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The Market in Babies: Stories of Australian Adoption


This book began with stories from people who experienced adoption in the decades when it was administered as a service to childless couples, and contact between birth families and adoptive families was forbidden. It ends with a story about how a new form of adoption can work today, within an administrative framework that aims to keep birth families together, and promotes openness between birth families and those who have adopted.

Helen (as she chooses to be called) is no ordinary mother. She has birthed and raised four children, fostered about sixteen, and adopted and raised three. But then, the new style of adoption requires qualities of mind, heart and soul that few ordinary mothers possess.

In 1992 Helen and her husband moved into a new home in a small coastal town in Victoria. Five months later her husband died, suddenly and unexpectedly. ‘There I was with a house full of new furniture. My children were grown up and living independently. I felt pretty useless’. Then she saw a program on day-time television about foster care, and she thought ‘I could do that!’ She approached the Department of Human Services, underwent a series of checks and interviews and home visits, and was accepted as an accredited foster parent.

She was first asked to take charge of two young sisters, aged three and four. Helen met with their grandparents, their current foster parents and a social worker, to mutually decide if the placement was suitable. The girls had had nine previous foster homes. Helen listened to the discussion, and heard only negatives about the children. Nobody had a good word for them, and that decided her to take them: ‘Every child has something good about them’. At first the girls’ behaviour was ‘quite poor’. They were not used to stability, ‘to having the same bed, the same routine’. And they didn’t know what the boundaries were. But they learned quickly, once ‘they knew that I loved them’.

Right from the first Helen brought up the girls ‘as if they were my own children’, though she knew they were not: the fostering arrangement required access visits to their birth parents. These were not successful; the girls did not want to visit, and came home upset and unsettled. After about a year Helen consulted a departmental psychologist, who decided that the visits were ‘detrimental to their emotional stability’ and had them stopped. Contact continued with the girls’ grandparents, with shared Christmas and birthday celebrations.

Victorian law provides for a form of placement known as permanent care. After two years of fostering children, carers can apply to become their legal guardians until they reach the age of eighteen. Orders for permanent care are only made where the birth family is unable to support the child, and ties with the birth family remain open. Permanent care has almost replaced formal adoption in Victoria as a way of placing children who are in need of family and security. Helen applied for a permanent care order as soon as this was possible, and she and the girls celebrated with dinner at McDonalds.

Helen fostered other children during this time, sometimes for weeks, sometimes months. Some were tiny babies, others the same age as her two girls; the family circle expanded easily to take them in; ‘we always had plenty of clothes’. Some were particularly needy, and Helen would have liked to keep them. One little girl stayed a year, and then went with her mother to Queensland. Her mother used to ring, and ask Helen to talk to her daughter; the little girl would cry, and ask to come back. Helen went to the department for help; she was told to go home and change her telephone number. So she did— ‘but it’s not right, it’s not natural’.

Three years after she adopted her girls, Helen took in a four-year old boy whose foster parents did not want him. He was a ‘bit difficult’ at first—at kindergarten he destroyed toys and scared the other children—but within two weeks ‘he came good’. Helen treated him—and all the others—like her own child; ‘they were not foster children to me, just children’. She wanted them to grow up with no sense that they were different from other children. This wasn’t easy; fostering could have ‘lots of politics in it’. The four-year old came to her with a mullet hairdo—very long on top—marking him as different to the other kids. Strictly speaking Helen needed his mother’s permission to change his haircut, but knowing that she wouldn’t get it, she went ahead anyway. The only way she could get him to sit still for the hairdresser was to give him an envelope to put the hair in, so that he could take it to kindergarten to show the teacher. Two years later he too came under her guardianship on a permanent care order.

All three of Helen’s charges are grown-up now, and all three are working in good jobs and living in happy relationships. Their paths haven’t always

been smooth, and Helen is immensely proud of what they have achieved. She is also quietly proud that she ‘gave them the start that they needed’. But she insists that ‘they were as good for me as I was for them’. Caring for their special needs brought her out of herself; she has driven the community bus and presented programs on community radio. But she never wanted to stand out from the crowd; the trick was to make the special seem ordinary.


This book has charted the course of adoption in Australia over the last two centuries. It began as an informal response by family and neighbours to the needs of children whose parents could not care from them. As cities grew adoption became a trade between strangers, with parents and government agents seeking to place children with families who had resources to care for them and need for their love or their labour. When laws were passed in the early twentieth century to regulate this trade they were largely driven by market demand, establishing an exchange which increasingly privileged those wanting to adopt, and denied the rights of birth parents and adoptees. It was not until the 1980s that protests by mothers separated by adoption and their adult children persuaded social workers and politicians to rethink the purpose of adoption—to make it again a service for children in need rather than a service for families wanting children. The open adoption regime which Helen experienced was the result of this rethinking.

This account has been shaped by the circumstances surrounding its making. Written during the years leading up to the national apology, it reflects the voices of those for whom adoption has meant pain and suffering. In the current storm of criticism it has been hard to hear the voices of those untroubled by their adoption experiences. There is still room for debate about some aspects of the impact of closed adoption on individuals and families in Australia. But the truth of the national apology is inescapable: ‘We recognise that the consequences of forced adoption practices continue to resonate [painfully] through many, many lives’.

This does not deny that there is still need for some form of adoption. When families fail there can be no doubt that their children need to be cared for in a permanent and secure family environment. The Victorian system of permanent care seems to offer stability without loss of personal identity and contact with family, making it a viable alternative to adoption. But Helen’s story shows that like any form of family life, open placement carries its own contradictions.

Open placement commits the child to remembering that they belong to two families. Helen never intended to stand between the children and their parents. But her aim was to make the children forget that they were different from other children; ‘we never talked about being fostered’.

At the end of our interview, Helen got out her photo albums. The smiling children looked, as she said, ‘just like any other family’.

The Market in Babies: Stories of Australian Adoption

   by Marian Quartly, Shurlee Swain, Denise Cuthbert