australian government apologizes for forced adoptions

“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…” National Apology for Forced Adoptions by Julia Gillard, Prime Minister of Australia, March 21, 2013

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Photo: Lukas Coch, European Photopress Agency

Adoption has gotten a lot of rap in the media lately. Unfortunately, not the kind of rap that tells of happy “forever families.” They are stories of adoption that have gone tragically awry. I’m speaking of the Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl (Veronica) and the Hana Williams cases, both heart wrenching in their own right. There is yet another story that has captured my attention and that of other adoptees. It’s of a national apology issued on March 21, 2013 by former Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, to birth mothers/fathers, adoptees, and others affected by forced adoptions that took place in Australia primarily during the 1950s, 60s and 70s. The excerpt above is the opening sentence of the apology delivered by Gillard. I was intrigued, first of all, that a government would publicly take responsibility for their share in such a scandal and apologize, but also seek to make reparations to those whose lives have been irreversibly affected. Second, I wanted to know how these events occurred, what has changed since in adoption practice, what prompted the government to finally act, and what is currently being done?

“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. 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. 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. 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.” National Apology for Forced Adoptions by Julia Gillard, March 21, 2013

Recently, a national research study was conducted by a team of Australian researchers to examine experiences of past adoption practices as they relate to the current support and service needs of affected individuals. It was a mixed methods study utilizing a series of large-scale quantitative surveys and in-depth qualitative interviews with those affected by closed adoption (in Australia), including birth mothers and fathers, adoptees, adoptive parents and extended family members. The researchers also engaged with representative bodies, service providers and relevant professionals, including psychologists, counselors and social workers.

According to the study, adoption practice in Australia from the mid-20th century was enshrouded in secrecy, and the concept of having a “clean break” from the birth parents was idealized as the right solution. Unwed single women who were pregnant were encouraged–rather forced–to “give up” their babies for adoption. These women were stigmatized as “unfit” mothers due to their status as single, unwed and pregnant. The adoption practices at that time were referred to as “closed adoption.”  This meant that an adopted child’s original birth certificate was sealed forever and an amended birth certificate issued that established the child’s new identity and relationship with their adoptive family. Legislative changes in the 1960s tightened these secrecy provisions, ensuring that neither party, the birth mother nor adoptive family, saw each other’s names. At its peak in 1971–72, there were almost 10,000 adoptions in Australia. It has been cited that more than 250,000 Australian women had “relinquished” a baby for adoption since the late 1920s, although it is not known what proportion of these adoptions involved force, coercion, or other unethical or illegal behaviors (Kenny, P. Higgins, D., Soloff, C., Sweid, R. (2012). Past adoption experiences: National Research Study on the Service Response to Past Adoption Practices. Research Report 21. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies. ISBN 978-1-922038-05-0).

Mothers who were coerced into closed adoptions were subjected to unauthorized separation from their children, later to become known as “forced adoption.” From the 1970s, advocacy led to legislative reforms that overturned the secrecy within adoption, such as mothers receiving identifying information. However, it was not until further changes were made in the 1980s (1990s in some Australian jurisdictions) that information on birth parents was made available to adopted children/adults. Further changes took place in 1976 when state/territory-based registers were established for both birth parents and adopted children who wished to make contact. And, in 1984, Victoria implemented legislation granting adopted persons over the age of 18 the right to access their birth certificate (subject to mandatory counseling). Similar changes followed in other states/territories.

In the study, birth mothers reported numerous accounts of maltreatment including, “experiences of abuse or negligence by hospital and/or maternity home staff, administration of drugs that impaired their capacity, lack of the ability to give or revoke consent, not being listened to about their preferences, and being made to feel unworthy or incapable of parenting, particularly from authority figures.” Physicians and nurses used highly unethical methods to prevent mothers from seeing their babies, such as not allowing the mother to hold or feed the baby. They frequently lied to mothers telling them that their babies had died, did not allow a mother to see the baby through active shielding with a sheet or other physical barrier during birth, or removed the baby or mother from the ward immediately after birth. The traumatization of these experiences caused  many mothers to feel emotions such as grief, loss, shame and secrecy surrounding their experiences. The next excerpt is just one of several accounts from young mothers who share their painful stories. Please be advised before reading it that the information contained here may cause distress for some.

“I have gone through my life feeling guilty about my daughter being given up to adoption … If only I was able to have more support instead of being forced … From the time my hands were shackled to the bed to stop me from touching my baby’s head while she was being born, and pillows and sheets being put over my face until I was in a drug-enforced sleep to stop me from being a nuisance … Then the memory of waking up in a ward with three other young girls, … all in the same position as me … That room had baby weighing scales in there … The nurses brought babies in there to weigh them … We would all sit up and try and see the babies … We were all told not to bother because the babies weren’t ours … I will never ever forget that!!! I couldn’t understand why we were in that room … How could another human being be so cruel to another … Such painful memories.” (Kenny, P. Higgins, D., Soloff, C., Sweid, R. (2012)Past adoption experiences: National Research Study on the Service Response to Past Adoption Practices. Research Report 21. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies. ISBN 978-1-922038-05-0).

As I continued to explore the information available about this dark period in adoption history, it reminded me of other horrific events that have occurred in the past that were later brought to the surface. I know that no one was sent to the gas chamber, yet so many young, frightened women were tortured psychologically, emotionally, and even physically in a way that most of us have not nor ever will be. And that the Australian government was willing to acknowledge such abuse is quite amazing to me. I have to admit that I was somewhat skeptical as to why the government was now taking responsibility, but the fact that they did so is a step closer toward healing for all those many, many individuals affected.

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Photo: Lukas Coch, European Photopress Agency

“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. 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 ongoing relationships, we say sorry. 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. 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.” National Apology for Forced Adoptions by Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, March 21, 2013

So what are the next steps? Following the national apology by Prime Minister Gillard, the National Archives established a project team to deliver a website, exhibition and education program with 2 main purposes: to increase awareness and understanding of experiences of individuals affected by forced adoption practices and to identify and share experiences of forced adoption. The Forced Adoptions History Project website was launched in March 2014. At this website, a link is provided for individuals who would like to share their stories, which may be included in the project. In 2015, an exhibition will follow to be launched at the National Archives in Canberra. And last but not least, as part of her apology, Prime Minister Gillard announced that $5 million (£3.4 million) would be provided to improve access to specialist support and to help records-tracing and mental health care for those affected by forced adoption. Surely this cannot repair all of the damage suffered by so many women. Yet it is a step in the right direction.

I hope that as a result of the national apology issued by the Australian government, mothers who were forced to give up their children find some solace in knowing that their pain, grief, and loss has at last been acknowledged. That they were in no way at fault, that their voices deserve to be heard, and that reparations must be made. I fear that unethical practices in international adoption continue to exist in certain parts of the country and that the only way to prevent this immorality is to advocate, advocate, advocate for ethical adoption practices. There is more that must be done. To birth mothers everywhere who have been forced to give up a child, I grieve with you and wish you a lifetime of healing.

Read the entire National Apology for Forced Adoptions issued by former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard here.

Read the full National Research Study on the Service Response to Past Adoption Practices: Final report here. It may take a few minutes to download, as it’s a large file.

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