by Christin Quirk,
Christin Quirk is a graduate student at Macquarie University, and Academic at ACU
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Executive summary

  • From November 2010, the Australian federal government’s Senate Inquiry Commonwealth Contribution to Former Forced Adoption Policies and Practices investigated over four hundred submissions that included claims of unethical and illegal practices.
  • The Inquiry’s final report has since recommended that formal statements of apology be issued by the organisations involved in past adoption practices.
  • These statements should be based on the five criteria for meaningful apology set out by the Canadian Law Commission in 1999.
  • While the Victorian government’s recent apology to mothers who lost a child to adoption has been accepted by support groups such as Origins based on its fulfilment of these criteria, apologies by other organisations have been rejected.
  • This paper discusses the ways in which contemporary historical research has informed the recent apologies and policy responses to mothers who lost a child to adoption.

Although much has been written on the topic of adoption, particularly in the last fifty years, until quite recently little attention has been paid to the experiences of the relinquishing mother. In late 2009, the Australian Government Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA) commissioned the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) to review the research literature on past adoption practices in Australia in order to build an appropriate policy response. The AIFS’s subsequent report, Summary of Key Issues from Australian Research, released in March 2010, addressed the impact of past adoption practices in relation to the experiences of the birth mother. Although the report identified ‘a wealth of material’ on this topic, and despite the recognition of consistent themes such as silence, invisibility, guilt and shame across the existing literature, much of it was overlooked or dismissed as ‘anecdotal’. As such, the report highlighted the need to expand the evidence base, specifically with regard to the impact, variability and extent of past adoption practices—and particularly if the government was going to respond to the allegations of mothers who lost a child to adoption. The result was two major government initiatives: the Senate Inquiry Commonwealth Contribution to Former Forced Adoption Policies and Practices (initiated in November 2010) and the AIFS National Research Study on the Service Response to Past Adoption Experiences (initiated in 2011). At the same time, a host of other academic historical projects were investigating this under-researched area. This paper considers the Senate Inquiry and two such historical projects in the light of recent apologies to women who have lost a child to adoption while also reflecting on the way this research has informed these policy responses.

Historical framework

Throughout Australia, adoption was formalised at a state government level at varying times, mainly in the first half of the twentieth century. But it was not until the aftermath of World War II that the idea gained greater popularity as a family-forming mechanism within the wider community. Eugenics had been largely refuted, reversing previous concerns over the genetic inheritance of ‘undesirable traits’ in adopted babies.  Pamphlets, such as F.O. Barnett’s 1948 title ‘Is it Safe to Adopt a Baby?’ were published to encourage prospective parents with assurances that nurture was more important than nature.  With scientific backing, it was now believed that ‘a good environment will make a better job of bad genes than a bad environment will make of good genes’. Adoption became a consumer market with women’s magazines and the press promoting the benefits of this practice. Adoptions were legalised in Victoria in 1928, for instance, and in the following year adoption figures only represented 5 per cent of ex-nuptial births. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, up to 45 per cent of unmarried mothers in Victoria were separated from their babies by adoption.

At this time, widely referred to as the ‘heyday of adoption’, the routine practice of separation was seen as a mutually advantageous solution to the joint social problems of infertility, illegitimacy, and impoverishment. Adoption claimed to offer moral and social redemption for both mother and child, but only through silence and concealment. As such, the unmarried pregnant woman often spent time in a maternity home or with a distant relative effectively to conceal her condition. It was seen to be an issue of preserving her family’s moral standing within the community: there was no doubt as to the embarrassment her condition would cause. The visibility of a woman’s pregnancy has been characterised as ‘moral bad luck’, in that only she would bear the burden of punishment, while the father escaped unnoticed. Prior to paternity testing, the onus of proof was placed on the mother and she needed to be willing to support an accusation of paternity in court—with witnesses. In addition to these legal obstacles, past adoption practices prohibited the recording of the father’s name.

Reasons why women felt obliged to turn to adoption were inevitably more complex:  contraception was not widely available to single women; abortion remained illegal; and the age requirements of marriage conspired to limit the choices available to the sexually active single woman. These obstacles, combined with the role of the church, the continued stigma of illegitimacy, and the invisibility of single mothers in the community into the mid-1970s, particularly as a result of inadequate financial support, further restricted any notion of ‘choice’. With all other options exhausted and amid enormous social pressures, adoption often remained the only viable solution that ultimately offered salvation for the sin of being caught. In Single Mothers and Their Children: Disposal, Punishment and Survival in Australia, Shurlee Swain and Renate Howe have argued that relinquishment was seen not only as ‘a necessary pain’, but, moreover, within this construct of censure and blame it was ‘the only way in which she could regain her respectability’. It required the single mother to be complicit in her own punishment, as her absolute silence—about her pregnancy and relinquishment—was essential for her to move forward and ‘get on with her life’. This arrangement rendered mothers invisible and unable to acknowledge their grief and loss, but also unable to share their stories.

The long-held belief in silence and concealment prevented mothers from speaking openly about their experience of relinquishment and adoption. From a methodological research perspective, particularly in the use of oral history, this denial of voice runs deeper. This silence reveals a time with no available language with which to express the experience, nor any way of understanding it. This is no longer the case. By the early 1980s, support groups for women who shared the relinquishment experience established alongside the adoption reform movement. At this time support and activism combined and the emergent discourse, shared by both groups, portrayed adoption as an ‘exploitative system in which the “rich and powerful” took advantage of the “poor and vulnerable”’. The subsequent activism of such support groups, namely the Association of Relinquishing Mothers (ARMS) and Origins Inc., has been pivotal not only in promoting community awareness and understanding of this aspect of our history, but also in demanding acknowledgement, validation, and accountability for past adoption practices, and by encouraging and promoting research in to the mental health consequences and social issues associated with adoption.

Contemporary Research

In the last five years, substantial research has been undertaken into the history of adoption in Australia. Beginning in early 2009, a four-year Australian Research Council (ARC) funded project working from Monash University has sought to discover the distinctive ways in which adoption has reflected and shaped family ideals within Australia. The significance of this groundbreaking research lies in its focus on the experience of participants in the adoption process, particularly in assessing its relationship to policy. The project team emphasises:

This study will fill a significant gap in the nation’s self-understanding by explaining the historical factors driving the changing place, meaning and significance of adoption. Whilst participants and practitioners debate its social worth, the policy pendulum is swinging back to an acceptance of adoption. Australian society is in urgent need of an open hearing of the contesting voices, and a balanced account of the historical impact of adoption.

From this justification, the consequences of such research are clear. With no comprehensive history of adoption in Australia that can assess past policy and practice, and speak to the dilemmas of policymakers and families involved in adoption, the Monash University project has sought to address a pressing issue and provide present-day policymakers with a sound understanding of what has worked, what hasn’t worked, and why. While the project team used a range of methods for gathering data, including archival and documentary research into government, professional, media, and fictional representations of adoption, another important aspect of telling the history of adoption included gathering and collecting a total of 75 personal contributions and oral histories by interview. With the aims of the project now completed, the monograph is due for publication this year.

A project undertaken by the Royal Women’s Hospital (RWH) in Melbourne represents another recent example of academic research into past adoption practices. In November 2009, the hospital commissioned a two-year study by the Australian Catholic University (ACU) to investigate delivery and adoption practices in relation to single women who were confined at the hospital in the period 1945-1975. The RWH was responding to calls from relinquishing mothers to explain its past adoption practices amid claims that these were unethical, illegal, and used undue influence to coerce unmarried mothers to place their babies for adoption. The findings of this research formed the basis of the hospital’s submission to the Senate Inquiry, as well as a Master of Philosophy thesis.

In undertaking this research, it was assumed that investigating such claims would be difficult and that most would remain undocumented. Consequently, the use of oral history was fundamental, however, archival research at the hospital also provided rich documentary evidence through which to contextualise testimony gathered through interviews. Sometimes the archival evidence worked to corroborate the testimony in surprising ways. In-depth interviews of 60 to 90 minutes were conducted with 21 participants. Of the 13 unmarried mothers, two kept their babies; and of the eight former hospital staff, one doctor, six midwives, and one social worker were represented. The testimony provided by this intimate sample was strengthened by bringing together relevant stories gathered for the Monash University History of Adoption project, evidence submitted to the Senate Inquiry, and voices that appear in other published accounts, particularly Janet McCalman’s history of the RWH, Sex and Suffering: Women’s Health and a Women’s Hospital and also Swain and Howe’s Single Mothers and Their Children. It is important to note the use of oral history and testimony in each of these cases, not only in validating the experience of mothers who lost a child to adoption, but in providing an ‘empirical’ evidence base from which policymakers can work. In the context of this discussion, it also must be acknowledged that, as a direct result of this research, on 23 January 2012 the Board of the RWH issued an apology to these mothers.

The Importance of Apology

Evidence at a long series of parliamentary inquiries (Bringing Them Home: National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, 1997; Lost Innocents: Righting the Record – Report on child migration, 2001; Forgotten Australians: a report on Australians who experienced institutional or out of home care as children, 2004) has revealed the pain still suffered by individuals—pain that can be addressed only by some public recognition of its power, its impact, and its causes. Each of these groups has received a formal statement of acknowledgement and apology from Canberra on behalf of the nation. These high profile inquiries and apologies have not only acted to strengthen the demands of mothers who lost a child to adoption, but underpin their expectations of apology.

For example, the apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008 prompted some support groups for mothers to liken Aboriginal child removal policies to the separation they suffered during the heyday of adoption, referring to themselves as ‘the White Stolen Generation’. And while the Commonwealth Government had explored the possibility of including relinquishing mothers in the apology issued to the Forgotten Australians and Child Migrants in November 2009, this suggestion intensified division between support groups prepared to accept such an apology and those who wanted an inquiry first. Origins Inc. argued that that anything less than a Senate Inquiry would negate the experiences of these women, citing a ‘litany of major crimes and human rights abuses [that] were committed against 150 000 mothers and their children across this country’. Again, the activism of mothers who lost a child to adoption must be credited in helping to initiate the Senate Inquiry.

The Senate Inquiry

The federal government’s Senate Inquiry into former forced adoption policies and practices attracted over four hundred submissions. Inquiries undertaken by the Tasmanian and New South Wales (NSW) state governments more than ten years ago already had documented unethical practices by hospital staff and social workers, with some form of apology being issued by several of the organisations involved (see Adoption and Related Services 1950-1988, 1999; and Releasing the Past: Adoption Practices 1950-1998 Final Report, 2000; respectively). In the submissions and subsequent public hearings of each of these inquiries, mothers repeatedly described how they were given no choice but to relinquish their babies. In some cases mothers have testified to the use of forcible restraint during labour, and later to prevent contact with the baby. Mothers also have reported: the use of excessive sedation; the unnecessary use of forceps or caesarean delivery; the use of pillows and sheets to shield the baby from view; and falsely being told their baby had died. In each inquiry the federal and state governments, private and public hospitals and their staff, maternity homes, clergy, and particularly social workers are being asked to accept blame for ‘the standards and values of a society that placed female virginity before marriage as being of higher value than the bond between mother and baby’.

Having investigated claims that past adoption practices were unethical, illegal, and used undue influence to coerce never married mothers to relinquish their children, the final report of the Senate Inquiry was delivered on 29 February 2012. These public testimonies shattered the once secretive nature of past closed adoption practices, having provided a voice for mothers who lost a child to adoption, as well as a validation of their experiences. The report has made some 20 recommendations that include the development of a national framework to address the consequences of former forced adoption practices and a formal statement of apology that identifies the actions and policies that resulted in forced adoption. The apology should, on behalf of the nation, acknowledge the harm suffered by many parents whose children were forcibly removed and by the children who were separated from their parents. Consultation currently is taking place between the government and key stakeholders to formulate the appropriate wording of a national apology, which will take place on 21 March 2013.

Five Criteria for a Meaningful Apology

The criteria by which such apologies are measured came about as a result of the Law Commission of Canada’s report into institutional child abuse Restoring Dignity: Responding to child abuse in Canadian Institutions published in 2000. In May 1999, as part of this Commission, Susan Alter prepared Apologising for Serious Wrongdoing: Social, Psychological and Legal Considerations in which she outlined what she has termed the fundamental elements of a meaningful apology. These are:

  1. Acknowledgment of the wrong done or naming the offence;
  2. Accepting responsibility for the wrong that was done;
  3. The expression of sincere regret and profound remorse;
  4. The assurance or promise that the wrong done will not recur; and
  5. Reparation through concrete measures.

These steps since have been recognised as an international standard by which apologies are drafted and delivered. The final report of the Senate Inquiry has also recommended that all official apologies to mothers who lost a child to adoption should satisfy these criteria.

Recent Apologies

With regard to government apologies to mothers who lost a child to adoption, the Western Australian (WA) apology in September 2010 represented a first. Subsequent to the release of the Senate Inquiry report in February 2012, the other Australian states have since followed suit. Both the Tasmanian and the Victorian apologies have been applauded for keeping to this criteria and fulfilling the elements of a meaningful apology. In the Victorian case, redress measures include funding of $500,000 over two years to establish a professional development program to build specialist competencies in post forced-adoption psychotherapy for qualified counsellors; amending the Adoption Act 1984 to allow birth parents to receive identifying information about adopted people; and waiving fees for people affected by past forced adoption practices that seek access to personal and family information through the Family Information Networks and Discovery (FIND) service provided by the Department of Human Services (DHS). And while Origins Inc. has flatly rejected the NSW apology for not addressing the criteria set forth by the Canadian Law Commission (and also recommended in the final report of the Senate Inquiry), other support groups for mothers who lost a child to adoption maintain the healing and reconciliation power of apology. Similar accusations have been levied at the South Australian and ACT apologies.


The writing of the history of past adoption practices is an ongoing process that is presently being authored by the government, by academics, by the institutions and organisations involved, and most importantly by the individuals who have suffered the lasting emotional impact. This paper has considered the practical and real impact that both academic and government research can have. At the outset, it was stated that the AIFS Summary of Key Issues from Australian Research was critical of the existing research literature on past adoption practices, dismissing much of it as ‘anecdotal’. Despite finding a wealth of material, the report concluded that there was insufficient reliable empirical research on which to build a policy response and called for further research. As a result, two major government initiatives ensued: the Senate Inquiry and the AIFS National Research Study on the Service Response to Past Adoption Experiences (which has not been discussed here). At the same time, a range of academic historical research including Monash University’s ARC-funded History of Adoption Project and the research undertaken by the RWH was also taking place. While the use of oral history in these projects and the collection of testimonies can be viewed simply as a larger quantity of the anecdotal evidence initially ignored by the report, there is no question of the ultimate impact of these stories in effecting an apology. Having built a recognised, reliable evidence base around the extent and impact of past adoption practices, there is no doubt that these projects have enabled good practice in evidence-based policymaking. But this does leave the lingering question of whether the involvement of historians has in fact given a new status to evidence that otherwise had been dismissed, and provided the narrative material on which policymakers can base their response.

Highly relevant websites for documentation and further reading

AIFS, National Research Study on the Service Response to Past Adoption Practices, Commonwealth of Australia,

Susan Alter, Apologising for Serious Wrongdoing: Social, Psychological and Legal Considerations: Final Report for the Law Commission of Canada. 1999.

Robert Dessaix, A Mother’s Disgrace, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1994.

Kate Inglis, Living Mistakes: Mothers Who Consented to Adoption, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1984.

Janet McCalman, Sex and Suffering: Women’s Health and a Women’s Hospital, Baltimore: John Hopkins Paperbacks edition, 1999.

Monash University, “History of Adoption Project,”

Origins Inc.: ‘Who are we?’

Joint Select Committee, Adoption and Related Services 1950-1988, Hobart: Parliament of Tasmania, 1999.

Joss Shawyer, Death by Adoption, Auckland, N.Z.: Cicada, 1979.

Senate Community Affairs References Committee, Commonwealth Contribution to Former Forced Adoption Policies and Practices,

Standing Committee on Social Issues, Releasing the Past: Adoption Practices 1950-1998, Sydney: NSW Law Commission, 2000.

Shurlee Swain and Renate Howe, Single Mothers and Their Children: Disposal, Punishment and Survival in Australia, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Shurlee Swain, “Dear Problem Page, I’m Single, Pregnant And…” Lilith (November 1991).

Citation: Christin Quirk, Past Adoption Practices and the Politics of Apology. Australian Policy and History. February 2013.



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