We Say Sorry

18 / 04 / 2013

Last month Prime Minister Julia Gillard provided a moving apology on forced adoptions (a speech which was unfortunately overshadowed by party politicking). In this edition of Sheilas, Deanne Carson discusses the shameful forced adoption methods used over our nation’s history, the progress we’ve made, and the work that still needs to be done.

When Kevin Rudd apologised to the Stolen Generation in 2008, we were told that this crime against the indigenous community was racially motivated – a callous experiment in eugenics. It seemed improbable that there were more – predominantly white – mothers waiting silently for their loss and anguish to be acknowledged.

Yet a second group of women had also been punished for having babies when, according to society and the men who ran it, they shouldn’t have been. The first group committed the crime of being Aboriginal and giving birth to light skinned children, the second lived within ‘respectable’ society and offended by becoming pregnant outside of marriage. Both were deemed unsuitable to raise their children.

Prior to the 1950s, it was most common for children of unmarried mothers to be adopted into the extended family. However, once infant formula became reliable enough to separate newborns from their mothers without a dramatic rise in infant mortality, a solution was found that would not only make the children conveniently disappear but also give childless, middle class couples the opportunity to become parents. They were now able to have ‘a newborn child, untouched by any other home environment, something that would be [theirs] to mould and guide right from the very beginning.’[1] This solution worked so effectively that over a two year period in 1971/1972, approximately 10 000 adoptions took place.

Some mothers handed their children over without argument; if not by choice. At the time, unwed, pregnant women were mostly prohibited from working and, although financial support was available to widows and other ‘deserving’ single mothers, there was no pension for the never married mother. Young women still living with their parents also faced the very real threat of homelessness. ‘As long as the woman was talking about giving the child up for adoption, the parents would let her stay, but the minute she decided to keep the baby, they kicked her out,’ says Tricia Harper, who became a single mother in 1968.

Jo Clancy, whose first born daughter was placed for adoption in 1964, recalls being told by a social worker, “You are an unfit mother, if you care about your baby, you will give it to a nice family where it will have an education, two parents and a pony”. Jo adds, “She said she never met a girl who wanted to give up her child but she talked them all into it”.

Other mothers fought the system but were drugged and incarcerated for their efforts. They were also lied to – women were told their boyfriends had run off, even when some of the fathers were making repeated attempts to see their partners; they were told their child had died at birth; and they were told, once the adoptions papers were signed, that they were not entitled to change their minds.

It wasn’t until a small number of women who had been able to circumvent the system – including Tricia Harper and Jo Clancy – came together to form the Council of Single Mothers and their Children, that things began to change for unmarried women who became pregnant. The women of CSMC were often well-educated, older, had greater access to finances or lived in a more progressive sector of society than the thousands of other women whose babies were being taken from them. This is not to say that some of these women didn’t suffer incredible hardship at times: Brenda Richards remembers living with her small children in a house due for demolition. She was unable to access welfare benefits and, in desperation “went to social welfare and asked, could they take the girls while I found somewhere to live. They said they would if I went as a voluntary patient to Mont Park, a mental hospital. [I knew] social welfare would never have given my children back. The girls were two and four at that stage”.

It was these women who ensured the necessary changes were made to bring an end to forced adoptions. The group quickly established a set of objectives being that ‘the child born out of wedlock has a fair start in life’. In order to do this they would need to gain financial security for the single mother-headed household, bring an end to illegitimacy laws which denied children an equal legal standing, and end the stigma surrounding the unmarried mother and her ‘bastard’ children.

Some victories were almost immediate, like the introduction of the Supporting Mother’s Benefit in 1973. It was no coincidence that the rate of adoptions fell away sharply once the Benefit was made available.

Other objectives, such as the change to illegitimacy laws and gaining the right for the adopted child to access her birth certificate, took longer to achieve.

Last month, Prime Minister Julia Gillard took up the baton extended by Kevin Rudd and spoke humbly and sincerely to a room of 800 women and their families, all of whom continue to be deeply affected by the practice of forced adoptions.

“We say sorry to you, the mothers who were denied knowledge of your rights, which meant you could not provide informed consent”, Gillard said. “You were given false assurances. You were forced to endure the coercion and brutality of practices that were unethical, dishonest and in many cases illegal”. At this point, a cheer lifted from the previously hushed audience and people began to weep with the relief of having been acknowledged after decades of carrying secret pain.

The Prime Minister promised resources to support those affected by forced adoption. She committed funding to counselling and assistance with accessing records for those who were still searching. As she left the room, women and men surged forward to embrace her. It felt like a chapter had closed.

Yet in the offices of CSMC and National CSMC, women continue to call daily, desperate for help. These are women who are unable to access safe, affordable housing, women who were forced off the Single Parent Pension on January 1 of this year to subsist on the lower Newstart allowance. Women who tell of not eating in order to be able to feed their children.

While conditions for single mothers are not as dire as they were in the 1960s, it is important at this time to reflect on the fact that the threat of poverty and homelessness were the greatest contributing factors used to coerce mothers into relinquishing their children.

It is essential that future policy regarding single parents in Australia is informed by these words from our Prime Minister. “We resolve, as a nation, to do all in our power to make sure these practices are never repeated. In facing future challenges, we will remember the lessons of family separation. Our focus will be on protecting the fundamental rights of children and on the importance of the child’s right to know and be cared for by his or her parents”.

 


[1] Farrah, Patricia Doreen Relinquishment and abjection: a semanalysis of the meaning of losing a baby to adoption doctoral thesis, University of Technology, Sydney 1999 p 175

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