Past Adoption Practices (Government Motion)

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Legislative Council, Page 1823

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (11:16): The Greens welcome the historic events of today and, of course, of yesterday as a landmark in a journey from hurt to healing. This apology is, of course, symbolic, and this institution more than most knows full well the power of symbolism. Just as the power of a society to shun and shame a young mother with an unplanned pregnancy was once so intense, the powerful symbol yesterday of a leader of government, the Premier, in that position saying that he is sorry, and his being joined by a Leader of the Opposition in her saying that she, too, is sorry, can be felt. The power can serve to show that the time for isolation, shame and silence is now done and that truths may not only be told but believed.

Yesterday and today, that symbolic power was reinforced, heard and supported across our political divides. Previous parliaments and governments, of course, share responsibility for the application of some of the policies and processes of past forced adoptions. They profoundly, deeply and destructively impacted mothers, fathers, their children and their immediate and extended families. The pain they feel may never be forgotten, but an apology for many is a way of working towards healing.

It cannot be denied that the maternal bond formed throughout pregnancy is an intense physical and emotional closeness, and a women should never have this forcibly taken away from her. Yet it is a process that, as a larger community and as a larger society and as governments, we did indeed condone. I stand here today as a member of this parliament not only to express my sympathy to those individuals whose interests were poorly served by the policies of those times but to say that we shall stand vigilant that such treatment should never be condoned again.

This is a very important motion, following from the tabling of the report of the Community Affairs References Committee, entitled ‘Commonwealth Contribution to Former Forced Adoption and Policies and Practices’. It is there being alleged that many young unmarried mothers were unethically drugged and even illegally lied to in order for them to give so-called permission to give up their baby to a family that was seen by both institutions and the governments as more fitting—married families, heterosexual couples who were then married and seen to be a more legitimate household for that child to be raised in.

Instead of receiving support and understanding, these mothers were treated as sinners and condemned to a tortuous life, with the pain of having a child taken away from them. Instead of flowers and baby booties, they were surrounded by shame and grief, and they were silenced and isolated. As a consequence, many went on to live a life plagued by mental health issues, drug and alcohol abuse and higher suicide rates.

I was pleased to see that the federal parliamentary Senate committee inquiry report received cross-party support from the Labor Party, the Liberal Party, the Greens and the Independents. I commend the work of all the members of that committee and, in particular, the chair of the committee, Greens Senator Rachel Siewert.

I also acknowledge that the member for Morialta, John Gardner (the shadow minister for communities and social inclusion) brought this matter to the attention of this parliament in the other place, and I acknowledge his good and important work in doing so. His moving and heartfelt speech yesterday in the house was a testament both to the strength and the fragility of family. This motion before us today seeks to play a role in the long healing process from one depressing chapter in our country’s short white history—the forced adoption practices that saw babies stolen from the hospital bed of their vulnerable mother.

It is clear to me from the submissions to the inquiry, as well as from the stories I have heard personally outside the inquiry, 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 so many. That is why the recommendations of the inquiry admonished the practice of compelling unwed mothers to relinquish their babies. While some arguments were made that this was done with good intentions at the time, I also note and commend that Catholic Health Australia, the Uniting Church and indeed the Western Australian government before us have all acknowledged that these practices were harmful and have rightly apologised.

I note that many young married couples were similarly under enormous pressures to become parents when they could not conceive, and there are many stories of heartache and pain to be told on that side of the story as well. Through our experiences investigating this issue, both from the Senate inquiry and through other processes, I would hope that we would now recognise that families are not a homogenous quantity and that to compel that homogeneity is indeed to inflict harm.

One particular mother I would like to pay tribute to today—as I did when I moved a motion in this place calling for this apology—is adoption campaigner, Lily Arthur. Her newborn son was taken from her in 1967, just one year before my own birth. At that time, at 17, unmarried and pregnant, she was placed in a home for delinquent girls. She went into labour. She 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 maximum security girls’ homes if she resisted and was told that her son would be better off with another family. She was sent back home alone and she never recovered.

My own then 18-year-old unwed mother fell pregnant with me in 1967. There was a similar shame cast on her by her family and community in the small country New South Wales town where she grew up and then lived, but in her case she was forced into an unhappy marriage in order that she raise me. I know that my mother and I of course were lucky in this outcome by comparison.

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

Ms Arthur, of course, went on to become the coordinator of Origins Supporting People Separated by Adoption. I acknowledge the work of both that organisation and of course the Senate committee in unpacking some of the further ramifications of those forced adoptions. Today I also echo her call that survivors of forced adoption require not just an apology but also reparations, such as access to counselling, increased Centrelink support and better access to records.

To the friends and families of those today who were subject to forced adoptions and continue to experience feelings of grief, pain and loss, I unreservedly apologise. An apology of course is a welcome step forward, but 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.

Today we ensure that the mothers who were once shunned, shamed, isolated and made invisible are no longer ignored in this parliament. I stand here today and say, ‘I am sorry for this,’ and make a pledge that I will do my best to see that similar injustices are not repeated. With that, I commend the motion to the council.

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