Forced Adoption Apology

28 March 2012


The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (16:02): I move:

That this council—

1.             Acknowledges that previous parliaments and governments share responsibility for the application of some of the policies and processes that impacted upon unmarried mothers of adopted children, and now apologises to the mothers, their children and the families who were adversely affected by these past adoption practices and expresses its sympathy to those individuals whose interests were poorly served by the policy of those times.

2.             Calls on the Premier to move a formal statement of apology in the parliament in relation to—

(a)           past adoption practices for which it is now recognised that, for a significant part of the 20th century, the legal, health and welfare systems and processes then operating in South Australia meant that many pregnant unmarried women were not given the appropriate care and respect that they needed and were sometimes coerced to give up children for adoption; and

(b)           processes, such as the immediate removal of the baby following birth preventing bonding with the mother, which are recognised, in many cases, to have caused long-term anguish and suffering for the people affected.

This is a very important motion that I bring to this council, and it follows on from the tabling of the report of the Community Affairs References Committee, entitled ‘Commonwealth contribution to former forced adoption policies and practices’, which was tabled on 29 February this year. It received cross-party support from the Labor Party, the Greens and the Liberal Party. I am hopeful, particularly given the Premier’s statement earlier today, that we will see wide support for this motion.

The inquiry of the Community Affairs References Committee was described as a very emotional and traumatic journey, and it has involved a large number of personal stories. I commend the work of all members of the committee and, in particular, the chair, Greens’ Senator Rachel Siewert. I also acknowledge that the member for Morialta, John Gardner, has previously brought this matter to the attention of this parliament in the other place, and I acknowledge his work in doing so.

Human history is littered with periods of time in which we have made grave errors of judgement as a society. Already in this country, we have rightly apologised for historical injustices that have been committed against the Indigenous people of Australia. This motion seeks to play a role in the long healing process from another depressing chapter in our country’s short white history, the forced adoption practices that saw babies stolen from the hospital beds of their vulnerable mothers. Instead of receiving support and understanding, young unwed mothers were treated as sinners and condemned to a tortuous life, with the pain of having a child taken from them.

It is clear from the submissions to the senate inquiry, as well as those stories I have heard outside of the inquiry through media reports and the  like, that the sorrow and emptiness that results from having a baby taken away can last a lifetime, and it continues to have a negative impact on many of the women today.

One particular woman I would like to pay tribute to is adoption campaigner, Lily Arthur. Her newborn son was taken from her in 1967. At the time, at 17, unmarried and pregnant, she was placed in a home for delinquent girls. She went into labour and was strapped to a hospital bed and when her son was born she was denied a chance to even look at him, much less touch or hold him. Heavily sedated, she was given adoption papers to sign. She was threatened with going into a maximum security girls home if she resisted and she was told her son would be better off with another family. She was sent back to the home, alone, and never recovered.

Ms Arthur is one of the tens of thousands of Australian women estimated to have been forced into adopting their babies by government and church-run homes and hospitals between the 1940s and 1980s. An estimated 250,000 Australian women were subject to the practice of closed adoption during this period, where adoption papers were sealed in order to provide a complete break between mother and child.

The inquiry’s recommendations have admonished the practice of compelling unwed mothers to relinquish their babies. While authorities argue this was done with good intentions at the time, I note that Catholic Health Australia, the Uniting Church and the Western Australian government have all acknowledged that these practices were harmful and have apologised in recent times.

I particularly pay tribute to Ms Arthur, as one of the 130 women who travelled to Canberra to be present for the Senate tabling of the report and note that at the time she said that a simple apology would in fact ring hollow. She stated:

When a woman has suffered decades of mental anguish, and had her basic common law and human rights abused, an apology doesn’t change anything.

I acknowledge the work of both the organisation she works for and the Senate committee in unpacking some of the further ramifications of these forced adoptions. Certainly, many women led lives plagued by mental health issues, drug and alcohol abuse and higher suicide rates. Ms Arthur, the coordinator of Origins: Supporting People Separated through Adoption, has said that survivors of forced adoption require not just an apology but also reparation, such as access to counselling, increased Centrelink support and better access to records.

It cannot be denied that the maternal bond formed throughout pregnancy is an intense physical and emotional closeness and a woman should never have this forcibly taken away from her, yet it is a process that as a larger community and a larger society and as governments we did indeed condone.

It has been alleged that many young, unmarried mothers were unethically drugged and illegally lied to in order for them to give so-called permission to give up their baby to families that were seen by both institutions and the government as more fitting: married families, heterosexual couples who were married and seen to be a more legitimate household for that child to be raised in. One submission from a South Australian, who has kept their name confidential, writes:

I arrived and was sent to either the kitchen or laundry. We were treated like second class citizens. We were not allowed to be seen by the paying public who had their babies upstairs. I remember getting old crumpets delivered for breakfast and having to cut off all the mould and cook them for breakfast.

I have a friend whose mother was one of the women forced to give her child up for adoption, and it has impacted greatly on his family. Certainly, the tales that he has informed me of about his mother being starved and made to look, for all appearances, as though she was not pregnant and worked incredibly hard by the institutions that had taken her in, horrify myself and I would hope would horrify all members of this council.

Thankfully we are increasingly learning that the so-called nuclear family—indeed, a nuclear family being symptomatic of merely the 20th century of our existence on this planet and that of a heterosexual husband and wife living in a single household with their children—has and is continuing to change. It certainly takes a village, as Hilary Clinton and many others have said, to raise a family, and in the past extended families have been commonplace. Certainly, in many cultures there are many ways of raising children.

Through our experiences in investigating this issue, both from the Senate inquiry and other work, I would hope that we would recognise that families are not a homogenous quantity. For the friends and families of those today who were subject to forced adoptions and continue to experience feelings of grief, pain and loss, I today unreservedly apologise. I note that I am not alone.

As I noted previously, the member for Morialta has initiated this process in the parliament and today the Premier has issued a statement and has indicated that he and Minister Portolesi are willing to work across parties and with the community of those who were involved in forced adoption—the mothers and fathers and the adoptees—and associated communities to heal this great injustice. He certainly noted that on 13 June this year we will see some sort of acknowledgement of that in this parliament building, I imagine.

An apology is a welcome step forward. Of course, it is not the only step. I cannot emphasise enough the importance of the provision of counselling services, redress, access to records and reconnection as we all take this step forward from injustice to respect. With that, I commend the motion to the chamber.

Debate adjourned on motion of Hon. G.A. Kandelaars.

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