After the Second World War the Child Welfare Division of the Department of Education, and private agencies, saw adoption of their children as the best solution for single mothers, and even for some separated women. They said that most unmarried mothers were not bad or immoral, but nice girls who had made a mistake and deserved a second chance. Married couples without children were encouraged to adopt, and unmarried mothers were seen as selfish if they did not give their children the opportunity of a ‘normal’ family life.
Before 1939 fewer than 2% of all babies born each year were adopted. By 1944 the figure was almost 4%; in 1970 it was over 6%. That year there were 3,837 adoptions, the most ever. Nearly three-quarters of these (2,831) involved ex-nuptial births, and over half (2,286) were adoptions by strangers – people unrelated to the child.1
Adoption Act 1955
The growing number of adoptions led to the Adoption Act 1955, which still governed adoption in the early 21st century. The act was based on the belief that a complete break between the birth family and the adoptive family was best for everyone involved. From the 1950s to the 1970s, many women whose children were adopted out did not see their babies at all. Some were allowed to see them only after they signed the consent form. Birth fathers were usually excluded from the process of adoption.
Before 1955 most adoption placements were made by private agencies, maternity homes, doctors or hospital matrons. State social workers have arranged most placements since the mid-1960s, and since 1955 all non-family placements have required social workers’ approval.
Popular perception cast fathers of children born outside of marriage as uninterested or hostile once pregnancy was announced. However, many were not, as one woman’s recollection encapsulates: ‘I know now my son’s father did try to contact me. He called at my parents’ home and had the door closed in his face. He called the [unmarried mothers’] home but was denied access. He wrote to me many times but I received no letters. He felt as I did – that the other didn’t care. I believe now he suffered as much as I did.’2
Māori and the Adoption Act
The Adoption Act 1955 removed the ban on Māori adopting non-Māori, and brought Māori under almost the same rules as Pākehā. Māori children’s tribal affiliations were rarely recorded. Even their ethnicity was sometimes recorded incorrectly.
At first the Māori Land Court continued to register Māori adoptions. Hearings were open and the proceedings were published. After 1962 all adoptions went through the Magistrates’ Court, where hearings were closed and nothing was published.
Adoption and whānau relationships
A Māori social worker, or someone nominated by the Māori community, handled applications where both the adopters and the child were Māori, and could sometimes help families with the legal adoption process. But in some cases, especially if the birth mother was Pākehā, Māori families who wanted the child were set aside by the authorities in favour of strangers.
Māori welfare officer Anne Delamere described a sad case in the 1960s when a Māori family whose son fathered a child with a Pākehā girl tried to adopt the baby: ‘His parents said that this child was their blood and if her parents didn’t want the child they wanted the child, because it was important to them that a child of their son’s should remain within their family group, and this was in fact their first mokopuna [grandchild]. They pleaded, then they went to Child Welfare and pleaded there, but to no avail.’3
Over the years Māori have increasingly objected to the way adoption law wiped out birth relationships, imposed secrecy, did not record or protect the child’s whakapapa and did not involve the wider whānau. In the 21st century these concerns remained unresolved.
From too few babies to too many
In the 1950s there were not enough babies to meet the demand for adoption. But the post-war baby boom meant that women in the age groups most likely to become pregnant began to outnumber older women more likely to want to adopt.
By the mid-1960s there were so many babies available for adoption that couples seeking to adopt had plenty of choice. Girls were more popular than boys, and newborns were preferred.
Some children were harder to place than others. A social worker recalled, ‘It was mostly race, or any physical deformity, such as cleft palate … nobody wanted them when you could have perfect white babies of whatever sex you chose.’4 The head of Child Welfare believed that the surplus of babies could last until the 1980s.