The forcible removal of children by social workers in Australia between the 1950s and the 1970s has parallels with what is happening in British courts today
Applications to take children from their parents into care continue to break all records Photo: ALAMY
Listeners to Thursday’s Today programme heard a truly remarkable item. The presenter Sarah Montague reported that the Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard, had issued a solemn apology for the forced-adoption scandal.
Between the 1950s and the 1970s, thousands of young Australian women – many of them unmarried mothers – had their children forcibly removed, often at birth, by social workers who then sent the children off for adoption. Ms Montague interviewed one such mother, who described how she had been arrested when pregnant by the police and incarcerated in a special unit, where, the moment her baby was born, it was removed by social workers and handed to a family that lived three doors down the road.
Ms Montague was astonished by what she heard. “It sounds terrible,” she said, “how was it allowed to happen? How was it considered acceptable?” After a pause when the interview finished, her equally shocked co-presenter, Evan Davis, said: “We’re in stunned silence.”
What is astonishing about this, of course, is the reaction of the Today journalists. They are clearly completely unaware that similar events to those they found so shocking are occurring here in Britain every day of the week. The latest figures show that applications to take children from their parents into care continue to break all records – nearly 1,000 a month in England and Wales alone – and far too many of these child-snatchings have no more rational or humane justification than those for which Ms Gillard was belatedly apologising.
For some years now a handful of journalists, including Camilla Cavendish on The Times, Sue Reid of the Daily Mail and several writers on The Sunday Telegraph, including me, have been trying against all the odds to lift a tiny corner of the veil of secrecy that hides what is routinely going on in our social-service departments and family courts. Our own forced adoption scandal is a tragedy just as terrifying as anything that happened in Australia all those years ago.
But I am also reminded of the occasion on February 24, 2010, when Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg all stood up in the Commons to apologise for the equally shocking scandal that had long since been brought to light over the fate of some 50,000 bewildered British children, who were torn from their families half a century ago or more, to be sent off to a miserable new life in Australia and Canada. Only decades later did the tireless efforts of Margaret Humphreys, a former British social worker, bring this tragedy to public view (described in her heartrending book, Empty Cradles).
Clearly, when they uttered their apologies, Brown, Cameron and Clegg had no idea that something just as horrifying was going on under their noses at the very time they were speaking. Doubtless we shall have to wait for another 30 years, for another generation of politicians to utter empty apologies for the crimes that were being committed behind closed doors in the Britain of 2013 – when there is no longer anyone around to be held accountable for what our politicians of today are still allowing to continue.