Stories from the mothers who had their babies taken away

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.

Yesterday the Community Affairs committee tabled it’s final report, Commonwealth Contribution to Former Forced Adoption Policies and Practices, to the Senate yesterday. The committee calls for a formal apology to given by the federal government that identifies that actions and policies that encouraged forced adoptions.

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?

Colleen Ewen:

[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.

Name withheld:

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

Barbara Maison:

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.

Linda Eve:

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.

Name withheld:

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.

Kate Howarth:

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 …

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  1. In this day and age where upward social mobility for the bogan class is getting “banged up” and getting on the social welfare gravy train with three or four kids for the next 20 or so years, it is difficult to go back 60 or so years to where girls were expected to keep their legs together before being married, and the breadwinner of the family social unit was expected to look after his wife and children without bucket-loads of community assistance.

    As cruel as this adoption process might seem, it was seen as being just in a situation where unmarried mothers were stigmatised, their offspring were considered to be bastards of with low social standing, and an unwanted pregnancy attracted enormous social stigma for the family as a whole. There was a social purpose to this ostracisation, and that was discipline, a characteristic often lacking in today’s community.Rightly or wrongly it was considered in the best interest of the child to be put up adoption.

    Furthermore the process of separation at birth, whilst emotionally cruel, was seen by many at the time as being the best solution so that the mother did not bond with the child. The social stigma associated with bonding and then retaining the child was substantial, and the responsibility for maintenance of the mother and child then rested with her own family. Also the discrimination associated with being a fallen woman was such that such women were not allowed to be married as brides in a church.

    This in no way however defends the so-called Christians operating homes for “fallen women, doctors, nurses and “the overall community attitude to vilify these poor girls who had made a simple mistake, and in many instances the fathers of these children would often disappear without trace or deny any knowledge, again because of social stigma. There was also the expectation that the father of an unmarried mother would be involved in a “shotgun marriage”, and immediately have to shoulder the responsibility of maintaining a family.

    Finally in addition to the cruel punishment on separation, this poor women had no opportunity to discuss their feelings because of the social stigma associated with the situation, and it is difficult in our modern social structures to appreciate the pain of such separation.

    by Whistleblower on Mar 1, 2012 at 2:31 pm

  2. As a woman who was very young in the 1960’s I’m thankful that I didn’t have to give up my baby - I got married, but sadly lost that baby within a month. The attitude to women during those years was too appalling for words. Even the women who were pregnant as a result of the perpetrator “using force” were made out to be worthless, like prostitutes(which is what my father alluded to) and there was never any hint of castigating those males involved. Even today, that sort of misogyny remains.

    My father was so awful that I left home, and my future in laws took me in, of which I was always grateful. My father waited until the night before said wedding before signing the relevant authority - I was 17 and 8 months. My eldest brother didn’t come to the wedding, my youngest sister called me names(encouraged by our father) and both she and another sister were banned from visiting me. Interesting to note, that my family were catholics, my in-laws were not. They weren’t religious at all, but said that I was family and they would care for me.

    When I suffered the miscarriage, my mother waited until the 10th day before she came and visited me - on her own! I’d been taken care of by my mother in law and family. I can still remember the distress and abandonment I felt as that very young, vulnerable and IGNORANT young person. I can relate to the trauma and feelings of alonement experienced by too many young women over too many years. It is a huge black mark for this country - and others around the world who introduced the same awful policies.

    When my next baby was born 11 months later, I did not see him for 30 hours, except for a few minutes after he was born - then he was taken away for his ‘bath’. Nobody would tell me the truth, only that he “was tired”? During the publicity of this overdue investigation of these criminal acts, I now wonder if they were checking up whether or not I was married. I was only 18 and 7 months. If single, I probably would’ve lost that baby like thousands of others did. My god fearing/loving family would probably have let that happen!

    My three babies were born in the 1960’s. I’ve found this current situation very upsetting, and offer those brave women my every support and praise their courage. I don’t believe that there’d be any compensation that could make up for all those wonderful years denied to them, and of course to the babies stolen. Some women experienced this horror more than once! They should at least be entitled to FREE counselling if they feel the need - even if it’s only to confide their pain and loss to another person - who will support and validate their agony. I can’t even start to think of my life without my babies! How barbaric!

    by Liz45 on Mar 1, 2012 at 2:55 pm

  3. Barbaric, senseless, flabbergasting.

    by Sprocket on Mar 1, 2012 at 3:06 pm

  4. I suppose it comes down to whether women ate baby-making machines or real people.

    We’re still fighting this battle with the Catholic Church and other nutters who decide on our behalf that contraception is immoral. Choice – to have/keep a baby or not – seems to scare the old men who run things.

    by Clytie on Mar 1, 2012 at 3:35 pm

  5. Sorry, “are”, not “ate”. Not tasty, anyway.

    by Clytie on Mar 1, 2012 at 3:36 pm

  6. @CLYTIE - They have a misoynist policy that leaves women to believe, that we’re just baby factories. Part of the mind set for the horrific policy over decades was the removal of a mother’s love for her child. Women were depicted as such persons of second class, that her humanity was ignored. That as they were viewed contemptuously, they’d get over having no contact with their baby - and move on. Coupled with this was the fact that a man could not rape his wife. In most States of Australia this didn’t become a crime until the 1970’s/80’s. This is just one more area that clearly shows how women were viewed, and in the eyes of the catholic church, still are.

    There were no processes until the Whitlam Govt that allowed women to believe, that if they ‘dug in’ they could keep their babies - even those who were raped! There was some financial assistance; nowhere near enough, but there was hope. Thankfully, the support for sole parents, particularly mothers is much better today - it could be better, but it’s heaps better than back then!

    I was stunned to learn that even up until the late 1970’s, babies were still being stolen from their mothers. It’s almost beyond belief that such blatant abuses were taking place.

    I think that all those people on the Senate Inquiry should be congratulated for their dedication, their sense of justice, respect and awareness which assisted those women and their now adult children in telling their awful stories. I thank them!

    by Liz45 on Mar 1, 2012 at 3:56 pm

  7. All those small paragraphs. All that unbearable pain.
    Weeping as I type.

    by paddy on Mar 1, 2012 at 4:06 pm

  8. Why do we do these things to each other?
    What’s going on now that will only come out in 30 years time?

    by JamesH on Mar 1, 2012 at 4:26 pm

  9. The past is another country. It can be tough to understand.

    My 80 year old mother, herself an adoptee, worked as a nurse in the hospitals of the time and tells harrowing stories, including about how even she was treated with her first (legitimate) child. All largely thanks, once again, to the ugly side of the christian church … this time mostly protestant (borderline calvinist) virtue.

    by Glen on Mar 1, 2012 at 5:52 pm

  10. @WHISTLBLOWER - I BONDED with my babies BEFORE they were born. I felt that all I needed to know was what they looked like. When I saw their dear little faces if was a case of, ‘hello, I know you’? Many of these women, who knew they’d be giving up their babies would hug their bellies, knowing that they wouldn’t hug them in the flesh. Their grieving process started before their babies were born.

    The need for a child to be with their mother has been recognised for a long time. It is bull shit to give the excuse of ‘better not to see them etc’? The practice of the policy of ‘skin to skin’ is just another example of how important it is for BABIES and mothers to have that intimate contact.

    Our understanding in more recent times recognises the need for mothers whose baby is dead when born, to nurse her baby, to dress her baby and to then relinquish her baby at the funeral. It is vital and recognises the need to not use patronising words and/or deeds.

    Perhaps if men had babies back then, these Laws would NOT have been broken, and women would NOT have had to feel and be repeatedly told that they were ‘bad girls who needed punishing’?

    The fact is that it was CRIMINAL behaviour. Those involved in this broke the Law. They broke the unwritten Law of compassion, understanding and basic ‘christianity’(even though the god botherers were the worst?) but they broke the Laws of the land.

    The Law that stated that the Mother is the legal guardian of her baby, and has the right to keep her child. The Law that stated that a mother had 30 days to change her mind. Parents, as illustrated by one woman’s story here, committed the awful crime of physical assault. My father didn’t hit me (that time) but his emotional abuse cut deeper than any hand.

    The fact is now, as was then, that women don’t make themselves pregnant! The males involved were and still are being”let off the hook’. The insinuation that young women get themselves pregnant for financial gain makes me boil. While this may be a small percentage of young women’s attitude, I bet she has to wake up with a jolt once the baby arrives. I’m 100% behind the benefits women receive these days. If these were available in my day, I’d have been able to leave my abusive husband, sooner than 20 years! Too many women would NOT have been forced to live in poverty while raising the next generation of Australians!

    I made sure that my sons got the message, that with every right or desire comes responsibility. Just because they were physically able or wanted to have a sexual encounter, they didn’t have an automatic right - without being responsible! That if they were responsible for an unwanted baby, they could always walk away(even though I told them that was gutless) - the young woman would never be the same again, no matter what decision she made. That women were not put on this earth for man’s use and benefit, and that being a man meant being compassionate and decent! Or words to that effect!

    There’s something very wrong in the way young people, particularly too many young men, in their attitude to women and girls, and their lack of respect and/or responsibility for THEIR behaviour. If every male who fathered an unwanted child had a permanent ‘mark’ on his forehead, and society took such behaviours as irresponsible and indecent, then we’d have less unwanted pregnancies and every child would be loved and wanted at conception!

    Instead, we allow programmes like Today Tonight and ACA to demonise young women, and infer that all of them are after money. Some are just ignorant of pregnancy etc, some are too scared or don’t have someone to go to for advice and protection, and some parents don’t live up to their responsibilities and stay in touch with their kids. Some refuse to advise about contraception, which I think is a terrible thing to do. Some just get caught! Many young people are homeless or have mental or physical illnesses with no help or support.

    My grand daughter is pregnant at this time - not planned, but now wanted. She made the decision to keep her baby. I’d support her regardless of her decision. She has a lovely Mum and Dad, and even though we were all a bit stunned at first, everyone has quickly got to a supportive ‘place’. I intend helping her in every practical, emotional and supportive way I can. She is surrounded by loving parents and extended family. We will look after her and share hers and her baby’s journey. I’ve even forgiven her for making me a great grandmother - too soon? I have to admit, that I’m enjoying sewing and buying goodies for her and her daughter! I’ve been with her to the doctor, and heard the baby’s heart beat - it was awesome, and I felt quite teary. With our support, she’ll be a lovely Mum!

    That’s the sort of future these women should’ve had when they were young, scared and pregnant! ‘It takes a community to raise a child’. Indeed!

    by Liz45 on Mar 2, 2012 at 1:33 pm

  11. While I’m in no way condoning or excusing what we now know to be despicable and cruel practices, it was the mores of the time. As @Glen said, it’s another country and hard to understand with our 2012 mind. Our kids and grandkids will probably offer an apology one day to the gay community and countless others that we’re wronging right now as society progresses.

    BTW Having been adopted in ‘65 there’s every chance I am a result of this. This is extremely conflicting for me as, if I am a part of this, I can’t begin to understand my birth mother’s pain, yet I was adopted into a loving, wonderful family. I can’t ever remember ‘finding out’ I was adopted having been told from a very young age so have ‘always’ known, had a great childhood which laid the foundation for a great life. I don’t think of my adoptive parents in that frame, they are my parents full stop.

    In that light I’ve never had any desire for contact with my birth parents but would like them to know that, for me at least, it turned out well. About 15 or 20 years ago (I think) when they changed the laws in NSW I attached a letter to my file explaining just that, with some more detail but asking that I not be contacted. On the whole I’m still comfortable with that request but I hope that’s enough to give my birth mother peace.

    by CID on Mar 2, 2012 at 1:47 pm

  12. They are very distressing accounts indeed. It is important that the Senate has uncovered widespread evidence that, even though there was discrimination against single mothers in the community, medical staff were provided with explicit instructions not to discriminate. Which they chose to ignore. The Senators were obviously very moved by their experience with this Inquiry and it was extraordinary that they faced the Gallery and clapped everyone there.

    CID it is fairly likely that your mother was in this situation. It would indeed be lovely if she knew that your experience has been a happy one. Can I just say that a contact veto is incredibly difficult for the person who is searching and is unlikely to give peace! It is fairly likely that these vetos will be removed in the future, particularly if they do not have a time limit.

    The woman who sat next to me in the Gallery is unable to find out who her real parents are as she was sold (yes really) by the matron to the family who then did not officially adopt her. Her status is incredibly complicated. But the main thing is that she does not know who she is. One of the lessons to be learned is the hurtful nature of discrimination, but also to make sure children born of varied technologies (donor insemination, surrogacy, IVF) have the right to know all of their genetic heritage.

    by jennie on Mar 2, 2012 at 4:00 pm

  13. And the other side..the babies who had their mothers taken away.

    by Chris Vickers on Mar 2, 2012 at 8:14 pm

  14. God save us from the “good intentions” of the morally superior. And they are still about folks.

    by Peter Ormonde on Mar 3, 2012 at 10:47 am

  15. These are awful stories of medical and nursing paternalism. Not only that, there is evidence of criminal behaviour by some doctors and nurses, but it is doubtful if after all this time that there would be any successful prosecutions. There needs to be a process of healing and reconciliation. The Federal Government should apologise on behalf of our society to the mothers who had their babies taken away and the babies who never knew their mothers. Where compensation can be paid, it should be paid. I’m with Peter - beware the self righteous and morally superior! They hurt people.

    by Jenny Haines on Mar 6, 2012 at 12:37 pm

  16. I’d have congratulated the PM if she’d announced on the day the report was handed down, that all those mothers and babies would receive counselling if they so desired. While it won’t change their reality at all, it could help them to just tell their story to someone who’d validate all their emotions. Perhaps they’d be then able to write their story down. Even if it’s to help their own healing. It could and probably would appeal to many others who don’t feel equipped to take that step. Maybe it will happen in the future, I hope so!

    The awful attitude to pregnant women has changed a lot for the better, but it still has some way to go. When I was young, the attitude was, ‘don’t tell mothers the truth because they’ll get upset’? In my case they didn’t tell me why I couldn’t have my baby at feed times, and that made me upset. To them, it would just confirm the patronising attitudes. ‘See, told you’?

    I also get angry by the saying’ the doctor delivered the baby’. Except perhaps for caesarian sections, MOTHERS deliver babies, doctors, midwives ASSIST. I pushed my babies out, not a doctor, nurse or midwife. The ONE (huge) thing I did all by myself, others get the acknowledgement!

    by Liz45 on Mar 6, 2012 at 2:53 pm

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