About 150,000 babies were put up for adoption in Australia during 1951-1975, the large majority from single, unwed girls and women. The practice of “forced adoptions” involving coercion and institutional policies that encouraged babies to be taken away from their mothers, has been the focus for a Senate committee for the past 18 months.
The report is largely based on the 418 submissions received from individuals and organisations explaining their own personal experiences of having their babies removed from them. Here is a selection of some of those submissions, which explain just what it was like for a young Australian girl or woman in the 1950s-mid 1970s facing pregnancy as an unwed mother:
What happened when they found out they were pregnant?
[My father] took me to Windang police station and told them what was going on, I think he was hoping I would tell them who the father was. In those days carnal knowledge was a crime. My father got angrier and angrier he punched me in the face in front of the police who did nothing, about an hour later a lady came to the police station and took me home and told me to pack a bag.
I went to the Salvation Army in Sydney and was placed into a home for old women where I and several other unmarried pregnant girls did most of the work there under the orders of the matron, some Salvation Army women, and a cook.
I worked in the kitchen and it was hot, hard work. One of my tasks was to scrub the floor until one day the cook told me to use a mop as I was having difficulty getting down to do it. I had almost finished when Matron came in and said “What is she doing with a mop? I want to see her on her hands and knees before our precious lord!” Matron came in as I was scrubbing it and said “That’s better; down on her hands and knees where she belongs.”
Kate Howarth, author of the memoir Ten Hail Marys. She was one of the few girls to leave Sydney’s St Margaret’s Home for unwed mothers with her baby in the mid-1960s:
For the next four months I was put to work in the hospital kitchen and laundry, for six and a half days a week, working an eight hour split shift. There was no payment for the work I did; it was said to cover my ‘keep’ while I was confined and awaiting the birth of my child. The accommodation provided by the hospital was overcrowded and squalid. The food supplied was inadequate for the needs of a pregnant girl and resulted in malnutrition that resulted in considerable hair loss and dental problems due to a lack of calcium in the diet.
The pressure placed on young unmarried girls to consent for their babies to be adopted
The hospital files of single pregnant girls files were often marked “BFA” [baby for adoption] assuming that the child of an unmarried mother would be adopted long before consent was taken and even if the mother had advised that she was keeping her child.
My medical records have ‘BFA’ stamped on them…even though I had said from the start I wanted to keep my baby. So it’s clear to me they had the adoption of my child as their intention all along.
I was 18 years old but I think my emotional maturity level was about 14 years old. I did what all the other girls did in my situation. I will feel forever sad and sorry that I didn’t have the gumption or strength of character to be able to stand up for myself and my daughter. This is how you felt. You were so bad, so troublesome, so undeserving. What would a frightened, downtrodden and shamed young girl have to offer her child, where would she start? I could not fight my family or the society’s values at that time. I was also emotionally distressed that my relationship had also broken up in such awful circumstances.
On the day of my admission I was given a document to sign which I realised was to relinquish my son for adoption. At no time before I was given this document to sign was I told alternatives to adoption or any of the financial and material assistance which I now know was available to me and which was my entitlement at law to be told about before any document was produced …
The treatment that I was subjected to before, during and after the birth of my son was tantamount to torture while the hospital administrator tried to get my consent for adoption. This included threats, intimidation and sleep deprivation. On 26 December 1965 I was discharged from the hospital because I refused to sign the consent. I was 15 years old, eight months pregnant, homeless and with less than £20 to my name.
We were given a tour of the labour ward, and our tour guide told us we had been chosen by God to provide babies for childless couples. After being told we were worthless for so long, I think it was small comfort. We were set to work in the laundries and other areas. I had to sit in the autoclave room rolling up cotton balls into swabs from a long roll of cotton. Some girls got the job of erasing the names from the paper bags put over the feeding bottles for the babies in the nursery so they would be used again. The girls recognised the names of some of the babies as being from their friends who had already delivered.
I don’t have any complaints about the day to day treatment we received at the home; however we were subjected to intense propaganda, aimed at having us relinquish our babies. The most common line being: if we really loved our babies we would give them away, to a proper two parent family.
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. It was clear to me that no one in my family was going to help me.
I went into a maternity home on 2 April 1975. Someone marked my child for adoption on 3 April 1975, the very next day. I did not see a social worker for four months. My records will substantiate that.
We were solicited, basically. I did not ask to have my child placed for adoption. We were solicited for our babies. They went out after us, and that was forbidden by law. They were not allowed to do that. So to mark someone’s file secretly like that was illegal. Who marked my child for adoption? I still do not know, but someone looked at me and said, ‘That will be good. We will have that baby for the Smiths.’
Examples of doctors and other professionals mistreating the young pregnant mothers in their care
I had many medical tests during my pregnancy and couldn’t help but feel that I was there for the training of student doctors and nurses. I was pushed and prodded and found my stomach covered in bruises and from one examination was left bleeding from my vagina. I tried to resist upon one examination, but was forcibly pushed back onto the table, being told, “this is your punishment for what you have done! You have to endure this so that the doctors can practice and be experienced for a real life situation!” One nurse even told me, ‘You don’t care about your baby, if you had, you wouldn’t have fallen pregnant and ended up here annoying all of us. You will do as you are told!’.
During my two days of labour I was isolated and left in pain for long periods of time. Nurses glared at me with cold contempt when I asked for help, and laughed together in front of me making derogatory comments about my “unwed status.”
Therese Margaret Pearson:
I was treated very badly by the doctor who was supposed to be looking after us at Waitara. As a matter of fact, I was raped six weeks before Peter was born by the doctor who was supposed to be looking after me.
I was informed by the doctor himself that I was a nice, good Catholic girl and that I would have maybe 11 more kids and I would be back at Waitara the following year to give them another one.
After this disastrous visit the Social Worker sent me to a psychiatrist. I don’t remember discussing my pregnancy or my plight with him. I told him that I was eight months pregnant and alone in Sydney and confused about what I should do. I was astonished by his response, which was, ‘What are your s-xual fantasies?’
It was probably in the first week after the birth that a tall distinguished looking doctor wearing a very expensive kind of suit was ushered into my room by a midwife (she left the room) and stood opposite me whilst I was sitting on the edge of the bed. After I told my story very briefly, and I asked him ‘what was wrong with me, where had I gone so wrong’ the psychiatrist made the following remarks, ‘You must have enjoyed the fucking that created your baby, all those sperm exploding against the walls of your vagina!’ He then concluded his visit by saying that I was ‘emotionally immature’ … I have never disclosed this experience to anyone in past 43 years up until recently, as it was too painful, confronting and unbelievable.
On every occasion that I went to see him [her doctor], he told me to take off all my clothes no matter if it was for an internal examination or simply to take my blood pressure. I didn’t understand why it was necessary to undress for this but didn’t question any of it, thinking that perhaps it was what every pregnant woman had to do. I remember being very embarrassed by it and really didn’t know how to broach the subject with my mother or anyone else.
On two occasions when taking my blood pressure, he sat beside the examination table and positioned my arm so that the back of my hand rested in his crotch. On the second occasion he did this, I raised my arm but he casually pressed it downwards until it was again resting in his groin. I blush even now at the memory of it and am angry that he took advantage of my inexperience and angry at myself for not having said something to him about it or told anyone.
I was already under duress, frightened and alone. At that time, I was not advised by the social worker that there was financial assistance available to me. This information was kept from me, and therefore there was no other option for me at that time.
To follow-up on the money issue, I approached the Council of Single Mothers and Their Children, which had just got started, I think, and I was told that there was money available from them. But when I approached Centrelink, or whatever they called themselves in those days, I was told that there was no money for six months. So then I had to approach the state welfare department for money, and that was one of the most humiliating experiences that I have ever had. I remember that there were very specific questions as to the s-xual nature of my relationship with my baby’s father, including how many times we had had s-xual relations, where and when. I refused to fill in those questions. I was mortified and left the office penniless. Luckily, I had worked through my pregnancy, so I did have some savings.
My son was born shortly after and whilst being stitched up the baby was placed across the room with the two midwives moving from side to side to taunt me from seeing my baby. I asked to have my baby and was told “that was not possible” as I was classified as BFA “baby for adoption”. I told them I was keeping my son [and was] told “we will see”…
I went to the nursery to get my baby and was told I was not to have admittance to the nursery. After lunch I returned to the nursery and proceeded to walk straight to my baby, I was physically held back, the nursery door was locked and a social worker called. I was told not to make any trouble, you have no right to be here and to return to my bed, I made several unsuccessful attempts to get into the nursery to be with my baby.
My second request to see my baby is the most vivid memory I have from my time there after giving birth. We were in the bathroom where the toilets and showers were. ‘It’s not your baby,’ the nun told me. It’s not my baby? Well, this was interesting. While I was standing there milk was leaking from my breasts…[t]hen she proceeded barbarically to tightly wrap the binding around my breasts.
My third and last attempt asking to see my baby was in the morning before my father came to take me home. A nun told me yet again, ‘It’s not your baby. You have your whole life in front of you. Just get on with your life and forget it.’ Three times on three different days I asked to see my little daughter before I left St Anne’s. Three times I was denied, for it had been calculated my precious baby, that I carried there in my womb, was for the joy of others.
… I have spoken to hundreds over the years and I have never met one natural mother who lost a child through adoption who was given any alternative other than adoption or who mentioned the financial support.
The midwife came to me while I was being stitched up and handed me papers. They knew that I could not read. They handed me the papers and said I must sign the registration of birth.
On the fifth day, I needed to sign a piece of paper giving permission for a blood test for my daughter. The paper was folded and underneath two signatures were required. The underneath piece of paper was a relinquishment form.
The final report tabled to the Senate yesterday has 337 pages, full of quotes such as these. Read it here.