Adoption Deception: A Personal and Professional Journey

Adoption Deception: A Personal and Professional Journey

by Penny Mackieson


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781742199740
Publisher: Spinifex Press
Publication date: 02/01/2016
Pages: 220
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Penny Mackieson was born in Melbourne in 1963. Placed with her adoptive family as a newborn, she was raised in the Buchan district of eastern Victoria. Penny completed Bachelor (1983) and Master’s (1989) degrees in Social Work at Melbourne University, and has since worked primarily in the children and family services sector, including child protection and intercountry adoption. For much of her career, Penny was employed by the Victorian government. After 12 years in intercountry adoption, Penny resigned at the end of 2013, dismayed by the re-popularization of adoption and popularization of overseas anonymous donor IVF and commercial surrogacy practices. Penny co-wrote her first nonfiction book, Real Women Love Footy published in 2003, with another friend passionate about football.

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Adoption Deception

A personal and professional journey

By Penny Mackieson, Renate Klein, Pauline Hopkins

Spinifex Press Pty Ltd

Copyright © 2015 Penny Mackieson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-74219-974-0


A brown-eyed baby girl

On 10 March 1963, a healthy baby girl with dark brown eyes and dark brown hair weighing seven pounds seven ounces was born at the Queen Victoria Hospital in Melbourne. She struggled to digest the formula milk the nurses insisted on feeding her. Still, within a few weeks she was deemed ready to leave.

On 1 April 1963, the baby arrived at her new home – a modest timber cottage in the small rural township of Buchan South in East Gippsland, in eastern Victoria. The parents seated their other child – an almost three-year-old boy with blue eyes and white-blonde hair – on the green vinyl couch in their lounge room facing the fireplace. The baby – swaddled tightly in a bunny rug – was carefully placed on the boy's lap. He instinctively wrapped his arms around her and gazed searchingly into her face. She returned his gaze with the unblinking intensity characteristic of newborns. Lulled by the rhythmic motion and noise of the long car journey, the baby had just woken from a deep sleep and this was not what she had expected. For several minutes neither child moved, each content to explore the other's face. Eventually, the baby felt a warm sensation invade her body.

"Mummy," the little boy said calmly and without breaking eye contact with his new sister. "Bubby's wet herself."

That brown-eyed baby girl was, in fact, me. I was adopted, as were the brother with whom I was raised and five of our cousins. And this was my first encounter with my new brother in my new family.

I recall my childhood as mostly happy; my experiences growing up as generally positive. I always knew that I was adopted, so it was never a secret or a shock to me. My adoptive parents – who I will always fondly call 'Mum' and 'Dad' – openly told my brother and me about our adoptions from the time of our respective arrivals in the family. Not that they really had a choice, living as we did in a small close-knit rural community in which Mum operated the local post office and manual telephone exchange: a 24/7 service. It would have been impossible to explain to her many daily customers how two babies, the first aged one week and the second a few years later aged three weeks, had arrived when she had not shown any signs of pregnancy.

I have always felt that my brother and I were deeply loved and adored by Mum and Dad. There is no doubt that they made many personal sacrifices to ensure we had everything we needed, and got as much of what we wanted as they could reasonably afford. They were not wealthy or educated people, though intelligent and well-read. They always managed what income and assets they had very well.

However, as I remember it, from a young age my life has included complexities that influenced my behaviour as a child; legacies that have also been at the forefront of my responses and decision-making throughout my adulthood. For example, when I started dating and seeking a life partner it was very important to me that the young man – and thus I – knew his parentage. The thought of accidentally partnering with someone who might have been closely related biologically frightened me. In fact, in 1980 – the year I commenced tertiary studies, the ratio of adopted people to non-adopted people in Australia would have been such that many unknowingly biologically related adoptees would likely have partnered and produced offspring. I recently calculated this ratio to be approximately 1:58, based on an estimated 250,000 (legal/registered) adoptions having occurred in Australia from the late 1920s to the early 1980s, and the population of Australia having been approximately 14,500,000 in 1980. I find this deeply worrying and unacceptable. Yet, I am even more alarmed that I have never heard of any particular concerns held or raised about it by any Australian commentators – welfare professionals, academics, social policy analysts, politicians or general community members alike.

My budding social work skills got plenty of practice during my first casual explorations of the family backgrounds of boyfriends. When I got married at the age of almost 26, I could not embrace changing my family name to my husband's – not that I found anything distasteful or wrong with his name; quite the contrary, as I had always considered it an Irish variation of my adoptive Scottish one. Some people may believe that I refused to change my family name because I am a feminist. But at that time, my feminist perspective was not particularly strong. It was also still very important for me to make decisions of which my adoptive parents approved. However, on this occasion, Mum and Dad's approval was less important than not having another identity change forced upon me simply because I had a new legal status.

Another example of how my adoption has always influenced my decision-making and behaviour is that, from as far back as I can remember, I tried hard to fit in to my adoptive family and thus not risk rejection, or as I perceived it, another 'abandonment'. I always had a nagging feeling that my adoptive brother was, quite literally, 'the golden-haired boy'. He was the first child in the family; the child my adoptive parents had longed for. Yes, he was a handful – probably hyperactive; probably the behavioural manifestation of his own insecurities and a legacy from his separation at birth from his own mother. But he was emotionally engaging and had a way about him that other people responded to warmly, and so he was quickly forgiven for any misdemeanours. Mum told me several times that the Anglican minister who had assisted her and Dad to adopt my brother was visiting them one day when he suggested it was about time they adopted a sister for their son. This has never felt like a very auspicious entrée into my adoptive family.

I sensed from very early on that learning and education were very important to my adoptive parents. I became verbal at a young age and had learned to read and write by the time I commenced schooling in Grade Prep – there was no kindergarten available in the area during the early years of my childhood. After just three weeks of Prep schooling, I was 'put up' (promoted) to Grade 1, as my primary teachers and adoptive parents considered I was not sufficiently challenged academically by the Prep curriculum. I thus became and remained 12–18 months younger than the majority of my same grade peers throughout my education – turning eight in Year 4, 13 in Year 9, and so on. When I was in Grade 5, my adoptive brother was in Grade 6, but we shared the same maths class. It was clear to me, even then, that this undermined his academic confidence. Meanwhile, I had already internalised significant family expectation and pressure to continue maintaining a top three academic position in every subject so that I would continue to receive the approval of my adoptive parents. Ultimately, I even managed to achieve third place at my secondary school in Year 12 (Higher School Certificate) in 1979, with a special distinction in one subject – biology.

Apparently, I presented as mature for my grade as well as for my years. This was demonstrated by an incident on the school bus when I was 12 and in Year 8. The bus driver chastised me for not having demonstrated better leadership with a group of other junior secondary students who were making a lot of noise and distracting him – he later admitted he had thought I was 15. I was 19 when I was first asked to provide proof of age at a pub, but I still had to apply for an age exemption in order to enrol in first year tertiary studies before turning 17, and then another in order to transfer into social work studies before turning 19.

Buchan South Primary School was a very small school, located right next door to my adoptive family home. Only 35 children were enrolled there at its peak during the years of my primary schooling (1968–1973), and enrolment numbers steadily declined after that. The school was closed down altogether in the early 1980s when enrolments dropped to fewer than seven. There had been seven children in my grade – it was one of the largest grades at the school at the time. The students were all from farming and labouring families in the local district. Generally speaking, they were not a particularly academic lot and so I stood out – for the right reasons as far as my adoptive parents were concerned, but for the wrong reasons for the local community. I was awarded Dux in my first year and have always treasured the illustrated storybook, The Wolf and the Kids, I received as the prize, inscribed with the words, 'Presented to Penny Mackieson, Dux of Infant Department, Buchan South No. 3256, 1968.' But the other parents objected and the award of Dux was discontinued from the following year onwards, replaced with awards such as 'Best Attendance' and 'Most Improved Student', so that the other children would be assured of also receiving the accolades.

Resentment regarding my relative academic prowess culminated when I was in Grade 6. When not attending school, my brother and I typically spent much time outdoors playing as well as assisting Dad and Mum on our small family farm. I am pale-skinned, like many people of Celtic-Anglo origin, but my skin was tanned in those days, though with a yellowish rather than brown, tone. My brown eyes were somewhat almond-shaped, and I often wore my thick dark brown hair in a bob-style cut. My appearance, combined with my scholastic abilities, triggered a brief period of bullying during which some students teased me at school by calling me 'Ching-Chong'. Apparently, they – or, perhaps, their parents – believed that only Asian children could be as 'clever' as I was. Because everyone knew I was adopted and my genetic background was therefore unknown, the implication was that I must have been of Asian origin. There were no Asian people in our small community – indeed, in our entire district – and, ludicrously, it was considered a horrible insult at that time to be compared with Asians. Actually, there were very few people in the district of non-Celtic-Anglo heritage, including very few Indigenous Australians. The children were careful not to mention my adoptive status when they teased me. But I felt the derogatory term 'bastard' was never far from their lips. This was probably as instructed by their parents, given the respect and esteem in which my adoptive parents were held in regard to their significant contributions to the local community. But it hurt my feelings deeply. I was ten at the time and considered my new tormentors to be my oldest friends.

The following year, my grade peers and I parted ways as we progressed to the nearest High and Technical schools in Bairnsdale, a 45-mile bus ride away. I attended Bairnsdale High School and was placed in an all-girls class of 35 – the same size as my entire primary school had been. There were well over 1,000 students enrolled at Bairnsdale High School at the time, about 240 of them in Year 7, and there was no one else from my Grade 6 in my Year 7 class. The scale of things had upsized dramatically, and so I felt even more pressure to maintain my high standard of academic achievement.

By then my adoptive brother had been well and truly ensconced as the sporting child of the family – even though I was also quite good at sports and equally enjoyed playing them. I tacitly understood that my role was prescribed as the academic child.

There were other politics at play within my adoptive family. Even though Mum and Dad were open in sharing with us what little they claimed they knew of our background stories, I was acutely aware that my brother and I were expected to act as if our lives had started when we were placed in the Mackieson household. There was a powerful, though unspoken, expectation that we should accept this without question – to the extent that over the years I was forced to be honest, overt and repetitious in expressing to Mum my position on two particular matters. Firstly, while I was interested in her passionate hobby of researching the genealogy of her own and Dad's families (as well as the local district history), I did not wish to become the custodian of Mum's extensive history collections after she was gone. I could never bring myself to state it to her this boldly, but I did not feel a genuine sense of connection to my adoptive parents' family histories. I privately resented Mum's apparent insensitivity and relentlessness in pushing me to be more involved in, and responsible for, maintaining these links. Secondly, I did not yet know if or when I might ever wish to search for information regarding, or make contact with, members of my own family of origin, though I had no inclination to do so while I was growing up or attending university.

A further example of the complexities and legacies of my life is that I was never told that my mother had named me on registering my birth. Mum and Dad must have known at least my first name as given to me by my mother from my legal adoption paperwork, but they never revealed it to me. So I always had the impression that my original name was chosen by Mum and Dad. Indeed, they often told me how Dad had chosen my first name, 'Penelope', because he especially liked it, and how Mum had chosen my second name, 'Kathleen', after her own mother's first name. As a child and teenager I always assumed that my birth must have been registered referring to me simply as 'Baby X' or something similar.

In 1990 – by which time I was in my late 20s, a qualified social worker with a Master's degree, married, and contemplating having children of my own – I applied to the then Department of Community Services Victoria (CSV) to seek any relevant medical information pertaining to my mother from my adoption records.

It was only then that I discovered my mother had given me both a first and a second name, as well as her family name. I also discovered that the narrative I had always believed to be true regarding my mother's circumstances was not correct. My adoptive parents had consistently told me that my mother resided in an inner northern Melbourne suburb – perhaps Brunswick – and that she was a secondary school student who wished to continue her education and progress to university. This seemed plausible enough, given my own academic inclinations. Also, as I went through my undergraduate social work placements and subsequently worked in the profession, clients in the western suburbs of Melbourne from Italian, Greek, Croatian – in fact, from whatever European ethnic background they came – often started speaking to me in their native language and simply assumed I shared the same cultural heritage as they did.

But in 1990 I learnt that my mother was of Anglo heritage; resided in the Latrobe Valley; and had already left secondary school by the time she conceived me. I was shocked to the core and felt unable to share my discovery with my adoptive mother (my adoptive father had already died, in late 1988, just three months prior to my wedding). In response, I carefully stored away the near illegible photocopies provided to me of my original adoption documents. I felt overwhelmed and unable to deal with this new information.

What shocked me more than anything, though, is that my mother had given me two perfectly lovely names – 'Lisa Jane'; names of the same genre as those with which Mum and Dad had re-named me. Most hurtful was that 'Lisa' was the first name given to the firstborn child of my adoptive family's neighbours – a girl about 18 months younger than me who had been my best friend until her family moved away during my primary schooling. I was struck by an overwhelming feeling of injustice – that my friend should not have been given that name; that another name would have needed to be chosen for her if I had been allowed to keep my name.

For the first time in my life it really hit home that I had been relabelled, re-badged and recycled into a format acceptable to my adoptive parents; that my origins had been deliberately wiped away; that the feelings I had experienced since early childhood in relation to needing to fit in with my adoptive family were, after all, based on real rather than imagined expectations; that receiving the love and acceptance of my adoptive parents was conditional upon me playing by their rules.

These were – and continue to be – complex feelings, difficult to digest and not easily resolved, not least because I have always dearly loved and deeply respected my adoptive parents and have never wished to deliberately upset them or hurt their feelings. I have always empathised with the emotional pain they themselves experienced through their infertility and inability to produce the biological offspring they so deeply desired. Family relationships, family history and family connections were very important to my adoptive parents, especially to Mum. I consider myself to be an innately loyal person, yet I have found my loyalties uncomfortably divided. I am very grateful for the love and care and opportunities provided to me by my adoptive parents, yet I can never be grateful for having been forcibly separated from my mother at birth; for having had my name, my identity, changed; for having grown up feeling like I never quite fitted in, no matter how hard I tried; for having subsequently struggled all my life with identity and self-esteem issues; for having missed out on growing up with my mother and biological siblings. Similarly, no matter how many times I was told by well- meaning adoptive relatives, family friends and acquaintances while growing up that I was 'lucky' to have been adopted by Mum and Dad, I always felt ambivalent about being instructed that this was how I should feel.


Excerpted from Adoption Deception by Penny Mackieson, Renate Klein, Pauline Hopkins. Copyright © 2015 Penny Mackieson. Excerpted by permission of Spinifex Press Pty Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements ix

Preface Coleen Clare xi

Introduction 1

1 A brown-eyed baby girl 4

2 A chronology of adoption in Australia 22

3 A social worker in intercountry adoption 39

4 Apology or hypocrisy? 59

5 A campaign 67

Introduction 67

5.1 Newspapers 69

5.1.1 Intercountry adoption 69

5.1.2 Local adoption 85

5.1.3 Surrogacy 92

5.1.4 Sperm and egg donation 102

5.2 Women's magazines 107

5.3 Politicians, policy influencers and decision makers 114

5.3.1 VANISH 115

5.3.2 World Vision 117

5.3.3 Politicians 119

5.4 Other media 127

Conclusion 127

6 Where to from here for adoption in Australia? 129

Appendix I Prime Minister Julia Gillard's National Apology Speech including the National Apology for Forced Adoptions (21 March 2013) 151

Appendix II Opposition Leader Tony Abbott's Speech (21 March 2013) 160

Glossary 163

Bibliography 165

Index 171

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