4102.0 - Australian Social Trends, 1998  
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Contents >> Family >> Family Formation: Adoptions

Family Formation: Adoptions

The number of adoptions in Australia has dropped sharply from 9,798 in 1971-72 to 668 in 1995-96.

The numbers of children being adopted have been falling over recent decades. Various factors have contributed to this trend. Medical and social changes have reduced the likelihood of unplanned and unwanted pregnancies, and social pressures on young unmarried mothers to give up their children for adoption have diminished. The trend to lower fertility (see Australian Social Trends 1996, Trends in fertility) suggests that social pressures for families to raise children at all, and hence the demand for children for adoption, have declined as well. Changes in legislation concerning who might be involved in adoptions have contributed to the decline.

Changes in adoption procedures in the post-world war II period have paralleled a shift in social attitudes from one in which adoptions were regarded as providing a service for adults (childless couples and young single mothers) to one in which the wellbeing of children has become paramount.1 Recent moves to allow relevant parties access to information about their biological relatives reflect this trend.


This review uses data from the series Adoptions Australia (1990-91 to 1995-96) released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW). Information on adoptions was also provided by State and Territory community service departments.

Data for the years prior to 1985-86 are from the ABS publication Adoptions, Australia (cat. no. 4406.0) and data for the years 1987-88 to 1989-90 are from the standardisation of social welfare statistics project (WELSTAT) publication Adoptions: National Data Collection, published by the Standing Committee of Social Welfare Administrators. Adoptions where the relationship to the adoptive parents was unknown were not included. No data on adoptions were collated nationally for 1985-86 to 1986-87. Data for New South Wales on adoptions by step parents is missing from 1987-88 to 1993-94, and the number of adoptions may also be underestimated for 1995-96 due to a change in record keeping. Also missing is data on overseas-born adoptees in Victoria for 1987-88.

Adoption is the legal process in which a child ceases to be the child of its biological parents and becomes the child of another person(s).1 Children can either be adopted by a relative, such as a step parent or a non-relative.

A birth is classified as nuptial if the child's parents were legally married to each other at the time of birth and ex-nuptial if they were not.


Year ending 30 June

Source: AIHW, Adoptions Australia, 1995-96, 1997.

Trends in adoption
Australia-wide statistics on the number of adoptions have been available since the year ended 30 June 1969. The number of adoptions in Australia peaked in 1971-72, when 9,798 adoptions were recorded. Four years later this number had halved (4,990 in 1975-76), by 1979-80 it had dropped to one third (3,337) and by 1995-96 there were only 668 adoptions recorded in Australia.

Since overseas adoptions made up only a small proportion of all adoptions until the mid 1980s, the decline since the 1970s can be attributed to the fall in the number of Australian-born children available for adoption.

The major turnaround in the number of adoptions after 1972 occurred at a time of rapidly changing social attitudes surrounding the plight of young unmarried mothers. The introduction of the Supporting Mothers' Benefit in July 1973 meant that single parenting for young unmarried mothers became a realistic option, thus reducing the pressure to relinquish their child for adoption.

The turnaround also occurred at a time when attitudes and laws relating to the termination of unwanted pregnancies were changing. The conditions under which a pregnancy could be terminated were relaxed in Victoria in 1969 and New South Wales in 1972 (the two most populous States in Australia).

General practitioners, in line with changing community attitudes, had started prescribing the contraceptive pill (previously restricted to married women) to young unmarried women. This, together with the emergence of family planning centres (see Australian Social Trends 1998, Family planning) and sex education classes, had a big impact on the ability of young women to avoid unwanted pregnancies.

In addition, the number of women in the workforce has increased over the last two decades, as has access to child care facilities.

This has further improved women's economic independence and their ability to support a family on their own.2

As a result of these changes, the supply of new-born babies available for adoption dropped sharply. In 1979-80, when information about the ages of adoptees was first available, adopted children aged under one year represented 81% of all adoptions of Australian-born children by non-relatives. By 1995-96 this had dropped to 33%.

The more recent development of alternative reproductive technologies, such as in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) and gamete intrafallopian transfer (GIFT) have avoided the need for adoption for some couples unable to conceive a child naturally, although the number of such cases is small. In 1994 in Australia there were 2,715 births following IVF or GIFT treatment.3


Year ending 30 June
Source: AIHW, Adoptions Australia, 1995-96, 1997; AIHW, Adoptions Australia, 1994-95, 1996; AIHW, Adoptions Australia, 1993-94, 1995.

Changes in legislation
Recent changes in legislation are likely to affect the number of adoptions in the future. First, the introduction of the Family Law Reform Act (1996) and changes to individual State and Territory laws have restricted adoption by relatives, particularly those by step parents. Step parents adopt children to legally integrate the child into a new family structure by changing the child's name and giving full legal rights and obligations to the step parent.4 The restrictions now allow non-custodial parents to retain rights of guardianship, access or custody.5

Adoptions by relatives other than step parents are also now discouraged as they can distort biological relationships. For example, if a child is adopted by a sibling, the birth mother would then become the child's grandmother. Most States and Territories have policies in place which promote the use of guardianship or custody orders, rather than adoptions, to place children in the care of non-parental relatives.5

Second, alternative legal orders have been introduced that transfer guardianship and custody of a child to another person without changing the child's legal status. For instance, in 1995-96 in Victoria, 110 permanent care orders were granted, compared to 74 adoptions of Australian-born children. As a result, adoptions by relatives have dropped more sharply than those by non-relatives.

The number of Australian-born children adopted by relatives had already been declining at a faster rate than those adopted by non-relatives since 1980-81. In most years since 1988-89 there have been more children adopted by non-relatives than by relatives.


Age of child

Under 1

(a) Excludes 519 non-relative adoptions in New South Wales.

Source: AIHW, Adoptions Australia 1995-96 and 1979-80 (cat. no. 4406.0).

Australian-born adoptees in 1995–96
During 1995-96 there were 394 adoptions of Australian-born children. Of these, 217 adoptions were by non-relatives and 177 were by relatives, mostly step parents (167).

Australian-born children who were adopted by non-relatives were generally younger than those who were adopted by relatives. Two thirds (66%) of Australian-born children adopted by non-relatives in 1995-96 were under five years of age, compared to 8% of children adopted by relatives. Most Australian-born children adopted by relatives were aged between 5 and 14 years (72%), while only 29% of children adopted by non-relatives were in this age range.

In 1994-95, nuptiality details were known for 298 of the 311 Australian-born children adopted by non-relatives. Of these, the majority (82%) were born ex-nuptially.

Adopted ex-nuptial children were more likely (68%) to have younger birth mothers (aged under 25 years) than those born nuptially (23%). Conversely, 31% of adopted children born nuptially were born to mothers aged 35 and over. While for every age group of birth mothers, the number of adopted children born ex-nuptially exceeded the number born nuptially, the difference declined as the age of the mother increased.

Age of birth mother (years)

(a) Excludes 74 adoptions where nuptiality and/or age of birth mother unknown.

Source: AIHW, Adoptions Australia, 1994-95, 1996
Indigenous adoptions

Before 1788, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were governed by customary laws, many of which are still observed by Indigenous communities today. In Aboriginal societies, a child who cannot be cared for by his or her biological parents is cared for by members of the child's extended family. As there is no change in the parent-child relationship under customary law, such placements are more like 'fostering' than 'adoption'.6

Although adoption is not part of Aboriginal customary law, Torres Strait Islander communities widely practice 'customary adoption'.7 This is the process in which a child is permanently given to another member of the extended family, who is then regarded as the child's parent by the community.6 The reasons for customary adoption include: to ensure an even distribution of boys and girls between families, to give an infertile couple or a single person a child, to fulfil an obligation, or to strengthen alliances between families.7

Each State and Territory of Australia has different legislation and policies in regard to the adoption of Indigenous children. However, there is general agreement that if adoption is considered appropriate for an Indigenous child, the adoption should be by Indigenous people whenever possible.

This has not always been the case. Indeed, Australia has had a history of removing Indigenous children from their families and communities since the very first days of European settlement.8 At its peak during the 1950s and 1960s, large numbers of Indigenous children were removed from their families to advance the cause of assimilation. They were placed in institutions or foster homes, or adopted into non-Indigenous families - sometimes a progression of several of these. This practice declined in the 1970s following the establishment of legal representation for Indigenous children and their families in removal applications. However, it was not until the 1980s that the practice of removal and placement was finally reappraised. It is not possible to state with any precision how many children were forcibly removed (even if restricted to those removed officially), and how many were eventually adopted. Many records have not survived; others failed to record the children's Aboriginality.8 However, in 1994 over 10% of persons aged 25 years and over reported having been taken from their natural family by a mission, the government or 'welfare'.9

The number of Indigenous children adopted between 1991-92 and 1995-96 was very low - a total of 47 adoptions. Nearly all (44) of these children were adopted by non-relatives, 23 by Indigenous non-relatives and 21 by other non-relatives. The other three children were adopted by Indigenous relatives. The fact that so few Indigenous adoptions over this period were by relatives, may indicate that arrangements other than formal adoption were made when relatives were available to care for the child.5


Country of birth

Sri Lanka

Source: AIHW, Adoptions Australia, various years.

Overseas-born adoptees
The adoption of overseas-born children (by non-relatives), known as inter-country adoption, essentially began in Australia in 1975 when orphans from the Vietnam War were sent to Australia.10 The number of overseas-born children adopted in Australia increased from 66 in 1979-80 to a peak of 420 in 1989-90. It then declined to 222 in 1993-94, before rising again to 274 in 1995-96. The net increase in adoption of overseas-born children over the past two decades contrasts with the decline in the number of adoptions of Australian-born children during this time.

In 1995-96, 56% of the 491 children adopted by non-relatives were born overseas, and the majority of both the overseas-born (80%) and Australian-born (66%) children were aged under five years.

Adoptions of overseas-born children by relatives are governed by the relevant State or Territory Child Welfare legislation, but the numbers are extremely small and are therefore excluded from adoption statistics.

In every year since 1988-89, the largest proportion of overseas-born children adopted by non-relatives has come from Korea (60% in 1988-89 and 34% in 1995-96). In 1988-89, the next largest proportions came from Sri Lanka (9%) and India (7%). However, by 1995-96, these countries provided only 5% and 7% respectively of the total, and Colombia (15%) and the Philippines (8%) were providing the next highest proportions after Korea. The decline in the number of adoptions of overseas-born children between 1990-91 and 1993-94 can be partly attributed to countries such as Korea and the Philippines restricting adoption applications.

Overall for most years, there were similar proportions of boys and girls born overseas who were adopted in Australia. However, from some countries there have been higher proportions of girls adopted each year. From 1990-91 to 1995-96, 71% of children born in India and 60% born in Korea who were adopted in Australia by non-relatives were girls, while only 35% of adoptions from Thailand were girls.

Access to information

In the past, adoption legislation promoted secrecy in the process of adoption. The relinquishing and adoptive parents were kept apart during the process of adoption and once the child was placed, contact with the biological family ceased. However, over the last decade it has been acknowledged that every child has a right to know about his or her origins.2

Changes relating to existing adoptions were implemented to adoption laws in every State and Territory between 1984 and 1994. In general, these changes, which vary by State and Territory, enable an adopted person aged over 18 years, and birth parents, to access information relating to the adoption. There were 5,567 applications for information about Australian adoptions lodged by all parties to the adoption during 1995-96. There have been 24,121 applications for adoption information lodged between 1 July 1992 and 30 June 1996.

The right to information has also had to be balanced with the right to privacy. In Victoria and Tasmania, registers operate where the parties involved can record whether they wish to give or receive information and make contact. In addition, written consent by the party is required before any information is released. In the other States and Territories, information and/or contact vetoes can be lodged by the adoptee, the adoptive parents, birth parents and other birth relatives. An information veto prevents any identifying information being disclosed to another party, while a contact veto legally prohibits another party contacting the person who lodged the veto. A total of 1,655 contact and information vetoes were lodged between 1 July 1992 and 30 June 1996.


1 Goulding, T. (5th Ed.), 1995, The Law Handbook, Redfern Legal Publishing Centre, Sydney.

2 Boss, P. Edwards, S. & Pitman, S. 1995, 'Substitute care and adoption' in Boss, P. Edwards, S. & Pitman, S. (eds), Profile of Young Australians: Facts, Figures and Issues, Churchill Livingstone, Melbourne.

3 Lancaster, P. Shafir, E. Hurst, T. Huang, J. 1997, Assisted Conception Australia and New Zealand 1994 and 1995, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare and the Fertility Society of Australia, AGPS, Canberra.

4 Harper, P. 1984, Children in Stepfamilies, quoted in Bates, F. 1987, An Introduction to Family Law, The Law Book Company Limited, Sydney.

5 Bentley, R. & Broadbent, A. 1997, Adoptions Australia, 1995-96, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, AGPS, Canberra.

6 The Law Reform Commission 1986, The Recognition of Aboriginal Customary Laws, Volume 1, AGPS, Canberra.

7 Ban, P. 1993, 'Torres Strait Islander Family Life' in Family Matters, No. 35, August, 1993, pp. 16-21.

8 Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 1997, Bringing them home, Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, Sterling Press Pty Ltd, Sydney.

9 Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1995, National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Survey 1994, cat. no. 4190.0, ABS, Canberra.

10 English, B. A. 1990, 'Inter-country Adoption: The Context of Recent Developments and the Need for Research' in Children Australia, Vol. 15, No. 1, 1990, pp. 16-20, NCBA, Notting Hill.

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