I also rise to make a contribution in relation to this matter. As legislators it is our duty and honour to pass laws that protect Victorians. However, today we can only offer our deepest sympathies for a great wrongdoing in the past, a great tragedy that has caused ongoing pain on an unimaginable scale. Thousands of women and their sons and their daughters experienced this inhumane, callous social practice that has affected so many lives over so many decades.
The practice of permanently separating a mother and a baby at birth against their will is almost beyond belief, and yet it was a practice here in the 1950s, the 1960s and a large part of the 1970s. It was seen as the norm, particularly in the case of unmarried mothers. It was a practice that had no regard for people’s human rights but was based on a judgement that single mothers should have their babies taken from them and those babies should be adopted. It was a judgement predicated on the ill-conceived social mores of the time. It was a practice that was unjust and inhumane, it was cold and clinical, a policy that essentially was emotionally and psychologically violent.
Single mothers were not given options. Many were told that any thought of keeping a child was the height of selfishness and that no-one would help them. And it was done at a time of great vulnerability, seemingly sanctioned by the state and carried out by trusted community members. Mothers had their babies just taken away from them. Some mothers were restrained both physically and emotionally in the cruel and oppressive practices that were put in place.
Many women did not see even the faces of their children before the children were taken from them, and as time goes on wounds from these experiences do not heal: they actually deepen. The anguish, the agony and the torment experienced by these mothers will always be present. Whilst we cannot undo what has been done, the apology offered by all Victorian parliamentary parties is an important step.
The apology goes to the heart of a validation of what women were forced to experience, validation that this is something that happened to them. It is further recognition that something so callous, so inhumane and so wrong happened in our past. It is an acknowledgement that their feelings and experiences as mothers and children are actual feelings and experiences that are in fact reality and are valid. However, it is sadly a wound in a mother’s life that will simply not fully mend.
Along with Mrs Coote, Ms Mikakos and a few others who are currently in the chamber, I was at the Windsor Hotel on the day of the apology in the last parliamentary sitting week. As with the other locations where people were gathered to watch the speeches, the Windsor was a highly emotionally charged environment. The apology was applauded, and it seemed to sit quite well on people’s shoulders. Within that the reactions varied, largely because each person had a different story and had been involved to varying degrees in the engagement that led up to the apology being made here in Victoria.
There are those who have not been directly affected by the horrendous practices of the past, but I think we all know of young women who became pregnant and carried enormous guilt, shame and a sense of powerlessness. I think we all know of girls who were missing from class for several terms and who were sent to other suburbs — some to other towns and even interstate.
We all know of girls who were sent to facilities that were called ‘homes for unmarried mothers’. Many were badly treated in those homes. They were forced to undertake heavy domestic labour on their hands and knees, scrubbing floors while fully pregnant. They also suffered severe verbal abuse. In a short period of time young women were taken from their families and isolated from what they knew in every sense. They experienced a whole range of physical and hormonal changes and enormous stress, and then they not only gave birth but had their children taken away from them.
In August the final report of the national research study on the response to past adoption practices, authored by Pauline Kenny, Daryl Higgins, Carol Soloff and Reem Sweid, was released. It was research report 21. Whilst there has been quite a bit of work done in this area in recent times, this latest report actually goes into the effects of these past adoption practices on mothers and their children as well as the fathers who were involved.
The study has found that there is a higher than average likelihood of mothers suffering from mental health disorders compared to the general population, with close to one-third of mothers showing a likelihood of having a severe mental disorder. The study also found that these mothers rated lower quality of life satisfaction than the Australian norm, and over half had symptoms that indicated a likelihood of having post-traumatic stress disorder. Around one-quarter of the mothers surveyed said they had not had any support to help them deal with separation from their children.
Many members in the other place and in this place have spoken of the effect on mothers. The children who were taken from their mothers have experienced many hurdles in their lives as a result of past adoption practices. The secrecy that has enclosed their past and the lies surrounding their adoption go to the heart of their ability to trust.
The betrayal felt by children, and indeed mothers, who trusted community members who forced this upon them fosters feelings of abandonment and neglect. Whilst the study had limited participation from fathers separated from a child by adoption, those fathers who did participate in the study told of the experience of having never been asked or having had no rights or say in the decision for their son or daughter to be adopted. At the time of pregnancy and birth very few had support.
Today I take this opportunity to formally offer my apology for past wrongs, and I hope that some of the announcements that were made on the day go towards providing proper recognition of past adoption practices and provide for easier avenues for greater family connectivity. I thank every single activist involved in highlighting this issue that has taken so long to come onto the public stage. I pay tribute to their strength and determination in not only dealing with what has been traumatic in their own lives but also for being able to be a political force in this area. I wish them, their families and friends all the very best in their future endeavours that will make their lives and those of others so much better.