SocietyAugust 18, 2016

‘I was the first blood relative my mother ever laid eyes on’


An appalling and outdated law means thousands of New Zealanders still have no access to information about their identities. Bonnie Sumner wants to know why the Government refuses to recognise the terrible legacy of forced adoptions.

When my mother gave birth to me and held me in her arms, I was the first blood relative she had ever laid eyes on.

Her mother – my grandmother – was clearly unable to care for her own child, because she had had sex outside marriage. According to the wise leaders of the time, this meant she also lost all ability to feed, clothe and love her baby. So a nurse took my mum and gave her to a more responsible couple.

Thirty-five years after my arrival, my mother still doesn’t know who her father is or even if he’s alive – and had to endure the death of her mother before they could meet – all thanks to a 61-year-old law that bears no relevance to our society or to common humanity. Yet the Government is fiercely committed to doing nothing to update it.

Newborn Baby Girls Hands Holding Fathers Fingers

Between the 1950s and 1980s, around 100,000 children were adopted under the Adoption Act 1955¹, which mandated the permanent sealing of original birth records. This is no small number, and affects not just the person who was adopted, but the birth parents and extended family members too, including children (me!) and grandchildren (my kids!) who still have no way to search for their relatives.

But what about the 1985 Adult Adoption Information Act, introduced to allow adopted people greater access to birth records? In cases like my own family’s it’s so limited as to be almost useless. It gives you the right to view the original birth certificate, and only that. In my mother’s case (and in most cases of forced adoption) the certificate included only her mother’s name: it was considered shameful enough for the adopting mother to have a baby out of wedlock without dragging the father into it too.

Other documents related to the adoption like medical records, lawyer’s notes and court records – all of which can have identifying information, clues to the father’s identity, or simply information about the adopted person’s birth (so important to someone who has limited identity formation from childhood) – are sealed by the courts. Adopted persons can apply for access under the vague “special grounds” set out in Section 23 of the Adoption Act but so far only a handful of petitioners have been granted this right.

I can’t apply for this access, either. My mother has to do it herself, though from what I’ve been told by a family court judge, she wouldn’t be granted it. Legal precedent has established that the exceptional circumstances reason doesn’t apply to health grounds (for example, heredity diseases), nor to a simple desire to know.

In the face of government inaction, other institutions are stepping up. This month the Anglican Church announced it would open its books to an inquiry into historical forced adoptions. The move comes on the back of decades of attempts by various bodies to have the law updated and past wrongs redressed.

The Law Commission, the Law Society, the Children’s Commissioner and UNICEF have all said the Act is outdated. A comprehensive Law Commission report released in 2000 recommended almost 100 changes to the law, of which none have been implemented by government. These included integrating the Act into the Care of Children Act (putting the needs of the child first); automatic provision of two birth certificates to the adopted person upon registration of an adoption order (including a full birth certificate that lists all details of the person’s birth and subsequent adoption); and providing access to adoption records (including court records and Department of Social Welfare records) by adoptees, adoptive parents and birth parents.

In 2010, a Human Rights Commission report highlighted the need to review adoption legislation. Then in March this year, the Human Rights Review Tribunal ruled the Adoption Act 1955 to be discriminatory and in breach of the Human Rights Act and Bill of Rights Act. Commenting on the decision, retired Family Court judge Paul von Dadelszen said: “This decision by the Human Rights Tribunal sends a clear message to the Government that it cannot delay any longer the updating of the 1955 Adoption Act. It is not now good enough for any Minister to say that there are other priorities…”

So basically everyone is calling for something to be done and the Government is doing… nothing. Because it has other priorities.

According to a statement by Justice Minister Amy Adams, paraphrased in Stuff, “the Government acknowledged past adoption practices had caused difficulties but would not open an inquiry, saying it needed to prioritise current Child, Youth and Family reforms.”

Because in order to take care of our current cases of child abuse, government needs to pretend they’ve never committed any abuses in the past and ignore their continued legacy. Sounds rational. Here’s an idea: how about we protect our vulnerable children AND apologise to those who were wronged – and finally update the law.

Thousands of New Zealanders like me are desperate for the missing pieces to our genetic and cultural puzzles. Access to these is a fundamental human right. The Act needs to be scrapped, adopted people and those forced to adopt them need their records unsealed, and the Government needs to recognise and apologise for these past wrongs.

About the Adoption Act 1955

The Act was introduced under the misguided idea that a ‘clean break’ was best for everyone – this meant the permanent sealing of original birth records and the creation of an entirely new identity, what’s known as a legal fiction. While this might sound cool and Jason Bourne-y, it’s not. In fact, the right to know is at the heart of identity formation. While the circumstances differ, the psychological experiences of adopted people are often remarkably similar. While not every adopted person has a desire to find their birth parents, many struggle with issues of abandonment and identity that are complex and enduring.

At its height, this booming business was placing close to 4000 New Zealand newborns a year with caregivers other than their birth mothers – more than half of those with strangers. Known as closed stranger adoption, this is still the only legal form of adoption in New Zealand. (Open adoption, where the relationship between the biological parent/s is known to the adopted child and adopting parents, is not enshrined in New Zealand law.)

In 1985, and after a decade of trying, MP Jonathan Hunt’s Adult Adoption Information Act was finally passed, famed secrecy supporter Robert Muldoon having told him he’d “never get a vote while I’m Prime Minister”. It allowed adopted people to access their original birth certificates, albeit under a slew of restrictions. Adoptees still have no access to any other court records, birth or medical notes, or records such as lawyer’s notes from the adoption – many of which can have important identifying information – even for medical reasons like hereditary disease identification.

Adoptions in New Zealand now number fewer than 100 per year. More common circumventions include open adoption, fostering (non-permanent care) and whāngai – the traditional Māori practise of informal and often open inter family care – another tradition that was forcefully taken from mana whenua by the Act’s introduction more than 60 years ago.

Attitudes to adoption may have changed, but the poisonous legacy of the Act remains.

1. Griffith, K. C. New Zealand Adoption Law, History and Practice (Wellington, 1997)

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