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Community Affairs References Committee
Commonwealth contribution to former forced adoption policies and practices
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Community Affairs References Committee
Moore, Sen Claire
Brown, Sen Carol
McKenzie, Sen Bridget
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Community Affairs References Committee
(Senate-Wednesday, 28 September 2011)
CHAIR (Senator Siewert)
Senator CAROL BROWN
Senator CAROL BROWN
Senator CAROL BROWN
Senator CAROL BROWN
- Ms Smith
Content WindowCommunity Affairs References Committee - 28/09/2011 - Commonwealth contribution to former forced adoption policies and practices
GRAHAM, Mr Thomas Andrew, Private capacity
CHAIR: I would now like to welcome Mr Thomas Graham. I understand information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. We have your submission, No. 148. I would like to invite you to make an opening statement and then we will ask you some questions.
Mr Graham : Thank you for the opportunity to give testimony today to this very important inquiry. My introductory statement will be relatively brief to allow more time for questions. I was adopted 10 days after my birth and, notwithstanding being placed with a good adopted family, I lived on the margins of my life, not fully understanding who I was or where I fitted into the world. In my late 20s I began searching for my mother, having been given her name and age on a small slip of paper. Five years later, I discovered her living in Germany, still single and not having had any other children. We have maintained contact since, which now stretches about 20 years. I never met my father, who died in 1987, but I did discover I had two half siblings, including a half brother who is two days older than I am, which explains how my mother drew the short straw in finding herself single and pregnant in a foreign country without the support of family, state or church. Growing up, adoption was a taboo subject at home and I seldom talked about my experience. In some ways, I still find it difficult to do so. Furthermore, until about 10 years ago there was very little literature written on the subject. I got frustrated at not being able to quickly find quality information about adoption, and I then surveyed the Australian adoption community as to whether there would be a place for an online journal on adoption. I got a very high return of positive responses, so three years ago I started the Australian Journal of Adoption, which I continue to manage in my spare time and at my own expense. The journal has opened my world to the many facets of adoption. In listening to the complex stories and issues from people affected by it, which are essentially centred around justice and health, I decided to draft and submit a framework in response to the second term of reference for this inquiry. I believe this framework encapsulates many of the issues which need to be addressed and hopefully will be in your final report and recommendations.
Senator MOORE: Thank you for your submission. It was from a different perspective and I think that is always valuable. It shows the complexity of this issue. You heard the previous evidence—I saw you in the room—so you know the AIFS process that is going on. Are you choosing to be involved in that process?
Mr Graham : Yes, I am. I have completed the survey and I have also promoted it in the journal. I have an acknowledgement from Dr Higgins to say thank you very much, that it was very positive and very useful.
Senator MOORE: That is what I thought, but it is nice to have it on record. You offer a range of experience in here. I am interested in the journal and in the kinds of experiences and the kinds of people involved. I take it the journal is on a website. Is that right?
Mr Graham : It is online, yes.
Senator MOORE: You set it up and you have put it out there. What has the response been like? Are people engaging, sharing their experiences? What do you do with that? I am interested in the dynamic of that communication.
Mr Graham : It has been very gratifying in many ways. As I say, I do it in my free capacity and I have developed these networks across the country with a whole lot of individuals and specialists in various aspects of adoption. We have spoken of the institute of family histories and their studies and the Monash University project. Dr Cuthbert and Marion Courtney have been very supportive—
Senator MOORE: We have spoken with them.
Mr Graham : and they have submitted material. It covers the full spectrum and I think that is also what makes it quite fascinating. I have articles written by or for adoptees. I have adoptive parents submitting material. I also have people who are in the profession, administering adoption. Then there is Garry Coles, one of the few birth fathers who is quite vocal. He is also a supporter and a contributor. I think there are 225 registered readers, but what is interesting and what makes it gratifying is the hits on the site. I have articles that have had over 4,000 views. I know that Professor Cuthbert has been quite pleased with some of the articles that she has had published in the journal because they have had more views and more hits than anything she has ever published anywhere else. There are registered readers from around the world—America, Britain, France, Taiwan and New Zealand, to name a few off the top of my head. So I think that all round it is serving a useful purpose, and I think that is because it is crossing the full spectrum. In this inquiry you will see that there are groups or camps of people—whether it be the mothers or adoptees or organisations—and I have tried to make the journal appeal to as broad a spectrum of those people affected by or involved in adoption as I can.
Senator MOORE: And they can all be together without necessarily seeing each other.
Mr Graham : Yes. That is another one of the extraordinary things—most people who are involved or have been involved in the journal I have never met face to face or even spoken to on a telephone. So I suppose it is indicative of what can happen online, and I think some of the resources and even practices could be done online.
Senator MOORE: One of your paragraphs talks about the fact that we have to move forward and stop looking for and focusing on blame. Where do you think we should move forward to? I take it that that is your personal position rather than something that has been gathered by the correspondence.
Mr Graham : Yes. I think an adoption, wherever you are placed on it, is a lifelong thing; you do not become 'unadopted' in a formal sense. Whether you are a mother or a father or whatever, you do not undo the circumstances that led you to relinquish a child either. I think that because that has not been validated or acknowledged—it has been swept under the carpet—the secret and the shame and the trauma that goes with that has never been acknowledged and validated. Until that happens, you do tend to get stuck in a spot.
So in moving forward I think we need to find avenues for people—and there are avenues—where they can heal and move on and lead full and vital lives. That is not to say that, moving on, that pain or that loss or that abandonment disappears completely; but in managing it on a day-today basis you can embrace life, and I think that is where I would like to see people move towards. Let us deal with this trauma and let us deal with this pain, and, in dealing with and accepting it, in some ways we can live full and meaningful lives. It takes time and effort, but people affected by adoption are not the only segment of the population that suffers trauma in some or other way. I think that trauma would be quite similar for people who have lost people through war or motor car accidents or things like that. Yes, it is slightly different, but it is still that trauma that needs to be dealt with.
Senator MOORE: So, in your opinion, what is needed to make that move forward? You said that you have to move forward and get on with—
Mr Graham : I think there are many things. Getting back to the earlier point about the validation and the acknowledgement, I think some form of national apology would be good. It would be useful for everyone who has been involved in administering an adoption to make that national apology.
Senator MOORE: I saw that in your submission. You said that there had to be a wide-ranging ownership of that apology.
Mr Graham : Yes. Because there are so many different organisations that have been involved in it, to put your finger on one and say that all responsibility or all blame lies with just one would be very difficult to do.
Senator CAROL BROWN: Who would you see that apology coming from? You talk about wide-ranging—
Mr Graham : In all these matters I think the federal government needs to take the lead and the initiative, and it would be good if that could happen at the highest level. It would also be good if it was a number of apologies mixed into one.
Senator CAROL BROWN: You mean institutional—
Mr Graham : Yes. You could have a number of people all at one time making that apology on behalf of their organisations, governments or whatever. That would be one way. The other would be to get the medical profession cognisant of the fact that people are affected by adoption and that there are consequences, and those consequences have been around for a long, long time. A lot of the submissions have alluded to this. Across the spectrum, whether you are an adopted parent, an adoptee, a mother or a father, those who have gone through the medical system acknowledge that it is not always recognised as a serious trauma and that it has consequences that manifest themselves in all kinds of mental illnesses. I think that needs to be acknowledged. There needs to be a level of education around that. I have not given a great amount of thought to how that can actually be done.
CHAIR: Strong submissions have been put to the committee around the need for specialised counselling to specifically address the issues that mothers face. Separate counselling is needed for mothers so specialised training is needed for that counselling. In your submission you say that people should be able to get a rebate from Medicare for such counselling. The point has been made that specialist training is needed for that type of counselling.
Mr Graham : Yes, I would support that. I refer to the submission from Jennifer Newbould of the Adoption Research and Counselling Service in Western Australia. She has been doing that counselling for 30 years. They have built a good basis of accurate and reliable evidence to show that, whether you are a mother or an adoptee, there are certain consequences from that trauma. I note that she has seen a pattern over 30 years. I think that it is indicative that there is a need for that counselling. First up there is the awareness of the issue and then we need to try to develop so some training so that people across the country are made aware of that and people in need of that counselling can benefit appropriately.
Senator MOORE: I want to hear a little more about your own experience. You have chosen to come and talk to the committee and to work in this area. Was your adoption in Australia?
Mr Graham : No, I came to Australia with my family 14 years ago. It was probably one of the best decisions I have ever made. I am very happy to be here. I had a sense of fit from day one. Adoption is a universal issue. You do not separate babies from their mothers without some negative ramifications. Adoption knows no boundaries in terms of nationalities and countries—and even time, in my view. Recently, I shared a platform with a fellow adoptee, who is probably 40 years younger than me from another country. His experience was slightly different to mine. But some of those underlying issues—the desire to know where you come from and who your parents are—are fundamental to being a human being. I suppose I have been driven by that because I have always had that deep desire to know who my mother—and probably to a lesser extent my father—was and I have been drawn into the adoption world. But I have found that it has helped me to heal my own wounds by helping others, and the journal is proof of that.
Senator MOORE: How did you find out you were adopted, and what was the balance of the relationship with your adopted family and your search for your mother?
Mr Graham : I was told, I believe, at an early age. I have no recollection as to exactly what age but I think it was at around six or seven. It was something we knew in the house but it was never talked about. I was part of a closed adoption system. Although, as I said in my opening remarks, I did have a very good adopted family, I always felt apart or separate. Certainly in my teenage years I was quite rebellious and I think a lot of that rebellion came from unresolved trauma at the time through the adoption experience. I basically left home when I was 16. It has only been in recent years that I have acknowledged my adopted family in a positive way for the contribution that they made.
In terms of their support in my search, they were not aware of it. I think it is a common thing for adoptees to have this duality of loyalty. You do not necessarily want to offend your adopted family by saying you are now going to look for your other family, as it were. But when I had found my mother and after the reunion I did tell them and they were supportive.
Senator MOORE: And the reunion process with your mother? We have had evidence about various experiences of reunion. Is the reunion something you would care to share with us?
Mr Graham : I met my mother for the first time after my birth at the age of 33. She was my flesh and blood but she was also a perfect stranger to me. She still lives in Germany, so there is a separation in distance and time. We have never been particularly close in terms of there being a nice warmth or bond between us. Although we have kept contact and we see each other once every three or four years, it has not been all plain sailing.
The other thing is that I have been in a support group, and it has been through listening to other mothers who have relinquished their babies that I have understood my own mother's situation a little bit better. I think I had an issue with forgiveness for a time. In listening to other mothers' stories and their circumstances I have appreciated and understood my mother's situation in the 1950s much better, and that has also helped us a lot.
Senator MOORE: And your mother explained that to you? It is difficult to meet your child 33 years later and say 'this is what happened'. Was your mum able to share with you her own experience as best she could?
Mr Graham : Yes, she certainly has, but at the time the focus was more on me—'Why did you do this to me?' et cetera—and it has been only in later years that I have been able to distance myself and look at it from her perspective and stand in her shoes.
Senator MOORE: I am sorry to be so personal. I am trying to work it through. Do you have children?
Mr Graham : Not of my own, no.
Senator MOORE: That is the other issue that we are tracing—that a circumstance that happens in a family then has implications for the family into the future and the interrelationships from there. Would you like to share with us any information you know through the journal and through other people's experiences of that?
Mr Graham : I think it is not uncommon for mothers to not have other children afterwards. I cannot speak for adoptees generally. I married only for the first time when I was 40. I felt then that I had a sense of a solid identity and that I could embrace life and all its aspects. Not having children of my own has been a consequence of adoption. I do have a stepson, so I am fortunate in that regard. I think my adoption experience has actually helped me in having a stepson because I think I have recognised at an intuitive level some of the issues that he may have had to deal with in that separation, and we get along very well.
CHAIR: Your framework is going to provide us with a lot of guidance in what we should be recommending, so I thank you for your work there. I like how you have set out the principles that would guide the framework. In working with your online forum, how strong a support do you think you have for your particular principles and the framework from the online community?
Mr Graham : I have not really tested it but I know it covers off many of the points that are brought up in a lot of the submissions. No-one has come back to me with negatives, I have to say, that say 'It's totally off the mark,' or 'You've missed this or that.' I think it would be fairly inclusive and comprehensive. The one thing I might not have covered is that some people have asked for a 24-hour helpline. That is one thing I have not previously thought of, which would probably be quite useful. I was quite conscious as well of the language, particularly with mothers. They do not like the terms 'birth mothers' and 'first mothers' and all that. That is why in the principles it just talks about mothers, fathers and children. I think that is important to take on board.
CHAIR: I have also taken on board the point you made about the apology from institutions.
Mr Graham : A kind of group apology would be good.
CHAIR: We touched on it and then we moved on. It goes to the point about government leadership and the national coordinated approach, which I will come back to in a minute. Would you see government as being part of that range of organisations apologising? From your comments earlier I took that you would see a day where institutions would apologise. Do you see government involved in that apology then or in a separate process? How would you see it happening?
Mr Graham : I think it could be all in one. I think people would expect government to be involved in that.
CHAIR: Were you here when the Attorney-General's department was here?
Mr Graham : No, I came in right at the end of Dr Higgins's talk.
CHAIR: We have been tracking down this issue of the model legislation and I have a couple of questions around that. It goes back to your forum and the online community. Is that discussed much? How aware are you of the awareness in the community around the model laws that were developed by Attorney-General's with the states in the early sixties?
Mr Graham : I have very little knowledge of that, I suppose because I have only been an Australian for 14 years and that happened before my time. It was only when I was reading—I forget the doctor's name from WEL; was that the acronym?
CHAIR: Yes, the Women's Electoral Lobby.
Mr Graham : That was the first time I came across that information—
CHAIR: Strangely enough, that is when we first came across it too.
Mr Graham : that state laws were based on a model that was developed federally, and then the states kind of based their wording on that. That was the first time I had come across that. So I would suggest that there is not general awareness around that fact.
CHAIR: Thank you. You have priority areas 1, 2 and 3; is that in any order of priority or is that just the way that you have articulated them?
Mr Graham : I think there is a bit of order there. Because the states and territories and a lot of organisations really do a lot around the adoption space and it is very difficult to get the states to agree on anything—
CHAIR: Tell us about it!
Mr Graham : there needs to be an umpire above them. That is why I am saying it should perhaps be the federal government, to prevent the issue from getting lost in the system. That is why I am suggesting that it be either a health standing council or committee or a women's issues committee that needs to have carriage of this. So, yes, at the highest level, the federal government need to be involved, and I think they also need to coordinate the apology. So there was some priority in having those things first, because everything else seems to flow from those two things.
CHAIR: The committee that is responsible for auspicing the research project is the Community and Disability Services Ministers Advisory Council. That is the group that has responsibility for, or carriage of, the study. You just suggested a health or women's issues group. Do you see the Community and Disability Services Ministers Advisory Council as being a satisfactory group? Instead of those two groups you mentioned, would that be a satisfactory group to do that, since they already have carriage of the issue?
Mr Graham : Yes, I think so, because that does then provide some level of continuity and alignment with the study—and I am sure that what comes out of the study will have some bearing on the way forward in some ways. Personally, I think it is just going to—what is the word?—reconfirm what we already know.
CHAIR: Corroborate? Is that the right word?
Mr Graham : Yes, I think so.
Mr Graham : But, yes, I think it is important that it sits somewhere so that someone can coordinate it; otherwise, you might have a fantastic report and great recommendations, but nothing happens with them.
CHAIR: Nobody takes responsibility for it, yes. I know I have run us over time again. It is one of the problems with this inquiry: there is so much detail and there are so many questions we want to ask, we are always going over time. I just want to focus on what role you see the Commonwealth playing in terms of that coordination. We have had a lot of evidence around access to data across the states and we are still following up—as you could hear this morning—the issues around the model laws. But what role do you see the Commonwealth playing, and how important is it, in terms of the coordinated approach that you are articulating, if we are going to move forward on the issue? How important do you think that is?
Mr Graham : I think it is very important, and that does not mean to say the Commonwealth has to do everything—they can delegate or commission, or whatever the term is, people to follow through on certain things. But, yes, I think there needs to be some person who is chairing the different parties and involved in this area. We have not talked about money, but funds would have to be directed to some of these things. Probably the states and everybody else are going to be looking to the federal government for that money, so that is another reason why the federal government probably needs to have a coordinating role.
Senator McKENZIE: On page 5 of your submission, you make a comment:
There may well be people within the adoption triangle … who have adapted better than others …
And you mention future research, which I think is a great point to make. Given your experience, do you have any suggestions on how we can locate those people?
Mr Graham : It is a good question. There are tens of thousands of us and most who come forward have some kind of negative experience, but we are probably still a small percentage of the entire adoption group. So I was thinking that maybe there are people out there who it is not an issue for or who have been able to adapt better than others. It would be good to try and locate them if they exist, but where does one find them? I do not know. I suppose adoption generally is not an issue that is freely talked about and debated, so raising awareness and removing the stigma, shame and guilt from it would be useful. But you never know: maybe in the study being done by the family institute there will be some people who reflect that, because I know some of the questions asked gave you an opportunity to say how—
Senator McKENZIE: I guess it is finding the respondents. Thank you.
CHAIR: You make a point in your conclusion that is reflected throughout the body of your submission. You say:
… I believe the emotional trauma, and ongoing adverse affects, for mother, father or child is essentially the same whether the adoption is forced or consensual.
Our committee is particularly focused on forced adoptions, and I am sure you have seen the evidence. We have had some pretty shocking accounts and I would think that it would have lifelong impacts. Regarding consensual adoption, we have also had evidence from people who originally consented and there has been trauma associated with it. Your point is that we should not just be focusing any framework we recommend on forced adoptions, because there are consequences of what were nominally consensual adoptions. Is that the point?
Mr Graham : I suppose I am using the word consensual in a loose way. You might get someone who is very young, say a teenager. What do they really understand about the longer term consequences of their decision? I think for some they might in later years like to change their decision. In that context, yes, I feel we should not just focus on forced adoptions but keep it broader.
CHAIR: So that people do not feel alienated.
Mr Graham : Yes, that is right. As I alluded to earlier, I think once you remove a mother from her child there are serious consequences that occur just through that separation. You live with that for the rest of your life. So, yes, a broader focus might help that mother not feel so caged in to a particular frame of mind.
CHAIR: A box?
Mr Graham : Yes, it would be better if it were more inclusive, I think.
CHAIR: Thank you. I have a question about something that has been raised with the committee fairly recently. Adults have written to us saying that our inquiry is focused on babies. I can see their point. I am asking you this because you were adopted and I would like to hear your comments on it. I have certainly been very mindful all the way through the inquiry of the impact on mothers, fathers and adoptees, whether they are babies—because at the time this occurred it was babies that were taken. We have had a lot of evidence about the impact on adoptees as well. Do you have some thoughts? Is it offensive to you that a lot of the evidence refers to babies? Do you think we have not adequately been looking at and remembering that we are now talking about adults? If you do not feel like answering, don't.
Mr Graham : That is fine.
CHAIR: I am not trying to drop you in it.
Mr Graham : I am just thinking about the question. Not all adoptees know until they are adults that they were adopted, so you get the ones who discover in their 40s or 50s—
CHAIR: We have had evidence around that as well.
Mr Graham : That can be quite hard and tough. Personally, I do not have an issue with you talking about it in terms of babies because for most of us that is where it all began.
CHAIR: We have also had evidence that if the mothers saw the baby at all they saw it for a short amount of time and that I suspect is how some people would carry the image—as a baby—and it is a bit shocking when they meet an adult, because all they have had in their heart for that length of time is a baby.
Mr Graham : That is correct. You have an idolised image of your mother or your child. When I first met my mother, it was my mother but it was also a complete stranger because there were 33 years in between.
CHAIR: It is a point that we need to make sure we cover in our report.
Mr Graham : Yes, I think so. It is a lifelong thing. The language of how one shows that through the various life cycles that one goes through and most of those are adults you probably need to reflect somewhere. It is not something I have really thought about much.
CHAIR: I have let us go over time. Because it is very important and we were having trouble getting our next witness, I thought we would take the opportunity to explore issues a little more with you.
Senator MOORE: In terms of the journal—and in your submission and your evidence you have said this is something you do yourself in your own time and at your own expense—how much is your involvement in that?
Mr Graham : I try to have two editions a year. I would like to have more. It is mainly my time because the technology platform is all set up. I am very fortunate that the National Library have agreed to host it. There are all kinds of benefits with that. They do that without charge. So it is essentially my time and the time of the people who submit articles—I do not pay people to write for the journal. It is a collaborative community resource. As long as I am alive and kicking I will continue to do it.
Senator MOORE: And you have a computer.
Mr Graham : I have never really added up the hours. Before I publish it, there are probably a few weekends when I am spending quite a bit of time on it. Further down the track, if I wanted to expand and make it more frequent or have more things, then I might have to consider having some kind of fee or something. The national adoption occurs every three or four years, and the next one is in Melbourne next year. I have offered to the committee to publish all the papers on the journal. We are sought of in negotiations on that.
Senator MOORE: We found out through evidence given to the committee that these conferences occur and that they draw upon a wide range of people attending as well. So you do follow up on those and attend when you can?
Mr Graham : I did not attend the last one, which was in Sydney. The journal was up and running then. I had put the offer to them to publish their papers but they did not take up the offer, unfortunately.
Senator MOORE: How long have you been doing the journal?
Mr Graham : I am going into my fourth year now, I think.
Senator MOORE: That is significant. Thank you very much. I have not read all your papers; I have dabbled. It is very useful.
CHAIR: Thank you very much. Your evidence is very much appreciated.
Mr Graham : Thank you to the committee for all your hard work. It is an important inquiry and I think a lot of people are going to be waiting in anticipation for the recommendations. I would also like to thank the secretariat for doing a great job as well.