A national framework: access to information
Adoption may change a person's legal identity, but there are things it
can never change. Mothers forever remember the baby to which they gave birth,
and often adopted people grow up wondering about their family of origin, especially
their natural mother whom they may never have met. Parents wonder what happened
to their children and how they have grown up; children wonder whether they have
siblings, or what their cultural background is, or their family's health
history. And some adopted people don't wonder—because
they are never told the truth about their identity—until they find out by
accident the circumstances of their birth, sometimes very late in life.
a mother, an adopted person, or another family member—decides to find out about their relatives,
it is often the beginning of a long, slow and expensive journey of discovery,
and one that too often ends in disappointment. Records can be hard to locate,
differ from state to state, and seldom include the names of fathers, even when
they were known to the women who registering the birth. Some information is
subject to vetoes from other parties, while in other cases there can be rules
preventing contact, even if information is available.
Record-keeping, access to information and contact provisions are areas
which are all provided for in legislation across Australia, however the extent
and exact nature of the provisions vary from state to state. Many submitters
suggested that this is an area in which the Commonwealth should pursue a
national framework to ensure consistency, and provide better access to
information about identity and adoption history.
This chapter outlines the current situation across the states with
regard to birth certification, access to adoption records, and the procedures
in place to govern any contact between the relevant parties after adoption has
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare's annual publication Adoptions
Australia summarises how adoption operates in Australia:
When an adoption order is granted, the legal relationship
between the child and the biological parents is severed. The legal rights of
the adopted child are the same as they would be if the child had been born to
the adoptive parents. The legal rights that exist from birth with regard to the
birth parents (inheritance and name, for instance) are removed. A new birth
certificate is issued to the child bearing the name(s) of the adoptive
parent(s) as the legal parent(s), and the new name of the child, if a change
As a result, there generally exist for any adopted person two birth
certificates. The first, often secret, and seldom held by either parent or
child, is the original birth certificate. The second, and legally current, one
is the certificate on which are named only the adopting parents.
Problems regarding the production and subsequent access conditions for
birth certificates were raised repeatedly by submitters to the inquiry. The
committee heard evidence from both adopted people and mothers saying that the
truthful recording of a birth was fundamental to a person's identity:
The naming of a child is so fundamental a concern that it has
been recognised by the United Nations in the Declaration of the Rights of the
Child, which states in principle 3:
The child shall be entitled from
his birth to a name and a nationality.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,
ratified by Australia in 1996, states in similar terms, in article 24.2:
Every child shall be registered
immediately after birth and shall have a name.
As an adoptee, it is hard to feel you belong when you do not
look like anybody you live with, and your genetic self does not fit. Then on
top of that to have certificates full of lies, mistakes and half-truths adds to
the confusion of your identity. Even a prisoner of war has a serial number and
a rank that define his identity, and that is respected. My son's right to have
his original name on his original birth certificate was finally fulfilled last
year. He knows the meaning of his original name and how that ties to his family
of origin, me.
The committee also heard evidence that the birth certificate provided
validation of the woman as the child's natural mother:
I never got a birth certificate. To me, that is
acknowledgement that I have given birth, that this child is mine.
This mother thought she was going mad, and we had to have the
counselling team heavily involved. She knew she had a baby but the records said
she did not have a baby. 
The practice of producing two birth certificates was undertaken
throughout Australia. The committee heard from a number of organisations who
thought that this not only caused confusion and difficulty in accessing the
records, but also exacerbated the anxiety of the mothers, and children
involved. Vanish Inc. suggested that the Commonwealth had a role in this
The Commonwealth has condoned the Australia-wide practice of
issuing two birth certificates to adopted persons. Not only does this
perpetuate the lie that adopted persons are as if born to their adopted parents
but also the two names create identity confusion for adopted persons.
Adoption Jigsaw concurred with the view:
I think it is also that the Commonwealth showed no leadership
in terms of any issue to do with adoption at any time. The example I gave in my
submission is the issuing of birth certificates. One assumes that a birth
certificate is an honest document. In the case of adoption a new certificate
was issued which nominated the adoptive parents as the parents. We at Jigsaw
have over the years had many people who did not discover they were adopted
until they were 40 or 50 years of age, because they had a certificate that
enabled them to believe that and because their parents did not tell them. It
seems to me that—whether the state or the Commonwealth—there was no overseeing
of birth certificates. They should not be a fiction but in fact should be an
honest description of someone's birth. I guess it is very concerning that, to
my knowledge, that state still exists in many states, not in Western Australia
but in other states around Australia.
According to evidence it was only the second birth certificate, produced
with the names of adoptive parents on it, that was considered legally valid for
the purposes of identification. This led to some submitters accusing the
system of perpetuating a 'lie' that the birth certificate accurately reflected
the details of the birth:
[W]ith the lie that this birth certificate implies that his
adopters gave birth to him, with his birth certificate a blatant lie.
If we are going to change things then we are going to say I
am her mother in the continuum. Whether somebody else became her mother later
is irrelevant. I am that child's mother. I birthed her, I registered her and I
should be able to get that birth certificate. In many ways I think it is a
sleight of hand almost that the birth certificate gets put away somewhere and
the 'real' certificate is that of the adoptive parents—and that continues. 
Origins Victoria proposed that the two documents be different and for
both to be identifying documents:
[W]e also talked about birth certificates before. Origins
lobbies for the original birth certificate and an adoption certificate and for
the child or the person who was adopted to use either as legal tender.
In her thesis Adopted Persons' Access to and Use of their Original
Birth Certificates: An Analysis of Australian Policy and Legislation,
Miriam Mandryk considered Article 8: part 2 of the United Nations Convention on
the Rights of the Child was relevant to the issue. The section in question
Where a child is illegally deprived of some or all of the
elements of his or her identity, States Parties shall provide appropriate
assistance and protection, with a view to re-establishing speedily his or her
Mandryk reasoned that, as some of the actions involved in forced
adoption were illegal, governments have a responsibility to help rectify issues
with these children's (now adults') identity documentation – in this case,
The legality of actions around past adoptions is a complex issue, and
the committee has not considered this at the level of individual cases. While
there were many forced adoptions, some at least of which probably involved
breaches of the law, not all were forced. Whatever approach is taken to rectify
the situation, one of the challenges is that it must be able to be applied to
the records of all adoptions.
The inclusion of fathers on birth
The issues of consent and the recording of the father's name on the
birth certificate appear to be inextricably linked. The committee received
evidence that if the father's name was going to be on the birth certificate
then he would have had to consented to the adoption along with the mother. It
was suggested that this would have caused delay and potentially substantially
more work for the authorities. Origins Victoria submitted that '[s]everal
of our members have mentioned that Social Workers failed to acknowledge the
fathers or actively removed their names from legal and informational
One of the submitters who maintained that she insisted that the father's
name be put on the birth certificate said:
[T]he birth certificate was bodgied up by the mother
and baby home who never put the father's name on a birth certificate—I did not
know this but that was normal practice because it was easier for them to then
get a signature from one woman and they could just leave the father out of it
altogether. I know they deliberately did that because I was adamant his name go
on the birth certificate. He visited me. He came there. Still it did not go on.
It was commonplace for fathers' names to be omitted from birth certificates.
This sometimes caused a great deal of pain and anxiety for everyone involved.
The evidence the committee received is very similar to that submitted to the
NSW Legislative Council's Standing Committee on Social Issues as part of their
inquiry into past adoption practices. They cited testimony from the AASW
setting out the procedures required for a father to be on the birth
If she wanted the father's name it would be necessary for the
father to sign, I think, a statutory declaration in front of a JP to give his
permission for his name to be given.
This process of requiring a separate declaration by the father
apparently resulted in a very small number of fathers being recorded on the
birth certificate. The NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages gave
[L]ess than two per cent of original birth certificates from
the period up until the 1980s included the name of the birth father...[T]his may
have been due to the reluctance of fathers to contact a justice of the peace,
or their lack of knowledge of this requirement.
Another mother described the indifference of adoption agencies to
ensuring that this information was recorded, and highlighted the impact that
the omission of the father's name ultimately had on the child:
had to prove that the father was really the father. If the father was not
willing to give information about his name and details, or whatever, to go on
the birth certificate they had to then chase them to put it on, but they did
not want to. It was too much trouble because they had that many babies pouring
through anyhow that it was just extra work for them. But that is a common thing
and a lot of adoptees will say that. Their father's name is not on it. A lot of
mothers will say, 'But I told them.' That hurt my son a lot, I know. 
Consistent with evidence that fathers had to take active steps to be
legally recognised, Origins Victoria cited Ingles (1984) who said in his book Living
Mistakes: Mothers who consented to adoption:
In this atmosphere of punitive moralism, fathers by nature
were not fathers in law unless they placed themselves in that situation.
Furthermore, the committee heard from the Tasmanian Government
Department of Health and Human Services who said that prior to 1988 there was
no process for an unmarried father to have his name put on the birth
certificate which would have triggered a requirement for authorities to obtain
My understanding is that [a father's consent] was only
required since the 1988 legislation. It was set out that if a man had done
certain things such as put his name on the birth certificate then he had
acknowledged paternity and his consent was required.
The general adoption legislative situation in Tasmania has developed
over the years, but the issue of consent before 1988 was governed by the Adoption
Act 1920. This provided very little in way of guidance on the requirements
for parental consent, other than to say:
Police Magistrate] shall...require the consent of the parents, whether living
in or out of the state, or such One of them as is living at the date of the
application, or if both the parents are dead, then the legal guardian of the
child, or if one of the parents has deserted the child, then the consent of the
It appears that fathers were often not named on birth certificates,
despite their names being provided either by the fathers themselves, or by the
mothers. The committee understands that this situation has sometimes caused,
and continues to cause, anger and distress for all the parties concerned. The
following section explores the evidence the committee received on changing
birth certificates to include fathers' names where appropriate.
Changing birth documentation
A recurring request from submitters to the inquiry was that amending
birth certificates and other documentation should be made much easier than it
is at present. One of the submitters in Perth recommended that:
[A]dopted adults be allowed to reclaim their true identities,
which show that they were born to the natural parent, and be given back their
own true original birth certificate stating this truth. Substitute parents
should have no say in this matter. Other adults in society are allowed to make
their own choices and adoptees should not be discriminated against and treated
as if they were forever children. Natural fathers who do not have their names
mentioned on the original birth certificate should have the right to have their
names added now if they so wish.
Another submitter described the importance of being able to change the
birth certificate to accurately reflect the natural parents:
I applied for her original birth certificate to see what she
would see once she applied for it, and I was furious that there was a blank at
her father's name...I insisted that they change the birth certificate, which
they did. The issues of records are extremely important, and I find it
astounding that donor and surrogate children may be in the situation of not
being able to find their parents in the future.
MacKillop Family Services wrote that the ability to correct or amend
birth documentation was one of the many unresolved issues for these mothers:
Errors in the recording of information, in particular
relating to the circumstances of conception and birth of the child. Mothers
have a right to correct these details, and this is an important step in their
reclamation of power over the recording and circumstances of their motherhood. 
In WA the Association Representing Mothers Separated from their Children
by Adoption (ARMS WA) gave evidence that Western Australian legislation has
historically prohibited the surname of the mothers being kept, and had also
prevented the adopted person from obtaining their original birth certificate
with their original details on it:
In 1926 a further amendment was made to the act to prevent
adult adoptees from discovering their original identity when they applied for a
birth certificate. A provision was made so that the original register of births
could not be opened for inspection except with the approval of the
The Monash University History of Adoption project confirmed this
situation, outlining the legislative amendments to the WA Adoption of Children
Act in the 1920s:
1921—Major amendment to introduce secrecy. Adopting parents
objected to child retaining original surname. Amendment meant that adopted
child assumed the adoptive parents surname but kept his/her original first
(Christian) names. Adoption records only open to inspection with permission of
the Master of the Supreme Court
1926—Legislation to amend Adoption Act to prevent adopted
child from obtaining original birth certificate. Up until then a new
registration was not made on adoption—apparently a notation of the adoption was
just made on the original birth entry. Hence on applying for a birth
certificate adopted children might suddenly realise that they were not the
children of those who adopted them, and whom they had always regarded as their
Allowing subsequent modification of a document as basic as a birth
certificate should never be lightly undertaken. However the committee believes
there is a strong case in this situation. The committee understands the
reasoning behind the production of two birth certificates. Equally, it
understands the suggestion put by Origins Victoria, which discussed the
possibility of both the original birth certificate and the certificate that
represents the transfer of legal responsibility to adoptive parents both be
recognised as legal documents of identification by all relevant authorities.
This is a matter of some legal and technical complexity. For example,
risks of security, fraud and identity theft may mean that governments would be
very cautious around allowing any individual to have dual, legally valid
identity documents that included different names. While the committee
sympathises with the objective of ensuring that each person's complete identity
is respected, it does not want to support reforms that increased the scope for
fraud or identity theft.
The committee understands that, under its current adoption laws, Western
Australia now uses an integrated birth certificate that records all details in
one record: original parents, adoptive parents, and the adoption.
Mandryk suggests that a certificate of this nature be made available to all adopted
people who apply for it.
The committee notes that this would avoid fraud and identity theft issues, and
agrees that such a certificate could be made available in all jurisdictions.
12.33 The committee recommends that
- all jurisdictions adopt integrated birth certificates, that these
be issued to eligible people upon request, and that they be legal proof of
identity of equal status to other birth certificates, and
- jurisdictions investigate harmonisation of births, deaths and
marriages register access and the facilitation of a single national access
point to those registers.
Adding new information to old birth certificates should also be
approached with caution, but the committee believes there are cases where it is
warranted. Subject to appropriate controls being in place to verify paternity,
the committee supports the names of fathers being added to pre-adoption birth
certificates. The process of adding a father's name should be rigorous, but not
unduly costly or time consuming.
It may be appropriate that a policy governing the addition of a father's
name to a certificate should be applied to certificates registering a birth to
any single woman (not only those whose child was then adopted). The committee's
recommendation is narrower in scope, simply because it did not receive evidence
12.36 The committee recommends that:
- All jurisdictions adopt a process for allowing the names of
fathers to be added to original birth certificates of children who were
subsequently adopted and for whom fathers' identities were not originally
- Provided that any prescribed conditions are met, the process be
administrative and not require an order of a court.
Access to documentation and information management systems
Access to adoption information, documentation and other records that
accompany adoption was of great importance to submitters. Most states have relatively
recently established systems around access to information that gives control to
the parties involved in the adoption. However these systems are not uniform.
Each state has markedly different processes and regulations. The committee
examined the provisions in each jurisdiction, in some cases writing to state or
territory governments seeking a clearer picture of why they chose to operate
systems in a particular way. The information below draws on the work of the
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) which collates annual data
for adoptions across Australia, as well as from the states' own post adoption
The systems for managing the access to information and potential contact
between parties vary across the states and territories. Contact vetoes for
example are used in some states. As the term suggests a contact veto allows
one party to an adoption to block contact from another party to the same
adoption. Contact vetoes are usually managed within a system that either
periodically checks with the interested parties to ensure that a veto is still
wanted, and/or involves a mediation service acting as an intermediary to liaise
between parties to see if contact would be possible.
In some states such as South Australia a party to an adoption can veto
identifying information being released to another party, and that state does
not have any systems to manage contact. In the Northern Territory a party to
an adoption can veto the release of information and contact separately.
A common feature across the country is that different parties to an
adoption can have access to differing kinds of information about an adoption. Their
identity (and sometimes other facts such as the age of the adopted person) will
dictate whether the party receives identifying information such as name and
current whereabouts; or whether they receive non-identifying information that
gives details of things like occupation, or the religion that a child was
A number of jurisdictions also use some form of register or message bank
that allows parties to an adoption to register their wishes regarding access to
information or contact. This is usually managed by a post-adoption service
that also may provide mediation and counselling services in conjunction with
the management of the information.
New South Wales
Access to information in NSW depends on whether an adopted person is
under or over 18 years old and whether an adoption order was made before or
after 1 January 2010. For adoptions that took place before 1 January 2010,
an adopted person aged 18 or over is entitled to have access to his or her
original birth certificate and to information about his or her origins. Natural
parents also have the legal right to identifying information. If the adopted
person is under 18 permission of the adoptive parents or guardian is required,
and the willingness of the adopted person or natural parents to be contacted is
also a factor.
The identifying information about a person involved in an adoption
and/or an adopted person's siblings can include:
- Date of birth; and
Documents that contain identifying information are an adopted person's:
- Original birth certificate—which has the names and addresses of
birth parents and the adoptee's name at the time of their birth
- Amended birth certificate—which has the names and addresses of
adoptive parents and the adoptee's name after the adoption
- Birth record and adoption order—which have the adoptee's pre and
post adoptive names and the names of all of the people involved in the
Where an order of adoption was made before 26 October 1990, natural
parents and adult adopted persons are able to lodge a contact veto. On the
lodgement of a contact veto, it becomes an offence for the recipient of
identifying information to try to make contact with the person who imposed the
contact veto. Information about that person can be released if the applicant
for the information gives a written undertaking not to use the information to
Contact veto provisions do not apply to adoptions made after 26 October 1990.
The Adoption Information Unit of the NSW Department of Health and
Community Services manages a number of registers that people can use to convey
their wishes and manage their information. These are:
Reunion and information register
Birth parents, adoptive parents, adoptees, their birth
siblings, grandparents and relatives can use this register to contact a person
from whom they were separated by adoption.
Contact veto register
If the adoption was made before 26 October 1990, and you are
an adopted person or birth parent, you can prevent contact from the other party
by registering a contact veto. The veto only prevents contact. It does not
prevent the release of identifying information about the people involved in the
Advance notice register
Birth parents, adoptees over the age of 17 years and 6 months
and adoptive parents may register if they wish to delay the release of
identifying information for two months, giving them time to prepare for
Victoria's Adoption Act 1984 governs access to adoption
The locating and provision of family records and information on adoption is
facilitated by the Victorian government's Family Information Networks and
Discovery (FIND) service.
Access to identifying and
All parties to an adoption in Victoria can apply for information from
the FIND service. An adopted person is entitled to all information contained in
their adoption records, including identifying information about the natural
parent(s). However if the adopted person wishes to obtain information that is
not part of the adoption records concerning the current whereabouts of the natural
parent then permission from the natural parent is required.
According to the information on the FIND website any party to the
adoption can apply to receive a copy of the adopted person's original birth
certificate and adoption records.
However, identifying information about an adopted person can only be released with
the written consent of the adopted person if he or she is aged 18 or older, or
of the adoptive parents if the adopted person is under 18.
Natural parents are entitled to non-identifying information about their child's
placement and relevant adoptive family history, which is obtained from the adoption
Contact and information register
There is no contact veto system in Victoria. However, there are
restrictions allowed on the release of identifying information, noted above, which
can be placed by adopted persons. This system, operated by FIND, involves maintaining
an adoption information register in accordance with the Adoption Act. The
register records relevant people's wishes in relation to giving or receiving
information and making contact. On registering the contact details, desires
about providing information, obtaining information, or meeting other people
involved in an adoption are entered onto the Adoption Information Register. All
information is kept strictly confidential. Registered applicants can update or
cancel the details on the Register at any time.
Adult adopted people are entitled to receive information about their
origins, including the names of their natural parents if available. Other
parties may only receive non-identifying information initially. The search and
intermediary support that FIND provides may facilitate identifying information
being exchanged between parties.
The committee sought further information on Victoria's regulatory
framework, and the state government responded explaining the reasoning behind
the their current access to information provisions in the Act:
The Act places restrictions on the provision of identifying
information in line with privacy considerations, and established safeguards
such as seeking agreement between parties and the provision of counselling by
an adoption information service.
Access to identifying and
The Queensland Adoption Act 2009 makes different provisions for
the release of information depending on whether an adopted person is under or
over 18 years old and whether an adoption order was made before or after 1 June
1991. The Queensland Government funds a post adoption support service (PASQ)
that assists those people engaging in a search, providing information,
counselling and mediation between relatives if required.
Adopted persons and natural parents are entitled to receive identifying
information once the adopted person has reached 18. Queensland has specific
criteria in place regarding information to and from natural fathers:
Identifying information can be
provided to an adopted person about his or her birth father and to the birth
father about the adopted person if
- he consented to the adoption, or the need for his consent was
- he is recorded on the birth certificate as the person's father;
- Adoption Services Queensland's records demonstrate he accepted
paternity of the adopted person before or at the time of the adoption; [or]
- there is otherwise sufficient evidence to satisfy Adoption
Services Queensland that the man is the adopted person's biological father.
Eligible relatives of an adopted person or birth parent who signed an
adoption consent can also obtain identifying information. This includes
siblings of the adopted person who were not themselves adopted.
Contact vetoes and statements
Queensland still effectively has a contact veto mechanism in place for
adoptions that took place prior to 1991, although the commencement of the Adoption
Act brought significant changes to the provision of identifying information.
Even if a request for no contact is in place, identifying information can be
provided, as long as the person seeking information has signed an
acknowledgment indicating that they are aware that a contact statement
requesting no contact is in place and that it would be an offence to contact
the other person.
The reason that there is still a veto mechanism in place is that the
repealed Adoption of Children Act 1964 made provision for 'objections to
contact', with objections to contact and the disclosure of identifying
information to be lodged by adopted people or natural parents affected by an
adoption order made before 1 June 1991. Under new legislation that commenced
in February 2010, objections to contact have been replaced with 'contact
statements'. However, all objections which were in force under the repealed Adoption
of Children Act 1964 continue to operate under the new legislation. They have
the effect of a contact statement specifying a request for no contact (thus
operating as a contact veto).
A contact statement does not need to be renewed: it remains in place
unless revoked by the person who lodged the statement or the person dies.
Offence provisions with a maximum penalty or imprisonment for two years apply
if an adopted person or natural parent affected by an adoption order made
before 1 June 1991 contacts another party who has requested no contact.
The release of identifying information can be restricted only if the
Children's Court has made an order preventing the release of identifying
information where the release would pose an unacceptable risk of harm. 
Access to identifying and
Natural parents, adoptive parents and adopted persons may apply for
access to identifying and non-identifying information about the adoption from
departmental records. Permission for access is at the discretionary authority
of the departmental Chief Executive Officer. The committee did not receive
evidence about how this discretion is exercised in practice.
Identifying information may contain the names, addresses, ages or dates
of birth and occupations of the people involved in the adoption when it took
place. Non-identifying information is from adoption records and files, and provides
details about a person who is part of an adoption but does not identify that
person. This information may include a physical description, hobbies or
interests, education or medical details.
Since 1995, future contact and exchange of information between parties
is facilitated by an adoption plan. This must be negotiated between natural
parents and prospective adoptive parents before a child is placed. The plan
becomes part of the Adoption Order and operates until the adopted person
becomes an adult.
Outreach and messagebox system
In Western Australia, a 'message box system' operates, which allows
anonymous contact between the parties.
Information and contact vetoes in Western Australia were prohibited under
changes to the Adoption Act 1994 by the Adoption
Amendment Act 2003. The amendment prohibited the placement of any new
information vetoes or contact vetoes on adoptions since that date and existing
information vetoes ceased to be effective from 1 June 2005.
The Western Australian Government's Past Adoption Services provides a
limited outreach service or alternatively, a licensed mediator may be able to
assist parties to make contact.
Access to identifying and
In South Australia, adopted people aged 18 or over can have access to
information in their original birth certificate, as well as the following
- The names and dates of birth of birth parents, if known.
- The names of any siblings who were also adopted and who have also
reached 18 years of age.
- Any information held on record that relates to the birth parents
and the circumstances of your adoption.
- Any message, information or item that has been left by another
- The authority to obtain their original birth certificate.
Once the adopted person reaches 18, the natural parents can have access
to the following information:
- The name given to the adopted person by their adoptive parents.
- The names of the adoptive parents.
- Other relevant information relating to the adoptive parents or
the adopted person.
- Any message, information or item that another party has left.
Adoptive parents also have the right to access information relating to
the natural parents only if they have the consent from the adopted person.
They can also access any message left for them.
If a person applies for adoption information and a veto has been placed
(see below), the Department can still release non-identifying information. In
these circumstances, an adopted person can find out information about their
adoption that does not allow the person placing the veto to be traced. Such
information could be details about their natural parents interests and
backgrounds found on the adoption file or messages left by their natural
Information veto and messaging system
Vetoes for adoptions completed after 1989 were prohibited by the Adoption
Act 1988. However if the adoption took place before 17 August 1989 then the
parties to the adoption can place a veto on identifying information being given
to other parties. A veto lasts for a 5 year period with a reminder being sent
to the placer of the veto prior to its expiry. It can be revoked at any time by
the party who placed it. The system also allows for a message to be left
explaining the reasons for the veto.
The committee wrote to the South Australian Government seeking
information on the background behind the decision to allow an effective veto to
be placed on pre-1989 adoptions. The Government of South Australia responded
[B]ecause most previous adoptions had been conducted in
secret and parties were told that their identities, including the child's,
would never be revealed to one another, the South Australia Parliament
introduced the concept of the veto system.
However they also said that the veto was not necessarily insurmountable:
In practice, careful social work intervention can involve the
exchange of non-identifying information (such as letters) between parties to an
adoption through the Department acting as an intermediary while a veto remains
in place. This sometimes leads to parties feeling comfortable enough about the
other party to remove the veto and allow direct communication between them.
Following the enactment of the Adoption Act 1988 (SA), adopted
people, natural parents, adoptive parents and certain relatives are legally
entitled to get adoption information once the adopted person turns 18 years of
Adoptive parents are able to lodge a veto to restrict identifying information
about themselves being released to the natural parents, with a provision that
this does not prevent the adopted person and the natural parent from making
contact with each other.
Access to identifying and
In Tasmania, an adopted person aged 18 or over may apply for access to
his or her pre-adoption birth record and information from the adoption record.
The committee assumes that this would include identifying information of a natural
Natural parents, natural relatives and lineal descendants of an adopted
person may apply for non-identifying information at any time or for identifying
information when the adopted person is aged 18 or over. Adoptive parents may
apply for non-identifying information at any time, but may receive information
that includes the name of a natural parent only with the written permission of
the natural parent concerned.
The Adoption and Permanency Service provides a number of services for
those looking for assistance in searching for information about an adoption,
albeit at a significant cost. One of their roles is to manage the veto system.
The right to information is unqualified, but a contact veto may be
registered. Any adopted person, natural parent, natural relative, lineal
descendant of an adopted person or adoptive parent may register a contact veto.
Where a veto has been registered, identifying information is released only
after an undertaking not to attempt any form of contact has been signed. An
attempt to make contact where a veto is in force is an offence. A contact veto
may be lifted at any time by the person who lodged it.
Australian Capital Territory
Access to identifying and
The ACT's Adoption Act 1993, provides for access to identifying
information for adopted people, adoptive parents, natural parents and natural relatives
where the adopted person is over 18 years. Before the Adoption Act 1993, no
provision for accessing adoption information existed. However, the Act is
retrospective, so information is now available for adoptions that occurred
under the previous Act. The system allows for identifying information to be released
but to say no to future contact or communication.
The Act provides for an unqualified right to information, but also gives
the adopted person aged over 17 years 6 months, an adoptive parent, natural
parent, adult natural relatives, adoptive relatives and adult children or other
descendants of the adopted person the right to lodge a contact veto. The veto
has to refer to a specified person or a specified class of persons. On the
lodgement of such a veto, it becomes an offence for the information recipient
to try to make contact with the person who imposed the contact veto. Under the
Adoption Amendment Act 2009 vetoes can no longer be lodged in respect of
adoption orders made after 22 April 2010.
Reunion information register
The ACT government also provides a Reunion Information Register for those
who wish to register their wishes to meet other parties to their adoptions.
Access to identifying and
Up until 1994 there was no provision in the Northern Territory for the
release of information about an adoption to anyone, even those most intimately
involved. In 1994 the Adoption of Children Act 1994 was passed which
provided for a more open process, with identifying information being available
unless a veto has been lodged. All parties to the adoption are able to apply
- Non-identifying information which was recorded at the time of
- Information which identifies the person/s and their address at
the time of adoption;
- Documentation which will allow an adopted person to obtain their
original birth certificate.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander childcare agencies are authorised
to counsel for the purpose of supplying identifying information.
The NT Government Department of Children and Families Adoption Unit
provides information and counselling to adopted people, natural parents,
adoptive parents, and former State Wards.
Contact and information veto system
A three-year renewable veto may be lodged by the adopted person or natural
parents with respect to adoptions finalised before 1994. There is no veto
provision with respect to adoptions finalised under the new Act.
The veto can apply to:
- identifying information to another party to the adoption;
- contact with that party; or
- both contact and identifying information.
From its review of adoption information laws, the committee has observed
areas of cross-national consistency. Most jurisdictions operate systems that,
for adoptions that occurred since the law reforms (typically in the 1990s),
allow full exchange of information once an adopted person is over 18, and allow
managed exchange of information before they reach that age.
For adoptions that took place under the older laws, most jurisdictions,
while improving information accessibility for older adoptions, have found ways
to maintain restrictions that reflect the past secrecy provisions associated
with 'closed adoption'. Every jurisdiction has a mechanism to prevent contact
between parties if one of more party wants to prevent it.
In one important area, however, there are significant differences. Three
South Australia and the Northern Territory—have
systems that allow some parties to prevent others from obtaining identifying
information, not just preventing contact. In each of these jurisdictions, the
arrangements are slightly different. Victoria's system was the one about which
the committee received most evidence, perhaps reflecting the large number of
adoptions that took place in that state, and therefore the large numbers of
As noted earlier, under Victoria's rules, an adopted person can put in
place a restriction on the adoption information register that prevents natural
parents from obtaining identifying information about their child. Origins
Victoria were critical of this provision, asking:
why a mother was discriminated against, when for decades
adoptive families knew her identity, and the current legislation
disenfranchises her right of identifying information of the child she carried
and birthed... Origins argue that to deprive a mother of 50-80 years of age of
identifying information relating to the person she carried and birthed is not
only a veto it is cruel.
Veto provisions that have similar effects exist in South Australia and
the Northern Territory, however in those jurisdictions vetoes must be renewed
regularly to maintain their validity. In Victoria this is not required.
In Victoria, the proportion of cases in which natural parents fail to
obtain identifying information about their child is relatively high, despite the
efforts of Family Information Networks and Discovery (FIND) in search and
mediation services. This is in part because a natural parent cannot get
identifying information if FIND fails to locate the adopted person.
Analysis of 2009-10 figures supplied by FIND shows that, of the 70 cases where
a natural parent registered and sought information about their child,
the majority of these cases did not result in the exchange of identifying
information, with over a third of them because the adopted person refused to
release it, or because they could not be found.
In contrast, the proportion of cases affected by South Australia's veto
system appears smaller (though the figures are not directly comparable). South
Australia stated that
For approximately the last 5 years, only about 1 to 2 per
cent of the applications for adoption information each year have encountered a
veto by the other party. At 30 June 2011, 439 adoption information vetoes were
in place in South Australia. 
The total number of South Australian vetoes represents only a few
percent of adoptions that took place in that state prior to the introduction of
the new legislation in 1989. Although there are differences between South
Australia and Victoria, in both cases the number of parents affected by the
vetoes is relatively small. Evidence received by the committee shows that the
impacts on those parents is however very great.
Victoria argued that its system was the result of a careful balancing of
rights, including to privacy:
The Act placed restrictions on the provision of identifying
information in line with privacy considerations, and established safeguards
such as seeking agreement between parties and the provision of counselling by
an adoption information service. With regard to adopted persons, however, the
best interests of the child were seen to override such considerations, and
identifying information was to be provided to adult adopted persons as a right.
The committee notes that Victoria maintains a relatively high level of
support for parties to adoptions seeking to reconnect with their families. It
recognises that Victoria was the first jurisdiction to reform adoption laws,
and is to be commended for its early work in this area. However now, a quarter
of a century on, it may be time for them to be further reformed.
Decisions about the information disclosure provisions in Victoria's new
legislation were based on the paramountcy of the rights or interests of the
child. However, an adopted person over the age of 18 is no longer a child. At
that point, the basic legal principle should be that they take on the rights and
responsibilities of an adult. These rights and responsibilities extend to the
right to manage contact with other people, but also the responsibility of
accepting that individuals cannot control all information held about themselves
by others, particularly other relatives.
The committee notes that NSW, Queensland, Western Australia, Tasmania
and the ACT between them include the majority of Australia's post-war
adoptions. None of these jurisdictions allows an adult party to an adoption to
be prevented from having identifying information about other adults. The
committee did not receive evidence to suggest that the policies in these
jurisdictions caused significant problems for affected individuals. Those
problems that it heard about appeared associated with a lack of counselling or
preparation, rather than with the receiving of the information itself.
In any case, the committee questions whether the principle of
paramountcy of the interests of the child provides relevant guidance in forced
adoption cases, for two reasons. First, in many cases of forced adoption the
mother was herself a child at the time. Both were children, and both may seek
to claim protection of their rights as children. Second, where adoption was
forced, it is not clear why that unethical use of force should be allowed to
attenuate the interests of one party (the natural mother) as against the interests
of others. In short, the committee does not believe that paramountcy of the
rights or interests of the child can provide meaningful policy guidance on how
to frame information and contact provisions of adoption laws as they pertain to
people who are now adults.
The active assistance of a service such as FIND in Victoria can sometimes
overcome initial resistance that a party to an adoption may have to the release
of identifying information. South Australia, when discussing its information
vetoes, observed that:
On the whole the current veto provisions, along with careful
Social Work assistance for those parties affected by them, have provided good
outcomes for parties to adoptions in this State. In most cases the best
possible balance is achieved of allowing access to information to those who
seek it and respecting the right to privacy for parties who wish to maintain
Effective support by post-adoption services is valuable, but the
problematic cases remain those where 'allowing access to information to those
who seek it' conflicts with 'the right to privacy for parties who wish
to maintain it'. The South Australian correspondence provided no information
that would show why this conflict should be resolved through an information
veto rather than, as in most states, through a contact veto.
Finally, the committee is aware of concerns around some current 'contact
statements' in Queensland, particularly the grandfathered 'objections to
contact' that were lodged in conjunction with the first tranche of law reform
in Queensland, in 1990-91. The concerns have arisen because of controversy
around the passage of the legislation, and the discovery of some fraudulent
forms objecting to contact. These forms had been improperly placed on the files
of adopted children, preventing contact by natural parents, without the adopted
children knowing that the form had been placed there.
12.100 There were also
specific concerns around the placement of contact vetoes affecting Indigenous adopted
Another thing that Link-Up finds sometimes is that the
no-contact statements that were put in place at the time of the adoption are
actually not the wishes of the birth parent. They were the wishes of the
authorities that were taking the child away. There was an idea that if they
severed the relationship completely, the child would never know their
witnesses called for Queensland's system regulating contact to be reviewed or
Mrs Rennie: ...Another recommendation that Link-Up would like
to make is for a review of no contact statements. I think there is importance
in protecting the privacy of birth parents but there is a responsibility to a
child as well so that they can have the full understanding of who they are.
Dr Feeney: We definitely, like you, were pointing out about
reviewing them. We have talked to Jigsaw about this, but there are a lot of
examples where they were not made with the fullest possible understanding.
CHAIR: They were also made a long time ago.
Mrs Rennie: And they just carried on every time the
12.102 ALAS stated:
In 1991 another injustice was done by the Queensland
government in setting up the veto system. This system needs to be abolished and
there need to be a full investigation into those vetoes that are still current.
Some innocent adoptees are waiting for their natural mothers to contact them,
when the adoption department has told the mothers that the adoptees do not want
contact with them—a waste of valuable time for the sick and aged innocent
12.103 The committee supports
harmonisation of adoption legislation across Australia, to provide consistency
in the accessibility of information for all parties involved in adoption. It
believes changes need to be pursued in some jurisdictions that will allow access
to all information, identifying or otherwise, for all parties once they have
reached adulthood. The committee is concerned that indefinite contact vetoes
(or their effective equivalents, however described) may be inappropriate, and
that making them open-ended increases the risks of them being improperly placed,
or simply incorrect, such as is the case on some Queensland files.
12.104 The committee recommends
that the Community and Disability Services Ministers Conference agree on, and
implement in their jurisdictions, new principles to govern post-adoption
information and contact for pre-reform era adoptions, and that these principles
- All adult parties to an adoption be permitted identifying
- All parties have an ability to regulate contact, but that there
be an upper limit on how long restrictions on contact can be in place without
- All jurisdictions provide an information and mediation service to
assist parties to adoption who are seeking information and contact.
12.105 Not all adoption
information is contained in the official adoption records held by state
authorities. The hospitals, homes or institutions that the women gave birth in,
or spent time in as part of their birthing experience, also hold important information
such as medication received, or the circumstances that caused the mother to
consent to the adoption.
12.106 Information from
non-government agencies (NGOs), homes and institutions can often be much more
difficult to obtain than officially state held records. Many of the
institutions are not operating anymore and the information recorded at the time
has been lost. Even if records have been located, their quality can be
variable, providing little useful information.
12.107 The NGOs
responsible for the operation of institutions that provided care to mothers and
babies seem to be in agreement that the exercise of trying to obtain records has
been a trying process for all those involved in past adoptions. They agreed
that steps should be taken to ease the burden for those attempting to access
their records. During the committee's hearing in Hobart the Salvation Army gave
evidence that illustrated the problems faced in trying to obtain information:
In today's terms I would call them rather scant records. We
have a record of every person who was admitted, when they came in, when they
left and when the child was born. There are lot of incomplete records as to the
outcome of the birth—whether the child was adopted or taken home with them. We
have some idea of the length of time that they remained in the hospital, but
that is the limit of the records.
12.108 In response to
questions on what kind of medical information would have been recorded in the
records that the Salvation Army did have, Major McClimont responded:
[B]ased on information that I have from what are really large
ledgers that go back to 1923. The information indicates—certainly, from that changeover
brief—that they kept cards on every resident. Now, those cards are lost. I only
have a number of cards that indicate what might have been the medical practices
at the time. So we have a number of examples of that, but we do not have a
complete set of records at all.
12.109 In their written
submission Catholic Health Australia accepted that the process of trying to
obtain records for homes that they were responsible for has not always been as
easy as it should have been:
Our anecdotal experience is that those who do come forward
find accessing their records, making contact with their family members, seeking
counselling for their grief, and seeking to remedy any wrongs overly complex.
12.110 The Benevolent
Society saw the need for uniform access to information and adoption records.
In their submission they recommended that the:
Commonwealth Government drives the national standardisation
of legislation and regulation about access to adoption information.
12.111 They also sought
to make the access and search process as easy as possible by removing the costs
of information and records access by ensuring that all records and information
are made available and that:
That the Commonwealth encourage all state government
Registries to consider removing the additional costs associated with
applications for birth certificates for those affected by past adoption
12.112 South Australia
has a helpful link on its adoption services websites that provides substantial
historical information on the homes and institutions that cared for mothers and
However this type of portal does not appear to be available in other states.
12.113 The Committee
is strongly supportive of proposals to make access to information as easy as
possible to those affected by adoption. Following the committee's inquiries
into Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants, the Commonwealth provided
funding to improve access to family tracing and support services for these
groups. This service includes a Find and Connect website, which provides
information and raises awareness about past policies.
The site is also linked into state and territory services of a similar nature.
A service like Find and Connect, applied at both the national and state and
territory levels, could assist in record location, particularly for adoption
information other than birth and adoption certificates.
12.114 The committee
recommends that the Commonwealth provide funding to extend the existing program
for family tracing and support services to include adoption records and
policies, with organisations such as Link-Up Queensland and Jigsaw used as a
12.115 The committee
recommends that the states and territories extend their Find and Connect
information service to include adoption service providers.
12.116 The committee
recommends that non-government organisations with responsibility for former
adoption service providers (such as private hospitals or maternity homes)
establish projects to identify all records still in their possession, make
information about those institutions and records available to state and
territory Find and Connect services, and provide free access to individuals
seeking their own records.
Barriers involved in searching for
12.117 The committee
took evidence from a number of post adoption organisations who assist in
locating information about births and subsequent events. This includes
information relating to the identification of the parties involved such as the
mother, father, the adopted person or the adoptive parents, as well as
immediate and extended families. Complicating factors surrounding access to
information can include uncertainty about when and where the adoption took
place, and the situation where an adopted person has two birth certificates
that are sometimes not accessible to those conducting the search.
12.118 MacKillop Family
Services also emphasised the barriers in place for those trying to obtain
information about an adoption:
Difficulties in accessing records and negotiating with the
range of organisations that hold the records. There are separate procedures for
accessing the actual adoption record and for accessing the record relating to
accommodation prior to and post adoption.
Queensland described the trauma that engulfed a mother during her search for
the records of the birth of her child:
This mother thought she was going mad, and we had to have the
counselling team heavily involved. She knew she had a baby but the records said
she did not have a baby. It was only last week that we finally told her that we
found the name that her child was named. She said it was such a relief because
she said, 'I have gone through life thinking I was dreaming the fact that I
went through labour.' That's a pretty big thing to go through that and then
think it never happened. We were going to the authorities and there was no
trace of the woman having a baby, even at the hospital.
12.120 They also discussed
the impact on the organisation conducting the searches of:
[T]he fact that the name was changed on the birth
certificate. In terms of man-hour power—we are a very small unit as an
organisation—you can spend weeks, months and up to years trying to track and
trace. It gets to the point where you almost need to say, 'Find every single
baby that was born in that hospital and trace them to where they ended up and
whether there is some connection.'
The things that you are looking at are quite critical to this
organisation. They take enormous resources and we only have one research
officer to handle all this sort of stuff and who works four days a week. It is
pretty huge resource wise.
12.121 Adoption Jigsaw
(WA)'s written submission discussed how the laws have developed in various
states, but indicated that support services and the administration of records
need to adequately support the objectives of the legislation for providing
An often essential part of healing is to obtain information
and for many reconnection with birth parent(s) or child. This has been legally
recognized since 1987, when Victoria became the first state to allow adopted
people to obtain their original birth certificate and consequently the ability
to start a search. Each state has followed suit and enshrined the principle of
a right to information about one's own family, however
these laws have not been supported by appropriate access to records.
12.122 The committee heard
many comments from submitters about the costs and time involved in trying to
obtain information about their own births and the adoption of their own
12.123 The committee
recommends that the Community and Disability Services Ministers Conference, in
consultation with non-government organisations that had responsibility for
adoption services and hospitals, agree on and commit to a statement of
principles for access to personal information, that would include a commitment
to cheaper and easier searches of, and access to, organisational records.
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