Mr ENTSCH (Leichhardt-Chief Opposition Whip) (17:00): I was certainly privileged to attend the national apology for forced adoptions in the Great Hall on 21 March in the company of many of those who had undergone a forced adoption experience. It was certainly a very humbling and touching event. I am glad that we, as a parliament, had come together in a truly bipartisan way to support this apology. We saw the same happen with the apology to the stolen generation. I think it is very important that we do reconcile some of these less compassionate periods of our history. At times there was a different thinking. I believe that many of those involved in these particular events genuinely in their own way believed that they were doing the best for both the child and the parent. Clearly, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that this was absolutely not the case, as we have seen in this particular initiative.
As we have seen, as a result of the policy of the day there were literally hundreds of thousands of Australians adopted. In many of these situations the mothers had no meaningful choice and, even worse, were absolutely and totally denied any choice at all in what occurred with their child. We as a society have been left with that legacy-hundreds of thousands of mothers who never knew their children and those same children were left not knowing who their mothers or fathers were. As opposition leader, Tony Abbott, said in his address, this is a tragedy for them. It is also a tragedy for our nation and we must atone for it.
I hope for those affected by the forced adoptions, whether they are the mothers, the fathers or other family members, that the apology has helped to provide some level of healing and some level of closure. I do accept, however, that these issues and impacts surrounding forced adoption are complex and for some will never be resolved. For mothers having their babies that they have loved and nurtured, carried for nine months and given birth to, taken from them without even a look or a touch would be truly heartbreaking. Surely a cry from the child at this point must echo with them for the rest of their lives. The children, who were often taken so young that they did not know any different, still had to come to terms with the knowledge later in life that they were adopted. Even the most loving stable childhood-and I have to congratulate those adoptive parents who provided this-could not prevent feelings of disconnection for many of those children.
This is an issue that is very close to my heart. I would like to highlight two special people that have their own stories to tell. Rae Whitbourne is a grandmother from my region who featured recently in the Cairns Post, the local newspaper, on the day before of the national apology. Her story is not unusual amongst forced adoptions but that does not make it any less distressing.
Rae fell pregnant at a young age after running a bit wild in country Victoria. She was taken to a Church of England home in Melbourne where there were a number of other girls in a similar condition. As their due date drew near, the girls were transferred to the Queen Victoria Hospital where Rae said that they were treated with near contempt by the staff. There was a stigma around them that they were ‘bad’ and that they had ‘got into trouble’. Rae was just 14. After a dramatic delivery, she gave birth to a son, James. She wanted to hold him, but he was whisked away. ‘I could hear him crying and I wanted to go to him, but I wasn’t allowed,’ she recalled. Rae was very vulnerable and certainly very confused and she did not know how to resist the next day when authorities came and forced her to sign adoption papers, saying it was ‘best’ for the boy.
More than two decades later, when her youngest child was 16, Rae eventually told her other children about their older brother. The long journey started in trying to track him down-writing to different organisations, but always coming up against a brick wall. Luckily, her son was also looking for his mother. They eventually reunited and now have a positive relationship. Rae was fortunate in that she had the opportunity to eventually meet her son. But for others, the failure to connect with their roots is frustrating and very heart-rending.
Peter Gries is a constituent of mine in Cairns. He was born in 1956 to a 16-year-old unmarried mother in a country town. While waiting for her due date, his mother was put into a home for unmarried mothers. In Peter’s words: ‘My adoptive parents were phoned a couple of days before my mother was due to give birth and were told “The next one’s yours.” My birth mother was not allowed any contact with me, whatsoever.’
He is one who had a very happy childhood with his adoptive family. When, at the age of about five, he asked his parents where he had come from, they celebrated the fact that he was adopted. He said, ‘With my adoptive parents I was made to feel very special. They said they had me because they really wanted me’. He recalled: ‘I had a brother four years older, who was adopted in the same circumstances. But different people handle things differently. I felt I was very special but my brother had very strong feelings of abandonment.’ In later years, Peter did feel a void when it came to his family history. When he went to his local doctor and was asked if he had a history of heart trouble or other genetic diseases he had to answer that he just did not know.
He registered with Jigsaw, the post-adoption support organisation, but found it very limited in the amount of information he could access. Unfortunately, at the time, information-sharing was only possible if both sides had registered with the organisation. Peter’s brother also had no luck in finding his mother. It has certainly had an effect on him and on his experiences as a parent. Peter told me that after receiving no information through Jigsaw or other agencies he had ‘hit a brick wall’. He said, ‘I tried to put it out of my head and forget about it-but then the apology brought it all back to the surface.’
Recently he contacted my office. He asked: ‘Now that the adoption apology has been made, what assistance will be given to those desperate to make contact but who have been met with closed doors? At 57 years of age there cannot be much time to connect with the birth mother I was taken from.’ He was desperate for help. Peter would like to see more accessibility for people wanting to find out about their families. ‘I wish there were a helpline that could guide me in the right direction-a mediation service or something like that,’ he has reflected.
This is a very important point for us to recognise. Given that the apology may have brought these repressed feelings to the surface, I certainly urge this House to make sure that as a society we are providing an appropriate level of support for those affected. This includes not just emotional support but also help to reconnect these families that have been divided for so long.
I understand that this apology is just one step in a long journey to healing, understanding and getting those affected families back in touch with each other. Nevertheless, I have to say that I am very pleased to be able to stand here today offering my very, very strong support for this motion for those in our community who have been affected so adversely and profoundly by these forced adoption practices of the past. Let us learn from this dreadful experience and make sure this type of thing does not happen into our future.
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