I rise to acknowledge the tenth anniversary of the National Apology for Forced Adoptions.
On 21 March 2013, in front of an audience of over 800 people in the Great Hall of Parliament House, then Prime Minister Julia Gillard offered an unconditional apology on behalf of the Australian people for the lasting harm to mothers, adopted people, some fathers and wider families caused by forced adoptions.
The Australian Parliament took responsibility and unreservedly – and humbly – apologised to the mothers who were denied even that first precious moment with the child they brought into the world.
We apologised to the children, now adults, who were denied their identities and robbed of a sense of connection to family, culture and place.
We apologised to the fathers – the ones who sought, but were excluded from, the births and their children’s lives. And the wider families, the siblings, the grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins – because, this is an intergenerational trauma that runs deep and wide.
It was a historic moment.
A moment where a mass of voices, once silenced, was brought to the national stage.
Ten years ago, all sides of politics came together in agreement with the Apology.
Last night, over a hundred mothers, adopted people, fathers, family members, advocates and support workers travelled to Canberra from all over the country to mark the occasion.
It was a night of reunion, reflection, mourning and connection.
I acknowledge that some of them are here today, in the public gallery. I know that this may be confronting and traumatic and I thank you for your courage in being here in this House to commemorate this occasion.
We know that the passing of time has not healed your wounds. But we thank you.
By being here, you are ensuring the nation does not forget.
I must also acknowledge the former members of the Senate, Ms Sue Boyce and Ms Rachael Siewert, who championed this cause through the Senate Inquiry into the Commonwealth Contribution to Former Forced Adoption Policies and Practices, as well as former Ministers, Ms Nicola Roxon and Ms Jenny Macklin.
I acknowledge also the Chair of the Reference Committee for the Forced Adoptions Apology, Professor Nahum Mushin, who with his committee members, including the member for Moreton, worked with mothers, adopted people and fathers to ensure the Apology reflected their deep pain and hurt, as well as their bravery.
As the Prime Minister said yesterday when he spoke in the Parliament: “This is not ancient history. Not some distant tale from the banished past. The Australians affected are with us still”.
Forced adoptions are a startlingly recent chapter in Australia’s history.
They were commonplace across the country, growing in frequency through the 1940s to reach a peak between 1950 and 1975.
Though difficult to confirm with unreliable records, it is estimated that the total number of forced adoptions could be as high as 250,000.
That’s a quarter of a million newborn babies that were taken from their mothers and families by means of shame, coercion, institutional abuse drugging, physical restraint, forgery and fraud.
These practices were driven by the social judgement that children must, at all costs, be raised by married parents – always a mother, and a father.
As the Prime Minister said yesterday: “We reflect on a culture that enabled and facilitated the practice of denying mothers even a single moment with the baby they had bought into the world”.
And the aftershocks are still reverberating through communities, as the consequences of forced adoption are still coming to light.
Many people are full of questions that every year become harder to answer due to the march of time.
Some who have experienced trauma are not able to recount their experiences, but for others – they rightly want, and demand, to be heard.
One mother gave me permission to share her experience.
She was held down and blindfolded at the birth, told that eye contact must be prevented so the babies would bond to the adoptive parents as if ‘in-utero’, which was in the best interest of the child.
“It was other women who held me down,” she said.
“I can’t believe other women would do this to me,” she said.
It took 50 years before she was reunited with her son. He had tried a few times to find her – so she knew he was looking for her. But he always stopped short of actually contacting her.
It wasn’t until he married and had a child that, with the encouragement of his wife, he found the courage to connect.
And he found not just a loving mother, but a wider family. He now has a sister, with a child his age. Their children play in the park together – but don’t know that they are cousins. He hasn’t told his friends or adopted family that he has made contact and he meets his new family in secret.
Like many others, he grapples with feelings of divided loyalties between two sets of loving parents.
Last night, some people were recounting their experiences of connecting and reuniting – but not all children were given to loving families.
Some adopted people were not in the places of safety their mothers were promised they would be, and sadly, some experienced abuse of all forms, neglect, and even institutionalisation.
Other adopted people only found out about their true identities much later in life when it was too late to reconnect with their mothers. And many more people in midlife, in their 50s and 60s who knew they were adopted, are only now finding out that their mothers were forced to relinquish them.
A deep veil of silence was drawn across this shameful period in history.
The apology was only realised due to the ongoing advocacy and tremendous courage of the people – including many here today – who relived painful experiences over and over again to make sure the impacts were fully understood by the nation.
Although, we must acknowledge that the Apology did not get the coverage it deserved due to other political events that were happening that day.
The Apology was years in the making.
On 15 November 2010 the Senate commenced an inquiry into the Commonwealth’s Contribution to Former Forced Adoption Policies and Practices.
Hundreds of people affected by forced adoption courageously gave evidence to the Committee, with over 400 submissions, including large volumes of archival material.
The Committee released the report of their findings in 2012, illuminating the extent of the forced adoptions, the many – and often illegal – forms that forced adoption took, and the significant ongoing trauma inflicted on the families who were separated.
Senate committee members worked through boxes of hospital records and other documents, as well as hundreds of testimonies and submissions, to bring forward a comprehensive report that laid bare many experiences that, until then, were untold even to those closest to these people.
Together with considered advice from the National Apology Reference Group, the findings of the inquiry provided the foundations for a fundamental turn in the nation’s perceptions of this dark chapter in our history.
The motion to support the Apology speech was passed through the House of Representatives and Senate, with bipartisan support.
The Australian Parliament unanimously acknowledged the lifelong pain and suffering associated with forced adoption practices, and committed to supporting all those affected to get the help they need.
Importantly, The Australian Parliament denounced the forced adoption practices as reprehensible, inexcusable, immoral, and above all – illegal.
However, the Apology was also an acknowledgement that we had to do better.
Do better in our recognition and support for the people affected.
Do better by the people who were let down by people and institutions they should have been able to trust to protect and care for them.
Today I acknowledge that there is still more to be done.
Over the years since the Apology, the Government has delivered on a key Inquiry recommendation and established ongoing funding for Forced Adoption Support Services.
The Australian Government continues to provide around $1.8 million annually for Forced Adoptions Support Services, which comprise seven organisations across Australia who provide coordinated specialist support services for people affected by forced adoption.
These services include a national helpline, referrals, individualised casework and support, assistance with family searching and records tracing, group activities, peer support and access to counselling.
The Forced Adoption Support Service program also offers small grants to build sector capacity, and to enhance group healing activities by and for mothers, adopted people and family members directly impacted by forced adoption.
We know that support needs will continue to change and evolve over the course of people’s lives.
Mothers and some fathers will need to have access to specialised services and care as they age.
Adopted people, now grown adults, will need continued support to access their records, and to process and heal from their traumas and loss of identity.
A number of people have only recently become aware of their experience with forced adoption, such as mothers who were informed their babies died, or when a parent or sibling sought them out through family ancestry or DNA search services.
These people will need support to navigate these new discoveries, from the emotional fallout to the logistical process of accessing their own records.
We will need coordinated efforts to improve the supports available to meet ongoing needs.
To begin with, the Government is committing an additional $700,000 to ensure that aged care providers and Forced Adoption Support Services providers can offer trauma-informed care that is targeted to people who experienced forced adoptions as mothers or children.
This will see the delivery of online training packages for allied health, aged care services, support services to support them to deliver trauma-informed care, including as people age.
All governments will need to come together for us to strengthen supports available, and do better by the mothers, adopted people, and impacted family members, who have been historically let down by institutions and governments.
In this vein, I will be asking Community Services Ministers from across Australia to consider how we can renew our cooperation and rebuild the national momentum.
Some states and territories have taken commendable action over the last year.
In 2022, the Premier of Victoria announced the establishment of a $500,000 hardship fund to provide discretionary payments to mothers affected by forced adoption, including those who are terminally ill.
In February this year, the West Australian Government committed to a Parliamentary Inquiry into historic forced adoption practices, including a review of findings from previous inquiries.
I congratulate Western Australia and Victoria for these moves.
On this tenth anniversary, we restate that we have not forgotten the mothers, adopted people, some fathers, families, and communities torn apart by forced adoptions.
We recognise that the pain has not gone away, and will never go away.
We recognise that the search for identities continues and more support is needed.
We need to look at what we can do to better support people impacted.
To do better for everyone who was let down by society and the institutions they should have been able to trust to protect and care for them.
And to make sure Australia never forgets this shameful chapter – and never makes the same mistakes again.