What can be forgiven but not be forgotten

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Newborns in a hospital nursery
Photo Credit: Getty Images

‘Nurses tied me to the side of the bed and I had my legs in stirrups, in a running position. That’s how I gave birth. I was 17… I tried to see what was happening but my head was pushed downward. I never saw my baby.’

She tells her own story, yet the experience of Lily Arthur does not stand alone. She is just one of an estimated 150,000 women who were victims of a forced adoption policy in Australia between the late 1940s and 1970s.

‘I was living with my boyfriend, 1967 it was, and one night the police came in and took me away. I spent the night in jail to be interrogated and they found out I was pregnant.’

Because Arthur did not “report” her pregnancy to appropriate authorities, the police tracked her down for questioning.

Women who fell pregnant out of wedlock, often teenagers, were manipulated into giving up their child for adoption.

A Senate inquiry is investigating the Commonwealth’s role in the enactment of this policy. Over 300 submissions have been lodged to the Senate.

Forced adoption was the solution to escaping the shame that would befall an unwed mother. According to research conducted by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS), long waiting lists emerged in the forties and fifties. Forced adoption served another purpose; meeting the demand for adoptable babies.

In psychiatrist Dr Geoff Rickarby’s submission, he includes a comprehensive description of the various sedative drugs given to many women in hospital, coercing them to sign adoption papers. According to Rickarby, the use of such drugs “would compromise the capacity of any person to make a decision regarding consent”.

Arthur was one of these women, “drugged-up” for eight days.

Before a legitimate adoption could take place, the law was that women had to be offered:

– Financial assistance
– Foster care for the child until the mother was ready to resume full custody
– Proper counsel of future regret and consequences of surrendering their child

If a woman remained adamant that it was best to give away the child, only then could the adoption papers – with a third party witness – be signed.

According to Arthur, institutions have admitted under oath that such options were not offered and hence women had a limited choice.

A few cases allege that some women were told they had given birth to a stillborn.

Trying to expose forced adoption practices has been difficult. Lily Arthur is also actively involved with Origins (NSW). She says the first inquiry in New South Wales that started in 1998, lasted for two and a half years until the government hid the report and buried evidence. It has taken 10 years to achieve the current inquiry.

A submission by Dian Wellfare who researches at Origins (NSW) Adoption Support Agency, reveals that some women in the sixties and seventies attempted to protest but were dismissed by the courts and adoption agencies.

Origins research revealed that forced adoption was not just a state issue – it was a national one. Arthur is confident this inquiry will be successful.

‘We have more than enough evidence to build a case against the Commonwealth…they knew what was going on,’ she says.

The NSW Government issued a policy in 1982 ordering hospitals to stop the practice. Arthur says that hospitals were so “stuck in their old ways”, that the policy took years to be finalised.

Legislation was reviewed, and by the eighties, more changes occurred. Open adoption, whereby the child can contact their birth parent(s), became mandatory in Australia.

But forced adoption lingered.

It was 1981. Lisa Macdonald was 15 and pregnant.

By law, Macdonald had to go see a social worker. After giving birth, she was pressured by the social worker, Department of Children Services and her doctor to surrender the baby.

‘They said ‘if you want what’s best you should give up your baby.’ They kept telling me I was selfish if I didn’t and I couldn’t do anything for it because I had no job.’

She signed the adoption papers.

Despite all her grief, she understands the reasons why institutions pushed the policy.

‘I don’t think they did it maliciously.

‘They genuinely thought it was best,’ says Macdonald.

The perception was that a single woman without financial independence would struggle to raise a child. It was therefore in the child’s best interest that they be given to a couple who could provide them with a better life.

However, manager of VANISH adoption services, Colleen Clare, believes it is most ideal when a child is with their natural parent. Only extreme circumstances should dictate otherwise.

What Macdonald cannot understand is how the policy was executed. She says she was treated appallingly. Anecdotal evidence suggests that prior to and after giving birth, many women were subjected to harsh treatment.

Macdonald recalls her time in the hospital.

‘I was like a second-class citizen and made to feel ashamed and guilty,’ she says.

After giving birth, Macdonald was prohibited from seeing her son.

This was done often, and intentionally, to prevent the bonding experience. Medical staff did this by placing pillows over stomachs and physically obstructing the mother’s view of her baby.

The Age reported that social historian Professor Shurlee Swain has interviewed former nurses and social workers and says there is evidence that they treated women poorly and pressured them to relinquish their baby.

Jo Fraser works with ARMS (Association of Relinquishing Mothers), running support groups for women struggling to deal with past adoption.

She is also a victim. She compares herself to some women who were sent to Catholic hostels to hide the pregnancy and their ‘shame’, and says that she was ‘one of the lucky ones’.

Many girls in these hostels, including Lily Arthur, were forced to do physical work up until they went into labour.

‘Women have said they were like detention homes,’ Fraser says.

Fraser was halfway through year 12 and pregnant. Her parents made two decisions: her boyfriend was banned from seeing her, and the baby was to be given up for adoption. She thinks the decisions were made to protect her reputation and future.

The mores of the sixties and seventies were vastly different. The stigma of getting pregnant out of wedlock was widespread. But with today’s society being more accepting of single mothers and de-facto relationships, as well as greater access to contraceptives and abortion, it is not surprising adoptions have been declining in recent decades, according to AIFS figures.

‘Today you see couples getting married with their son or daughter at the wedding… being pregnant and unmarried used to be unheard of,’ says Fraser.

With this in mind, she concedes that it is something she has “intellectually accepted”.

A few years ago, Fraser was asked by her parents whether theirs had been the right decision. She did not have the heart to tell them “no”.

‘All I said was, ‘I understand why you did it’.’

Fraser speaks of her experience in a matter-of-fact tone. She has told it many times and heard much more painful stories. Nonetheless, she is still hurting.

‘I’ve cried for 20 years,’ she pauses.
‘I still do sometimes.’

Mothers, families, and children around Australia are also still crying. AIFS research confirms that for most mothers, the sadness, anger and guilt of surrendering their child, has not diminished over the years. The long-term effects of adoption are multifaceted and difficult to accept.

Dr Rickarby’s submission, details the adverse psychological effects of adoption. He says that grief at the loss of a baby is “lifelong”, causing sadness, anger, depression and dissociation from other relationships. Some are conditioned to living with the grief.

A counsellor from ARCS (Adoption Research and Counselling Service) says many of her clients are victims forced adoption. They are dealing with distress, mental health issues, and difficulties in their relationships.

‘They were encouraged to shut down what happened… now they need help to process the trauma, allowing them to come to terms with the anger, grief, and injustice,’ she says.

Victims also experience relationship troubles with subsequent children. They become overly possessive and anxious of losing another child, or unable to bond.

Lily Arthur does not share a close relationship with her daughter and accepts that they have a “dependant” relationship. Lisa Macdonald on the other hand is overprotective. Since the birth of her second child, she has been a “possessive” mother.

‘The first time I was allowed to hold him, I wouldn’t let go,’ she says.

Lily Arthur, Lisa Macdonald, and Jo Fraser, have all reunited with the children they wanted to keep. Each has a positive relationship.

So where to from here?

Lily Arthur says the inquiry is seeking acknowledgement, accountability and redress.

Catholic Health Australia has said sorry on behalf of those catholic organisations involved, while the Western Australian Government is the only state to have apologised.

Arthur maintains that someone must be held responsible for what happened.

‘I’ve known too many women who have committed suicide over this. Their blood has to be on someone’s hands,’ says Arthur.

Redress is necessary as many legal issues require attention. Anyone who has had a crime committed against them has a right to compensation, says Arthur. Dian Wellfare labels forced adoption a ‘civil rights’ crime.

VANISH want professional services, managed by those who fully understand the complexities of the adoptive experience, to be accessible to victims.

A submission by professors from Monash University outlines the possibility of the Commonwealth developing a national framework to assist states in addressing the consequences that this practice had for mothers, families and children.

But closure may never triumph.

‘They can’t give me back those 26 years. What I lost. What they took. I’ve just learnt to cope,’ says MacDonald.

Arthur believes that if the inquiry achieves its goals, the pain remaining because of forced adoption practice can be properly addressed.

‘Once you have justice, you can move forward and heal.’

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Lily Arthur
Photo Credit: Google Images

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