National apology for forced adoption – an important step for healing

| March 20, 2013

In the lead up to the National Adoption Apology, social justice advocate, Nikki Hartmann, explains the importance of breaking the decades-long silence surrounding past forced adoption practices and acknowledging the lasting grief experienced by countless men, women and children.

“We can stay open to hearing the claims of others, only if we assume that the act of speaking our shame does not undo the shame of what we speak.” – Sara Ahmed in The Cultural Politics of Emotion

The National Adoption Apology will be delivered tomorrow, 21 March, by Prime Minister Julie Gillard.

For many people, the apology will break the decades-long silence relating to this dark aspect of Australia’s social, religious and political past. Forced adoption practices and policies, rife between the 1950s and 1980s, have rarely been acknowledged and the ramifications this cruel practice have never been fully understood. So tomorrow’s apology will be a long-awaited acknowledgement of the appalling treatment of pregnant women who were bullied into giving up their newborn children at a time when they were most vulnerable, often alone and unsupported.

It was often early in a women’s pregnancy when she was told, generally by trusted adults or figures of authority, that she wasn’t suitable to be a parent. By these trusted figures, young women (and men) were ‘advised’ – rather, coerced and forced – to surrender their unborn child to a more deserving family who could offer a better life.

Others were lied to; told their baby had died at birth when in fact the baby had simply been given to someone else. There are many untold stories of women, and men, fighting hard to keep their children, who were tricked into signing adoption papers and told they were selfish for wanting to keep their babies.

Paradoxically, prior to having their child, many women were fed lines like: “if you loved your child, you will give them up for adoption”. Yet years later, when discussing the choice with others, they are challenged by comments such as “how could you give up your child if you loved them?”

So the judgments of ‘wiser’ authority figures continue to impact the lives of these women and, naturally, the lives of their children.

This apology will allow for the many untold stories to be publically and openly acknowledged and, hopefully, make visible the lack of power, control and care many women experienced during pregnancy, labor and birth. It must also be acknowledged that many young men were also denied their rights to be recognised as fathers and to take their place and role as fathers in their children’s lives. The grief and loss for those separated by adoption continues throughout one’s life and this, too, needs to be recognised.

For adoptees, the apology will acknowledge that adoption is not always an easy journey. It is often assumed that growing up in an adoptive family is no different to growing up in the family you were born into. But there is always grief and loss with adoption, and we know that infants, too, feel the lingering effect of grief. The impact of losing one’s birth mother cannot and should not be underestimated. For many adoptees, the yearning for their birth mothers and fathers can be a very strong and powerful emotion.

Relationships Australia (SA) runs regular support groups for adoptees and at every group we have people who tell us they have previously never spoken to another adopted person about their experiences. Questioning their identity and sense of belonging is a profound response when people become aware they are adopted; regardless of the strength of relationships that people may have with their adoptive families.

So, what meaning and impact will this apology have?

This apology presents an opportunity for the silenced voices of those affected by past adoption practices to be finally heard. The chance for their pain to be acknowledged and for support to be provided. It is an opportunity for Australians to have their eyes and minds opened to all that was done to the mothers, fathers and babies affected by past government and religious policies. It is an opportunity to speak truthfully about past wrongdoings and to show a willingness to take responsibility for injustices.

Make no mistake; this apology is the culmination of many years of hard work and emotional disclosure by women, and some men, who had their children taken from them. They have fought for years to have their pain, grief and loss validated. They have also fought for the acknowledgement of the fact that their children had been taken without their consent.

This is also an opportunity to recognise the ongoing effects of adoption, separation and loss; to move beyond the symbolic ritual of apologising and offer support services in every state. This would allow for a sense of justice and, for both parents and children, for some long-awaited healing.