manifesting in a myriad of ways. Qualitative accounts from both focus groups and survey open-end responses indicate that mental health issues are typical outcomes of past adoption experiences.

A number of measures of wellbeing, detailed in Chapter 3, were included in the survey:

  • the shorter version of the World Health Organization Quality of Life instrument (WHOQOL-BREF);
  • the Kessler Psychological Distress Scale (K10);
  • a life satisfaction scale, based on measure used in the HILDA survey;
  • the Impact of Events Scale-Revised (IES-R).

For the two single-item measures: "How would you rate your quality of life?", and "How satisfied are you with your health?", higher scores indicate higher levels of wellbeing. Survey respondents rated these items lower than the Australian norms (Table 5.2). This was also the case across the four domains, with only the environment domain being close to the norm.

Table 5.2: Quality of life scores of survey respondents compared to Australian norms, by domain, WHOQOL-BREF
Domains Australian norms Survey respondents
Scale score SD Scale score SD
Physical 80 17 52 13
Psychological 73 14 50 10
Social relationships 72 19 53 25
Environment 75 14 67 20
Overall rating of quality of life 4.3 0.8 3.6 1.1
Overall satisfaction with life 3.6 0.9 3.1 1.2

Note: SD = standard deviation.

The scores for respondents were examined according to a variety of characteristics (see Table B23), with the following points emerging:

  • The relationship between wellbeing and age of respondent appears complex, though for most scales, the older respondents (60+ years) scored slightly higher on the measures of wellbeing than those who are middle-aged (up to 59 years).
  • Partnered individuals had higher scores on average than other respondents.
  • Those who were workers scored more highly than those not working.
  • Higher levels of education are associated with higher scores.
  • Generally, the older the age at which the mother gave birth, the higher the scores.
  • Whether or not there had been contact with their son or daughter from whom they were separated only had a marginal effect on the scores. However, those who had an ongoing relationship with their son or daughter scored more highly than those who had not.
  • Those who were dissatisfied with the adoption process had lower scores than those with higher satisfaction levels.
  • Mothers who wanted to keep their child had lower scores than those who had been uncertain or had not wanted to keep the baby, as did those who believed that they could have kept their child with sufficient financial and other support, compared with those who had been unsure or had felt they couldn't.
  • Similarly, those who stated their child had been taken or stolen from them had lower scores than mothers who said they had placed or "gave up" their child for adoption.
  • Those who had some support at the time of the pregnancy and birth had higher scores on some measures than those who had no support, whereas there was little difference in the scores between those who had and hadn't had support in the years since.
The Kessler Psychological Distress Scale (K10)

As can be seen from Table 5.3, the survey respondents showed much higher levels of psychological distress than those in the 2001 National Health Survey. Particularly of concern is that close to one-third of respondents were likely to have a severe mental disorder.

Table 5.3: Mental health of respondents compared to female National Health Survey respondents, by likelihood of having a mental disorder, K10
  NHS female (%) Survey respondents (%)
Likely to be well 79.6 38.5
Likely to have a mild disorder 10.6 15.5
Likely to have a moderate mental disorder 5.5 15.3
Likely to have a severe mental disorder 4.4 30.7

Although it is somewhat difficult to disentangle the "cause and effect" of different life events, when these mental health levels were compared across respondent characteristics (Table B24), the following points emerge:

  • Levels of psychological distress appear to vary in a complex fashion by age of respondent, though, overall, those who were aged under 60 years at the time of survey completion had higher levels of distress than those who were older.
  • Distress levels were lowest for those who were married, particularly compared with those who were widowed, but also compared to those who were single or in other types of relationships.
  • Distress levels were highest for those not working and for those with levels of education lower than a graduate or postgraduate qualification.
  • Distress levels were much higher for those who had not had contact or had contact but never met with their son/daughter from whom they had been separated, compared to those who had an ongoing relationship.
  • Mothers who gave birth before they were 18 years old had much higher distress levels than those who were aged 18 years and over when their child was born.
  • Mothers who were more satisfied with the adoption process, those who didn't believe they could have kept their child, and those who felt they had placed or given up their child for adoption, all had lower levels of distress on average.
  • Those who were always thinking about their child had higher levels of distress than those who thought of their child less often.
  • Those who had had some support during the pregnancy and birth had lower levels of distress than those who had had no support, whereas there was little difference between those who had and hadn't had support since.
Life satisfaction

Only a third of respondents scored their satisfaction with life very highly (8 out of 10 or higher) (see Table B25). A quarter scored their satisfaction level as less than 5 out of 10. The average score for survey respondents was 6.4.

The relationships between life satisfaction and the various respondent characteristics mentioned above show similar patterns to those of the WHOQOL-BREF and K10. Mothers with the lowest average levels of satisfaction include those who had never married (mean score 4.9) and those who felt their child had been stolen from them (4.8). Mothers with the highest average levels of satisfaction included those who were aged 70 years and over at the time the survey was completed (mean 7.4), those who had been satisfied (7.8) or neither satisfied nor dissatisfied with the adoption process (7.6), those who hadn't wanted to keep their baby (7.6), and those who placed their child for adoption (7.7).

Impact of Events Scale-Revised

Mothers were asked a series of questions about the impact their experience of adoption has had on them, with the results providing an indication of whether the respondent was suffering from symptoms related to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Over half of the respondents (57%) received scores that indicated they had many PTSD symptoms (see Table B26). Only one in five had few symptoms of PTSD.

Again, the relationships between various characteristics of the mother and their adoption experience and the Impact of Events Scale were very similar to those found for the other wellbeing measures:

The adoption of my daughter has had a profound and lifelong effect on my health and life. I take anti-depressants and I have been diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder. (51, 2012)

Physical health issues were also identified as manifesting as a direct result of some participants' adoption experience:

In our histories, these traumas manifest in many ways. We might go [to the GP] because we are feeling depressed. We might go because we have got an unexplained abdominal pain, stomach ulcer, irritable bowel, chronic headaches, insomnia. It's only when you have got a longitudinal relationship with your doctor that some of your story can come out. You are not going to talk about it with a doctor that is only there for five minutes. (Mother, WA)

5.12 Current service and support needs

What we have been able to ascertain from the findings of this study as they relate to the current service and support needs of mothers separated from a child by adoption, is that there has been and still is a clear deficiency in the level of available and affordable psycho-therapeutic options to adequately address the effects of the traumas experienced, not only at the time of the pregnancies and birth of their children, but throughout the subsequent years. The concerningly high levels of psychological distress and likelihood of PTSD-type symptoms in a number of participants - as indicated by the wellbeing measures in the survey and the detailed qualitative accounts - suggest that existing services are not adequately meeting their needs. The ripple effects of their experiences have, in many instances, been profound, as evidenced through the effects on their capacity to form and maintain relationships, their physical health, their engagement in the workforce and their decision and/or ability to have further children.

The effects of past practices have been illustrated in detail in this report in order to demonstrate the level of damage that has been a reality for so many women, and where possible from their accounts, to identify implications for the characteristics of services and responses needed to adequately address their needs.

Box 5.1 Key service system implications

  • Mental health professionals - including psychologists, psychiatrists and psychotherapists - will require specialised education and training to respond effectively to the needs of those affected by past adoptions. The two key issues mothers talked about that related to professional education were: (a) knowledge about the events that surrounded closed adoption and the range of experiences that those affected may have encountered; and (b) training in specialist therapeutic skills to address the ongoing effects of trauma, identity issues, negative self-concept, and relationship issues that relate specifically to the adoption experience. This suggests that development of appropriate training modules that are readily accessible to those working in such professions is needed.
  • Many current service provision agencies and professions (e.g., church-based agencies, social workers) are strongly associated in the minds of many mothers with their experiences of trauma. Any expansion or creation of new services should be undertaken with sensitivity to this.
  • As well as developing a specialist workforce, health and welfare professionals in the broader services would benefit from education about the effects of past adoptions on mothers (including potential physical, social and psychological effects), and training in how to provide appropriate assessment, diagnosis and referral to specialists.
  • Post-adoption support services would be obvious places that could act as central points for the provision of information and referral to the broader health and welfare sectors.
  • With appropriate resourcing, existing post-adoption services could provide ongoing engagement with those who are at all stages of their adoption journeys. Continuity of care (i.e., not having to repeat one's "story" or build rapport with a new service provider) will play a significant part in the likelihood of those affected feeling adequately supported.
  • Addressing current physical and mental health problems that mothers attribute to their past adoption experiences is closely linked to recognising their need for acknowledgement, restitution and positive self-identity.

Mothers' perspectives of their current service and support needs

We are all sitting around this table because we are strong. If we had known back then when we were in that ultimate vulnerable position, where society generally - in other circumstances - protects, nurtures, supports pregnant women … If we had known back then how strong we are today, we would never have given them up. (Mother, WA)

Survey participants were asked to identify the most important thing that would be of benefit to them in their current situations in helping deal with their past adoption experience. Just over 90% of survey respondents (n = 459) answered this question.

There are six key areas that were consistently identified by mothers who participated in this study that reflect their views of their current service and support needs:

  • validation;
  • acknowledgement through education and awareness;
  • restitution through acknowledgement of the truth;
  • access to information;
  • access to services; and
  • a "never again" approach so that society will learn from its mistakes from past practices around closed adoption in Australia.

Importantly, these are consistent with the findings of the Senate Inquiry, which will be included in this discussion.


Knowing where their thinking came from does not condone their treatment of us. (Mother, NSW)

The information that has been provided by study participants presents an overall message of their need to have their experiences validated. For many, the accounts reported in this study of experiencing broader systemic abuses of power, the use of coercion, abuse (physical, emotional and psychological) and untruths are indeed challenging, but important to hear.

Both survey data and qualitative accounts obtained by participants clearly indicate the desire from mothers separated from their sons or daughters by adoption for their experiences to be validated. The themes of secrecy, shame and broader societal judgements that have been examined earlier in this chapter highlight the ongoing residual effects of the treatment many received from those who they thought would provide them with support and protection.

Some women disclosed how relieved they were to finally know that they weren't the only "bad girl". This study, along with that of the Senate Inquiry (2012), has enabled a sharing of experiences, and through this, they no longer feel alone in their pain.

The power of confirmation in the public arena as to what happened to so many (i.e., the pressures applied to them that made them believe that they were not worthy or capable of motherhood, which often resulted in the forcible removal of their son or daughter), is a message that these mothers communicated as being integral to addressing some of their current needs.

The role of apologies

I would like an apology from someone who represents the system … I believe my child was stolen from me. I believe I was coerced into giving up my child. I know I was given no option. "Sorry" for telling me I wasn't good enough to look after my own child and then giving my child to an abusive mother. "Sorry" for treating me roughly at the hospital, for ignoring my needs and making me feel dirty; for not giving me a birth certificate; for the closed adoption system which kept me from knowing if my child was OK; for keeping the silence for years; … for stealing my child; for dividing the world into bad mothers (unmarried) and good mothers (married). An apology would be an acknowledgement that this terrible thing happened to me. I have been so numb it has taken 40 years for me to even begin to feel … I have spent my life pretending I'm OK, but I'm not. I'm confused, enraged, guilty, grief-stricken. (259, 2012)

In their final report, the Senate Community Affairs References Committee (2012) made recommendation for a national apology to mothers, fathers, adoptees and other family members who are victims of forced adoption, contingent on such an apology following strict guidelines for its delivery (Recommendations 1-7).

Although we did not include a specific question in the survey about whether an apology was warranted or needed, we found a range of views were spontaneously expressed by participants regarding apologies for past adoption practices in Australia. The subject was frequently raised and debated in the focus group discussions held across the country. In addition, around 17% of mothers specifically mentioned the need for an apology in their survey responses.

Participants from most respondent groups in this study supported the sentiments of an apology on the whole; however, the majority view held was that apologies are only appropriate when they are followed by tangible actions that address the harms experienced - both past and ongoing. That is why mothers spent much of the time in the focus groups wanting to tell their individual stories, and to have acknowledged the harms that they have experienced, and current difficulties they encounter. A small number of participants specified that they were seeking financial redress, particularly for the treatment they received from particular institutions, such as the mothers' homes and the hospitals in which they gave birth. For these mothers, they saw financial compensation as appropriate when:

  • the traumas suffered and ongoing effects had affected their capacity to earn an income;
  • there were physical injuries that were a direct result of negligent medical treatment; and/or
  • there are enduring psychological impacts that have required a lifetime of psychiatric/medical intervention.

However, it was more common for respondents in our study to view the benefit of financial compensation being in the form of having subsidised access to psychological services (including trained, specialist psychiatrists, psychologists, and other mental health service providers) for as long as they require it. The issue of distance and costs associated with regular face-to-face contact was identified as being a significant barrier to establishing and maintaining relationships with their children, so there was also a proportion of participants who would like funds to be available to assist them with the costs of travel to see their son or daughter several times a year.

What do respondents expect an apology to achieve?

Participants mostly raised the issue of an apology in relation to the Senate Inquiry, which ran from November 2010 and delivered its report in February 2012. As this period coincided with fieldwork for the current study, an apology was often "top-of-mind" for participants as they were responding to our survey or participating in the focus groups and interviews.

In the first instance, an apology was seen as recognising the mothers' experiences as being valid. Apologies can also be an active way for those involved to take responsibility (individually or on behalf of an institution) for the part they played. Mothers talked about the way in which such an apology would demonstrate a level of accountability for the injustices they have suffered.

Broadcasting the apologies in the public arena was viewed as creating an opportunity to enable a conversation to start within the broader community, so that the continued silence and shame that is carried by so many respondents from our study can be alleviated through an opportunity for dialogue and acknowledgement. Some viewed the importance of this broader public acknowledgement as being integral to altering the perception of what has been the common and long-held view of "relinquishing" mothers:

They still see you as a 16-year-old. (Mother, Qld)

The most profound thing that happened to me was learning about the [WA] adoption apology, and realising that I wasn't a bad person, after all these years. (648, 2012)

Apologies can also provide the opportunity for the sons/daughters who were adopted to have a better understanding of the circumstances surrounding their placement with a new family. This was a strongly held view by many mothers who participated in this study. This shifts the focus away from individual behaviour (e.g., a son or daughter who may wonder, "Why did my mother give me up for adoption?") to systemic influences and the responsibility of society, family, institutions and professionals from the time.

However, in this discussion, it is also important to highlight the perspectives of those who feel that apologies may have adverse effects. As one mother said:

If they say what they did was wrong, then it means I made the wrong choice and I don't think I could live with that … I don't want them to say sorry, because it negates what I did. (Mother, ACT)

Who should provide an apology and what should be said?

The view of the majority of mothers in this study who saw the role of an apology as being integral to their capacity to heal, was that it is not the responsibility of just one group, institution or government; it was seen as the role of all who had some involvement in the practices that saw the coercion and/or forcible removal of children from their mothers.

Although there were hundreds of specific statements that were provided in this study by the mothers as to what they would like to have acknowledged in the form of a public apology, a smaller number of quotes have been selected that encompass the broader sentiments of the sample:

An apology that acknowledges that the law was broken. An apology that acknowledges that the hospital staff acted unlawfully and unethically and denied me my legal rights. An apology that does not skirt around the issues because of fear of having to pay compensation for the severe mental health damages mothers suffered as a result of adoption practices. An apology that does not fob us off with references to "social mores of the time", "in hindsight", "mothers may have been damaged". Social mores were not above the law. We were damaged by the way we were treated. I want the general public to know that I loved my baby. That I did not give her away because she was unwanted. (1087, 2012)

A sincere apology to me, my family and my daughter from all sectors involved in past adoption practices for their part in ostracising us from society and not providing any pre- or post-adoption support to us. (444, 2012)

A public apology that young women like me were mistreated, misinformed, left without support or any real options by the government of the day, the churches, and often the parents and family, because of the conservative beliefs that were prevalent at the time. (495, 2012)

Acknowledgement through education and awareness

For many women of my generation who lost children to adoption, keeping quiet about it was the only option. Most of us were "sent away", and many stayed away and smothered our memories; we simply had no choice. There was no one to listen. It is difficult to reach a certain age and to realise there is an opportunity to speak. Many of us have become accustomed to silence and have learned, somehow, to live with the loss. (43, 2012)

Awareness and education of the broader community

Almost one in three survey respondents (30%) indicated that there is a need for broader community awareness about what happened and how it has affected those involved over time. Many participants expressed a concern that it will be difficult to achieve effective service and support outcomes while there is limited understanding in the broader societal discourse of these issues.

Education and awareness can be a powerful method of validating people's experiences and providing a way for other parties in the adoption circle24 to be made aware of these experiences from different points of view. This approach may also work to enable the issues associated with adoption to be heard throughout the wider community:

The education and empathy of the wider community of the effects of the loss of my only child. To understand that I was not a "bad girl" and that giving up my son was not "my choice". (71, 2012)

Education of professionals

Part of the message of not repeating the mistakes of the past, as well as providing sensitive and appropriate professional services to address the current needs of those affected by past adoption experiences is that the history of closed adoption in Australia - and the issues faced by those who were caught up in events of the past - needs to be made known widely to professionals currently being trained in Australia:

You have this era where young doctors, mental health professionals, nurses are coming through where [intercountry] adoption is so normal, who aren't aware of the history because it has never been written and never put on the public record for what the truth was. (Mother, WA)

Mothers often expressed frustration with their experiences of counsellors and other professionals who were not aware or were dismissive of the effects that separation by adoption had had on their lives. Survey data show that those who have accessed formal forms of support from professionals have found them to be largely ineffective:

Wider community [education] would especially include those working in psychological professions, who too often see adoption as just a tick in a box and so do not recognise the possible long-term impact of separation loss. Imagine a [birth] mother after 20 or 30 years of silence tentatively speaking of the loss of her child for the first time, expressing her grief, shame and guilt, only to feel unheard. (71, 2012)

I think there is much ambivalence, even today, towards women like myself and our experience and the impact it had on the rest of our lives. It never goes away. The pain of loss, the guilt at being so helpless and ignorant of our rights. That needs to be put right. (381, 2012)

Respondents felt that the issues that mothers present with to mental health professionals may be symptomatic of trauma associated with their adoption experience. The shame and secrecy of her experience, as well as the presence of unrecognised trauma, may affect the accuracy of diagnosis and referral to appropriate treatment interventions. Similarly, presentation to GPs with both physical and mental health issues requires further exploration by the health professional in order to determine whether symptoms may be attributed to an adoption-related experience, and therefore an increased likelihood of providing an appropriate referral/choice of a suitable course of treatment.

Restitution through acknowledgement of the truth

As highlighted in the introduction to this chapter, the significance of having one's story told can be a powerful tool in the process of healing. Having discussed the roles that broader community awareness and formal apologies can play in meeting their current needs, mothers also told us that it was just as important for the words they wanted to say to their then infant children to be communicated to them now in adulthood. Mothers saw it as critical that their now adult sons and daughters hear their pleas to those in positions of authority, including their families, for recognition of the wrongs they suffered, their love for their son or daughter, their powerlessness to control what had happened, and the importance that their son or daughter has in their memories and in their lives today.

Study participants described some of the messages that they would like to be communicated specifically to their sons/daughters:

  • You were always loved.
  • Becoming pregnant may not have been planned, but you were always wanted.
  • Even if you don't want to know me, I want you to know that this was not my decision.
  • I had no choice.

For example, one mother said:

I want to be seen for who I am, not to continue to be judged for what I had no control over. (Mother, ACT)

Access to information

Study participants discussed on several levels their capacity to access information. Firstly, it was about the need for them to know what happened at the time of the birth; to have the information on adoption documentation verified and corrected where necessary; to correct the untruths (e.g., names, details about them, etc.); and to have their names put on the original birth certificates.

Second, it was about accessing medical/hospital records that detail the process of obtaining consent and any drugs that were administered to them.

Finally, it was also about accessing information that will assist in the process of search and contact. A national system was viewed by those affected as being highly desirable. Many noted that the barriers presented when attempting to navigate an often complex and bureaucratic system across states and territories affected the likelihood of having successful contact and subsequent healing.

Access to services

So it's been 30 odd years for me. You can cruise along for years, and then something happens in your life and you [realise] this is about that - I need to talk to somebody about that. And you need to have access to that particular experienced counselling when you need it. (Mother, Qld)

Almost one-third of survey respondents said they wanted access to funded or subsidised support. This is consistent with the focus group discussion findings as well as those of the Senate Inquiry (2012). The range of support needs identified by study participants is vast; however, the consistent message was that services need to be accessible, affordable and delivered by professionals with specific knowledge/expertise in adoption-related issues.

Thematic analysis of the data revealed significant need in the following areas:

  • mental health issues that have manifested as a result of their experiences;
  • trauma-related issues;
  • grief and loss support; and
  • support throughout the search and contact process, including the availability of assistance to deal with the outcomes of the process, both positive and negative:

What I need is to deal with the guilt of giving my son away and not helping him grow up knowing who he is … To actually forgive myself for giving him up. To find the father of my son and tell him we have a son who wants to know him. For my children to forgive me for not telling them they had a brother until later in life, after I found my son. (72, 2012)

To be allowed to grieve without feeling guilty and for professional people to acknowledge this grief. (56, 2012)

A "never again" approach

I think for every woman who stands up and steps forward, I understand the amount of courage that takes. And many stand alone. I hope that out of this, what happens is not the same, where women go on the journey alone; that there is somebody with them they can turn to, someone who can hold their hand and say "You are OK". (Mother, Victoria)

During the focus group discussions, participants were asked what they hoped to achieve through taking part in the study. For many, it was about simply providing information that they hoped could be helpful; others were interested in meeting women with shared experiences; but for many, it was about having a voice. They wanted to contribute to making changes to current practices through revealing the realities of their own situations and experiences. As one participant articulated:

My participation is so that our pain and suffering has not been in vain, and the hope that our participation in this study will not have been in vain. (Mother, Victoria)

There will always be children in need of parents. But it's not about parents in need of children. When you put the emphasis where it belongs, sure, but it should never be about parents needing children. (Mother, WA).

Another mother wrote to us after completing the survey and expressed her hope for what this study may be able achieve:

I do not envy your efforts to support the truth of what happened, and it is in your power to let this atrocity be left unresolved. Or, you can be the hero who fights for the truth and justice of a group of people who have been severely wronged. (Mother, NSW)

5.13 Summary

The majority of mothers who participated in the current study had been - at the time of their pregnancy - in a relationship with the father of their child, and their parents had been aware of the pregnancy; however, few remained living in the family home until the birth of their baby.

Experiences of unmarried mothers' homes had been largely negative, with reports of verbal abuse and the requirement to perform manual labour tasks, often right up to the time of birth. Many mothers described how they felt shamed and punished. Conversely, some saw this as a relatively positive time, with friendships forged with other residents, and treatment from staff described as warm and supportive. However, limited information had been provided to prepare them for what to expect when giving birth.

The birth experience was described overwhelmingly as negative. Mothers focused on the poor treatment by staff from the homes and hospitals, including: being left alone, being verbally abused, being given drugs that impaired their capacity to make informed decisions about their own and their child's wellbeing, being denied pain relief, the use of pillows and sheets to shield their view of the baby, being ostracised from other mothers in hospital and being treated poorly/insensitively if in the same ward as married women (e.g., being denied access to their babies while married mothers were nursing and spending time with their newborns in the bed next to them).

There were reports of many mothers having had no intention of adopting out their child.

In the maternity homes and hospitals, mothers reported threats and the reinforcement of the message that they were not deserving or capable of raising the child on their own and that they were selfish for not giving the baby to a married couple. To a young vulnerable mother, the power of messages from authority figures, such as "If you loved your child, you would give him to a real family", is significant. Such messages were reinforced by the pressures applied by their families as well as the social stigma attached to illegitimacy and single motherhood.

Few mothers described having knowledge at the time of their rights regarding consent or revocation of consent; and when they made attempts to revoke consent, they were met with untruths and/or threats.

The long-term effects of the closed adoption experience have manifested themselves in poorer physical and psychological health for the mothers, compared to the larger Australian population.

On an emotional level, the mothers described having difficulties with issues of trust and feelings of self-worth. Some reported an inability or lack of desire to have further children, based on their adoption experience.

Search and contact processes have been complex for many, yet relatively easy for others. Mothers described the complex issues involved in maintaining a functioning relationship with their adult child who was adopted, including distance, dual relationships for the adoptee (with their adoptive families), and the complexity of their son/daughter's understanding of the situation that surrounded their adoption.

The key current needs that were identified by mothers in this study included the need for validation (through mechanisms such as apologies), acknowledgement through education and awareness and retelling the untruths, access to information, access to support and ensuring that we learn the lessons of the past and that the harms associated with closed adoption should never happen again.


18 The high level of missing responses for these questions made these data somewhat difficult to analyse. One could assume that most people who did not give a response, did so because this was not a factor for them; however, many mothers selected the "not at all" option. It is clear that many mothers believed that the main reason for them receiving a lower level of care during the birth was their unmarried status, followed by their (young) age, and in some cases their social and economic status. What can also be deduced is that few respondents believed that race/ethnicity and religion played a factor in the type of treatment they received at the time of birth.

19 Mothers were able to provide more than one response to this question to describe their experiences of advice given regarding contact with their child at the time of birth.

20 The term "illegitimate" was altered to "ex-nuptial", firstly through the Status of Children Act in Victoria and Tasmania, and with other states/territories subsequently effecting similar changes. Prior to this, children born outside of registered marriage were legally referred to as "bastards".

21 Such responses were categorised as being societal viewpoints of age, as the additional information provided in individual responses indicated the societal pressures that applied, based on age, marital status and associated stigma.

22 With the legislative changes across the states/territories that moved from closed adoption to greater openness in adoption practices, came first the capacity for parents and adoptees to search and make contact through a third party. Although there are state/territory differences, in general, both parties are able to place a veto on making contact, in which case their details cannot be passed on. (For further information, see AIHW, 2012; Higgins, 2012).

23 It is likely that for many women their husband has been a source of support, and may well be the most common source. However, we did not specifically ask about spouses as a source of support in this set of questions. A few women did list their husband as a source of support under "other", but we believe this underestimates the level of support from spouses.

24 We use the term "adoption circle" in reference to all those affected by adoption in preference to the more commonly known "adoption triangle", as we feel it is more inclusive of all those affected by adoption, such as wider family members.