Forced adoption nightmare: 'Please, don't take her'

An investigation into forced adoption is on the Prime Minister's agenda, including a possible inquiry. Nicholas Jones reports on a traumatic chapter in New Zealand's history.

Maggie Wilkinson stretched her arm to the cot and pleaded, "Please, don't take her".

When she woke her first-born was gone. She saw her daughter once more before the adoption went through.

"The matron said, 'You can look but don't touch'," recalled Wilkinson, now 73. "And I tried to photograph her with my eyes. I will never forget."

In a lawyer's office, Wilkinson put her hand on a Bible and swore she would never try and find her baby. Drugs were given to stop lactation.

More than 50 years later and Wilkinson has become a reluctant public face for the unknown number of women who had their babies adopted out to married couples during the "baby scoop" years, from the 1950s to 1970s.

While her fight for an inquiry into forced adoption has met apparent indifference, Wilkinson has noted how the hit television show The Handmaid's Tale has horrified audiences and critics alike.

In the series, based on the novel by Margaret Atwood, the few remaining fertile women are forced to bear children for ruling elites.

Set in the near future, for Wilkinson it resembles 1960s New Zealand.

"People say, 'This couldn't possibly happen in the future'. But that is what happened to us. It happened in Canada, Ireland, Australia, England, Scotland and America.

"Our children were destined for what they deemed better homes. Or, really, just as long as the couple were married."

A traumatic birth

Wilkinson was 19 when she was sent to St Mary's home for unwed mothers in Auckland's Otahuhu, after her then boyfriend offered money instead of a proposal.

Other women at the home had been abandoned by partners or raped. Some couples had been forced apart by ashamed families.

A "terrifying" matron made the women work throughout their pregnancies, including scrubbing floors and doing laundry, Wilkinson said. Residents were forbidden from interacting with children at an adjoining orphanage.

Wilkinson made a deal to work in the nursery and in exchange be allowed to keep her child. But the matron told her parents she wasn't the type to cope, and they accepted her authority.

The matron delivered her baby, Wilkinson said, while a doctor "lent on a bench on the other side of the room". Wilkinson wasn't treated for her injuries and four years later paid for surgery herself after moving to Australia.

Stories of suffering

At the age of 18 Wilkinson's daughter Vivienne tracked her down after approaching Jigsaw, an organisation that helps reunite separated families and with which Wilkinson had registered.

She was with her mother at Parliament in March last year, when Wilkinson told MPs she spoke for those who had died without having their sorrow validated: "I did not find my voice until the 1990s. I will fight until the day I die".

Sitting with Wilkinson was Christine Hamilton, who had travelled from Australia to tell her story. Her son was born in 1973 at St Vincent's Home of Compassion in Auckland, and she was given a cocktail of drugs before, during and after birth.

Hamilton's requests to see her son were denied. They were reunited when he was an adult, but the reunion was fleeting, given the emotional pain.

She told the New Zealand Herald an official inquiry would mean a huge amount.

"It would show that we didn't want to have our children taken from us and adopted, that there was a whole system that was set up to take our children.

"You lost control of your situation. They just completely stripped you of everything – your dignity, who you are. Then you are just put back out into the community as if nothing happened. I have never felt like I belong in any community. The trust that has been taken from you; you don't trust people."

Several other women declined to participate in this article as it was too painful to relive the trauma. Enormous strain on families remains.

Written submissions of support for Wilkinson's petition included a woman writing on behalf of a deceased friend, whose son was taken after she gave birth in Dunedin in 1965.

"I remember her saying to me, 'Pam, I'm going to die without finding my son, to tell him I loved him, no matter what he may have been told. I will never ever forget his tiny face,'" her friend wrote.

A woman who went into St Mary's aged 17 later had two nervous breakdowns and attempted suicide. Another carried her family cat in the weeks after birth, as "my arms ached for my child".

Recognition overseas

In Australia, then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard made a historic national apology in 2013 after an official inquiry found as many as 250,000 mothers were affected. Young women were pressured, deceived and threatened to give up their babies, a Senate investigation concluded.

"You could not provide informed consent. You were given false assurances. You were forced to endure the coercion and brutality of practices that were unethical, dishonest and in many cases illegal," Gillard told survivors, many crying, in the Grand Hall of Parliament.

"Some families will be lost to one another forever…in particular, we remember those affected by these practices who took their own lives."

The forced adoption of babies in Ireland was documented recently by the Oscar-nominated film Philomena, based on a book by journalist Martin Sixsmith. A mass grave with the remains of babies and children was discovered at a former Catholic care home in County Galway.

Newspaper editorials in Canada have called for action, noting more than 300,000 women were affected from 1940 to 1970, with sheets and pillows used in delivery rooms to prevent eye contact between mother and baby.

In New Zealand, the previous National Government declined to order an inquiry, saying it had greater priorities including family violence laws.

That looked set to change after September's election, given Wilkinson's petition had been presented by Jacinda Ardern, who called for a select committee inquiry.

Sharing a Herald report on Wilkinson's petition, Ardern in March last year wrote on Facebook: "It's hard to even know the scale of forced adoption here, but surely the least we can do is look rather than pretend it didn't happen?"

Labour MPs on the social services committee considering the petition unsuccessfully moved a motion for an inquiry.

However, Wilkinson and other women worried the issue had been forgotten since Labour came to power.

Earlier this year, Wilkinson travelled from her Waihi home to speak at a hui on a Royal Commission of Inquiry into abuse suffered by wards of the state, and asked for forced adoption to be included. She did so despite realising it was a long shot.

"Apart from me roaring there, it is as if it has gone into the ozone. Nobody wants to know again," she said. "We have had this for so many years. We are still banging our heads against a brick wall."

Options considered

The New Zealand Herald understands the Prime Minister is looking at how grievances related to forced adoption could be aired. That process may involve a select committee inquiry.

Wilkinson said she and other women needed concrete action. They had been lobbying since the 1990s, and with people entering old age "it's almost as if they are waiting for us to all die out".

"It's so sad that they heard all our stories. They have met us. We have supplied the evidence. It has got to be filed. It has got to be part of our history, New Zealand's history."

The Anglican and Catholic churches are ready to aid any investigation. Kevin Brewer, chair of the Anglican Trust for Women and Children, said the organisation was sorry for Wilkinson's ongoing pain and sense of loss.

"The Adoptions Act has changed substantially over the last 60 years, and some of the practices of the past are no longer considered acceptable today. There has also been a significant shift in attitudes.

"Historically, families often considered adoption to be the best option…due to the stigma associated with being an unmarried parent. When faced with the prospect of raising a child alone, without the financial and moral support of their family, sadly young mothers often felt adoption was their only option."

The Anglican Church had asked the Government to widen the scope of a Royal Commission of Inquiry to include the church. Brewer said the trust was very supportive of that position, and would co-operate into any other inquiries into adoption.

Gerard McGreevy, manager of the Sisters of Compassion, which holds archival material from St Vincent's, said it would always co-operate with the government.

"The Sisters of Compassion have always sought to work in areas of need, as they continue to do today. In the middle of last century, one of the needs was to support young women coping with unwanted pregnancies."

McGreevy said either the young mother or, if they were minors, their parents determined whether a child would be adopted.

"The rules and processes of adoption were determined by the State. Viewed in retrospect the legal processes were harsh, and a product of their time," he said.

"The medical treatment of the women was determined by the medical profession. The Sisters had no direct role in the process of adoption."

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