Mothers Who Lost
Their Children To Adoption:

Canadian Mothers' position
on open records and
future adoption legislation

The Canadian Council of Natural Mothers supports open access to personal information in adoption records and access to the original registration of live birth for both natural mothers and adult adopted persons.

Canadian Council of Natural Mothers

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 relatives.

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"

  • 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.
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.

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" wrote:

"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 include

  • those who believe they had choice,
  • those who had choice,
  • those few who wish anonymity, and
  • 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.


Confidentiality

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 to confidentiality.

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 "…the social 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 for many.

Original Registration of Live Birth

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.


Open Adoption

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 the adoption.


Future Considerations for Adoption Legislation and Policies

Stated in Blackwell Companion to Social Work, edited by Martin Davies, 1997, is this statement:

"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)

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.

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 of separation.

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:
  • 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.
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 recognition 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)

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.

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

________________________________________

References

Carlini, Heather. (1997) Birth Mother Trauma. A Counseling Guide for Birth Mothers.
Saanichton: Morning Side Publishing.

Davies, Martin. (1997) Blackwell Companion to Social Work.
Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

Ferguson, Evelyn. (1984) The Real Cabbage Patch Kids: An examination of the Canadian private adoption system. Occasional Papers in Social Policy Analysis.
Toronto: Dept. of Sociology, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Herman, Judith, MD. (1997) Trauma and Recovery: The aftermath of violence from domestic abuse to political terror. New York: Basic Books.

Little, Margaret Jane Hillyard. (1998) No car, no radio, no liquor permit: The moral regulation of single mothers in Ontario, 1920-1997.
Toronto: Oxford University Press.

McColm, Michelle. (1996) Adoption Reunion: A book for adoptees, natural parents and adoptive families.
Toronto: Second Story Press.

New South Wales Parliament, Legislative Council, Standing Committee on Social Issues. (2000) Releasing the past: adoption practices, 1950 -1998: final report. Report 22, December 2000, Parliamentary paper no. 600. Sydney, N.S.W.: Author.

Petrie, Anne. (1998) Gone to an Aunt's: Remembering Canada's homes for unwed mothers.
Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.

Robinson, Evelyn. Adoption and Loss-the hidden grief.
Paper 2001. Based on her book, Adoption and Loss-the hidden grief.

Soll, Joe. (2000) Adoption Healing. …a path to recovery.
Baltimore: Gateway Press.

Worell, Judith and Remer, Pam. (1992) Feminist Perspectives in Therapy: An Empowerment Model for Women.
West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Verrier, Nancy Newton. (1997) The Primal Wound: Understanding the adopted child.
Baltimore: Gateway Press.

© The Canadian Council of Natural Mothers June 12, 2001 updated September 2004, Sandra Jarvie