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Psychological impact of forced adoption

Australian Psychological Society,psychologist,ment
Photo: Australian Psychological Society,psychologist,ment
The illegal and unethical forced adoption practices that commonly occurred in Australia through maternity homes, hospitals, adoption agencies and privately from the 1940s through to 1980s has affected thousands of people.

Research shows forced adoption can have long-term psychological impacts ranging from complex and pathological grief and loss to self-identity and attachment issues, anxiety and attachment disorders, personality disorders, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

In 2012, the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) conducted research into past adoption practices.

More than 1500 people participated in the study, including 823 adopted persons, 505 mothers, 94 adoptive parents, 94 other family members, 12 fathers and 58 service providers.
The study found mothers in labour had been tied to beds or held down while pillows or sheets were held up to obscure any view of their newborn baby.

Others had been sexually assaulted by medical professionals or experienced medical neglect or maltreatment.

Parents had been told their newborn baby was deceased, when the baby was alive, while study participants also reported that their consent to adopt was unethically and illegally obtained.

Some babies were used for medical experiments or placed with abusive adoptive parents while adoptees were also lied to about the circumstances surrounding their adoption.

The results of the study are being used to inform the development of guidelines for the delivery of support and services for people affected by forced adoption.

Australian Psychological Society (APS) spokesperson and psychologist Dr Daryl Higgins, who is the deputy director (research) at the AIFS, said an overwhelming majority of people affected by forced adoption practices revealed the experience had negative repercussions for their health and well-being.

“The kind of negative effects that we saw there related to mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression and things that would be consistent with what we would call post-traumatic stress, so that really affects every day functioning but also in particular it affects relationships,” he said.

“One of the things that I found most distressing, about the impacts that people were describing, were particularly the impacts on their relationships.

“Their relationships with partners, their relationships with children, with not only the children they were separated from but particularly other children that they may have had - that they really feel these reverberations in their interpersonal relationships throughout their lives.”

Dr Higgins said the Federal Government’s apology in 2013 was a vital part of the healing process for people who experienced forced adoption.

“I think for anyone who has experienced a significant loss or grief or trauma, a way of reconnecting with a positive thing that signifies a movement towards recognition of that loss is a way of being able to heal, particularly because it’s about that communal recognition,” he said.

“What really came home to me was the intensity of the trauma, that a significant sub-group of those who had experienced past adoption practices, were subjected to or were experiencing.

“That ongoing severity I think is in part due to that lack of recognition up until the national apology.

“Until there is recognition, it feels like people’s experiences are being denied and silenced and their trauma rendered irrelevant and inconsequential.”

The APS has received funding to develop and deliver national training and resources to assist health professionals, including psychologists, occupational therapists, mental health nurses, Aboriginal Health Workers, GPs and psychiatrists, working with people affected by forced adoption.

While the resources are still being developed, Dr Higgins said there are several key measures health professionals can utilise when working with people affected by forced adoption.

Be accepting and be aware. Clients may not disclose an experience with forced adoption. “Be willing to ask the question in an open way when taking a general kind of intake on family history,” Dr Higgins suggested. “Often we don’t ask those questions as practitioners and therefore we miss out on a part of the story that actually might help inform an understanding of what the particular issues are with a client who is presenting for either a health or medical or allied health concern. It could be that they are the parent, it could be that they are the adult, who as a child was adopted, or it could be another family member, such as a sibling.”

Use the right language. “Often people have very firm views about how they want to have their experience described so it is being sensitive, and often phrases like biological or birth mother might be quite offensive to a mother who involuntary had a child removed,” Dr Higgins said. “She might see herself as the mother and to use any adjective to describe that might diminish her experience. Most importantly, mirror the kind of language a client might be using in relation to their experiences.”

Do your research. Read about the history of forced adoption and its impacts. “Link in more broadly with the kind of research and understanding that sits behind the apology,” Dr Higgins said. Health professionals can access research including the Senate Committee Report on Former Forced Adoption Policies and Practices. There is also AIFS research including the Impact of Past Adoption Practices: Summary of Key Issues from Australian Research (2010), Past Adoption Experiences: National Research Study on the Service Response to Past Adoption Practices (2012) and the Forced Adoption Support Services Scoping Study (2014). “There are a range of other researchers around who have documented either individual case studies and particularly qualitative research that explores the experience of a wide variety of people with a past adoption experience,” Dr Higgins said.

Organisations needing support can visit here. Those interested in contacting the APS to find a psychologist for support can visit here.


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Karen Keast

Karen Keast is a freelance health journalist who writes news and feature articles for HealthTimes.

Karen regularly writes for some of Australia’s leading health news websites and magazines.  In a media career spanning 20 years, Karen has worked as a senior journalist in newspapers and television. She has covered the grind of daily news and worked as a politics reporter at countless state and federal elections.

Since venturing into freelance writing five years ago, Karen has found her niche in writing about the health sector for editors, businesses and corporations.

Karen has interviewed the heads of peak health organisations in Australia and overseas, and written hundreds of news and feature articles covering the dedicated work of health professionals who tread the corridors of hospitals and health services, universities, aged care facilities and practices, day in and day out.

Follow Karen Keast on Twitter @stylemywords