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Wednesday, 18 November 2009
Page: 12186


Mr RAGUSE (12:36 PM) —Today I rise to applaud and congratulate the Prime Minister on his apology this week and also to applaud Minister Jenny Macklin, the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, for the hard work and effort she put into bringing this issue and this event to a conclusion. But when I say a conclusion, it is really only the beginning. It is only the beginning of what we need to do in the process of healing. It is a significant event, but in order to complete the process of healing we really do have to understand the whole complexity of what occurred. It is about having no more secrets. For too long, lots of these things have been buried in people’s memories and those emotions have been covered up. I would like to acknowledge today those who were affected and who have fought for this recognition. It really goes to the opening up of more issues and to lifting the lid on some of the secrets. It is about identifying areas that still need resolution.

I have spoken before in this chamber about the fact that I am an adoptee. While I, and many adoptees more generally, have had a very good life, there are issues that relate to adoptees as much as they do to the forgotten Australians and child migrants. A lot of child migrants and some of the forgotten Australians were also caught up in the adoption process. Too many stories exist in relation to the adoption process and the forgotten Australians, but all are related to similar issues of institutional care, the problems that existed and the lack of identification of some of those problems. Many of the young women who arrived here as child migrants later became single mothers and further institutional care put them into a situation of some grief and loss.

It is about relinquishment and the profound loss experienced, whether it was families who lost children as migrants coming to this country never to be reunited, or the loss in this country of children who had brothers and sisters. Today I want to put on the record my connection with those who are affected by adoption. I have spoken many times in this House about the positive aspects of adoption. For those people who have been caught up in it, and certainly for those mothers who have had to relinquish their children, I want to put on the record what we need to do for other forgotten Australians and migrant children and for those affected by adoption as part of the healing process.

To provide a brief background—and I have spoken about this before—my mother was 17 years old when I was born. She was the oldest of 12 children and the family were quite destitute. My mother was told that she could have the child and would be able to take it home. That was not to happen but little did she know that until after the fact. Whilst I was being born, a pillow was placed to her head to stop her seeing or understanding anything that was going on. She remembers my cries as I was being taken down the hallway to the nursery. She was then put into a ward with mothers who had had stillbirths, those who had lost children through miscarriages and some who had suffered infant deaths. At that point she only saw me very briefly when a kindly nurse said to her: ‘Come and have a look. Here is the baby.’ However, she was then told to go away and forget that she ever saw it. Her breasts were then bound so that she would not produce milk and she was told to go home and start a new life; that it was just a mistake. That is the sort of profound loss that many of the forgotten Australians and migrants have also felt.

What I wanted to put on the record today is a statement, a ‘Declaration of Profound Loss’ that 21 organisations, including those involved in the apology this week, have issued. This Declaration of Profound Loss came before the apology, so the apology was the start of that reparation, getting things very much on the record and out of the closet so there are no more secrets. The Declaration of Profound Loss by these 21 organisations reads:

We the undersigned

MOURN the loss of our children

TAKEN FOR ADOPTION

MOURN the loss of our families of origin

DENIED US BY ADOPTION

MOURN the loss of our brothers and sisters

CAUSED BY ADOPTION

MOURN the loss of grandparents

DENIED US BY ADOPTION

MOURN the loss of our rightful position in life

DECREED BY ADOPTION

As I said, this is a statement signed by 21 organisations. Again, the apology this week goes some way to starting to resolve the issues of that loss.

Can I now indulge the chamber by reading a letter that I have been asked to read by an organisation called ALAS, the Adoption Loss Adult Support group. Again, these emotions are very much the same as those being felt by people who were in institutional care and affected by institutional care. This letter was to me. It says:

Dear Brett,

We, the members of A.L.A.S. Qld, call on all members of parliament to apologise to the mothers of another stolen generation here in Australia.

The ongoing pain, suffering, psychological scars and heartache have been caused by the actions of over zealous consent takers, social workers, doctors, nurses and medical staff. Through threats, bullying and coercion, our babies were stolen for the purpose of adoption.

They denied us our legal rights to raise our much loved and wanted babies, by never allowing us to see, hear or hold them. Such practices were inhumane, barbaric and cruel.

Our babies lost their biological right to be raised by their mothers, leaving them with unresolved anger and grief at the loss of their identity and natural family.

A grave miscarriage of justice was done to us.

Most of us were under the legal age of 21 years and did not have legal presentation or a parent present. It was impossible to reject the intense pressure placed upon us to sign the consent form.

At the time of consent, most mothers were still under the influence of strong medications. Signatures obtained under these circumstances for a legal document, were invalid.

Some babies were placed in locked nurseries, had their birth weight and time of birth changed so they could not be found. This was the usual procedure until a signature was obtained.

We make this approach for an apology on behalf of the A.L.A.S members and all women who were subjected to the former coercive adoption practices.

Please find attached a copy of Royal Brisbane Women’s Hospital apology.

The hospital sent an apology, and it reads:

Dear Friends,

Thank you for meeting with senior members of Women’s and Newborn Services at the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital … and sharing your stories with us about the care you received at the Royal Women’s Hospital some time ago. It was very moving and indeed saddening to hear how your experiences have adversely affected your lives, and many other lives that are near and dear to you.

From our frank discussions, we understand that each of you was denied the right to experience the natural relationship between mother and child to care for and to raise your children yourselves, but because of hospital practices were not permitted to do so.

In summary you have described to us how your much wanted babies were taken from you by the practices of the hospital operating at the time and that you feel you were coerced by hospital staff to sign over your babies for adoption.

In this regard we acknowledge the hurt and suffering you have described and sincerely apologise for any ill treatment experienced by you as single women during your pregnancy and confinement at the Royal Women’s Hospital.

That is signed by Professor Ian Jones.

Further to that, the Anglican Church was also approached, among other organisations. I am only reading a sample of these letters, but I think it is very fitting that these organisations have seen fit to apologise. This letter is to one of the members of the ALAS organisation:

Dear Mrs Hamilton

Thank you for your letter … regarding your experiences in St Mary’s Home in Toowong …

I was most concerned when I read of your distressing experiences in St Mary’s in 1966 and the sad separation from your baby as he was taken for adoption. As you have so poignantly written, the effects of that separation are still with you and your son even after so many years. These effects may perhaps be only slightly lessened by your knowledge that he is alive and safe.

It is concerning now to be made aware of actions taken in the past which—while often taken with the best of current knowledge at the time—have now caused so much distress and hurt to those persons directly involved.

I sincerely apologise to you for the hurt and distress caused to you by past actions of the Church and those persons employed by the Church at St Mary’s. On behalf of the Church, I would like to offer you pastoral support and counselling. If you consider this may be helpful, please contact …

and we—

will then make the necessary arrangements with you.

That is signed by the Most Reverend Dr Phillip Aspinall, Archbishop of Brisbane.

After the apology was given, I received a letter from a group called Origins Inc. They were accepting of and very happy with the apology because they know the issues that surround the adoption processes well. The letter said:

Origins Inc is a support organisation for people affected by adoption, removal and separation welcomes the apology to the Forgotten Australians.

As stated by the Federal Government on the announcement of the apology, many of these children were from unmarried mothers, and many were taken from these mothers by the forced adoption practices of various States and adoption agencies.

Many babies taken for adoption were placed into care either as the result of medical problems, or were returned to the care of religious and State institutions when the child became an unwanted responsibility, or the adoptive parents became parents of their own natural children.

These babies were denied the security of their own mother’s love, by a system and a society that treated the lone mother as a pariah, and her child as a “result” of an immoral act that needed legitimizing in order to become an accepted part of society.

This is another group of children that follow in the path of the Stolen Generations, Child migrants and Forgotten Australians that have all suffered at the hands of a cruel and unloving system.

We are yet to hear from the 150,000 mothers and their children forcibly taken for the adoption market from 1950-2000. Once this sordid chapter in Australia’s history is addressed and documented through a Senate inquiry then we may say that we finally live in a compassionate and equal society.

They are some of the feelings that still remain. While recognising the apology it does lift the lid on some of those other issues that may have to be resolved as time goes by. I applaud the PM and Jenny Macklin, the minister, for their work in resolving the issues of the forgotten Australians and migrant children. I think it is our role as members of parliament—now that the lid has been lifted, as someone said in this chamber earlier—to start the healing process by getting some of these people on board to tell their stories and be part of a resolution so that they can live with the understanding that their issues have been recognised.

It is about those people affected by institutional care. When I said that my adoption was one that was very good for me with loving parents and a wonderful upbringing, I solidly recognise that there are some who did not have those same experiences, including many of the relinquishing mothers that I have had involvement with over the last 20-odd years. They are applauding the fact that the government has recognised issues of grief and loss and that migrant children, forgotten Australians or others in our society who are affected by institutional care should be recognised and given similar support and help, and I know that will come.

This is a very, very intense, emotional issue for many people. I do not want to upset the balance in understanding adoption, because it was well intentioned. It was a system run mostly by state agencies, and the federal government were not necessarily directly involved. Some of the statements made in the apology by the Prime Minister the other day showed that some well-meaning and caring organisations actually lacked the ability to care for individuals, which is very clear from the forgotten Australians and migrant children who suffered. Some of them doubly suffered through what occurred to them and their children through either foster care or the adoption process. It was well intentioned but it was certainly an uncaring system at the time.

It is through our recognition in bringing these issues to the table and to the chambers of parliament that everyone will know we have lifted the lid on the issue and now have the opportunity for no more secrets. One of the issues around adoption was that it was secretive. There are laws that prevented people having access. For the migrant children and forgotten Australians the problem is that there were no records, so lots of that contact was lost. In relation to adoption—and this was only just resolved in Queensland this year—people can finally get access to some of their birth information. I have spoken of my own story before in this chamber about getting information on my background and medical history. Only 20 years ago finding my natural family was very, very important to me. For a whole range of reasons people who have found themselves in that situation understand it.

That is a small part of the wider feelings the apology was directed at earlier this week. The apology was to those forgotten Australians and migrant children who suffered at the hands of institutions that were well intentioned, no doubt, but just could not provide the care, support and emotional treatment that many of us as young people certainly require, and not having proper care at a young age has an effects on us as adults.

This apology is about building a caring community—a community that does understand its past. It is so important that we understand where we have come from. The Prime Minister, in his speech, said that denying or not understanding the past can mean that we make the same mistakes in the future. In my 50 years of life we have become a sophisticated society. When I was a child, even the mention of adoption or of being the child of an unmarried mother was something to be ashamed of. My school friends would call me the ‘bastard’ and I still hold that as something that happened to me, and I accepted it and I understood it. But we have certainly progressed and matured as a country since that time.

For those reasons I again applaud the government for the apology and I certainly applaud all the members who have spoken in the House and in this chamber today about the need for this apology and about their understanding that it is a start. This is about moving forward and about rectifying the past. It also about understanding that, as a country, we have done the right thing and that we will continue to do the right thing for all those who have been affected by being a child migrant, a forgotten Australian or by adoption.