parents

Their babies were taken because they were single.

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They call them the ‘relinquished babies‘. A clinical and cold term. ‘To renounce or surrender possession‘, it says in the dictionary.

But that statement is a little misleading. In many cases the mothers had no say in the removal of their babies. For some they were coerced into the surrender. Others had the child they carried for nine months whisked away in the night, or when they were unconscious.

So ‘relinquished’ is a euphemism for the trauma that actually took place. But what else to call those stolen babies?

For the most part, they were never named by their mothers.

And who knows where they are now. Birth records were patchy.

What are ‘forced adoptions’ and when did they take place?

The numbers vary wildly so it’s impossible to say for sure.

For decades it was the social norm to expect young and unmarried mothers to give up their children. A cultural attitude that prevailed not only in some church run institutions but allowed to take place – and sometimes encouraged – by government legislation at the time.

There are reportedly at least 150,000 Australian women who had their children taken from them by some churches and adoption agencies from the early 1950s to the 1970s. The situation has been described as a blight on Australia’s history.

Some estimates put the figure at 250,000 women affected in Victoria alone, as a result of state sanctioned policies.

What we do know is that it was common, consistent and devastating for the families involved.

The apologies

The chief executive of Catholic Health Australia, Martin Laverty, says he is sorry for what happened.

He says the organisation is committed to righting the wrongs and wants to develop protocols to assist women affected.

“It’s with a deep sense of regret, a deep sense of sorrow that practices of the past have caused ongoing pain, suffering and grief to these women, these brave women in Newcastle but also women around Australia,” Mr Laverty said in July last year.

The Royal Women’s Hospital in Melbourne apologised this month.

“We are apologising to every woman who felt that she had no choice but to relinquish her baby for adoption whilst in our care.

Mother Judy McPherson breaks down while addressing the senate inquiry

We certainly are aware that many of them experienced and indeed continue to experience feelings of grief and pain and anger and loss. And we very much hope the apology that we’re issuing goes some way to acknowledge the pain and loss to those women, but also to their families,” said the hospital’s Fiona Judd.

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The Western Australian Government also apologised to thousands of mothers, fathers and adopted children in 2010 for its role in decades of forced adoptions and a culture that saw young, unmarried mothers as unfit to care for their children.

The Federal Government is currently holding a senate inquiry into any role it might have played in contributing to forced adoptions and what might be done in the future to support families who were affected.

The stories

Mrs Jean Ann Argus (Victoria)

“I would like to take you back and have you think about a few things. This is from a mother of a child that she lost to adoption. Think about the labour ward. Try to imagine a baby being born and you hearing that first cry of life, the life that you have created. You want to see that child, but you cannot because you are shackled to a bed or there is a pillow on your stomach which stops you from viewing that child. You ask for your baby: ‘Can I see my baby?’ All you want to do is hold your baby, count the 10 fingers and the 10 toes. This child has bonded with you for nine months. You have carried this child. You have felt every movement while this child has been with you. You are the only person this baby knows. It has bonded with you in the womb and yet you are denied that right.

They have denied you the right of seeing your child. They have denied you the right of letting you know what the sex is of your child. Then there is silence. Your baby is taken and put in a different nursery somewhere, crying because the only person that baby knows is you, the mother. It does not know the nurse who took it out. It does not know the doctors who delivered it. It knows you, the mother. So that child then becomes stressed. They give you an injection, a sedative. When you come to, there is no one, only you. Then you are coerced into signing forms of adoption. They say things like: ‘Go home and get on with your life. This baby is not yours, give it to a family. You can get on with your life. If you keep this baby the welfare will come and take your baby. You cannot afford to keep this baby.’ These are the things that happened to us women and to our children. We are the mothers of these children, the natural mothers who were persecuted. We were not even given the basic human right as a mother or a human being to make that choice, whether to keep our child or to adopt our child out. It was not given to us. Our rights were denied.”

Ms Judith Hendriksen (Western Australia).

“My beloved firstborn, a daughter, was born on my 17th birthday and taken from me illegally right at birth—stolen from me, in fact

She had been ‘incarcerated’ in an unmarried mother’s home when her parents and the doctor colluded to give her baby up for adoption. She was not asked and she never spoke of it with her parents until many years later.

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“As far as they were concerned it was in the past and that was it. It was never to be discussed. But I did approach them in 1995 and I told them how I was treated in that unmarried mothers home. Unfortunately I got the same reaction as when I was 16. My mum was upset and crying and saying, ‘Judy, you blame us for everything.’ My dad basically said he had been through the war and nothing could be as bad as that. Basically my feelings were invalidated.”

Ms Anita Welsh (Western Australia).

“I would like to try to describe the impact that adoption has had on my life. It was not the fact of getting pregnant so young; it was having my baby taken for no good reason that has had an effect and made me the person I am today. By making me believe that I was not fit to be a mother to my baby I took on the belief that I was not really good for anything and, in reality, I am actually a failure in most ways that matter in society. I am a misfit who has always felt outside things and I rarely give myself fully to anything. I have had three failed relationships and have children to three different fathers. My first three children—obviously, one of them is my lost son—are full siblings. My mother still pretends it never happened. We maintain a silence, so we continue to play happy families. When it comes to my life, it used to be a case of making things worse and worse. I had no understanding of why I was so uncaring of myself.

I am not as out of control since I have been seeing my counsellor, but I am very antisocial and a bit of a hermit. As I get older I find I am less inclined to rage, scream and drink and have emotional meltdowns. Instead, I have just become sad, angry, bitter and generally miserable and I cry a lot. It sounds bleak and it is. It would not be so bad but my youngest child, my 12-year-old son, is living with me and my gloom has affected him since before he was even born. I used to attempt suicide, but I do not do that anymore. Now I just lie in bed and contemplate it.

I live with the fear that my lost son hates me or at least is completely apathetic towards me. I have met him once and that was not a success at all. I was terrified then that he would not like me and I did not how to act towards him. I did not even hug him. Not that it looks likely, but the idea of meeting him again terrifies me. So there is a man out there somewhere who is my son and who I feel a very painful and complex love for but who has no interest whatsoever in me. I have also lost grandchildren. We have no common ground apart from biology, but he is my son and I love him. I am and I am not his mum. Ironically, the label ‘unmarried mother’ would have been bearable because I would have had my child to be proud of. Much, much harder to bear was the often asked question: how could you give your own baby away? I do not know. If you have to cry over and over again for decades without really understanding why, it sends you a bit mad.”

Were you, or do you know someone who was, affected by ‘forced adoption’ policies in Australia?

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