Massey University School of Psychology lecturer Dr Denise Blake worked in the health sector as a drug and alcohol abuse counsellor for almost 20 years before she decided to complete a PhD thesis titled, Wade in the Water: Storying Adoptee’s Experiences’ through the Adoption Act 1955.
Dr Blake, who has personal insight into adoption, decided to complete the qualitative research in the hope of “articulating the lived-on effects of adoption for all parties, including society as a whole and in response to the legal climate”.
The “unjust, inhumane and archaic” Adoption Act 1955 created a legal fiction with regard to an adopted person’s identity, and it also severed any ties with birth families, she says.
“Adoptees in a legal sense have a constructed identity where they are ‘born to’ a new family, which renders their birth parents as insignificant. The legislation fails to recognise the relationship of the birth parents – it was an attempt to overcome illegitimacy but it didn’t do anything to fix that.”
The Act reflected the social and political discourse of the time – that you could take children from one family and give them to another irrespective of genetics or kinship, she says.
There was a principle that children could be shaped to be just like the new family. What some adoptees found is that they didn’t quite “fit” with their new family – even if they were not told of their origins.
It wasn’t about not being loved enough. There’s just a difference; adoptees can experience living in “no man’s land” which is not necessarily understood. Here, they are neither born to the birth family nor born as if to the adopted family. Society doesn’t recognise that difference because the law and society are based in a world of non-adopted people so the difference is not recognised, she says.
Severing ties with the birth family effectively forces adopted people to be disconnected and rejected. Instead the law should provide for all parties to work together because in a sense an adopted person has a hybrid identity, she says.
“It’s strange – I don’t think we as a society are ready to comprehend the fact that adopted people and birth families are a minority who are discriminated against.
“For my PhD, I wanted to articulate an experience that doesn’t exist within the language we use to make sense of our lives. For example, I have to use metaphors such as ‘no man’s land’ to try and describe the situation.”
There’s a genetic memory for adopted people, she says. The phantom limb analogy is used to describe the missing relationship with the birth family, where the presence of an amputated limb is absent but the feeling is there.
“Adoptees are made to become the same as non adopted people even despite the obvious ‘I don’t look like you, I don’t smell like you, I don’t have the same sense of taste, I might not have the same “personality” or sense of humour and yet I should feel like I should’.
“Ultimately, we don’t celebrate adopted people as being different. There’s a lack of acceptance or positive rhetoric around being adopted.”
There was and still remains a lot of shame around adopted people. It made sense in the fifties, where adopted people were the product of illegitimacy that was construed as a negative. This extended to the new family also, where there was a sense of shame with the inability to conceive children, she says.
The Adult Adoption Information Act 1985 was a great triumph in some respects, because it attempts to facilitate a connection between the birth family and adoptee, but there are problems, she says.
“Reunions can be quite sensitive. You are uniting people who might not want to be united. The reason for adoption in the first place can be quite sad and circumstantial. What’s more, you’ll have adopted people who adore and cherish their adopted parents but still want to retrieve their biological information.”
The veto clause, which allows parties to opt for non-disclosure of information is also problematic, she says.
In the case of the veto clause, adoptees are denied access to their biological history which has ongoing effects.
Going to the doctor can be an issue, for example, where an adopted person might not know their medical history – whether that be a history of cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes – they’re essentially denied health care, she says.
Inheritance can also be an issue, where an adopted person is denied any claim to their birth parents’ estate.
These are further examples for adopted people to feel excluded, second best or illegitimate – even despite the legislation trying to make them feel legitimate, she says.
The veto only lasts for 10 years, she says, and there have been many incidents where one party has sought information and the other party has not re-issued the veto, resulting in a “door in the face” situation.
Furthermore, before retrieving that information the law requires the involved parties to seek counselling. In the instance a veto situation arises, the interested party – either birth parent or adoptee – will receive a letter in the mail that outlines the declined request but they don’t get the same counselling services.
“You’ve got countless incidents where people will be rejected over and over again.”
Recognition and understanding is the way forward, she says. A new Adoption Act could recognise many of the issues and experiences adopted people and families face, new legislation would give them a voice, she says.
“The exclusion still exists. It still matters. It is still affecting the next generations. If there is a huge history of hurting, surely the legislation should reflect that? Just because we are dealing with a small constituency, it doesn’t mean the discrimination doesn’t exist.
“Prostitution has been dealt with [in Parliament], civil unions have been addressed. The same goes for same sex marriages and de facto relationships. Adoption is always left by the wayside – again there’s this theme of being second best. Adopted people are made to feel ‘not as important’.
“There are no new arguments – it’s the same stuff we’ve been saying for a very long time. It’s just a matter of the Government actually deciding to take it upon themselves to tackle this situation.”