Wendy Jacobs, B.Sc., B.A.
"The past is never fully gone. It is absorbed into the present and the future. It stays to shape what we are and what we do."
Sir William Deane, Inaugural Lingiari Lecture, Darwin, 22 August 1996.
Brief history of adoption in AustraliaAdoption was a social experiment in which babies born to unmarried mothers were taken at birth and given to strangers for adoption. It was claimed to be in the best interests of the child, who would be protected from the slur of illegitimacy and would have a better life in the adoptive family. Adoption enabled infertile married couples to have a family, and the State saved money on its welfare bill.
Adoption legislation was first introduced in Australia in the 1920s, but adoption was slow to be accepted, due to the belief that immorality and other evil tendencies were passed on from mother to child. After World War II, however, when environment was seen as more important than heredity in the development of the child, adoption became more popular. It was believed that mothers would not bond with their babies if the babies were taken immediately after birth, and the mothers were prevented from seeing them, and that babies would bond successfully with their adoptive families if they were placed as soon as possible after birth. All ties with the natural mother were then severed, the child was issued with a new birth certificate which showed him as being born to the adoptive parents, and the records were sealed.
Adoption was promoted as being in the best interests of the child. Mothers were expected to forget about their child and get on with their lives, get married and have children of their own. Adoption was seen as an instant 'cure' for infertility. None of these beliefs was based on any scientific evidence.
Reports from the 1950s of emotional problems in adopteesIn fact there were reports from Britain and the USA, from 1952 onwards, that a large number of children seen in child guidance clinics and other psychiatric services were adopted.
In 1952 a British psychiatrist, Wellisch, drew attention to a problem of adoption - the lack of knowledge of and definite relationship to one's genealogy, which he termed genealogical bewilderment, and which could result in the stunting of emotional development in adopted children and could lead them to irrational rebellion against their adoptive parents and the world as a whole, and eventually to delinquency. This was echoed in 1955 by Winnicott, who said ignorance about their personal origin made adolescence more of a strain for adopted children than other children, and in 1964 by Sants who wrote that genealogical bewilderment is a factor which frequently appears to be present in adoption stress.