Aims and Background

“To give you some background to our situation, we are both 37 years old and have been trying to have a family for 7.5 years … We applied through NSW Department of Community Services three years ago to adopt … a sibling group of 2 children from Ethiopia … The whole adoption process has taken between 3 and 4 years. We are still eagerly waiting to meet our children, and become a family.”

This story, told to the Commonwealth Inquiry into Overseas Adoption in April 2005, captures three themes important for our project: the driving desire of infertile couples to ‘become a family’, their identification of children as constituting ‘family’, and their growing impatience with bureaucracies seen as antagonistic to adoption. The Inquiry came down in support of these witnesses, arguing that adoption should be seen in some cases as in the best interests of the child. If implemented within Australia, this will be a significant policy reversal. Over the last century policy has swung between theoretical extremes, from totally obliterating the birth identity of adopted children in order to remake their identity in their new family, to keeping child and birth parents together at all costs. On a highly contested terrain birth parents and adopting parents have found themselves characterised alternately as heroes and as villains. Yet there is no comprehensive history of adoption in Australia which can assess past policy and practice, and speak to the dilemmas of policy makers and families involved in adoption.

This comprehensive history is being undertaken by a unique interdisciplinary team of researchers, supported by contributing historians across Australia. The central team of Quartly, Swain and Cuthbert  bring to the project a varied suite of approaches, disciplinary standpoints and research skills. Quartly is an acknowledged expert in the history of the Australian family; Swain is the leading historian of welfare practice and policy in Australia, especially children’s welfare; and Cuthbert, based in women’s studies, is a pioneer in the study of  Aboriginal adoption.

The project has four main inter-related aims:

  • To understand the distinctive ways in which adoption has reflected and shaped family ideals within Australian settler society;
  • To inform the making of future policy and practice on adoption;
  • To bring into history the stories of people whose lives have been changed by adoption, in order to acknowledge that experience and to read it against policy change; and
  • To assess and explain the historical outcomes of adoption in Australia, an enterprise significant both for academic knowledge and the making of policy.

Shaping family ideals

In Australian settler society the family has long been idealised as the source of individual happiness on one hand, and social stability and growth on the other. The shape of this family has changed dramatically, in ideal and in practice, and adoption practices have changed with it. In the early nineteenth century the family was imagined as father, mother, and many children working together in a family enterprise, and young strangers were taken in when they were old enough to work. By the early twentieth century the ideal had become a mother and a few children protected from work by a bread-winning father. Childhood came to be valued as a time of individual growth, and the ideal adopted child became the baby, taken in by a legal process which cut all ties with birth parents and remade the child as ‘kin’. By the 1980s the traditional model of father with dependent mother and children was set against one which claimed as family any people living in a parent-child relationship . This model worked against the old pattern of adoption by valuing and supporting the single mothers who had previously supplied most adopted babies. By not discriminating between different kinds of families it supported ‘open adoption’ in which birth ties were valued and maintained. It also supported same-sex and single parents seeking to adopt. But while this model was influential amongst policy makers and bureaucrats, the traditional ideal was and is fiercely defended by conservative voices in the community for whom adoption continues to be understood as a civic right for parents unable to ‘become a family’ by biological means. Recent historical work overseas has explored how adoption as it developed in Western countries came both to mirror and define the ideal contemporary conservative family. By delivering the first major historical study of changing ideas about adoption, this study will make a significant contribution to the history of the family and family ideals in a white Australia obsessed with the need for population growth.

Informing policy and practice

The project aims also to inform the making of future policy and legislation on adoption. Laws formally introducing adoption as a change of identity were passed in all states during the 1920s (with WA as a very early starter in 1896), and were strengthened in the 1960s by more or less uniform laws outlawing privately arranged adoptions. The numbers of adoptions rose slowly to the 1950s and then sharply, to a peak of almost 10,000 a year in 1972-73, the great majority being the babies of white mothers – poor mothers before WWII and overwhelmingly single mothers thereafter. These numbers were supplemented by thousands of Aboriginal children taken from their parents in the interests of racial assimilation. The process was officially understood as the ‘rescue’ of a child from a family seen as in some way inadequate, and its transfer to a better resourced family lacking only in children. The 1980s saw a sharp change of policy. Adoption laws were amended to allow, and in some states effectively require, an open style of adoption encouraging an ongoing relationship between children and birth parents (Boss and Edwards 1992). This was supported by a discourse within which ‘rescue’ tended to be characterised as a form of ‘kidnap’, denying the rights of both the birth mother and the child (Marshall and McDonald 2001). Adoptions declined to a few hundred a year by the late 1990s. As Australian-born infants became unavailable, adopting parents turned to children born overseas, initially from Vietnam and other Asian countries and then from disadvantaged countries worldwide. In 2005 the stories of those parents persuaded the government Inquiry into Overseas Adoption in Australia to condemn Australia’s ‘anti-adoption culture’ in the interests of ‘good and loving’ parents-to-be (Overseas Adoption in Australia 2005). The policy pendulum seems set to swing back towards the ‘rescue’ end of the dichotomy, making this a significant time for historians to contribute to the public debate (Quartly, Cuthbert and Murphy, 2009).

Stories of adoption experience

This project also aims to bring into the historical record the personal stories of the many women and men whose lives have been changed by adoption. Adoption has brought both joy and pain to individuals and families: sometimes, it seems, in equal measure. Observers have written of ‘the adoption triangle that locks birth parents, adopting parents and adopted children in a three way flow of love and disappointment’ (Marshall and McDonald 2001). Others characterise the ongoing debates as a ‘warzone’, with various parties operating from ‘the trenches’ (see Rosenwald 2004). The participants bear lasting wounds. We will address this ongoing pain in two ways: by establishing a national database of oral histories accessed through an interactive website, bringing the many and diverse stories told by participants to national attention; and by incorporating the many truths told in these stories into a national history of adoption which avoids the bleak kidnap-rescue dichotomy with its focus on the extinguishing and reinventing of legal identity. This dichotomy misrepresents the diversity of the adoption experience in Australia, both within the legal paradigm and across the range of less formal ways of caring for needy children which preceded and have continued to surround it. A historical explanation of the patterns of change in the adoption process requires consideration of change across a complex range of social and cultural phenomena. Alongside the crucial area of participant biography, our study will include changes in fertility, attitudes to sexuality, medical/psychological knowledge, and the professionalisation of social work. Adoption also needs to be understood as ‘imagined’, simultaneously constituting and being constituted by popular representations in novels, autobiographies, films, newspapers, magazines and professional journals . And, given the significant legal and administrative differences between the states (especially in the relations of adoption agencies to government), we will investigate change both at a national level and through case studies of particular jurisdictions.

Historical outcomes of adoption

This study will also assess the outcomes of adoption practice in Australia, as it has shaped both individual lives and society. Sociologists in Australia and abroad  have addressed the question: Has adoption been a success, or a failed experiment in social engineering? We will draw on their measurements of satisfaction and psychological stability to inform our study, but we see a historical account as offering a more rounded assessment. We will ask different questions, drawing upon different sources; crucially upon the stories of participants. What meanings and values have been attached to adoption in Australian society? How has the practice of adoption changed as it reflected these new meanings and values? And how has this changing practice affected those who have experienced adoption?