In this document we will speak
from and for our own viewpoint. Others have often appropriated the voice
of natural mothers and we do not wish to do the same for other natural
In past decades, numerous pregnant women, many in their teens to mid-twenties,
were unsupported, vulnerable and powerless. They were expected to surrender
their newborns to adoption. The terms and methods used to extract that
expectation over time have ranged from overt familial, systemic and social
condemnation to covert methods extolling the mothers' self-sacrifice to
provide a "better life" for their newborns through adoption.
At the time of surrender, many of those young mothers were regarded as
"adult" enough to make a legally binding "decision"
These same mothers 20, 30, 40,
and 50+ years later should be treated as adults. They should have open access
to knowledge of the children they lost to adoption. These same now-adult
children are for the most part older than their mothers were when they were
expected to make the original life altering "decision" for both
of them. In any other circumstance we would not expect a mother to be denied
the reality of the child to whom she gave birth nor be denied the unrestricted
knowledge of what has happened to her child.
- without independent counsel,
legal or otherwise,
- with little or no choice
and few, if any, options provided, and
- without adequate information
about or the life experience to comprehend the lifelong ramifications
of adoption and closed adoption records for themselves and their babies.
Historically the separation
for many single mothers and their babies has been based on punishment.
Margaret Jane Hillyard Little, in her book "No Car, No Radio,
No Liquor Permit - The moral Regulation of Single Mothers 1920 - 1997"
"The debate inside Queen's
Park was only part of a larger controversy that continued concerning
morality and premarital sex. Unwed mothers became the scapegoats for
much of this societal turmoil about moral standards. Dr. Marion Hilliard,
Chief of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the Women's College Hospital
[Toronto] believed that an unwed mother should be punished by having
her child adopted:
"When she renounces
her child for its own good, the unwed mother has learned at lot. She
has learned to pay the price of her misdemeanor and this alone, if punishment
is needed, is punishment enough."
Other social workers and officials representing homes for unwed mothers
echoed Dr. Hilliard's philosophy". (1998, p.135)
The quote is from 1956 and
that philosophy reverberates across Canada and through the decades in
the variety of methods used to separate mother and child.
The many mothers and children
who have been separated by adoption across Canada come from different
decades. Their individual circumstances are as varied as the mothers and
their children, but all share the consequences of separation. Those mothers
- those who believe they had
- those who had choice,
- those few who wish anonymity,
- and many, many who had little
or no options or choice provided but adoption.
Both natural mothers and people
adopted should have, as all other members of Canadian society, the same
right to open access to knowledge of each other and open access to their
own personal information.
The promise of confidentiality
to surrendering mothers has been used in numerous jurisdictions as the
reason personal adoption records and information are withheld (except
through intermediaries) from those they affect the most: natural mothers
and their children surrendered for adoption. The original intent may have
been to keep the personal records of natural parents, the person adopted,
and adoptive parents private from those whose interests they did not serve.
However, misinterpretation over time has been used against the very people
it should serve and support. The information may be better kept confidential
to public viewing, but it is not better kept from the mother and her child,
to both of whom that information is vital.
Our survey of membership, Canada-wide, has not produced one mother who
was promised confidentiality. Mothers who have asked for the documents
they signed at the time of surrender say they do not have any reference
The myth of promised confidentiality has been unchallenged and allowed
to stand because of the silence of the majority of mothers. The silence
of the majority is not the confirmation of a promise but more likely a
direct effect of the trauma, stigma, marginalization, and victimization,
as well as the unresolved grief and loss attached to adoption for many
natural mothers. In the past, surrendering mothers were told they would
"forget" and to "get on with their lives." Their trauma,
grief and loss have been ignored and unacknowledged until recent years.
Given the history of practices familial, systemic and social that victimized
many unsupported pregnant women, it is not surprising that so many remain
silent. The shame and blame that surrounded many "unwed" mothers
of the past continues to victimize today.
Weis & Borges (1977) define victimization as "
process that before, during and after the event simultaneously renders
the victim defenseless and even partly responsible for it." (Worell
& Remer, 1992, p.202)
Under that definition, the myth of promised confidentiality can be described
as attributing blame to the mother and making her responsible for closed
adoption records although she had and has no power to enact legislation.
Many Adoption Orders and registries
supply people adopted and the adoptive parents with the name given at
birth for the person adopted, which includes the surname. The surname
is usually that of the natural mother. If the issue were confidentiality,
the surname would not be released. Furthermore, in many cases, the mother's
surname was the child's surname until the adoption was finalized, an event
which may not have occurred for some years after the child was taken from
the mother, as in cases where children had challenges or difficulties
that made them hard to adopt. If the issue were confidentiality for the
natural family, these names would have been sealed at the time of the
child's removal, not at the later adoption.
A past practice in each province that affected mothers who stayed in maternity
homes was the requirement that they name the baby's father so he could
be contacted to extract financial reimbursement, after proof of paternity,
for costs incurred by the surrendering mother (Petrie, 1998. p.123). This
practice was not enacted at the request of the mother. Many mothers were
afraid of the father because of rape, incest, abandonment, threats, abuse
or violence. By contacting the father, women who may have escaped these
threats were again put at risk by this intervention. If confidentiality
were the concern, this practice would not have occurred.
Confidentiality has ensured that many natural mothers are silenced. It
perpetuates the construction of unmarried pregnancy as a shame for the
mother. This "confidentiality" is thus a part of the continuing
punishment and price paid by mothers. It is not a reward for losing their
babies. It is dehumanizing to label all natural mothers as wanting protection
from their own children. It also creates a distorted unnecessary barrier
between mothers and their children lost to adoption.
Open Access to Information on our Children and Adult Children
The humanitarian move by some
governments and agencies for open adoption reinforces experiences from
other jurisdictions and builds upon what has been known for decades. It
is not in the best interests of a mother and her child to be separated.
Adoption should be a solution of last resort when all options and resources
to keep mother and child together have been exhausted, particularly in
the case of infant adoptions where the mother has not been proven unfit.
Adoption should be considered only one solution that provides alternative
care for a child deprived of his or her family NOT an option that deprives
a child of his or her family of origin.
Progressive and humanitarian literature on adoption reports the many negative
effects on both natural mothers and people adopted related to the lack
of information and knowledge about each other and, for those adopted,
their natural relatives. Obtaining the vital personal information for
self-discovery and healing can be obtained, but only at a financial cost
not all can afford through the involvement of intermediaries in some provinces.
This means personal information is given to strangers rather than to the
person to whom it belongs. Strangers can have no personal commitment to
nor immediate knowledge of the importance of that information to the person
it affects most dramatically.
This requirement to pay for intermediaries who are strangers in order
to obtain personal information that the majority of Canadian citizens
have as their right is demeaning and oppressive to both natural mothers
and people who were adopted. It reduces them to second-class status or
that of infant and adolescent in the disclosure of adoption information.
Again, if natural mothers were considered adults with the comprehension
to sign the consent to adoption or other documents at the time of surrender,
although many were then legal minors, clearly today they should be considered
adults with the right of open access to information and knowledge of their
child. Those adopted who are adults, 18+ years and older, do not need
protective services required by children, but rather the respect and dignity
afforded other adult members of our society who have unrestricted access
to their own personal histories and personal information.
Open access to records for natural mothers will help many to heal and
to process their frozen trauma, grief and loss. It will allow them to
reclaim control over their right to choice, which for many was taken away
in the circumstances of surrender. Many rape survivors also want knowledge
of their adult children to be able to heal from the trauma of the rape
as well as the additional trauma of surrender. Evelyn Robinson, from South
Australia, spoke in Toronto in May 2001 on disenfranchisement of grief
and loss for natural mothers as well as the humanitarian social approach
to mothers and their children in that Australian state. The paper can
be accessed at http://www.ccnm-mothers.ca/English/articles/Robinson.htm
The reunions of natural mothers and their adult children can be successful
when both parties have access to information and are in control of the
circumstances of their lives through real choice. Open records thus biases
toward successful reunions by taking mothers out of the shadows and allowing
them to stand up for their right to know their now-adult children. Putting
mothers in a subordinate position of being contacted and shocked biases
against reunions. The loss of choice and control is very much a negative
theme of adoption for many natural mothers and people adopted.
There is legislation in other provinces and territories in Canada that
support open access for both natural parents and adult persons adopted
in British Columbia, the Northwest Territories, Newfoundland, Alberta
[November 1, 2004] and Nunavut. There is proposed legislation in process
in Nova Scotia. Ontario has presented a bill in the legislature to provide
open access for natural parents and adopted persons. Ireland approved
draft scheme for a bill on adoption information and post-adoption contact
for people adopted and natural parents. New South Wales in Australia allows
both the person adopted and natural parents the right to birth certificates
and to prescribed information from files.
We urge consideration of similar open legislation in recognition of the
short- and long-term effects of undeserved trauma on women who surrendered
their children to adoption. The new adoption legislation created in New
South Wales in December 2000 and the Inquiry into past adoption practices
in that Australian state provides models of progressive action in adoption.
The final report from this Inquiry, Releasing the past: adoption practices,
1950 - 1998: final report, is easily available on-line through the NSW
government web site at http://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au.
The recommendations ensuing from that report will assist in the understanding
of past coercive practices employed by some authorities to separate new
mothers from their babies. It is doubtful that one would find experiences
of mothers differs much in New South Wales, Canada and the United States.
It can be expected that all of these truths will emerge in time given
the upsurge in advocacy and communications worldwide by the millions of
natural mothers who lost children to adoption.
Current policies for openness in present adoptions should be extended
over time to those natural mothers and people adopted of past decades
to allow the healing and known benefits of reunion to become a reality
Original Registration of
The natural mother who gave birth to her baby surrendered for adoption
is the only person who gave birth to her baby. The original registration
of birth and the information it contains is confirmation and validation
to the mother of that birth. To deny the mother this record of confirmation
is to deny the reality of the birth to her and to society.
An adoptive family and an adoptive mother do not exist if the natural
mother does not give birth to her baby and surrender that baby to be raised
within the adoptive family. The reality of adoption is that a baby has
a mother who gave birth to him or her and a mother who will nurture and
raise that same baby. True honesty, respect for all parties, and transparency
in adoption is the acknowledgement and recognition of both mothers for
the person adopted.
In the past the original registration of live birth was sealed to create
under the law "as if born to" for the adoptive parents. That
perspective has created an illusion in adoption that has been disrespectful,
detrimental and hurtful to many natural mothers and people adopted. All
human beings are born to a mother. It is natural to have society's validation
of the reality of our children's birth as human beings and as members
of the Canadian society. This validation and social recognition is in
the form of the original registration of live birth or the original birth
certificate. It should be available without restrictions to both natural
mothers and people adopted.
Laws regarding open adoption are a positive step toward adoption policies
that respect the participants in making arrangements for the care of children.
The drawback to these laws is that the natural mother is not protected.
The contact agreement reached between the prospective adoptive parents
and the natural mother is not legally binding for both the natural mother
and her baby. It can therefore be used as a means to exploit or coerce
a mother into adoption by creating the illusion she is entering an open
adoption. The adoption can be closed at anytime without her involvement
or consent, leaving her without access for 18+years or longer.
In negotiating the terms of adoption between prospective adoptive parents
and the first mother there is a vast power imbalance. The first mother
is dependent and in a vulnerable position by the very fact of her pregnancy.
She may also be vulnerable due to factors of
- her age
- financial status,
- support or non-support
from the father of her baby
- her family
- availability of resources
that support mother and child
- life experience, and
- whether or not she has
knowledge of the lifelong negative ramifications of adoption for herself
and her baby.
The law should also represent
the mother and enforce the protection of her rights, which are in the
best interests of both mother and child in the openness negotiated in
Future Considerations for Adoption Legislation and Policies
Stated in Blackwell Companion to Social Work, edited by Martin Davies,
1997, is this statement:
Adoption is supposed to be about
finding families for children who have lost their families, not about finding
children and separating them from their families to create adoptive families.
"From about the early
1950s to the early 1970s a dramatic change took place in the practice
of adoption. For a number of reasons adoption became very popular among
the middle classes. It came to be seen as largely providing a child
to childless couples
Adoption during this period was justly described
as practiced largely in the interests of adopters, that is a child for
a home." (1997, p. 334)
Although there are mothers who believe they made a choice, those who made
a choice, and those who wish anonymity, there are many who were unsupported
and caught in and victimized by adoption practices that negated their value
in the lives of their newborns and promoted the interests of prospective
adoptive parents as being 'in the best interests of their baby'. Some of
the phrases and language used in separation are still used in adoption practices
today: "if you love your baby
..", "in the best interests
of the baby", the "unselfish sacrifice", the "gift of
love" and more recently (printed in the Calgary Herald, May, 2000)
"the ultimate gift for a childless couple."
These phrases demote the natural mother to the lesser and invisible status
of not being 'in the best interests of her baby', for being selfish for
having the natural instinct of wanting to love and raise her baby. The use
of these phrases can be oppressive and coercive when the mother is in a
vulnerable and/or powerless position and does not have the life experience,
knowledge or information to comprehend the ramifications and consequences
Historically "unmarried" mothers have been the providers of newborns
for childless couples (Ferguson. 1984, p.4). Historically social mores and
practices used in western societies have exploited many temporarily vulnerable,
powerless, unsupported mothers.
Australia is at the forefront of legislation and policies that protect,
promote and value the importance of keeping a mother and her child together.
New South Wales, Australia's Adoption Act 2000 is legislation designed
to protect the best interests of mother and child. Examples of support for
mothers to keep and raise their own children are the following:
Evelyn Robinson has given an excellent
description in her paper on the policies
for the protection of mother and child in South Australia, which has about
two million people.
- The mother will not be
permitted to sign a consent before 30 days after the birth of her child
and another 30 days to revoke
- The mother must be given
mandatory written information outlining all services and alternatives
to adoption as ways of keeping her child over choosing adoption.
- The mother must be given
mandatory written information about the short and long term emotional
consequences of an adoption decision. This includes the potential for
traumatic psychological implications to both herself and her child if
she should proceed with the adoption.
Trends today around the world
and in our own country are for open access to adoption records for natural
families and people adopted. We trust that with the knowledge we now have
of the negative impact of closed adoption records on many natural mothers,
natural families and people adopted, we can move forward to put in place
adoption legislation that restores the dignity, humanity and respect for
natural families and people adopted as well as policies and practices that
ensure family preservation.
of the impact of past adoptions has resulted in changes to current adoption
policy, which mean that there are no longer any adoptions of older children,
no adoptions by family members (including step-parent adoptions) and
no adoptions without consent. In fact, there are very few adoptions
at all in South Australia at the present time. There are also no orphanages
and no abandoned babies. Over the last thirty years, numbers of adoptions
have dropped dramatically and in the last few years there have been
only three or four Australian born children adopted per year in South
Australia." (2001, p.x)
Karen Lynn, Toronto, Ontario
President, The Canadian Council of Natural Mothers
Sandra Jarvie, Calgary, Alberta
Vice President, The Canadian Council of Natural Mothers
Josée Larose, Montreal, Quebec
Director, The Canadian Council of Natural Mothers
Sandra Falconer Pace, Regina, Saskatchewan
Director, The Canadian Council of Natural Mothers
This document may be copied in full if unaltered, unless otherwise granted
permission from the executive of the CCNM.
Sandra Jarvie - June 12, 2001, updated September 2004
© The Canadian Council of Natural Mothers
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parents and adoptive families.
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final report. Report 22, December 2000, Parliamentary paper no. 600. Sydney,
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a path to recovery.
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© The Canadian Council of Natural Mothers June 12, 2001 updated September
2004, Sandra Jarvie