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Senator Siewert's speech on former Forced Adoption practices

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Rachel Siewert 7 Mar 2012

I present this report with great pleasure. I say 'pleasure' but it is pleasure in terms of finally having this issue addressed. The time I have to speak now will not do justice to the report and the evidence we have been given, so I urge members of the community to read the report.

I would like to start by quoting Ms Charlotte Smith, who we quote in our report. She said:

A mother whose child has been stolen does not only remember in her mind, she remembers with every fibre of her being.

I would like to acknowledge all the mothers, fathers, adoptees and family members who are in the galleries today. Some have for the first time shared their experience of their forced adoption with the committee and the community. I know how much it took for them to do that and what a toll it has taken.

I would also like to quote from a mother who wanted her name withheld. She said:

I'd lie in bed every night with my arms wrapped around my baby inside of me knowing that I would never hold him after birth. I'd feel his feet and hands through my own stomach as he moved around, knowing that I wasn't ever going to feel them after he was born. I'd talk to him and tell him that I would find him again one day and that I and his father loved him and always would. I'd pray to God every night for him to send [someone] to get me out of there and show me a way to keep my baby, but no one did. I'd think of running away, but where would I run to, who would I run to.

That typifies so many of the stories that we heard from women who thought they could do nothing else but not consent. People did not always consent, but nothing else was going to happen than having their baby taken.

On behalf of the committee, I acknowledge and sincerely thank the mothers, fathers, adoptees and family members who contributed to this inquiry and shared their accounts—and these were accounts, not stories, of their experience; that was very clearly said during the inquiry—as I said, sometimes for the first time. These accounts had a profound effect on committee members and, I am sure, on all who heard them.
It is undoubted that past policies and practices have caused great harm and hurt to mothers, fathers, adoptees and their family members. You cannot come to any other conclusion when you are listening to the evidence. We received hundreds and hundreds of submissions, we spoke to dozens and dozens of witnesses—not everybody, because we just could not—and we received thousands and thousands of pages of submissions and evidence.

We also had access to national archives and archives from various government departments. The evidence tells the accounts of mothers and fathers who were pressured into giving up their babies by their families, institutions—both state and territory and private institutions—social workers, doctors, nurses and those who they rightly expected to help them. There was evidence of consent not properly taken. There was evidence of coercion. All the pressure, practices and policies have had lifelong impacts on mothers, fathers, adoptees and family members.

To the adoptees I would like to say: we know that your mothers did not abandon you. You were not thrown away. This is what we have received evidence about as well: the babies who were adopted, who are now adults, felt that they had been abandoned. Mothers have told us that they do not want their now adult children to feel that.

I quote from the report:

The committee received evidence from hundreds of women who gave birth in hospitals and other institutions between the late 1950s and the 1970s. Overwhelmingly, these women alleged that laws were broken or that there was unethical behaviour on the part of staff in those institutions. The common failings included applying pressure to women to sign consents, seeking consent earlier than permitted by the legislation, failing to get a consent signature or obtaining it by fraudulent means, and denial of reasonable requests, particularly for a mother to have access to her child.

As explained— in our report— certainly after new laws were enacted in the mid-1960s, actions of these types would in some cases have been illegal. Other experiences that reflected unethical practices included failure to provide information, and failure to take a professional approach to a woman's care. It is time for governments and institutions involved to accept that such actions were wrong not merely by today's values, but by the values and laws of the time. Formal apologies must acknowledge this and not equivocate.

The committee believes that governments and institutions need to take a more credible approach to the former forced adoption practices. The committee does not express a view on any particular cases or on the prevalence of illegal or unethical actions, but apologies that deny them altogether lack credibility in the face of the weight of evidence.

The committee agrees that official apologies should also identify the key wrongs that vulnerable mothers were not given the care and respect that they needed during this difficult period of their lives, that mothers were poorly advised, that they were stigmatised by professionals and institutions and that organisations and their staff in positions of authority stood in judgment of these women instead of respecting them.

The committee recommends that the Commonwealth government issue a formal statement of apology that identifies the actions and policies that resulted in forced adoption and acknowledges, on behalf of the nation, the harm suffered by many parents whose children were forcibly removed and by the children who were separated from their parents.

The committee recommends that state and territory governments and non-government institutions that administered adoption should issue formal statements of apology that acknowledge practices that were illegal or unethical as well as other practices that contributed to the harm suffered by many parents whose children were forcibly removed and by the children who were separated from their parents.

We have heard it said that what happened reflected the standards and the views of the time. We believe that is in fact not true. The committee concludes that the government and institutions in the 1960s and 1970s were presented with a range of professional advice about adoption. Little of it challenged adoption as a practice; however, a great deal of it cautioned against placing pressures on mothers to encourage the surrender of babies for adoption, and some of it explicitly drew attention to the requirements of the law and the risks of it being violated.

The evidence presented to us also shows that adoption should not have been treated as inevitable. We recommend that official apologies should include statements that take responsibility for the past policy choices made by institutions, leaders and staff and not be qualified by reference to values or professional practice during the period in question.

I am going to run out of time to address all of the 20 recommendations that are contained in this report. It also refers to the need for a national framework to address issues of reparation around the provision of professional support and counselling services, access to data and grievance procedures. I urge every member of this chamber and the community to read the report.

I would like to specifically acknowledge in the time I have available the very hard work of my fellow committee members. This was a really, really hard inquiry. It was a very emotional inquiry. You could not help but take to heart the stories of the people, many of whom are in the gallery today.

I would also very strongly like to thank the work of the committee secretariat: Dr Ian Holland, Dr Tim Kendall, Mr Gerry McInally, Ms Janice Webster and Mr Tim Hillman. These people went above and beyond the call of duty in order for us to get this report finished, particularly as our committee has a very heavy workload.

We wanted as a committee to do justice to the accounts and experiences of the mothers, the fathers, the adoptees and the families who gave us so much evidence. For us, the evidence is overwhelming. The damage caused by these past policies and practices is overwhelming.

It happened. We cannot deny it happened, and we need to apologise and put in place a framework that addresses it.

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