Lily Arthur gave birth to her son, Tim, while shackled to a hospital bed in Brisbane. She was allowed to cradle him in her arms for five minutes – but only after signing an adoption consent form.
It was 1967, and Ms Arthur was 17 years old. It took her three decades to track down her son. Many other young, single mothers suffered the same ordeal; during the 20th century, an estimated 150,000 Australian women were made to give up their newborn babies for adoption.
Today, following an 18-month inquiry, a parliamentary committee recommended that they should receive a formal apology, similar to the one delivered to the Aboriginal “Stolen Generations”. One committee member, Claire Moore, called the forced adoptions – carried out under a state-sanctioned policy pursued until the 1980s – “a horror of our history”.
The aim was to rid society of the stain of illegitimacy and relieve the state of the financial burden which the babies represented. They were given to middle-class married couples; respectable people. Their young mothers have lived with the shame and the loss ever since.
The women say they were pressured and deceived into signing consent forms. In some cases, signatures were forged. Ms Arthur, then in state care, was threatened with incarceration in a high-security children’s home unless she complied. Christine Cole, who was 16 when she gave up her newborn daughter, was drugged with barbiturates before and after the birth.
The practice had the blessing of state governments, church organisations and adoption agencies. Catholic Health Australia, which owns hospitals around the country, has already apologised, as has the Uniting Church and the Western Australian government.
Ms Cole, who has researched the subject for a PhD, said yesterday that it was the most vulnerable women who were “preyed on”. These were orphans, state wards, those without family support, or children whose parents were persuaded – like Ms Cole’s – that it was in their daughters' best interests to hand over their newborns.
Doctors and social workers involved in the coercion allegedly “ordered” babies for friends and for themselves. The Senate inquiry heard that babies were earmarked for adoption months before they were born, and without any discussion with mothers.
Admitted to the Crown Street Women's Hospital in Sydney in 1969, Ms Cole gave birth to a girl 10 days later. “She didn't cry, so I tried to get up to see if she was all right,” she said. “But they had placed a pillow on my chest to stop me seeing what was going on. Three nurses threw me back on the bed and held me down as they took my baby out of the room.
“I knocked one of the nurses on the pocket accidentally, and she punched me on the arm. The midwife was at the end of the bed and she said to me: ‘This has got nothing to do with you’.”
Ms Cole was never permitted to see her baby. “They gave me drugs to dry up my milk. I was taken to a hospital annexe and held there for five days, and told I couldn't leave until I signed the adoption consent.” Frightened and traumatised, she agreed.
Ms Arthur, now the coordinator of a group called Origins: Supporting People Separated Through Adoption, was living with her boyfriend when she became pregnant. The couple planned to marry. One night, police knocked on their door and arrested her on a charge of “being exposed to moral danger”. She was taken to a girls’ home run by the Sisters of Mercy, a Roman Catholic order, and set to work in the laundry.
“I had to work every day, right up until the time I went into labour,” she said. “Then the very day I gave birth I was back in the laundry that afternoon, folding pillow cases. That’s how much contempt they treated me with.”
The birth was a nightmare. “I was placed in a sideways running position, with my left leg tied up in a stirrup and my right leg pulled behind me,” Ms Arthur recalled. “My face was pushed into a mattress, and they were leaning on my shoulder. They took my son from behind and whisked him out the door, and that was the end.” She was allowed to see him once, eight days later.
She and Ms Cole were among more than 100 mothers and adoptees who watched from the public gallery yesterday as the committee's report was tabled in the Senate, the upper house. Some wept as the inquiry chairwoman, Rachel Siewert, declared: “It is time for governments and institutions involved to accept that such actions were wrong, not merely by today’s standards but by the values and laws of the time.”
The women had campaigned for 20 years for a national inquiry. Some had kept their loss secret, even from their families. “I lived with the pain of losing my first-born child, and I never spoke about it,” said Ms Cole. Some of those making submissions to the committee told their stories in public for the first time.
As well as an apology, the committee recommended that the government fund family tracing services and peer support groups for victims. It also said that adoptees should be given new birth certificates, showing their real parents’ names, and should be compensated.
Ms Arthur has tried to sue the Queensland state government. It took seven years for her case to get to court, where it was dismissed on the grounds that the events were too far in the past.
She spent years trying to track down her son, armed only with his first name. About 15 years ago, she found him. Ms Cole, too, managed to trace her daughter. But their reunion was “the start of another rocky road,” she said. “She had grown up believing that her mother didn’t want her, so she was angry about being abandoned. We've tried to build a relationship as best we can, but it hasn't been easy.”
Like many of the women, she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. “We didn't know where our children were, whether they were dead or alive, whether they were suffering. When I had my two sons [later], I had a terrible fear that they would be taken away too. We find Mothers’ Day very difficult, we find Christmas very difficult, because we always think about our missing children.”