Apology to people affected by past practices of forced adoption in the ACT

“Today the Government moves to apologise, on behalf of the Assembly and the community, to ACT residents, past and present, who have been affected by practices of forced adoption.

We acknowledge, with deep regret, that past practices of forced removal and adoption have caused great pain and suffering to mothers, fathers, the babies who were adopted and families.”

2012

THE LEGISLATIVE ASSEMBLY FOR THE

AUSTRALIAN CAPITAL TERRITORY

 

MOTION BY LEAVE

APOLOGY TO PEOPLE AFFECTED BY PAST PRACTICES OF FORCED ADOPTION IN THE ACT

 

DEBATE SPEECH

(Check against delivery)

Presented by

Ms Katy Gallagher MLA

Chief Minister

 

Today the Government moves to apologise, on behalf of the Assembly and the community, to ACT residents, past and present, who have been affected by practices of forced adoption.

 

We acknowledge, with deep regret, that past practices of forced removal and adoption have caused great pain and suffering to mothers, fathers, the babies who were adopted and families.

 

Mothers who experienced forced adoption practices were not properly informed of their rights, nor provided with the support that mothers need. Fathers were excluded from the decision-making process.

 

People who were adopted may carry a burden, in the recent knowledge that their adoption process may have been marked by injustice.

 

To the adopted children, who are now adults, and who were denied the opportunity to know, or grow up with, or be cared for by, their birth parents and families, we offer you our sincere and unreserved apology.

 

Mr Speaker, in the period from the 1940s to the 1980s, Australian women who bore children out of wedlock were subject to society’s condemnation – to an ostracism that seems impossible to understand for us here today.

 

These policies affected indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, women – often young, sometimes barely adult themselves. These women were made to feel unwarranted shame. They were hidden away. They were forced to incriminate the fathers of their unborn babies. And then, when their much-loved babies were finally born, often they were taken away, against the mother’s wishes, and given up for adoption.

 

All this was done in pursuit of the mantra of the time – that a child born to an unmarried mother would not receive the best possible chance in life..

 

Today’s apology is about acknowledging the truth of this history of ours, and resolving to learn from the past.

 

Mr Speaker, the legacy of society’s actions during those decades of enforced adoption has been damaging, and enduring – indeed, for those affected it has been life-long.

 

Mothers were made to give up their babies for adoption in an atmosphere of silence and shame, to which was then added a deep, though undeserved feeling of guilt.

 

These mothers were often young, powerless and emotionally vulnerable. The coercion used was sometimes subtle and sometimes brutal, but there is no denying it occurred—supported by the very institutions of our society – family, churches, hospitals, police, governments – that we expect to care for the vulnerable, to nurture life, and to do no harm.

 

Today we acknowledge the life-long impact of those policies and practices – essentially, the practice of preventing a family from ever forming. Practices that have left a legacy of grief, trauma, loss, disconnection and unwarranted shame, guilt and secrecy.

 

Partly because of the secrecy and coercion involved, we may never know how many women and their babies were separated by forced adoption. The Senate report into the practice earlier this year could not say what proportion of the 250,000 or so adoptions during the decades in question were forced, but it must have been in the many tens of thousands at least.

 

Mr Speaker, at the time these forced adoption practices were taking place the Territory was under Commonwealth administration. This Parliament had not yet been constituted. The ACT Government did not exist. But this Assembly is the voice of the people of the ACT in 2012. It is the rightful place therefore in which to recognise and express our sorrow for the past actions of this community. Some of those personally affected by forced adoption have moved away. Some have died. But this apology is to them, too.

 

Mr Speaker, the feedback from major national inquiries and studies, as well as feedback from affected individuals in our own community, is that no apology from a parliament or a government can heal the pain and loss of forced adoptions.

 

The report of the Senate Community Affairs Committee, handed down earlier this year, recommended a national apology, but not in any expectation that the trauma could be healed. Quite simply, it recommended an apology because it was the right thing to do, and a way to begin.

 

As one woman who made a submission to the Senate inquiry said, “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.”

 

The report of the Senate inquiry makes for painful reading. It must have been far more painful – even traumatic – for those who bravely chose to make submissions to that inquiry, reviving hurtful memories and old feelings, in order that their fellow Australians might know the truth about what happened. We owe all of those who speak up a debt of gratitude.

 

Some women recall the devastation of being rejected and disowned by their own families, once their pregnancies became known.

 

Some recall being drugged by their own parents and waking up to find that they were in a car, on their way to a maternity home in another town or another state, where they would spend their pregnancy and confinement cut off from contact with everything and everyone that they knew.

 

Some tell how they were required, while at these maternity homes, to use false names – names that were then used on their baby’s birth certificate.

 

Women told of being sedated during childbirth, or of having pillows or blankets arranged so they would never catch sight of their babies.

 

Women were told, untruthfully, that their babies were dead.

 

There are tales of coercion and control, of ostracism, of women being tricked into signing away their babies, of bullying and emotional blackmail, of forged signatures, even of physical violence against women who resisted having their babies taken.

 

And then, for decades, until now, there has been the conspiracy of silence.

 

The recorded history of the various forms of forced adoption, over such a long period and often across state borders, is very patchy. There is a legacy of denial and concealment of these practices in Australian society, which has only served to further de-legitimise the very real trauma suffered by all those affected.

 

It is understandable that some of those affected will be sceptical about the value of an apology such as this one.

As one Canberra woman, who was taken from her mother at birth puts it bluntly: “If I am to receive an apology I want it noted that no apology can repair the damage that has been done to my mother, me and my family. I have been refused a child’s right to be brought up by my own mother, in my own family, with my own religion and ethnicity recognised and understood. In fact my whole identity without my consent was taken from me and this can never be replaced.”

Another Canberran articulates the hidden grief of mothers whose babies were taken from them. He says: “Grief is the natural emotional response to loss. Mothers whose babies were taken away experience disenfranchised grief – a grief which is not openly acknowledged, socially acceptable or publicly mourned, and therefore appears to have no end. Normally after death there are rituals which assist to ease the pain of the bereaved. In disenfranchised grief, the rituals are absent – the mother is totally disempowered, blamed and given no right to grieve – she receives no validation of her loss; no cards, no flowers or expressions of sympathy.”

Mr Speaker, as the voice of this community, it is this Parliament’s role to acknowledge and legitimise these experiences, to acknowledge, validate and respect the grief, to offer that belated sympathy, even if we cannot undo the past.

It is our responsibility to acknowledge, on behalf of this community, that these practices occurred, and that mothers did not give up their babies willingly. We acknowledge the pain of those affected. And we express our heartfelt sympathy to those ACT families, past and present, separated by an adoption that was forced upon them.

 

As an Assembly, today we can resolve to never repeat the flawed adoption practices of our community’s past, and to support, as best we can, the healing that is to come.

 

We know that today’s words are just a beginning, that decades of loss cannot be remedied by any words, however heartfelt. But the words do need to be spoken if the healing is to begin.

 

The ACT Government is committed to making available appropriate counselling support to affected Canberrans, to assist in that healing process, and we are also committed to taking what lessons we can from the past, to ensure that it is never repeated.

 

As a Government we have already had initial discussions with some of those affected about the formation of a Reference Group, which will explore issues faced by people affected by forced adoption practices in the ACT, and how these can be managed into the future.

 

I know that past practices and experiences have already helped to shape recent changes to the ACT Adoption Act and the Children and Young People Act to ensure that these important pieces of legislation recognise the best interests of children and the importance of the provision of counselling, support, information and assistance to enable families to care for their children.

 

A number of recent legal changes relate to access to origins information and open adoption, where birth parents can remain informed or in contact with their child.

 

Mr Speaker, in 2012, we like think we live in a different world and are part of a different society from the one that condoned and connived in the practices that have led to today’s apology.

 

We have a range of supports for anyone facing a pregnancy in challenging circumstances, or who may be experiencing parenting difficulties.

 

There are three Child and Family Centres, which offer mainstream services like baby health checks, playgroups and childhood immunisations, along with targeted programs for parents needing help with parenting skills, including groups specifically for fathers and a peri-natal emotional wellbeing program for women.

 

Such programs were unheard of a few decades ago.

 

One of the programs in which I think we can take particular pride is the CCCares program at Canberra College, which offers young parents the opportunity to pursue Year 12 Certification, online learning, vocational education and employability skills, all within a mainstream ACT Government College context that is sensitive to their physical and social needs.

 

This great partnership between the Education, Health and Community Services Directorates, with significant support from the community and business sectors, tells young parents and pregnant teens that they are valued, respected, that they will be supported to complete their education. It’s one way of this community letting every one of the 149 students currently enrolled, and the 135 children they bring with them to school, know that they matter.

 

Mr Speaker, programs like CCCares are some of the ways in which we show we can learn from the past, some of the ways in which we can ensure as a community that we will never again allow members of our community to suffer the indignity, the stigmatisation, and the life-long trauma experienced by so many of those whose families were affected by forced adoption practices.

 

While today’s apology cannot wipe away those years, or the tears, I hope that it may be a beginning of a period of healing.

 

I acknowledge the work of the organisations and individuals, who, in arguing for a national inquiry and an apology,  have played such a leadership role in forcing us all to face up to this dark chapter of our past.

And thank you again to the many men and women who have, through their stories, written that chapter into our official history books at last.

 

To all those affected by forced adoption, please accept this apology in the spirit in which it is offered.