The other stolen generation: forced adoptions

womens collegeAddress to The Women’s College, University of Queensland by Debbie Terranova, author of Baby Farm, on 10 May 2016.

When people talk about ‘the stolen generation’, they usually mean indigenous Australians who were forcibly removed from their families and raised to be white. They were most commonly the child of an Aboriginal mother and a white father. The practice occurred from the 1880s until the 1970s. Numbers are hard to quantify.

But there was another stolen generation, one that has not been talked about much until recently. They were the children of unmarried mothers – white Australians who were forcibly taken for adoption.

Startling statistics

According to the 2012 Senate Inquiry, 150,000 mothers relinquished their babies between 1950 and 1980. That means there were 150,000 fathers and 150,000 children, not to mention their grandparents and siblings. Now do the maths.

In the decade of the 1970s, nearly 65,000 babies were legally adopted in Australia. That number would fill a football stadium one and a quarter times.

In Queensland alone, the peak was in 1972. During that year, 1774 babies were legally adopted. That number would fill a decent-sized performing arts theatre.

Not all babies adopted were ‘stolen’ and not all adoptions were recorded, so the numbers are estimates at best.

Now compare to 2015 when there were just 317 adoptions reported in the whole of Australia.

Why did this happen?

There are a number of reasons, but most of it boils down to one word: shame. With shame came blame and punishment.

When I look back, Australia in the 1970s was a very different place. Women were beginning to step out of the kitchen and into better education and careers. The Women’s Liberation movement was gaining momentum. They were fighting for equal pay for equal work and the end of gender-based discrimination in employment, access to basic living necessities such as finance and rental accommodation, access to income support and child care.

Until the late 1960s, marriage was not an expectation but a necessity. Women who didn’t marry were a bit of an embarrassment. They were referred to as spinsters and old maids, both with derogatory undertones. The possibility that a woman might not be heterosexual wasn’t even on the radar.

Without a husband to provide, women needed some way to support themselves. Some entered a convent, or stayed home and looked after their ageing parents, or became school teachers, or nurses, or public servants, generally as low-level workers. Until 1966 the public service had a so-called ‘marriage bar’ which meant a woman could only be employed while she was single.

There were benefits available to married women and sanctions for women who weren’t. This was particularly true when women got pregnant. Politicians preached a policy of ‘populate or perish’ – it was meant to save our country from invasion by non-white nations. Remember a ‘white Australia policy’ operated until 1965.

Childless marriages

For married women who weren’t able to have children, there were few options. IVF was yet to be invented and surrogacy was unheard of. For many childless couples, adoption was the only solution. But adoption was not openly discussed. In fact, during my travels promoting Baby Farm, several people spoke to me about their shock on discovering that the people they knew only as Mum and Dad weren’t their genetic parents at all.

Many hundreds of people told their stories in a Senate Inquiry in 2012. The Inquiry reports that some babies were secretly switched at birth by treating doctors. In some cases the married parents of a stillborn child were given a substitute baby (born to a single mother) to replace their dead infant.

Marriages were meant to last; divorce was viewed with shame. And for women who found themselves alone with children to care for, the options were few. Formal child care was non-existent, jobs for women were hard to find, the pay of a woman was two-thirds of the male wage for doing exactly the same work, and there was no government income support for sole parents.

Pregnant teens

Young single women who got pregnant received terrible treatment. Admitting being pregnant to parents was fraught. The first question was ‘who’s the father?’ followed by demands that he marry the girl before her condition ‘showed’ (the old shot-gun wedding).

Many tried to avoid the shame by going on an extended ‘holiday’ interstate or to New Zealand until their confinement. I’ve spoken to several Kiwis who came to Australia to have their babies so this was a two-way street.

Some were thrown out of home or sent off to ‘naughty girls’ homes’ to await the birth of the baby. The homes, run by churches and charities, made the girls work for their board and keep. Cooking, cleaning, commercial laundry services, farm work. They were punished if they didn’t pull their weight. They were shamed into believing they deserved to be treated badly because they’d done a wicked thing. There was no sympathy or counselling or information, only criticism and blame such as ‘play with fire and you get burnt’ and ‘you don’t deserve anything better’.

As their time drew near, the brainwashing ramped up. They were told they couldn’t possibly raise a child on their own, that they’d be terrible mothers, that they were doing the wrong thing by the child by not giving it to a good Christian home. When the baby was born, they were given little pain relief and were treated with contempt by the doctors and nursing staff. In many cases they were not allowed to hold or even see the baby before it was whisked away. Some were tricked into signing adoption papers, for example they were told to sign while under heavy sedation or that their signature was necessary so their infant could get lifesaving surgery.

Sexual revolution?

The 1970s were at the forefront of the sexual revolution, but young people went into it with little or no information about sex, sexuality, reproduction, STDs or contraception. As a topic, sex was taboo. The contraceptive pill became available in Australia around the 1960s. If you were married, you might have been able to get a prescription. However many doctors refused due to religious beliefs – some of Australia’s largest churches were diametrically opposed to contraception … some still are.

If you were single and under the age of 21, your parents were legally responsible for you. You would routinely be accompanied to the doctor by a parent – there was no way that you’d dare ask for the pill. In Brisbane the Family Planning Clinic in the Valley was a godsend. They had female doctors (a rarity) who didn’t judge or call you a slut. But getting the prescription filled at the pharmacy was another matter.

Mostly girls relied on the boy for contraception. That consisted of trusting him to pull out (highly unreliable), or using a condom. So, where did boys store condoms? In the glovebox of his car. It might stay there for a month or a year until he got lucky. Condoms were made of rubber which would perish in high temperatures. Hmmm. Did he know how to put it on properly so it wouldn’t break? Not likely.

Was it any wonder that girls got pregnant!

Further reading

If you’d like to know about this ground-breaking period in our recent social history, here are some reading recommendations.

  1. The Senate Committee Report 2012: Former Forced Adoption Policies and Practices
  2. National Apology for Forced Adoptions
  3. Relinquished, Returned, Rejected by Brisbane author Jackee Ashwin is memoir of her experiences of forced adoption in 1974.
  4. Baby Farm by Debbie Terranova features the life and times of the 70s, based around forced adoptions.

Support for people affected by adoption

The following organisations provide services to people affected by adoption.

Jigsaw Australia (Qld)

Relationships Australia (all states)


About Debbie Terranova

Debbie Terranova is an Australian author of contemporary and historical fiction. 'The Scarlet Key' published in 2016 is the second Seth VerBeek mystery. The crime-busting reporter is back with a new cast of unforgettable characters and a new puzzle to solve. It's about live, love, death, and tattoos, with a touch of the mystical. 'Baby Farm', her debut novel, is a cozy crime mystery about forced adoptions of the 1970s, and a surrogacy and baby trafficking racket. It is the first of the Seth VerBeek series. Debbie Terranova is a prizewinning author of short stories: 'Mowbray Brothers' about growing up in East Brisbane in the 1920s; and 'Mischief' about reinventing yourself and in the process falling in love ... with an adorable but mischievous cat.
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14 Responses to The other stolen generation: forced adoptions

  1. From NZ….The ‘Adoption Act 1955’ was not explained, no rights, no advocacy, no support. No chance to reclaim one’s own child. Lies were told, betrayal was normal. The people who adopted my child were told by Matron that I was a teacher and the father was a farmer…it fitted the description they wanted (perfect fit).
    Women were expected to sign the most important document of their lives while emotionally harmed, postpartum, grieving and uninformed. The ten day ‘cooling’ period unknown by the Mother and ignored by the institution.
    It was not uncommon for a birth mother to be made, by the lawyer ‘middleman’, to swear on the bible that she would never attempt contact with her child. The Lawyers used by the ‘Home’ required the Mother to do this. This practice was not binding in any legal sense, but very effective emotional blackmail.
    One particular legal firm prepared the papers, the Matron of the Home would take the papers and the girls to the legal firm and their lawyer would act as witness. The Trustee of the ‘Home’ was chairman of the Home’s Trust and he was also a partner of the same legal firm.
    This was a blatant conflict of interest.
    And then we were discharged and told to get on with our lives….

    • dterranova says:

      Hi Thelma, Thank you for your valuable contribution to the forced adoptions conversation from a NZ perspective. In order to add your story to my blog site, I’ve removed the names of the home and the people who were allegedly involved in wrongdoing for legal reasons. If you do not agree with what I’ve done, please let me know. If you’d rather withdraw the entire comment, I understand completely. Kind regards, Debbie

  2. some inaccuracies in this blurb…such as the supporting mothers pension was introduced in 1973 in Australia. It was conveniently left out of many conversation about adoption.

    • dterranova says:

      Thanks for your comment, Jan. Knowing that there was financial support available for yourself and your child would have made the world of difference. The 1970s was an era of enormous social change that was difficult for the (then) older generations to adapt to. Sadly many of the old moral attitudes and paternalistic practices continued for decades. Kind regards, Debbie.

  3. There are so many inaccuracies in this article – it is wrong – just continuing to steer away from TRUTH. There was financial support available – THESE WERE CRIMES OF BRUTAL SEXUAL ABUSE DURING PREGNANCY OBSTETRIC CRIMES – BABIES WRENCHING FROM MOTHERS BODIES DURING BIRTHING PROCESS – DRUGGED INTO DELIRIUM – IT WAS AND STILL IS SHAME OF MEDICAL PROFESSION – MOTHERS WERE NEVER INVOLVED IN ADOPTION AND TO CONTINUE PROPAGANDA AS THIS ARTICLE SHOWS SO MANY INACCURACIES. MANY MOTHERS WERE ENGAGED TO BE MARRIED – WHEN THEY MARRIED THEIR STOLEN BABIES WERE TO BE RETURNED FROM BEING HELD IN A METAL COT – The 1970’s was a change in favour of single mothers – what IS THE PURPOSE OF COMMENCING FURTHER PROPAGANDA WHEN FROM 1975 MOTHERS AND CHILD WERE COVERED UNDER GENEVA CONVENTION – please correct the inaccuracies from spreading further propaganda the shame belongs to medical, nursing and social workers professions who must be brought to justice and accountability if not Australia remains a lawless nation – when researching truth – please report truth – the late 1958-mid 1970’s has already been deemed the stolen white generation – so what is behind this article?

    • dterranova says:

      Hi Brenda, Thank you for your comments and insights. The ‘article’ is an edited version of my address as an author to female university students at a formal dinner. The purpose was to give them some context and background about teenage life in the late 1960s and early 70s, which is the era in which some of my crime novel, Baby Farm, is set.

      • The National Parliamentary Apologies and Senate Inquiry submissions and report would be excellent material for today’s teenagers to read – and to become aware there are moves a foot to increase adoptions in this country – to introduce surrogacy for payment – etc. etc. it is the young teenage girls today who need protecting from what is unfolding in the back ground today –

      • dterranova says:

        Thank you for those excellent suggestions. I’ve put a link to those sites on my website. Kind regards, Debbie

      • Thanks – as it is important for us all to protect young women today so the brutal and heinous crimes never occur again and with the move to introduce surrogacy “rent the womb of young girls” in Australia for compensation (results of Commonwealth Inquiry due next month) we have to all be more viligant than ever – young girls are not exploited especially for money when those today who cannot produce their own offspring believe they have a right to raise a child – and it is a blight on our Nation that public awareness was not carried out after the National Apologies 21.3.2013 with regards to the Stolen Non Indigenous late 1950’s – mid 1970’s – brutal sexual crimes, obstetric crimes – drugged into delirium – malpractice, mistreatment, unethical, unlawful and in many cases illegal – not those who choice to relinquish their motherhood and they must always be respected – but motherhood that was stolen – stolen from mothers and their son/daughter – the sacred bond – there were no mitigating circumstances that allowed these crimes – no law allowed these crimes – no legislation was in place – they were criminals who we continue to fight to bring to justice and accountability. The brutal sexual crimes – confirmed in Senate Report and Federal funded Scoping Study now before the Royal Commission into institutional response into child sexual abuse – with many mothers fighting alongside others to achieve this Royal Commission – mothers receiving correspondence from present day politicians to send submissions to royal commission – yet when people read or hear about the royal commission they have the impression it is about the Catholic Church – No – it is not only about all religious institutions – men who wore white collars – but ALL INSTITUTIONS – and that includes hospitals where these brutal sexual crimes were committed by men in white coats (who are responsible for the abduction of newborn babies 1958-1975) THERE IS NO DIFFERENCE between a white collar and a white coat – yet Australia Medical Board recently stated they do not investigate past sexual crimes – we must never allow this criminal era to ever occur again – and it is absolutely essential that the truth exposed by mothers in the Senate Report 29.2.2012 and National and State Parliamentary apologies ARE NEVER FORGOTTEN – EVER – IT WILL HAPPEN IF WE DO NOT BRING MORE AWARENESS TO PAST CRIMES – IF WE DON’T WE ARE ENDORSING A LAWLESS NATION – with Minister Christine Porter in his latest correspondence stating PAST MEDICAL CRIMES COMMITTED ON YOUNG PREGNANT GIRLS AND ILLEGAL ABDUCTION OF NEWBORN BABIES WERE MISTAKES??????????? so he turns crimes into mistakes – therefore crimes committed by men wearing white collars under equality must be deemed MISTAKES under Minister Porter’s present attitude.

      • dterranova says:

        I hear your passion and your pain. May justice prevail in the end.

      • Hi we will not surrender our truth – ever – and justice will prevail. In Gippsland Regional Area in Victoria (first regional area in Victoria) will later in 2016 unveil a memorial so the National apologies are never forgotten and a peaceful place has been set aside for people to spend time to reflect, become aware of truth – and placed into Gippsland history – with the support of all 6 Shire Gippsland Council and political representatives. It will be a moment in time – a special moment – a memorial set in a beautiful rose garden – peaceful serene place – birds singing in the surrounding trees – truth cemented into Gippsland’s history and bringing Hon Mark Dreyfus words spoken on 21.3.2013 “it is hope it will be the beginning of a new Nation” – this special day will be the beginning of a new Gippsland Regional Area of Victoria – never to forget the truth. We must continue to spread awareness that the greatest gift of all is motherhood – mother and child bond that is formed during pregnancy – and can never be broken by men because there is an invisible cord that runs from a mother’s heart to her son/daughter’s heart no man can or will ever break. They can put into place faceless men to make decisions to destroy our truth – but truth will prevail and justice and accountability will be achieved in this Nation like it was in Argentina Hugs

  4. Hi Debbie, good on you for being able to present this complex issue in such a succinct and on-point presentation. I have also written of my experience in my memoir I Belong to No One, which was published by Hachette last June, and which I have just recorded as an audio book for Bolinda Publishing. I relinquished my toddler in 1974, not knowing there was a pension available. Mothers had to wait six months to receive any money in the beginning, and it was called something else, like a disaster relief fund. In any case, money was not the only consideration. Illegitimacy was still a shameful slur, and we mothers were so denigrated by that time, so ingrained in society’s attitude that we weren’t worthy to bring up a child. It’s hard for people who haven’t experienced it, to understand just how much sway the moral righteousness held over us all – even our parents and family. I have a 40 year old friend who says she learnt about the Stolen Generation in school, but not a whisper of what is known now as Forced Adoption. Hard to believe that people didn’t understand what was going on. Harder even to grasp just how far we have moved along in the subsequent years. Why did they put us through it all?

  5. Hi – many young girls were engaged to be married – did not get sent away to reside in maternity homes – and babies were not born illegitimate from 1961 if there was no impediment to the marriage of the parents – and when marriage did take place their baby previously stolen at birth was to be placed into the loving arms of their natural parents – under Commonwealth Marriage Act 1961. Former forced adoption policies and practices mean kidnapped, theft, illegal abductions, coercion or bullying (Commonwealth Government’s written definition). Could I please ask a favour the links for support are the 7 organisations funded by Federal Government FOR ADOPTIONS – mothers were never involved in adoption – there are no Federal Government funded organisations for mothers – of the $11,5M promised by Federal Government not one mother has gained any assistance or support – it has all been directed to adoption community – adopted sons/daughters. The simple solution is for adopted persons who are not happy with their adoptions is to un adopt themselves and go home to their natural mothers – could you also include links to Independent Regional Mothers – please – just a suggestion

    how could they be involved in adoption – when one has to have a baby to place for adoption – their babies were stolen during birthing process – wrenched from their bodies – and any consent with the view to adoption – was illegal under Statutory Law – no one even today can sign a consent for something – when there is nothing to consent to. There were no mitigating circumstances – there was no law that allowed these crimes – the medical profession committed criminal deeds of abduction – baby trafficking crimes – late 1958 – mid 1970’s – after mid 1970’s the Geneva Convention was in place and prior to 1958 mothers who did reside in maternity homes – were able to remain residing with their babies for up to 6 months – and then assisted in every possible way to keep their babies – in 1959 a Court Judge brought down a precedence against these practices – stating unwed mothers who kept their babies were sexual deviants, perverts etc. etc. One wants to read his full judgement.

    The medical profession on 22nd May 1958 put into place a new modern medical outlook towards unwed teenage mothers – they were no longer able to breast feed their babies – were to be separated from their babies because womb fresh babies were needed for the growing demand from infertile married couples – why was there an increase in infertile wives or husbands? The answer is well documented and the medical profession were in a race against their counter parts in UK to be the first country (Victoria was the heartland of medical research) to come up with a cure for infertility – so they sexually abused non pregnant girls residing in institutions as the first stage – young pregnant girls – 2nd stage of their research but they ran a poor 2nd so they turned to young boys to find a cure for infertile of males – and the crimes on young boys from 1970 is also well documented – there is no shame or guilt on young mothers part – the same and guilt belongs to the perpetrators of these heinous sexual, obstetric crimes and malpractice and mistreatment after birth with psycho analytical drugs injected into young mothers to change the functions of their bodies and minds – these crimes came to light in 1970 and the Honorary Medical System was STOPPED in early 1970’s as medical had to toe the line under National Council into medical research – their shameful crimes were over – and many women have fought since 1969 for justice and accountability – and it will happen because truth is truth and mothers are the only 1st class witnesses to these crimes – cheers

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