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'My mother was forced to give me up. But it was the best thing that ever happened to me.'

Libby Stickland is a 45-year-old consultant. She was taken from her mother as a newborn and her mother was told Libby had died.

She’s also one of the 150,000+ children forcibly adopted under forcible adoption policies in Australia from the 1950s until the 1970s, when it was the social norm to expect unmarried young mothers to give up their babies.

This is Libby’s story, as told to Grace Jennings-Edquist.

Trigger warning: This post deals with forced adoption and rape, and may be distressing or triggering for some readers.

I was born January 16, 1970 in Perth. My mum was 17 at the time and unmarried. She said she was raped by three blokes – I don’t know who my father is.

My mother was drugged during the birth, and doesn’t remember it at all; I assume it was a really good dose of pethidine.

When my mother came around after the birth, my grandmother told her I was stillborn. I guess my grandmother thought it would make it easier to grieve and move on — because with death there’s closure, but knowing that your child’s still out there, and with the anger that she would hold onto about a baby being taken away without her permission — well, I think my grandmother was saving her own skin, because she was the one who arranged for me to be removed from my mother.

***

I was adopted about two weeks after my birth by George and Tertia Dempster, and I went to live in Wongan Hills, Western Australia. They were farmers, as financially stable as farmers can be.

Libby at 12 with her best friend, at the farm house where she grew up and her birth mother now lives.

I’d always asked the question, ‘I wonder what my mum looks like’, so on my 18th birthday I asked my parents for my birth certificate; I just wanted to find that missing piece of the jigsaw. My parents were hurt by that, but they understood that for medical reasons I needed to know my background.

I went to Births, Deaths and Marriages and got my mum’s marriage certificate. I noticed that she got married in Geraldton and had an unusual surname, so I dug out the phone book and rung around the area, basically saying I was an old school-friend friend just chasing her up. My last phone call was to her mother-in-law.

“Oh hi, I’m just an old school friend of Pat’s, just chasing her up,” I said.

She replied: “What do you want with that bitch?”

She went on: “Pat married my son, and she spent years in and out of refuges running away from him. My son’s an alcoholic.”

That was my next lead. I rang all the women’s refuges across the top of Australia with no luck, and left messages all over the place to say I’d called.

I heard nothing — until my 21st birthday, when I had a phone call from my mum’s best friend.

She said: “I’ve got your mum right here, and she’d like to talk to you.”

***

I met my mum for the first time when I was 24. She only learned I existed when the women’s refuge told her I’d phoned, and it took her that three years to get her head around it.

The reunion was in a food hall, and it definitely wasn’t that happy, “oh my God, I found my mother” sort of reunion.

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I was very wary, probably protecting my emotions. I had in my head that if there was going to be any further connection then they would have to earn my trust and my friendship, just like any other stranger that I’d meet. So the first meeting was awkward. Especially for her – because that daughter that she thought was dead was sitting in front of her.

Libby’s birth mother Pat.

The conversation was strangely general: Where do you live? How many other siblings? She asked what I’d been doing and where I lived and how my life had been, and I was thankful I was able to tell her I had an okay upbringing.

As for my mum, it did affect her. She just rebelled. She just went straight out, left home within a couple of months she had  gone out and got pregnant again, and had a girl the following September. She then got married to a different guy and had three more children, two boys and a girl — So I had siblings I’d never known about.

Her dad absolutely adored her and was devastated by the turn of events, and it was really difficult for him, because he loved his little girl.

***

We’ve built a relationship since those early years and we’ve grown close now, and she’s more like a best friend, someone I can tell anything to.

She actually lives on my adopted parents’ farm, with my two nieces from my younger sister’s two daughters. We have a really good relationship.

I’ve never had an issue with being adopted, because my parents always told me that I was adopted and when I asked what that meant, they said I was loved and wanted.

Related: “Inter-country adoption should not be easy”

One way the adoption has affected me, though, is that from my experience of growing up I had always said that I wanted my farm to become an orphanage so that other kids could have an awesome start like I did, have that same opportunity I did — so I got into fostering about 15 years ago.

I’ve fostered probably 30 children, most for just a couple of weeks here and there, but there was one girl that we took on full-time.

Libby with her foster daughter.

I met my grandmother, just the once. I heard that she was dying of breast cancer so I flew to her death bed with my mum and thanked her for what she did — because my life was pretty darn good compared to my other siblings.

My birth mother never forgave her mother, though. On her deathbed, my grandmother asked her, ‘can you forgive me?’ And she said she couldn’t.

While it was hard for my mum, being adopted was the best thing that ever happened to me.

***

I’ve been asked whether the government should issue an official apology to kids who were forcibly adopted out, and my direct answer is – no. Because what difference is compensation going to make to these people that are suffering?

What’s in the past in in the past and you learn from it. Everyone’s different and every person that I’ve spoken to has a different story but basically, they’re all the same – that sense of rejection, and then they struggle with that for the rest of their life.

Read More: Fostering kids in Australia, make a real difference.

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