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Forced adoption has caused so much pain for families

  • First published in : Visit Website
  • First published on: 10th Feb 2023

Between 1949 and 1976, across the UK, thousands of children of unmarried women were adopted even though their mothers did not want to let them go. This forced adoption scandal did not happen just at the instigation of church and religious communities but with the full involvement of the state, the NHS and the social work departments of the day. For those affected it has meant a lifetime of suffering and heartache.  It's time there was some redress both practical and symbolic. 

The right to family life is protected under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. One of the most fundamental aspects of family life is the right of a child to be with their mother and the right of a mother to be with her child. Last year the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) conducted an inquiry into the experiences of these women and their children.  We took harrowing evidence from those involved at formal evidence sessions and at informal roundtables and we concluded that the UK government should issue an apology. We also made some practical recommendations relating to counselling, the availability of medical records and the like.

Our report was confined to England and Wales, but the Scottish Government has made a commitment to “fully consider the issue of historical adoption practices in Scotland” and there have been similar calls for a public apology from the Scottish Government. 

It's more than six months since the JCHR published our report and a response from the British Government is well overdue. We don’t know whether it will be accompanied by the recommended apology. When the Minister responsible gave evidence to our committee he seemed very reluctant to commit to one.

Earlier this week I was reminded of just how much an apology matters to both the mothers and their grown-up children when I recorded a podcast with two of them.   The Committee corridor podcast brings together MPs and experts to discuss topical issues. The current series is focusing on justice and human rights, and I am hosting it for six episodes.  We have already looked at modern slavery and later in the series we will be looking at the Bill of Rights and Human Rights at work, including the right to strike. However, this week I recorded interviews with Ann Keen, a mum forced to give her son up for adoption in 1966 and Liz Harvie, who was removed from her unmarried mum and given up for adoption in 1974. 

Ann went on to train as nurse and to serve as the Labour MP for Brentford and Isleworth from 1997 to 2010 but her experiences as a young woman of 17 have never left her. Sent away first to stay with a family friend, who abused her, and then to a mother and baby home, she gave birth without pain relief, having been told that would make sure she would ‘never make the same mistake again’. Her little boy was taken from her, and she was treated quite brutally by some nursing staff.  Eventually as an adult her son traced her, and they have formed a strong relationship. Tragically he was never told that he was adopted, his adopted parents divorced when he was 3 and, until he met Ann, he had spent years wondering why the man who he thought was his father was so uninterested in forming a relationship with him. 

Liz was adopted at eight weeks old.  She wanted for nothing with her adopted family who were honest with her that she had been adopted but the feeling of being different and having been unwanted haunted her until she met her birth mother at age 28 and learned that she had had no choice in the matter of her adoption.   Her description of the joy and wonder she felt at their first meeting will stay with me for ever. 

The experiences of Ann and Liz are typical of many of the mothers and grown-up children whom I met during our inquiry.  For the mothers, the terrible anxiety and shame they endured, the degradation and the unbearable pain of being separated from their babies.  For their children, the pain and trauma of being separated from their birth mothers, the loss of their heritage, the confusion over their identity and the lifelong quest to learn who they really are. 

In 2016, the Catholic Church in England issued an apology for the role it played in these adoption practices.  In Australia in 2013 the then Prime Minister Julia Gillard delivered a historic national apology in parliament for similar practices in Australia.  She also committed $5 million Australian dollars to support services for affected families and to help biological families to reunite.

There are several instances of the UK Government making apologies for occurrences in the past which have caused pain and suffering and in which the State was involved in a way which was clearly wrong. The apologies for Bloody Sunday, the suppression of the Mau Mau insurgency and the Child Migration programmes were all made as statements in the House of Commons.  I would like to see something similar happen here without further delay. And indeed, this is what the campaign group, the Movement for an adoption apology, have asked for.  The podcast will go out next week and you can find it here 

If you are interested in reading the report of the JCHR you can find it here