Ministers should officially apologise to tens of thousands of unmarried mothers in England and Wales who had their babies taken for adoption through a “brutal and cruel” process, MPs and peers have said.
The joint committee on human rights (JCHR) estimates that 185,000 children were taken from their mothers between 1949 and 1976, and says the government bears ultimate responsibility for the pain and suffering caused by public institutions and state employees involved in the process.
In a damning report published on Friday, it says women and girls suffered stigma and shame initially at having become pregnant out of wedlock and later because they were wrongly perceived as having given up their children voluntarily.
The legacy was a lifetime of suffering for mothers and adoptees, including impacts on mental health and challenges in forming future relationships.
In oral evidence to the JCHR, Judy Baker, who gave birth two days before her 19th birthday and had her baby taken away for adoption seven weeks later, said: “It is 53 years later and I am still a wreck because of what happened to me and my daughter.
“We have been quiet for so long because of this awful cloak of shame that has been put on us that we never ever deserved … I never got to say goodbye. They took her into the next room where her new parents were waiting for her, and that was it.”
The report said adoption practices at the time “lacked humanity”, with many mothers left feeling they had no real choice in the placement for adoption of their children. The committee heard evidence that they were often treated appallingly by people whose job it was to help them, such as social workers and NHS medical staff, as well as by their own family members.
Many women and girls were moved into mother-and-baby homes – run by the state or religious and charitable bodies – for the final weeks of their pregnancy. There, some were punished for having a child out of wedlock, being forced to scrub stairs and floors. One recalled that those who objected were slapped.
Adoptees told the committee of being admonished for asking about their past and that when they did get an answer, they were sometimes told – falsely – that their mothers had given them away.
The committee said the state should apologise because it is responsible for the conduct of employees of public bodies such as the NHS and “the policies and laws of the time, as well as the omissions of policy and law, that allowed these practices”.
Harriet Harman MP, the JCHR’s chair, said: “The mothers’ only ‘crime’ was to have become pregnant while unmarried. Their ‘sentence’ was a lifetime of secrecy and pain. They were told they had ‘given’ their baby for adoption when they had done no such thing. Their child grew up being told that their mother had given them away.
“The mothers had to endure a cruel double dose of shame. First, the shame of getting pregnant out of wedlock and second, when society’s attitude to unmarried mothers changed, they were judged for supposedly not caring about their babies and giving away their baby.
“These adoptions would never happen now and should not have happened then. They did nothing wrong, but were themselves wronged. The joint committee on human rights acknowledges the grave wrong done to these mothers and their children. It is time for the government to do the same and issue the apology they seek.”
As well as urging the government to issue a formal apology, the JCHR says it should do more to support those dealing with the lifelong consequences, including improving access to counselling for those affected by the legacy of adoption practices and removing barriers to accessing adoption documents.
A government spokesperson said: “We have the deepest sympathy to all those affected by historic forced adoption.
“While we cannot undo the past, we have strengthened our legislation and practice to be built on empathy, from NHS maternity services caring for vulnerable women and babies, to our work transforming the adoption process and care system to help children settle into stable homes.
“There is help available for those affected by past adoption practices, including with tracing their birth children or parents.”
July 15, 2022 at 04:36AM Haroon Siddique