Women urged to speak out in Victorian historical forced adoptions inquiry
Drugged, with her arms and legs restrained, Tasmanian Barbara Pendrey will never forget the day her newborn son was taken from her. It was January 1966. Alone and frightened, the 16-year-old lay on the bed in labour for hours in Melbourne’s Jessie McPherson Hospital before giving birth to a child she would not get to raise. “I was drugged to the point I did not deliver my baby in a natural way,” Mrs. Pendrey told The Senior. “He was taken from my body.”
Mrs Pendrey was just 15 when she found out she was six months’ pregnant. In December 1965 her family sent her away to the Presbyterian Babies Home for unmarried mothers in east Melbourne more than 400kms from her home in Lower Barrington for the last weeks of her pregnancy. She is one of the thousands of women across Australia who were young or unmarried whose babies were taken for adoption by force or through coercion – a practice common throughout the 1950s and 60s and up until to 1980s.
Now Mrs. Pendrey is one of several women sharing her experience as part of a Victorian inquiry into responses to historically forced adoptions in the state. The inquiry is a chance to give people affected by forced adoption the opportunity to tell their stories and consider the best way to respond to harm caused by forced adoption. In her submission to the inquiry, Mrs. Pendrey details how she was bound during the birth. “We were treated like animals, there for them to take our babies and give them to someone else,” she said.
“When I heard the baby cry, I twisted to look at a clock and couldn’t move”. It is this, she said, which damaged her wrist and has left her with permanent pains in her arms and legs. “I have been told the body doesn’t forget. I remember feeling so out of control it was like people who didn’t know me or care, were making huge demands on me. Just being told what to do, like I wasn’t even human or didn’t have feelings. I so wanted to take my baby home with me.”
Instead, they took him off her. “Something so precious. They didn’t treat me as a person with emotions and feelings. This little baby grew inside me. He was my baby, my beautiful baby boy who I never saw.”
More than five decades on, the horrific ordeal has left Mrs. Pendrey with enduring physical and emotional scars including post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic fatigue syndrome and medical bills running into the thousands. And for Mrs. Pendrey, like many other women, getting hold of hospital records from that time has been difficult.
Barbara Pendrey hopes in sharing her story, it will encourage other women to come forward and help bury the shame associated with forced adoption. She is calling for hospital records to be made available so she can understand what happened, and what drugs she was given and for how long. Despite writing to many places, Mrs. Pendrey is yet to get hold of her files and said she can’t move forward until this happens. “If the Government knows where they are, they should be released.”
The Victorian inquiry comes after various state governments, including Tasmania and Victoria, issued formal apologies to the victims of forced adoption in 2012. This followed a recommendation from a 2012 Commonwealth Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs report on the Commonwealth Contribution to Former Forced Adoption Policies and Practices. The resulting senate inquiry in 2012 documented forced adoption policies and practices across Australia drawing on the personal accounts and professional perspectives from 418 written submissions and community hearings in every capital city except Darwin. Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard then delivered a national apology in 2013. Mrs. Pendrey was one of the women who gave a submission to the senate inquiry. She hopes that in sharing her story again, it will encourage other women to come forward and help bury the shame associated with forced adoption. “I’ll never forget when the church minister arrived to give me ‘counselling’. He said: ‘Now you’ve been a naughty girl – don’t do it again’. The shame of this ‘counselling’ has left me with so many issues. I want these women to know: you didn’t do anything wrong. Don’t allow the people who did this leave you with guilt and a lack of self-esteem. Write into the inquiry put the words in writing, cry a little or a lot, make a statement. Be brave, it will make you feel strong.”
‘The last opportunity’
In its submission to the inquiry, not-for-profit post-adoption search and support services organisation VANISH said as mothers and adopted people from the forced adoption era steadily age, the inquiry may be the “last real opportunity to provide meaningful redress for past adoption practices”.
VANISH manager Charlotte Smith said many of the 2012 senate inquiry recommendations have not been implemented, including a redress scheme and the provision of counselling services. VANISH is calling for a “sensitive” redress scheme which includes the removal of the statute of limitations so the responsible institutions can be taken to court. “The separation of a mother and her infant is a traumatic loss for both and can be for the father too. Yet this trauma often went untreated and the grief and loss unrecognised and unmourned,” said Ms. Smith. She said in many cases, mothers whose babies were adopted without their informed consent have not spoken to anyone about their son or daughter who was adopted. “They might feel nobody would understand, or that they cannot bear to revisit the distress they experienced,” she said.
“This traumatic event and loss completely changed the trajectory of some mothers, and fathers’ lives. Their relationships were broken up, their education halted, their self-esteem crushed. Their plans to marry, have a career, have children were shattered, and some now have few social or family connections, struggle financially, and suffer from anxiety, depression, or other issues.”
She said adopted people also experience grief about the loss of their mother and father, their loss of identity, of belonging, and of being around people like them. “This loss is often overlooked and they are expected to be happy and grateful about their adoption. It can be very distressing for adopted people to find out that their adoption was forced and that they were wanted.”
It is her hope that through the inquiry, mothers and fathers who were separated from their babies and adopted adults will find out that they are not alone and that there is specialist support available.
VANISH hopes that this inquiry will establish the truth of what happened and the devastating lifelong impacts on those who suffered such cruelty at the hands of people they should have been able to trust. We hope that the victims and survivors of these unethical and sometimes criminal practices will be told ‘we believe you, it was wrong, it was not your fault, we are truly sorry’ and the institutions involved take full responsibility and focus on restoration.”
Final call for submissions
Individuals and organisations have until June 26 to make submissions to Victoria’s Legislative Assembly’s Legal and Social Issues Committee on responses to historically forced adoptions in Victoria. Committee chair Natalie Suleyman said she wants to ensure anyone who has been affected by forced adoptions can have their say. The inquiry is exploring support services and responses provided to the people in our community who endured the past policies and practices of forced adoption going back several decades. With all that has happened over the past few months, we wanted to give community members a final opportunity to share their experiences and views with the Committee before we move to public hearings in the second half of this year,” Ms. Suleyman said.
“The terms of reference for this inquiry are broad, so the Committee will consider all issues raised by community members who make submissions and present at public hearings.”
The terms of reference for the inquiry and details on how to make a submission are available from the Committee’s website.
- VANISH 1300-826-474 or visit vanish.org.au
- Forced Adoption Support Services (Relationships Australia) 1800 210-313