Although the adoption law is undergoing a major overhaul some feel that it still needs to be updated. Others argue that reforms have not gone far enough to help heal old wounds or free up information. Sarah Catherall.
Jan Parker has been around for 40 years
She kept the identity of her baby secret. She gave birth to Brigitta in Dunedin in August 1968. She was living on her own at that time. Her parents were unaware that her 22-year-old daughter was pregnant and they were living in North Island. They assumed she had just moved south for work.
Parker was there for her first 10 days with her daughter in the home for unmarried moms. She was able hold her, feed her with milk, and spend time with the baby. The baby was adopted by her family on day 10. Parker had one request – that her child would grow up with siblings.
“I wanted her have a family. That was all I was told – that she would get that. I wanted her happy. She said, “I wanted her the same opportunities I would have given her.”
Now aged 76 and living in Hawke’s Bay, Parker is one of thousands of New Zealand women who gave their babies up for adoption – a practice encouraged for single mothers at the time.
She thinks, “If this had happened today, my baby would not have been adopted.” I was one of many young single mothers who didn’t have the financial support and places to go. I didn’t have any savings or a job when my daughter was born. Adoption was only an option if you could not raise the child yourself.
A Ministry of Justice public consultation process was used to gather similar stories. This is the first major overhaul of adoption law for more than 60 years. New Zealand adopted 125 babies in 2020/21. This is a vast improvement on the number of adoptions that took place in 1970s when approximately 4000 children were adopted each year.
As it seeks to make adoption child-centred as well as more in line with modern family lives, the proposed law reform has been widely welcomed. Critics say that it is not enough. Some even argue the word “adopted” should be wiped from our vocabulary because it is too tainted, and replaced with “long-term guardianship” — a form of guardianship available in some countries that does not result in a permanent change to a child’s legal status. Others also want some of these changes to be applied retroactively.
Some have been lobbying for decades for an investigation similar to one that took place in Australia, which resulted in a government apology in 2013 to thousands of unwed mothers forced to give up their babies for adoption from World War II through to the 1970s. A$5million was allocated for support services after the Senate inquiry. Some Australian states now also allow adoptions to be discharged, or unravelled in legal terms – an option some argue should happen here.
Brigitta Baker is Parker’s daughter and is critical of New Zealand adoption reform. She says it doesn’t go far enough. Baker’s story about her adoption is shared in Adopted. Loss, Love. Family. and Reunion. The book was co-written with Jo Willis. It will be published by Massey University Press later this month.
Parker and Baker finally met thirteen years ago. This book contains a poignant account about their reunion. Baker was 40 years old at the time that Baker thought she might start to search for her birthmother.
Baker grew up hearing a lot about the importance of being grateful for adoptive families. She was fortunate to be adopted by a family. In fact, her adoptive mother was difficult – she had bipolar disorder and struggled to parent her biological sons and her adopted daughter. The walls were decorated with photographs of her adoptive family’s relatives, and her name was added to their family tree.
It’s not a happy ending, but it is possible. Baker writes about her regret at meeting her birth mother and the wider family. Although it felt like a honeymoon, the reunion with Parker was also tinged by loss and sorrow. Baker moved to Hawke’s Bay in order to be closer with Parker. They were able to develop a relationship and get to know one another, along with Baker’s two daughters, Zoë and Jade, and her husband, Andrew.
The Listener hears her tell the story that she was disappointed to have not found her birth mother by 40. “You can’t turn 40 and be back 10 days old. Many of these reunions don’t work. It was something I wanted to try. But it was not natural.
Baker now lives in Wellington and writes in his book, “But I was an outsider and I wouldn’t fully fit in because of our lack of a shared history.” I would never know the grandparents they spoke of so fondly or get the family in-jokes that made up the rich fabric of their lives … I would always be an outsider.”
Zoë also offers her perspective: “I definitely think that dealing with emotions about both her adoptive and birth families has been really difficult for Mum.”
Parker’s life was changed when she met her daughter. However, she was cautious about pushing the relationship too fast. It is a unique situation. Brigitta should drive it so I can do what she wants. But I want the very best for her family.
“At your back of the head for anyone who has lost a child [is that] You can’t just walk in and take control. If mothers are able to keep their child, that is the best option. The most important thing is the bond you have with your mother.
You can veto
“Given its age the Adoption Act becomes increasingly disconnected from international practice and adoption practice in New Zealand,” the Ministry of Justice stated in the discussion document on adoption reform. Many other jurisdictions like the United Kingdom and Canada require children to consent to their adoption after they reach a specific age. There are also opportunities for them to take part in decisions that affect them.
The ministry points out that cultural concepts and practices relating to the care of children, including Māori practices such as whāngai, are not in the 1955 Adoption Act. Oranga Tamariki oversees all adoptions, but no funding is available for support services. Adoption support can also be voluntary, but not mandatory.
A controversial proposal is that an adopted child should get two birth certificates – one showing the birth and adoptive parents’ names, and one with only the birth parents listed, so adopted people can choose which birth certificate they wish to use.
The ministry is considering changing the veto system to make birth records more accessible. Every year, 400 to 500 people apply to Department of Internal Affairs to obtain their adoption information. But, for adoptions occurring before March 1, 1986 those who were adopted can put a “veto” on their information. They can also request information from their birth parents.
There were 201 objections to birth certificates as of December 2020. The majority were made by birth mothers. Six adopted adults tried to obtain their original birth certificates between 2016 and 2020. A parent had vetoed this right.
Rajesh Chahana, the ministry’s deputy secretary for policy, said that the findings of the study will be presented to government by the end the year. Officials will also engage separately with Māori about whāngai arrangements. “The real question is how do you want the law to treat whāngai … How do you recognise it in law if there are challenges, and also how about recognising health and social welfare benefits?
“At the moment, it is iwi and tikanga which guide whāngai. With whāngai, it is often a more dynamic relationship, where a child will be whāngai for a while and then return to the birth family. Different cultures also have their own ways of doing things.
Chhana calls the adoption law archaic and out-of-step with modern life. It is based on a monocultural worldview and breaks all ties with birth families. It also makes it discriminatory as to who can adopt. We demand a modern, relevant law that recognises ethnic groups. It needs to be up-to-date.
“There are many strange things in there. Over the past 60 years, family structures have changed. Now we have blended families and stepfamilies. The legislation must be child-centred.
Although some people want the word “adoption” to be banned, Chhana said that not everyone agrees. While some adoptees have suffered traumatic experiences, others have found happiness with their adoptive parents.
Chhana responds that a possible apology from the government would be appropriate for the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse of Care.
The removal of identity
Baker is one of the many who would like to see “adopted”, removed from our vocabulary. “It’s [repeating] It is better to discard the junk than to design something new and appropriate for today’s society.
She notes that children sometimes are not safe to be with their families of origin. “We need to be able to adapt to those rare situations.”
She is also against the idea that birth parents are entitled to “own” their offspring. “Security comes in knowing that you are loved and that you are the center of the universe of adults around.
Concerned about the proposal of the ministry for two birth certificates she was concerned that it allows for a certain degree of secrecy. “It should have been so open and naturally discussed and discussed.
Baker feels that although adoption practice is included in the Abuse in Care investigation Baker does not believe it is sufficient. Baker says, “I was not raised in a state-run facility or abused. However, I believe that state-inflicted trauma was suffered by me and my adopted family members. This experience is worthy of its own process. Even though adoptive parents have been invited into the Abuse in Care proceedings I’m sure that there are others like me who feel this is not the right forum. She prefers a separate inquiry, “so that everyone can have their voice heard.”
Barbara Sumner, Napier author, is researching adoption as part of her PhD. Sumner was 19 years old when her quest to find her birth mom began. Sumner’s raw and compelling memoir Tree of Strangers details the experience.
Sumner is one rare New Zealander who was able to open her birth records via the courts. She found out she has three birth dates – her official one on her second birth certificate, another in the files held by Oranga Tamariki, and a third on a document that the Salvation Army scrawled down. “Hundreds of people applied over the years, but almost all of them were denied,” she said.
She defines adoption as state-mediated maternal separation. This involves the removal of an identity from a person who is not consenting to it and the random assignment of a new identity.
As others, she supports long-term guardianship being the only alternative to adopting. She is also concerned about the possibility that the current round in law reform consultations will result in new adoption legislation for future generations, without first resolving historical discrimination under the existing law.
She argues that if welfare is eliminated, the purpose of adoption would be to manage a system that circulates kids to meet adult family-building requirements. “By denying their identity, this allows adults to create a fake family in order to have a parenting style that mimics their biological family.”
Sumner states that while the ministry claims birth documents can be accessed under the proposal but not all documents currently held at the ministry.
“This is what the adults who have adopted the current statutes are concerned about. The [ministry] says it will seek future advice from the judiciary about this central issue – the opening of all files held on adopted people. All documents are kept as state secrets with no guarantee that this central issue will be changed.
Sumner also believes that the current welfare system provides support for children who are unable to be raised by their parents. Children who have a dysfunctional or unwilling parent shouldn’t be penalized by losing their identity.
“Even though they may know their biological families, this relationship does not have legal ties. Ancestors, name, siblings and entire history are all covered by identity. Adoption isn’t about welfare, and has never been.