Given or Taken? By Geoff Thompson and Clay Hichens Updated February 27, 2012 20:37:00 Taken or Given? The heartbreaking story of forced adoption in Australia. Video: Interview with Professor S

Given or Taken?

By Geoff Thompson and Clay Hichens

Updated February 27, 2012 20:37:00

Over five decades thousands of women gave up their newborn children for adoption. While they were supposed to make their decision freely, many claim they were coerced, bullied and their children were effectively stolen.

It’s now a cornerstone of social welfare policy that children should, if at all possible, stay with their birth parents, in particular their mother. Not so in years gone by. Right up to the 1970s, having a child out of wedlock was frowned upon and young women who fell pregnant were actively encouraged to give up their babies for adoption. Authorities argued this was done with good intentions, but now a powerful Senate Committee has heard evidence that tells a very different story.

It now seems many young, single mothers were never given the option of keeping their child. Unmarried mothers automatically had their hospital records marked ready for adoption – even before giving birth. There is evidence that some were sedated. Others were denied access to their babies as they were making crucial decisions about their future. As a result, these women have suffered terrible emotional distress throughout their lives.

This week reporter Geoff Thompson talks to some of the women who lost their children. Crucially, they reveal the truth about the way they were treated in the hours after they gave birth:

“(A nurse) started strapping up my right wrist. I was puzzled, I didn’t know what she was doing, and then she secured me to the side of the bed… I became unconscious. And I don’t know how long I was unconscious for, but when I eventually came to, my son was gone.”

The program hears allegations that sedatives were used to help control young mothers and push them towards relinquishing their babies. As one person who’s examined a variety of evidence says:

“I have no doubt that some illegal activity occurred, I have no doubt that women were subject to what nowadays… we would call abuse; that forged consents occurred.”

The program also hears from the nurses and social workers of the time who claim that, while there might be evidence of wrong doing, most hospital staff acted in good faith:

“Most of them would say, ‘I don’t have to see my baby do I?’ And you’d say ‘No, you don’t have to’… a young woman could not be forced to sign those (adoption) papers, could not be.”

Over the past decade individual hospitals and the West Australian Government have offered an official apology to the women who lost their children. Now the Federal Government must decide if its policies contributed to the suffering. It also has to decide what can be done to help those involved and if a national apology is needed.

“Given or Taken?” Reported by Geoff Thompson and presented by Kerry O’Brien goes to air on Monday 27th February at 8.30 pm on ABC 1. It is replayed on Tuesday 28th February at 11.35 pm and can also be seen in ABC News 24 on Saturdays at 8.00 pm, on iview or at

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Given or Taken? – 27 February 2012

GEOFF THOMPSON, REPORTER: The incomparable moment when a new human life arrives in our complex world. After nine months bonded as one, an unmarried mum and her baby endure the bittersweet moment of their first separation, only to begin the closest coupling most women will ever know. Jessica Loughlin, and her partner Nathan Sheens, wanted to capture the first time they saw their son Harley.

JESSICA LOUGHLIN: When he first came out, and was on my chest it was ah, it was just beautiful. I… I don’t know, just the happiest moment of my life really. When I finally held him it was just…

NATHAN SHEENS: Yeah, it’s a pretty special moment.

JESSICA LOUGHLIN: It’s so special! And you look at each other and we just looked at each other and like, ohmygosh, we created this little miracle, like, it’s amazing!

GEOFF THOMPSON: How you would feel if, at that moment, you weren’t allowed to see your baby, and he was taken straightaway?

JESSICA LOUGHLIN: Oh that makes me teary talking about that, because I couldn’t imagine… No, it’s awful. Like, who wouldn’t want to see their baby, you know?

GEOFF THOMPSON: Decades ago, childbirth was a very different experience for thousands of Australia’s unmarried mums.

FOUR CORNERS REPORTER (1970): To single mothers, the birth of a baby becomes the moment of truth. When all her natural emotions conflict with pangs of doubt, loneliness, fear, guilt and the practical problems confronting her. It is from this moment of reality that she must fully face a decision which she may later regret – whether to keep her baby, or offer it for adoption.

GEOFF THOMPSON: But was their choice truly free? Many now insist they were forced to surrender their children by institutions and individuals, protected by an unsympathetic society. Often, the trauma of that loss has never left them.

MONICA JONES: To go through your life and, um… never know… to never know what it is like to see the child that you gave birth to, is a terrible thing.

ROBIN TURNER: I learnt a very big life lesson. I learnt that I’m unworthy. I am unfit, and so I have never married, and I have never given birth to another child.

MARGARET FREEMAN: It wasn’t like giving birth. It was just like an instant loss. You know, for months beforehand, feel him moving and kicking, and then he’s not there, and not in your arms. He’s just gone.

GEOFF THOMPSON: Fifty years ago, the sanctity of marriage was still regarded as a crucial cornerstone of Australian society. It was very far from accepted that children could be raised outside this union blessed by church and state. For young and pregnant single women, it was a harsh and unforgiving land.

ELSPETH BROWNE, FORMER SOCIAL WORKER, CROWN ST HOSPITAL: A fate worse than death! I mean that was… that was the common expression. I think for the women who are going through that process, it was, for most of them, pretty terrible. Yeah, very painful, very traumatic.

FOUR CORNERS REPORTER (1970): For the unmarried mother in Australia, the price of respectability is isolation. And her pregnancy usually means a flight to the anonymity in another city, another state. One girl told me, it meant her first separation from home. Her first long train journey.

CAMILLE (1970): Mum just said to me… she came into the bedroom, and she said, “Camille, you can’t stay here.” She said, “We’ll have to find a home for you to go somewhere.’

GEOFF THOMPSON: Expectant unwed women were suddenly shunted into a secret world of shame. They were hidden at home. Some were sent overseas. Others were packed off interstate to special homes for unmarried mothers-to-be. One of the busiest was Carramar in the northern Sydney suburb of Turramurra. An Anglican home run by Matron Shirley Jones.

FOUR CORNERS REPORTER (1970): Carramar’s Matron Jones explained that the girl can see her baby at least once, but not hold it or feed it. Is she told much about the new parents?

SHIRLEY JONES (1970): Yes, I do like to let the girl know – if she particularly wants to know; most of them do – the type of work the adopting father would do, and the type of suburb. Nothing that would identify the actual suburb.

FOUR CORNERS REPORTER (1970): So, the two parties can never meet?

SHIRLEY JONES (1970): No, no.

GEOFF THOMPSON: Jan Kashin was sent from Brisbane to Shirley Jones’ care in 1963. She was 21, employed as a teacher, and engaged to be married to the father of her child.

JAN KASHIN: I did tell her… I said, well, um… my fiancée has gone back to Brisbane, to get permission for us to marry, and I’ll be taking my son – because I knew I was having a son – I’ll be taking my son and, um, I’ll be getting married and he’s not for adoption. And she said to me, “Oh you haven’t thought this through!” And I said, “This is my child, I’m now 21, I have every right to take my child.” And she said, “Oh no, the welfare will listen to me – and they have in the past.” And I thought, “Oh dear.”

GEOFF THOMPSON: A fall at Carramar triggered a premature birth at Hornsby Hospital. Jan Kashin is a painter. Her art remains haunted by what happened next.

JAN KASHIN: A nurse came and sat down beside me and smiled. And I thought, “Oh thank God there’s a smiling face!” Anyway, she settles herself down beside me and pulled up a chair, and proceeded to take a leather shackle from her uniform. And she started strapping up my right wrist. And, uh… puzzled, I didn’t know what she was doing, and then she secured me to the side of the bed. So I became unconscious. And I don’t know how long I was unconscious for, but when I eventually came to, my son was gone,

GEOFF THOMPSON: This series of self-portraits depicts Jan’s growing distress as her repeated attempts to see her newborn son were refused.

JAN KASHIN: They said, “What are you doing here?” As though I was a criminal, you know, “What are you doing here?” And I said, “I’d like to see my son, thank you”. “You shouldn’t be here! You should go back to your ward.”

GEOFF THOMPSON: Three weeks after her son was born, Jan married his father. They went on to have two daughters, but she never got over losing her first child.

(To Jan Kashin) You said your son wasn’t for adoption, but you were conscious that you were signing adoption papers.

JAN KASHIN: They weren’t going to let me take my baby home. I wasn’t allowed to see him.

GEOFF THOMPSON: You don’t feel you had a choice?

JAN KASHIN: Well, if I ran out of there with my child the police would’ve been called. My child would’ve been retrieved – he then would’ve been put in foster care.

GEOFF THOMPSON: What do you feel was taken away from you, then?

JAN KASHIN: My life. My life.

SHURLEE SWAIN, AUSTRALIAN CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY: It was the practice of all hospitals actually dealing with single mothers from about the 1950s to not allow them to see the child. They would argue that it was going to hurt the mothers less if they actually didn’t see their children, but, of course, again they didn’t ask the mothers.

GEOFF THOMPSON: The years from the early 1960s to the early 1970s were boom-time for Australia’s adoption industry. The sexual revolution was underway, but the stigma of illegitimacy showed few signs of retreat before 1973 – that’s when supporting mothers benefits were extended to single women.

Before the mid-1960s, regulation of the adoption industry was far from uniform. In 1963, the Federal Government promoted a model adoption act which became the basis for laws introduced around the country. It stated that consent to adoption could only be given by a woman in a fit condition, not signing under duress. Mothers were usually given at least three days after giving birth to sign consent, and then had 30 days to change their minds. The laws were meant to give legal certainty to adoptive parents, while protecting the rights of relinquishing mothers. But in practice, many mothers say those rights were denied.

MONICA JONES: I think losing my daughter, um… it broke something in me. It really did break something in me that has never been whole since.

GEOFF THOMPSON: Monica Jones endured not one, but two adoptions she felt powerless to refuse.

Businesses now occupy this corner block in inner-city Sydney’s Surry Hills. But in the 1960s, it was Crown Street Women’s Hospital – one of biggest sources of adopted babies in the country. Monica gave birth to a son here in 1966, when she was 21.

MONICA JONES: I woke up in the corridor in the early hours of the morning, and I had blood all over me – that was all I remember. I don’t remember anything else. I don’t remember signing any papers, I don’t remember people coming to see me or anything like that.

GEOFF THOMPSON: When Monica fell pregnant again a year later, she was in a serious relationship which didn’t last. At Sydney’s Mater Hospital, she gave birth to a daughter she says she was never allowed to see.

MONICA JONES: It was a form of punishment. We were naughty girls, and we didn’t deserve to have our babies. And that’s the way I’ve lived since I was 22. I have lived with that shame – that I was a naughty girl – and I had to be punished.

GEOFF THOMPSON: Here on your medical record, it says “UB minus” or “UB negative”. What did you understand that to mean?

MONICA JONES: That means unmarried baby for adoption, but I didn’t know about that until I got my records.

GEOFF THOMPSON: Patient documents from Crown Street and other maternity hospitals show that from the moment most unmarried women arrived, their records were marked. At Crown St, the favoured acronyms were either UB- or BFA – Baby For Adoption.

ELSPETH BROWNE: Well the practice, the general practice was that the baby would be whisked away to the nursery. Ah, it would labelled, you know, BFA – baby for adoption

GEOFF THOMPSON: Elspeth Browne was a young social worker at Crown Street in the early 1960s. Social workers – or almoners as they were then called – counselled pregnant single women about the difficult choice they faced. She’s adamant that she never stopped an unmarried mother from seeing her child, but she didn’t encourage it either.

ELSPETH BROWNE: Most of them would say, I don’t have to see my baby, do I? And you’d say no, you don’t have to. But, occasionally, a woman would say, “I don’t think I can sign the papers until I’ve seen my baby”. I would not take someone to see a baby who was uncertain as to whether they were going to have their baby adopted or not, because I felt that that needed… that had to be resolved, that had to be resolved. So, in a sense, one might well feel that – and I’m thinking, I’m thinking from the girl’s point of view – that might be, “Oh well, she will only let me see the baby if I’ve promised her I’m going to have the baby adopted.” See what I mean? Now, she… a young woman couldn’t… could not be forced to sign those papers, could not be.

RICHARD CHISHOLM, LEGAL ACADEMIC, ANU: If we’re talking about a woman who is, has had a baby in circumstances where adoption has been discussed, then, as a matter of law there’s simply no basis on which people can stop her from seeing her baby. I think it’s clear that during that period when she’s given birth and she hasn’t yet consented to adoption, she should have been treated with exactly the same respect as any other mother, and treated with exactly the same decision-making powers as any other mother.

GEOFF THOMPSON: Professor Richard Chisholm is a former Family Court judge.

(To Richard Chisholm) Would it be illegal in that period to prevent her from seeing her baby?

RICHARD CHISHOLM: If that wasn’t made necessary by some medical consideration, and if she hadn’t consented to it, yes it would be.

GEOFF THOMPSON: Robin Turner does not recall consenting to anything at Crown Street hospital after her son was born with an enlarged kidney. It was 1967 and she was 17.

ROBIN TURNER: I remember the sheet being held up in front of me. I remember them saying that it was a healthy baby boy. I remember hearing him crying, and after that I woke up in a ward with married women when they brought their babies in for a 6am feed.

GEOFF THOMPSON: What happened next?

ROBIN TURNER: I asked for my child

GEOFF THOMPSON: Her son moved to the children’s hospital without her permission, Robin says she refused to agree to his medical treatment or adoption unless she could see him.

ROBIN TURNER: They asked me, “If you won’t sign these papers, you know you don’t care about your son, you don’t love your son, because you can’t look after him. How are you going to afford his medical treatment? Are you going to become a prostitute to support you and your son? After all, that’s all you’re qualified for.”

GEOFF THOMPSON: Robin Turner believes a misspelt signature on the records she obtained years later is not hers.

ROBIN TURNER: This is for Robyn Lesley Turner – and yes, I am Robin Leslie Turner, but this Robyn has a “y” in her “Robyn”, and a “y” in her “Lesley”. Whereas I am R O B I N L E S L I E Turner. But if we come down to the signature, it’s been signed R O B Y N. It wouldn’t matter how many drugs they gave me, I’m not going to misspell my own name.

GEOFF THOMPSON: The day after she was discharged, Robin was permitted to visit the hospital where her son was being treated, and briefly hold him. A few weeks later she says she received a telephone call informing her that her son was dead.

Forty-three years later she got another call – her son was on the line.

ROBIN TURNER: I waited twenty-one years, and every year I knitted him a jumper – from the age of one to twenty-one, and I kept them all. So when he eventually turned up, if he was alive, he would know that I loved him and I cared for him. (crying) Sorry… and, um… when he didn’t turn up then, I knew what they told me was true and I’d killed him. I’d killed him because I wouldn’t sign that bloody piece of paper that they could operate. (crying) Sorry. So, I spent forty-three years thinking I’d murdered my own child.

RACHEL SIEWERT, SENATOR, GREENS: I have no doubt that some illegal activity occurred. I’ve no doubt, no doubt that women were subject to what nowadays, as I said, we would call abuse – that forged consents occurred and that forced consents occurred. And then you’ve got your whole area that that you wouldn’t say is illegal, but you would say coercive practices were put in place. I have no doubt that all of that occurred.

GEOFF THOMPSON: Greens Senator Rachel Siewert is leading a Senate committee inquiry into forced adoptions. For much of the past 12 months, she has been hearing first-hand accounts from relinquishing mothers across Australia.

RACHEL SIEWERT: We’ve had accounts of… all sorts of accounts of women being in drug states when they’ve been asked to sign consent forms. Now, as far as I’m concerned, that’s a forced adoption.

GEOFF THOMPSON: Medical records from Crown Street and other hospitals show consistency in the drugs administered to unmarried mothers. Immediately after giving birth – and days before consent to adoption was given – they were routinely administered anti-lactation drugs to dry up their milk.

GEOFF RICKARBY, PSYCHIATRIST: The anti-natal people marked this baby out to be taken. They indicated to the labour ward staff, the doctors, the hospital people who were going to deal with the baby that they were to go into this mode of stopping the lady’s milk, of taking the baby from her. And if that one lot communicates to the other lot… I don’t know of another word other than “conspiracy” in the English language.

GEOFF THOMPSON: Psychiatrist Geoff Rickarby has treated scores of relinquishing mothers, and gave evidence to a NSW parliamentary inquiry into past adoption practices.

GEOFF RICKARBY: There was often a mixture of drugs in the ones I… the files I’ve seen, and I’ve searched through, you know, a great number of files

GEOFF THOMPSON: Medical records show that in the days between birth and consent, women were regularly given doses of sedatives -sometimes as much as 400 mg in one day.

Dr Jules Black was an obstetrician Crown Street for four years in the mid-1960s. He says barbiturate sedatives and anti-lactation drugs were routinely prescribed to mothers, married or not.

JULES BLACK, OBSTETRICIAN: Well having looked at some of the case files, I can say categorically that the doses there of the two or three various drugs are absolutely within normal limit. They were standard night sedation for all patients – let me say: married, unmarried, male or female. You’ll find the same doses in that era in a general hospital.

GEOFF THOMPSON: So these amounts of sedatives are not excessive?


GEOFF RICKARBY: I was conducting obstetrics in bush nursing hospitals at the time, and a) I would never have given heavy barbiturates to anybody, full stop, at any time in those days; b) the drugs they used were excessive. They would use Valium, Amytal, pentobarbitone on the same day; they would use chloral hydrate. Anybody signing a consent, if they’d had one of these in the forty-eight hours previously, would be in my view quite inappropriate to take consent. You… consent’s meant to be informed, you know? Did they understand all their possibilities? No.

ELSPETH BROWNE: Conspiracy is a rather, ah… strong word. That makes it sound as though everybody got their heads together and thought, you know, and it wasn’t like that.

GEOFF THOMPSON: But in effect?

ELSPETH BROWNE: But it was a very entrenched societal attitude, there’s no doubt about that.

GEOFF THOMPSON: So that pressure – and combined with the sedation, didn’t that amount to duress?

ELSPETH BROWNE: Well in that sense, yes, it was duress. It was, I think… they were under enormous pressure. I would use the word “pressure” perhaps rather than “duress” I suppose, because “duress” has legal connotations.

“JAN”, FORMER TRAINEE SOCIAL WORKER, SYDNEY ROYAL HOSPITAL FOR WOMEN: Essentially my job was to shut them up, stop them crying, get them to realise giving up the baby was the best thing they could do, and get on with it.

GEOFF THOMPSON: How do feel about that now?

“JAN”: Awful

GEOFF THOMPSON: “Jan” was a trainee social worker at Sydney’s Royal Hospital for Women in 1972, when it was run by the Benevolent Society. She does not wish to be identified, but deeply regrets the part she played in pressuring unmarried mums.

GEOFF THOMPSON: What did you say to them if they expressed an interest in keeping the child?

“JAN”: “There are good couples with good educations, good home, good everything, who really want to have a child, and you’re being selfish to deny your child the opportunity of a good life, a good home and a much better life than you can provide.”

GEOFF THOMPSON: Was it absolutely clear to you, as a young trainee social worker, that that was the only message to be delivered?

“JAN”: Yes – that was the only message that I was supposed to deliver. If I attempted to tell girls anything else, I got called into the School of Social Work and reprimanded.

FOUR CORNERS REPORTER (1970): This hospital acts as one of Victoria’s many adoption agencies. Last year it arranged 355 adoptions…

GEOFF THOMPSON: In 1970, Four Corners went inside one of the nation’s other booming adoption centres – Melbourne’s Royal Women’s Hospital. It found a team of social workers busily counselling single mums-to-be.

SOCIAL WORKER (1970): How do you think you’re going to feel having given up a baby for adoption?

EXPECTING MOTHER (1970): Oh it’s going to be hard, naturally, but I’ll try, try me best.

SOCIAL WORKER (1970): Do you think you’re going to regret it later?

EXPECTING MOTHER (1970): Oh I hope not anyhow – it’s something that I’m just going to have to find out

GEOFF THOMPSON: Doubts tormented some mothers but others appeared clearly informed and aware of their right to revoke consent.

EXPECTING MOTHER (1970): Well I’m not married, as you understand, and I thought it was more important for a child to have a home – and a settled home – where there is both a mother and a father, and both paternal and maternal influences. Once I’d made the decision, I’d almost stopped thinking of the child as being mine – that I was having it for someone else.

GEOFF THOMPSON: Others experiences of the Royal Women’s Hospital were far more confronting. Faye Nyssen and Patsy Gall both surrendered their first children here when they teenagers in the 1960s.

FAYE NYSSEN: I wasn’t, um, informed about any other option really except adoption. “Only selfish mothers keep their babies”. I was told that, and I… if I really loved her, I would do what’s best for her. And that was the thought of the day, I suppose, and if, um… and how would I provide for her? Well, maybe I would have thought of a way in time, but that option wasn’t really given to me, so I do feel it was coerced,

PATSY GALL: I thought any decision would be made after the birth. It was totally unexpected that I wasn’t allowed access to my son.

GEOFF THOMPSON: Patsy Gall was only 15 years old in 1966 when she gave birth at Melbourne’s Royal Women’s.

PATSY GALL: Now, for the six days I was in there, I was begging to hold my son – pleading with the nurses and with the social worker. She was in plain clothes, and she just said, “No” emphatically, that I couldn’t hold him. It was like a machine. No-one told me when I get into hospital I wouldn’t be able to hold him. No-one said that.

GEOFF THOMPSON: In 1969, Faye Nyssen did get to see her daughter. But her experience might be the exception which proved the rule at the Royal Women’s back then.

FAYE NYSSAN: I remember when everybody… sort of afterwards, when everyone left, there were two nurses, and one nurse handed me my baby, and the other one said, “h, you’re not supposed to do that”, and the other one, the first one said, “I don’t care”, so I did get to see her, and she was, you know, just this beautiful little doll really, she was lovely.

SHURLEE SWAIN: It was kind of like a production line, and when you’re running a production line – this is a really cruel way to describe it – but if you’re running a production line you run it for maximum efficiency. And maximum efficiency for the hospital was getting that signature, because then the next steps could be taken.

GEOFF THOMPSON: Shurlee Swain is currently completing a four year national study on past adoption practices. She also produced an independent report which led to the Royal Women’s Hospital making a public apology last month.

FIONA JUDD, ROYAL WOMEN’S HOSPITAL, MELBOURNE: The Royal Women’s Hospital apologises to every women who felt she had no choice but to relinquish her child for adoption while in our care. We understand many relinquishing mothers experienced – and continue to experience – feelings of grief, pain, anger, helplessness and loss – and for this we apologise unreservedly. Through all of that, we found no evidence of illegal practice or of women who did not give consent.

GEOFF THOMPSON: The hospital also claims there were, “no hospital-wide policies that discriminated specifically against single mothers”. However, this memo from the medical superintendent at the Royal Women’s in 1960, shows that it was hospital policy to treat single mothers differently. In it he says: “babies of patients marked “A” for almoner (or social worker) will not got out to the mother until the almoner is contacted regarding the baby’s future, unless the mother specifically requests to see and care for the baby.”

SHURLEE SWAIN: What he is indicating is that all single mothers were considered to be almoner cases, and so the almoner was to come in there – and we know what happened when the almoner went there. She had a really strong adoption message. If you asked to see your child, in the end they would let you – but they’re making this poor, dependent women who’s greatly distressed have to suddenly exercise herself on a personal rights campaign, which wasn’t the way hospitals operated then.

MARGARET FREEMAN: I remember giving birth and I remember hearing him cry, and they just took him straight out.

GEOFF THOMPSON: When Margaret Freeman took on Newcastle Mater Hospital aged just 16, it was 1975. Single mothers had been getting government benefits for two years, and Australia’s adoption rate was in free-fall. Margaret still could not resist the pressure to give up her child.

(to Margaret) What do you remember about coming here?

MARGARET FREEMAN: Just what I lost.

And I asked in the… in the days afterwards to see him, and they kept telling me that it would be best not to see him – it’d make it harder for me to adopt him out. And this was before I had signed anything. And they didn’t let me see him until after I’d signed the papers, and then it was only like a couple of minutes through a glass window, the day that I was leaving hospital.

GEOFF THOMPSON: But days later, Margaret changed her mind. Supported by her mother, she returned to the hospital to revoke consent.

MARGARET FREEMAN: I told mum I wanted to keep him, and she said, “Well we can go back and get him.” And she said, “You’ve got thirty days to to change your mind”, so we went back to see Sister Martin to revoke the consent, and she said that we were too late; that he’d already been adopted out to a family.

GEOFF THOMPSON: Five years later, Margaret received a letter which showed she had not been told the truth. Medical records later confirmed that her son remained at the Mater a full month after she’d tried to retrieve him.

MARGARET FREEMAN: The realisation that the nun had lied to me so much… um, I went back to the hospital and saw her, and just gave her a piece of my mind. I just needed to let it out. I just told her she was a liar and a thief, and I hope she burns in hell for what she did to us – what she did to me, what she did to my son.

MARTIN LAVERTY, CEO, CATHOLIC HEALTH (speaking to Senate Community Affairs References Committee): To those present today and those across Australia who carry broken hearts as a result of the role some Catholic organisations played in this widespread, common, public policy practice, I say sorry.

GEOFF THOMPSON: Catholic Health Australia has apologised to relinquishing mothers who feel they were mistreated in hospitals like the Newcastle Mater. The organisation is also calling for a national apology from Federal and state governments.

MARTIN LAVERTY: It shouldn’t just stop with the words of an apology; there must follow an appropriate system of better access to records, of properly funded and tailored counselling services, and also a national grievance process so that those that continue to have specific concerns about their own experience can have some resolution brought in their own case.

GEOFF THOMPSON: Despite the apology, Margaret Freeman is considering legal action against Catholic Health.

MARGARET FREEMAN: An apology won’t do anything to make things right. They need to be held accountable for what they did. They need to come forth and be honest with what they did. They knew what they were doing to us.

GEOFF THOMPSON: Mothers are divided over whether apologies help, or help whitewash allegedly illegal acts. The West Australian Government led the way with an apology in 2010.

COLIN BARNETT, WA PREMIER: I now apologise to the mothers, their children and families who were adversely affected by these past adoption practices, and express my sympathy to those individuals whose interests were not best served by the policy of those times.

RACHEL SIEWERT: Every single enquiry we’ve had… at some stage during the enquiry, everybody what have a tears in their eyes, because the accounts we were hearing were so emotional. But in Western Australia there was a a different energy in the room – certainly that’s what I took from it. Because people were feeling that, while the apology didn’t resolve everything, it was a start, and that there was an acknowledgement of the pain and suffering and grief caused by these past practices.

ELSPETH BROWNE: I suppose there are two sorts of apologies. You apologise for something that you’ve done that was wrong. The other one is when you say you are sorry for something that has happened to somebody. And I think anybody who was in that business – like me, for example – I would be very happy to say that I’m extremely sorry for the pain and trauma and the things that happened to women in those days. And… but, I don’t think I was doing those things.

GEOFF THOMPSON: Patsy Gall eventually married and had daughters of her own. But she says her experience at Melbourne’s Royal Women’s hospital was so painful that she repressed the details of her son’s adoption for thirty years.

PATSY GALL: Um, I was always wondering what was wrong with me. I was traumatised most of my life and didn’t know it. I had no insight into what drove me. I didn’t become conscious of the adoptions until the late 90s, when I heard another mother’s story. I identified with it. She wasn’t allowed to hold her baby after birth, and I was I guess I was psychologically ready to face it then.

GEOFF THOMPSON: Even before Patsy filled in the blanks of her first birth, her lost baby came back into her life a grown man.

PATSY GALL: I dropped the phone, I slumped to the kitchen floor. My daughter had to help me into the bedroom. I was so shocked. And then he wrote me a letter saying, “Look let’s see each other soon. I know you want to see me.” So I drove down to Geelong, and when we embraced it was instant intimacy. I’ve never experienced anything like it. And that held us in good stead to have a relationship, an ongoing, enduring relationship.

GEOFF THOMPSON: And how important is that… is the relationship now for you?

PAUL GRAHAM, SON: Yeah it’s important to me. Um, I’m pretty close to my sisters now. I see them quite often, and we speak on the phone weekly, ’cause they’ve got children now, too. Um, and I keep in touch with Patsy and call in there when I’m going past, ’cause I go up to Melbourne regularly for work. And we’ve just stayed very good friends.

GEOFF THOMPSON: All such reunions are defined by intense and often conflicting emotions. Some go well. Many do not. None are easy.

MONICA JONES: I think if you left the reunion for four or five years, and just had contact by mail… letters, you might build up a relationship, but I had a reunion with my son about a month after the initial contact, and I had just started to experience 30 years of grief, and it was just too much.

GEOFF THOMPSON: Whatever the Senate inquiry recommends, one fact is indisputable; many Australian women were asked to give up their babies and get on with their lives. They did what society asked of them. Moved on, married and raised families of their own. But they could never forget the ones they’ve loved, but never known.

MONICA JONES: It wasn’t a perfect family life, no, no because there was only half of me there – the other half was hidden, the real me was hidden, hidden back when I first went to Crown Street as a young pregnant woman. That was the real me, the me that fell pregnant – and that me has never resurfaced, ever. I’ve always been damaged, permanently damaged.

JAN KASHIN: How do you think you can build a life when your first child has been stolen from you? How can you build a life? You can’t gloss over it. He’s always there, he’s in the background of your mind, he’s in your heart. So, as a person you’re really just half in the present. You’re half worried about what happened to him – is he functioning well, is he happy? Um, and when you don’t get any of those questions answered, that’s when it starts to take its toll on you. So… not possible to move on. Not possible.

MARGARET FREEMAN: We’ve been carrying the blame wrongfully for all these years – thirty seven years for me. You know, I’ve lost contact with a lot of family through the shame. People think that you’re a bad person ’cause you gave your baby away. Yeah, they need to know that we didn’t give our babies away. We weren’t given our babies in the first place. Can’t give away something you didn’t get.

(End transcript)

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