Amelia saw a mysterious photo at her mum's funeral. It began a 12-year search for answers.

Brisbane journalist Amelia Oberhardt didn't expect to uncover a long-held secret about her mother on the day of her funeral.

But one seemingly insignificant photo thrown into a slideshow celebrating her mum's life changed all that. 

The photo showed her mother as a teenager, wearing a wedding ring and cradling a small baby. A handsome young man was standing next to her.

Alarm bells and suspicion started ringing for Oberhardt, whose best friend had been the one to find the mystery photo in a random album and included it in the slideshow, believing it was a family photo of Amelia and her parents. But the young man in the old photo wasn't Amelia's dad, and the baby wasn't Amelia. 

Who were they?

"We both sort of at that moment, turned around and stared into the eyes of all the family and friends - their jaws were on the floor," Oberhardt told Mamamia's True Crime Conversations podcast. "Everyone was quite rattled by the photo and I could tell straight away, it wasn't meant to be there."

That day sparked a 12-year search for answers for Oberhardt about her mother's past. What had driven her mum to the alcohol addiction that killed her at just 56? And who was the man and the child in the photo? 

It would reveal the shocking truth about a dark time in Australia when at least 250, 000 women endured forced adoptions from the '60s through to the '80s. 

Amelia Oberhardt has spent 12 years searching for answers about her mother's past. Image: Instagram.


In a bid to uncover the truth, Oberhardt began her podcast, Secrets We Keep: Shame, Lies and Family, speaking to women who bore the scars of forced adoption and the children who suffered a lifetime of abandonment issues from the shocking crimes. But first, she had to find out who the baby and the young man were with her mother all those years ago. 

"We'd done the death certificate the day before, and they had asked how many marriages, and me and my brother said one and the family said two," Oberhardt says. "I had never ever heard that she'd been married before... then when that photo came up, my immediate thought was, this is the first husband, and that is their baby."

Oberhardt's mother had grown up in a strict, extremely private, Catholic family, with many siblings all quite far apart in age. When she quizzed them about her mother's past, no one could give a straight answer.


"Some people in the very close family circle told me she had a baby and it died at one, and then the other story was that there never was a baby," she recalls. "And then there was a story that she had a miscarriage. But also at the same time, I was just constantly being told to stop asking questions, you know, let it go, there's nothing to it."

Her mother's close friends confused things even more with their hazy and vague recollections of the past. 

"They were saying similar things, that she had had a baby and it had died, or they just didn't see her for a period of two years of her life - being pulled out of school halfway through the year, and no-one knew where she went," Oberhardt says. 

Over the years, as she heard more and more stories about people who knew victims of the secret forced adoptions, Oberhardt could see the same thing easily happening to her young, unmarried, religious mother in 1973. 

"My mother passed away from alcoholism, and anyone that's known or loved someone with an addiction knows the varying ways relationships break down, and also the desperation you feel in wanting to understand why, why did this take a grip?" Oberhardt explains. "And I mean, putting myself in a position of being 16, and pregnant... from a devout Catholic home... when I hear about it, I can feel the shame she would have felt."


Oberhardt had the man's name from the photo: Michael Davies. As time went on, and she had three children of her own, the need to understand her own mother and their complicated relationship grew. And so there were periods where she "desperately" searched for Michael to help her understand, trawling Google, LinkedIn, public divorce records at the Supreme Court, the office of Births, Deaths and Marriages. 

In the end, she got her podcast up and running and producers were able to locate the right Michael Davies in Cairns. After nine years, Oberhardt went to meet him.

To know more of this story, listen to True Crime Conversations below. Post continues after audio.

"I was sick to my stomach... I knew I was either going to find a long-lost sibling, or I was going to find closure. Either way, I knew I had to go," she says. "And yeah, I got the answers."

Through Michael, Oberhardt learned the young couple had fallen pregnant and told their parents, and it was decided they would get married. "She was locked away for a period of time and then his mother and my grandmother called him to tell him she'd had a late miscarriage and ended up in hospital for a considerable amount of time," she explains. "Then they were still forced to go ahead with the marriage which I think did inevitably create some problems in her life."

The baby in the photograph was a relative from his side of the family, Michael explained.


Although her mother didn't end up being part of the forced adoption era, Oberhardt became connected with other women haunted by similarly painful pasts. One woman, Di Sheehan, was single, pregnant and training to be a vet in Sydney. When she went into labour, the Catholic doctor she was working for took her to hospital where she gave birth
"on a sterile, stainless steel kind of bench" and her baby "ripped away".

Oberhardt says, "She's left bleeding and lying on a steel bench alone, shivering... then someone comes in and says, 'Your baby's died, you can go home, sign these discharge papers, go on with your life.... and she told not a soul."

Forty years later, Di received an email with the title "I think you could be my mother". At the bottom of the email was a photo of his daughter, the same curly hair as Di. 

The discharge papers she signed had actually been adoption papers, and all these years later, Di's son had tracked her down through

"That story... it was haunting, and terribly, terribly sad, and not uncommon," Oberhardt says. "And since Di's story, we've heard from hundreds of women that were told their babies had died, or were disabled or needed to go to orphanages, only to find out that wasn't the case."

But she says not all stories ended as happily as Di's, with many adopted children struggling as much as their birth mothers to come to terms with their past. 


"People romanticise what a reunion will be, what their mum will look like, whether they have the same traits," she says. "But the reality is you're trying to undo 40 years of being told you were abandoned or rejected or that somebody else chose you... and regardless of the language around how you were chosen, it's all abandonment."

Oberhardt dedicates a podcast episode to the Stolen Generation, which she calls one of the most "heartwrenching" episodes. 

"[It is] the one I am probably the most nervous about in terms of being able to give it justice," she says. "The Stolen Generations is a podcast in itself... to try and cover that in a 24-minute episode is almost impossible. But I did feel it was remiss and would be a terrible thing for us not to give it the attention."

On a personal level, Oberhardt says this journey has allowed her to let go of any anger and resentment she felt towards her mother, and helped her see she can have the mother-daughter relationship they never had with her own daughter, Harper. 

"I started to see the pain that she was really in and look back on things with this compassion and empathy," Oberhardt says. "I feel very much at peace."

Feature Image: Supplied

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