Story: Adoption

Page 4. From secrecy to openness

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Re-registration of adopted children

From 1915 adopted children were re-registered with the names of their adopted parents. From 1955 new birth certificates showed the adoptive parents as the birth parents. Adoption of children by people unknown to the birth mothers became more common, and adoptions became much more difficult to trace.

Māori adoptions were at first treated differently, because knowledge of whakapapa was recognised as vitally important. This changed with the passing of the Adoption Act 1955, which treated Māori in the same way as non-Māori.

Secrecy about adopters

The 1955 Act did not make it illegal for the birth mother to know who was adopting her baby. However, the process was designed to make sure she did not find out, although she might be given some non-identifying information. Before 1955 the mother’s consent was not legally valid unless she knew the names of the adopters, but the solicitor routinely concealed their names when the consent form was signed.

Following the Adoption Act 1955, two consent forms were available for use. One showed the adopters’ names – the other did not.

The adopting parents could see the mother’s name and age in the adoption papers, and would usually be given some information about her. Adoption application hearings were held in closed court, and over time all court records became confidential.

Adoptive parents were urged to tell their children that they were adopted, and most did so – but many adopted people wanted to know more.

The campaign for adoption information

As people adopted in the 1950s grew up, some began campaigning for the right to information about their birth families, starting with their original birth certificates. Some adoptive parents, too, wanted their children to be able to know both families.

Sharing my daughter

Secrecy created emotional gaps in many people’s lives. In 1982 an adoptive mother wrote: ‘[A]s regards my daughter by adoption, I would give a great deal to be able to share her growing up with her birth mother. My husband died when our daughter was still very young. Particularly since then I have longed to tell this frustratingly mysterious and unknown person all about my child and hers.’1

Birth mothers also began to speak out, wanting to know what had happened to their children. The campaign was supported by social workers who understood the difficulties of lifelong secrecy.

From 1976 lobby groups such as Jigsaw provided support and a base for political action. In 1977 Jigsaw petitioned Parliament for a law change. MP Jonathan Hunt lodged a private member’s bill for access to adoption information in 1978.

Opposition to change

There was strong opposition to change. Some adoptive parents and lawyers argued that the birth mother had signed away her right to have anything more to do with the child. Some parents had never told their children that they were adopted, or feared that the birth mother would suddenly turn up. Another argument against change, supported by Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, centred on protecting the birth mother’s privacy.

Adult Adoption Information Act 1985

After seven years of debate, Parliament passed the Adult Adoption Information Act in 1985. It allowed adopted people aged at least 20 to apply for their original birth certificates, in order to try to find their named birth parent(s). Birth parents could also apply to identify and contact their children. No other family members had any right to information.

I never stopped wondering

A birth mother expressed the lifelong yearning felt by many in her position in a submission to government in 1982: ‘I have never stopped wondering, and I would do anything to know my daughter. I still love her very much and would like to know she has been happy with her parents. I can’t undo the years, and live in the world of “if only”, but if the law would change she could meet me if her feelings are like mine. I know I ceased being her mother as soon as I signed that paper but I know I could still be a friend.’2

By December 1996, 22,927 adult adoptees and 6,163 birth parents had applied for information under the act. Many adoptees and birth parents had met and some had formed ongoing relationships, although the adoptee's relationship with the adoptive family usually remained primary.

Vetoes on information

Birth parents who consented to adoption before the act was passed have the right to place a 10-year renewable veto on access to identifying information. Adopted people can lodge a similar veto. The number of active vetoes placed by birth parents peaked at 3,350, but had fallen to 993 by 1996. Adoptees’ active vetoes peaked at 1,240 and had fallen to 357 by 1996.

The shift to open adoption

From the early 1970s some social workers began suggesting that birth parents and adoptive parents meet each other before the birth of the child, and maintain contact after the adoption.

By the 21st century most birth mothers could choose the adoptive family from a range of approved couples. When adoptions were arranged through state social workers, birth and adoptive parents normally met before the birth mother consented to the adoption, and in some cases made an agreement for ongoing contact. Open adoption arrangements were encouraged, but could not be legally enforced. It was still possible for children to grow up not knowing that they were adopted.

In the 2010s a steady stream of adopted people and birth parents continued to seek information. Between 2013 and 2017, 2,264 adoptees obtained their original birth certificates and 340 birth parents requested information.

  1. Quoted in Anne Else, A question of adoption: closed stranger adoption in New Zealand, 1944–1974. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 1991, p. 149. Back
  2. Quoted in A question of adoption, p. 156. Back
How to cite this page:

Anne Else, 'Adoption - From secrecy to openness', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 June 2024)

Story by Anne Else, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 18 Apr 2018