Speech in support of the Report of the Senate Inquiry into Former Forced Adoption Policies and Practices
It is a privilege to be able to contribute to this debate, and I sincerely congratulate everyone who have been involved in this disturbing Senate Inquiry.
I recently became aware of the expression “Baby Scoop Era” as a way of describing the period – post WW2 and onto the 1970s, tens of thousands of single women were coerced into giving up their babies for adoption, here in Australia, in Canada, America and the UK. It’s quite a visually challenging expression, isn’t it – capturing the wrenching of a child from its mothers’ arms?
I’ve read many of the stories documented, and many others are known personally to me. I vividly recall a young woman where I grew up being sent to Brisbane – leaving town as a vibrant, alive young girl, and returning 6 months later distressed, depressed – and not long after attempting to take her own life.
Girls from an orphanage attended my school – and I remember the discussion when one of the girls didn’t come back in 5th form, after the holidays- and the stories of what had happened to her – told with fear and trepidation by her friends. And not long ago, at a school reunion, this issue was raised again – as three former classmates revealed something to me of the experiences within their families of forced adoption.
The Inquiry has received horrible testimony of young women being drugged, physically restrained, and even told by authorities that their babies had died. The callousness is gut-wrenching! The personal accounts of those involved in the practices revealed on the 4 Corners program this week attest to the courage of the women able to tell their story to the world, on behalf of the many others who could not. I congratulate them all for their grace and their courage.
Dr Meryl Moor, gave her 2005 PhD thesis on this subject, the title: Silent Violence Australia’s White Stolen Children.
She quoted Jigsaw, in Brisbane:
In relation to adoption, the question needs to be asked: In what other period of human history did young mothers willingly defy nature and give away their babies en masse to strangers?”
It is an unspeakable act of cruelty. Dr Moor drew on the evidence of witnesses to the 2000 NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into Adoption Practices – where many similar stories were told – of threats made, promises given, the sense of powerlessness, the ensuing heartache.
When we speak of forced adoption we are talking about culturally imposed practices– and these are very different from personal, tough decisions to have a child adopted. When a dominant culture imposes its values onto a minority group, this is an abuse of human rights.
Already since the election of the Labor Government in 2007 we have had acts of injustices recognised – the apology to the stolen generations was a potent moment of healing in the Australian psyche. The apology to the forgotten Australians, children raised in institutional care – has helped to ease the pain and hurt of lost childhoods and identity. And today, we are giving hope to the thousands of young women, and in many cases, their partners, who were forced to relinquish their babies, that there can be some redress, some formal acknowledgement of their hurt and pain, some sense that governments, churches and communities were wrong.
We all know that many of those involved in removing Aboriginal children from their homes did so in the belief that it was for the greater good, and no doubt the same applies to many who thought adoption into a two-parent family was automatically a more desirable outcome to life with an unmarried mother. But the fact that a practice was followed in good faith does not necessarily make it right.
Again, the 4 Corners program showed how much this weighed on the minds of social workers, hospital staff, and, I am sure, many of the adoptive parents.
Way back in 1492, you’ll recall, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. One of the first things he did when he got to America was to take (well, basically kidnap) a native American child. He later adopted him, and had him baptised (called him Diego) —in order, he said, to save his immortal soul.
It may have suited Christopher Columbus very well to have a local translator whom he could control, but I’m also prepared to believe that he genuinely thought young Diego would be better off with him than with his own family. However, the sincerity of his belief does not justify his actions.
And the forced removal of babies in Australia may have been seen by many then as an act of kindness, intended to save these children from harmful environments—but as in the case of Columbus, that’s simply not good enough. What we have in this Senate report is nothing less than a catalogue of human rights violations.
Violations of the rights of mothers such as the wonderful, outspoken Christine Cole, whose experience as a 16 year old, inspired her to research the issue of forced adoptions. Her interviews with other young mothers and with medical workers formed the backbone of her doctoral thesis on the subject.
She described in graphic detail the procedure when a single mother was obliged to visit a social worker: her file was marked, without her knowledge or consent, to indicate that the unborn baby was available for adoption, and later, at the birth, staff in the maternity ward acted according to the note on the file and the baby was removed.
It is difficult to convey to people now living in a society that values and enforces an individual’s civil and human rights, what life was like 40-60 years ago for a vulnerable young woman who lacked knowledge, support and resources – and frankly, even for those who did!
Girls were not instructed about pregnancy, labour and delivery; Pregnant girls were hidden away, or sent away, to the eternal shame of their families.
They were isolated from their families and from other new mothers; they were not provided information about welfare or about how they might be able to support their child. Of course, until the 1970s when child support payments were extended to unmarried mothers – they had little ability to support themselves- few options to consider, no sense of personal agency, few choices.
In short, they were not recognised as legitimate mothers, and when their babies were forcibly removed nor were they recognised as legitimate mourners.
The work of psychologists such as John Bowlby and Elizabeth Kubler Ross has taught us a lot about love, loss and grief, and the pages of this Report bring the psychological theories vividly to life. But it is not only the mothers whose human rights were violated: so were the rights of countless children who were denied access to their natural heritage.
No matter how much they were loved by their adoptive parents, for many, tracing their roots has become an arduous and painful process of discovery. It sounds self evident to us today, that the best place for a child is with her own family and community; the best place for a mother is with her child, and if she cannot care for her properly she should be supported in every way to make informed, thoughtful decisions regarding alternative care – but for these women, and at this time – it isn’t what happened.
I would use the word “ill –conceived” to describe not the babies, but the practice of forced adoption.
Ill-conceived, because of the absence of integrity and respect. These values are fundamental to how society should work.
Integrity—in being forthright, accurate and honest with all parties involved in its decisions.
Respect—in recognising each person’s right to autonomous decision-making, or what some people call “the ethic of self-determination”.
Adoption is a life-long process, not a one-time event. When engaging in such a process the innate dignity of human beings—and this of course includes children—must be considered.
Columbus may not have realised this, but we do. The Report makes it abundantly clear that human dignity was not a consideration in the case of these young women and their babies. The dominant themes are of raw emotions – betrayal, humiliation, condemnation, abandonment, trickery, grief, and of course – abject loss.
The Report brings great heartbreak into the light from the shadows of the past—the not too distant past—and although, as Senator Siewert has said, this makes harrowing reading, it is always a good thing when the truth is revealed, even when this truth is what psychiatrist Geoff Rickarby has rightly described as “a stain on our history”.
I am glad that the churches have recognised this, and I add my voice to the recommendations of this report.
Nothing can heal the experience of love and loss of these women, who carry that with them everyday. But, I sincerely hope that through this report and the recommendations we can help remove their sense of shame and restore their dignity and self worth.
My favourite poet Leonard Cohen would surely say of this report:
Nothing is perfect, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.
I hope the light shines brightly for you all.