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'Shamed' mothers may not get official apology

Published: 9:37AM Thursday March 01, 2012 Source: ONE News

An apology from the New Zealand government to mothers who say they were forced into adopting their babies may not be forthcoming.

Tens of thousands of young, unmarried Kiwi mums gave up their children between the 1940s and 1970s, coerced by the pressures of society and the state.

The same thing was also happening across the Tasman and a senate inquiry yesterday called for the Australian government to apologise and compensate thousands of unwed mothers who were forced to give up their babies.

However, Justice Minister Judith Collins said the situation in New Zealand was different and the state had no official part in influencing mothers to give up their babies.

"At the end of the day this was a decision that was made by their family members, and frankly society frowned very deeply on unwed mothers," Collins told TV ONE's Close Up tonight.

But one mother wants the secrets which have shrouded the issue for years to be exposed. Some members of Merilyn McAuslin's own family are not even aware she had a child adopted, and she told Close Up she has gone through the rest of her life feeling worthless.

"I'm aware that a number of women commit suicide over this - go to their graves without telling their children," she said.

'Going North'

Many single women like McAuslin were sent to farms when they became pregnant.

It was known as 'going north': young pregnant girls were sent out of town, often to church-run homes, to have babies and avoid scandal.

McAuslin's mother also gave her a wedding ring to hide her shame.

"People would think I was married and it would be respectable - she didn't want me going out looking like I wasn't married," she said.

On May 29 1973 McAuslin gave birth, on her own, in Waikato Hospital. She underwent the entire procedure without local anaesthetic.

"They put me in a huge room, and in the other corner diagonally, was the baby.

"I didn't know that was to be my only opportunity to see him, but I was so butchered down below from this experience, that could only be called barbaric, that I couldn't move - I couldn't get out of bed," she said.

McAuslin said hospital staff shouted at her, and lied that she had syphilis and had to be kept in isolation.

"I felt so shameful, yes awful, awful, stuck in the bedroom and I wasn't allowed out.

"I felt it the whole time - they wouldn't leave a married woman alone to go into labour and then shove it in a corner."

She had also received a letter from Social Welfare telling her she would have to give up the baby, using phrases like "If you love your baby you will have him adopted to a good home with a mother and father."

And she said she was made to sign a legal contract saying she would never make any attempt to look for her baby.

More than sorry

Around 2000 babies a year were adopted by strangers between the 40s and 70s, so McAuslin's story is unlikely to be a one-off.

She said it's time the Government came clean and brought the issue out into the open.

"I want more than sorry actually - I'd like them to just acknowledge that the Government stood up and said 'this is what we did to people and we shouldn't have'".

But Collins said a Government apology may not be what everyone affected would want. Some, she said, may prefer to keep it a secret.

"I think we need to work out what would make a real difference for people like Merilyn," she said.

"I'm always happy to look at what we can do, but I think too there are a lot of others who would rather we didn't do this."

McAuslin's story does have a bittersweet ending after her son tracked her down and made contact about 12 years ago.

But despite building a new relationship with him, and even attending his wedding, she said it does not make up for lost time.

"Meeting him doesn't make it right for me - it doesn't give me my baby back does it?"

Damian now lives in Ireland and supports his natural mother's attempts to bring the issue out into the open.

"I'm delighted she's doing it, I'm delighted for her, for anyone who's going to be helped by this, it's fantastic," he said.