The Violation of Family Life: Adoption of Children of Unmarried Women 1949–1976 – Report Summary

Report by the House of Lords and House of Commons Committee report, with recommendations to government. The Government has two months to respond.

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During the period 1949–1976, thousands of children of unmarried women were adopted even though their mothers did not want to let them go. Many of those affected, both mothers and children, have faced life-long suffering as a consequence of this separation. This inquiry has sought to consider whether the treatment of these women and children respected the right to family life, as we understand it today, and how they were affected by the severing of that crucial bond between mother and child. Our inquiry covers the period from 1949, when the Adoption Act 1949 was passed, up until 1976 when the Adoption Act 1976 came into force. It covers England and Wales, as there are separate inquiries in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The experiences of the mothers and their children are at the centre of this inquiry. They did not, as is often said, give their children away. Unmarried women who found themselves pregnant during this period faced secrecy and shame from the earliest stages. Those who would have seized the chance to keep their sons and daughters with them and brought them up themselves did not have the opportunity to do so. Societal and familial pressures, and the absence of support contributed to thousands of children being taken from loving mothers and placed for adoption.

We would like to thank those mothers and their children for sharing their stories and for their bravery for recounting what remains painful. There are thousands more whose stories we did not hear. We hope the recommendations in this report will, however, go some way towards positive change for all those affected.

Our estimate is that around 185,000 babies of unmarried mothers were adopted in England and Wales during this period though it is difficult to establish an exact figure. Each of those adopted people and their mothers have their own, individual stories, and we could not have undertaken this inquiry without the written and oral evidence we received from those affected.

Many young women were sent away from home to conceal their pregnancy, and many spent their final weeks of pregnancy and weeks after the birth in mother and baby homes. Some of our witnesses recounted the abuse they faced whilst away from home. We were struck by descriptions of the ways in which the women were being “punished” for what was seen as a transgression. There was an overwhelming feeling amongst the mothers we heard from that their treatment during and after giving birth was deliberate punishment for their pregnancy while unmarried.

We also heard about the continuing impact of the adoption of their baby on the mothers with many recounting ongoing mental health difficulties, others telling us the impacts on their family lives for decades. As one mother told us, “53 years later and here I am, a wreck because of what happened to me and my daughter.”1 The mothers we heard from were subjected to cruelty because they were considered to have transgressed. Their treatment stands as an important reminder that human rights should be protected for all, including those who at any particular time are regarded as transgressors.

As well as the failure to acknowledge the reality of what was done to these mothers and their children, there continues to be a lack of adequate support from Government. Therapy is not sufficiently accessible and in practice Ofsted’s requirement that counsellors must register to provide adoption support services acts as a restriction on the availability of counsellors. The Government should consider as a matter of urgency how to make sure that the necessary regulations to protect standards do not prevent mothers and adopted children getting the support they need. We think it is necessary for the Government to explore options for alerting them of the death of a child who has been adopted.

We heard evidence of the variation in quality of service provided by intermediaries (those paid by mothers and children to find relatives). The Government should reassess the regulations that apply to intermediaries, with a view to enabling them to offer advice to those who do not wish to be contacted on the routes and support available to them should their views change in the future.

We heard from adopted people of the barriers they face when trying to get their adoption records from local authorities (despite being legally entitled to them); that many suffer distress because of the disconnect between their birth certificate and adoption order; that they have difficulty discovering their family medical history; and face difficulties when seeking to visit their families abroad. The Government must pay attention to the difficulties faced by adopted children and seek to address them. For example, the Government should monitor and publish compliance by local authorities with adherence to the guidance that sets down deadlines for responses to requests for adoption records.

The Government has denied it was responsible for the treatment these women faced. However, public authorities were responsible for the way that their employees treated unmarried mothers. The Government is responsible for the conduct of employees of the State as well as, ultimately, for the conduct of employees of public bodies such as the NHS, who were involved in these practices in the course of their employment. The Government is also responsible for the policies and laws of the time, as well as the omissions of policy and law, that allowed these practices. The Government therefore bears responsibility for what happened to these mothers.