Some people may find content on this website distressing. Read more
The Find & Connect website is changing soon Read more
New South Wales - Publications Details

Resource Section

Jennifer Bowen
Tangled Web, Part I: the silence of consent
ABC Radio National Hindsight, 20 March 2011

Post-war Australia was a time of large families and happy mothers, when contraception was limited and single parents invisible. In the first of two programs exploring the history of adoption in Australia, parents and children from the 1950s tell the stories of family secrets while social workers and midwives explain their part in a process which is coming under the renewed scrutiny of historians.

Adoption has a lengthy history, but it was only in the 1920s that legislation for adoption was enacted across Australia. At the time there was little call for it to place babies in new homes, because of suspicion about the 'quality' of children born out of wedlock. But the establishment of church maternity homes in the 1930s prepared the way for the post-war boom in adoption, as the means of providing families to couples who could not have children, and concealing the social disgrace of an unmarried mother.

Single mothers had little support - families often refused to assist, financial benefits were not available consistently across Australia - and the illegitimate child was branded a bastard. After giving birth, unmarried women were expected to stay silent; neither they, nor their children were entitled to identifying information about each other.

An adoption industry evolved, run by social workers and hospitals with the active support of the community at large. Many people now admit to knowing adopted people who were themselves unaware of their adoption; a reluctance to cause distress meant the silence was maintained.

Program I of Tangled Web tracks the development of adoption in Australia till the early 1970s, when it reached its peak with almost 10,000 babies a year adopted nationally. In the absence of any audible voice against it, adoption appeared unstoppable. But in the decade to follow, it was transformed. We'll hear how in Program II.

Glossary Terms