Post-war period: Closed adoptions and forced separation

Between the end of the second World War and the mid-1960s, the post-war ‘baby boom’ saw a large and sustained increase in the number of babies born (ABS 2007). By 1970, 8.3% of all births occurred outside of marriage, almost doubling from 4.8% in 1960 (Qu 2010; Qu et al. 2022). This period also saw an increase in the number of widows and single mothers which influenced societal attitudes, resulting in a general intolerance of ‘disadvantaged’ populations – those who were living in poverty, persons of colour, and single parents (Australian Senate 2012). These populations were seen as ‘unfit’ to provide a suitable environment for children, leading to the forced separation of children from ‘disadvantaged’ families, primarily single mothers (Australian Senate 2012).

This era of forced adoptions (also known as closed adoptions) from 1945 to the early 1970s, was based on the ‘clean break’ theory which assumed that babies’ characteristics were predominantly formed by their environment, rather than genetics. The application of this theory argued that early separation of predominantly unmarried mothers and babies would safeguard the welfare of the child (Australian Senate 2012). This is seen in the number of adoptions occurring at the time – between 1968–69 to 1971–72, adoptions in Australia rose from 6,773 to 9,798, an increase of 45% over 4 years. The number of adoptions in 1971–72 is the highest number on record. Although national data were not available before this point, analysis conducted by the Australian Senate (2012) shows that from 1951 to 1973, the rate of adoptions showed a substantial increase from about 1.15 per 1,000 Australians aged 20 to 49, to about 1.8 per 1,000.

This philosophy was also reflected in adoption legislation of the time with a model Adoption Bill developed in the early 1960s by both the Commonwealth and the States at the recommendation of the Commonwealth Attorney-General. This legislation supported the concept of ‘adoption secrecy’, where it was believed that by suppressing the child’s birth identity and creating a new ‘legitimate’ identity, “the genealogical history of the adoptive parents was now that of the adopted child” (Ley 1992, p. 101). To ensure that the ‘clean break’ theory was practised, original birth certificates and records of the adoption order were kept secret and new birth certificates were issued with only the adopted parents’ details.

Clean break theory also implied that white married couples with secure incomes represented the ‘ideal’ family unit and were regarded as the only family capable of providing appropriate care for children (Australian Senate 2012). If a child was born into a family where these ideals were not met, and they were unable to be adopted, institutionalisation was believed to be more beneficial than keeping the child with their family. Although this philosophy affected many families who did not fit the ‘norm’, single mothers were the most affected (Inglis 1984; Jones 2000). Between World War II and 1975, about 30–40% of unmarried women who became pregnant spent time in an institution to conceal their pregnancy before having their child taken from them upon birth (Swain and Howe 1995).