Past Adoption Experiences: National Research Study on the Service Response to Past Adoption PracticesAustralian Institute of Family Studies
The closed records adoption system was a violation of the human right to know oneself. To be given an entirely fictional identity was a further cruelty. To have birth rights stripped away is utterly immoral and wrong. (53, 2012)
For many adopted individuals who participated in this study, the experience of closed adoption is best described as a lifelong journey of discovery. The complexities within the experiences shared with us by 823 adopted individuals (54% of all survey participants) across the country, reinforces the need to delve deeply into the information that was provided. As the embodiment of the consequences of the closed adoption system in Australia, the adoptees participating in the study overwhelmingly expressed the view that their collective voices - as varied as they are - must be listened to carefully.
Adoptees responding to our survey were not asked to identify their gender; however, it is likely that there are gender differences in areas such as the effects of their adoption, as well as the experience of contact.
7.1 Terminology and languageAs for mothers who are separated from children by adoption, the issue of terminology and the language that is used in reference to individuals who were adopted was a frequent point of focus in the discussions with this respondent group. Similarly, the report from the Senate Inquiry (2012) acknowledged the sensitivities in the broader public discourse in relation to common terminologies.
Some participants expressed dissatisfaction with the use at all of the word "adoption" in this study, as they said their own placements were a result of forced adoption and/or that no formal/legal record of their adoption actually exists (i.e., their adoptions were privately arranged). Many adoptees also do not appreciated being referred to as "children". Therefore, in this report, we use terms such as "adoptee", "persons who were adopted", or "adopted individuals" to describe participants who were adopted as children during the period of closed adoption in Australia.
7.2 RespondentsAdopted individuals participating in the current study represent a very broad range of ages. Some insightful viewpoints were shared across generations, particularly in the focus group discussions.
The quantitative survey results (mainly item frequencies) for adopted individuals are provided in Attachment C. The following discussion of the highlights from both the quantitative and qualitative research draws upon these data, with references provided to the relevant detailed tables as appropriate.
7.3 Family of originAbout half of the survey respondents were born in the 15-year period between 1960-1974, with only 9% born after that time (see Figure 7.1 and Table C1).
Figure 7.1: Distribution of adopted respondents, by year of birth
Respondents' places of birth were spread across all states and territories in Australia, with the majority having been born in either Victoria or New South Wales (30% each) (see Table C1). South Australia and Queensland were each the states of birth for 13% of respondents and 6% were born in Western Australia. There were very few participants who had been born in Tasmania or either of the two territories (fewer than 4%). Five per cent had been born overseas.
Over 80% of respondents had been born in a capital city, and 80% had been born in a hospital (see Table C1). Most of the remainder had been born in either a maternity home or church home (9% and 7% respectively).
About one in ten survey participants indicated that they had lived with their mother or other family member before being adopted by another family.
7.4 Adoptive familyMany respondents (43%) were the only children in their adoptive families who were adopted (see Table C2). A similar proportion (45%) grew up in a family with one other sibling who was also adopted. We did not specifically ask survey respondents whether there were other children in their adoptive family who were the biological children of the adoptive parents; however, short-response items in the survey and focus group discussions revealed this to be the case for many study participants:
I think it was talked about when I arrived home, as my older brother was also adopted. It was always talked about openly. (241, 2012)
My brothers were also adopted and we were all incredibly different looking. It was just a part of our life. (567, 2012)
My two siblings were not adopted, so I was not sure what this meant in terms of my future - how secure my position was in the family. (463, 2012)
The news came in the same year my sister was born, who was a natural birth for my parents. (532, 2012)
When adoptees found out they had been adoptedMany of the respondents found out they had been adopted when they were quite young, with more than half knowing by the time they were 5 years old (see Figure 7.2 and Table C2).
Figure 7.2: Age when adoptees found out they had been adopted
Sixty-eight per cent of respondents said that their adoptive parents told them about their adoption (see Table C2). Another 17% had known they were adopted from a young age, but could not recall how they found out. Others found out by accident (8%), were told by another family member (5%) or found out in some other way (8%). A very small number (less than 1%) found out when contacted by their (birth) parent(s).
Reaction to finding outBecause some respondents were told at a very young age that they were adopted, they were unable to recall their reactions to finding out (i.e., they had "always known"). Others told us they simply had no recollection of how they felt when they were told or found out they were adopted.
For those respondents who recalled their reaction (n = 683), the information they provided us ranged from very positive through to significantly more negative (particularly for those who found out later in life). Positive and negative reactions were of almost equal proportions in the responses we received in the survey. Just fewer than half the respondents said that finding out they were adopted was never an issue for them, and a very small number had a positive reaction and/or were relieved to find out they were adopted because of the very negative experiences they had growing up in their adoptive families (such as abuse). Knowing that they weren't biologically related seemed to be of some comfort to them.
Numerous respondents spoke about being given a special book that explained what adoption meant and that they were "specially chosen" by their adoptive parents. For some, being told about the day they were picked up was regarded as a favourite story in their childhood:
My parents had purchased a book called Mr Fairweather and His Family, and read it with me and told me I was like the boy in the book. (41, 2012)
It was a bedtime story, and it seemed like a nice story to me. (216, 2012)
I grew up always knowing I was adopted. I felt chosen and loved by my birth mother - because she gave me up - and then chosen and loved by my adoptive parents. Mum and dad told me that they went into a room with lots of babies and they chose me. (570, 2012)
I have always known that I was adopted. The judge who signed my adoption orders gave my parents a lecture on making sure that they told me. They even had story books about families adopting. (676, 2012)
It was a story my mother told me. Like a bedtime story. (895, 2012)
Special. My parents told me they had gone to the hospital and looked at all the babies and couldn't find one. They had asked the matron if this was all the babies and she said there was one more that was ill. They wanted to see that baby [me]. When they went into the room I was crying, but I stopped when I saw them and smiled, and they knew that they had to take me home. (611, 2012)A number of participants told us they felt lucky that they had two mothers - that their (birth) mother loved them so much that she wanted them to have a wonderful life with their adoptive parents:
My parents always spoke to me about it from a very young age. I felt proud about it. My mum described it as "the greatest gift of love and unselfishness" another person could give - when they couldn't provide the life they wanted for their baby. She made it clear it was an act of love to be given up for adoption and chosen. (620, 2012)
My parents always told me my birth mother loved me but couldn't look after me, so she unselfishly gave me up for adoption so I could have a better life. (311, 2012)However, of those who could recall their reaction, just over half had a negative response to the information. For many, it instilled a fear that they could be given away or sent back at any time, and there were frequent descriptions using words such as "shocked", "devastated", "confused", "didn't understand", "sad" and "angry":
Always bothered me. Sad, confused, angry. (50, 2012)
Scared - I thought they were taking me away to a home. (1242, 2012)
I was more concerned about my feelings of despair and when someone was coming to take me back to the orphanage. (1411, 2012)
Initially numb, then confused, then disappointed, and finally embarrassed. (140, 2012)
I can say that I often had feelings of insecurity as a child because I always felt that my relationship with my adoptive parents was not permanent and that I could be given up at any time. (96, 2012)
Startled, embarrassed, hurt. It explained a lot. (262, 2012)
I was relieved. My most important thought, which I still remember absolutely, "I will not inherit her wickedness". And somehow I knew I was not going to be like her in adulthood, and that one day I could "get away". (1292, 2012)Eleven per cent of respondents did not find out they had been adopted until they were 21 years of age or older (see Table C2), and described the effect of this discovery at the time, as well as throughout the subsequent years:
Shocked, disbelieving, foolish, sense of self identity shattered. (435, 2012)
When I found out I was adopted, it came completely out of the blue as a note on a birthday card sent from an aunt [by marriage], telling me that although I was adopted, I would always be her nephew. From this point, my life was shattered; the life I had been living up till now was a complete lie. (131, 2012)
I had just told my parents that I was leaving home and my father said, "I suppose you know you're adopted". (40, 2012)
It was as if my history was no longer mine. All that I knew was no longer true. I sought counselling, which helped somewhat. (316, 2011)
As if I had been hit between the eyes with a Mac truck. It meant that my entire life up to the age of 49 was a lie. It was also badly managed by the department. It took approximately a year to begin to come to terms with it. During this time, I discovered that there was nothing in Australia to support people who find out later in life. It is a very different experience of adoption to knowing when you were a child. (1391, 2012)
Even though I didn't know I was adopted, the fact impacted on me because my parents tried to hide it from everyone. This led to them avoiding most members of the extended family. (40, 2012)Late discovery adoptees have a unique level of complexity to their stories, and some of these issues will be discussed in greater detail later in this chapter.
Family discussionAlthough not specifically asked in the survey, in response to a number of the free-text response items, some participants mentioned how their adoption had been discussed within their family while growing up. For many, it was a very open topic and this normalised their experience of being adopted:
It was always talked about. (338, 2012)
They [adoptive parents] introduced the theme of adoption in a conversational way, so I just grew up knowing about it and it felt quite normal. (890, 2012)
It was an ongoing conversation my whole life and my parents were very open about it. (698, 2012)
I do not recall ever being told. I just always knew, as it was freely discussed within my family. (727, 2012)
It was part of my story, told to me as a very young child. It was never a secret within my family or outside of it. (728, 2012)
I can't ever remember being told for the first time. My parents made it very clear that my brother and I were adopted and that it was OK to talk about it and ask questions. (959, 2012)However, others who knew from a young age that they had been adopted reported that there was an expectation that it would not be discussed, or that it had to be kept a secret outside of the immediate family:
I was made to feel special - most parents just have children, but I had been chosen. I was asked to keep it private, so it was a mixed message. I didn't realise until I was older that my parents were probably embarrassed at their inability to have children and they felt it reflected on them. Whereas when I was younger, I thought it reflected on me. I associated shame with keeping it quiet. (1410, 2012)
I didn't understand it, though I was told not to tell anyone about it. So that made me feel that it wasn't something good. (1646, 2012)This type of experience was also regularly discussed in the focus groups:
I assume they told me I was adopted when I was very young as I've always known, but it wasn't a topic we talked about at home. And when things came on TV [about adoption], I just felt bad for them and bad for me. (Adoptee, Victoria)
I was told that I was adopted but then never felt comfortable discussing it. It was sort of like, "Let's just pretend you're not adopted". (Adoptee, Victoria)
I was pretty much not allowed to discuss adoption when I was growing up, as my adoptive mother would get upset and cry. (Adoptee, NSW)
I don't remember being told. I always knew, but it wasn't discussed. If I did bring it up, there was usually a guilt trip from mum to let me know I shouldn't be talking about it. (Adoptee, Victoria)
I think I would have been in complete denial about having any problems about being adopted if it wasn't for my best girlfriend growing up who was also adopted [inter-country adoption]. So she always had major identity issues, but was always allowed to talk about it. They were always talking about adoption in the house because her older brother was also adopted. Because I spent so much time at their house, I think that helped me in a way process my own adoption stuff without having to talk about it at home. (Adoptee, Victoria)For a smaller number of study participants, their adoptive parents still perpetuated the façade that their children had been born to them, which has had ramifications for how these participants currently view themselves and their relationship with their adoptive parents. As two focus group participants shared:
I feel like I'm cheating on my parents even just being here today. I'm cheating on them right now. (Adoptee, Victoria)
It's difficult, because it's secret. I've had to keep a whole other part of my life completely secret from my parents. I was very angry and still am angry with mum and dad. For their secrecy and the inability to put us first basically. (Adoptee, Victoria)There appears to be an association between the age at which study participants found out about their adoption and how openly adoption was discussed, and their levels of wellbeing, both growing up and now. That is, the earlier they knew and the more openly and freely discussed adoption was as a topic within the adopted family, the higher the level of wellbeing of the adoptee. These links are examined later in the chapter when we discuss participants' wellbeing.
7.5 Circumstances of adoptionSurvey respondents were asked whether they were aware of the reasons that led to their being placed for adoption, and if so, to describe these reasons to the best of their knowledge and understanding. Respondents were not specifically asked to identify where they obtained this information (whether from their adoptive parents, their family of origin or elsewhere); however, we assume that the responses are based on information from a mixture of sources.
Seventy-nine per cent of those who responded to this question (n = 813) said that they had an awareness of the circumstances that led to their adoption (see Table C2). For these, the most commonly reported reasons were:
- family pressure for their mother to place them for adoption (31%);
- stigma attached to being an unmarried mother (27%);
- their mother's age (26%);
- their mother had wanted a better life for them, which she felt she was unable to provide (10%);
- their mother could not afford to care for them (10%);
- the pregnancy was a result of an extramarital affair and there was no option for their mother to keep them (10%);
- no support from their father (7%);
- the pressure of social stigma was too much (7%); and/or
- their mother "did not want them" (7%).
Qualitative accounts in the focus group discussions provided some further insight into the understandings that participants had about the reason for them being adopted:
So they all met together and then they all had a meeting about the fact that she was pregnant. Her mum went nuts, they went to the church for some advice. The church gave them a list of the maternity homes, and she was locked up in the home for nine months and had no contact with the family at all. She said after she gave birth to me, she wasn't allowed to see me, but snuck into the nursery. She went into that room and they gave her the adoption papers to sign and, "Do you understand what these mean?" And she said, "No, I don't understand what these mean". But they badgered her until she signed. (Adoptee, Qld)Focus group discussions also provided us with information on the reasons for their adoptive parents adopting them. The most commonly talked about reasons were infertility, wanting a child to balance the gender of their existing biological child(ren), or to save their marriage. Some participants told us that their adoptions had occurred very rapidly:
My adoptive parents have three sons naturally and mum kept talking about wanting a girl for many years. So they applied to adopt a baby girl. In 1972, because so many babies were being given up to adoption, basically seven weeks later, they got a call that I was available. (Adoptee, Victoria)
I was adopted to save a marriage, but the marriage broke up when I was five … So for me then, it was my mother was 29 and made to believe she couldn't rear me, but I ended up five years later being reared by a man who was rearing two other adopted children on his own in the 60s. My [adoptive] mother had bipolar and she had the boyfriends. So I couldn't have friends when I lived with her because my mother was the "slut of the street" … and when I lived with my father, I couldn't have friends because he was a man rearing children on his own … And because of the society view - it views you in your education, your standing in the community. (Adoptee, Qld)
My adoptive parents had three biological sons before deciding to adopt a girl. (Adoptee, NSW)
I was never good enough for my adoptive family as I was a replacement for an older child who died suddenly. (320, 2012)
7.6 Childhood experiences
Relationship with adoptive parentsIn the initial version of the survey, which went live in August 2011, the question about adoptee's views of their relationship to their adoptive parents was asked about both parents in a single question (n = 140) (see Table C11). After revisions to the survey instrument, which was released in December 2011, respondents (n = 683) were asked their views about each adoptive parent separately.
Overall, respondents to the question about both adoptive parents described the relationship with them as being either good or very good when growing up (54%). For those who responded about their adoptive parents individually, 26% had a poor or very poor relationship with their mother, and 18% had a poor or very poor relationship with their father when growing up.
Focus group discussions showed a broad range of perspectives regarding the quality of relationships with their adoptive parents and other family members while growing up, from extremely positive and loving, to the adoptees being subjected to physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse. These experiences will now be discussed.
Positive experiencesFor many study participants, on average, their adoption provided them with affirming experiences throughout their childhood as well as now (see Table C11). For some, their reasons for participating in this study were to communicate how positively they viewed their experiences growing up, and the normality of simply being in a family that is supportive and loving, regardless of how it originated:
I have had a wonderful experience of adoption. My parents were very open about the adoption and always framed it for my brother and I in a positive way. I believe that adoptive parents play a vital part in helping an adopted child to develop a positive identity and self-image. One that encompasses both their birth heritage and their adoptive family. My family is just as real as any other family, and the bond is just as strong, regardless of the lack of biological ties. (698, 2012)
I wanted to complete this survey to show that adoption can have a positive impact on a person's life and does not necessarily have negative consequences or lead to difficult emotional issues. (727, 2012)
It has only ever been positive for my family, which I know is a rarity. My birth parents married a few years after having me, so I have three siblings as well as the brother I grew up with. My birth father always calls my adoptive father on Father's Day. My children have extra grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles and great grandparents. It has been readily accepted by all concerned and, despite a few hurdles early on, it has been a positive experience. I like to think that I am loved by two different families who, together, become my one big family. (18, 2012)
I grew up feeling extremely special and very much wanted and needed. (64, 2011)
It hasn't affected me like so many other people it has. I have had an awesome and supportive upbringing. I have a close family and very supportive friends. Yet there are others out there who haven't had this. (73, 2011)
I'm a very lucky person. I have been loved and treasured all my life by my parents, grandparents, aunts/uncles, etc. I've never felt not wanted - only loved. (85, 2011)
I have no negative issues from being adopted. I was raised in a very loving environment so I was very appreciative then and now. (303, 2011)However, it should also be noted that there is a distinction between having had a positive experience of childhood and whether or not study participants experienced any negative effects as a consequence of being adopted. The two are not mutually exclusive. This subject is discussed in more detail in section 7.7.
Negative experiencesJust over half of the adoptees reported a wide range of negative experiences, including being treated differently and feeling different to the adoptive parent's biological children, never feeling wanted, and living with secrecy and lies and even abuse:
I never felt that they accepted me for being different. I wonder if unconsciously I was trying to fit in for a while. I think I'd given up myself in order to belong. We had to go our own ways, or I had to give up a big part of myself to be part of the family. I wish I'd been stronger and gone, "Stuff you, this is how I am". (Adoptee, Victoria)
I never received a cent from those two. I asked for help once, never got it. I was never treated like a daughter. (Adoptee, Qld)
I'd had a great upbringing and good school etc., but to me, it's not about that. It's more about the feeling that I didn't belong. It didn't matter if I went to a private school or whatever, because I still didn't belong … So in some ways, I would have preferred to stay with my natural parents and deal with whatever life they gave me. (Adoptee, Victoria)
I felt different from my brother and sisters who had not been adopted. I felt as though I was welcomed, but didn't really belong. (834, 2012)This treatment extended to attitudes from the extended family members of some participants:
My grandfather said, ever since I was a tot, "You are not blood. You will get nothing, but I will look after you until you go into the workforce or whatever you want to do". (Adoptee, Qld)
There were parts of the family where we were treated differently because we weren't blood. (Adoptee, Victoria)There was a difference, however, between feeling lucky or special and being told they were lucky or special, which for many study participants subsequently led to feelings of needing to be grateful for something:
People would come up to me and say, "You don't know how lucky you are". Lucky that what? They put some clothes on my back? (Adoptee, Victoria)
We were told by my adoptive parents that we were special - I did not feel special, I felt different. (679, 2012)
The conflicting messages, where people are saying you are so lucky to be adopted into this great family, that had me think, well what was so bad about those people, and therefore what's wrong with me because I'm a part of them? (Adoptee, Victoria)
I always knew, but when I was young, I didn't really understand what it meant. I remember being told constantly that I should feel very lucky. (558, 2012)
I always remember feeling like I was acquired, like one acquires something they want. With that comes the feeling that you are expected to "be" something particular for the person who selected you. (1063, 2012)Participants spoke about the stigma associated with being adopted. Comments were made such as "coming from tainted/bad blood", or being "painted with the same brush as your mother":
If I ever did anything wrong, it was because I was adopted and had "bad blood". It was brought up all the time on family outings, in front of the neighbours and relatives. (1662, 2012)
I have always not felt part of my family, as my brother was their blood and I wasn't. (182, 2012)
I was a little young to fully understand, but there was a stigma with this in the 70s, which made me sad. (1485, 2012)
I was getting chastised one time and was crying for my "mum". [A woman] said, "[name] isn't your mother, you're illegitimate. Your mother was no good and you'll turn out no good too". (1763, 2012)
Then the kids started to bully me and make fun of me and so I actually turned around and said that I had lied [about being adopted] - I just did it because I was wanting attention … That sense of shame that something was wrong. (Adoptee, Victoria)
I lived my life being told that God didn't want me because my natural mother was unmarried. These people were extremely religious. I was made to live my childhood praying and asking God for forgiveness for being conceived, and constantly told that he wouldn't forgive me anyway. (1771, 2012)
The names I was called and the way I was treated at school - it is a real surprise I didn't become extremely violent. (Adoptee, SA)
I told my best friend and she told other people, and I remember feeling ashamed and felt I had to hide the fact that I was adopted. (1680, 2012)
I was devastated that what the other kids at school were saying about me was true. I felt that I didn't belong to anyone. (1744, 2012)Of particular concern is that quite a number of participants reported suffering abuse in the adoptive family environment.
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.
Adoption has been the single most damaging event in my life. It robbed me of the knowledge of who I am, leaving me to live in a limbo of disconnectedness - a place of not belonging, adopted into a dysfunctional family where fear and abuse were the only parenting skills used. I was passed into institutions as a flawed and failed human being. With no follow-up on adoptions into my family, the abuse went undetected and any aberrations in behaviour were seen to be the child's fault. (16, 2011)
What more information do you want? I was socially, sexually, legally, medically, physically, psychologically and financially abused. I was left with nothing. Not even clothes or a home to live in. I had no education and I had to fend for myself. Had I been left in the hands of my adopting family or the hands of the government, I would have died a long time ago. (35, 2011)
I was told by my adoptive parents that I was someone else's rubbish. (134, 2011)
In my experience, my adopted parents should never have passed the psychological test, if they even had it back then. I was told over and over that they should have left us in the orphanage, that I was "A wog or a coon" and I didn't belong to them. I was kicked out of home at 15 and told to go live in the gutter where I belong. (189, 2011)
There have been many times where I wished that I had been aborted rather than adopted. Not to sound dramatic, yet the experience has diminished my faith in both biological responsibility and adoption screening of potential adoptive parents. The adopted child is left to carry this burden. (314, 2011)
I was stolen from my mother who was unwell. I was given to people who wanted a daughter not a son, but were made to take me and wait two years to adopt a daughter. I was not wanted and was severely abused, unloved and disinherited. (359, 2011)Some respondents who had not been placed with a family but remained in the care of the state reported that they had been subjected to medical experimentation, while others believed that they had been included in activities related to eugenics:
Orphaned boys were seen to be second class and government advocated to punish them. I was punished and tortured in a eugenics program by government. (14, 2011)Many of those who had experienced abuse and neglect within their adoptive families felt that the issue of how their parents had been screened prior to adopting, as well as the lack of follow-up or monitoring by those who had organised their adoption, was of particular concern:
I strongly believe that more care should have been taken in the process - more home visits and involvement. Had that happened, then I strongly believe I would have been or should have been removed from that house. They adopted because back then, couples "had to have a child" and she had already had two miscarriages. [My mother] got a child for all the wrong reasons and was not able to provide. (51, 2012)
Where was the government's responsibility to ensure that the parents you were going to were safe? (Adoptee, NSW)
There couldn't have been any background checking, because there were quite a lot of longstanding issues before I was adopted into my family. (Adoptee, Qld)
My adoptive parents were shocking. My adoptive mum had a long history of mental illness and alcoholism. And they split up a year or two after me being adopted to them. And then I went through a series of foster homes, things like that. And I sort of shake my head and think: how the hell - who the hell - was making these decisions? (Adoptee, Qld)Although a significant proportion of adoptees responding to our survey described positive personal experiences from the closed adoption period, this does not in any way minimise the significant number of adoptees who reported that their experience had been negative, and whose descriptions provide evidence of a range of ways in which closed adoption and the way it was practised in Australia until the late 1970s and early 1980s caused harm, distress and other ongoing effects. These effects are discussed in further detail below.
7.7 Effects of childhood experiences of adoptionThe comparisons that come out whether people are better off adopted; I think that's a useless argument and I don't see any point in it. The issues are there. There are issues with being adopted. Whether we would have been better off or not is really beside the point, because you can't really understate the emotional ramifications that are lifelong for all parties. (Adoptee, Queensland)
The information presented thus far from study participants shows a relatively equal mix of positive and negative experiences. There are complexities across and within these experiences. Similar to mothers who participated in the study, people who were adopted were keen to reflect on their past experiences in detail in order for us to gain an understanding of how these experiences have played out over the course of their lives.
When asked whether they believed being adopted had had any effect on their health, behaviours or wellbeing while growing up, 69% of adoptee survey respondents agreed (see Table C2). (Six per cent did not know they were adopted until they were an adult, so could not respond to this question.)
The following section presents information on the effects of their childhood experiences of adoption. Firstly, we examine some common themes that emerged in both the survey results and focus group discussions, which related to issues of secrecy and lies, identity, abandonment, worthiness and attachment. These issues were described not only by those with negative experiences of growing up as an adopted child; challenges with identity and belonging were frequently presented by study participants, regardless of whether they had a "textbook perfect" upbringing, a relatively "normal" upbringing, or whether they had been subject to varying levels of abuse and neglect within their adoptive families.
Secrecy and liesOne of the most common themes to emerge from adoptees in relation to the effects of their adoption was the issue of the secrecy and lies that have been told over the years, with much of this still happening. Even though many knew from an early age that they had been adopted, they were often not allowed to talk about it or, if they did, their adoptive parents were elusive with the details. Some were even told that their mother was dead, which was later found out to be untrue:
That secrecy has continued. That sense of shame that something was wrong [with people knowing]. (Adoptee, Victoria)
I had been told, and believed growing up, that my birth mother had died during birth. I have since found out that was not the case and that she was only a teenager who was forced to give me up. (767, 2012)Respondents said that they need to know the truth, and that they have been hurt by the dishonesty. They have felt cheated and invalidated; for example, some found out years later that others knew of their adoption when they didn't - a number mentioned that "everyone" appeared to know except them. This veil of secrecy has led to a loss of trust, a need for acceptance and fear of rejection:
I think the biggest thing for me was finding out how many people had known. As in: all of my extended family, in-laws that came into the family were always told, my husband was told. I was never to be told. (Adoptee, Victoria)
Every child I grew up with in my life, went to school with - and some of them are still my best friends - every single one of them knew I was adopted. Every single one. And they were under dire threats from their parents that if they let me know they would be in so much trouble. (Adoptee, Qld).Some respondents who attended the focus groups said that participation in the current study was the first time they had discussed their adoption with anyone, and many appreciated the opportunity to speak with others who had had the experience of being adopted:
I have no real complaints about how I was treated by my adoptive parents. But I don't like some of the processes involved with this. I don't like the lying, and I don't like the fact that I don't trust any human being because I don't know who has got a hidden agenda or who knows something that I don't know. (Adoptee, SA)
That's where I find being adopted the worst thing. Because we spend our lives lying to each other and everyone around us. But we trust this piece of paper that someone wrote in two seconds, and basically in a lot of cases, they [mothers] didn't write it. When I first saw my piece of paper, it told me my father was four years older than he was and he had a different name, and all these things that weren't true. So we base everything and say, "Well, that piece of paper is going to be the truth", when actually, nothing has been the truth. (Adoptee, SA)
It's getting harder when you get older, because when you grow up you are told to lie in a way. I feel like I was brought up to lie about everything. I had a very good upbringing, but they didn't want to know really what I felt. So I gave them what they wanted to hear. (Adoptee, SA)
I wasn't allowed to talk about it, so it was completely closed and I had to pretend I was theirs. They pretended if we met anybody. I mean, their friends knew, but never once was it said out loud. (Adoptee, SA)
I felt different growing up and was ashamed of being adopted. My parents were trying to protect me and strongly suggested that I kept my adoption a secret. This had a big effect on my confidence. (40, 2011)
IdentityTwo of the key themes also to emerge were issues relating to identity and belonging; that everyone has the right to know who they are and where they come from. Not having information about themselves was an issue for many, as was feeling like no one else understood what it was like to be adopted (particularly if they had not had the opportunity to discuss this with anyone else). The added complexity of knowing how to tell their own children who they are was also raised as an issue relating to identity for many in this respondent group:
I do believe it is the sense of belonging that has been a void. You do not always look like your adoptive parents. I would also not like to be the dirty little secret in my biological mother's life. By not acknowledging my birth to my siblings, I feel there is a certain shame about that time in her life. (596, 2012)
I had to pretend I was something I wasn't. I think that's really unfair, no matter how well you get on with your parents and your siblings. I love them, they were my parents, they were lovely to me. But I was always upset with them because I was a lie. I still have to lie today. (Adoptee, SA)There were various reports of feeling different (e.g., "not feeling like I fit", "I was different to everyone and couldn't make sense of myself within that [family] unit"), and wanting or needing to feel a sense of "belonging somewhere in the world - making sense of where I fit":
I just need to accept that as an adoptee, I am a mixture of my birth parents and my adoptive parents. I have genetic, emotional and personality traits from my birth mother and have learned personality traits from my adoptive parents. Unfortunately, that makes me feel that I don't really fit with either parents and I just have to accept that. (218, 2012)
The feeling of not really belonging. (138, 2012)
I felt I didn't belong. My parents didn't understand me as I was so different - the way I thought. They just thought they would teach me to be like them, and I was different. I lacked self-esteem when I was young and didn't know why, and never felt I fitted in with school friends. (114, 2012)
I thought I was different to other kids. I worried that I had an intellectual disability and that was why I was adopted out. I didn't feel like I belonged to my extended family on my maternal side. I didn't look like anyone in the family, so I often felt alone, not part of something bigger. (152, 2012)Some felt they were cut off from identification with any group in society:
We are not validated as people. We were given up because our mothers had to because of society's wishes. And we were adopted for a purpose, to fulfil a need in that family. And then if we didn't perform? You were discarded. (Adoptee, Qld)
I always felt different and alienated from everybody else … because they weren't adopted. (288, 2012)
I always felt that I lived a side-saddle life - not quite belonging anywhere, with few rights to access things I saw others access. (267, 2012)Others had less of an issue with their sense of personal identity:
Being adopted is just a part of me that other people find interesting, but it is not who I am. (168, 2012)The effects also varied according to when respondents found out that they were adopted:
And I think it's a human right for everyone. Everyone should have the right to know who they are. I think every person should be told they are adopted from a very early age. Because hearing these stories and hearing stories from late discovery adoptees - the lies and deceit. (Adoptee, Victoria)
Because I have always known, I believe that this has made me better adjusted, and it is others [who weren't told at a young age] that have trouble dealing with adoption. (297, 2012)For late discovery adoptees in particular, the issue of identity was significant, as many felt that everything they had known about themselves to that point in time was untrue:
Absolutely let down. I had led a lie for my first 24 years of my life. Upon disclosure, a big black hole opened up for me - "Who was I really?" (1053, 2012)
Although I did not know I was adopted, I always felt different from the rest of the family. I did not think or behave within the norm for that family. I felt I did not belong and was constantly confused about the way I was treated by my parents. Greater expectations placed on me than my brothers. (401, 2012)
I felt my life had been a lie. (131, 2012)
Devastated. My whole life was a lie. I never got over it. (1138, 2012)
AbandonmentA number of participants reported feelings of abandonment ("I wasn't wanted") and the confusion of rationalising in their head that their mother didn't have a choice, but in their heart not being able to believe it ("She could have tried harder to keep me"). Some felt that if they had more information on the circumstances of their adoption, then it might lessen the feelings of abandonment:
I need help dealing with the issue of feeling abandoned by people. I have a low self-esteem because of this and I feel angry because I am stuck in this thought pattern. (255, 2012)
As an adopted person, you grow up with a feeling of insecurity and abandonment. As an adult, you can rationalise, but as a child you can't and you don't understand. (316, 2012)
I had always been told as a child it meant that I was special. As such, I felt privileged. As I grew older, this turned to feelings of rejection, as I could not understand why my mother "would not want me". (821, 2012)
I imagine most adoptees would feel some sense of rejection, even if they were able to understand the mothers' reason for letting them go. (1138, 2012)Adoptees also talked about the "ever-present fear" of being sent back or given away ("If I don't behave, I'll be abandoned again"):
Children discarded by their own mothers, unlovable, unwanted … Believing we are less than deserving of respect, love, safety and truth, we play the game of fitting in to survive. We adapt to our new environment, pretending everything is OK for fear of being abandoned and rejected yet again. (Adoptee, Qld)
I often felt terror and feeling abandoned when left alone. (147, 2012)Some participants spoke about how not knowing what happened to them between the time they were born and when they were placed with their adoptive parents plays on their minds:
She wasn't allowed to hold me or anything … I was in hospital I think for a couple of months because I was underweight. That's a period of my life that I'm really worried about. Having had children myself, I'm so attentive to them when they cry and when you breastfeed them. I sort of think, well two months in a hospital - who was really there? (Adoptee, Victoria)
GratitudeA commonly reported experience reported by adoptees in this study, was the feeling that they had to show gratitude/appreciation to their adoptive parents for "taking them". This often resulted in over-achievement and over-compliance:
I've always felt my entire life indebted to them; that I owe them a debt. And therefore, if anything's ever happened to my parents, I've been the one to support them … I just feel constantly that I have to give, I have to give back. (Adoptee, Victoria)
I thought I should be grateful of having parents who loved and looked after me, therefore I never liked to ask for anything and tried to be very good and keep out of trouble. (610, 2012)
I tried overly hard to please my adoptive parents. I built a strong imaginary world that I lived in a lot, and built barriers between me and others. I was independent, strong-willed and didn't ever want to rely on any one else. I didn't want anyone to see me as weak. And took rejection (even that everyday rejection in the school yard) very badly. I was hurt a lot and although I appeared to be confident and happy, I was often sad, and was very happy to stay away from other kids and read books. (354, 2012)
I felt unsure of my position in my family - felt I had to "earn" my place in my family, felt an obligation in fact for my life and that I somehow had to be grateful for my very existence and justify being here. I had to be grateful for my life and the sacrifice others had made in order to adopt me. (463, 2012)
I have a strong desire to achieve. I feel I always need to prove myself to be good enough. (288, 2012)Although being told you were special/chosen was in many ways a wonderful experience for participants ("We chose you because you were the one that smiled"), this often led to pressure associated with needing to uphold a certain level of behaviour ("I always felt I had to be happy"):
Feeling of inadequacy and of needing to be grateful someone had taken me, and had better be good and nice and likable. (357, 2012)As previously mentioned, others, when talking to the adopted individual about their circumstance, often used the term "lucky". Many respondents felt this was a misnomer:
The terminology that people used for children, as being "We saved you". An adopted child's self-esteem is already low … You have a parent who says, "I saved you; you owe me". And now I am going to do something to you in a way that is morally wrong. The whole terminology leaves you already set up to be abused, whether it's by the [adoptive] parent, or by your spouse, or by your workplace or whatever. Because you see yourself somewhere else down the rung, and that you owe society just to breathe. (Adoptee, Queensland)Many respondents questioned whether the adoption was done in the best interests of the child:
I remember yelling at someone saying, "Well I am just a parcel! No one asked me do you want to be given away? What's the right thing for me?" They talk about it being the best thing for the child, but that's bullshit. (Adoptee, SA)
It's a right to a healthy upbringing, not a privilege because we're adopted! (Adoptee, Queensland)
WorthinessThe flow-on effects of feeling like the "forever grateful adoptee" or being "unwanted" manifested themselves through many participants having difficulties throughout their lives with feeling worthy of anything good. This has affected many areas of their lives, including their relationships and career:
If only I could feel worthy … I am respected at work and loved by my husband and children, but I still feel like I belong on a scrapheap and one day everyone will realise that. (351, 2012)
What I need now is to find the courage to be the person who was "discarded" and honour myself as this; to "accept" myself and find a way to shake off the shame and the fear of being misunderstood. (573, 2012)
My biggest issue that has resulted from being adopted is a low self-worth. If I wasn't worthy of being kept and loved by my birth mother, then what am I worthy of? This affects me every day; I don't deserve to look nice, have clothes that fit. (241, 2012)
When I was a teenager, I sought out the different side of life - the bad boys, the bad lifestyle, the drugs, the alcohol, the running amok. Not caring about what people thought because you don't feel like you fit into society. So I felt like I didn't have to act like I was in society. I didn't care about people because they didn't care about me. (Adoptee, NSW)
The desire to prove myself worthy all the time. (451, 2012)
AttachmentAttachment issues were common for study participants as a result of their adoption experience. Issues with attachment had an effect on some adopted individuals' childhood relationships - never getting close and trying to avoid being too clingy - as well as later on in life, such as their capacity to bond with their own children:
I intensely feared rejection and abandonment. I constantly needed reassurance that I was loved. I intensely feared making mistakes, any mistakes, to the point where it limited my ability to achieve. I had extreme difficulty making friends. I didn't trust people not to desert me. (704, 2012)
I have always expected a lot from my friendships. If they didn't give me as much as I was giving them, then I'd let them go. (Adoptee, Victoria).
I have been diagnosed with an attachment disorder. For me to try and navigate life, it's extremely difficult because I don't make attachments. I don't see love the way other people see love. For me, it's important that the government see that these are the ramifications and there are people who are out there that really need support. (Adoptee, NSW)
I didn't really bond at all with my own children. (Adoptee, WA)
I'm not sure if I'm properly connected in any of my relationships. (Adoptee, WA)
7.8 Support when growing upAlmost 39% of survey respondents said that they had not had any support relating to their adoption experience when growing up (see Figure 7.3 and Table C3). A further 14% said that they had not wanted or needed any support.
Figure 7.3: Sources of support when adoptee was growing up
Parents had been the most common source of support, with a third of respondents turning to their adoptive parents for support. About one in ten respondents had received support from friends, and a similar number from other family members.
Emotional support was the most common form of support received overall, with almost half of the instances of support being of this nature (see Table C4). The other common form of support was general support and information (37%).
Well over half the instances of support were described as having been very helpful, with a further third somewhat helpful (see Table C4). Only a small number reported that the support they received had been unhelpful or very unhelpful (5%).
There can be many ways in which lack of appropriate and accessible support throughout the lifelong journey affects adoptees, as discussed below.
7.9 Effects over timeIt's huge and I think we need to have a voice and say, "This is what it did to us". (Adoptee, WA)
Many of the effects experienced by survey respondents during their childhood have carried over into adulthood. Even though a large proportion of respondents had very positive experiences of growing up, they often still faced challenges with their identity, a sense of belonging/"fitting in" and attachment issues.
I've not had my own family - I'm sitting in a goldfish bowl. (Adoptee WA)Many respondents referred to the effects of being adopted on their capacity to establish and maintain meaningful relationships with partners, parents and their own children. The effects of feelings of abandonment, rejection and worthlessness compounded into more complex issues when trying to navigate their relationships:
There is no doubt that forced adoptions and unethical practices did occur, and I cannot imagine the loss that the mothers felt. Many went on to marry and have other children and, while that child could never be replaced, formed a family unit. However, for me, I lost my identity, have felt detached all my life, have great difficulty forming relationships, experienced family rejection - from those who believed that adopted children were not "true" relatives, and then by my birth family - believed that my mother was a terrible wayward woman and so on … I have struggled with many acceptance issues throughout my life time. (Adoptee, Perth)
I continue to this day to question my self-worth and don't believe anyone will love me unconditionally. I have a "hurt them before they hurt you" mentality. I suffered many more abandonments post-adoption. (Adoptee, Victoria)
Feelings of not belonging and not being good enough. Difficulties in relationships and trust issues. (143, 2012)Some participants talked about the complexities of adoption and how it affects their partners:
I think he struggles a little bit with it. He's got a big family and I was always a part of that family. But for him to be a part of my family, he's not sure how to fit. And he feels quite threatened. (Adoptee, Qld)
Because he doesn't understand my perspective because he has had this beautiful life with two fantastic parents. But [my adoption] is still affecting me to this very moment. He doesn't see that, he just thinks, "You're adopted, you had a good family, get over it". (Adoptee, NSW)One participant who is both an adoptee and a mother forced to relinquish her own son as a teenager, described her adoptive mother's reaction to her own reunion with her son:
When my own son came back into my life, my adoptive mother said to her natural son, "Why do I have to meet him? He's not my grandson". And if he is not her grandson, then what am I? I am not her daughter. (Adoptee and mother, Qld)
Having childrenAlmost half of the respondents said that their adoption experience in no way affected their decision to have children, and a further 15% said that it only had a small effect (see Table C2). In contrast, just over one-quarter of respondents (26%) said that their adoption experience had either completely or mostly influenced their decision to have children. Respondents were not asked whether the influence was positive or negative.
Although a large proportion of respondents said that their decision to have children was not influenced at that time by their adoption experience, many did report the subsequent effects that they experienced once they had children.
During discussions, some respondents noted that they were worried about their capacity to bond with their own children, or of being overprotective. They noted that there are ripple effects on their own children - "it does not stop with us". Others felt that their own experience had led them to be very open with their own children:
I feel my own personal experiences as an adopted child has been of great benefit to my own children, who have grown up with a much better sense of self because I have ensured that they have access to information about their biological parents and family, and we can talk very openly about our experiences and feelings. (114, 2012)
I know [the effect of adoption] manifests a lot more clearly then, when you have your first kid. When I had my own child it was ridiculous because it was your first blood. And that's undeniable. If people were ever in doubt what adopted people feel, they just have to analyse what adopted people feel when they see their first child. It's not tangible - it's not necessarily something that can be seen - but it is no less important. (Adoptee, SA)
I had two boys first and that was hard enough looking at your own flesh and blood for the first time. But when I had a girl, I just went mad. I wouldn't let her out of my house. The hospital would go mad with me because I wouldn't let her out of my sight because I was sure someone was going to steal her. (Adoptee, SA)
NormalisationDealing with societal attitudes of curiosity, pity and awkwardness is something else many respondents mentioned experiencing, both while growing up as well as throughout adulthood. This has been described by some as an incredibly frustrating "burden" they have had to carry throughout their lifetime:
You just want to be like everyone else, but you never felt that way. Our view of ourselves is that we're not normal. I've always felt like I was not normal, there was something wrong with me. I don't fit into society, I don't fit into family. I just don't fit. (Adoptee, NSW)
Most people say when you tell them, "Oh, but you're OK aren't you? Aren't you traumatised?" They all look at me like there should be something wrong with you. People expect you to have some sort of mental problem if you're adopted. (Adoptee, Victoria)
I would really like to be able to say that if I'm just out at dinner or whatever, and someone says something about family, that I can just say XYZ about my adoptive parents. I would like to be able to put that on the table without people saying anything that's either positive or negative, one way or the other. (Adoptee, Victoria)
I find myself having to manage their reaction, their response. (Adoptee, Victoria)
I had this thing the other day at work discussing the family tree at the lunch table. It's just like I wanted to crawl up on the table or run away and hide. No one asked me about my family tree. (Adoptee, NSW)
I came along today and I guess I didn't realise I would be meeting up with people. Which is nice, because you always feel in a separate class. People still look at you - their eyes go all concerned when you say that you are adopted. So it's nice to meet people. (Adoptee, Qld)
Life eventsAs one of the ways to gain an overall sense of the effects that adoption has had throughout their lives, respondents were asked whether they believed their adoption experience had played any part in contributing to a series of common life events.
Fewer than one-third (29%) said that none of the items listed had been affected by their experience of adoption (see Figure 7.4 and Table C14). However, 38% indicated that their adoption experience had affected their marriage, and nearly a quarter (22%) said that their experience had played some role in their experience of separation or divorce. Disruption to employment and schooling was also commonly reported (22% and 20% respectively).
Figure 7.4: Whether adoption experience affected adoptees' experience of life events
WellbeingPretty much every aspect of my life is coloured in some way by adoption, simply by virtue of the fact that it has made me the person that I am. In terms of mental health, being reunited with some of my natural family has definitely helped me consolidate who I am as a person, relieved some of the cognitive dissonance. But I am still left with the scars that are inevitably left by being given away by your mother. I still fear abandonment by friends and my partner. Even though intellectually I know that they love me, I always dwell on little things that I have done that might drive them away. I have crippling bouts of depression when I just can't seem to leave the house. If I force myself to attend a function that I have been dreading, I will get a massive headache or feel nauseous. But since my reunion, I find that once I get to the function I am usually OK. (Adoptee, Victoria)
A number of measures of wellbeing were included in the survey, as described in section 3.3:
- the shorter version of the World Health Organization Quality of Life instrument (WHOQOL-BREF);
- the Kessler Psychological Distress Scale (K10); and
- a life satisfaction scale, based on the one used in the HILDA survey.
WHOQOL-BREFFor 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. Overall, survey respondents rated these items only slightly lower than the Australian norms (Table 7.1). However, across the four domains, only the environment domain had respondents scoring similarly to the norms. For the other three domains, the scores were significantly lower.
Table 7.1: Quality of life scores of study adoptees compared to Australian norms, by domain, WHOQOL-BREF
Overall rating of quality of life
Overall satisfaction with life
Note: SD = standard deviation.In Table C15, the scores for respondents with a variety of characteristics are examined. The following points emerge:
- Partnered individuals (married and de facto/same-sex) had slightly higher scores on average than other respondents.
- Full-time workers scored a little higher than part-time workers, who in turn scored higher than those not working.
- Higher levels of education were associated with higher scores.
- Generally, the older the age at which the person found out he/she was adopted, the lower the scores.
- Those who believed that being adopted had not affected their wellbeing while growing up had scores that, compared with other characteristics that were examined, were considerably higher than those who felt their wellbeing had been affected.
- Those who had had some support for their adoption experience while growing up had higher scores than those who had no support, whereas those who had had support since becoming an adult, scored slightly lower on average than those who had not had support.
The Kessler Psychological Distress Scale (K10)As can be seen from Table 7.2, the survey respondents show much higher levels of psychological distress than those in the 2001 National Health Survey. Of particular concern is that close to one in five respondents was likely to have had a severe mental disorder at the time of survey completion.
Table 7.2: Mental health of study adoptees compared to National Health Survey respondents, by likelihood of having a mental disorder, K10
NHS male (%)
NHS female (%)
Adopted persons (%)
Likely to be well
Likely to have a mild disorder
Likely to have a moderate mental disorder
Likely to have a severe mental disorder
- Levels of psychological distress appear to vary according to the age of the respondent.
- Distress levels were highest for those who had never married or were separated/divorced.
- Distress levels were highest for those not working and for those with lower levels of education.
- Distress levels were slightly higher for those who had had contact with birth family members.
- Those who believed that being adopted had not affected their wellbeing while growing up had distress levels that, compared with other characteristics that were examined, were considerably lower than for those who felt their wellbeing had been affected - so low, in fact, that they were very close to the NHS norms.
- Those who had had some support for their adoption experience while growing up had lower levels of distress than those who had had no support, whereas those who had had support since becoming an adult, had higher levels of distress on average than those who had not had support.
Life satisfactionAround half the respondents scored their satisfaction with life very highly (8 out of 10 or higher) (see Table C17). However, 16% scored their satisfaction level as less than 5 out of 10.
The relationship between life satisfaction and the various respondent characteristics mentioned above showed similar patterns to those of the WHOQOL and K10.
Comparison with HILDA respondents is broadly possible, although the HILDA measure of life satisfaction has the scale ranging from 0 to 10.
Table 7.3 shows that our survey respondents rated their life satisfaction slightly lower than respondents in the HILDA survey. The difference at the high scoring end is mitigated to some extent by the fact that the HILDA scale has 11 points, rather than 10. However, there were considerably more respondents to our survey who rated their life satisfaction at very low levels.
Table 7.3: Life satisfaction scores of study adoptees compared with HILDA respondents
Score (weighted HILDA data)
Not adopted (%)
8-10 (high life satisfaction)
No. of observations
Note: a Data from Wave 8 of HILDA was used because this is the dataset that contains information on whether the respondent had been adopted.
7.10 Seeking informationA significant component of the study centred on people's experience of seeking information about themselves and family members from whom they were separated, as well as the process of search, contact and the subsequent establishment of new relationships (if this eventuated as a result of contact).
For many of the adopted individuals who participated in this study, this process related to formation of their identity, and search and contact experiences were identified as being some of the most significant in their adoption stories.
Almost nine in ten survey respondents indicated that they had tried to find information about their family of origin, even though just over half of them were worried that their adoptive parents would think they were being disloyal by doing so (see Table C5). In discussions, participants mentioned feeling guilty about their natural curiosity about their family of origin. About one in ten indicated that they waited until their adoptive parents had passed away before seeking any information, mainly because they were concerned for their parents and their reaction.
When asked how their adoptive parents reacted when told about their intention to search for information about their birth family, 20% of respondents said they did not tell them. Those who told their parents described the most common reactions to be: supportive (34%); anxious (24%); and actively encouraging (14%).
The complexities associated with this process for many of the adoptees in this study were substantial. The issue of divided loyalty being a factor in the original search process often did not subside once contact had been made and a relationship with birth family members established. We will have further discussion in relation to divided loyalties later in the chapter.
BarriersRespondents identified a number of barriers to their attempts to search for information about both themselves and their family of origin, and to making contact.
The cost of accessing their records was one of the main issues participants raised as being a barrier to obtaining their personal information and that of their family. Fees associated with the search, sending of documents and other information have put considerable stress on many adoptees who participated in this study, and they expressed their frustrations with this issue:
Why should I have to pay for something that is my right to know? (Adoptee, Qld)
Access to my information is my right, not my privilege. I should not have to pay for that. (Adoptee, NSW)
I feel that I should be able to have all information about my birth, including my original birth certificate, without going to counselling or paying any money. (188, 2012)
I want easy, low cost access to information. (122, 2011)
I would also feel a lot happier if adopted people's records and information were available to them free of charge. That I had to pay for my own information disgusts me. (1682, 2012)
The cost of information … it was just all too hard. It was expensive, it was time consuming, it was stressful. There were just too many closed doors. (Adoptee, Qld)
I forked out my extra $100 on top of the 30 odd dollars for the birth certificate - just simply because I was adopted. (Adoptee, NSW)
Contact and information vetosContact and information vetos were an issue of contention on a number of levels within this respondent group. These issues mainly emerged during focus group discussions and included:
- frustration with birth mothers having contact vetos and therefore adoptees not being able to access medical histories for their mother or father;
- the threat of legal/criminal action if they breached the veto;
- concern that vetos are not effective given the current levels of accessibility to personal information on the Internet; and
- vetos having sometimes been signed by the adoptive parents, not by the adopted individual, or there was no signature required when filling out the veto.
Generally your birth mother does not wish to be identified. The state government gives her absolute power over your life, because she not only blocks her identification, she also blocks the birth father's identification and any siblings identification … You're just as much a victim and just as much a human being as she is. What makes her better than me, in terms of being able to know who I am? (Adoptee, SA)
It's our children that suffer. My daughter and grandkids will never truly know their family tree either, or if there is any medical problems in the family. We don't get to know that. (Adoptee, NSW)
Inaccessibility of informationThere were many issues associated with the difficulty of accessing information, such as the navigation of complicated systems and dealing with departmental staff. Study participants reflected that the current system often doesn't provide easy access to information, commenting on the ways in which it fails to take into account the significance of the information that is being provided to those who are seeking it. Respondents noted a lack of sensitivity to the effects that receiving this information may have:
Negotiation with governments and negotiating systems is not easy. And they re-traumatise people, I think, in having to get through what can be a difficult system, when people are already traumatised. The system needs to be made easier for people to use, and provided by the people who have the skills to help people get through it. (Adoptee, Qld)
Access to information, records and an original birth certificate without having to jump through hoops. You just give up sometimes, which probably isn't helpful for your psyche. (547, 2012)
A well-informed public service system would avoid the suspicion directed towards you when you present a Schedule 6 rather than a birth certificate as proof of identity. I had difficulty enrolling in teacher's college, applying for a bank account, bank loan, driver's license, passport and any other activity that required a birth certificate. (452, 2012)Some phrased this in terms of human rights:
I want the restoration of my human right to full disclosure regarding who I am and how I got here. (53, 2012)
I feel that adopted children aren't given the same rights as biological children, and this is unjust. (107, 2012)
I would like to be able to access my genealogy and family history, and have the right to the base information that I believe is a child's right to have. (110, 2012)For others, they expressed their frustration with having no information about their fathers, as fathers were often not included on their birth certificates. For some, their mothers either don't know who their father is, or refuse to disclose that information:
Information my mother has given me is unreliable and possibly incorrect. I just wish women were required to name a father back then, as it leaves me wondering about all sorts of scenarios. (113, 2012)
I would dearly love to find my birth father because recently I have become disabled and they are talking genetics. Unfortunately, my birth mother is not willing to help me do this. (48, 2012)
A couple of years later, I wrote a letter saying this is my birth right to have this information. In the same way you thought finding me was bigger than you, well this is bigger than me. (Adoptee, Victoria)One area of particular concern raised by this respondent group, was the discovery that some of the information contained in their documentation is inaccurate. This has had a significant effect on them, as they no longer know what information about themselves and their family members they can trust:
I was OK with being adopted until I got my freedom of information stuff. To find out that your birth certificates were forged … She didn't sign [the consent], but whoever it was who signed, forged the paperwork and basically they covered their tracks by putting into Births, Death and Marriages with my mother's name - middle name first, first name second, with spelling mistakes in both. My mum wouldn't sign, she refused to sign, because I was born with a medical condition [and deferred adoption]. In the end they came in to her and said, "Because you didn't sign, we couldn't give your child an operation and he's died". For me, I don't believe the information anymore. I look at it and think, is this real or is it just forged like the rest of it? (Adoptee, NSW)
I would also like to be able to access my genealogy and family history and have the same right to the base information that I believe is a child's right to have. The law should not deny me or protect those who created what turns out to be a lie. In other words, the history I was raised with turns out not to be my history, but an adopted history. (110, 2012)
Facts about the circumstances of my adoption rather than the built narrative that I am given by family. Each story is presented as a fact, but is contradicting of other versions. (332, 2012)We also received accounts from participants regarding the lack of professionalism of some staff, particularly those whose roles included the provision of information at the Registrars of Births, Deaths and Marriages. These negative experiences ranged from staff lacking sensitivity in the provision of information, to breaches of confidentiality. For example:
- forwarding a letter from a birth mother when the adoptee's name was not yet on the contact register;
- sending a letter informing adoptees of their adoption without knowing whether they were already aware of it; and
- making phone contact at the workplace to advise about the existence of half-siblings.
Enablers to search and contactOf those who had tried to find information, nine out of ten had received information, and just over half had made use of a contact/reunion service (see Table C5). A further 52 respondents (7%) said they would have made use of such services, had they known these existed.
When asked what were the most helpful things about the search and contact services they utilised, respondents identified a number of key areas:
- Accessibility of information:
The social worker giving me all the paperwork from my adoption. (131, 2011)
Access to the Salvation Army Family Tracing Unit database. (195, 2011)
DoCS [departmental] and hospital records. (314, 2011)
Turnaround time was quick and my entire birth file and adoption records were obtained. Also very helpful tips about conducting a search. (41, 2012)
Search and retrieval of information. (354, 2012)
- Active assistance in search/contact process provided by departments/agencies involved:
The person from [agency], who acted as an intermediary and arranged contact with my birth mother. (53, 2011)
Having someone else do the search for me, as I found it a bit overwhelming. (62, 2011)
That it was an independent third party government service, removed from church/welfare services. (40, 2011)
Everything! Search, contact, mediation, support groups, literature, advocacy. (169, 2011)
Ability for others not involved emotionally to contact and mediate on your behalf. (50, 2012)
Using them as a mediator service so that my birth family members had time to evaluate the situation prior to having contact directly with me. (118, 2012)
Support, outsourcing the search and thus removing myself from discovering possible rejection of my enquiry. (189, 2012).
My case worker helped me every step of the way. (304, 2012)
- Helpful/useful information provided by departments/agencies involved:
Providing information, my legal status/rights and helping me through the stages of the process. (113, 2011)
To know the best way to make contact/how to make the approach. (85, 2011)
Got some basic information from [service] about how to write letters. When I found my real parent's information, got help with the search. (173, 2011)
Information, support, methodical supervised process for reunion. (194, 2011)
People who understood importance of family connection and who were informed about adoption issues. (57, 2012)
Great advice and information when preparing me for contact. (141, 2012)
- Ongoing support from agencies:
They would be there to support me if it didn't work out. (73, 2011)
Checking I was in the "right place" and clear about why I was doing it. (87, 2011)
The social worker listened to me when I found the reunion very emotional and overwhelming. (270, 2011)
Post-reunion counselling. I found all the information myself and met my birth family without any support or reunion services. (166, 2011)
Counselling and just knowing they were there. (238, 2011)
Pre- and post-reunion counselling. (298, 2011)
Support and understanding. (138, 2012)
Emotional support. They liaised between me and my birth mother when we did make contact. (316, 2012)As is evident in the information provided by adoptees in the study in relation to their use of search and contact services, there is a marked difference in their experience when compared with mothers in the study. The adoptees group were able to reflect in detail the characteristics of what was most helpful to them, as well as what they would have liked to have experienced differently.
7.11 Making contact
Contact with mothersSixty-three per cent of respondents had had contact with their (birth) mother (see Table C6). Of those who had not had contact (305 respondents), the most common reason was because their mother had passed away (28%). Other reasons provided for this contact not having been established were:
- the respondent simply had not wanted to establish contact with their mother (16%);
- they had some information, but had never met nor had any communication (13%);
- they had not been able to find any information or their mother had rejected the possibility of having any contact/relationship with them (12% each);
- the respondent had simply not been ready to have contact at this time (8%);
- they believed it was their mother's choice to have contact and they were waiting for her to do so (6%); and
- their mother had a veto on contact in pace (6%).
Of those who had had contact, 54% of respondents who answered this question (n = 439) indicated that they had an ongoing relationship with their mother, 33% said that they had met but they did not have an ongoing relationship, and 13% had never met face-to-face.
Contact with fathersFewer respondents had had contact with their fathers than with their mothers - just 26% compared with 63% (see Table C7).
For those who hadn't had contact (n = 613; 75% of total adoptee respondents), the most common reasons given were:
- the respondent had not been able to find any information about their father (42%);
- their father had passed away (16%);
- the respondent had simply not wanted to establish contact with their father (13%);
- they had some information, but had never met nor had any communication (10%).
For those who had had contact (n = 210), almost all contact had been since 1985, with contact occurring at a range of ages, but mostly when the adoptees had been in their 20s and 30s. More than half indicated that they had an ongoing relationship, and 33% said that they had met but they did not have an ongoing relationship.
Contact with other family membersAlmost two-thirds of respondents had had some form of contact with other members of their birth family (n = 532) (see Table C8). For those who hadn't had contact (n = 291), the most common reasons were:
- the respondent had not been able to find any information (28%); and
- the respondent had simply not wanted to establish contact (21%).
- Of those who had had contact with other family members, 63% indicated that they had an ongoing relationship, and 30% said that they had met but they did not have an ongoing relationship.
Figure 7.5: Age of adopted person when first had contact with birth family, by mothers, fathers and other family members
7.12 Effects of contactRegardless of whether adoptees' contact with their birth families had resulted in positive or negative outcomes for participants in this study, the information shared with us provides a complex picture of how these relationships are developed, maintained and often fragmented from the time of discovery and through subsequent years.
Positive experiences of contact
A number of respondents provided positive accounts of their contact with their broader birth families:
I grew up feeling like an imposter, needing to be extra good to ensure that I would fit in and not be rejected. Only through meeting my natural family members did I learn about other parts of who I am. Only then I became able to make my own choices more freely. (101 2012)
I feel blessed to have had such positive contact with my birth family, especially considering I felt like I didn't really belong in my adoptive family through adolescence. I now have a close and ongoing relationship with my extended birth family, who all accepted me with open arms when my birth mother first introduced me to them. My life has been enriched by the addition of all my birth family. My relationship with my birth mother in particular has taught me a lot more about myself. (185, 2011)
I feel extremely lucky to have been placed in such an awesome family. I feel equally blessed that I was able to meet my birth mother and family to gain a bit more understanding of where they came from. (175, 2012)
Well, losing my adopted mother was the worst thing (other than becoming disabled) that has ever happened to me, as I was only 19 at the time. But thankfully I had found my birth mother (and her family) in the months preceding my adopted mum's death, so they could meet (and she met my birth grandma too) and I had someone to turn to when she died. Mostly it has been a positive experience finding my birth mother. (48, 2012)
I feel complete now I have found my birth mother. The hole in my heart is filled. I don't have a close relationship with my birth mother, but speak on the phone monthly. Have only seen her once in the last year, but I am OK with that. This experience has actually brought me a lot closer to my adoptive mother, and I am so appreciative to her for all that she has provided for me. It took finding my birth mother to realise this. For what my life could of been like with my birth mother, I had a very good childhood. (65, 2012)
I've had a wonderful adopted family and am very lucky to have strong relationships with both biological parents (who are thrilled to be grandparents). (214, 2012)However, study participants also identified some of the challenges arising from having contact, particularly the complexities of negotiating newly established relationships with members of their family of origin, such as managing expectations as well as being able to convey one's own needs and wants within the context of the new relationship:
One of the reasons that my biological mother and I don't have a relationship anymore is that I don't think she ever got over the guilt of "giving me up" and she always expected me to be angry about it. I have never felt anger about it. Whilst I didn't have a good relationship with my adoptive mother, I don't blame that on adoption. (Adoptee, NSW)
They welcomed me with open arms and for a while we enjoyed a relationship, but I think coming to grips with who my mother was paired with, how demanding she is, I pulled back. And I know it upset them, but I had to do what was right for me and my own family. (175, 2012)
Going through reunion was like having a mental illness. I had an emotional breakdown from it all. It's a complicated relationship and all the relationships - birth and adoptive - are complicated. After 10 years of reunion, I finally found a psychologist that understood the issues and this made a big difference. It's a shame the media portrays it as a good thing and a "selfless" thing for adoptive parents to do. I feel that I was never good enough or acceptable, never what my parents wanted and also not what my birth mother wanted. She doesn't like the way I'm different to her. She expected me to make up for her loss and pretend nothing happened (that we weren't separated). I couldn't, I was so depressed and emotionally upset. The invalidation of my deep feelings by society and my families is as hard as the trauma of the separation and reunion. When I had a breakdown, I couldn't accept my own feelings as valid. My therapist said the feelings were normal in the circumstance. I didn't know to expect an emotional reaction like that. I wish more people understood how painful adoption is, and recognised it as separation and loss, not just adoption (gain), and no different than the non-adoption experience. My reunion experience brought all the underlying emotions to the surface. I have been working through these feelings for 20 years. (227, 2011)
The adoption must have been very hard for my biological mother. She was pressured into the decision. Had she kept me I would have been raised in a loving happy family with many older siblings. For me, contact was about curiosity, but for her it was a very emotional reunion and the answer to many questions. We only had three contacts within a short time. I distanced myself from her, as she wanted to absorb me into her family. She has memories of the birth, I do not. (283, 2012)
I am lucky to have such an extended family, and to have a good relationship with all of them. My birth parents are now more like friends than parents. We socialise together and travel together often. The only thing I'm sorry about is the effect the adoption had on my birth mother. She suffered many years of guilt before we met. My birth father was also adopted. He tried to contact his family after meeting me, but it wasn't very successful. I know a little about my paternal grandmother, but nothing about my paternal grandfather. (311, 2012)
Effects on other family membersIn general, respondents' contact with birth families had either a positive or no impact on their other close relatives (see Figure 7.6 and Table C9). Although still in the minority, the relatives whom adoptees most often identified as being affected negatively were their adoptive parents, with the respondent's own children being the least likely to be identified as negatively affected by the adoptee's adoption experience.
Figure 7.6: Effects of contact with birth family on other family members
Divided loyaltiesThe issue of divided loyalties was a complex topic within both the focus group discussions and the open-response items in the survey. Probably more than any other respondent group in the study, adopted individuals appear to have been the "gatekeepers" of other people's needs/expectations in the adoption circle. The effect of this position/role was clearly stated, and remains one of the most significant issues associated with their adoption experience for many participants in this study. A relatively significant proportion of study participants said that they had in fact waited until the death of their adoptive parents before they contemplated searching for their family of origin, either out of respect to their adoptive parents and/or because they did not want to upset them:
When the adoption laws changed and they opened up and you could find [your family], I think it troubled my mum badly, and I had to actually counsel her that "I'm OK. It's OK, I won't be doing this, don't worry". So it affected her more I think. (Adoptee, Victoria)
She actually developed Alzheimer's; that's when I started investigating. Because I would not do it while my adoptive mum felt so threatened. (Adoptee, Queensland)Another participant gave a more detailed account of how this issue has played out in her life. She said:
I get really upset about the guilt that everyone feels. My natural grandmother sought me out just as the laws changed … And I was pretty young and my adoptive family, as you can imagine, were pretty distressed about that happening at 16. And they felt, had made me feel guilty about having a relationship with them. I've tried to be really strong and not feel guilty about it, [but] that's been a kind of constant battle. My adoptive mother is very threatened by anyone from that family. When I was pregnant with my first child, on Mother's Day, I kind of said to mum, "Look, you know I want my children to have a relationship with [name] and everyone else in that family, it's very important to me. And it doesn't mean that [my children] are not going to have a relationship with you and they are not going to lose you. But you know, you're going to need to deal with this". That was really tough, you know. She was crying and carrying on. I guess I've been very lucky that I have a really supportive partner who's kind of a very level-headed person and he's constantly going, "No, this is right. I'm involved now, these are my children. We're not going to have the guilt and issues that have affected you affect the kids". I didn't expect it. To feel guilt all the time, and responsibility. (Adoptee, Victoria)Of the 710 participants who responded to the question of whether they had ever experienced a sense of divided loyalty between their adoptive and birth families, 36% said this was not something they had felt (see Table C5). However, anecdotal accounts of the internal conflict over loyalty were common in focus group discussions with adoptees.
When I met my natural family, I got severely scolded by one of my adoptive brothers for hurting my adoptive mum's feelings, and I don't think he has ever really forgiven me for wanting to know them. (Adoptee, NSW)
It is your own guilt as well that I find really difficult. It is about trying to find out, and saying, I actually do have two [sets of] parents. Not just the person who brought me up, but also the person that gave birth to me, and they are just as important. And the guilt of knowing that they are just as important … That guilt is just horrible really. (Adoptee, SA)
One focus group participant spoke about how she has kept her relationship with her birth family completely secret from her adoptive parents, as she finds it too difficult to deal with their reactions:
That family is secret to my adoptive family, so my parents don't know and they never will. It's too difficult. It doesn't benefit anybody, particularly [adoptive] mum and dad. Because of that whole "We're your parents" sort of thing, and I'm just not going to buy into it. It's difficult because it's secret. I've had to keep a whole other part of my life completely secret from my parents. (Adoptee, Victoria)
7.13 Support received as an adultEleven per cent of respondents said that since becoming an adult, they did not want or need any support in relation to their experiences of adoption (see Figure 7.7 and Table C12). A further 4% did not have any supports.
Informal supports were again the major source of support identified by adoptees in the study, with over one-third of respondents seeking help from friends, and adoptive parents being the main source of support for around 20%. However, there has been quite high use of formalised/professional supports, with about one-quarter of respondents seeking help from a registered psychologist or psychiatrist, almost that many seeking help from an adoption support service, and more than one in five seeing a social worker or counsellor.
In their survey responses, the 823 adopted individuals collectively identified around 1,800 instances where they received support as an adult (twice the amount received while growing up), with most support being emotional (close to 60%) and psychotherapy or counselling (around a quarter) (see Table C13).
Almost half of the respondents who received support indicated the support had been very helpful, and somewhat helpful in a further 40% of instances (see Table C13). Only 5% said it had been unhelpful or very unhelpful.
The higher use of professional services for counselling/psychotherapeutic support would indicate that the effects of adoption have been significant for the adoptees participating in this study. The information provided in the qualitative components of the study support this notion; in fact, for many adoptees in these discussions, this was one of the most essential areas where they felt the current options for addressing the effects of their adoption experience were inadequate or inaccessible in the long-term due to the high associated costs of such services.
The results of the K10 measurement for this respondent group shows much higher than average scores in the likelihood of having either a moderate or severe mental disorder compared with the general population (see Table C16). And although just over half of participants in this respondent group (54.3%) were likely to be well (i.e., not likely to have a mental disorder), there was still a significant subgroup with higher levels of support need for whom clinical services would be beneficial.
Figure 7.7: Sources of support received by adoptees as adults, by type of support
7.14 Current service and support needsWe are the children of the failed experiment that is adoption. (47, 2011)
I feel like I am the result of a failed social experiment. (219, 2012)
Adopted individuals in this study frequently told us that they feel as though they are the forgotten part of the equation in the broader adoption discussion; yet they are, in reality, living examples of how past practices have played out, and they want to have this information shared with the broader community.
It was clear to us in the collection of their information throughout the course of this study, that:
- adopted individuals have some very specific and particular needs;
- for many, their adoption experience has often significantly affected their capacity to function fully, both socially and emotionally;
- the effects of identity, attachment and abandonment issues have been an incredible burden to both themselves and their other family members, such as spouses and their own children; and
- the inaccessibility of their own information as this relates to the formation of their identity and sense of "place" in the world, as well as broader implications on their own and future generations' health, has been largely misunderstood/not acknowledged in the wider focus of the adoption discussion.
Box 7.1 Key service system implications
- Addressing the variability between state and territory-based systems and laws regarding adoptees' access to information would be of significant benefit. The difficulties in navigating often complex systems, along with the associated costs, has been identified as a barrier to the formation of sense of self and identity, as well obtaining potentially life-saving information regarding medical histories. The centralisation of all state and territory databases would be the most efficient way of addressing this issue.
- Reviewing and potentially harmonising state and territory laws relating to contact and information vetos was seen as a high priority. Currently, vetos are seen by many adoptees to deny them access to medical/genetic information that they regard as their right, and differences in state/territory laws also create difficulties for situations where the two parties live in two different jurisdictions, or a different jurisdiction from where the adoption occurred. Harmonisation would still need to take into account the needs of those adoptees and birth family member(s) who do not wish to be personally identified in the information provided.
- 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. Key issues adoptees talked about that related to professional education were: (a) knowledge about the range of experiences that those affected may have encountered, including abuse and neglect and late discovery of adoption; and (b) training in specialist therapeutic skills to address the ongoing effects of identity issues and negative self-concept, and relationships 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.
- As well as developing a specialist workforce, health and welfare professionals in the broader system would benefit from education about the effects of past adoptions on adoptees, and the potential physical, social and psychological effects. They would also benefit from training in how to provide appropriate assessment, diagnosis and referral to specialists.
- With appropriate resourcing, existing post-adoption services could provide ongoing engagement throughout the adoption journey. Continuity of care (i.e., not having to repeat one's "story", and build rapport with a new service provider) will play a significant part in the likelihood of those affected feeling adequately supported.
Adoptees' perspectives of most important benefitAll survey respondents were asked about the single most important thing that would be of benefit to them now in helping them deal with their past adoption experience. This topic was explored further in the focus group discussions.
These discussions identified several areas that study participants commonly said would be of use to them.
InformationThe only way that we are ever going to pass the issues that we face is if the veil of secrecy is lifted. That there is acknowledgement of the impacts of past adoption experiences on us - on adopted children. And the state laws are repealed and federal laws are put in place that lift the veil of secrecy and allow adult people to deal with the situation. (Adoptee, SA)
A clear need was evident from the discussion for (identifiable) information to be provided on adoptees' mothers and fathers, their medical history, what the process was for screening and selecting prospective adoptive parents, and how true their adoption story is.
One of the most common issues to emerge was knowledge (or lack thereof) about their biological family's medical history and their own medical history at the time of birth. Respondents strongly expressed their rights to their genetic identity - not just for themselves, but also for their children and grandchildren. Many were fed up with always having to explain to medical practitioners about the absence of medical history information.
In addition, some respondents talked about the risk of incestuous relationships occurring if details about one's birth family are not known.
Some respondents expressed frustration with the veto system:
I find it disgusting and think we have moved forward as a society enough that we should allow adults to deal with adult situations. And time is running out for me. My mother is 60 now and she just reinstated her veto last year. So there's another five years I have to wait. And it's not about meeting her as such, it is about having the lineage. (Adoptee, SA)Respondents also wanted easier processes for obtaining documents such as birth certificates and passports, and mentioned the indignity of procedures for obtaining such documents that they have had to, and still have to, follow. The need for a national approach, and government officials who have training in how to deal with adopted individuals, was expressed by a number of focus group participants.
Acknowledgement/recognitionAs with many of the mothers, a common theme emerging from surveys and focus groups with adoptees was the importance of society recognising what has gone on, and acknowledgement of its effects on individuals:
To bring to the awareness the ongoing challenges experienced by abused adoptees and their families, such as mental health issues, physical disabilities, substance abuse, family and relationship breakdown, parenting, criminal and problems of reunion etc. (Adoptee, Qld)
Acknowledgement that the effects of adoption are lifelong and significant. Access to specialist support. Assistance to heal (Adoptee, WA)Another very common theme was respondents' desire for there to be wider recognition of the situation of persons who have been adopted, with apologies being noted as one avenue for this:
Acknowledgment of the wrongs done to the victims of the adoption boom era. Acknowledgement of adult adoptees' right to feel anger for what was done to them in the name of bad public policy. (704, 2012)
Truth, recognition and apology from our government. Adoptees that were given to families and subsequently abused are seeking better services for pain, suffering, grief and trauma. We are seeking an apology not only for being taken from our mothers and family, but for the lack of screening of potential adoptive parents that should have protected us from perceived harm. As an adoptee who suffered abuse, to the extent of torture, I need immediate help with trained and qualified persons with experience in the areas of torture. This is a specialised service and not available to adoptees. Financial assistance to such services and a change to allied health plan, which only allows a small number of visits to much needed support from a trusted and trained social worker. Adoptees like myself seek the same type of apology as given to the Stolen Generation and Forgotten Australians and believe a watering down of any such apology will only result in continued pain and suffering, and even death. We require an equal voice with our mothers and ask that we be consulted more readily on past and present adoption issues. I ask that our needs and concerns be urgently addressed and that all stakeholders, self-help groups and organisations more readily support and encourage the voice of adoptees. That these organisations earnestly seek to overthrow perceived myths and perceptions about adoption, and that many adoptees have been unable achieve healthy relationships with adoptive parents, resulting in many suffering lifelong traumas. (50, 2012)Some adopted persons noted the lack of a language to use to describe adoption to their own children. They felt that this could be made easier through greater public recognition of what has happened.
I guess my biggest issue right now is that my kids are coming to an age where I guess they need to know. But how do I explain it to them? (Adoptee, Victoria)The issue of compensation came up more frequently among persons who were adopted than other respondent groups:
Will money ever compensate for the fact that I will always be torn, always be between two worlds, never fit in and always feel insecure and have no confidence and feel I am betraying one parent with another? Money will do one thing. Pay for the psychiatrist bills. Thanks for that. I will never fulfil my own potential, due to my own insecurity, but at least I have been to the right school. I am scared of having children and hate the whole adoption process. (97, 2012)
A class action involving compensation for people like us - whose lives have been blighted by our lack of adequate social skills and ongoing psychological suffering - would also help. (265, 2012)
I have suffered significantly from these matters, and if there are any illegalities or gross negligence, then I wish to seek advice with regard to legal compensation. (369, 2012)
Public awareness and educationRespondents expressed a strong need to stop the secrecy that still continues in many families today. They commented that increased awareness can enable people to understand that adoption can be a contributing factor to mental health and wellbeing issues:
More openness and social education as to the realities and widespread extent and repercussions of these policies that were carried out here in Australia. Created by and backed by and carried out by both state and church, in the most cruel manner. The trading of humans at a social/class/status level. Admit what happened, in it's entire ugliness and why, and to what extent. Acknowledge the high level of pain, suffering, permanent scaring and, sadly, suicide this policy has and continues to cause. (219, 2012)
To create a dialogue, to hear more accounts of others' stories about the experience and their emotional reactions, to have access to research. I would also hope that adoption is no longer viewed as a convenient "birth control measure" by the wider community and that the long-term effects on everyone involved are considered, measured and taken seriously in making future policy on this issue. (558, 2012)
I think any public discussion which openly discusses and acknowledges the difficulties of the issue and validates the complex experiences of all parties is a positive step. It was only in the past ten years when I read a book on the adoption experience that I realised for the first time that my mixture of feelings and emotions was actually pretty typical for an adopted person. (288, 2012)
Some more information from adopted children. The loudest voices and agenda setting comes from relinquishing and adoptive parents. I have a number of adopted friends and all feel unable to be truthful for fear of hurting both sets of mothers/parents. It is a taboo area for discussion. My sister and I will not be able to publicly voice our experiences truthfully until our parents are deceased. In the meantime we will toe the adoption party line … that we are very grateful. (371, 2012)
It is all too late for me. But I would like the negative side of adoption for adoptees to come out publicly so that we can stop pretending that it is a good practice. It is good for adoptive parents and, perhaps, natural mothers who for their own reasons choose not to keep their child. But for adoptees, we have largely had to remain silent until we are in a room on our own. If we say what we really think, we run the risk of being rejected by our adoptive parents and being seen as ungrateful. On the occasions when we do try and speak about how we feel, we are often interrupted mid-sentence byy natural mothers telling us why they did what they did. (417, 2012)
Current adoptions and donor conceptionPart of this discussion also centred on many participants' concerns regarding the current adoption and donor conception environment in Australia. It was a regular topic of discussion in both the focus groups and in some of the open-ended sections of the survey, and those adoptees who held views on the subject were extremely firm in their opinions that these issues be part of the discussion in this study. They felt that as they are the living result of past practices, they are in a better position than most to comment on current policy and practices in Australia. We will therefore present this information in the study participant's own words:
Recently in the paper you see adoption rights - and I think, "Ooh, adoption rights" … And then you realise it is not about the rights of adoptees. It's about the rights of others to adopt. I feel really angry about the whole donor sperm thing - anything about manipulating a baby who has no say. It's not just adoption, it's all these issues. (Adoptee, Victoria)
Future adoptions, surrogacy, IVF, etc. be focused around the child and not just that of the parent. It always seems as though that is the voiceless person in the debate and where the impact appears perpetually underrated. (Adoptee, NSW)
Education of the population to know that adopting out your child is not always the best thing. The best is for children to have their own mothers bring them up and it would be better to support them. I resent the idea that the adopting parents are wonderful, when they are having their needs met, but not the child they are adopting. (114, 2012)
I think the concern I have is about displacing people's pain. It's about saying, we can't have children, so you've had a child, and we're in a better situation. Now if that person is willingly giving up their child for their life and future options and where they are at in their life right now, it is a conscious choice, powerfully made, that they would rather make and not have a child at this point in time, then that's an absolute gift for that couple. But where coercion is part of it, it's about actually saying, well we are more deserving than you and your pain is less of a consequence than our pain of not having a child. That's really concerning for me. (Adoptee, Victoria)
I don't think I could adopt because I know the wound is there. To be real with that child, you are facing a very big, overwhelming wound. I'm very clear about my opinion of adoption - it should be about the best interests of the child. The whole adoption industry is about supplying couples with children. I was reading the recommendations of the Senate Inquiry and what I was disappointed about was, for me, it's too late. I've learnt to deal with it myself. For me, a sort of recommendation that would absolve things would be a change in current practices. I think the underlying root of the problem is the baby-supply industry. The same issues are coming up with donor conception, surrogacy, "selling" children on the Internet, especially in America. The same issues are popping up and they're being repeated. To me it means nothing, because I'm seeing the same thing again. I'll never know who my father is and I'm seeing these people being put in similar situations where they'll never know who their father is. They're told, but you've been given life, you're better off because we want you. It's about the needs of the parents, not the child. (Adoptee, Victoria)
Support for search and contactRespondents indicated that support is needed for searching, contact and navigation of new (and existing) relationships. Help is needed with:
- the process of searching;
- accessing information (from birth mothers and government/adoption agencies); and
- addressing the effects of contact (managing new relationships, having divided loyalties, experiencing rejection for a second time).
System in which information is exchanged in a timely fashion, and support given to all parties to encourage family connections. (57, 2012)
Now, I am going okay, but I think others definitely need ongoing counselling and support as they make the journey of search and contact. I know that is what I needed, and probably from time to time still need. Resolving the residual inner issues is as important as the physical search for "family". Unless you can simultaneously address the impacts and damage caused by closed adoption, then the quality of the reunion (if it occurs) will be affected. Adopted people also need assistance on how to juggle the competing needs, expectations, demands of the adoptive and birth parents and their/your families along this journey. For me the lifelong feeling of being in no man's land was exacerbated as I tried to balance (almost guiltily) the desire to connect with the guilt of doing so (and upsetting my adoptive parents). Intellectually, I knew what I was doing and intended to do, but emotionally and in reality, it was much tougher. I was lucky. I regard the effects of my adoption experience as a black cloud hanging over me, but for many it's a gaping, raw wound. (88, 2012)
Support for wellbeingA very strong theme to emerge for adoptees was the need for appropriate, affordable counselling and support, which should be available whenever trigger events happen, not just as a one-off service. A range of options is needed so that the most appropriate form for a particular individual can be selected. Not everyone saw cognitive behaviour therapy or other structured psychological interventions as the solution for all. It seems that cognitive behaviour therapy was one of the most commonly identified interventions received by those accessing services, but people found it had limited utility in addressing their particular needs. A number of participants suggest that other modalities can be more effective, and that research is needed as to which techniques will work best for whom:
Assistance in the form of counselling services for those adult adoptees who need it. Assistance - real assistance - in the sometimes extremely difficult task of searching, particularly in circumstances where an adoptee's health is being affected by lack of genetic medical knowledge. (704, 2012)
Free weekly counselling from a professional with deep knowledge of adoption issues. (74, 2012)
A support group in my area. (81, 2012)
The periodic availability of a support group or even online support group. (96, 2012)
Specialised counselling to help manage, understand and deal with the separation and abandonment issues I try and manage as an adult. (108, 2012)
A support group for folk with similar stories. (122, 2012)
7.15 SummaryIt is clear from the accounts of adopted individuals that they have rarely felt that their experiences have been validated or viewed as being of any real importance - that the effect that their adoption has had on their lives (both positive and negative) has not been included in the nation's broader discourse around adoption. Many stated that they never felt that they could talk about their experience because no one ever recognised or acknowledged their loss (of identity, of family, of history, etc.).
Issues of identity, attachment and abandonment among adoptees do not appear to be solely dependent on whether or not a positive and loving environment was provided by the adoptive parents. Rather, it is likely that those who have experienced adoption as an open discussion, who were encouraged to search, and were given a positive view of their birth mother, have fewer experiences that play out negatively throughout their lives.
Adoptees in this study showed a higher than average likelihood of having a mental health disorder than the general population, and qualitative accounts of mental health and wellbeing support these findings. The most important issue is having access to appropriate and specialised counselling and support that is both affordable and ongoing. This includes support to address the complexities of navigating both existing and new relationships following contact with birth family members. In addition, assistance with their own parenting was identified as a current need, with many participants saying this life event was the trigger for some of the issues associated with their adoption experience and subsequently affected their own parenting.
As is evident from the information provided by study participants, the issues of seeking information about themselves and their birth families, and the subsequent process of search and contact, significantly contributed to both past experiences of adoption and its current effects. A strong theme from adoptees participating in the current study was that access to information about themselves and the medical histories of their birth family was a "right" not a "privilege", and they called for the processes associated with obtaining such information to be reviewed as a matter of priority.
Next: Chapter 8. Adoptive parents