Today, Prime Minister Julia Gillard delivered a national apology on behalf of the Australian Government to all Australians affected by removal policies and practices from 1932 to 1982 which resulted in forced adoptions. The exact figure of how many children were removed remains unknown but it is estimated that as many as 225,000 babies were removed throughout this time. Many adoptees may still not know this to have been the case.
The forced removals and adoptions were driven largely by religious groups, churches and ultimately conservative social morays during the 1900s post-war period, when it was widely considered in the best interests of children to be raised by well to do, white, married couples.
In a 1973 journal article Dr. Ferry Grunseit, from the Children’s Department at the Prince of Wales Hospital in Sydney, wrote:
“In New South Wales most unmarried mothers… are more likely to be poor, undernourished and of low intelligence, if not actually retarded.”
In 1959 Dr Donald Lawson of the Royal Women’s Hospital remarked during an address that:
“The prospect of the unmarried girl or of her family adequately caring for a child and giving it a normal environment and upbringing is so small that I believe for practical purposes it can be ignored. I believe that in all such cases the obstetrician should urge that the child be adopted…The last thing that the obstetrician might concern himself with is the law in regard to adoption.”
The removal policies and practices born from attitudes such as these, according to Prime Minister Julia Gillard “created a lifelong legacy of pain and suffering.”
“To you, the Mothers who were betrayed by a system that gave you no choice and subjected you to manipulation, mistreatment and malpractice, we apologise,” said Prime Minister Gillard. “We say sorry to you, the Mothers who were denied knowledge of your rights, which meant you could not provide informed consent.”
“You were given false assurances. You were forced to endure the coercion and brutality of practices that were unethical, dishonest and in many cases illegal.”
The decision to provide an Apology from the Government came after a Senate inquiry into Forced Adoptions which found as many as 225,000 babies were removed. Many anguished Mothers, Fathers and their now grown children gave evidence to the Senate inquiry which focused on the removal of infants between 1951 and 1975.
It was a period in Australia’s history of social stigma for unmarried mothers. Young women who fell pregnant were often sent away to halfway houses run by churches. Many were intimidated into signing away their babies for adoption even before they were born. Others who hadn’t signed had their babies taken regardless.
The Senate inquiry found women were forced to sign and also that in many cases signatures were faked. Mothers who fought back were sometimes institutionalised and others held down while authorities took their newborns away. Some were drugged immediately following the birth of their child only to wake and find their baby gone. Some were told their babies had died.
In many cases adopted babies had their birth certificates issued in their adoptive parents’ names.
Many women were reunited with their children but after decades of anguish, the journey to find their children a brutal one.
On February 29, 2012, the Senate Community Affairs References Committee released its report into the Commonwealth Contribution to Former Forced Adoption Policies and Practices. The report includes twenty recommendations, several of which related to a national apology that identifies and acknowledges the experiences of those affected by forced adoption practices.
According to this report many adopted people suffered ongoing negative effects due to their adoption, including struggles with identity, self-esteem and intimacy, mental and physical health.
One recommendation prescribed that “official apologies should include statements that take responsibility for the past policy choices made by institutions’ leaders and staff, and not be qualified by reference to values or professional practice during the period in question.”
Indeed, today there is no doubt that forced adoption was a Government-endorsed violence which inflicted profound suffering on a great many Australians, hundreds of whom submitted their testimonies to the inquiry.
“As a direct result of adoption I have found difficulties with trust of others, self-esteem, confidence, relationships and being a mother myself. I have sought counselling or therapy at six times though my adult life, roughly once in each decade. However there is no counselling available specifically for adoptees, to assist them with the issues of adoption which involves more than loss.”
“I still to this day struggle with expressing and understanding what adoption means for me. A few years ago I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and I have recently, since doing my submission, had panic attacks and believe that I now have general anxiety disorder.”
“To strip a mother of her baby is a cruel, cruel act. But to leave a baby alone is another. And that’s how I am, alone. Feeling as if I do not have the capacity to love, because it took me a long time to learn it.”
“My life has been a rollercoaster ride of emotional trauma; indescribable fear; uncertainty; anxiety; self-sabotage in so many ways; physical ill-health; alcoholism; depression; anger at a level of rage at many points in certain phases; inability to deal with many aspects of disappointment; a feeling of abandonment within friendships and work relationships (far too often); and a variety of other emotional challenges which never made sense at a conscious level.”
“I believe that being an adoptee has profoundly affected my life in negative ways. I believe that all choices I have made in my life have been directly influenced by my primal wound that I have carried for my life and have only just begun to recognise.”
For many adoptees, developing a sense of personal identity has been extremely difficult. And many have experienced great difficulty connecting emotionally with others due to profound fear of abandonment.
“As for me, being separated from my parents and being brought up by strangers left me with identity confusion, a sense of not fitting, of being a fraud, an inability to maintain relationships and a belief that I was unlovable.”
“Given away at birth, I was stripped of my innate identity, my intrinsic heritage and formally given a new name and family. I grew up with a profound sense of duality—of being part of a family and yet very much separate from them.”
“Being removed from my mother’s body after birth traumatized me. Having my identity removed—my entire story about who I was—shattered my sense of self. Having a partial and meagre false identity attributed to me kept me in a state of traumatic confusion throughout my childhood to the current day.”
One submitter to the senate inquiry described the difficult experience of learning of her adoption as an adult.
“I found out I was adopted when I was 46yrs old. The pain of rejection was strong and so was the pain of finding my mother only to be rejected again. This rejection was caused by the great stress and trauma she had suffered in losing me as an infant. No longer was I the baby she remembered but a fully grown woman whom to her was a complete stranger. All of the memories she had hidden in her subconscious were brought to her mind and she was in great distress. I almost lost her because of this but somehow through great determination we have managed to have a relationship. I cannot stress enough how it is to lose one’s identity at such a late age and then find family most of whom rejected me. If I had not been taken from my family I would have known my grandparents, my aunts and my uncles and my cousins.”
Many adoptees report having experienced difficulties in their adult lives which they relate to the trauma of their adoption.
“I believe these circumstances have affected me in my life. I have been an anxious person during my life and continue to be troubled by what happens around me personally. My Story will never have closure for me if I cannot meet my birth mother or have a picture or something more than I have now. Who do I look like? What were the influences in my mother’s life? What was she passionate about? What sort of person is she? What sort of family did/does she come from?”
There is no doubt that the experience of being adopted has long-term effects.
There is no doubt that the experience of being the parent of a newborn taken by force has long-term effects.
“I always felt different from everybody else. I thought I was the only one this had ever happened to. I could be in a roomful of people and be so alone and upset. I would leave the room, go to another room where I was in private and bawl my eyes out, and then I would walk back into the room as if nothing happened, because it was my private pain that I was not allowed to speak about. I was silenced, told to go home and forget it ever happened. By jingo, you cannot do that.”
Indeed, according to Ms Charlotte Smith, “A mother whose child has been stolen does not only remember in her mind, she remembers with every fibre of her being.”
Today the following words of the Apology were moved in the Senate and the House of Representatives:
Today, this Parliament, on behalf of the Australian people, takes responsibility and apologises for the policies and practices that forced the separation of mothers from their babies, which created a lifelong legacy of pain and suffering.
2. We acknowledge the profound effects of these policies and practices on fathers.
3. And we recognise the hurt these actions caused to brothers and sisters, grandparents, partners and extended family members.
4. We deplore the shameful practices that denied you, the mothers, your fundamental rights and responsibilities to love and care for your children. You were not legally or socially acknowledged as their mothers. And you were yourselves deprived of care and support.
5. To you, the mothers who were betrayed by a system that gave you no choice and subjected you to manipulation, mistreatment and malpractice, we apologise.
6. We say sorry to you, the mothers who were denied knowledge of your rights, which meant you could not provide informed consent. You were given false assurances. You were forced to endure the coercion and brutality of practices that were unethical, dishonest and in many cases illegal.
7. We know you have suffered enduring effects from these practices forced upon you by others. For the loss, the grief, the disempowerment, the stigmatisation and the guilt, we say sorry.
8. To each of you who were adopted or removed, who were led to believe your mother had rejected you and who were denied the opportunity to grow up with your family and community of origin and to connect with your culture, we say sorry.
9. We apologise to the sons and daughters who grew up not knowing how much you were wanted and loved.
10. We acknowledge that many of you still experience a constant struggle with identity, uncertainty and loss, and feel a persistent tension between loyalty to one family and yearning for another.
11. To you, the fathers, who were excluded from the lives of your children and deprived of the dignity of recognition on your children’s birth records, we say sorry. We acknowledge your loss and grief.
12. We recognise that the consequences of forced adoption practices continue to resonate through many, many lives. To you, the siblings, grandparents, partners and other family members who have shared in the pain and suffering of your loved ones or who were unable to share their lives, we say sorry.
13. Many are still grieving. Some families will be lost to one another forever. To those of you who face the difficulties of reconnecting with family and establishing on-going relationships, we say sorry.
14. We offer this apology in the hope that it will assist your healing and in order to shine a light on a dark period of our nation’s history.
15. To those who have fought for the truth to be heard, we hear you now. We acknowledge that many of you have suffered in silence for far too long.
16. We are saddened that many others are no longer here to share this moment. In particular, we remember those affected by these practices who took their own lives. Our profound sympathies go to their families.
17. To redress the shameful mistakes of the past, we are committed to ensuring that all those affected get the help they need, including access to specialist counselling services and support, the ability to find the truth in freely available records and assistance in reconnecting with lost family.
18. We resolve, as a nation, to do all in our power to make sure these practices are never repeated. In facing future challenges, we will remember the lessons of family separation. Our focus will be on protecting the fundamental rights of children and on the importance of the child’s right to know and be cared for by his or her parents.
19. With profound sadness and remorse, we offer you all our unreserved apology.