1980 to 1990: The move to open adoptions

During the 1980s, there were a range of changes to legislative and social factors surrounding adoption, such as greater social acceptance of raising children outside of marriage, and declining birth rates. This contributed to the further decline of adoptions in Australia. From 1980–81 to 1989–90, adoptions in Australia decreased by 57% from 3,018 to 1,294.

Advocacy groups successfully petitioned to remove the blanket of secrecy created by the practise of closed adoptions, with legislation implemented across Australia throughout the 1980s and 1990s (Higgins 2012). This led to the establishment of ‘open’ adoptions, with more information exchange and contact between the adoptee and the birth family. The implementation of ‘open’ adoptions has resulted in a range of improvements to the adoption process, in particular the requirement for consent to be provided by birth parents, as well as higher quality assessments and benchmarks to evaluate the suitability of prospective parents (Higgins 2012).

Reunion services were also established, initiated by NSW in 1976, to assist birth parents and adopted children from closed adoptions in making contact. Retrospective action was also undertaken to open previously closed birth and identity records in former adoptions. Likely due to changing adoption processes (Cuthbert et al. 2010), domestic adoptions (children adopted from within Australia) decreased by 70% from 2,872 to 874 between 1980–81 to 1989–90.

Over the same period, there was a 231% increase in intercountry adoptions in Australia, from 127 in 1980–81 to 420 in 1989–90. It is likely that the number of children adopted from overseas is understated throughout the mid-to-late 1970s, as evidence suggests that several private adoptions of children born overseas occurred following Operation Babylift in 1975 (Cuthbert and Fronek 2014; Forkert 2012).

The increase in intercountry adoptions can be largely attributed to the ‘adoption crisis’, with prospective parents turning to intercountry adoptions for family formation (Cuthbert et al. 2010). The societal perception that intercountry adoption was a humanitarian intervention for children in developing countries further contributed to its rising popularity (Young 2012).