Exclusive: Her baby was taken. 57 years later the Anglican Church has apologised

A major church has apologised to a mother who was one of hundreds of young women coerced into giving up their newborns for adoption in the “baby scoop” era. Nicholas Jones was in the room for the historic meeting.

Fifty-seven years after her baby was taken, the Bishop of Auckland stood in Maggie Wilkinson’s living room and apologised.

“You were sent to a place that should have offered you support and care…you received exactly the opposite,” said Ross Bay, Bishop of Auckland for the Anglican Church, which was responsible for the unwed mothers’ home where Wilkinson was sent at 19.

She begged to keep her daughter, but her newborn was removed and an adoption arranged.

Vivienne found her mum as a teenager, after 18 years of feeling like an outsider.

Bay also apologised to her, although acknowledged doing so couldn’t change the past.

“But [the adoption] should not have happened, and I am so very sorry for what you have suffered through your life as a result.”

Wilkinson is one of an unknown number of unmarried New Zealand women who had their babies adopted out to married couples during the “baby scoop” years, from the 1950s to 1980s.

Other countries have reckoned with this history. In Australia, then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard made a national apology in 2013 after a Senate inquiry found as many as 250,000 mothers were affected, many of whom were pressured, deceived and threatened to give up their babies.

Wilkinson’s decades-long fight for similar action here has so far been unsuccessful.

The 77-year-old thought she would likely die before the trauma was properly acknowledged.

Then, in 2018 a Royal Commission of Inquiry into historical abuse in state care was announced. That was later widened to include faith-based institutions and Wilkinson was heard.

She told of being sent to St Mary’s in Ōtāhuhu by her ashamed parents and, days after a traumatic birth, signing off the adoption under the instructions of the home’s matron and a church-connected lawyer, who told her to swear on a Bible she’d never try to find her daughter.

“To walk out with empty arms, baby gone forever, was the most horrendous walk of my life.”

In 2015 she sued the Anglican Trust for Women and Children (ATWC), which operated St Mary’s, but ran out of money after spending $10,000. The trust offered grief counselling.

“It seems amazing to me,” she says of that stance. “The church had the opportunity to respond with any terms they thought appropriate. Instead I was faced with an incredible refusal.”

That position shifted in the wake of the Royal Commission, and Wilkinson’s case was reopened.

This time a financial settlement was offered and an in-person apology – a piece of New Zealand history made last Friday at the Wilkinsons’ Gisborne home.

Family and guests sat on chairs arranged in a circle in the lounge.

“What you experienced at St Mary’s, both of you, was cruelty. You did suffer abuse through what happened to you there,” the Bishop told mother and daughter.

“It should not have taken us so long to be here…our values should have taken us to a place very different from the road that we have travelled.”

A place of shame

When Wilkinson learnt she was pregnant in 1963, the father offered money instead of a proposal.

Her parents made her hide in her room, telling friends she was away in Wellington. The secret was kept from the family GP, and another doctor was called to the house.

He suggested St Mary’s, and at five months’ pregnant she was driven up from Whakatāne.

Public-facing areas of the home on Great South Rd were inviting and well kept. However, out back the unmarried women lived in a sparse, damp dormitory.

Some of the other 20 or so residents had been abandoned by partners. Others were intellectually disabled and “bewildered and lost”, Wilkinson says. Some of the girls were 14 or 15, but were told to say they were 16 if anyone asked.

“I used to think, who on earth made these people pregnant, and why aren’t the police involved?”

The matron would shout at the girls, telling them they were “fallen”, “tarnished” and selfish to want to keep “her” babies.

Work days of up to 15 hours were enforced with military discipline and right through pregnancy, including scrubbing floors and working on wash coppers in the laundry. A bell rang to mark when it was time to rise, eat, and work. They wore their own clothes only on a Sunday if a visitor came. Otherwise old, faded communal garments were worn.

There wasn’t enough to eat, Wilkinson says, as the matron wanted small babies that would be easier to deliver.

“I worked in the kitchen and I shocked myself by stealing food – shoving it in my mouth before anyone saw…I had an obsession with food and would cut pictures of food out of magazines and hide them under my bed…when I look back at that time I think I quietly had just gone mad.”

Wilkinson says social workers were meant to visit but were frightened off by the matron, who also accompanied the residents during doctor visits. No information about pregnancy or what birth would be like was given.

She thought she’d struck a deal to stay working at the home and in exchange keep her child. However, the matron later told her parents she wasn’t the type to cope with a child, and they accepted her authority.

After she got into a disagreement with another resident, she was locked in an isolation room, and given medication to bring on labour.

On June 12, 1964, her baby was delivered by the matron, while a doctor lent on a bench on the other side of the room. She was “torn to bits inside”, but no treatment was given.

Wilkinson named her daughter Esther.

“I put my hand over her and I said, ‘Please don’t take her away’. But I went to sleep, and when I woke she was gone.”

More drugs were given, now to stop lactation, and her breasts bound. She saw her baby once more, when she was told to say goodbye, but forbidden from touching her.

“I tried to photograph her with my eyes,” she says.

Escape to Australia

Wilkinson returned to her parents’ home in Whakatāne. She was still bleeding, but didn’t feel she could go to a doctor.

She cried constantly, and repeatedly phoned the matron asking for her daughter back.

After a move to Auckland she saved enough to escape to Sydney, but was haunted by the loss of her daughter, to the extent she told work colleagues she had a young baby at home.

During this time she fell in love with an old friend, Graeme. They had two children, Jeremy and Rebecca, but lived in the shadow cast by the loss of her firstborn.

“My children from my marriage lived with a mother who was deeply depressed and suicidal and there were many times they did not cope,” says Wilkinson, whose quotes in this article are taken from interviews, the apology meeting, and her submission to the Royal Commission.

At the age of 18, Vivienne found her mother through Jigsaw, an organisation that reunites separated families and with which Wilkinson had registered.

She rang at the first opportunity. Wilkinson was working a late shift, so it was Rebecca who picked up the phone and, for the first time, heard her big sister’s voice.

Vivienne drove from the Coromandel to Tauranga that weekend.

“I used to sit on the letterbox and wait for dad to come home after work,” Wilkinson says. “And that’s what I felt like doing – I hung around the letter box waiting for her to arrive.”

Reunions can be fraught. Expectations for the ongoing relationship can differ. There’s deep pain on both sides and, sometimes, anger or blame. Often relationships don’t flourish.

Building the mother-daughter relationship as adults was “a bumpy road”, Wilkinson says, “but I had loved her since before she was born, so I just kept on loving her”.

When Vivienne was 6 she was badly burned after being left alone in the house, and the scarring added to her sense of alienation. She was later sent to boarding school, a place she says was a “dumping ground for adopted girls who didn’t fit in”.

She is Te Arawa on her father’s side, but grew up without knowing that whakapapa.

“I remember when I was in the third form, knowing that I was missing out on something, so I took te reo. And the teacher didn’t want me there because I was too white and I had a double-barrelled, posh European name. He got me kicked out of the class.

“That’s what I missed out on. I guess that’s why people join gangs, to belong somewhere.”

The fight for acknowledgement

The adoption of babies in Ireland was documented by the Oscar-nominated film Philomena, based on a book about Philomena Lee’s 50-year search for her son.

There are tens of thousands of similar stories. Australia led the way in confronting that legacy with Gillard’s 2013 apology, backed with a substantial support fund.

“We say sorry to you, the mothers who were denied knowledge of your rights, which meant you could not provide informed consent. You were given false assurances. You were forced to endure the coercion and brutality of practices that were unethical, dishonest and in many cases illegal,” Gillard told an audience, many in tears, in Parliament’s Grand Hall.

“We apologise to the sons and daughters who grew up not knowing how much you were wanted and loved. We acknowledge that many of you still experience a constant struggle with identity, uncertainty and loss, and feel a persistent tension between loyalty to one family and yearning for another.”

An apology was given in Canada after a Parliamentary committee report in 2018, which found one in five women later attempted suicide. Nearly a third didn’t have any more children.

Wilkinson began lobbying in the 1990s, and in 2016 petitioned Parliament to undertake a full inquiry. She found a champion in the Opposition spokesperson for justice, Jacinda Ardern, but the National-dominated Parliamentary committee reasoned, “these practices reflected the social values and attitudes of the time”.

Ardern propelled Labour into Government in 2017, and the next year ordered an historic inquiry into the abuse of children in state care.

Wilkinson travelled to Wellington and, among others, asked for the terms of reference to be widened to include faith-based institutions.

She considered that a long shot, but it came off.

After her submission was heard in December 2020, the law firm Cooper Legal, which took Wilkinson’s prior, failed legal action, told her the ATWC had turned over a new leaf in its attitude to abuse claims, and had agreed to reopen her case.

It’s the financial settlement, although modest, that means anything, Wilkinson says.

“Because, as Graeme says, nobody takes any notice unless you hit them in the pocket.

“If I could go back in time and they gave me my child I would cope, I would say, ‘You made a mistake – sorry is okay’. But that is an impossibility.”

The settlement builds on and honours the work of others, she says.

“Those who worked so hard to get the Adult Information Bill [1985] passed, helping adopted children find their parents, and vice versa.

“Those who wrote books and theses in an attempt to educate and inform. Those who hit the wall or grew tired and old. And to all the women and their children who were harmed and still grieve.”

'I am not the person I was meant to be'

Bay attended the apology meeting with Judy Matai’a, chief executive of the ATWC.

Vivienne spoke first. The sound of rain on the roof filled the gaps between her sentences.

“The church gave me a name that wasn’t my own,” she told its representatives.

“We grew up being told that our mothers did not want us, couldn’t care for us. Was I not good enough, was my mother deranged in some way, do I have the blood of a second class citizen?”

As a preschooler she felt her grandfather’s “disdain” as he chased her off with his walking stick – “I wasn’t his real grandchild, and didn’t I know it at the age of 4” – and later her adoptive parents sent her away frequently, including to Crippled Children’s Society camps, then to boarding school.

“Was I flawed, less worthy? I was internally oppressed, shut down – the shame of everyone in a small village knowing before I did that I was adopted.

“The hurt – mamae. The shame – whakamā. The pain and suffering of being removed from my whānau which was my birthright.

“I am not the person I was meant to be.”

Vivienne, an accomplished artist, whose work hangs in her mother’s home, told Bay and Matai’a that the church’s response over the years had worsened the pain.

“Your lawyers used tactics like not answering her letters for up to six months, to wear her down, to make her go away. Unethical, immoral and definitely un-Christian.

“I believe if it wasn’t for the Royal Inquiry and that you weren’t under the spotlight that you wouldn’t be here today – you’d still be hiding behind your lectern.”

Graeme, sitting next to the Bishop, turned and said his wife’s untreated birth injuries were so severe that it took numerous, expensive and painful surgeries for her to conceive again. One of her specialists wanted to go to the authorities.

“He could not believe anyone would leave her in that condition.

“The people in charge there were promoting a doctrine, a way of life, and obviously completely ignoring it. How they slept at night, I don’t know.”

Matai’a responded first. She stood and gripped the back of her chair, speaking without notes and dabbing tears that ran down her face.

“I have three boys…my experience of my firstborn son was amazing. I had my family, my extended family there. I was wrapped in love.

“You went through it all by yourself. You went through it all alone,” she told Wilkinson.

“I can’t even imagine what that’s like…we did not care well. We didn’t hold you well. And we didn’t love well – all the things you so absolutely deserved.”

She was “deeply regretful” it had taken so many years to admit that.

“It shouldn’t take someone decades to wave a flag, to bring light to an issue that, actually, New Zealand knew about.”

The trust’s history is filled with “many, many wonderful women”, Matai’a said, but “also many individuals that didn’t do anything”, despite being aware of the abuse.

In his apology, Bay acknowledged he and others of his generation slowed Wilkinson’s fight for justice.

“We took time. We used lawyers. We tried to avoid the issues…we allowed ourselves to be captured and fool ourselves with the thinking that, ‘Well, those things happened a long time ago, and that’s the way things were then and it is different now’,” the Bishop said.

“I hope they don’t seem empty words or lies. And, yes, part of it is the agency of the Royal Commission and all that is becoming public. That has opened our eyes to how we should behave. I acknowledge we have needed some of these things to help us finally take the shutters, the blinkers off our eyes, and to see what should be, what is right to do.

“I think we were beginning to be confronted by so many stories…we worried about, ‘How do we protect our institution now, because there’s so much good we want to do’.

“[But] if we can’t emerge from the shadows of our own past and what is wrong about it, we can’t really claim much integrity around anything we try to do now.”

'Clear cruelty'

The legal settlement with Wilkinson states, “while historical in nature it is appropriate to recognise and accept that the systems and staffing personnel that operated at St Mary’s contributed to the pain and suffering endured for many decades”.

Establishing facts is challenging. St Mary’s closed in 1972 (its buildings are now used for social services, including helping mothers at risk of having their infant uplifted by Oranga Tamariki to avoid that by overcoming issues like addiction), and many staff from the time, including the matron, are dead.

Records are elusive – Wilkinson has been told over the years some of her paperwork was lost in both flood and fire – although other women sent to the home have spoken of similar abuse, including an extreme workload, not being allowed to see their babies or even know the gender, and being told they weren’t fit to be mothers.

Rita Macdonald worked at St Mary’s from 1969-71. She and Wilkinson met through the latter’s advocacy, and Macdonald attended the apology meeting.

The matron was tyrannical, she says. All mail was checked, and often destroyed. Care packages were confiscated. Residents were made to work in the rain.

“The girls would cry and ask me, ‘How do I get out of here? Do you have a car? My boyfriend said he would come to see me.'”

Macdonald made the matron the tea and toast she ate during deliveries, and snuck crumbs from the catch tray to give to the girls. One day she dropped fish and chips over one of the walls.

“[The residents] spent most of the afternoon rubbing lemons in their mouths because you could smell fish and chips all through St Mary’s.

“They were just continually hungry. For love and attention. The only time they were touched was when the doctor came for examination, or in delivery.”

St Mary’s was the subject of a 60 Minutes story in the mid-1990s. The matron told reporter John Hudson it was her policy to take babies away from their mothers as soon as they were born, sometimes without consent. She considered that the humane thing to do, and claimed St Mary’s was generally a happy place.

However, a nurse who worked there in the 1960s told the programme the residents were kept in cruel conditions.

“You would often hear [the girls] crying, and so I would sit down and talk to them. And I would have been fired – I would not have had a job – had [matron] found out I was doing this.”

Bay told last week’s meeting the matron was “clearly a cruel woman” who “misused the power and responsibility that she was given”.

The Anglican Church now encourages all survivors to come forward, and says it “accepts their recollection of events and takes all historic complaints extremely seriously”.

Wilkinson’s lawyers, Cooper Legal, have settled more than 1100 claims against government and faith-based organisations.

The firm’s partner, Amanda Hill, told the Weekend Herald that Wilkinson’s treatment was not in accordance with the Adoption Act at the time, including because she did not freely consent, and the forced consent was obtained too soon after the birth.

Legality aside, she doesn’t believe an average person at the time would accept what went on.

“Because a lot of the stuff was hidden away. People couldn’t see into these places.”

The abuse at St Mary’s was state-sanctioned, Hill says.

“The state had to be comfortable that this was an appropriate place, and these people had the power to do what they were doing…social welfare reported on potential adopted parents and their suitability. Some of the girls who were in that home with Maggie were likely state wards.”

In 2019, Parliament’s social services committee initiated a briefing on forced adoption, and recommended action be considered to confront that responsibility.

However, the Government says “decisions about the appropriateness of an apology or redress options” will wait until after the Abuse in Care Royal Commission of Inquiry’s final findings, which are due by June 2023.

Public backlash, and peace

Wilkinson’s activism brings abuse from people who think she’s after attention or money, or are defensive on behalf of churches or adopted families.

Decades of that vitriol takes a toll. So does the sense of futility.

“These people who lead the way and break that ground, they do it so hard,” Hill says.

“It shouldn’t be this hard, it really shouldn’t. If we had achieved this for Maggie back in 2015, I think about the time that she could have recovered, and perhaps had a bit more peace.

“One thing I have learnt in this work is that it never ends – settlement meetings and compensation, apologies, it doesn’t just stop everything that hurts.

“But people seem to find a peace out of it. And that is my hope for Maggie – that she can have some sort of peace, and live with her history.”

Wilkinson turns 78 this year. She is tired.

“To me, this is my last chance. I can’t do this any longer.

“The backlash from the public is awful. But there are hundreds of women – not all of them went to Anglican homes – who had their children taken.

“Society just thought that is what happened. And I won’t accept that argument. No – I am still alive, I am still deeply affected.”

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