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.

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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.

22 comments

  • I am sorry for your pain, but I can't help but to weigh your pain against my foster son who has been waiting for 12 years to have a birth certificate with his adoptive parents name attached. My son has as much right to a great life, but unfortunately this country is too scared of its own shadows and won't put the needs of the child first no matter what that outcome should be. If they did my boy would have his own Bank account by now. Silly, hey? But to us the sillier the item of need, the greater the need to get it. Look when you know better you do better, Australia has gown up now and it knows better and it needs to back itself as being able to place the best interest of the child first always.

    Commenter
    Intouchcarer
    Location
    Lake Macquarie
    Date and time
    March 05, 2013, 6:06AM
    • I gather that you have not legally adopted the boy in that case he is entited to have his own name. Saying that he does not have one is not true, why in all honesty would anyone want to take away the only thing that belongs to a child taken from his history, cuture etc?. His name is his identity that belongs to him, and not that of strangers

      Commenter
      Frances Wind
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      March 05, 2013, 10:12AM
    • I feel your pain BUT? Obviously you have not read a word this woman has written. It takes courage to speak out about pain and suffering from adoption. Many people do not want to hear about the otherside of adoption. For once we should put our own desires aside and listen to those who are bravely sharing.

      Commenter
      Doliv
      Date and time
      March 05, 2013, 10:26AM
    • ..and perhaps if 'your' child felt ok about his identity HIS NAME would not be such an issue. The direct and deliberate theft of our identity, and the coaching in the lie that it is replaced with, is a shameful horror. The fact that you still perceive this as for the good of the child seems twisted to me- but then I have lived with the reality of the fairy tale all my life, and you are imposing it on someone from a position of ignorance. I am profoundly grateful to live in a country where dialogue makes it possible for you to choose differently for the benefit of the child you are raising.

      Commenter
      Spiderwytch
      Date and time
      March 05, 2013, 10:49AM
    • Well-said, Spyderwitch and Doliv...people who have no experience or knowlege of adoption always promote it as an option as they do not know the emotional pain and suffering it causes to both birth mother and child - If they did, maybe they would not be so positive about it

      Commenter
      Lady
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      March 05, 2013, 12:44PM
  • To change a child’s identity is tantamount to deception. It sends a message that their real name is wrong – that it is something to be ashamed of. We have a right to know our heritage and natural/biological family irrespective of their ability to parent. It is about us knowing who we are and where we came from. A birth certificate is an official document and should not be changed to suit adopting parents. The child needs to be raised in an environment that respects their past, culture and family – that is child centred. It is also in the child’s best interest to be raised by family when the parents are unwilling or unable to do so. If this cannot happen then we need to look at the way we manage foster care in Australia (more support etc and funding) and intensive long-term family support.

    Commenter
    AMBDAM
    Date and time
    March 05, 2013, 10:07AM
    • Thanks for your story. I really is about time that the damage caused by the evils of not just forced adoption, but all forms, including inter country adoption were addressed. There seems to be a lack of understanding in the community at large about the impacts of adoption. There is a widespread assumption, fuelled by various celebrities that a baby will simply assimilate into any new family situation. This is just not the case. The breaking of the bond between a child and it's mother causes irreperable and long term damage.

      Commenter
      about time
      Date and time
      March 05, 2013, 10:09AM
      • Thank u Angela~ beautifully said. Adoption is. indeed, one of our country's shadows. I for one am glad that some lessons have been headed and families in Australia are supported to remain intact. The low adoption rate reflects Australia's family preservation values rather than some 'ante-adoption' culture. As an Australian I am proud of our low rates. As an adoptee I appreciate the courage of activists like Angela, who put themselves out there so that we can finally be heard. As a human being I am grateful that less people must live with the forced loss of their family.

        Commenter
        Spiderwytch
        Date and time
        March 05, 2013, 10:37AM
        • "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."

          I am deeply sorry for the pain you have experienced, but I can't agree with your last sentence. Many children from abusive or unstable homes spend years being shuffled around and between different carers and foster homes, with intermittent periods back in very undesirable circumstances with biological parents who can't or won't take care of them. Can we really say we are "keeping families together" if a child spends the majority of their formative years moving between a variety of unstable home environments?

          There is a big difference between forcing a mother to adopt out her child just because she is young and single (as I presume was the case with your mother?) or removing a child from parents who cannot (or refuse to) care for them adequately. There certainly is a very strong anti-adoption stance in Australia which sadly undermines the best interest of some children. Those whose parents will never provide them with the love and care you describe (despite being given many, many chances to get their act together), would maybe be better off being adopted by foster parents who currently provide them with loving homes and relationships, but are not allowed to formalise that relationship. In some circumstances, disencouraging adoptions can rob children of families and stability.

          I've known quite a few people who regard their foster parents or adoptive parents as the only real parents they ever had.

          Commenter
          Red Pony
          Date and time
          March 05, 2013, 10:48AM
          • HI, thank your for commenting. In terms of name change we do not need to change identities to care for children at risk of harm. Children should not be made to feel ashamed of their name or culture and I can assure you there are very real issues with changing names especially as we get older and date........I had a close call I can assure you. I CUT AND PASTED THIS BELOW FROM A COMMENT ABOVE : “
            To change a child’s identity is tantamount to deception. It sends a message that their real name is wrong – that it is something to be ashamed of. We have a right to know our heritage and natural/biological family irrespective of their ability to parent. It is about us knowing who we are and where we came from. A birth certificate is an official document and should not be changed to suit adopting parents. The child needs to be raised in an environment that respects their past, culture and family – that is child centred. It is also in the child’s best interest to be raised by family when the parents are unwilling or unable to do so. If this cannot happen then we need to look at the way we manage foster care in Australia (more support etc and funding) and intensive long-term family support.

            Commenter
            Angela adoptee
            Date and time
            March 05, 2013, 1:10PM

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