Stolen at Birth: The Painful Legacy of Australia's Forced Adoption Policy
The institutionalized theft of babies from unwed mothers-to-be began in the 1950s, when it was considered the ideal solution to two pressing social issues.
Illustrations by Ashley Goodall
Within minutes of giving birth in 1969 at the Crown Street Women's Hospital in Sydney, Christine Cole's newborn daughter was taken away from her by staff.
"I was pushed back onto the bed by three nurses. The pillow was placed back on my chest and the midwife at the end of the bed said, 'This has got nothing to do with you,'" recalls Cole, now a prominent human-rights activist and scholar.
In the days leading up to the birth, Cole—then aged 16—had been dosed with barbiturate drugs and other sedatives and then induced into labor. Afterwards, she was given milk-drying hormones and carted off to a facility miles from the hospital to prevent any contact with her newborn.
"I had not signed any adoption consent," she says, "this was presuming that my baby was going to be taken for adoption, irrespective of what I wanted."
The removal of Cole's daughter was part of a record boom in the adoption industry in Australia at the time, which saw an up to an estimated 150,000 babies adopted between 1950 and 1985.
My baby was going to be taken for adoption, irrespective of what I wanted.
Tens of thousands of these adoptions are now believed to have been non-consensual, processed under a government policy of what has come to be known as "forced adoption"—one that victims and campaigners say was a human rights abuse.
Government inquiries and independent research by scholars like Cole have recently brought to light the experiences of hundreds of single or unwed mothers-to-be during this period, who recount being routinely drugged, lied to, emotionally and physically assaulted, and coerced by authorities.
Their stories paint a dystopian picture of ongoing violations administered by government agencies and the medical establishment in line with bigoted social attitudes of the time. Like the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women who over decades had their children removed by government agencies and church missions, many of these mothers consider their babies to be another "stolen generation."
"To call it 'forced adoption' is really mislabeling what happened—this was an assimilation policy by the government that happened right across Australia," says Cole, who has since completed a PhD on the subject.
"In our case we were considered inferior, second class, unfit to rear our own children because we were unmarried.... Being a single mother was purposefully pathologized.
"We were considered to have gotten pregnant because we were morally and mentally inferior—therefore, not mentally stable to bring up a child. This was full of hypocrisy because we were often farmed out [after the birth] to work as slave labour for married couples, where we were expected to clean their house and mind their children up to 80 hours a week."
Australia's institutionalized theft of babies began in the 1950s, when it was considered the ideal solution to two pressing social issues: married couples unable to conceive children of their own, and the unpalatable number of young, single women giving birth to so-called illegitimate children.
As is documented in court judgements and other official documents from the time, women such as these were considered "sexual deviants" who were "unpopular with the neighbours" and deemed "unfit" to parent. So they were denied any choice in the matter. Instead, the adoption of their babies became protocol within hospitals.
Accordingly, the child's original birth certificate would be sealed immediately after birth and an amended one issued, establishing the child's new identity.
These practices were also justified by social services through reference to popular psychology at the time—namely, "attachment theory" which held that a so-called clean break was best practice, with infants immediately removed from their mothers at birth. This would supposedly promote a favourable relationship between the baby and adoptive parents, while allowing single mothers to "get on with their lives."
(In reality, however, new infants often languished in institutions for weeks or months—one Melbourne woman recounted being contacted more than two months after birth to request funding for the upkeep of her son, who had not been adopted due to disability.)
"The dehumanization of single mothers as a group allowed those working in the maternity wards to remove our baby at the birth without any empathy," says Cole, noting that such brutal practices persisted for decades.
"In fact, some of [the maternity staff] would state that we did not attach to our babies like "normal" married mothers and therefore we were more like animals, without real feelings for our newborn."
Brenda Coughlan was 17 when she was drugged and shackled during the birth of her daughter in the Australian state of Victoria in 1963. "We became part of a cure for infertility," she says. "We weren't even told we were carrying babies—but 'lumps'."
Coughlan, who is now part of the campaign group Independent Regional Mothers (IRM), went on to marry the father of her forcibly adopted daughter, and the couple had two more children together. But it wasn't until 28 years later that she was able to trace and be reunited with her as an adult.
The permanent "empty chair at the family table" has had significant trickle-down effects on both her other children and grandchildren who have also lived with the pain of this absence.
Anxiety and panic disorders, substance abuse, and suicidal ideations are reported by victims.
Responding to the demands of campaign groups, notably Cole's Apology Alliance, then- Prime Minister Julia Gillard in 2013 made a formal national apology for the intergenerational pain caused by the government's past adoption policies. In the speech, Gillard deplored the "shameful practices" that had denied thousands of mothers their rights, and pledged more funding to help those affected to trace their parentage and access mental health services.
Campaigners and victims welcomed the apology as sincere, but others are continuing to call for more a detailed and broad-ranging accountability for past crimes relating to forced adoption practices—in particular, on the part of legal institutions and the medical profession.
Several hospitals around Australia have issued apologies for their established "medical malpractice and mistreatment" of mothers and babies. But despite this, says Coughlan, institutions like the Australian Medical Association and Health Practitioner Regulation Agency have refused in correspondence with campaign groups to issue public statements or investigate related crimes— for example, alleged sexual abuse and the use of banned drugs like heroin on unwed mothers before and after birth.
Likewise, as Coughlan notes, government-sponsored agencies providing support to victims also continue to airbrush past crimes through using generic and sanitised language like "post-adoption" services in relation to what most mothers consider a human-rights abuse.
So too, many victims and campaigners have publicly called for the language of apology to be followed-through monetarily with some form of statutory compensation scheme by state or federal governments. As Cole notes, "financial compensation should be given as per the legal requirement of a government that has intentionally harmed it citizens.
"Not only is it a necessary part of retribution, but it is a warning to a future government not to repeat the injustice."
The different priorities and calls for redress by mothers reflect the highly individual nature of their experience, and its many psychological and social effects.
"We know that there are many different experiences for people affected by forced adoption," says Lyn O'Grady of the Australian Psychological Society, which offers an in-depth programme of forced adoption research, training, and support.
For some, no amount of restitution will be enough to address their loss and suffering.
Among the most common manifestations of trauma, O'Grady notes, is persistent depression, including sadness, anger and grief—in particular, as disenfranchised mothers were often unable to acknowledge or publicly mourn their loss due to restrictive social attitudes. Anxiety and panic disorders, substance abuse, and suicidal ideations are also reported by victims, as is a deep-seated mistrust which can infuse other relationships.
"We can think of the legacy of forced adoption as a "ripple effect" on others, including other family members, extended families and partners," she says.
"The issue of [compensation] is a very subjective one, depending how each person has been impacted—for some, no amount of restitution will be enough to address their loss and suffering that continues to this day."
Alongside the extended family and fathers of removed children, among those most often overlooked in addressing the legacy of harm is adoptees themselves. Many report that the separation from their mothers at birth caused, as psychologists have noted, a "primal wound" or trauma from which mental health problems in later life have stemmed.
However, some claim there is an even greater reluctance—by authorities, support services or even on the part of individual victims—to acknowledge the damage done to adopted children.
"The commonly accepted myth about babies who are adopted soon after birth is that they are a 'blank slate', a canvass on which the adoptive parents can imprint their family histories and personal values," says an Australian forced-adoptee and policy reform activist who blogs and tweets under the pseudonym Trauma Grrrl.
"Growing up in the 1980s and 90s, I certainly wanted to believe the family I knew and loved were as much a part of my identity as any non-adopted person's. But visits to the doctor, questions about my physical features from peers and their parents, and my own knowledge that I knew nothing about my genetic background, challenged this belief."
Her accounts of what she calls "genetic bewilderment"—of endless searching for herself in other people—are indicative of the sense of resolution that inevitably eludes so many victims of forced adoption throughout their lives. She has suffered depression and anxiety, and resentment toward a system that stripped her from her mother, took her in and out of foster care, and left her with no knowledge of her father.
"While many people who experience trauma in their lives do so at an age when their sense of self and personality is somewhat developed, adoptees who were given up by their birth parent/s at or near birth will never know themselves without trauma," she explains.
"It's taken a short lifetime to acknowledge, but in the act of accepting my trauma, I have started to learn how to accept myself."
In March 2017, mothers, children and other victims will gather with politicians in regional Victoria to unveil a memorial of a mother and child, commemorating the parliamentary apologies for former forced adoption. As Cloughan explains, it is hoped that the site will provide a place where victims can "gain some inner peace and healing from the deep pain and grief they continue to suffer as a consequence of this brutal era of our civilised nation."