The fraught politics of saying sorry for forced adoption: implications for child protection policy in Australia

19 Mar 2013

In February 2012, a report by the Senate Community Affairs References Committee recommended that the federal parliament issue a formal statement of apology for the role the Commonwealth played in the routine adoption of the babies of unwed (mostly teenage) mothers by childless married couples between the 1950s and mid-1970s. The Gillard government subsequently announced in June 2012 that an apology on behalf of the nation shall be made in 2013 to acknowledge the trauma of forced adoption. The apology will be delivered on 21 March this year.

Many Australians will believe that in these more enlightened times the national apology is overdue to separated mothers harmed by the unethical and unlawful forced adoption malpractices that led some young and vulnerable mothers to relinquish their babies against their will. However, it is not a matter of just saying ‘sorry’ for past errors—the national apology has contemporary social policy implications that need to be considered.

These implications relate to the crucial and controversial subject of child protection policy. The nation is in danger of practising the easy moralism that condemns previous generations for the sins of forced adoption, while ignoring current-day sins of omission and commission toxic for child welfare. In reaction to past forced adoption practices, there is a real danger that the national apology will endorse the current over-emphasis placed on ‘supporting not separating’ the increasing number of problem families in the community with serious concerns for the safety and wellbeing of children.

This report examines the significance of the March 2013 national apology for child protection policy by critiquing the arguments and assumptions of the influential 2012 Senate inquiry into the role the Commonwealth played in the former forced adoption policies and practices widespread in Australia after World War II. The Senate inquiry supported the idea that, as part of the national apology, Australian governments should commit to always working to keep problem families together. But it did not discuss a range of relevant issues, such as the over-representation of single-mother families in cases of child maltreatment. It also did not examine the way vocal opponents of adoption exploit the history of forced adoption to attempt to discredit the practice of adoption in all circumstances, including for child protection purposes.

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