Forced Adoptions

'The Telegraph' Monday 31 August 1903, BrisbaneWhen Adoption Meant Forever

If Australia’s forced adoption practices of the 1950s to the 1970s were questionable, what happened around the turn of the twentieth century was utterly mind-blowing.

I have just finished reading a meticulously-researched account of so-called adoptions in the 1880s by law professor Annie Cossins. The Baby Farmers focusses on the shocking case of Sarah and John Makin of Sydney, who made their living from the misfortunes of young women who had babies out of wedlock. The Makins’s sordid activities – the murder and burial of no less than 13 illegitimate babies in the backyards of the houses they rented – resulted in a death sentence for John and life imprisonment for Sarah.

Apart from the specifics of the Makin case, the book provides enlightenment about the bad old days of the colony, when women had babies by the dozen (due to no means of contraception barring abstinence). There was never enough money or food for a growing family and sexually transmitted diseases were rife.

The jaw-dropper for me was the high infant mortality rate. Infant deaths were so common that when a baby died, no-one questioned what happened. The entire matter was swept under the carpet. It was no wonder children died in droves. Vaccinations were yet to be invented and diseases such as diphtheria, whooping cough, scarlet fever, measles and influenza swept unchecked through communities. Babies who weren’t breast-fed were given an infant formula that consisted of watered-down Nestlé’s sweetened condensed milk.

In the 1880s, the birth and death of a child was not necessarily registered by its parents. There was no regulation of adoptions or fostering arrangements either. Pregnant women (married or not) received little or no medical care and babies were commonly born in private residences with the assistance of another woman as midwife.

Babies born out of wedlock were truly regarded as ‘bastards’. An unmarried mother had no choice but to dispose of the baby in whichever way she could afford. Amongst the newspaper ads for scrap metal, dogs, horses, and plumbing work were requests to take illegitimate babies. The ads were curiously worded, often referring to a ‘kind Lady’ and payment of a ‘premium’.

According to Annie Cossins, the ads were written in code to reflect the wishes of the mother and the baby farmer. If a one-off payment – a ‘premium’ – was offered together with the word ‘adopt’, this meant that the transaction was permanent. Some unmarried mothers hoped an occasional visit would be part of the adoption plan or else they might elect to pay a weekly fee for the ‘kind Lady’ to care for their infant in the hope of retrieving it at a later date.

In reality the ‘premium’ – generally a few pounds sterling – was a fee to dispose of the child. Most baby farmers took in more children than they could possibly care for. The babies soon died of disease, malnutrition or neglect, paving the way for the baby farmer to take yet more children. In the case of the Makins, the infants’ bodies were wrapped in cloth and buried in the backyard of the houses they rented. Needless to say, the couple moved frequently, not only to avoid paying rent but also to escape the awful smell.

At the end of her book, Annie Cossins sums up the sad state of affairs in words I couldn’t hope to improve. Here is what she wrote.

Sarah’s and John’s crimes were also the crimes of a society that condoned infanticide while, paradoxically, stigmatising unmarried mothers. The legal status of an illegitimate child was described as ‘filius nullius’, child of no-one, which sums up the legal and social reality of those times. Since these children had no legal status, it is hardly surprising they had little or no social value. Life was cheap for illegitimate babies. Baby farmers provided an unsavoury but necessary service that filled the vacuum left wide open by government policies, the market economy and the limited assistance available through charitable organisations.

Sometimes we need to look back to see just how far we’ve come.

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womens college

The Other Stolen Generation: Forced Adoptions

Address 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)

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Why didn’t they want me?

After my tour of South-East Queensland libraries and bookstores this spring, I am astonished by the number of people who have been touched by forced adoptions.

To this day the subject remains taboo. Some have discovered entire families – parents, siblings, aunts, grandparents – that they never knew existed. Here are a few examples. (All the names have been changed for reasons of privacy.)

Emily is a woman of thirty-something and the youngest of five. Last year (2014) she discovered that the eldest of the family was an unknown brother. Before her parents married, they’d had a child who’d been given up for adoption. No-one else knew because it was a closely-guarded secret. Emily is still trying to come to terms with her eldest brother’s existence. She says ‘my life has been a lie.’ Feelings of anguish and disappointment haunt her.

On the flip side is Candice, who always knew she’d been adopted. Recently she tracked down her genetic parents. After relinquishing her as a baby, they had gone on to marry and have other children. There was an entire happy family of younger brothers and sisters, when she’d been raised as an only child. Her anger is palpable. ‘Why they didn’t want me?’

Tom was in his forties when his parents passed away. At the funeral a close family friend dropped the bombshell. ‘Of course, you know you’re adopted.’ He did not. In fact the idea had never crossed his mind. Grief gave way to shock and frustration. Both (adoptive) parents were in their graves, so it was too late to demand an explanation.

Miriam began her life in an orphanage. Later she was adopted by foster parents and had ‘a wonderful childhood’. As an adult she embarked on a journey to find her other family. The story uncovered thus far has been a roller-coaster ride. Her birth mother, one of the ‘stolen generation’, had been raised in an institution and was sexually abused by a clergyman who was responsible for her care. Several other full and half siblings, who were also adopted, are spread across Australia. Miriam believes there are two brothers still unaccounted for. She is determined to find them both, and I wish her well in her search.

In writing Baby Farm I hoped to highlight the fallout from forced adoptions in the hope it might help those affected.

Silence needs to be broken. Experiences need to be shared. Only then can healing begin to happen.

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Adoption_naa‘Baby Farm’ and forced adoptions in Australia

Since beginning my tours of South East Queensland libraries, it has amazed me just how many families have been touched by adoption. At every author talk, there is plenty of discussion – and sometimes revelations – about how government policy of the 1950s, 60s and 70s affected people’s lives.

Why was it secret, and why was it done at all?

For those who don’t remember the 70s, I’ll paint a little picture based on the experiences of others.

Parental expectations: Complete Junior certificate (Year 10), passing commercial subjects such as typing, bookkeeping, and shorthand. Work in an office until age 21, upon which marry a young man who has a trade. Have 2 children and stay at home to look after them. But most importantly, DO NOT GET PREGNANT.

Teenagers and sex education: Rely on stories told behind the girl’s dunnies about where babies come from and how to prevent them. These include not sitting on the toilet seat after a boy, jumping up and down or having a hot bath after sex to avoid pregnancy. Condoms, if used at all, came out of the boy’s glove-box. Sometimes they’d been kept there for years and the rubber had perished. If a single girl took the initiative and got a prescription for the pill (which was only widely available from the late 1960s), she was likely to be the brunt of ridicule from the pharmacist who filled the script.

Support for girls who got pregnant: Locked away in an institution or ‘naughty girls’ home’ before the baby bump showed. Parents lied about where their daughters were. Some girls went on ‘working holidays’ in New Zealand or other cities of Australia to avoid putting shame on their families. Many charitable institutions made them do unpaid work, such as hard labour in a commercial laundry, for their board and keep. There was no Supporting Parents Benefit, women earned two-thirds of the male wage for doing the same work, there was no child-care apart from informal arrangements between women.

Forced adoption: Unmarried mothers were told practically anything to get them to give up their babies, such as ‘How could you possibly support a child?’, ‘The only work you’ll get will be as a prostitute. That’s all you’re qualified for.’

Want to know more? Buy a copy of ‘Baby Farm’ and enjoy the 1970s … for better and for worse. Happy reading.

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Genesis of Baby Farm

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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.

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2 Responses to Forced Adoptions

  1. Michelle Robson-Young says:

    Debbie, I was thrilled to get the email from Sam announcing your new book, you’re such a clever thing. As a very young mum in the 70’s, I could easily have been a victim one of those tragic situations had the circumstances been different. Wishing you every success, hugs,
    Michelle, Michael & Charlotte

    • dterranova says:

      Thanks Michelle. Yes, how some things have changed, yet some things remain the same. Fast-forward 40 years and many of the same issues continue to arise with an unregulated international surrogacy trade.
      I hope you enjoy the read.
      Best wishes to you all,

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