Senate inquiry hears harrowing evidence on forced adoptions
Sept. 29, 2011
"There is some people that have not even got a proper birth certificate and they don't even know their proper name. Mothers have given evidence that when they went to some of these institutions where they gave birth, they were admitted under a false name and that false name was put on the birth certificate.
Imagine trying to find who you are, tracing through that evidence chain. It is just non-existent."
TONY EASTLEY: A Senate committee has heard heart-breaking evidence from mothers who say they were forced to give up their babies for adoption.
The inquiry is examining whether the Commonwealth drafted legislation which the states and territories then used to compel unwed mothers to hand over their babies.
Chief political correspondent, Sabra Lane.
SABRA LANE: Judy McPherson wrote out her testimony.
JUDY MCPHERSON: If you'd bear with me, I've not done this before.
SABRA LANE: But she struggled to read it.
JUDY MCPHERSON: My daughter was born in Queen Victoria Maternity Hospital in Melbourne in November, 1964 and I first met her in 1990 (audibly upset).
SABRA LANE: A friend continued for her.
JUDY MCPHERSON'S FRIEND: I was given medication that had a profoundly sedative effect. I awoke at the moment of birth semi-conscious. I imagined my arms reaching to the door at the far left hand corner of the room as the nurse and doctor ran towards that door. I don't wish to speak to this anymore as it is very distressing.
This is the part of my birthing story that was rewritten by the issuing of a second birth certificate.
SABRA LANE: Judi McPherson's name was removed from her daughter's birth certificate; sealed records made it difficult for her to track her.
Christine Cole was 16, when her baby was taken from her at Sydney's Crown Street Women's Hospital. She's researched the history of forced adoptions in NSW for a PhD.
She's given evidence that in the 50s, 60s and 70s it was common practice that unwed mothers, often teenagers, were forced to hand over their babies.
The committee's heard evidence that many of these women were drugged and in some cases their signatures were forged on adoption papers.
CHRISTINE COLE: The file was marked BFA (Baby For Adoption). That was marked by the social worker whilst the mother was pregnant and when she first was interviewed by the social worker. They assumed that an unwed, unsupported mother - her baby was going to be up for adoption many months prior to giving birth. That reflected an internal health department policy.
SABRA LANE: The Australian Institute of Family Studies is currently examining how many women and children were the victims of forced adoptions.
The support group Origins says it can't accept a formal apology, as some mothers still don't know the truth - that they were unknowingly duped into a process known as a "rapid adoption".
That was a practice where the parents of a recently stillborn child were given a substitute baby - often from an unwed mother, who was wrongly told her child had died during or soon after birth. Origins spokeswoman Lily Arthur.
LILY ARTHUR: We have been approached since this enquiry started by women who have actually investigated what they thought was their stillbirths and have found out that there was in fact adoptions taking place. Now while ever there are women who do not know that they still have children out there, you can't apologise for these crimes that remain hidden.
SABRA LANE: The committee's considering whether the Commonwealth played a role in drafting the legislation used by the states and territories to carry out these adoptions.
It will also examine whether the Commonwealth should apologise, pay compensation, help with counselling costs and whether it should establish one central office to help separated families to reconnect.
TONY EASTLEY: The Senate committee inquiry is due to complete its final report in late November.
The inquiry chairwoman, Greens Senator Rachel Siewart is speaking here with our chief political correspondent Sabra Lane.
RACHEL SIEWART: It is a very emotionally charged inquiry. You really feel for the witnesses giving evidence. There is no inquiry yet that I've been at, or a hearing that I've been at for this inquiry that I haven't shed some tears. I think it is the same for other senators and certainly for the witnesses.
For some witnesses, it is the first time they have told their story in public. They are very powerful stories, they're harrowing and there is certainly ample evidence that these forced adoption practices were carried out in this country.
SABRA LANE: Some people are looking for an apology. Others say that they don't want that apology while there are still women who are under the impression that they gave birth to babies that were stillborn or who died shortly thereafter and there is evidence that those children are still alive.
RACHEL SIEWART: There is a group of women that very strongly support an apology and they look to the apology that the West Australian Government gave towards the end of last year and look at what a powerful response there has been to that but there is also a group of women that are saying, no, it is not appropriate to have an apology now. There is a lot of unfinished business.
They think there is illegal practices here that they want investigated, that there was mothers that were told their babies had died or were stillborn and then subsequently found out that in fact those babies lived and in fact will now be adults and that they haven't been able to trace them yet or, and more importantly some mothers don't know - they were told that their baby had died or was just stillborn and in fact they don't know whether that is in fact the truth.
And it has been raised previously where there was evidence from a mother who had been told the baby had died when in fact she subsequently found out that it was alive.
We've also had evidence from mothers who said that the experience was so traumatic that they actually had blocked it out and they weren't aware that they had given birth and they subsequently found out that they had.
The depths of the despair and the emotional impact this issue has had on these mothers is incalculable and there is certainly issues that we need to address here.
SABRA LANE: For some women and some children though, no amount of apology or money will ever be able to soothe their souls.
RACHEL SIEWART: That's right. There is some people that I believe have been irreparably hurt and it has had lifelong ramifications. That is not to say that therefore that we shouldn't be offering every, you know, as much support as we can - specialised counselling support, access to the medical services that are required, access to better record systems.
There is some people that have not even got a proper birth certificate and they don't even know their proper name. Mothers have given evidence that when they went to some of these institutions where they gave birth, they were admitted under a false name and that false name was put on the birth certificate.
Imagine trying to find who you are, tracing through that evidence chain. It is just non-existent.
TONY EASTLEY: Greens Senator Rachel Siewart who is also the inquiry chairwoman, speaking there with our chief political correspondent Sabra Lane.