Marie Meggitt's speech from the Melbourne unveiling of Our Memorial for Forced Adoptions

Dec 7, 2018 - 11:10am
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On behalf of ARMS and Origins at the event of the unveiling of a memorial to the separation of families through adoption.

I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we are gathered and pay my respects to their Elders both past and present. I also want to acknowledge the many, many Aboriginal women who had their children taken from them. I acknowledge current and former Members of Parliament and the Mayor of the City of Melbourne. I particularly welcome our friends and colleagues in the adoption movement and our families for whom this day is so significant.

This is a momentous occasion for ARMS and Origins in particular, who imagined this project into reality and for all the mothers, sons, daughters and those who experience the pain of being separated by adoption. It is momentous because it is a public testament to the profound loss and grief that is the lived experience of mothers. As important, it is an acknowledgement of our offspring who were taken from us. It is momentous because it has been provided by the government of the State of Victoria, which, in doing so, acknowledges publicly the role played by it, the Church and the community in taking our children from us and plunging us into unreconcilable grief. In this space being created, we have been given a place that tells the world we are believed. It is a space that holds both us and our sons and daughters IN the world and not just inside ourselves. It is real, it is tangible. It takes our internal journey and marks out a place for it. We all left those hospitals that held our children without a photo, or a lock of hair, or a birth certificate, nothing external to ourselves that confirmed that we had had a child. This place, with this piece of art, provides us with something more than the lock of hair. It confirms the truth of our experience and it holds that testimony out to the world.

But to understand how extraordinary it is to be standing here today, I need to give you a snapshot of the journey that has led us here. The history of adoption is a dark one, punctuated by lies, manipulation, secrecy, cruel words and illegal actions. First legislated at the turn of the 20th century, adoption took flight in the 50s when the stain of illegitimacy provided a basis for shocking discrimination against us and our children. But it was the 1964 uniform Adoption Act, implemented across Australia that enshrined the concept of adoption secrecy and the ideal of a mother who ‘put it all behind her’ and in doing so, made a child who was unfettered by connection to its family of origin, available for an infertile married couple. The shame and silence that surrounded pregnancy out of wedlock meant that we were seen as “unfit” mothers. The practice of “closed adoption” was seen as the solution – where the birth identities of adopted children were erased to ensure that the child became the child of the adoptive couple, as if born to them. Shocking practices resulted from this ideal of expunging the unfit mother. A system was built that ensured girls and young women were actively punished for their immorality. The foremost authority on unmarried mothers in the post war period, Leontine Young, contended that ‘non-marital pregnancy expressed deep neuroses that could only be fixed by doing what the mother most deeply and unconsciously needed, which was to have her child taken from her’. The Chief Obstetrician at the Royal Women’s Hospital, Don Lawson, addressing the medical fraternity in the 1960s when presenting the Featherstone Lecture, stated that ‘as you walk through the nursery you can smell adultery. He went on to say ‘the rule of thumb is, when in doubt, don’t - but I say, when it comes to adoption – do. The last thing an obstetrician needs to concern himself with, is the law, when it comes to adoption.’ Given these attitudes it is not hard to see how punitive practices developed: withholding pain medication, medical neglect and malpractice; drugging mothers during the labour then telling them that their baby was still-born; signing Consent forms on behalf of mothers, and imposing a whole-sale denial of their rights prior to the signing of the consent. When in the unmarried mothers’ homes, the girls’ names were changed, they were denied visitors, they did the heavy work of a commercial laundry, servicing the hospitals.

When we leap 20 years into the early 70s, society was changing, but adoption practices were not. In the 12-year period from 1968 to 1980, it is conservatively estimated that 35,000 Australian mothers, 90% of them under 20, had their child taken from them. I chose that time frame because my child was taken in 1972, the year of the highest number of adoptions, just under 10,000 in one year. It is still difficult to identify research that examines the issues of consent and the contested nature of what “voluntary relinquishment” might look like, given the social attitudes, historical social work and child welfare practices and the views held about single mothers, ex-nuptial children and illegitimacy, and the lack of financial support for single mothers. From my own experience and the many hundreds of mothers I have spoken to over my years in ARMS, and from what we now know from the research that has been done, these were not ‘voluntary relinquishments’.

Let us picture it. My lovely niece has just three weeks ago gone to hospital and given birth to a lovely little boy. Imagine, the babe crowns, comes into the world in that last rush, he is cleaned and the umbilical cord cut, and suddenly he is whisked away, perhaps by a nurse, and was gone, not returned. The shock is devastating; the fear overtakes, a terrible trauma unfolds, one that mother and babe are likely not to recover from. If that had happened three weeks ago, it would be written up in the newspapers, the police would be notified, and a search undertaken.

But that didn’t happen three weeks ago, it happened in 1972 to me. Over days, I asked to have my baby, I pleaded, cried, screamed, insisted. But someone had taken that baby and had no intention of giving him back. Some mothers say their child was kidnapped, some say abducted, and it is not hard to accept that that is how it feels. However, a kidnapping is generally a random event that happens to one desperately unfortunate family, like Madeline McCann, the little English girl who disappeared in Portugal. What WE know is that when my child was taken from me immediately after his birth, it was not random, and I was only one of another 9742 girls and young woman to whom it would happen in 1972, and only one of more than 100,000 in Australia to whom it had or would happen. Clearly, it was not a voluntary relinquishment.

The crime of adoption is that it was systemic: a state operated, comprehensive, planned and controlled approach, set out by hospitals, adoption agencies and social workers, underpinned by government legislation and supported by the moral imperatives of the church. It was a social policy of great moral convenience, because by design, it enabled a properly married but infertile couple to become a ‘family’. And the fact that it was at the expense of MY family was irrelevant, because I was unfit to be a mother and I didn’t deserve to have my child.

I, like so many mothers, was broken by this experience. Research tells us that there is a long term negative impact on mothers since the pregnancy, of morbid, unresolved grief, presenting as psychological trauma or "pathological grief reactions which have failed to resolve". What does that mean for our lived experience as mothers, who are not mothers in the eyes of the world? We know that morbid grief reactions differ only in intensity and duration from normal grief responses, but our reactions tend to be internalised. So sadness, anger, guilt, agonising self-reproach, anxiety, loneliness, helplessness, numbness, depression are all ongoing aspects of our journey post adoption. There is a cluster of circumstances that research tells us are likely determinants of pathological grief – the loss being socially stigmatised and therefore accompanied by shame, guilt and loss of self-esteem; external events preventing the expression of feelings of loss; uncertainty about the reality of the loss – because my child was not dead; normal expected mourning being absent and unacknowledged; and mourning rituals lacking. Those determinants are precisely what were systemically implemented by adoption agencies and hospitals, on behalf of our government and supported by social workers, families and society.

So, how did we get here, today, to this place of truth? It has been a long journey, contributed to by many, and it was led by the self-help movement in Victoria. In 1979 I joined the Council for the Single Mother and her Child, who had by then organised with Jigsaw, two national conferences on adoption in 1976 and 1978 and Victoria had produced the seminal Adoption Legislation Review Committee Report, members of whom were from Jigsaw and the single mothers’ council. I am ever grateful to the founding members of that organisation, Rosemary West and Tricia Harper, who helped me understand that to have truly chosen to have my son adopted I would have needed a choice – more than one option - and the truth was that not only was there no choice, it was intended that way. It was the 1982 adoption conference where our organisation the Association of Relinquishing Mothers came into being. Until that time, social workers and hospital and adoption agency staff spoke on our behalf, claiming that we had been promised secrecy and that we didn’t want our ‘secret’ to be revealed; that we certainly didn’t want our lives ‘disrupted’ by our sons and daughters contacting us, because we had ‘moved on’, ‘forgotten about that chapter in our lives’. Our voices were resounding in saying that was simply not true.

We joined with the adoptee movement, who were rightly arguing that they were entitled to know their origins. The turning of the tide came in 1984 when, under the stewardship of Minister Pauline Toner, the Labour Government introduced ground-breaking legislation allowing adopted people access to identifying information about their family of origin, and mothers, access to non-identifying information and the opportunity to contact their offspring in a process mediated by adoption agencies. There was considerable work to be done in the years following that legislation – ensuring it was implemented fully and consistently; driving the momentum to ensure all states in Australia legislated for identifying information to be available; continuing to argue in Victorian that we mothers had a right to know the identity of our offspring and for it to be legislated; and of course, the ongoing task of educating the community and supporting women who were emerging from the secrecy that had been imposed upon them. In that time, another 20 odd years had passed and another first had been achieved – adoptees Pauline Ley and Margaret Campi and I established Vanish, the Victorian Adoption Network for Information and Self Help, a state funded, self-help search and support organisation for the three parties to adoption, which is today, still doing essential work in finding and connecting families in the adoption community.

In 1998 a new mothers group Origins was set up and it provided the impetus for the next major shift in social policy thinking. Of great assistance in those difficult years was their good friend Christine Campbell, who, as a member of Parliament and a Minister, made many efforts for our cause. Origins worked assiduously to achieve a Commonwealth Senate inquiry into the impact of forced adoption policy and practices and its report was delivered in February 2012. It, like the ALRC and the process leading up to the 1984 legislation, called for public submissions and held public hearings, critical factors in bringing public attention to the issue and in influencing opinion. That report recommended among other things, the need for full apologies to be offered to mothers and it named in stark terms the shocking impact of the practice of forced adoption, using the voices and stories provided by us, and in doing so, registered that we were believed. Concurrently, significant national research on past adoption practices was being undertaken and then reported on, by the Australian Institute of Family Studies under the directorship of Darryl Higgins. The Institute had previously sponsored the first Australian research on the experience of mothers, looking at their long-term adjustment, which was undertaken by Robin Winkler and Margaret van Keppel. The combination of this explosive Senate Inquiry backed by the research findings led to all states, the ACT and the Commonwealth to offer an apology to we mothers, and our sons and daughters for these past systemic practices.

2012 was a very big year for us and our offspring. The Victorian Liberal Government under Ted Baillieu apologised to us, our offspring and the fathers, for the policies that led to our separation and finally committed to giving us the right to identifying information about our adult offspring. It was such a relief after the many years of struggle. Victoria had been the first state in Australia to legislate these rights for adoptees and it was the last to give them to us. Sadly, it came with a huge sting in the tail, allowing for a veto to be placed by any adopted person who didn’t want us to know their identity. The insult was profound, as it reinforced a view that we weren’t to be trusted with this information and that it wasn’t truly a ‘right’, except where our offspring allowed it to be so. By 2015 we once again had a Labour government and that odious veto was repealed.

In light of all of that work, more than 40 years of it, by so very many people who fought so tenaciously for their rights, 18 months ago ARMS and Origins approached Daniel Andrews requesting that he assist us to create a memorial to the separation of our families. Although we offered to raise money to contribute, he most generously offered to fund the whole project. He stepped back and allowed us, the mothers, to create this visual representation of the core of our experience. We worked closely with our sculptor Ann Ross to develop an image that spoke for our experience. Ann has taken this commission and our cause to heart and has worked very closely with us to create a beautiful piece of art, which she very graciously consented to us naming.

This is for us, so much more than a gift from the government. It is a tangible recognition that our children were ‘untimely ripped’ from us, destroying our first family and leaving us with a lasting trauma. It confirms that governments of Victoria, on behalf of the community, allowed unjust, cruel and illegal practices to be undertaken on their behalf. It is an ongoing statement that our truth is believed and that we were not given a choice in what happened to our children. It acknowledges us, and it acknowledges our offspring and the lifetime impact of adoption on them and us. It is a healing gesture and we thank Daniel Andrews and his government for their humanity in providing us with this place that is another step in ameliorating the wrongs of the past.

I conclude with a slice of a poem by Mary Oliver – Wild Ducks

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.

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