By Maggie Wilkinson and Anna Coffey-Noall

While ‘serving’ New Zealand as Minister of Justice, Judith Collins stated she was “not convinced” that a formal apology was the best way to address everyone’s concerns in regard to now discredited and harmful practices, which arose from the 1955 Adoption Act. Collins went on to say she had heard from “a number of people” who did not want an apology (though Collins, perhaps tellingly, did not mention the number who did). Her statements on the issue were noted with surprise by supporters of a formal apology. More had been hoped for from Collins, given her past hard work as a lawyer to gain compensation for a victim of adoption malpractice arising from the 1955 Adoption Act, during which she came to be well-informed on issues of adoption harm.

In an address given by Judith Collins at the AGM of M.O.A. (Movement out of Adoption) held at 7.30pm on 20th April 1994 at the Northcote Community Centre Auckland. Collins said ‘she feels that adoption is a huge con and an act of violence to mothers.’ She continued that ‘she believes that babies were not really given up, they were in fact kidnapped.’

This makes the recent statements all the more curious, a calculated attempt to present a plausible but distorted representation of historical adoption facts, particularly biased by omissions.

The three most extraordinary statements relative to her current dismissal of the need for an official apology regarding past adoption practices are:

• “At the end of the day this was a decision that was made by their family members;”

• “A government apology may not be what everyone affected would want, some may prefer to keep it a secret;”

• “The situation in New Zealand was different, the state had no official part in influencing mothers to give up their babies.”

First, these assertions have to be placed in a wider context. It comes as a surprise to many people, even now, to learn that secrecy was never a stated provision in the 1955 Act. Nothing prevented the state nor private agencies from arranging open adoptions, and some did occasionally occur, though not in any of the adoptions arranged by state social workers, because secrecy was a policy they pursued to the point of obsession, and was often presented by them – especially to vulnerable mothers – as a legal requirement of the Act, even though it was not.

Family members had no legal decision-making power whatsoever in the adoption process, unless they were applicants wanting to adopt a related child. There is no legal provision in the 1955 Act for families to be involved nor consulted at all.

The so-called protections of the 1955 Act were instead prisons for the parties subject to them (they did protect adoption enablers however). The “protections” functioned to confine truth behind the secrets and lies told by the parties involved in “making the child available for adoption”. The people and institutions involved, in a range of corrupt practices to provide adopters with a ready supply of children often portrayed themselves as paragons of selfless service and upholders of moral goodness. State collusion was an essential factor in allowing corrupt private agencies to operate as they did. The state itself did have a profound role in influencing mothers to “choose” adoption, by dismissing other choices, occasionally reinforced with threats, and by applying the routine emotional manipulation, which involved them portraying “the adoption choice” as proof of love for the child, so that mothers were placed in an isolated, no-win situation. This is why these adoptions are termed “forced”.

It is a legal axiom that consent not freely given in not consent at all, and the history of the adoption corruption in New Zealand relied upon invalid consents, obtained by political pressure, manipulation, threats, illegal practices, emotional blackmail and standover tactics. The state and its officials colluded with institutions and intending adopters in maintaining these abuses of power. These practices were systematic, not sporadic, events.
To say that the responsibility for that system lies with families, as Collins has done, is absurd, amounting to a monstrous distortion, which absolves the enablers, who relied on secrecy and political protection to conceal their actions from any public scrutiny. They supposed that status quo would last forever, and the passage of the Adult Adoption Information Act 1985 was a very severe shock to them and their abuses of power. It is extremely revealing that the adoption practices of the state’s social workers changed remarkably from that time, although there was no legislative requirement for this to occur when and how it did.

Until this is formally acknowledged at the highest level, the stain of this systematic corruption and the painful consequences for its victims remains. Collins is well placed to know this, and may yet elect to re-examine her earlier familiarity with what really happened.

Equally specious is the claim that “the situation in New Zealand was different” (from Australia’s). The statutes and practices were remarkably similar, and Australia followed New Zealand’s 1955 lead statute by passing very similar legislation in the 1960s. Unlike New Zealand, however, Australia revised its legislation in 1993, applying a “best interest of the child” principle which is still notably absent in New Zealand’s outdated statute. As in Australia, New Zealand’s practices had racist elements, and the placement of Maori children with Pakeha families was not uncommon, while the reverse situation was very rare. Many Maori children were subject to secret adoption in Pakeha families with no regard whatsoever for the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi. The Adoption Act 1955 is a particularly “white” piece of legislation.

The last of Collins’ assertions – that some would prefer to “keep it a secret” – is particularly odd, as an official apology is not an identification exercise but an acknowledgment of harm done to those who were harmed; Julia Gillard’s apology is an exemplar in this respect. It is not a naming exercise, stripping privacy away from anyone. To pretend that it is seems to be mere scare mongering, and the insinuation that an apology is not warranted unless all past parties support the proposal is equally misleading: the issue is not a numbers game but the recognition of wrongs historically done under a statute which was never intended to function as it did.

The harm is so deep and so extensive that many in the adoption community regard attempts to explain away what happened to them as unconscionable revisionism, politically motivated, and a further attempt to evade moral and political responsibility for the very real wrongs done,

At the end of the day, it takes moral and political courage to do what must be done, not numbers, not specious appeals to populist sentiments, and Collins may yet find that courage, as Julia Gillard has done. Of all Ministers of Justice NZ has had, Collins is the most informed about the real underbelly of the politics of adoption, past and present, through her previous experience on which she worked with barrister Carol Curtis. Collins now has a unique opportunity to advocate for justice as Minister of Justice. Her reluctance and the lame reasons for not doing so suggest a conflict between principle and populism, though principle may yet overcome her diffidence without compromising her ambition for higher office. If numbers do count, it is pertinent that the many hundreds of thousands of victims in number far exceed the relatively few objectors. This parallels political posturing by Sir Robert Muldoon in the time leading up the passage of the Adult Adoption Information Act, when he made a series of statements grossly exaggerating opposition to its passage, claiming that few “birth mothers” wanted reunion with their lost children. It was simply false.

There is a further tension between supporting the extension of the 1955 Act to gay married couples while knowing that gays too will be little advantaged by the archaic provisions of an extremely flawed statute. The clamour for gays to have the “right” to adopt ignores the fact that adopting a child is not a right. Any potential adopter needs the genuine consent of the parent/s and the leave of the Court to obtain the status of adoptive parent. The “rights” perspective is one that suggests adult demand for a supply of children to meet adult needs, not the best interests of children. It must be noted, though, that New Zealand law has never required that the best interests of the child proposed for adoption be considered, and still does not. Nor are such children given separate legal representation despite the considerable and lifelong impact of an adoption order.

Rights cannot be built on a foundation of wrongs. Before we get carried away with the pro and cons of gay adoption, the righting of problems inherent in the 1955 Act must occur – otherwise the current problems will simply be compounded.

At this point in our history it is appropriate to acknowledge the women who took, or attempted to take, their own lives after losing their children, women who suffered the unending grief and psychological wounds from being systematically dispossessed of their children, who went on to realise that they could not just “get on with their lives and forget”, as they had been reassured by social workers. Disenfranchised and isolated, trivialised and discounted, in many instances their pain was overwhelming. Subsequent discoveries that their children had also suffered, from being placed with inappropriate adopters, and in some instances simply returned to the state as unwanted chattels and/or who suffered years of abuse, or were simply treated as second best, compounded the unending distress of these women. They have a right to feel betrayed and conned.

It is appropriate to think of the suffering of the children adopters returned, like defective goods, to often miserable lives as state wards, their original families never informed of their total alienation from any hope of a normal childhood, and of the suffering imposed by the withholding of personal information about themselves from all adopted people, many of whom grew up in a vacuum, different from their adopters and devalued for that difference, yet expected to be grateful however badly adopters had behaved toward them.

Surprisingly, Collins does know the real impacts of the1955 Act. She may have more to gain politically by supporting an apology, which would ensure her a place in the list of honourable social reformers who made a stand for legislation that was socially just, more like the late Ralph Hannan (Status of Children Act, National Minister of Justice) than Sir Robert Muldoon.
An apology is not enough, (very substantial legislative change is also urgently needed) but it would be a significant start, and until that step is taken, the failure to take it is a stain, an ominous complicity with the abuses of the past, supportive of the secrets and lies mentality and the culture of secrecy which meant that the state’s mistakes were easy to cover up, ignore, deny and perpetuate.

In September 2000 the Law Commission Report on Adoption and Its Alternatives Background to Reform, tellingly noted:

“During the course of this review we have received a number of
submissions stating that reform of current adoption law must be
accompanied by a review of past practices. Our terms of reference
directed us not to consider past or current social worker practice. In
devising our recommendations, however, we have been unable to
avoid taking into account the experiences of those affected by
adoption over the last 50 years, if only to ensure that our proposals
resolve inadequacies in the legal framework that have allowed the
occurrence of now discredited practices”.
Julia Gillard’s “National Apology for Forced Adoptions” to Australian mothers does acutely reflect and speak to the same suffering of people trapped in New Zealand’s murky adoption past. It’s time for Judith Collins to stop equivocating and demonstrate the same courage.

Deny, Divert, Diminish, and if all else fails, then Demonise those that reveal the truth.