Mothers who can't forget
Maureen Watson, June Smith and Elizabeth Edwards, front from left, and Jeanie Argus, rear, say they and thousands
of others were forced to surrender their babies.
They say they were bullied into giving up their babies. Now they want their stories heard, reports Larry
Maureen Watson stopped off at a Woolworths store in the winter of 1958 and bought a brass ring to wear on
her wedding finger.
"Rings were very much a sign in those days of your marital status," says Watson, who was heavily pregnant
at the time. "If you're way out front, it's pretty obvious. People looked at your fingers in those days. They checked to see
if you were married. It was very much a judgemental thing."
The boy Watson had hoped to call Nicholas Patrick was taken away immediately after a difficult birth about
6.30am on August 9 of that year. "They whipped him away and that was it," she says. "... I went into shock. I hemorrhaged."
This was the year the Menzies government was swept to a fifth term, more than three years before the Pill
was first available in Australia and 15 years before the introduction of the single mothers' benefit. According to papers
Watson, now 70, has since obtained, she was dangerously ill because her son's shoulders were so big he could not get out properly.
"We should have had a caesarean. But because I was single, we didn't... because it might leave a scar and your husband might
see the scar."
she says she was sedated and came to during her blood transfusion. "I can remember thinking to myself: 'Ah
well, they've got him now, and I'll go off and die.' " It was 37 years before she would see her son again.
Watson is now secretary and treasurer of the 200-member Origins Victoria, a support group for women who say
they were forced to give up their babies because they were single.
Yesterday, the group won a victory in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal giving it the right
to see documents relating to a proposed inquiry into past adoption procedures. The women believe the papers detail a cover-up
of forced adoptions.
She... learned not only that the baby was not dead and had been adopted, but she had been sterilised."
They took the legal action to try to find out why the State Government reneged on a 2002 election promise
to hold an inquiry into alleged illegal and unethical practices in many of the 48,000 adoptions that took place in Victoria
between 1950 and 1984.
The group's convener, Elizabeth Edwards, says that during that time thousands of single mothers were bullied
into signing adoption papers without being informed of their options, their right to change their mind within 30 days or the
availability of financial support. Edwards says her own story is typical. She was 18 when persuaded to sign consent to give
her daughter up for adoption while heavily medicated and after her mother threatened to have her 19-year-old fiance jailed
for carnal knowledge.
The worst story she has heard, she says, is that of a group member who in 1963 had just arrived from Europe
with her husband, not speaking any English. "Her husband had been killed in a car accident and the doctor knocked her out,
(and) when she came to he told her the baby died. Later, she remarried, participated in IVF and learned not only that the
baby was not dead and had been adopted, but she had been sterilised."
Maureen Watson concedes she is among the lucky ones. Because of the social stigma, she went interstate and
had her baby at Sydney's Crown Street Hospital. This meant that once the 1990 NSW Adoption Information Act was introduced,
there was nothing to stop her and others like her from gaining access to documents that would help them to contact their children.
Origins says mothers in Victoria whose babies were adopted in this period must still go through a cumbersome
process of making approaches through the Adoption Information Services agency.
The women in Origins want a chance to tell their stories, as did mothers who made some of the more than 300
submissions to a NSW inquiry that ended in 2000.
The consequences of consent abuses have been felt by the children as well as their mothers. In the mid-1990s,
having read of the NSW legislation while working as a librarian, Watson found out where her son lived and wrote to him. He
telephoned back soon afterwards. His name was John. "You won't believe this," he told her, "but I'm (also) a librarian."
She met him in a cafe with her husband. "I looked at him and I thought, 'What have I done to you?' And I thought,
'I have been betrayed.' "
It was mid-winter. They went to a park the following day. John wanted to know if she had noticed the way he
walked. He had cerebral palsy, he explained, as a result of the birth.
"He said, 'Don't you know?' and I said, 'No.' I hadn't got his medical papers then.
"I said, 'John, I never saw you, never touched you. I was never told anything'. He must have thought for 30-odd
years that I got rid of him because he was sick." John lives in Brisbane now, but he and his mother still visit each other.
"Having a child again, you are liberated," Watson says. "I had that anger that I didn't know where it came from... But I'm
not angry any more."
For Jeanie Argus, 54, the reunion with her daughter after 30 years "put together a part of my life where I
didn't know why I was like I was. I didn't know why I was angry. I didn't know why I never felt good enough. All the emotional
things... And more than anything else, it's put together the fact that I can get up on the 11th of December every year and
I can call a number and say, 'Happy birthday'."
The State Government has argued it decided not to proceed with the proposed inquiry into adoption practices
because the idea had not been supported by the broader community of birth parents of adopted children, adoption interest groups
and professionals in the field.
"These groups were concerned about the negative effects on birth mothers and that any inquiry would be divisive
and not help the healing process," a spokeswoman for Community Services Minister Sherryl Garbutt said yesterday. She said
counselling was available for Origins members.
For many, though, it will come too late. Six years ago, June Smith, 62, set out to find the son she gave birth
to at the Royal Women's Hospital in Carlton in October 1961. She wants him to know that she didn't have a choice about giving
him up. "I love my son with my life. He was the only thing at that time that I had ever loved."
Smith's father was a London baker. The eldest of nine, she was 13 when the family migrated to Australia and
16, she says, when her mother left the family. She worked as a typist. Her father had said he couldn't cope and suggested
she leave home. She went out with a Malaysian student and was pregnant at 18.
The boy was born at 2am. "I can close my eyes and see him. They wrapped him in a blanket about this colour."
She touches her cream scarf. "I used to leave him in a basket next to me and when he cried I used to put my knuckle in his
mouth and he used to suck on it. And I bathed him and I changed him like all the other mums..." Smith weeps at one point but
insists that the interview continue. She kept her son by her side for three days. During this time, she says, she was "bombarded"
by nurses insisting she give up the baby.
The infant accompanied her to the hospital's post-natal wing in Kew, where a matron told her it was selfish
to want her child when she had nowhere to go.
She was taken to a Catholic institution for unmarried mothers in Broadmeadows. "A nun came out and snatched
him from me and ran out of the room. I was screaming, 'I don't want him adopted!' I got pushed into a chair and these papers
were just being pushed under my nose and they were just going, 'Sign here! Sign here!'. "
Smith says she "put on such a turn" she was told she could visit her son for 30 days. She would go and see
him on her day off. She signed papers to revoke her consent but says the nuns insisted she sign consent again.
She kept her secret for years and was 36 when she finally told her other three children.
She tracked down her son in 1998, and wrote to him through Adoption Information Services. As it turned out,
he was trying to find out about her too. But, she says, he didn't want to see her.
"He wrote me a beautiful letter," she says. "He said he loved books and the smell of smoke... He says he knows
it must have been a very hard decision for me to make.
"But it wasn't a decision, because there was no choice."
Women forced to give away babies fight state's silence
By Jewel Topsfield
August 4, 2004
Elizabeth Edwards, forced to give up her baby for adoption in 1963, wants an inquiry into Victoria's past adoption practices.
In 1963, as an unmarried 18-year-old, Elizabeth Edwards was coerced into signing a consent form to give her daughter up
for adoption less than 24 hours after giving birth.
She was dazed from the medication she had been given and frightened by her mother's threats that her 19-year-old fiance,
Bill, would be jailed for carnal knowledge.
"When I asked to see my baby the doctor looked in my eyes with a really cold stare and said, 'Society will forgive one
mistake.' It was a threat. Then he turned on his heel and walked out of the labour room," Mrs Edwards said yesterday.
Bill, whom she married a few months later and with whom she had another six children, was not told that she had had the
baby and did not sign a consent form.
When he found out two days later he was not allowed to see his child. It was 26 years before the couple were reunited with
"Only recently we've realised we had a right to have our own child... we understood we didn't have any rights because we
were unmarried," Mrs Edwards said.
Now 58, Mrs Edwards is convener of Adoption Origins Victoria, a support group for women who were forced to give up their
babies because they were single.
According to documents obtained by Origins, 48,500 adoptions took place between 1950 and 1984, when adoption
legislation was reformed.
The group this week launched legal action in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal to learn why the State Government
reneged on a 1999 election promise to hold an inquiry into their plight.
Origins, which has about 200 Victorian members, is appealing against the State Government's refusal to release a document
that the group believes details a cover-up of past illegal and unethical adoption practices.
Origins member June Smith told The Age she believed the Government failed to honour its pledge because it was fearful of
litigation if the inquiry revealed unmarried mothers were illegally denied access to their babies.
"The exempt documents, we strongly believe, are documents written to ensure that past department/government roles in illegal
and unethical adoptions will never be exposed," Ms Smith said in a document tendered to the tribunal.
Origins claims that between 1950 and 1984 single mothers were bullied into signing adoption papers without being informed
of other options, their right to change their mind within 30 days or the availability of financial support.
The group says that under the 1957 Crimes Act it is unlawful to use force, fraud, decoy or enticement with intent to deprive
a parent of a child under 16.
Ms Smith said that unmarried women were tied down while giving birth to prevent them from seeing their babies, given medication
to dry up their breast milk and had their babies removed before the placenta was expelled.
"Mothers were told their baby had died when their baby had been placed on the breast of a married woman who had suffered
a stillbirth, the mother then being asked to sign a death certificate, which in actual fact was consent to adoption," she
In the 1999 election campaign, Labor pledged that if elected it would hold an inquiry into Victoria's past adoption practices.
But last year it reneged, enraging Origins members, who sought documents under the Freedom of Information Act explaining the
When the Department of Human Services refused to release a document, Origins appealed to VCAT.
Debra Coombs, acting for the department, yesterday told the tribunal that disclosure of the document would not be in the
public interest. She said it was a "blunt speaking", handwritten internal document that offered only a partial explanation
and could be misinterpreted.
In a document tendered to the tribunal, Mrs Edwards said an inquiry would enable women to communicate to their lost children
that they had always been loved.
"Such a message would also bring great comfort to many adults... who have for many years been tormented by the feeling
that their own mothers never cared for them," she said.
Senior tribunal member Robert Davis will rule next week on whether to allow the appeal.
Adoption files opened to mothers
By Jewel Topsfield
June Smith, centre, and others leave the tribunal yesterday.
Unmarried mothers who were coerced into giving up their babies for adoption won a victory yesterday in their long-running
fight to learn why the State Government reneged on a promise to hold an inquiry into their plight.
The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal yesterday ruled that 13 documents, which the mothers believe detail a cover-up
of past illegal and unethical adoption practices, should be released.
"This is an absolute victory; a door opening. We've been trying for seven years to get an inquiry," said June Smith, 62,
whose son was forcibly adopted out 43 years ago. Ms Smith, who became pregnant to a Malaysian student when she was an 18-year-old,
wanted to keep her son but said she was bombarded by nurses insisting she give up her illegitimate baby and was given tablets
to dry up her breast milk.
Now a member of mothers' support group Adoptions Origins Victoria, Ms Smith said she hoped the documents would reveal why
the Government had failed to honour its 1999 election pledge to hold an inquiry into past adoption practices.
Origins, which has about 200 Victorian members, claims that between 1950 and 1984, single mothers were bullied into signing
adoption papers without being informed of other options, their right to change their mind within 30 days or the availability
of financial support.
Ms Smith said that unmarried women were tied down while giving birth to prevent them from seeing their
babies, given medication to dry up their breast milk and had their babies removed before their placenta was expelled.
Origins took the Department of Human Services to VCAT this week after it refused to release some documents under the Freedom
of Information Act that explained the absence of the Government's inquiry. The department claimed disclosure of the documents
was contrary to the public interest.
"The department/Government is deliberately refusing to hold this inquiry because they know... that past governments were
responsible for allowing this atrocity to occur by their negligence," Ms Smith said in a document tendered to the tribunal.
In his decision yesterday, senior tribunal member Robert Davis said disclosure of the documents would not be contrary to
the public interest and would "clear the air".
Human Services spokesman Brendan Ryan said the department would not appeal against the tribunal decision and the documents
would be made available to Origins "very shortly".
A spokeswoman for Community Services Minister Sherryl Garbutt said the Government decided not to proceed with an inquiry
because it was not supported by the broader community of the birth parents of adopted children, adoption interest groups and
professionals working in the area.
Spokeswoman Sarah McKinnon said counselling was available for Origins members.
Another Stolen Generation
BY KATE GIBBS
Australia learned this month that it was not only Aboriginal
children who were effectively stolen from their parents in our short history.
Between 1950 and 1984, it seems, some young women were coerced into signing consent forms to give up
their children for adoption.
It was heard that some young unmarried mothers were told their baby had died when in fact it had been
placed on the breast of a married woman who had suffered a stillbirth. The unmarried women were then told to sign a ‘death
certificate’, actually consent for adoption.
Adoption Origins Victoria estimates that there were 48,500 adoptions between 1950 and 1984, when adoptions
legislation was reformed. Within the group, more than 200 women say their babies were stolen in this manner.
The group this month began legal action in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal to learn why
the State Government has not held an inquiry into the issue, as it promised in a 1999 election campaign. It sought documents
that, it says, could reveal why the inquiry never happened.
The group claims that young single mothers were sometimes bullied into giving up their babies and not
given the chance to change their minds within 30 days.
A member of the group says women were tied down while giving birth to prevent them from seeing their
babies, given medication to dry up their breast milk and had their babies taken from them before the placenta had been expelled.
Last week they claimed success and the Tribunal granted them access to the documents they were after.
Despite government lawyers’ assertions that the documents were not of public interest, the Tribunal ruled they were.
This is a success for more than 200 women. It is something to be celebrated by all Australian women,
who have throughout our history been pressured to feel guilty about not being married, being homosexual (as men also have),
being too young or too old to work or have children, and being outside a very rigid stereotype.
Babies may no longer be taken from their very young or Aboriginal parents, but there are other ways in
which women are being pressured to feel guilty for being who they are.
Our Government still does not acknowledge homosexual marriages, and only now are unmarried women with
children beginning to see some relief from a Government that is only slowly supporting them.
In this way, the Government is not supporting Australian women, but is asking us to reform and become
a stereotype that we are not always conforming to naturally.
Like Adoption Origins did this month, Australian women should ask themselves what they want and who they
are, and then demand to be accepted and supported as such.
Australian Broadcasting Corporation
TV PROGRAM TRANSCRIPT
Victoria backs down on adoption inquiry
Reporter: Geoff Hutchison
KERRY O'BRIEN: It's said there's no greater bond than that between a mother and her baby, and yet over
a period of about 30 years last century, many thousands of mothers in Australia gave up their babies for adoption.
the most part, the mothers were single and the wisdom of the time was that the babies were willingly handed over for the opportunity
of a better life in a more traditional family.
But there was still a great deal of anguish, and a series of subsequent
inquiries in various States revealed that many young single mothers were, in fact, unwilling victims of coercion that was
So why has the Government in Victoria, with no direct links back to those days, reneged on a promise
for a similar inquiry, in the process fighting a group of women who just want the truth to be told.
ANITA CIANCIO: It feels like your heart has been just put back in your body and you're just, you're in one
GEOFF HUTCHISON: The words of Melbourne mother Anita Ciancio, reunited with her 3-week-old baby, Montana,
stolen a few days earlier from a suburban shopping centre.
The story gripped our imagination -- could there be anything
more terrible for a mother than to have a baby snatched away?
JUNE SMITH: He was born in October 1961 and the doctor
gave me my baby.
I just pictured him.
It was the most beautiful thing of my life.
fell in love.
JEANNIE ARGUS: I had my hands held.
I had a pillow placed high on my chest so that I couldn't
see my baby.
I heard her cry.
Then there was silence.
I asked what my baby was.
ELIZABETH EVANS, CONVENOR, ORIGINS VICTORIA: I asked to see her and the doctor looked at me and he said to me,
"Society will forgive one mistake."
And he walked out, turned on his heel and walked out of the labour ward.
HUTCHISON: They were little more than girls, but in the Australia of the 1960s, they were outcasts -- unmarried mothers, condemned
by society, the State, the church and often their parents for one shameful mistake.
And those parties made it very
clear the unmarried mother would only find forgiveness if she gave up her baby for adoption.
She was seldom told she
had a legal right to keep her child.
ELIZABETH EVANS: The midwife said to me, "Well, one day you'll get married and
have a baby of your own."
JUNE SMITH: And from the moment I set foot in that hospital with my son, I don't know whether
she was the matron or the sister in charge, but she never let up.
She told me I was selfish, I had no right to do what
I was doing to my son, that he deserved better than me.
GEOFF HUTCHISON: And so, humiliated and often very frightened,
thousands of women like June Smith, Elizabeth Edwards and Jeannie Argus signed away their right to raise their babies -- their
grief and their loss still very evident today.
JUNE SMITH: I think the body takes over for you.
It takes over
your mind and says, "Don't think about it because you'll go crazy."
And so you do, you just tuck it away.
it sneaks out every so often.
JEANNIE ARGUS: No-one ever asked me if I wanted to keep her.
No-one ever asked
No-one ever told me that there was financial support, so the longest walk in my life was out of the gates, down
the drive, on a train and back to Victoria.
GEOFF HUTCHISON: In NSW four years ago, a parliamentary inquiry into adoption
practices called them, "misguided, sometimes unethical and on occasions illegal".
An inquiry was promised in Victoria
too, and Labor's Community Services Minister, Christine Campbell, seemed determined to push it through.
MINISTER FOR COMMUNITY SERVICE (18th April 2000): The Government has made a commitment to hold an inquiry into past adoption
practices during this term of Government.
Draft terms of reference will be formulated.
GEOFF HUTCHISON: But
that was then.
In 2002, Christine Campbell was sent to the back bench and the inquiry was abandoned, supposedly because
it lacked the broad support of interest groups.
There's a lot of pain involved in bringing up the past, and it seems
the Bracks Government doesn't want to risk dealing with the possible consequences of admission or apology.
Services Minister Sherryl Garbutt refused our invitation for an interview, leaving it to a department spokesperson to explain
that interest groups -
SPOKESPERSON FOR SHERRYL GARBUTT, MINISTER FOR COMMUNITY SERVICES, (10 August 2004): Were concerned
about the negative effects on birth mothers and that any inquiry would be divisive and not help the healing process.
EVANS: Instead of an inquiry, the department offered us an option of having a person come out and interview us and we would
tell our stories.
We could not name the perpetrators, and then these stories would be archived and then we would be
offered one counselling session.
Now, this is little more than an academic exercise.
JUNE SMITH: I don't think
anyone really wants to admit that something had gone wrong.
I could understand to a degree.
There's a lot of
people out there that have adopted children and they may think that we're trying to discredit them, but we're not.
know our children love their adoptive parents.
We've got no problem with that.
But these were abuses of women
because they couldn't fight back at the time, and from where I'm sitting, it was a crime.
GEOFF HUTCHISON: For years,
they felt patronised and invalidated, but the tide may be turning for women like June Smith, Elizabeth Edwards and Jeannie
Victoria's Civil and Administrative Tribunal has just ordered an unwilling State Government to hand over documents
the women believe may explain why the inquiry into adoptive practices was abandoned.
They hope too it will finally
expose the lies of the past.
JUNE SMITH: And it was -- I can't describe it.
It was just euphoric for a little
while, you know?
I want acknowledgement.
I want them to know.
I want history to be rewritten that we
weren't bad girls.
GEOFF HUTCHISON: And what do you want?
What do you think these mothers want and deserve?
ARGUS: The truth.
GEOFF HUTCHISON: But where does that truth lie and who should be held accountable
A mother, a matron, a government department?
And even though it appears stark and cruel today, did adoptive
practices of 40 years ago merely reflect a pious societal norm?
And does that excuse it now?
June Smith knows
all the arguments.
She also knows the only contact she ever had with the son she lost was one letter, and he still
JUNE SMITH: He said that it must have been a hard decision for me to have made to have him adopted.
there was no decision.
There was no choice given.
It was a foregone conclusion that I had no right to have my
GEOFF HUTCHISON: So even today, he is quite innocently working on an assumption that you made that choice?
SMITH: That I willingly gave him away.
GEOFF HUTCHISON: Is that the worst part about all this?
JUNE SMITH: Oh,
It tears you to bits to think that your son's grown up thinking his own mother didn't want him, and it
was so much the opposite.
KERRY O'BRIEN: Three very powerful and compelling witnesses.
I wonder if they'll be