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?
[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 …
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