Inquiry calls for apology over policy which forced Australian mothers to give up babies

An estimated 150,000 Australian women, often from poor or fractured families, were forced to give up their babies for adoption between the 1940s and 1980s.

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SYDNEY // Christine Cole was pinned to the bed by three nurses as her newborn baby was taken away in 1969. She was not allowed to see her daughter, let alone cradle her in her arms.

Ms Cole was one of an estimated 150,000 Australian women forced to give up their babies for adoption between the 1940s and 1980s. Now the federal government is poised to apologise to them, in the nation's latest attempt to atone for the shameful episodes in its past.

The women were young single mothers, often from poor or fractured families, whose babies were taken from them at birth and given to middle-class married couples. The aim of the policy - pursued by state welfare agencies and church organisations - was to assimilate illegitimate children into "respectable" society and absolve the state of financial responsibility for their upkeep.

After a long campaign by the women, a parliamentary committee held an 18-month inquiry and, last week, it tabled a report recommending a formal apology be given to the mothers and their children.

If that happens, it will be the third set-piece apology in five years. In 2008, the then prime minister Kevin Rudd apologised to the "stolen generations" of aboriginal children forcibly removed from their families. The following year, it was the turn of British child migrants sent to Australia and abused in church and state-run institutions. Lawyers say the mooted apology will strengthen the grounds for legal action by the women, some of whom are considering a class action.

Women were pressured, threatened or deceived into signing adoption consent papers, according to Ms Cole, who was 16 when she gave up her daughter. "I never saw my baby," she said. "Three nurses held me down as they took her out of the room."

Ms Cole was among nearly 400 women who made submissions to a Senate (upper house) committee chaired by Rachel Siewert, an Australian Greens politician. Ms Siewert was almost in tears as she tabled the report. Another committee member, Claire Moore, called the adoptions "a horror of our history".

The inquiry heard that young pregnant women had their file marked "BFA" (Baby for Adoption) months before the birth, but were never consulted. Some babies were adopted by doctors or social workers. The practice went on in hospitals run by the state and by religious organisations.

Lily Arthur gave birth to her son, Tim, while tied to a hospital bed in Brisbane. It was 1967, and she was 17. She was allowed to cradle him in her arms for five minutes - but only after signing adoption papers.

Ms Arthur had been planning to marry her boyfriend, the father of her child. While pregnant, she was arrested on a charge of "being exposed to moral danger", and taken to a girls' home run by the Sisters of Mercy, a Roman Catholic order. She had to work in the laundry until the day she went into labour.

The birth was a nightmare. "I was placed in a sideways running position, with my left leg tied up in a stirrup and my right leg pulled behind me. My face was pushed into a mattress, and they were leaning on my shoulder. They took my son from behind and whisked him out the door."

Ms Arthur was threatened with incarceration in a high-security children's home unless she agreed to give Tim up. Three decades later, she tracked him down. At first, he refused to see her.

Ms Cole, who has researched the subject for a doctoral degree, believes that the authorities "preyed on" the most vulnerable women - orphans, wards of state and those without family support.

She gave birth in a women's hospital in Sydney. "She [the baby] didn't cry, so I tried to get up to see if she was all right. But they had placed a pillow on my chest to stop me seeing what was going on. The nurses threw me back on the bed. The midwife was at the end of the bed and she said to me: 'This has got nothing to do with you.'"

Then, Ms Cole said: "They gave me drugs to dry up my milk. I was taken to a hospital annex and held there for five days, and told I couldn't leave until I signed the adoption consent." Feeling befuddled from drugs including mind-altering barbiturates - she has seen her medical file - she eventually agreed.

Catholic Health Australia, which operates many hospitals, has already apologised for past adoption practices, as have the Uniting Church and the Western Australian government.

Ms Cole eventually managed to trace her daughter. But their reunion was far from blissful. "She had grown up believing that her mother didn't want her," she said. "We've tried to build a relationship as best we can, but it hasn't been easy." Ms Cole, who married and had two sons, says she "always had a terrible fear that another of my children would be taken away". She continues to work on her doctorate and runs the Apology Alliance, an alliance of support groups.

Like many of the women, she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. "We didn't know where our children were, whether they were dead or alive, whether they were suffering. We find Mothers' Day very difficult, we find Christmas very difficult, because we always think about our missing children.