Significance and Innovation

The innovatory significance of this project lies in its focus on the experience of participants in the adoption process – experience which has been nowhere assessed in its relationship to policy. In its simultaneous embrace of  private experience and public practice (and the discourses that mediate these) it will speak to the significance of adoption within private lives, to its function as the object of policy makers, and to the impact of  policy on practice. We cannot predict the outcomes of this analysis.

Despite its ubiquity in Western nations during the twentieth century, adoption has been slow to attract the attention of historians. American scholar E. Wayne Carp offers three reasons for this comparative silence: the focus of child welfare professionals on contemporary research; the secrecy provisions surrounding much of the evidence; and the reluctance of social workers to revisit what is now commonly seen as a ‘failed’ policy (Carp Family Matters 1998). Many of the existing histories have been produced as part of the campaign to overturn past policies: eg Else (A Question of Adoption 1991) on New Zealand; Swain and Swain (1992) on Australia; Howe, Sawbridge and Hinings (Half a Million Women 1992) on the United Kingdom.

In recent years, several North American historians have begun to study the subject. E. Wayne Carp’s pioneering work on the rise and decline of secrecy in adoption in the United States appeared in 1998, followed by several edited collections exploring different aspects of the American adoption experience (Askeland Children and Youth 2006; Carp Adoption in America 2002). These studies produce national narratives  drawn by their archival base into telling a story about social workers and agencies rather than families and children. The recent Canadian history, Veronica Strong-Boag’s Finding Families, Finding Ourselves: English Canada Encounters Adoption from the 19th Century to the 1990s (2006) incorporates the voices of family members in one chapter, but does not attempt to integrate their pain in the causal narrative.

The practice of adoption in Australia runs in parallel with that of other settler societies, but our national anxieties about race and population suggest that our story will be significantly different (Cuthbert, Quartly and Murphy, 2009). Very little has yet been told. Historians and other scholars have studied the Aboriginal experience of families lost and sometimes regained (Edwards and Read 1989; Haebich 2000; Mellor and Haebich 2002). Others have told the stories of white single mothers forced to ‘put out’ their babies for adoption (Swain and Howe 1995), of white mothers adopting Aboriginal babies (Cuthbert 2000; 2001) and of adoption agencies (Howe and Swain 1993). Participants have written powerful accounts of their experience of adoption (Dessaix 1994; Chick 1994). Yet knowledge about the history of adoption in Australia remains partial and local. Marshall and McDonald’s The Many-Sided Triangle (2001) gives a useful overview of the legislative and policy changes that have affected adoption practice, but provides only minimal insight into the diversity of experience. Our comprehensive study will inform policy makers by asking questions which go beyond the sociological concern for the ‘efficiency’ or otherwise of adoption, to consider the outcomes of adoption from the point of view of those whose lives have been changed by it – including for the first time the voices of fathers, birth and adopting. Evidence at a long series of parliamentary enquiries (Bringing Them Home, 1997Releasing the Past, 2000Forgotten Australians, 2001Lost Innocents, 2001Overseas Adoption in Australia, 2005) has revealed the pain still suffered by individuals – pain which can only be addressed by some public recognition of its power, its impact and its causes.

These enquiries have less often reflected the voices of those whose experience has been joyful, that is, those for whom the adoption experience has been positive and rewarding. The project aims to capture the full range of experiences, and to analyse the historical factors shaping these different trajectories.  Thus it will fill a significant gap in the nation’s self-understanding by explaining the changing place, meaning and significance of adoption in our society and, in particular, the significance of adoption for Australian families and for Australian conceptions of the family. In so doing it addresses a key aspect of the government’s Designated National Research Priorities: ‘Understanding and strengthening key elements of Australia’s social and economic fabric to help families and individuals live healthy, productive, and fulfilling lives’: the key element here being the family.

The project’s academic outcomes will be significant for many fields of history: the history of the Australian family; the story of legal identity and citizenship in Australia; the history of whiteness, in terms of the adoption both of Aboriginal children and of babies from Asia and Africa; and the story of changing understandings of what constitutes personal identity. The study also has theoretical implications, challenging current assumptions within feminism, where recent battles over essentialist/constructionist/postcolonial issues have pushed concepts such as family, motherhood, and social identity to the sidelines. And historical changes in the practice of adoption necessarily query the objectivity of legal, welfare, and medical ‘knowledge’.

The methodology of the project is innovative in that it brings together three categories of source materials and methods of analysis normally isolated within historiography: practice, discourse, and experience. We include archival research relating directly to the practice of adoption: the records of legislatures, government, charitable agencies, and support groups of every persuasion; textual sources open to analytical readings: novels, magazines, newspapers, and the published products of agencies, activists, and legislatures; and – less obvious but still open to analysis as discourse – research papers in sociology, social work, and psychology. And we are centrally concerned with the evidence of self-reflective experience located in autobiographies, participants’ published accounts, existing oral histories bearing on adoption and life histories contributed for the project by adopted children, birth parents, adoptive parents, other family members, social workers and other professionals. In what is perhaps the most innovative aspect of the project, oral history subjects will be invited to become active participants, historians in their own right, contributing to a website where they can publish their stories and comment upon others.

The website will serve a number of inter-related functions. People involved in the adoption process will be invited, via the site, to sign up as participants to the project, to place their own histories on the site, or to edit their interviews as contributed by professional oral historians before these are placed on public access. Use of this site will also allow the immediate publication of research outcomes such as statistical data, bibliographic listings of archival and textual material, and conference papers, and we will encourage online conversations of a scholarly kind.