Great Leadership Speeches
Prime Minister Julia Gillard's Apology for Forced Adoptions
March 22, 2013
Today, this Parliament, on behalf of the Australian people, takes responsibility and apologises for the policies and practices that forced the separation of mothers from their babies, which created a lifelong legacy of pain and suffering.
We acknowledge the profound effects of these policies and practices on fathers.
And we recognise the hurt these actions caused to brothers and sisters, grandparents, partners and extended family members.
We deplore the shameful practices that denied you, the mothers, your fundamental rights and responsibilities to love and care for your children. You were not legally or socially acknowledged as their mothers. And you were yourselves deprived of care and support.
To you, the mothers who were betrayed by a system that gave you no choice and subjected you to manipulation, mistreatment and malpractice, we apologise.
We say sorry to you, the mothers who were denied knowledge of your rights, which meant you could not provide informed consent. You were given false assurances. You were forced to endure the coercion and brutality of practices that were unethical, dishonest and in many cases illegal.
We know you have suffered enduring effects from these practices forced upon you by others. For the loss, the grief, the disempowerment, the stigmatisation and the guilt, we say sorry.
To each of you who were adopted or removed, who were led to believe your mother had rejected you and who were denied the opportunity to grow up with your family and community of origin and to connect with your culture, we say sorry.
We apologise to the sons and daughters who grew up not knowing how much you were wanted and loved.
We acknowledge that many of you still experience a constant struggle with identity, uncertainty and loss, and feel a persistent tension between loyalty to one family and yearning for another.
To you, the fathers, who were excluded from the lives of your children and deprived of the dignity of recognition on your children's birth records, we say sorry. We acknowledge your loss and grief.
We recognise that the consequences of forced adoption practices continue to resonate through many, many lives. To you, the siblings, grandparents, partners and other family members who have shared in the pain and suffering of your loved ones or who were unable to share their lives, we say sorry.
Many are still grieving. Some families will be lost to one another forever. To those of you who face the difficulties of reconnecting with family and establishing on-going relationships, we say sorry.
We offer this apology in the hope that it will assist your healing and in order to shine a light on a dark period of our nation's history.
To those who have fought for the truth to be heard, we hear you now. We acknowledge that many of you have suffered in silence for far too long.
We are saddened that many others are no longer here to share this moment. In particular, we remember those affected by these practices who took their own lives. Our profound sympathies go to their families.
To redress the shameful mistakes of the past, we are committed to ensuring that all those affected get the help they need, including access to specialist counselling services and support, the ability to find the truth in freely available records and assistance in reconnecting with lost family.
We resolve, as a nation, to do all in our power to make sure these practices are never repeated. In facing future challenges, we will remember the lessons of family separation. Our focus will be on protecting the fundamental rights of children and on the importance of the child's right to know and be cared for by his or her parents.
With profound sadness and remorse, we offer you all our unreserved apology.
This Apology is extended in good faith and deep humility.
It will be a profound act of moral insight by a nation searching its conscience.
It will stand in the name of all Australians as a sign of our willingness to right an old wrong and face a hard truth.
As Australians, we are used to celebrating past glories and triumphs, and so we should.
We are a great nation.
But we must also be a good nation.
Therefore we must face the negative features of our past without hesitation or reserve.
That is why the period since 2008 has been so distinctive - because it has been a moment of healing and accountability in the life of our nation.
For a country, just as for a person, it takes a lot of courage to say we are sorry.
We don't like to admit we were mistaken or misguided.
Yet this is part of the process of a nation growing up:
Holding the mirror to ourselves and our past, and not flinching from what we see.
What we see in that mirror is deeply shameful and distressing.
A story of suffering and unbearable loss.
But ultimately a story of strength, as those affected by forced adoptions found their voice, organised and shared their experiences, and, by speaking truth to power, brought about the Apology we offer today.
This story had its beginnings in a wrongful belief that women could be separated from their babies and it would all be for the best.
Instead these churches and charities, families, medical staff and bureaucrats struck at the most primal and sacred bond there is: the bond between a mother and her baby.
Those affected by forced adoption came from all walks of life.
From the city or the country.
People who were born here or migrated here and people who are Indigenous Australians.
From different faiths and social classes.
For the most part, the women who lost their babies were young and vulnerable.
They were often pressurised and sometimes even drugged.
They faced so many voices telling them to surrender, even though their own lonely voice shouted from the depths of their being to hold on to the new life they had created.
Too often they did not see their baby's face.
They couldn't sooth his first cries.
Never felt her warmth or smelt her skin.
They could not give their own baby a name.
Those babies grew up with other names and in other homes, creating a sense of abandonment and loss that sometimes could never be made whole.
Today we will hear the motion moved in the Parliament and many other words spoken by those of us who lead.
But today we also listen to the words and stories of those who have waited so long to be heard.
Like the members of the Reference Group personally affected by forced adoption who I met earlier today.
Lizzy Brew, Katherine Rendell and Christine Cole told me how their children were wrenched away so soon after birth.
How they were denied basic support and advice.
How the removal of their children led to a lifetime of anguish and pain.
Their experiences echo the stories told in the Senate report.
Stories that speak to us with startling power and moral force.
Like Linda Bryant who testified of the devastating moment her baby was taken away:
When I had my child she was removed. All I saw was the top of her head - I knew she had black hair."
So often that brief glimpse was the final time those mothers would ever see their child.
In institutions around Australia, women were made to perform menial labour in kitchens and laundries until their baby arrived.
As Margaret Bishop said:
It felt like a kind of penance.In recent years, I have occasionally passed what then was the Medindi Maternity Hospital and it generates a deep sadness in me and an odd feeling that it was a Dickensian tale about somebody else.
Margaret McGrath described being confined within the Holy Cross home where life was 'harsh, punitive and impersonal'.
Yet this was sunny postwar Australia when we were going to the beach and driving our new Holdens and listening to Johnny O'Keefe.
As the time for birth came, their babies would be snatched away before they had even held them in their arms.
Sometimes consent was achieved by forgery or fraud.
Sometimes women signed adoption papers while under the influence of medication.
Most common of all was the bullying arrogance of a society that presumed to know what was best.
Margaret Nonas was told she was selfish.
Linda Ngata was told she was too young and would be a bad mother.
Some mothers returned home to be ostracised and judged.
And despite all the coercion, many mothers were haunted by guilt for having 'given away' their child.
Guilt because, in the words of Louise Greenup, they did not 'buck the system or fight'.
The hurt did not simply last for a few days or weeks.
This was a wound that would not heal.
Kim Lawrence told the Senate Committee:
The pain never goes away, that we all gave away our babies. We were told to forget what had happened, but we cannot. It will be with us all our lives.
Carolyn Brown never forgot her son:
I was always looking and wondering if he was alive or dead. ...
From then on every time I saw a baby, a little boy and even a grown up in the street, I would look to see if I could recognise him.
For decades, young mothers grew old haunted by loss, silently grieving in our suburbs and towns.
And somewhere, perhaps even close by, their children grew up denied the bond that was their birth-right.
Instead they lived with self-doubt and an uncertain identity.
The feeling, as one child of forced adoption put it, 'that part of me is missing'.
Some suffered sexual abuse at the hands of their adoptive parents or in state institutions.
Many more endured the cruelty that only children can inflict on their peers:
Your mum's not your real mum, your real mum didn't want you.
Your parents aren't your real parents, they don't love you.
Taunts vividly remembered decades later.
For so many children of forced adoption, the scars remain in adult life.
Phil Evans described his life as a "rollercoaster ride of emotional trauma; indescribable fear; uncertainty; anxiety and self-sabotage in so many ways".
Many others identified the paralysing effect of self-doubt and a fear of abandonment:
It has held me back, stopped me growing and ensured that I have lived a life frozen.
I heard similar stories of disconnection and loss from Leigh Hubbard and Paul Howes today.
The challenges of reconnecting with family.
The struggles with self-identity and self-esteem.
The difficulties with accessing records.
Challenges that even the highest levels of professional success have not been able to assuage or heal.
Neither should we forget the fathers, brothers and sisters, grandparents and other relatives who were also affected as the impact of forced adoption cascaded through each family.
Gary Coles, a father, told me today of the lack of acknowledgment that many fathers have experienced.
How often fathers were ignored at the time of the birth.
How their names were not included on birth certificates.
How the veil of shame and forgetting was cast over their lives too.
My fellow Australians,
No collection of words alone can undo all this damage.
Or make whole the lives and families fractured by forced adoption.
Or give back childhoods that were robbed of joy and laughter.
Or make amends for the birthdays and Christmases and Mother's or Father's Days that only brought a fresh wave of grief and loss.
But by saying sorry we can correct the historical record.
We can declare that these mothers did nothing wrong.
That you loved your children and you always will.
And to the children of forced adoption, we can say that you deserved so much better.
You deserved the chance to know, and love, your mother and father.
We can promise you all that no generation of Australians will suffer the same pain and trauma that you did.
The cruel, immoral practice of forced adoption will have no place in this land any more.
We also pledge resources to match today's words with actions.
We will provide $5 million to improve access to specialist support and records tracing for those affected by forced adoptions.
And we will work with the states and territories to improve these services.
The Government will also deliver $5 million so that mental health professionals can better assist in caring for those affected by forced adoption.
We will also provide $1.5 million for the National Archives to record the experiences of those affected by forced adoption through a special exhibition.
That way, this chapter in our nation's history will never again be marginalised or forgotten again.
Today's historic moment has only been made possible by the bravery of those who came forward to make submissions to the Senate Committee and also of those who couldn't come forward but who nurtured hope silently in their hearts.
Because of your courage, Australia now knows the truth.
The report prepared so brilliantly by Senator Siewert and the Senate Committee records that truth for all to see.
This was further reinforced by the national consultations that Professor Nahum Mushin and his reference group undertook to draft the national apology.
Their guidance and advice to government on the drafting of the apology have been invaluable.
Any Australian who reads the Senate report or listens to your stories as I have today will be appalled by what was done to you.
They will be shocked by your suffering.
They will be saddened by your loss.
But most of all, they will marvel at your determination to fight for the respect of history.
They will draw strength from your example.
And they will be inspired by the generous spirit in which you receive this Apology.
Because saying 'Sorry' is only ever complete when those who are wronged accept it.
Through your courage and grace, the time of neglect is over, and the work of healing can begin.