From the 1950s until the mid-1970s the babies of young mothers were forcibly removed at birth and adopted by married couples.
Those mothers are now broken-hearted seniors living with the trauma, some never speaking again of a stolen baby, others struggling to reconnect decades later with their estranged adult children.
These women consider their babies the “other stolen generation”.
Tireless campaigns for justice led to apologies from the Queensland government in 2012 and the federal government in 2013. Several churches and hospitals involved in forced adoptions have also apologised.
Trish Large, whose son Alan was forcibly removed at his birth in 1968, is the president of Adoption Loss Adult Support (ALAS) and has spent decades fighting for the victims of forced adoption.
She was awarded an OAM in 2019 for her work and continues to lobby the Queensland Government to change a law that allows any individual involved in the adoption process to veto identifying information, thus preventing biological mothers and adult adoptees from reconnecting.
“Vetoes are for life,” she says. “We now have adoptees whose mothers died before they could find them because of a veto on identifying information.”
She is also fighting to have the statute of limitations lifted that requires any legal action against a hospital to be taken within three years. This prevents the mothers from seeking compensation.
“The feelings of shame linger still and they engulf our lives. Other people around us just don’t get what we go through,’’ Trish says. “We lost our place in our families because we became pregnant. It was like we had committed a terrible crime and were never accepted back into our families.
“Many of us suffer post-traumatic stress that has taken over lives. Our baby’s birthday and Christmas can trigger us – we always feel that someone is missing.
“After the birth we were all told to ‘forget about it and get on with your life’. But, of course, that never happened. Many of us have been living with our grief for 50 years. What was done was illegal, barbaric and cruel. It has caused massive, long-term problems for all of us.”
Keryn Shields is angry and wants justice. It was 46 years ago when her newborn daughter was snatched from her and the pain is still raw.
“Young girls today can’t comprehend how this could have happened to us,’’ she says.
Keryn was 18 when she gave birth at the Salvation Army’s Boothville hospital in the inner north Brisbane suburb of Windsor. Boothville had been established in 1924 as a maternity home for single mothers.
She stayed there for six months in a dormitory with eight other girls, one aged only 13.
“We were made to work every day waiting on the married new mothers, scrubbing steps, doing laundry and scullery duties. We were up at 5.30am until lights out at 9pm,” Keryn says.
“I was pregnant, scared and I couldn’t find anyone to help me. My parents, as loving as they were, were more concerned about what the neighbours would think. I was so naive I thought that I would just get the help at Boothville that I needed to have my baby.’’
As Keryn begins to describe the birth, she becomes emotional and apologises. She can’t easily speak of the traumatic event.
“I was actually birthing alone, terrified and screaming, with only a buzzer in my hand as the midwife said she had another delivery to attend. As soon as I’d given birth the baby was taken away. I wasn’t even told my baby’s sex at the time.
“Days later that nurse said, ‘I could get the sack for this but if you come down to the nursery at midnight you can see the baby’. I held my baby for 10 minutes.”
Keryn says she was bullied to sign the adoption paperwork by a woman from Children’s Services who came to see her after the birth.
“Thirty days after the adoption I received a cheque for $30 from the Queensland government, obviously payment for my daughter.
“It was years later in 2014 that I found out I could have got my baby back in the 30 days after her birth,” she says. “There are so many women now in their 60s, 70s or 80s who are still dealing with the trauma of having their babies taken. We are all hurting.
“And I am not afraid to say that I want compensation. Other people have received compensation for far less than what we went through. But I think there are too many of us whose babies were taken and now they are just waiting for us to die. We are living in 2022 and we still find it so hard to cope.
“Over the years I have seen lots of doctors who gave me anti-depressants. They just made me feel worse and I ended up tipping them down the sink.”
Keryn is proud of the long and happy marriage she later made.
“Together we have a son and a daughter, and grandchildren.”
But she feels robbed of 29 years of her firstborn’s life. Keryn placed her details on a database with the adoption support group, Jigsaw, and in January 2015 her daughter made contact.
“The funny thing is she had been living in a neighbouring suburb to me on Brisbane’s southside. She was 29 and had her own daughter, my granddaughter,” Keryn says.
“The relationship hasn’t been easy, but I hope my daughter and I will get together again in the future. The children who were adopted often have lots of issues too. It just goes on and on. Peeling back the layers of pain.”
After Lesley Mitchell gave birth in January 1972, she says no one ever spoke of the pregnancy or the baby to her again – not until her adult son Shane found her 44 years later.
“After the birth it was like I was living parallel lives,” Lesley says.
“I thought of Shane every day, but I had absolutely nothing to prove I’d had a child; no paperwork, nothing. I never even saw my baby.
“It felt like everything that had happened was only in my head and I began to seriously think I was insane.
“The staff at Brisbane’s Mater Mothers told me I’d had a boy, but they also told me he was so ill that he probably would never leave the hospital.
“That’s why I never looked for him because I did not want that confirmed. But it was a big lie, Shane had been adopted at three weeks.”
Lesley was living in Bundaberg when she became pregnant. It was a hard time as the family had been deserted by her father 18 months earlier.
“I was sent to Brisbane after my mother saw an ad in the paper for someone to live in with a family and look after their young children. The family knew I was pregnant and took me in for the right reasons. I was lucky.”
The irony was that she had been looking after their three children but wasn’t allowed to care for her own child.
“I knew what society dictated at the time should happen when someone was young and pregnant.
“In the hospital I was given a two or three-page form with two columns that listed the pros and cons of keeping my baby,” she says.
“One side was filled in with all he would be given if adopted and on my side was only written ‘love’ and the rest blank. How subtle is that?
“One day I found the nursery where all the babies were and went up to the window and a nurse came shrieking down the hallway ‘get that girl away from that window, she is not to see that baby’.”
Lesley later married and had two more children.
“Shane was 44 when he finally found me,” she says. “He contacted Jigsaw, gave them all the information he had and received a call back about two hours later, asking ‘do you want to know where your mother lives?’ They found me on the electoral roll.
“Shane and I have forged a really strong bond – I admit most reunions fail. He gets on with my other kids who have accepted him. It hasn’t been great but it’s not bad.”
Lesley says accountability for the way she and others were treated is long overdue.
“I am bitter and angry. I feel I was absolutely conned and I am not the only one – it has hurt so many people.
“I would take compensation if it was given but I want justice. The apologies delivered were only words and nothing has moved on since. A full inquiry hearing our evidence would be good.”
Lesley says the practice of ripping away adopted children’s biological identity was cruel.
“The practice of erasing a baby’s name in adoption has caused lifelong grief and lost connections. They cannot recover,” she says.
When a baby was adopted, the original birth certificate was cancelled and their amended certificate listed the adoptive mother as the birth mother.
“My son is furious this happened to him. This false birth certificate is what adoptees use for passports and you have to sign a declaration that this is a true document. Every adoptee has to lie to get a passport. It’s not right.
“Not having me on his birth certificate means Shane can’t be listed as my son on my death certificate one day.
“We could apply for an Adoption Discharge, that’s when an adoption ceases to exist, but it’s granted at the whim of a Supreme Court judge.”
Lesley says the forced adoption also took a toll on her mother, now 90.
“My mother said after Shane found me that if she’d known how resilient our family would become she would have fought harder for me to keep him. I know my mother feels really bad. She has apologised to my son and he understands what was the situation at the time.”
Lesley is now single and plans to stay that way.
“I am too damaged,’’ she says. “I have trust issues and I’m not going to inflict those on anyone else anymore. I found mainstream medical help and therapy just didn’t cut it for me.
“I am very much a loner and I don’t go out much. It really ruined my life and because my life was so seriously screwed up, I’m now nearly 70, and will have to keep working until I can’t.”
Lesley says forced adoption is a sensitive and personal subject for many women.
“One of my friends will take the secret of her baby to the grave. Another married the father of her adopted child, and they went on to have three full siblings. She told me her story once but won’t speak about it again and she hasn’t told anyone else.
“You don’t realise how many people this has affected. I tell mothers it wasn’t their shame to carry but it’s a huge thing to deal with if your baby was stolen.”
Trish Large gave birth to her son on October 17, 1968, but it would be 22 years, 11 months, five days, five hours and 45 minutes of heartbreak before she would see him.
She had just turned 20, and was restrained when her baby was taken from her as soon as he was born.
The president of Adoption Loss Adult Support (ALAS) since 1992 and before that the North Brisbane Birth Mothers Support Group, Trish has spent her lifetime fighting for the rights of victims of forced adoption.
In 2019, she was awarded an OAM for her work as an adoption justice activist
“I was keeping my baby and taking him home. I wasn’t giving him up for adoption,” she says. “But they took him straight from me. I never saw him or held him. I was tied to the bed.”
Trish had supported herself through her pregnancy as her mother had thrown her out when she heard the news.
But what she didn’t know was that her mother – at a time when the age of consent was still 21 – had signed the forms for the baby’s adoption.
“My mother told them she didn’t want the baby coming home,” she says. “I didn’t even know that my parents could do that behind my back.”
It was a difficult birth. The baby’s head was misshapen by the forceps delivery and Trish was exhausted but all she wanted was to hold her baby.
“The young doctor said he would get him, and I heard him tell the sister, “the mother wants to see her baby. It’s her right.”
Instead, the sister stormed in, telling the young mum, “you are under 21, unmarried, unemployed and unfit to see, hear, hold or touch this baby” before slamming the door as she left.
Her newborn son, who she named Alan, was put in a locked nursery and Trish’s nightmare began. She was given Stilboestrol, a lactation suppression drug that’s now a banned carcinogenic, every day until she left hospital.
Trish has since gained access to her full hospital file through Freedom of Information, which she says shows that her dosage was three times the legal limit.
She also had her breasts bound by three nurses, one with a knee on her back, who wrapped an elastic bandage from the top of her chest to her waist so tightly that she could barely breathe.
A social worker arrived with a clipboard and a brown envelope and announced, “Good news. You and the baby are medically fit to leave hospital. Sign here.”
Believing this meant they would be leaving together, Trish signed.
When she went to the Child Safety department, she was told they had never handled a case for Patricia Large and she needed to go to the Royal Brisbane Hospital to get proof the baby existed.
There, the response was the same: “There’s no Patricia Large here. You never gave birth at this hospital.”
Next, she tried the police who sent her back to the hospital for proof that she’d even had a baby. Trish vowed she wouldn’t stop fighting. And she didn’t.
On August 21, 1991, Trish was finally reunited with her firstborn.
“We made ourselves a promise that never again in our lifetime would anyone ever come between us,” she says.
“He’s got grey hair now, but he’s still very handsome.”
It is estimated about 150,000 babies were adopted in Australia between 1951 and 1975. It is unknown how many of them were forcibly removed.
“To the mothers whose babies were taken and hidden from them, and who were deceived, threatened or forced to relinquish their babies, we say sorry.” A ceremony will be held at Brisbane’s Roma Street Parklands to mark the 10th anniversary of the Queensland government’s apology for forced adoption on November 27 at 3pm.
FOR MORE HELP
Jigsaw 3358 6666 or visit jigsawqueensland.com
LifeLine 13 11 14 or visit lifeline.org.au
ALAS (Adoption Loss Adult Support)
call 0417 077 159 or email firstname.lastname@example.org