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Wednesday, 15 May 2013
Page: 3407

Ms RISHWORTH (KingstonParliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Carers and Parliamentary Secretary for Sustainability and Urban Water) (16:37): I am pleased to speak to the motion moved by the Attorney-General in the House of Representatives on Thursday, 21 March, to formally apologise for past practices and policies that forced the separation of mothers from their babies. These policies and practices are a shameful part of our past and resulted in such sadness, pain and suffering for so many mothers, fathers and children as well as brothers, sisters and extended family. I am pleased that the government and the parliament in a bipartisan way is taking responsibility and formally apologising for these practices. I hope that this apology will be a step in the healing process for many Australians who have had their children forcibly removed from them and for the children who grew up not knowing their parents.

When listening to the experiences of mothers who had their children forcibly removed, it struck me that they not only experienced and continue to experience the grief and trauma of losing one's child and not only were denied the fundamental rights and responsibilities to love and care for their child but they were also treated so badly—being shamed and shunned by our society. One of these mothers is Roslyn Sponheimer. In 1963 Roslyn fell pregnant at the age of 17 and was immediately made to feel shameful. Her parents and GP mapped out her future, which she had no say in. She was to resign from her work and lie to her friends and family, saying that she was leaving to work in the country. Instead, she was to enter the Kate Cock's Home for Unmarried Mothers in Brighton, Adelaide, under a false name. She was to live there until the baby was born and then return home, leaving her baby behind. When Roslyn reflects back to her time at the home she says that there was no concept of informed consent and it was just accepted that after giving birth mothers were to leave their babies behind. No alternatives were ever discussed. In Roslyn's words:

So there we were. A bunch of society outcasts, brainwashed into submission and suffering feelings of such low esteem and low self worth that I can say it has impacted on every decision I have made in life since.

After a long and difficult birth, Roslyn was able to see her son for five minutes. She recounted that she could still remember every detail of his face as he looked up at her.

After the birth Roslyn was sedated and confined to bed for five days as a result of toxaemia. On the seventh day, when she was able to get up and move around, Roslyn recounts:

… the Deaconess called me into the waiting room. She said, 'I have a form for you to sign.' She then asked me if there was any request I had of the adopting parents. All I could think to say was, 'Don't make him learn the piano if he doesn't want to.' She then asked me if I wanted to name the baby. I said I didn't want to remember a name, thinking it would somehow be easier if she named him instead. She said she would name him after her own husband. She then handed the form to me to sign.

After two weeks in hospital, Roslyn was given tablets to dry up her milk and told to go home. Roslyn's family never mentioned the birth of her son, and for a long time Roslyn went along with that silence. She said that it was only when she had her daughter and son later on that she understood what had been stolen from her. Roslyn said:

To survive mentally, I had to put it to the back of my mind. Due to the laws of our land, I couldn't search for my son until he turned eighteen and so I just had to grieve in private. Even my husband didn't seem to have any understanding of what I was going through.

Roslyn attempted to search for her son when he turned 18, but to no avail, as there was not any support to do so. Despite a desperate search she found only dead ends. To add insult to injury, a social worker from the Department of Community Welfare at the time called Roslyn to inform her that there had been a complaint from the Methodist mission which had been responsible for the adoption, and that she had to stop looking for her son.

After 22 years, Roslyn was able to locate her son via a government department and was reunited with him in 1986. Since the reunion, however, Roslyn has attended various counselling sessions but has been unable to completely come to terms with the loss of her baby. Even though her son is now 49, is married and has his own children, it has taken most of the 27 years since her reunion with her son for her to feel that she could be herself around him. Looking back on what happened to her, Roslyn feels that she was denied the opportunity to express normal feelings of anger, hurt and emotional pain and that she has been left with an aching void which will never be filled.

Unfortunately, Roslyn's story is one of so many mothers around the country who had their babies forcibly removed. Approximately 150,000 to 250,000 babies of unwed and mostly teenage mothers were forcibly removed from the 1950s to the mid-1970s in Australia. These mothers and fathers were betrayed by a system that gave them no choice and subjected them to manipulation, mistreatment and malpractice. These actions deeply damaged not only the mothers, fathers and families but also the children.

The motion before the House also apologises to the children who were adopted or removed who were led to believe that their mothers had rejected them and who were denied the opportunity to grow up with their family and community. These children grew up not knowing how much they were loved, and many still report a constant struggle with their identity, uncertainty and loss and feel a persistent tension between loyalty to one family and a yearning for another. One of these people is Annette from Aldinga in my electorate, who was taken from her unmarried mother in 1954. Born out of wedlock, Annette was a child of the forced adoption policy. Annette finds solace in the fact that her mother hung on to her and refused to sign the forms to release her from her custody for six weeks. Annette says that what happened next has impacted her entire life. After being separated from her mother, Annette was adopted in 1954 by a family that needed more hands on their farm, and she spent her time after school not relaxing or socialising with her peers but performing manual labour for her adoptive family. At the age of five, Annette was given a book titled The Chosen Baby, but Annette did not feel lucky for being chosen, as she said she had to deal with the grief of believing that she was not wanted by her biological mother and of having an unhappy childhood with her adoptive family.

As Annette grew older she attempted to conduct research into where she had come from, to heal the pain she had from not belonging. But as if to rub salt into the wounds, Annette was incredibly upset that she was made to pay for any information that you could find in the state records. Everything that happened to Annette as a child still affects her today. But she worries also for her own children, who, because of the lack of a family—they have no uncles, aunties, grandparents or cousins—will not appreciate the role the extended family plays. Because of the forced adoption policies that removed Annette from her mother, her children have been denied the opportunity to have a family network. They lack the support that an extended family provides.

These are just two stories from my electorate, but I know there are many more right around a country. We can never make up for the trauma, pain, loss, disconnection and separation that has been caused by the forced adoption processes, policies and procedures. We have heard from the Prime Minister that the government, and indeed the parliament, is committed to doing what we can to help those affected by forced adoption practices, to help families reconnect and to help adoptees find their families. The government will provide funding towards support services and recognition of the people affected by forced adoption policies and practices. This includes the Allied Psychological Services Program, which will give families high priority in accessing important mental health services, and funding for the National Archives of Australia to undertake a history and recognition process for those affected by forced adoption policies.

The government is also establishing a Past Forced Adoption Practices Implementation Working Group, whose members will represent the mothers and fathers of the children of past forced adoptions. This group will perform a key advisory role to the government on the implementation of services and projects. It will also provide a platform for national consultation and communication between the government, advocacy groups, peak bodies, non-government organisations and service providers in the time leading up to implementation.

We all expect the right to determine our own direction in life, and part of that is enabling us to nurture, care for and love our children. But during this dark period our society has deliberately denied many this opportunity. While we can never fully make up for what has happened to these families in the past, we will make sure that these practices are never repeated. To Roslyn, Annette and all those who have been affected by these practices, we say sorry.