Scotland’s forced adoption scandal: time for an apology, says Kirsty Strickland

THERE are some types of pain that the passage of time simply cannot soothe.

That fact is clear in all the stories of the mothers whose children were taken from them in the forced adoption scandal of the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

In Scotland, this historic injustice marred the lives of over 60,000 women.

The scandal was the subject of a members’ debate led by MSP Monica Lennon in the Scottish Parliament last year.

At the time, she spoke about the campaigning efforts of Marion McMillan, whose son was taken for adoption from a mother and baby home in 1967.

Marion McMillan has been calling on the Scottish Government to follow the example of other countries – including Australia and Ireland – and issue a formal apology on behalf of the nation for the injustice she and so many other mothers endured.

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In a heart-breaking statement relayed to the chamber by the Labour MSP, Marion McMillian, who has terminal cancer, said: “Mothers spent their lives searching for the babies they were forced to hand over.

“I remember crying and telling the authorities that my baby already had a mummy. But they simply took my son from my arms, and left me weeping.’’

Last week, a cross-party group of MSPs wrote to the First Minister, urging her to act with “urgency and compassion’’ and offer a formal apology for this historic wrong.

In the letter they said: “The act of historic forced adoption broke the hearts of 60,000 mothers in Scotland forever. This unspeakable and cruel injustice continues to inflict pain and suffering on the women who had their babies taken from them, simply for the ‘crime’ of being unmarried.’’

“Today, we are united in asking you to offer them a formal apology on behalf of the nation. We come from different parties and represent different communities. However, we all believe that our constituents have suffered enough and need to hear three powerful and healing words spoken in their parliament: ‘We are sorry’.’’

The mechanisms of government move slowly at the best of times. Consultations, discussions with stakeholders, reviews, debates, checks, balances and the usual bureaucracy of policy-making mean that nothing is ever done quickly. Often, for good reason.

But when it comes to this, most would struggle to see how any further prolonged period of delay is justifiable.

Campaigners and those affected have been asking for their experiences of forced abortion to be acknowledged for many years now. There is cross-party agreement. We know what happened and we know only too well that it is to our country’s eternal shame that it did.

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For as long as we deny these women the apology they deserve, we are continuing to perpetuate that harm. Many of the women affected have spoken about feeling a lifetime of guilt and shame since their babies were taken away. Hearing ‘We are sorry’ from Nicola Sturgeon, on behalf of the country, would send a message that that guilt and shame should not be theirs to bear.

The Scottish Government launched an online questionnaire last week to allow victims of the forced adoption scandal to share their “views and insight’’ in order to identify what help and support they need.

A dedicated mental health helpline has also been set up to support those who do come forward to share their experiences.

As well as an apology, the Scottish Government has also been urged to implement wider reform of the management of adoption records and to commit to a package of mental health support for those who have been affected. The Movement for Adoption Apology in Scotland has also called for a permanent memorial to all those who were affected.

Jeannot Farmer who was 22 when she lost her son to forced adoption said that “a fast apology without reforms is not enough.’’

“If we accepted an apology with no specific help for mental health, it would be cruelty for the women who emerge from the shadows and then have nowhere to go.’’

It’s important that Scottish ministers listen to and are led by survivors when deciding their next steps. In the interests of compassion, and in recognition of the many decades of trauma that these mothers have endured, that work should be properly resourced and prioritised so that their long wait can finally come to an end.

It’s not enough in itself to undo the harm or heal the wounds of a lifetime of suffering, but it would be a welcome first step.

If ministers need a reminder of how the impact of forced adoption is still felt by survivors today, they should watch the BBC’s interview of Elspeth Ross from last year. In a profoundly affecting video, she returns to the place where she saw her baby son for the last time.

In 1962, Elspeth gave birth aged 16. She was unmarried and, six weeks after he was born, he was taken away from her.

As she enters what was then a mother and baby home and is now a block of flats, Elspeth breaks down in tears, as she recalls how he was taken from her arms without anybody explaining to her what was happening.

When the interviewer asks how that experience impacted her life, Elspeth replies: “I just never really had a life to be honest. I just went through the motions.’’

She was eventually reunited with her son some 30 years later, but those lost years can never be returned to her or any of the other families affected by forced abortion.

Women across the UK suffered from historic forced abortion. Survivors are also calling on Boris Johnson to issue a formal apology on behalf on the UK government.

Some campaigners have said that an apology from the Scottish Government could help speed up the process in other parts of the UK. In any case, it just the right thing to do.

A formal apology can’t compensate for the lifetime of trauma and grief that so many have suffered, but it’s a long-overdue starting point.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

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