The relaxation of laws on access of information has lifted more than a veil of secrecy from adoption records and practices. But, as Kate Kirk discovered, the
search for natural parents is not always blessed with a happy and lasting reunion. KATHLEEN CARMODY reports
For Kate Kirk, who was adopted at the age of five weeks, the process of
searching for her natural parents and coming to terms with her situation has been “highly emotional and psychologically very difficult”.
“I have been through both stages of searching and reunion, which has
been excruciating,” says Kate, now 29 and a mother of two.
She began the search for her origins 11 years ago.
She had been among the thousands of children put up for adoption in 1972 – the peak year
in NSW – when adoption was widely held to be in the best interests of both an unmarried mother and her child.
Adoption was regarded as a ‘clean break’, with the child cut off permanently from its natural
parents. It was seen as the easiest and fairest system for all, but especially for children, not least because it removed the stigma of illegitimacy.
Secrecy was paramount; so, many adopted children were
never told of their true status.
However, attitudes – and legislation – were gradually changing. The right of access to information was recognised.
And in 1976 the Adopted Persons Contact Register was
established, allowing adult adopted persons and natural parents to seek contact with each other.
It was not until 1990, though, that major changes came into effect with the introduction of the Adopt-ion
Information Act, which granted substantial rights to both adopted children and relinquishing parents.
Kate says that she always knew she was adopted but did not know much about her natural parents.
“My (adoptive) parents were able to obtain some background information supplied by my birth mother at the time she made arrangements for my adoption.
“The letter I received detailed that my birth mother was
Dutch and my birth father was Hungarian,” she says. “The letter also supplied me with a brief history of both of my birth parents and a photograph of my birth mother.”
Despite these details, Kate felt she still did not have an identity.
So, at 18, she registered on the contact list for information about her mother. Her natural mother had also registered “and was interested
in a reunion”.
They exchanged photos and a letter.
“The letter I received from her was a little vague and made no reference to my birth father,” says Kate. “Curious, I called my case manager and asked
if my birth mother had mentioned anything about my birth father.
“I was told that he had died in a car accident the year I was born; however, the name the case manager gave me for my birth father was
different to the one I had been given nine years earlier.
“I was told by my case manager that after my birth mother had seen my photo she realised that my birth father was someone other than the one she had
volunteered at the time of my adoption.
“So, all of a sudden, I was not of Hungarian heritage, the name I had associated with my birth father for nine years was wrong and the real birth father was dead.”
Kate says she never questioned the information she was given, openly believing and accepting everything her birth mother told her. Over 10 years, a relationship developed with her mother and her family and the
family of her birth father. The reunion was heralded as a great success.
But something still didn’t add up.
“Something inside me kept feeling that what I had been told just did not add up. The story
was patchy and cracks began to show,” Kate says.
“My birth father’s parents, my birth mother and I were (DNA) tested. The results were devastating. This man who I had come to believe, again, after 10 years …
was not my birth father at all,” Kate recalls.
She concluded that the man she had originally thought was her father must be her real father. And he was still alive.
“Before embarking on the search
for the originally named birth father, I had long conversations with my birth mother. She insisted that the only possible father would be one of the two she had told me of – there was no way it could be anyone
else,” she said.
Kate went ahead with the search, found the man and persuaded him to have DNA testing.
But the results were negative. He was not her birth father either.
“My world fell apart,” Kate says.
Her birth mother’s reaction was scathing and hostile. “She was insensitive and mean, and asked how I could do this to her.”
Kate is now convinced that her mother knew
all along that neither man was her father. She has now suspended contact with her.
Audrey Marshall and Margaret McDonald warn in their book – The Many Sided Triangle: Adoption in Australia (Melbourne
Uni-versity Press), published last month – of the profound effects of reunions, describing the experience as a “roller coaster of emotions” for all involved.
However, they agree that, despite the risks and
costs associated with reunion, “the great majority of those who achieve a reunion will judge the experience to have been successful or worthwhile”.
Marshall and McDonald say the balance has swung very
strongly away from adoption as a solution to unwanted pregnancies. Some social workers encourage girls as young as 14 or 15 to keep their babies so they won’t suffer the feelings of regret or long-term mental health
problems that are often associated with relinquishing a child.
The authors argue that some adoption workers operate within a mindset that is anti-adoption, irrespective of individual circumstances and
Open adoption is seen by many as the best arrangement because it allows relations with the birth parents or extended family to be maintained throughout, obviating the need for later reunions.
The NSW Law Reform Commission recently highlighted the need for consistent legislation reflecting the current knowledge and understanding of adoption.
After noting that adoption is “a well understood and
familiar legal concept”, the commission said “there is a relevant and valued place for adoption today as one in a range of alternative care options for children unable to be cared for by their birth parents”.
The Adoption Bill 2000 is now in the final stages of drafting.