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Community Affairs References Committee - 28/09/2011 - Commonwealth contribution to former forced adoption policies and practices

GAIR, Dr Susan, Department of Social Work, James Cook University

[11:37]

Evidence was taken via teleconference—

CHAIR: Welcome. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. We have your submission, which we have numbered 139. I now invite you to make an opening statement and then we will ask you some questions.

Dr Gair : My interest in this matter is as a researcher. I am not a person who has been touched by adoption in the sense that I am not a birth mother, I am not an adopted person and I am not an adoptive mother. But I have been very interested in adoption for quite a long time now—maybe 20 years. I did my PhD research with adoptive mothers who were raising adopted children in Queensland. I sought their experiences.

I have done several other studies. One was with social workers who were involved with children being placed for adoption—social workers working with women whose babies were subsequently placed for adoption. I did another study looking at midwives who were involved in the care of women's babies when those babies were placed for adoption. That was all across Queensland. In a more recent study I spoke to a range of people—adoptive parents, birth fathers and mothers and adopted people. They thought the topics of adoption and suicide were together—so they were joint topics in their experience, or they wanted to say something about that.

All of the topics that I have undertaken research on have come up because people have come to me and said: 'We don't think there's anything on this. We think this is a really neglected area. We've heard you were interested.' Even from the very beginning, I guess, I had friends whose children were adopted. So I do not have the lived experience, and in that sense I cannot speak from that stance, but I have had an interest over a long period of time and I have interviewed hundreds of people. I guess I have tried to take on their story and that perspective and represent it in a way that was of benefit to them in their lives in some way. I have been talking to the people at the department in Brisbane, for example, who manage adoptions in Queensland—that is only mentioning one agency. So I have been speaking to them about what my findings have been and trying to be activist in that sense. Anyway, I just thought I would give you that bit of an introduction about why I came to have an interest and put in a submission.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Senator MOORE: Thank you very much. I am aware of your work and I am so pleased that you are at James Cook. It is a wonderful thing for this kind of work to be done at that great institution. You talk in your very brief submission—and I know about the work you have done in the past on this—about the importance of an apology. That is something on which there has been varying evidence to this committee, as you know. Would you be able to tell us why you think that an apology is important for the people with whom you have met and worked?

Dr Gair : Yes. With the people that I have interviewed, particularly in the study that I did with social workers who worked with women whose babies were placed for adoption either in the hospital or with the Department of Family Services, social workers in that study, by and large, were not supportive of an apology. I guess part of their thinking was that they believed that there were a range of people involved in adoptions, coercive practice and neglectful practice, and some of those people were called social workers but in fact they were not; they were police, lawyers, volunteers, Salvation Army and a range of people who were not social workers. So part of their reasoning was that they did not want to implicate social work as having been a part of bad practice, and by apologising you are saying by implication that you know there have been bad practices by social workers, and many of the people that talked to me, anyway, did not agree with that. There are a lot of other issues in the big picture of adoption. So that was their view.

I guess my view from talking to lots of people over time is that that idea that people have not been heard is a very strong one. People say they did not matter, they were never part of the picture and they were dismissed. Birth mothers and birth fathers have said that to me—they were illegitimate in the picture; they were of no consequence. It seemed to me that people for whom that became part of their identity—'You're not important; you never were'—were saying that an apology for that treatment was very important and that you could not really move on while there were people still saying that you were a person of no consequence in this child's life or, if you were the child, that for whatever reason it was not really important what you wanted; it was about other people making decisions. So I guess I came to the conclusion from talking to people who felt that was a big part of their story that there is that idea that a national apology recognises that you were important, you are not of no consequence and it had massive, long-term and permanent impact on your life—a damaging impact. It seemed to me that what people were saying was that they wanted recognition. They wanted someone to say, 'We see that now. We didn't hear about it before. We couldn't see it before.' So I suppose I wanted to try to represent what people had said to me before, that an acknowledgement or an apology is part of that.

Senator MOORE: I was interested in the first part of your answer. Of course, I was interested in all of your answer but particularly in the focus in the first part about people who were working in the profession of social work. I take it that the term 'profession' is very important to them.

Dr Gair : Yes.

Senator MOORE: So they felt that there was no ill-behaviour by social workers at any time?

Dr Gair : No, they did not say that. I was starting from that point because I did get that view and I suppose, because I am a researcher, I was wanting to say, 'Look, there is a range of views and I am aware of them.' My study was between 1960 and 1990. I talked with social workers who said they worked as a social worker between 1960 and 1990. I was interested in that time because there was a massive change over those 30 years about how we viewed adoption. Also they were the years for which there have been those accusations of neglectful practice. Social workers did say they were aware that there were stories that there had been neglectful, unprofessional practice by social workers, so they were aware of those stories and they knew people said that, just like they said that about nurses, about doctors, about lawyers and improper practice and unprofessional informed consent that was never gained—all of those things—about the people that were involved. They knew about that; they did not necessarily agree that those people that were called social workers were, in fact, social workers as we know social workers today with a profession of social work, a minimum four-year degree, a professional body who monitors them and a code of ethical practice. So in that sense they did not agree necessarily as to those who might have called themselves social workers but who, in fact, were not.

That is a different position from doctors. I guess you come across it but if people say they are a doctor in a hospital people do not normally say, 'Well, they have called themself a doctor but in fact they aren't. We have got some sense they were a doctor'—or they were a nurse. But I suppose social workers in that study anyway had a sense that sometimes people were allowed to call themselves a social worker but, in fact, they were a volunteer from Lifeline or something like that and they were just called 'the social worker'. The people in my study were, in fact, all social workers with professional degrees. They had gone to a university et cetera.

So, to clarify that, they did know those stories were around and they were not confident what a birth mother was looking back and talking about. Say she was now 40 and she was talking about when she was 16 and the social worker came and took the baby. They felt there was some question about whether in fact that person had been a social worker. But they did know those stories. That was probably a common view but not everybody said that in that study, and it was only a small study. Some people did say, 'We think there was bad practice. We think there was practice that now we would consider to be not good. At the time it was based on the thoughts of the day. The thoughts of the day were that the woman could not take the baby home as the family would be very shamed, there was no welfare and it would be impossible. The family could not stand the shame in the neighbourhood. A girl could not take the baby home.' So that was the dominant story of the day and so social workers then had to try and help with that dilemma given that social story of the day. Now we would look back and say that was not good practice and ask why the mother was not supported to take the baby home. The view from those social workers is not possibly as simple as I can say given the time now. They did think there had been coercive practice. They did think maybe there were some social workers who worked to the letter of the law of the day when perhaps there could have been another way of working that might have helped the mother and the baby to stay together. In particular a couple of social workers I talked to said that in the sixties it was a very realistic view to have that that girl could not take that baby home, even though they might have changed their view now, otherwise it was really a retrospective view that was not taking into account the values that were implicit in that society at the time. Sorry, I do not know whether that answers your question about that first bit of what I said.

Senator MOORE: It reflects some of the evidence we have received. I have only one other question. In your work was there any discussion about the actual law around adoption that was in place at the time these people were working and their understanding of the law and the particular issues, which have come up in this inquiry, about informed consent and genuine awareness of the decisions around adoption?

Dr Gair : I am not sure if the answer that comes to my mind covers all that you have asked. When I did the study with midwives who were involved in the care of women whose babies were placed for adoption—coming in for the birth and the child then being taken and placed for adoption—and also with the social workers, there seemed to be a sense from them that there were no policies. I think I asked everyone, and they would say, 'That is what we did in that ward,' or, 'I was a social worker with the department of families and that is what we did.'

When I said, 'Were there any written policies on that?'—which in a sense was asking whether there was a legal position through the legislation which was then followed through so that there was a policy informed by that legislation or legal position—they said things like: 'No, it was just what we did; there wasn't really a policy,' or, 'No, the matron told us how to do things and you never crossed the matron; she said what you needed to do and that's what we did.' Some people said: 'Well there weren't any written policies in those days. You just learnt on the job. That was what the job said, that is what we were told to do and that is what we did.' There did not seem to be answers from any of those people that they were fully aware that there was a legal process and they were adhering strictly to it because that legal process had been informed by legislation and a policy that documented it. They did not seem to talk about that. They seemed to say, 'No, I don't think it was ever written down,' and those sorts of things.

Equally, there was no-one who said, 'We knew this was the wrong thing but we decided to take the baby anyway because we knew there was a deserving family.' There was nobody who said that either, but then perhaps they would not. Does that answer your question?

Senator MOORE: Yes. Thank you.

CHAIR: Could I go back to the issue of counselling. We have been receiving fairly overwhelming evidence from people that we should be recommending a specialised counselling service—that existing counselling services do not meet the needs of mothers and adoptees. I am wondering what your opinion on that is.

Dr Gair : Across all the people that I have spoken to—that I have interviewed and spoken to informally—there has been a strong sense conveyed to me that nobody understands. They have gone to counsellors who have tried to convince them that it was not to do with the fact that they were adopted, or sometimes it has been the absolute reverse, where people have gone, 'You've got some problem with your mother,' or something. People did not feel there was, among the people they went to in a counselling role or among nurses, doctors or social workers that they spoke to, a realistic understanding and expertise and skills around adoption. They felt people tended to have that moral deserving/undeserving sort of view: 'Surely you wouldn't want to track your birth parents because wouldn't that be disloyal? Your adoptive parents love you so much.' Or it might be: 'As an adoptive parent I know my adopted children and they just don't want to search. What would be the point of them going to counselling? It's obviously not about adoption because they haven't got any issues about that.' There seemed to be a very strong sense across the range of adoptive mothers and workers that I have spoken to that someone else was always the expert and they knew what the story was. Everyone has a view on adoption, I suppose, and they all think they have the right story. Counsellors were the same and their friends were the same—everyone was the same. Adoption is something we all know. It is not an area of expertise; it is something that we all have an opinion on and we all know. Many people that I have spoken to have said things like: 'You really understand what I'm saying. Nobody else does, not even my husband or my kids. They all think it is this or that. Or I should forget, I should listen to the counsellor or I should not go back there, or something.' I have had phone calls from people who have said things like: 'I know you are not a social worker or a counsellor, but I just want to tell you about this because I felt that when you interviewed me you were the only person who knew.'

I am not trying to big-note myself, but from 10 years of reading all the literature and listening to people tell their stories I have gained a lot of insight. That insight has been very valuable to me, but there is not a lot of insight out there. That is what people seem to be saying. They want to talk to me even though they do not know me in that capacity. When they speak to workers, even at family services in the adoption section, they feel those workers do not have expertise and well-rounded knowledge about adoption. In their view this is different from depression or anxiety around other issues. It is an area of expertise that people think they have, but they have not had any training in it and they do not have an in-depth understanding of what the person is trying to say.

CHAIR: If we decided that that was to be one of our recommendations, would you support that recommendation?

Dr Gair : Definitely. It is like people who say: 'We have a lot of people who have come back from Vietnam, but we have a generalist counselling service. Our counsellors are well-rounded. They do not really have to have any knowledge about people coming home for war. We just think they need a general understanding.' To me, that does not make any sense at all and is ridiculous. We have to have people with high-level expertise in adoption.

CHAIR: I do not know if you heard Mr Graham talk about a framework. He gave us some very thoughtful suggestions for a possible framework—

Dr Gair : No, I did not hear that.

CHAIR: One of his key priorities is specialised training for doing exactly what you have been talking about. I presume you would support that as well?

Dr Gair : Yes. Support would be good for groups like Origins, who do their very best. But a lot of people who volunteer their services do so because of their lived experience. They have been a birth mother or whatever and they feel like they can offer support, but they have not been trained either. They have their own lived experience and that certainly accounts for something—that idea of a common wound. I do not think that equips them either because the other person's experience might be quite different. Support groups and anyone who is working in the area need bolstering and support. People like psychologists, social workers, nurses and counsellors need some specialist training.

CHAIR: We have no further questions. Thank you very much for making your submission and for giving evidence to the committee today. It is much appreciated.

Dr Gair : Thank you.