Speech: Apology for past adoption practices

Daniel Andrews’ speech to the Parliament of Victoria, 25 October 2012.

For decades, cruelty lived in our homes and in our hospitals. For decades, it was sanctioned by successive Governments. It was methodical and it was inhumane. It was performed by trusted members of our community.  And it remains our shame.

We gather, today, to recognise the anguish we administered, to honour the thousands of women whose lives we devastated. We gather to comprehend a time when our society failed its most instinctive human duty. We gather to say sorry.

I rise to support the motion of apology to the victims of past adoption practices inVictoria. I acknowledge those present with us in the Parliamentary precinct, and those watching elsewhere.

I acknowledge those who may read our words in the future, and those are no longer with us. All of you are in our thoughts. All of your stories have struck at a raw place in our beings. And this is your day.

To acknowledge the tragedy you have endured, I must affirm one simple rule: To permanently separate a mother and her newborn child, against their will, is to pervert the order of nature and betray the basic tenets of civilisation.

That any Government, any profession, might violate this rule is a concept deeply unsettling to comprehend. It is wrong, it is inexcusable, and the violation of this rule is a principal test for the health of any society.

We failed that test. We failed it when doctors would lull young women into medicated delirium, press them into submission, and undertake the procedure with a cold and clinical urge.

We failed it when parents would consign their pregnant children to social isolation, or compel them into adoptive consent. We failed it when employers sacked, when communities shunned, when charities snubbed.

But most of all, we failed it when elected representatives of this state allowed this systematic tragedy to unfurl, and thought nil of those it affected. When they thought nil of the practice they enabled, or their obligation to end it.

And for this, I say, on behalf of the Labor Party, on behalf of this Parliament, and without reservation: we are truly sorry for your pain and for your grief, and we are truly sorry for our failure.

And we will always remember. We will not ever wear the pretence of denial. We will not attempt a feeble silence. We will always remember, because to forget is to discredit the courage of many.

The many affected, who came forward with their stories; who revealed their broken lives; who exposed the acts committed inside our hospitals and institutions and demanded that they cease.

If we failed society, then they restored it. Those mothers and children who stood up to be seen, and asked us to read the darker chapters of our history: We debate this historic motion today, because of their efforts.

Yet there were many more so broken in anguish, they could not bear to divulge their past. We can’t forget those who took many years to relive their memory, and we can’t forget those who are, as yet, unknown.

These are women whose newborns were taken from them. These are women who were given sleeping pills in the safety of a local doctors’ clinic and woke up in secure institutions for unwed mothers.

These are women who, on revealing their pregnancy to loved ones, were told to change their name and identity. These are women who were told by priests and physicians that God has designated them a birthing vessel for infertile couples.

These are women who were drugged and pressured until they signed adoption forms. These are women who were expected to wear corsets, and were ushered into closets when guests arrived.

These are women who gave birth while tied to a bed, who had sheets and pillows affixed to their face so they never saw their baby. These are women whose only concept of their first child is an infant crying behind a hospital curtain.

These women were told to forget it. They were showered and medicated and spat out of the system. They did not feel the cushion of post-partum care. They watched instead as care was taken only to expunge records and clean memories.

And a generation of sons and daughters were denied their mothers. Sometimes, their children were told their mother didn’t want them. They were told she didn’t care. Sometimes, they were told nothing at all.

A theory held that, with a clean break, mothers would feel no grief and children no void. This theory said that children can be commodities, that mothers can be replaceable. This theory was applied without restraint. But this theory was bankrupt.

Mothers are not replaceable. Jo Farmer is not replaceable. Jo gave birth to a baby girl at the age of 18.  She told me how, in her bed, after childbirth, a nurse brought to her, her baby. This was strictly against the rules.

She was thankful for that moment, with her infant child. She told me how, for years, she looked for her baby. She looked regularly for children who resembled the infant she once held in her hands.

She told me that, when she eventually registered to find her child, she was told, ‘you have a 19 year old daughter’. The word ‘daughter’ moved her. She had never before felt permission to consider her own child a daughter.

The state was obligated to support Jo and her daughter, but it didn’t. The state failed them. And today we speak to Jo, and to thousands more. We speak to those who, unlike Jo, never saw their child. But today, we speak too late.

Too late to prevent harm. Too late to recognise it. Too late to avert an illegal practice. Too late to comfort those who are no longer with us, and too late for them to hear the words of our remorse.

But we are not too late to help some mothers find their children, and we must do everything in our power, in this Parliament, to hasten that reunion, and allow that embrace.

Our words today will not heal wounds, but they may comfort those who seek recognition. They may urge silent victims to speak. They may declare that an institution which abandoned so many has, finally, accepted its responsibility.

Today, this Parliament accepts that responsibility, and this Parliament will never ever forget. Yet this Parliament cannot fully heal any pain, and this Parliament will never fully comprehend the agony and torment of those who we so manifestly failed.

This is a day of some significant moment.  We hope to write, with you, a new chapter. One that ensures your recognition and confirms our responsibility. One that offers no justification and pleads no excuse.

So, we speak this lasting testament. May it carry our unconditional apology. May it rest forever in our records. On behalf of the Labor Party, and on behalf of this Parliament, I say, I am sorry. We are sorry. Truly, truly sorry.

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