Can families heal from forced adoption?

Angela Barra.

Angela Barra.

On March 21, Prime Minister Julia Gillard will give a national apology in Parliament House to all Australians affected by forced adoptions. Here, one woman tells of her journey and what the apology means to her.

I knew her voice, her smell and her taste. I would have sensed when she was happy, stressed, distressed or frightened. I didn’t know that she had been punished for my existence – I was part of her and vice versa. We were in tune with each other, in sync, our hearts beating together. We coexisted and nothing could tear us apart – we were mother and child, the most sacred of bonds.

She heard me crying for her, yearning for her comfort, but we could not find each other. Where did you go? Why can’t I hear you, feel you? What happened? Why did you abandon me?  What did I do that was so wrong that you could leave me and put me in the hands of strangers? This will be my first lesson in love and trust. To love is to be abandoned, waiting aimlessly somewhere in the confines of the hospital. About a month later, a small administration fee will be paid and I will be placed in a new home, a home where I am most certainly wanted.

My name is Angela Barra and I am a survivor of forced adoption, and an activist. Over the last two years I have reunited with the families of both my natural parents. It was never easy finding my natural fathers’ family, because my records were filled with fiction regarding the spelling of his name, where he was from in Italy, his hobbies and so on. It took me over 20 years to find him and I was blessed to share 10 precious months with him, before I watched him die eight weeks ago of aggressive lung cancer.


I found out that when my biological mum gave birth to me at the hospital she was under sedation and forced to sign the adoption papers. She was not advised of her options or her rights. She went back for me, screaming “give me my baby back!” She was told I had been adopted but this, too, was not true. My limited and erroneous records reveal that I was still at the hospital waiting to be adopted. I now know that the words of my adopted mother – “your mummy must have loved you very much to give you away” – were, unknowingly, not true. She was forced.

So, while I gained a magnificent adopted family, it must be remembered that this was at the expense of not being with my natural family. It was also at the expense of the emotional wellbeing of my adopted mother and me. My adopted parents died when I was in my 20’s, another significant loss at such a young age. I know that they would have been horrified if they lived to understand ‘forced adoption’ and they would be supportive of me fighting for justice. It breaks my heart that my adopted mother did not live to gain a greater understanding about why we had such a complex relationship. We now know so much about adopted children and the issues many (though not all) of us face. It was automatically assumed that we would just assimilate into a new family, seamlessly. Well I didn’t, and I now know that my story is not an isolated case.

When you first meet me you will usually see a beaming face with a nurturing and kind persona. You will typically encounter a confident me, who stands tall and whose voice is often punctuated by giggles and self-deprecation. However, if you take a closer look and peel away at this false bravado you will notice a need to please and a desire to be accepted. If you dig even deeper you will even see glimpses of my heartache, my fear, my anxiety, and my scars – both physical and emotional – which have been exacerbated through my pursuit of justice and the truth.

This pursuit led me to be actively involved in the Senate Community Affairs References Committee Inquiry into the Commonwealth Contribution to Former Forced Adoption Policies and Practices. I also linked with the volunteer support organisation, Origins, who have helped me, along with The Benevolent Society (Post Adoption Support Queensland). I had the privilege of being one of the stakeholders that consulted with Minister Tracy Davis, to influence the wording of the Queensland Apology. I was also part of the broader consultation with Professor Nahum Mushin, for the Commonwealth Apology that will be delivered on the 21st of March.

I have spent the last two years working alongside other survivors/victims of forced adoption. What happened is a shameful stain in Australia’s history and sadly many people still do not understand the degree of crimes that were committed against us. Sadly, our story is not unusual, but just unheard.

As a survivor, I will be attending the Commonwealth Apology for Forced Adoption. I will stand proudly alongside my biological mother, who I now call mum. I will listen intently to hear the Prime Minister publically acknowledge that this happened and the harm that it has caused. I, alongside many others, will be waiting to hear the various concrete actions they intend to implement to ensure this never happens again, otherwise it will be meaningless.

My aim is to continue to hold government accountable to keep their promises at both a State and Commonwealth level. I will continue to advocate for family preservation and to scrutinise child protection measures that favour adoption. Measures that favour adoption hurt me deeply, and make me feel unheard and undermined. I’m aware that there is a view among some that we victims/survivors of forced adoption are to blame for an ‘anti adoption’ culture in Australia. My response is – if there are low numbers of adoptions in Australia then this is something to celebrate, because we are succeeding in keeping families together.

Angela Barra is a guest on SBS’s Insight program tonight, 8.30pm on SBS ONE, in a discussion exploring the best way for people and communities to heal in the wake of widespread injustice.