Senate debates

Thursday, 20 March 2014


Forced Adoption

3:59 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the chamber for agreeing to set aside this time so that we can commemorate the first anniversary of the historic National Apology for Forced Adoptions. I am not going to read the whole apology because it would take my whole time, but I do want to remind people of some of the words and the sentiment of the national apology. I also want to talk about some of the things that have happened since the national apology and, hopefully, my colleagues will too. I also point out that the Forced Adoptions Implementation Working Group has been meeting, hence Senator Moore and I have been running in and out of the chamber, and I think some members of the working group will be joining us at some stage.

I am not supposed to be using props but this document is a copy of the apology. It has been hanging very proudly in my office for the last 12 months, and tomorrow is the actual first anniversary of the apology. The apology starts:

1. 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.

2. We acknowledge the profound effects of these policies and practices on fathers.

3. And we recognise the hurt these actions caused to brothers and sisters, grandparents, partners and extended family members.

It then goes on to acknowledge these appalling practices that caused so much pain and suffering for so long, for decades, in this country. I would like to go to the end of the apology, which says:

18. 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.

19. With profound sadness and remorse, we offer you all our unreserved apology.

I would like to remind everybody that that is what we did a year ago tomorrow. We also, today, passed a motion in this chamber with the total support of the chamber. One of the valuable things I will always remember from the Senate is that when we are dealing with important matters, we can deal across parties as a whole and can recognise the importance of these moments in our history. The apology was important last year and continues to be a very important moment in our history.

We, again, today acknowledged the ongoing pain and suffering of mothers, children and fathers affected by unethical, dishonest and sometimes illegal practices of the past. We also went on—and this is where I want to look to the future—to commend the work of the National Archives of Australia. Today the website was launched, and they have done a marvellous job to get that completed in 12 months. Congratulations to them, and I urge everybody to look at the website and look at the history project. It really is going to be a very profound resource to our community.

We also congratulate the Institute of Family Studies, who have done an outstanding job in their research and scoping work. The Department of Social Services have been doing a marvellous job supporting the working group and they are really trying to make sure that they implement the commitments of both the previous government and this government with regard to the recommendations of the Community Affairs References Committee report. Many of the commitments that were made have come from those recommendations. Also, of course, the Forced Adoptions Implementation Working Group have been working really hard to progress the recommendations.

I want to touch on and acknowledge that an apology is only a part of the healing process. Nothing magically happens that takes away what is lifelong suffering and pain which has been caused by these practices, but it is an essential part of the journey. That is why it is so important that the implementation working group continues to do its work and that the recommendations get implemented, and I look forward to them all being implemented in the not-too-distant future. It is extremely important that we do not lose these recommendations or this work and that they are implemented, because we need to be putting those supports in place to further help with the healing from the past practices.

It is very important, as is pointed out in the apology:

17. 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 will never let that part of the apology go. It is absolutely critical that we continue to support people who have been affected by past practices.

I want to take a minute or two to reflect, which goes back to the comment I made about the ability of this chamber to step up to the mark when we need to. I checked the date—it was 15 November 2010 when this chamber referred the inquiry to the Community Affairs References Committee. Throughout 2011 from April through to nearly the end of the year, December, we held a large number of hearings. I will never forget those hearings. I will never forget the evidence that we were given. The accounts that we heard were heartbreaking. You would go home after every hearing with your heart heavy after having heard the pain and anguish that these practices caused. It totally convinced you that this country could not deny the pain and suffering that was caused or that these practices happened. And, as was pointed out in the motion that we passed today, there is no doubt in my mind that some of these practices were illegal. People were cheated, conned and persuaded into giving up their children. That has had profound ramifications for, as the apology points out, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, grandparents, uncles and aunts. It has rippled throughout families.

For too long this country was in denial. That caused additional pain and suffering and a sense of shame. One thing I heard repeatedly from the accounts was of the sense of shame that was imparted, particularly to mothers. That has affected people for their whole lives. We can never let that happen again and we can never forget that this has occurred. That is why I am hoping that every year we can mark this apology so that we do not forget that these events occurred, we acknowledge that they occurred and we remember that the pain and suffering does not go away completely. People will carry that with them all their lives. We can provide support, love and acknowledgement, but you cannot make it go away. However, we can make sure it never happens again. That is why the last part of the motion, which says:

… resolves to continue to do all in its power to make sure these practices are never repeated—

is so essential. It is also a repeat from the apology itself. I will remember and will urge everyone to remember this special day tomorrow.

4:09 pm

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Families and Payments) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to also make a statement as we prepare for the first anniversary of the national apology for forced adoptions tomorrow, 21 March.

We have heard the voices—voices which were silenced for far too long—of those so deeply and profoundly affected by forced adoption practices, practices which were unethical, dishonest and illegal.

I was profoundly honoured to have been part of the Senate Community Affairs References Committee inquiry into the Commonwealth's contribution to former forced adoption policies and practices, the report of which helped bring about the apology that we reflect on today.

The committee heard stories from mothers, fathers and adoptees who had the sacred bond between parent and child broken. We heard accounts of improper use of drugs by medical staff and even cases of young women being shackled whilst birthing. We heard accounts from many mothers who were denied the most natural and simple instinct of a parent, that being the chance to touch and hold their baby.

We heard accounts from mothers who were not informed of their rights and from those who were not given the opportunity to provide consent to the adoption. We heard from children, now adults, who were denied the opportunity to grow up knowing their parents and knowing the truth. We heard accounts from fathers who were barred from the place of their child's birth and prevented from being recognised on birth certificates.

At the public hearing of the Senate inquiry in Hobart, one mother stated:

… I am going to be a fighter and a warrior here today and am concerned to talk about what I think now needs to happen to restore our dignity to us.

I think that this mother and all others who have shared their stories are fighters and warriors. To those who fought to be heard and who fought for justice: we heard you and we thank you.

In giving the apology for forced adoptions on behalf of the Australian people, former Prime Minister Julia Gillard said:

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.

I believe that the eloquent and unreserved apology offered one year ago tomorrow did shine a light on this dark period, as did similar apologies from governments and organisations around Australia, including the apology on behalf of the people of Tasmania from former Premier Lara Giddings, on 18 October 2012.

But it was those who fought to have their accounts heard that first turned on this light. So I sincerely thank those who shared their accounts, including those who contributed to the inquiry. Thank you for turning the light on. It is now up to all of us to not turn away from what we see, to acknowledge the unethical, dishonest and illegal practices of the past, and the ongoing pain and suffering of those affected. It is now up to us to do all within our power to ensure these practices are never repeated. However, as we reflect on the apology, it is important to acknowledge that words alone cannot heal the lifelong suffering of those affected by forced adoption.

When former Prime Minister Gillard made the national apology, it was also announced that the federal government would provide $5 million to improve access to specialist support and records tracing for those affected by forced adoptions and would work with the states and territories to help improve these services. Also, funding of $5 million to enable mental health professionals to better assist in providing support for those affected by forced adoption.

A further $1.5 million was provided for the National Archives of Australia to deliver a website, exhibition and education program to increase awareness and understanding of experiences of individuals affected by forced adoption practices and to share the experiences of forced adoption. This is an important step to ensure that the horrific events of the past are never forgotten and never repeated.

I was privileged to attend the launch of the website this morning and to hear from the minister; Mr David Fricker, Director-General of the National Archives of Australia; and Professor Mushin, Chair of the Forced Adoptions Implementation Working Group. I would recommend that all in this place visit the National Archives website and promote it to others, to continue to shine the light on this dark period of our nation's history.

I congratulate all those who have been involved in this project: those from the National Archives; the implementation working group, which includes my colleagues in the Senate Senator Moore, Senator Siewert and Senator Boyce; and those others who have continued to work on the development of this website. I look forward to seeing this project develop, in particular the travelling exhibition which is still to come.

This project is part of the $11.5 million investment over four years the federal government announced to assist those affected by forced adoption practices as part of its response to the recommendations in the Senate inquiry report. At this morning's launch, the forced adoption apology parchment was also unveiled for public display. It will be publicly displayed in the Members' Hall of Parliament House. Hanging this parchment in Parliament House demonstrates the importance this parliament places on the apology.

I want to again share words I have reflected on before when speaking on this issue in this place because I think these words, given as evidence to the inquiry by a Tasmanian mother, are so vitally important. The mother said:

… I want people to know that I loved my baby, that she was wanted and that I am her mother.

It took far too long for this to be acknowledged and for sorry to be said—and, tragically, for some it came too late. But now we know, we have heard, and it is incumbent upon all of us to support healing, to promote understanding and education, and to work to ensure that this can never happen again. I wish to finish by reflecting on, as Senator Siewert did in her contribution, Prime Minister Gillard's concluding words of the national apology:

With profound sadness and remorse, we offer you all our unreserved apology.

4:17 pm

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to join with former members of the Senate Community Affairs References Committee that I had the pleasure to serve with during the production of this report. I stand here in place of a great advocate and member of the working group and implementation group, Senator Sue Boyce, to make a very short contribution. I would like to congratulate Senators Moore, Siewert and Boyce for their ongoing work in this area and for bringing the tough questions to this place and making us all sit around the table and come to grips with them. We are never stronger as a nation, I think, than when we all come together and are on the same page. We saw evidence of that last year during the Australian government's apology by former Prime Minister Gillard, and the contribution from then opposition leader Tony Abbott, to victims of forced adoption practices.

I was also very proud, as I said earlier, to be a member of the Senate Community Affairs References Committee inquiry into forced adoption policies and practices. I agree with Senator Siewert's commentary that experiencing those hearings around the country will never leave us, hearing firsthand the experiences of mothers, fathers and, indeed, children and workers in some of those establishments at that time. As part of the inquiry we heard harrowing stories. I want to thank all the women, men and others who bravely told their stories to the inquiry to pave the way for this apology. This was an apology of the Australian government and it was supported by the whole parliament.

In response to the apology a year ago, the Australian government is investing $11.5 million over four years to 30 June 2017 to assist those affected by forced adoption practices. In August 2013, the department contracted the Australian Institute of Family Studies to map the current support available to determine how the system is meeting the needs of affected people and suggest service models to complement and enhance existing programs. The Australian Institute of Family Studies has undertaken consultations with service providers, advocacy support groups and state and territory governments on service model options.

As we have heard in previous contributions, the National Archives of Australia has developed a website and is planning an exhibition to document the history of forced adoptions in Australia. The National Archives have consulted key stakeholders and invited public contributions to the website, and contributions to the website will continue after its launch this morning by Minister Andrews. The website contains an option for people to subscribe to a mailing list so that they can be continually updated on this particular issue. There is a link to the Attorney-General's page where there are Hansards, photos and copies of the actual apology document that can be downloaded by anybody who is interested. The forced adoptions exhibition will launch on the second anniversary of the national apology in 2015 and will tour nationally.

The Department of Health provided $3.5 million to 30 June 2014 to all 61 Medicare Locals to increase their capacity to meet the expected increase in demand for the Access to Allied Psychological Services program following the national apology. People who have been affected by forced adoption practices who have a diagnosed mild to moderate mental health disorder could already access ATAPS; however, the one-off funding boost was to give people affected by forced adoptions priority access.

Australia will do all it can to ensure that such illegal and immoral practices will never again happen in our country. When the Australian government made its apology last year, all the states had already offered apologies to women and families affected by past adoption practices. On 25 October 2012 the Victorian parliament formally apologised, also announcing a number of additional measures to better respond to the needs of people affected by past adoption practices. They now have free access to Family Information Networks and Discovery to obtain copies of available adoption records and receive assistance to locate, contact and, where possible, mediate with family members separated by adoption, with a referral to appropriate support and counselling services.

Coalition senators Senator Adams and Senator Coonan also contributed to the Senate inquiry, and I again draw particular attention to Senator Sue Boyce for her continuing interest in this area. The hard work of healing has begun. We all stand together with those affected by forced adoption practices. (Time expired)

4:22 pm

Photo of Claire MooreClaire Moore (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Women) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to acknowledge the members of the working group, because this is a response to the work that you did and continue to do. We all have, clutched into our little hands, copies of the apology from 12 months ago. I think that shows a great deal of hope. We see what was put in that apology, we remember it and we challenge ourselves as to what we do next. The problem with these debates is that we all want to quote the same things, because they are so effective and so valuable.

But I actually want to put on the record, from my memories of the apology from 12 months ago, the part that said:

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.

On that day 12 months ago, the parliament gathered along with so many people to share the stories—I use the term 'stories' because it is an easy one to say—of the people who had the bravery, the need and the passion to make sure that there would not continue to be suffering in silence.

As Senator Siewert has said, the experience of being on this committee and hearing the contributions from people across the country will stay with all of us forever. Once you actually meet some of these people and you talk with them you cannot ever forget. Senator Brown, as usual, actually picked the quote that I was going to use. It was about the mother who poignantly said—and her words are reflected by very, very many pieces of evidence—that the reason that she had come to talk to us, and the reason she wanted our parliament to make a national apology, was that she wanted her child to know that she loved her. She wanted there to be no confusion and no uncertainty. She wanted that message of love to be carried through into the next generation.

So many mothers—and fathers, who were often not involved in this process at all, because they were excluded completely—have never had the opportunity to tell their children that they were loved. Over the years, the connections have been lost but the pain has continued. That special bond—which we believe is always there with people who parent children—has been challenged, but it has never been broken. The role of the apology was to acknowledge throughout our country that there was a breaking of hearts but not of any other part. The breaking of hearts was the result of a decision that was taken out of the individual's hands and imposed on them by so many outside forces.

The other element that stays so clearly with us is that this was a system where people were powerless. The cries that came through the evidence consistently said that their voices, their needs and their love were not able to be taken into account—they were outside. It was a system that just swallowed the individuals. The system over-rode any decision and any hurt. The consequences were felt into the future.

We have heard, through the apology process, that there was a challenge put down to our government and to our community. The last paragraph of the apology—it was quoted by Senator Siewert—looked to the future. It said:

…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.

The other voices I hear, when I look at the submissions we had, were the voices of the children who were adopted. I heard again only today that when you hear the term 'forced adoption' you should realise that a child taken away from its parent knows the true definition of 'forced'. That is because no child can make that effective choice. A person who experienced that process said:

…I was stripped of my innate identity, my intrinsic heritage and formally given a new name and family.

The loss and pain of that young person continued; the person who gave that evidence was 42 years old and was living that pain and hurt as clearly, on that day, as at any other time in their life.

In terms of the process, we have the challenge of the apology. It is the first anniversary. We know it is a first step. A few speakers have given acknowledgement to the extraordinary work of the Australian Institute of Family Studies. Their scoping study that has been presented to the Minister for Social Services is a wonderful document. I think it should add to the national and international knowledge of the issues around forced adoption, the trauma and post-traumatic experiences of people who have been caught up in it, and the personal experiences of people who are seeking our help and support. Those people know now in Australia, as a result of that apology last year, that our nation accepts that they were 'sinned against'. That term was actually used, with all the emotive elements of that terminology. These women, these children and these men were victims of a system that actually did not care effectively for their needs.

We have the opportunity to take action into the future—we have heard about the National Archives project; we have heard about the process of raising awareness across our community—but I also think we have to make an acknowledgement that people need clear support in very many ways. As we go forward, with the apology clearly in our hands and in our hearts, we need to know that the action does not cease. We cannot allow this to just fade away into the realms of history. The apology is an acknowledgement document, but, more than that, it is an action document; it is a plan and it is a challenge.

We have the opportunity as a parliament to work effectively together to fulfil the expectations that we gave the people who were caught up in this process 12 months ago. We made a commitment to them that we would support them, we would acknowledge them and we would ensure that in future there would not be legislation or practices put in place in this country that would cause the pain that was caused by the years of forced adoptions processes. That is our challenge and we have it into the future. (Time expired)