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Official apology sought in recognition of lasting suffering caused by adoption practices in 1950s-1970s involving unmarried mothers - JCHR

15 July 2022

The Joint Committee on Human Rights has called on the Government to issue a formal apology to unmarried mothers who had their babies taken for adoption in the 50s, 60s and 70s. In a report published today, the Joint Committee finds that the Government bears ultimate responsibility for the pain and suffering caused by public institutions and state employees that railroaded mothers into unwanted adoptions. It further calls for more to be done to support those dealing with the life-long consequences of these adoptions, urging the Government to improve access to counselling and remove barriers to accessing adoption documents.

Between 1949 and 1976, in England and Wales an estimated 185,000 children were taken from unmarried mothers and adopted. Women and girls who became pregnant outside of marriage during these decades were seen as having shamed themselves and their families. Babies were taken from their mothers who did not want to let them go.

Key findings and recommendations

Over the course of the inquiry, the Joint Committee heard harrowing testimonies from the mothers, adopted people and their relatives who went through these traumatic experiences and still live with the legacy of suffering. While each case is unique, their stories share common threads that make clear the cruelty  they suffered. 

The report details the fear that unmarried women and girls felt when they discovered they were pregnant and the difficulty in seeking help. Families and institutions, including schools, churches, social and healthcare workers, prioritised hiding what was regarded as a shameful situation rather than providing emotional and medical support, in many cases sending unmarried mothers far away from where they lived so their pregnancy could remain a secret from their family and community.

Mothers and adoptees spoke of the life-long of suffering and impact on their mental health and challenges in forming future relationships. The report calls for better access to adoption-specific counselling for those affected by the legacy of adoption practices during this time and in these circumstances. It urges the Government to take urgent steps to remove barriers resulting in the lack of counsellors trained in post-adoption support. 

There remain challenges for those trying to trace their mother or child. Despite having a legal entitlement to adoption records, some applicants have to wait months or years to receive them. Birth and adoption certificates contain different names making it difficult to link the two. Adopted people face serious difficulties from not knowing their parents’ medical history, unable to take preventative care for inheritable diseases. The report calls for on the Government to remove bureaucratic barriers that are exacerbating the trauma of these adoptions. Guidelines should be set for local authorities to improve access to records and their performance monitored. Birth and adoption certificates, should be linked and there should be improved sharing of medical information, while respecting data protection and privacy laws. 

Publishing the report, Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights Rt Hon Harriet Harman MP said:

“The unique importance of the bond between mother and child has been acknowledged down the centuries. Yet in this country, just a few decades ago, that bond between hundreds of thousands of mothers and their babies was brutally ruptured and the baby taken for adoption. 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.  For decades they have been vilified.  Now they need to be vindicated ”

Personal testimony submitted to the inquiry

Submissions to the inquiry from those affected by these adoptions are published here. Below are some excerpts from these submissions:

How unmarried mothers were treated

“Sending me away from my family to adult lodgings to have a baby on my own at 15 years has scarred me for life. Physically and psychologically. Being away from home in a strange town, I was not integrated into ante natal care and had absolutely no idea what to expect. I had a traumatic manual induction of labour at the hands of a local GP. I went into labour and hospital by ambulance alone. The birth process was a terrible shock as I had no preparation. I cared for my son for 8 days in the maternity hospital before returning to my lodgings alone. Back in my home town I was not integrated into post-natal care. I believe this lack of physical health care led to my being unable to have any further children. An indescribable grief.”

Mrs Eileen Griffiths (ACU0006)

“In 1962, as a seventeen year old art student, I found myself pregnant. As was commonplace at that time, my family was horrified and decided to send me away and hide my situation, to avoid the shame and loss of reputation that would otherwise follow.”

Mary Husted (ACU0092)

“I was unaccompanied during the birth, except for the midwives, and the birth took place in a local hospital on 1975. The birth was long and grim, ending with an epidural, forceps and many stitches,

probably because I had had virtually no ante-natal care or preparation and was absolutely terrified. My daughter was taken straight into the nursery and I was left on a trolley outside the delivery room until, sometime later, I was wheeled onto a ward. I cannot remember much of the next ten days (ten days was the usual post-birth hospital stay then) but I do know that I was desperate to see my daughter all the time. I remember going secretly into the nursery in the dead of night and attempting to breastfeed her – I had no idea at all of how to do this but some primal need and drive led me. After ten days, I left the hospital with my mother, leaving my daughter behind. And from that moment on, my family didn’t refer to either my daughter or my experience for forty years. I was expected to get on with life.”

Anonymous (ACU0108)

Making decisions around adoption

“As an unmarried mother I was allocated a social worker, who although, was very kind and understanding, persuaded me that there really was no alternative but to have my baby adopted. I had no support from the father of the baby, I could not, and would not rely on support from my parents, and at that time there was no government support in any way. I just could not have kept my baby, carried on working and supporting myself without help. So the most painful decision of my life had to be made, and everyone encouraged me to have my baby adopted.”

Florence Keeton (ACU0057)

“My parents didn’t really know what to do, so left it all in the hands of our family doctor. He immediately put us in touch with the Church Army moral welfare officer and the whole situation was completely governed by my GP and the Church welfare officer. Adoption was the only prospect ever considered by them and my parents – I didn’t even have a say in the matter. But I knew even before he was born that I loved my baby – it felt like it was him and me against the world. But my rights as a mother and his rights as my child were taken away from us.”

Anonymous (ACU0112)

Attempting to establish contact

“Under the adoption legislation of the time, the adoption was deemed full and final, that there would be no contact. What if my daughter didn't know she had been adopted? There was, after all, no requirement for her to have been told and I had no right to approach mediation services”

Anonymous (ACU0115)

Long-term impact

“I was severed from my birth family, and they were severed from me. I was prevented access to familiar faces and the people that I look like. I didn’t have information pertinent to familial medical history. I grew up without the facts surrounding my life. I was raised with the knowledge that I am adopted, although my experience of dialogue around my adoption is shut-down. It is not talked about. Adoption has deeply impacted on my sense of self, my self-esteem, my relationships to others, and my relationship to the world.”

Harry Barnett (ACU0091)

Further Information

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