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A Critique of the Federal Apology for Forced Adoption

Wesley Rush


We can declare that these mothers did nothing wrong" (Prime Minister Julia Gillard, 21 March 2013).

As you all know, on 21 March 2013 PM Julia Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott apologised on behalf of the Australian Government to victims of forced adoption and removal practices in Parliament House’s Great Hall, Canberra.

Victims of forced adoption have shown tremendous courage and morality in fighting for the National Apology, and in addressing their abusers, both signs of great virtue. Origins thanks all who attended the National Apology whether in person, or in mind and spirit. And thanks all who have worked so hard. Origins salutes all who have suffered, and waited so long for this acknowledgement and Apology. A tremendous achievement of which to be proud.

"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 lifelong legac[ies] of pain and suffering," said PM Gillard. "With profound sadness and remorse, we offer you all our unreserved apology...extended in good faith and deep humility. We acknowledge many of you have suffered in silence for far too long. [Forced adoption is] a story of suffering and unbearable loss. We hear you now."

Origins thanks and recognises the courage, leadership, humanity and dignity PM Gillard and Tony Abbott gave in taking responsibility. Issues of human rights far exceed party politics, but some sectors of media, government, and Australian society apparently refuse to acknowledge this (See p.).

The PM’s speech contained no mention of compensations, pensions etc., however, the government has admitted to illegalities. Origins hopes and intends the National Apology gives a great deal of empowerment and leverage in further seeking forms of justice for its members and people subjected to forced adoption.

The Apology

The National Apology is quite extensive in its admissions and acknowledgments, recognising mothers, fathers, children, other family members, and deceased victims who have had many of rights stolen.

"We are saddened that many [people] are no longer here to share this moment," said the PM. "In particular, we remember those...who took their own lives,"

PM Gillard acknowledged mothers were not legally or socially acknowledged as mothers, and suffered unethical, dishonest and illegal treatment. They suffered stigmatisation, guilt, drugging and trickery. They suffered pressurisation, ‘consent’ by forgery, fraud , immoral coercion, ostracism, destructive judgements, and were/are unable to forget and simply get on with their lives.

"Churches, charities, families, medical staff, and bureaucrats struck at the most primal and sacred bond there is: the bond between a mother and her baby. [Mothers] couldn’t soothe their baby. [Their] babies grew up with other other homes." The PM acknowledged the "common bullying arrogance of a society that presumed to know best. This was a wound that would not heal...," she said.

The PM admitted forced adoptees were deceived and denied love, knowledge of, and connection with family, and their community and culture of origin. She acknowledged their struggles with self-identity, self-esteem, abandonment, loss, emotional trauma, fear, uncertainty, anxiety, self-sabotage, disconnection, loss, and being held back, and abuses from adoptive parents or state institutions, and peers.

They "never felt [their mother’s] warmth or smelt her skin. The scars remain in adult life." She spoke of their challenges of reconnecting with family. "To the children of forced adoption, we can say you deserved so much better. You deserved the chance to know, and love [and have the love of] your mother, and father."

The apology acknowledged fathers have suffered ostracism, lack of acknowledgment, pressurisation, and loss. Their names were not included on birth certificates. And "the veil of shame and forgetting was cast over their lives too."

The PM remembered the brothers and sisters, grandparents and other relatives who were/are affected by forced adoption.

Forced adoption and removal occurred to Australian-born people of all cultures including Indigenous Australians, and to migrants, she said.

Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott also acknowledged the cruel denials of mother’s and children’s natural rights, and false presumptions of families, charities, and peers. He admitted wrongful harmful governmental conditions were placed on people, indirectly admitting the government’s denial of legally owing social security benefits to unmarried women.

"People should have had our support, not our [hard-hearted] judgment. We did inflict pain," said Abbott. "It was never simply ‘for the best’. The people who claimed it should have known better. We know it now and we should have known it then." Instead of love, support, celebration and justice, there was reproach, rejection, silence, and wrongdoing. "Today, we accept responsibility for the pain, the suffering and the grief. We honour everyone who through the years demonstrated unyielding determination to not allow this injustice crush them, and bring our failures to light. Today your courage has prevailed."

Abbott acknowledged "adoptive parents who have tried to do the right thing by their children". But said nothing of adoptive parents who have committed wrongs.

The PM acknowledged the "bravery" of those who made Senate committee submissions helped lead to Australia knowing the truth. "By saying sorry we can correct the historical record."

Some of the 800 people who travelled to Canberra cried, others thanked the leaders, while others stood cheering when the apology for the "shameful practices" had finished.

The Senate inquiry found about 225,000 babies were stolen.

Parallel motions have been moved in the House of Representatives and the Senate to formalise the Apology. It says that the Parliament, on behalf of the Australian people, takes responsibility and apologises for forced adoption and removal policies and practices.

The promises

PM Gillard has promised forced adoption will never happen in Australia again, recognising the child’s right to know and be cared for by her/his parents.

Pledging "resources to match words with actions", the government has promised $5million to improve specialist counselling services, support and records tracing. A further $5 million will help mental health professionals better assist in caring for forced adoption sufferers. How people will access these services is currently unclear. Origins will try to ensure monies actually result in better care. "We are committed to ensuring that all those affected get the help they need, including find[ing] the truth in freely available records and assistance in reconnecting with lost family." It is presumed this does not include free access to medical records.

A further $1.5 million is slated for the National Archives to record the experiences of those affected by forced adoption through a special exhibition to help ensure forced adoption history will not be "marginalised or forgotten again." It is unclear if, and how people can make submissions to the exhibition.

These promises are good starts, but not enough. Not counting the $1.5million to be spent on an exhibition, if 50,000 people affected by forced adoption need services, then $10million divided by 50,000 equates to just $200 per person.

Origins will work to uphold the government’s "commitment to helping people get the help they need, and willingness to right wrong."

Legal action/class action/compensation?

Tragically, some people are marginalised, and more or less are forgotten, and in dire situations. Governments cannot force ‘families’ to be loving. Many people need more than counselling and an exhibition. The apology spoke of damage, but not damages of recompenses, or legal actions. For many, it is too late for an apology, and some counselling alone.

Both leaders spoke of healing, accountability, redress, fellow Australians, and honour. "No collection of words alone can undo all this damage," admitted PM Gillard. She pledged actions that match words. But moreover, many people need tailored ameliorative actions that match the destruction and loss.

Indeed, being ‘reunited’, for some, has caused/causes more harm. Others cannot find loved ones because they’ve deceased or do not exist. And for many people, "reunited’ is a misnomer, i.e. they never were united in the first place. For many people, for many reasons, compensation is owing. If that means each victim’s story needs hearing and factoring then so be it. "Actions" need to match individuals’ differing circumstances.

It seems the Apology all but refers to victims of forced adoption as victims of crimes. Charges may range from criminal restraint, unlawful imprisonment, and human rights abuses, to child-sex crimes.

Any future class action taken by forced adoption victims will depend on funding.

What matters is how this apology is used as leverage to getting justice and redress. For some people, the Apology and "accountability" will only be meaningful if compensation follows.

The Apology did not acknowledge potential ongoing generational effects now and into the future, nor how to address these.

The media

The apology made international news, and saw Twitter positively abuzz.

"We must face...our past without hesitation or reserve. We a good nation [that is] growing up. The Apology is "a profound act of moral insight by a nation searching its conscience. Today we listen to the stories of those who have waited so long to be heard," PM Gillard had said.

But as soon as the Apology finished, people were faced with division, chaos, dysfunction, and nothing like the day that promised national unity, function, and recognition on forced adoption issues.

Admittedly, Labour leadership speculations have been brewing for some time. However, in part when Simon Crean said labour leadership was in doubt just as the Apology finished, the media’s attention was taken from the serious, nationwide issues pertaining to forced adoption, including further recompenses owing, for ironically, lies, inaccuracies, and wrongful speculations that created more marginalisation and disappointment, not acceptance and acknowledgement. (Part of those recompenses being nationwide understanding, including from people whom remain intractably pro-adoption.)

No one said sorry to victims that media and certain politicians turned theirs (Media Watch, 25/3/13), and thus Australians’ attention, elsewhere. The Media Watch program stated the leadership challenge stories were inventions.

What happened sparks questions. Did a continuing white-over-white (invisible) bigotry, wrongful intractability, and shame and guilt among some Australians to face the truth, play a role? Did certain powerful people’s psychological impediments, or a social need, want to quash the Apology? Was what happened indicative of a broader Australian subconsciousness that diverted attention from the Apology? Was the media deliberately used for diversion; to build a sense of chaos?

Extraordinarily, TV news concentrated on the speculation about nothing, and actually changed schedules and extended time slots for the non-event. ABC news devoted a special 20 minutes from 7.00pm to it before the regular news began at 7.20pm. It was like the Apology hardly happened. At least one major national news network (Victoria) did not mention the Apology at all. In short, the ‘non-leadership-challenge’ story to some extents drowned forced adoption issues across media.

Left somewhat ignored, without dignity, and treated differently in terms of media coverage, we therefore lost a chance for wider social acknowledgement and acceptance. Here, it is understandable if many victims feel cheated.

Generally, Australians were left either feeling the Apology and issues are insignificant, or not knowing what to believe because the non-leadership-challenge-story apparently was far more important.

Media and some politicians to some extents broke our trust. Gillard and Abbott were diverted. There were no journalist doorstop questions, let alone a forced adoption press conference. The media neglected their fourth pillar responsibilities. Where were the actions that backed the words? We need everyone to know the truth.

What’s it mean? No other change? Where are we going?

"Australians will marvel at your determination to fight for the respect of history." Said PM Gillard, "The time of neglect is over." And yet, "We acknowledge that many of you still experience a constant struggle with identity, uncertainty and loss, and feel persistent tension."

The National Apology is welcomed as a great relief. However, some members of Australian society remain unable to face horrible truths and injustices about themselves. For instance, talkback radio evidences some people’s inability to accept the crimes and immoralities as being such. Criticisers on talkback radio saying: "We don’t need a sorry. Organisations [as Origins] are extremist. Forced adoption was right; the only choice; should continue.

Regrettably, the old "bullying arrogance" continues in some quarters. Perhaps some callous perpetrators may never admit to wrongdoing, nor change for the better. But they should be in no doubt, forced adoption and its myriad crimes were never right, regardless of the customs and culture of the then majority that said it were. Know the fundamental principles of morality and humanity do not change! Only governments and people do.

Sadly, after the National, and other apologies, little has changed for many. Promised counselling notwithstanding, many still suffer ostracism, demonising, prejudices, mental illness, bullying...that affect their well-being, threaten their right to self-determination, harm them... As one Origins member tells: "The day after the Apology a man on the street whom belongs to my adoptive parents’ church completely ignored me as he walked by. Again, I am painfully reminded of just how marginalised and alone I am. Not one person has contacted me since the Apology. I have to take sleeping pills to rest at all..."

Sadly many people are left wanting in terms of employment, social acceptance, family, a still face many other hardships. It is felt some voices are not being heard for fear of familial rejection, guilt etc.

The Apology recognised lots about what government cannot do, but not more on what they can.

What about employment for unemployed victims? What possibility exists of group involvement in the national forced adoption exhibition, its set up, management etc.? What about training for forced adoption sufferers in counselling to counsel other victims?

Churches, hospitals...the Senate committee have argued that the Commonwealth is the only institution capable of apologising to everyone who was affected and should accept financial responsibility. But this is not true. Persons warrant more dignity than being treated as ‘everyone’. The National Apology also arguably indirectly calls for apologies and positive actions at microcosmic personal levels. In many ways, this is perhaps where real meaningful changes would have the most significance for many people.

Admitting to committing physical, psychological, and social harms from past adoption practices and processes of the church, a litany of organisations have apparently issued unreserved apologies acknowledging the wrongs that they did. Five out of the eight Australian State/Territorial Governments have also apologised. But almost none acknowledge what is still being done to some people.

What does it say about them and Australian society if groups are allowed to just make a statement and leave it at that, as if by magic everything is thusly all right?

Hospitals, churches, charities etc. need to help pay compensations; and living perpetrators should unreservedly apologise in person to their surviving victims and implement real positive changes that truthfully benefit. People need one-to-one apologies. People need positive connections to be forged through understanding on both sides where connections are non-existent or are painful and harmful. Heartlessness, misunderstandings, and wrongful intractability damage people. We need love, acceptance, and again, real change for the better. And where no satisfactory remediation is otherwise possible, people need compensation and/or other forms of help.

We need to see that all the forced adoption apologies are not merely representative of pretence and self-protection, or of concealment, and of allowing ongoing harmful attitudes and behaviours in some people (particularly belonging to churches and some families) to continue.

We cannot/would not immorally force people who abused/abuse to provide remedial actions. We can only keep working to help non-apologists understand, and bring wrongdoers to justice. We say it is in their best interests to acknowledge, apologise, change, and compensate for alleged crimes, and/or join the fight for compensations and social justice. The days of the cruel, unwise mono-culturalistic majority imposing its fallacious values through immoral, criminal forces resulting in forced adoption are over.

Origins, dependant on a positive outcome of the framework would gratefully accept the National Apology as a new beginning. But more than correct historical records, we need to continue to repair forced adoption people’s lives as best as possible.

Wesley Rush (Adoptee) for Origins SPSA Inc


National Apology for Forced Adoptions,

National Apology for Forced Adoptions, 21 MARCH 2013, Prime Minister, Canberra

Gillard offers formal apology for forced adoptions

21 Mar 2013, 4:43 pm - SBS and wires

Forced adoption apology a 'significant step' for healing

June 23, 2012, (0)

Dan Harrison, Sydney Morning Herald

Tony Abbott transcript - National Apology for Forced Adoptions, Parliament House, Canberra

Forced adoption victims receive apology from Federal Government – Tony Abbott heckled over use of the term "birth parents" during his apology speech

Australia's Gillard gives national apology for forced adoptions, Deutsche Welle,

Australia apologizes for forced adoptions,

Church adoption apology, February 28, 2012, Alana Rosenbaum,

Media Watch, 25 March 2013, ABC television, Australia

Senate Report for Forced Adoption, February 2012

Lily Arthur, "...a matter of funding..."

Wesley Rush, "...tells one Origins member..."