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Scotland Apologised In 2023 For Historic Forced Adoptions - But This Happened Throughout The Uk

6th April 2024

"For the decades of pain that you have suffered, I offer today a sincere and heartfelt and unreserved apology. We were wrong." One year ago, on March 22 2023, the then first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, stood up at Holyrood and said sorry for the Scottish government's role in historic forced adoptions.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, thousands of young, unmarried women - as many as 60,000 - were coerced into giving up their babies. "It is a level of injustice," Sturgeon said, "which is hard now for us to comprehend."

Rooted in conservative attitudes towards sex outside marriage, forced adoptions saw pregnant single women sent, mostly by local health authorities, to mother and baby homes run by religious organisations. After birth, the babies were adopted and the mothers returned home, prevented from speaking of what had happened.

This scandal did not just affect Scotland. It was common practice across the UK. In 2021 I submitted written and oral evidence to an inquiry into historic forced adoption covering England and Wales. My recent research highlights that the UK government's stated position denying state involvement is wholly untenable, when faced with the historical record, much of which comes from its very own archives.

Reckoning with the past
Scotland's reckoning with the past came from over a decade of campaigning by birth mothers and adult adoptees. They wanted the government to follow the Australian example, where on March 21 2012 the then prime minister, Julia Gillard, issued a formal public apology, following a major inquiry. Scotland has not held an inquiry. But the government has, to date, been receptive to the voices of campaigners.

This same economy of adoption underpinned the mother and baby homes and Magdalene Laundries system in Northern Ireland, albeit from a Catholic perspective. Until direct rule by the UK government was implemented in 1972, Northern Ireland had its own national government with administration and legislative responsibilities.

In 2021, the UK parliamentary joint committee on human rights announced an inquiry into historic forced adoptions in England and Wales. This, too, followed pressure from campaigners and the media, as well as the apology the Catholic Church issued in 2016 for the role it played.

The subsequent report estimated that from 1949 to 1976, in England and Wales around 185,000 unmarried mothers - as many as 215,000 - and their babies were affected.

The inquiry found the UK government was ultimately responsible for what it termed "the actions and omissions" which inflicted harm on so many young, vulnerable women and children. Actions included judgemental and cruel practices from a range of state-employed health, welfare and social service professionals. Omissions regarding a failure to protect young, unmarried women and ensure their human rights were upheld.

State actions and omissions
My research into UK governmental archives shows that forced adoption could not have happened in scope or scale without the state. The UK government transformed adoption from a cottage industry to one of mass production.

Before the second world war, mother and baby homes kept families together. The mothers trained for domestic service, which, crucially, enabled them to obtain work and have somewhere to live. Adoptions were less common, with around 50,000 faciliated in 13 years, from 1926 to 1939.

This changed in 1943, when the UK government introduced subsidies for mother and baby homes and registered adoption societies. New homes were opened, old ones expanded and more workers were appointed to handle the growing numbers of adoptions.

It briefly considered nationalising these institutions when the foundations of the welfare state were being laid in the late 1940s. However, the existing system was seen to be working well. Fundamentally, the issue was deemed a moral and spiritual one, more suited to religious oversight. Ultimately no changes were made; money flowed in and babies flowed out.

New adoption legislation, in 1949 and 1958, made the legal process easier and quicker. Most babies were between ten days and six weeks old when they were given new identities with adoptive families. The annual figure grew year-on-year, peaking in England at 16,164 in 1968.

Secrecy - ensured by families - was integral to making adoption work. Adoptive families aimed to pass the child off biologically as their own and keep up appearances of respectability. This meant babies growing up in the stable, typically affluent family environment idealised by health, welfare and social professionals. For mothers, it meant they could return home and begin their lives again, untainted by the stigma of illegitimacy.

The UK government was well aware that mothers were being coerced - that their decision to give up their babies was not just a difficult moral dilemma. As early as 1951, the representative bodies for registered adoption societies highlighted that unmarried mothers had little agency to refuse.

The nascent welfare state was designed around male financial responsibility for their families. Its failure to adequately provide financial support and housing to unmarried mothers was intentional.

Officials deemed unmarried mothers to be undeserving compared with married women in conventional families. Their entitlements to financial support were refused or diluted. Those concerning housing were subject to the discretion of judgemental local and central government officials.

This would only change in 1974 with British judge Morris Finer's landmark report on one-parent families. Women would have to wait another four years for their legal right to housing to be guaranteed, in 1977.

Demonstrating that historic forced adoptions were the product of central government policy, the 2021 inquiry recommended that the UK government apologise.

The latter's written response in Februrary 2023 said: "The government agrees that the treatment of women and their children in adoption practices during this period was wrong and should not have happened. Whilst we do not think it is appropriate for a formal government apology to be given, since the state did not actively support these practices, we do wish to say we are sorry of behalf of society to all those affected."

This belies the fact that the state was far from powerless. It enabled, financed and sustained forced adoption as its preferred policy.

On April 25 2023, as part of an official apology from the Welsh government, deputy minister for social services Julie Morgan offered her "deepest sympathy and regret to all affected" for enduring "such appalling historical practices".

Importantly, Morgan's statement recognised that forced adoption predated devolution. England had legal, political and administrative responsibility at that time. In not apologising, the UK government is denying justice to thousands of birth mothers - whose numbers tragically dwindle daily - and adult adoptees who may never know the women who gave birth to them.

Michael Lambert
Research Fellow and Director of Widening Participation, Lancaster University

This article is from the Conversation web site. To read it with links to more information go HERE