The Painful Legacy of Adoption
THE AGE: 30-Jun-1993
In the past, adoptive parents were encouraged to raise the child as their own and birth parents were advised to forget about the child.
Now adoption is open, but the complex issues of separation remain significant throughout the lives of those involved.
TRISH feels like skipping in the street. Eleven years after first being reunited with her birth mother _ "feeling like we were stepping on eggshells every time we met" _ her mother finally admitted that she had refused to sign the adoption papers for three months, before being bullied into giving up her baby by the parish priest.
For Trish, discovering that her mother was so reluctant to agree to an adoption has brought to an end years of suffering and feelings of abandonment _ and even occasional thoughts of suicide.
"Until last week I felt like a suitcase which had been left at a station and picked up by someone who really didn't want it. That sense of despair has gone now.
Trish, 44, is just one of the tens of thousands of adoptees living in Victoria. While the advent of abortion and the single mothers' benefit in the early 1970s have drastically reduced the number of children put up for adoption each year, thousands of adoptees still live with the pain of separation from their natural parents and the associated sense of rejection.
Some welfare organisations are concerned that there is insufficient recognition in the community of the traumatic effects of adoption, and a lack of support for the families involved.
Dr Sheila Parks, consultant psychiatrist at the Royal Children's Hospital who works with adopted children, says while many adoptions work out, "adoptees do not have the same experience as a child brought up by his or her biological parents".
"Giving a child a family is one of the most splendid things a human being can do, but one must remember that it may not, necessarily, be as easy for the adoptee. How many times does a mother look at her child and ponder over which family member the child most resembles that day? An adopted child is always looking but never finding.
It is a point not lost on Trish. Adopted in 1949 at the age of nine months, the 44-year-old nurse talks about the stigma of adoption that clouded her childhood, and the profound effect that had on her life.
"Adopted children were regarded as having bad blood. I used to walk to school with my best friend. We were very close. When her mother found out I was adopted, the walks and the friendship terminated immediately.
Sometimes, she says, the pain of being rejected was so great that suicide seemed the only way to stop it. "Most adoptees hate birthdays. I hate Christmas because it's for families. It's such a genetic-related society. People assume adoption is a good thing, but it's roots ... genes ... which are important. You can't even go to the doctor without being asked about your family. Without a family we don't have the same rights.
Trish never married. She explains she has always been cautious of close relationships. "I would have liked children but I have lived with the feeling that that if my mother didn't want me no one would.
At its inception in Australia in the 1920s, adoption was seen primarily as a service to provide middle-class childless couples with a child to cement their marriage and meet their emotional needs. With no effective means of contraception, let alone a single parents' benefit, many illegitimate children were born and relinquished.
Society and the church endorsed it.
There were so many relinquished children that couples planning to adopt only had to show proof of their infertility and their racial origin was closely examined to assure "the best match".
But times have changed. According to the Register of Births, Deaths and Marriages, there are between 62,000 and 64,000 adoptees in Victoria. From 1969-72, there were 1800 adoptions each year. In 1992 there were 31 _ mostly infant adoptions.
The introduction of the single mothers' benefit under the Whitlam Government in 1972 and the ruling, in the same year, by Mr Justice Menhennit of the Supreme Court that pregnancies could be terminated if a mother's health was considered at risk, have
made adoption all but extinct.
Further developments have ensued. Under the Adoption of Children Act (1984) adoptees over the age of 18 can obtain their original birth certificates, court and adoption agency records and other assistance to trace their natural parents. In the past nine years, a total of 18,500 people have registered _ 12,000 to 13,000 of these adoptees.
These days relinquishing parents are actively involved in the selection of permanent care givers and are encouraged to continue to have contact with their children.
But while adoption numbers plummet, there are thousands of adoptees who have grown up with the legacy of separation. Bridgid, 24, was told she was adopted as a baby, when she was seven. But, she says, she always knew "because the three of us (her, a brother and a sister) looked so different".
A self-assured young woman, Bridgid, claims she feels lucky that she was adopted. "I had a happy childhood. I've done drugs a bit and been on the streets, but that's because I let the wrong type influence me.
It had nothing to do with being adopted.
The unemployed Bridgid has had the papers to contact her birth mother for two years but has done nothing about it. Why? "I'm lazy. I even think I know where she lives. But I'll go through the proper channels.
It would be too hard on her to just ring up and say: `I think I'm your daughter'.
Bridgid is one of thousands of children adopted in the 1960s. Now they are young adults and some are finding the going tough.
Dr Frank Bishop, consultant psychiatrist at the Royal Children's Hospital for 18 years, who specialises in the effects of separation and loss on infants and children, says children can remain angry about the broken attachment to their birth parents.
"Adoption was regarded as good. But in reality it's a severe emotional insult to be rejected by a birth mother. Adoptive parents are told love and affection are important but adopted children may need more.
Gillian Thomas works at the Victorian Adoption Network and helps adoptees locate and reunite with their birth parents. Ms Thomas had an illegitimate son at 18. With no family support, she had him adopted.
Later she married and had four children. Four years ago the son she relinquished made contact. "No one talks about the long-term effects of separation. Society saw it as my solution, but my son who was adopted is always searching for an identity," she said.
Ms Thomas said the biggest shock was to realise that her son did not consider that the adoption was in his best interests. "I thought, quite naively, that it would be me that would feel the pain. Then came the realisation of the ripple effect of adoption, which was still impacting on myself and my family.
"I have had other children, which only exacerbates my son's sense of worthlessness. He is caught in-between. People want that genetic link.
My son considers he reflects nothing and identifies with nothing.
There are no Australian studies available on the long-term effects of adoption but some overseas studies indicate the effects are significant. Two American papers examining psychological and academic adjustment in adopted children (D.M.Brodzinsky, L.M.Singer and A.M.Braff, `Child Development', 1984) show that adopted children are rated as more poorly adjusted compared with non-adopted children, but are still well within the normal range of behavior.
A University of Texas study by Dr Harold Grotevant, Dr Ruth McRoy and Ms Vivian Jenkins in 1988 of 50 adolescents in residential care, showed that adopted children are referred for psychological treatment two-to-five times as frequently as their non-adopted peers.
Dr Bishop from the Childrens' Hospital says many of the problems he sees arise when adoptees have been placed in alternative care following the failure of the adoption.
Indeed, some welfare organisations argue that it is imperative that adoptive parents, clinicians and society realise the traumatic effects of adoption and provide better assistance for families who have adopted children.
Sue Green, convenor of Origins, Advocacy and Kinship, a voluntary group for adult adoptees, said she is concerned that in cases where adoptions do not work out, adoptees and their adopted parents do not have enough support to resolve their differences.
Ms Green said the system is based on quick fix solutions that provide alternative care _ such as group family homes, substitute and foster care _ when problems arise. "It means the child is rejected twice _ once by his or her birth mother, then by the adoptive family. This often leads to the child running away from the alternative care and becoming homeless.
Ms Green, who is the last of a large family, was adopted when she was a baby when the family doctor advised her mother to relinquish her.
"I was brought up to think I was the chosen baby. I was never bitter because I always knew I was adopted and knew I had a birth and adoptive family. Not everyone is so lucky.
However, Ms Green said many adoptees feel they do not have a culture.
"You live with people who don't look like you, no personal reference points. Yet the spirit of the birth family is passed on independently of the contact with that family. When problems arise between adoptees and their adopted parents, the welfare system removes them. The consequences are dire.
Brother Alex McDonald, a Jesuit who has worked with homeless young people in St Kilda for 10 years, says of the 147 suicides of young people caused by drugs and abuse in the area over the past decade, 142 came from adoption backgrounds.
He says the high incidence of suicide among adoptees indicates that there should be more understanding and support for them in the community. "One lives with constant questions: `Who am I? Why am I here?' "Young adoptees who have problems with their adoptive families look to the streets to find verification for their identity. They often link in with the criminal and welfare systems, which focus on the problem, not the person.
Brother McDonald was estranged from his own mother until last year, having been raised in Catholic Institutions after being transported to Australia as a small boy under the post-war Child Migrant Scheme.
Community Services Victoria's program manager (monitoring and review), Mr John Prent, said the incidence of breakdowns between adoptees and their new families should not be exaggerated. He said that, of the 1059 placements over the past six years there were 39, or 3.6 per cent, total breakdowns.
"Of the 50,000 to 60,000 adoptions over the past 50 years, the vast majority have been very successful. Where there are difficulties, the emphasis of CSV is to support the child within the family. Only as a measure of last resort is consideration given to placing child in another family.
He said that in the case of a total breakdown, adoptive children were placed in family group homes and cared for by cottage parents who usually had their own children. Placements in institutions had been phased out over the past 20 years.
SUPPORT AND SELF-HELP GROUPS Victorian Adoption Network 167 Drummond Street, Carlton. Phone: 663 8064, 008 334 043.
Association of Relinquishing Mothers, 57 Annandale Crescent, Glen Waverley. Phone: Gillian on 803 3331, Merrilyn on 570 4826 or Robyn on 798 1166.
Origins, Advocacy and Kinship, POBox 5260 BB, Melbourne 3001.
Geelong Information Service, Suite 2, 142 Little Ryrie Street, Geelong. Phone (052) 222991.
Adoption Information Service, 29 Coventry Street, South Melbourne.