Baby Farm started out as a factual piece about forced adoptions in Australia in the 1970s and ended up as a cosy crime mystery about baby trafficking. How did this happen?
There’d been an Australian Senate inquiry into the draconian government policies of the 1950s, 60s and 70s that saw newborn babies forcibly removed from their unmarried mothers and put up for adoption. Submissions were requested from mothers and their children, and anyone else who had an interest. Hundreds were received. Some were one-pagers in faltering handwriting, some were long and heart-wrenching, some were professionally written by church and charitable organisations who were the chief providers of ‘care’ for pregnant teens.
The ABC picked up the story and produced a 4Corners documentary called Given or Taken? Do watch it. Be warned though, you’ll need a box of tissues.
What struck me most was the anguish the women had suffered over so many years. One said she’d knitted her son a jumper, one every year, from the age of one to the age of twenty-one. She kept them all so that when he eventually turned up – if he was still alive – he would know that she loved him.
The other thing that struck me was the secrecy and shame. In some cases women had kept their child a secret from family and friends, hoping and dreading at the same time that they’d be reunited one day.
And so it was for several friends of mine. One, who I’ll call Lynette, went on a sudden ‘working holiday’ to New Zealand for six months. More than two decades later she was contacted by her daughter, who’d found her through an agency specialising in family searches for children who’d been adopted. Lynette was both excited and terrified. Her biggest worry was how she was going to tell her own mother. At the time, Lynette was in her forties and her mother was more than seventy. Her story had a happy ending, but many didn’t.
Another friend, who I’ll call Narelle, discovered she was pregnant when she was six months gone. Her boyfriend had recently broken up with her and she was heartbroken. Her way of getting over him was to move out of home, drink copious amounts of wine, eat junk food, and party hard. I’d noticed her putting on weight and assumed it was her lifestyle. When she was finally ‘diagnosed’, she decided to tell her parents. They promptly disowned her. Two months later the baby was born. The hospital almoner (social worker) said, ‘Because you didn’t look after yourself, the baby was terribly deformed and died.’
Narelle never saw her child. It is unclear whether this information was true or false. According to the evidence many women gave to the inquiry, the harder they argued to keep their babies, the more persuasively they were told they’d be hopeless mothers and their child would grow up a criminal. In Narelle’s case, it is likely the child was put up for adoption.
Those stories formed the inspirational spark. The raw material was harrowing. I didn’t want to write a tear-jerker that went from woe to abject misery. I wanted to highlight the effects of the forced adoptions policy on those involved. And I wanted to update the subject matter, because the same thing is still going on today. Now it’s called commercial surrogacy, epitomised by the true story of Baby Gammy, the child with Down Syndrome born to a Thai surrogate mother and abandoned by his Australian ‘parents’.
In ‘Baby Farm’ those difficult themes have been transformed into a crime mystery.