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Wednesday, 15 May 2013
Page: 3409

Mr McCORMACK (Riverina) (16:47): I thank the member for Kingston for her moving speech. I know how passionate she is about these issues, and we could see the emotion in her face as she related to us so very well that harrowing story about Roslyn, which we would all concur is a rather tragic tale. I also commend the member for Swan for his 21 March speech to the House of Representatives on this subject. I think you could have heard a pin drop while he was speaking, and that is a rarity in the House of Representatives. The words he expressed and the emotion he showed that day were a lesson for all of us about how important this is, how wrong the practice was and how far we have moved as a society.

Adoption emerged in Australian legislation in the early 20th century. In the early stages it was generally an open process and often involved the adoption of older children, as opposed to infants. After World War II, society changed its perception of adoption, and the idea of the adoption of infants became more acceptable. Adoption was seen as the solution to the societal stigmas of infertility and illegitimacy, and also spared these children from spending their childhood in institutions.

In the 1950s, adoption legislation was amended throughout Australia to remove the openness of earlier legislation and ensure adoptions occurred through a closed process. It was thought at the time that this would help the adoptive parents to ensure that they were seen as, and felt like, the natural parents of their babies. This was referred to as the 'clean break theory', which was developed by Sigmund and Anna Freud. It was seen as the best outcome for both the birth mother and the baby. Furthermore, those who supported this theory believed it was important in ensuring that the bonding between the adoptive mother and the child was not interrupted. Whilst many women willingly placed their babies up for adoption with religious organisations, adoption agencies and through other measures, the sad and shocking reality is that a number of women were forced to place their babies up for adoption usually because they were unmarried. Young women and their families, and indeed society, felt they were not fit to take care of their children.

The Senate Standing Committees on Community Affairs released a report in 2012, entitled 'Commonwealth contribution to former forced adoption policies and practices' after an extensive inquiry into former forced adoptions in Australia's history. The report states it was incontrovertible that forced adoption was common, but it was not possible to estimate the number of forced adoptions that had taken place as statistics from the era do not indicate why a child was placed for adoption, nor whether the parent or parents had willingly consented. Previous parliamentary inquiries into past adoption practices have been undertaken by the New South Wales and Tasmanian parliaments. Both parliaments found such practices had caused a considerable amount of pain and suffering, especially for parents who had been pressured to place their child up for adoption. The New South Wales report went as far as to say there had been a number of practices which were unethical and even unlawful.

Forced adoption occurred in Australia for more than 50 years, from 1930 until 1982; however, most of these adoptions took place from the 1950s to the 1970s. Society at that time held different views than those of today. White, married couples with a secure income were seen as the ideal family unit and regarded as the most capable of providing the necessary care for children. On the other hand, having a child out of wedlock and the lack of financial support for single mothers meant there was a widespread view that adopting the babies of these unmarried women was in the best interests of the child.

There are numerous reports of women who were forced to pass their baby up for adoption gaining access to their hospital records later in life to find their file had been automatically stamped 'BFA'—baby for adoption—due to their being an unmarried woman, before they had even given birth or signed any adoption papers. Lina Eve was one woman who discovered her files have been stamped. She said:

My medical records have “BFA” stamped on them...even though I had said from the start I wanted to keep my baby. So its clear to me they had the adoption of my child as their intention all along.

Most mothers were unmarried at the time they gave birth and were sent to maternity homes for all or some of their pregnancy, a decision usually made by their parents. Many did not have pleasant experiences in these homes, having their possessions removed and being prevented from having any outside contact with supporters they had. They were made to work without pay and were subjected to pressures to put their babies up for adoption. Ann Allpike made a submission to the Senate committee stating:

The emphasis was always on adoption being what was ‘best for the child’—‘if you love your baby then you will give it up for adoption’. … I was not treated as an expectant mother but rather encouraged to think of my baby as not being mine but belonging to some perfect deserving married couple.

The experience of giving birth was also not pleasant for many women who were considered to be putting their babies up for adoption even if they had not already given consent. Women recall being medicated, strapped to the bed and ignored or abused by medical staff. Jan Kashin stated to the Senate committee:

Certainly by 1963 the practice of hiding the baby from the mother giving birth was well established. The sheet went up on cue. The drugging was mandatory for unmarried women, as was … the shackling to the labour ward bed.

Babies from unmarried mothers were quickly whisked away, with most never touching and many never seeing their baby. It was remarkably traumatic for a woman who had been shunned by society and quite likely by her family to not be allowed to have contact with the child she had been carrying for nine months—the reason she had been shunned in the first place. Medical staff at the time, and indeed midwives and nurses who submitted evidence to the Senate committee, believed it was kinder to remove the baby from the start than to allow the mother and baby to bond before the baby was removed from the mother at a later date, which would have caused further and, in some people's opinion, 'unnecessary' distress.

Following the birth of their child, these women were left to get on with their lives as if nothing had happened. Many returned home and were treated as if they had been on vacation, but described having a strained relationship with their parents often for the rest of their parents' lives. Others started over somewhere new, holding what they felt was a shameful secret inside. No matter what, all these women got on with their lives still longing for the baby they knew had been wrongfully taken from them.

The effects of forced adoption are immeasurable. This practice affected not only the mothers and babies but also the fathers of these children and the families which these people have gone on to have later in life. While some women shared their past with husbands, partners and children, others have held onto this secret for a lifetime. Indeed, some women stated to the committee that their submission was the first time they had spoken about their past since the incident had occurred.

For some women the pain of their past was too much to live with and, sadly, they have taken their own lives. How tragic is that! For some, searching for their lost children has consumed their lives. For others, the trauma of what they went through has caused strain on relationships and family dynamics. Some women have lived normal lives but held this pain inside for a long, long time. No two women have dealt with their grief in exactly the same way. In the same way, no two people deal with grief in exactly the same way. No matter what, though, all these women have had to deal with a horrific experience to which they should never have been subjected.

The Senate committee reported that they received a number of submissions regarding how adopted people felt about their adoption. An overwhelming majority described unhappy childhoods—being placed in abusive families and struggling with their self-identity and a need to know who they were. Whilst they were in the minority, submissions were received by the committee from people who held no bitterness towards either their birth mothers or their adoptive families.

I also read a comment from Kristene Wood, a child who was placed into forced adoption, on the Facebook page of my parliamentary colleague the member for Dawson, George Christensen. Ms Wood wrote:

I am a child of forced adoption, and I wouldn't have had it any other way. I was lucky. I have biological brothers and sisters who were not so lucky. And in saying this, I do not take away from them the love that they have for their/our mother but as a result of circumstances they grew up as products of the system, in orphanages, foster homes and the abuse that entailed ... I thank you for the beautiful parents I received, for their love and support throughout my life. Although they are now both dead, I wish that I could have them back every day. I was lucky I was able to thank my biological mum before she too passed away ...

Ms Wood was lucky to be able to meet her biological mother and pass on her eternal gratitude. And I am sure there are many children from this era who would also want to let their mothers know that they have had a good life and are grateful for the life they have lived. This does not excuse the fact that these children were taken away from their mothers, but I hope knowing their child still received a happy and loving upbringing can bring their mothers some comfort.

On 21 March this year, the Prime Minister apologised for the 'policies and practices that forced the separation of mothers from their babies, which created a lifelong legacy of pain and suffering'. This apology was issued following one of the recommendations of the Senate committee's report. And, whilst it cannot change the past and it will not take away the anguish and trauma of these events, hopefully this formal recognition can assist in the healing process for all those affected by forced adoptions.

Barbara Maison said in her submission:

We need to be respected in this country's history as mothers who had their babies taken forcibly from them for no other reason than to satisfy the ideals of others. We need to be respected in this country's history as mothers who were unjustly abused, betrayed and punished by all governments, hospital staff, welfare workers, religious hierarchies and society because of their inhumane, obscene prejudice towards us.

To Ms Maison I say: we do respect you and all the other mothers who went through similar experiences to yours. This apology will help ensure your part in Australia's history is acknowledged and recorded as you would like it to be. May it help to ensure nothing of this nature occurs again.

As the Leader of the Opposition stated:

Whenever adoptions take place, they have to be chosen and they have to be for the right reasons.

People have a right to make choices and they deserve our love and respect whatever choices they make.

Whilst there can be no excuse for forced adoptions in the past, before I finish I would like to note that not all adoptions were carried out under such circumstances. I was contacted by a constituent from a small town in my electorate, who requested I do not use her name so as to ensure her family's privacy is protected. She wished for me to make this point clear. This constituent and her husband adopted children during the 1970s—two children who have grown up knowing about, as she put it, their natural backgrounds. When they approached the adoption agency it was made clear to them that the agency would be looking for parents deemed to be most suitable for the children and not the other way around. They were extensively interviewed, and filled out countless forms, which required answering a number of very personal questions—rightly so, as this ensured children were only going to be placed in loving, caring homes. My constituents were overcome with joy when they found out that they had been successful in gaining approval to be adoptive parents to two children they love and cherish. I am sure these constituents are not alone in wishing to be acknowledged as parents who gave their children a loving home. Not all adoptions which occurred during a certain period of the Australia's history were carried out through unethical measures.