How adoption went wrong in Australia, and why we’re apologising today

Forced adoption mother Linda Miles poses with a photograph of herself, pregnant at the age of 18 years old. AAP/Paul Miller

Today in the Great Hall of Parliament House, prime minister Julia Gillard will apologise to those affected by past forced adoption practices. This is the third national apology delivered in recent years.

It follows on the historic first apology to the Indigenous Stolen Generations, delivered by Kevin Rudd in February 2008; and a second national apology, also delivered by Rudd, to forced child migrants, former wards of the state and institutionalised children in November 2009.

The history of adoption

Legislated child adoption emerged in Australia in the early decades of the 20th century to control informal markets in children and babies which existed from the early days of white settlement.

Early legislated adoption was generally an open affair and frequently involved older children who represented far less risk and labour than infants. Sturdy boys who could chop wood and girls able to cook and clean were in demand.

But as affluence grew, so did sentiment. A concept of childhood emerged that spared children from the need to contribute to the family economy of the family. This sentimental view of childhood flourished with the rise of the middles classes in the mid-twentieth century. This shift in thinking, coupled with other developments such as the availability of breast milk substitutes, changed thinking on adoption in favour of the adoption of infants. The years following the end of the World War II to the mid-1970s represented the heyday of infant adoption in Australia.

How it all went wrong

Framed as a win-win-win social policy option, infant adoption was seen as a solution to the double stigmas of infertility and illegitimacy, and spared the state the burden of caring for children of mothers deemed “unfit” to raise them by reason of their extra-marital sexuality.

Adoption as a social policy option was promoted in women’s magazines and the popular press, spurring demand and the expectation that babies would be available for adoption by those unable to conceive.

Amendments to adoption legislation around the country from the 1950s removed the openness which had existed in earlier adoption, tightened secrecy provisions, and secured adoptive parents in all senses as if they were the parents of the adopted child. Many maternity hospitals in Australian cities and town functioned not all that differently from the baby farms which early adoption legislation was designed to stamp out.

Further social changes including the availability of the contraceptive pill from the early 1970s, shifting attitudes to extra-marital sexuality and the introduction of a readily accessible Commonwealth single mothers’ benefit led to a dramatic downturn in the number of babies available on the local adoption market.

Fed for several decades by a thriving adoption industry which routinely removed babies from single mothers, demand for babies for adoption did not go away. New sources of babies were identified and inter-country adoption into Australia emerged following the mass airlift of infants and children from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War in April 1975.

Lose-lose-lose

An estimated 100,000 to 150,000 thousand infants were forcibly or coercively removed from mothers, mostly young unmarried women, in these years. The legacy of pain and loss for many of these mothers and their children has persisted for decades. Even some of those who were adopted into loving homes report enduring lifelong anguish about identity and loss of connection with family.

The apparent win-win-win policy option of secret and sealed adoption has not stood the test of time.

While for a range of reasons many children’s birth parents are unable to care for them, this form of adoption requires children to pay a very high price for the care they receive: the cost is connection with and knowledge of their families and their communities.

Sorry is no longer the hardest word

Saying sorry is now something of a political habit in Australia. A thread of continuity runs through the two earlier apologies and that to be delivered this morning.

In each case, the state is apologising for the impact of past policy interventions into families. These interventions which were framed as being good for empire, the nation and the adoptees themselves saw children taken from parents who were black, poor, unmarried or otherwise deemed unfit to care for them. Children were lied to and in too many cases abused by those who delivered them from the “risks” they faced with their own parents, “risks” we now see for what they are - bigotry in practice.

Sadly, it is likely that this apology, like the others, will separate national regret from national responsibility for adequate redress or compensation for the wrongs done in the past.

It is also likely that we will hear rhetoric about how these appalling wrongs committed in the past cannot and will not be repeated. As we listen to these words, we need to be aware of moves afoot in several jurisdictions in Australia, such as the child protection inquiry in Queensland, to expedite processes by which children may be made available for adoption into loving Australian homes.

It is to be hoped that the courageous women who fought a long, hard campaign for recognition of the injustices done to them receive some genuine solace from today’s apology. And, that many of their children – whether known to them or not – can share in this solace and truly understand that they were, in most cases, desperately loved and wanted by the mothers from whom they were taken.

I hope that this recognition and solace does some healing work, for they will receive little else from today in the form of redress.