About four years ago, I had a meeting in my office with three amazing women: Marg Hamilton, Jan Kashin and Therese Hawken. They came to see me because they were part of an organisation in Brisbane called Adoption Loss Adult Support, ALAS. They had been working together since 1989, when they formed ALAS as a group of women who had experienced the forced adoption process. ALAS is very proudly self-funded and voluntary and provides a safe environment for mothers and adoptees to meet and talk about their experiences, their issues, their grief and how to lobby every politician on this earth to make sure we understand what their needs are and what they want from us. I have to admit, when I first met them, I was at a loss to understand a lot of the issues they came to me with because I could not believe what they were telling me. They laugh with me now-because I am very proud to say that we have become mates-because they said they walked away from that meeting and they were not sure whether they had got me; I have assured them that they had indeed got me!
They told me about their own experiences when they were young women of having literally just given birth to babies that were then taken away from them. Jan Kashin, who is an amazingly gifted artist, brought along a couple of books that she had self-produced with some of her art work, which is truly frightening. The art work is passionate, it is confronting and it reflects true pain and agony. Marg Hamilton had been involved for a number of years and she was completely dedicated to ensuring that what had happened to her would not happen to anyone else. Therese Hawken, who came from the Sunshine Coast, was really concerned because she felt that what had happened to her was continuing through the generations and that other families were now also experiencing loss when children were removed from their care for various reasons but without effective support to see whether those families in fact could be rebuilt rather than separated. These women are persistent. They did not leave my office until they had arranged a follow-up appointment to see what was going on in our local community and also what was happening interstate. Indeed, there was great movement in that year, 2009.
Through the work of ALAS, focused mainly on the Brisbane region, they had met with a wonderful man at the Royal Brisbane Women's Hospital, which is one of the largest hospitals in Queensland and has a history of providing services to women from all over the state. A few of the women involved with ALAS had actually had their children at that hospital, and that place had come to be a symbol of all their pain and loss and anger. Professor Ian Jones was the head of obstetric medicine at Royal Brisbane Women's Hospital in 2009. He met with the ALAS women and he acknowledged that what they were saying was real and true. As a result of their ongoing pressure and their absolutely resilient activity to ensure that people heard what they were saying, the first formal apology from any medical area in Australia was given to these women in 2009. On 10 June that year, they had an apology provided to them from the Royal Brisbane Women's Hospital. Professor Jones said to them:
On behalf of the hospital in recognition of the suffering and pain you have gone through for so many years I would like to offer you this letter of apology and to wish you the best for the future and hope you will gain a lot from the counsel you are about to receive.
Thank you very much.
That was to all the members of the Adoption Loss Adult Support group. A relationship was established between the women who had gone to see the people at the hospital and Professor Jones and his team. I was really pleased to meet with Professor Jones. He has an amazing strength-something you often find in doctors who practise in the obstetrics field; they have compassion and strength. But he also has a very strong character and determination. I said to him, 'We have had attempts at apologies all over the country now, Professor Jones, and there seems to be a great problem in getting organisations and authorities prepared to say that they are sorry and to acknowledge that things had gone wrong in the past.' He looked at me and said, 'Maybe they just have to do it, Claire; they just have to do it.' So the Royal Brisbane Women's Hospital, working with the ALAS women, showed so many that they 'just had to do it'. When you hear the truth, when you hear the pain, when you know that the actions that occurred were wrong, there is no option: you just have to do it.
Armed with the success of the work they had done with the Royal Brisbane Women's Hospital-I think, mainly due to the work of Professor Jones-the women then joined a national alliance of women all over the country who had experienced similar things and who wanted an apology from their government for the pain and the hurt they had experienced, and the practices and the laws that allowed their children to be stolen from them. They formed Apology Alliance Australia. The Senate Community Affairs References Committee was privileged to meet so many of these women, their families, their friends and their supporters who came to give evidence to our inquiry into forced adoption in Australia. The experiences that the women who came to see me had shared in their visit were then extended to our committee, to the people who looked at our website and to the wider parliament. I think you may remember, Mr Acting Deputy President Fawcett, the atmosphere in this place on the day that we brought down our community affairs inquiry report. It was electric. There was a very special feeling. There was love in this place. There was power in this place. The apology from the people who had had the privilege to work with them meant so much.
Many of the senators are on our committee. We work so well together that we often have similar reactions. One of the problems is that when we are talking about a report about which we care so passionately we all want to say the same thing; we all want to tell the same story. So it tends to be a bit of a therapy group for us. We all spoke about one particular woman. She said, and I quoted it on the day, 'I just want to make sure that my child knows that I loved her, that I did not give her away'. It was a special relationship that we had with these mothers and carers who had lost their children-the women of ALAS, as well as the other women across this country. And also the men: many of the fathers had experienced the same loss and some of them were not even made aware that they were fathers at the time.
But we said that it would not just be our community affairs committee and the Senate that would make an apology; the No. 1 recommendation out of that inquiry was that there would be a national apology, which then occurred here in this building almost 12 months ago-the anniversary is coming up. So there will again be an opportunity for the people across this country to stop and acknowledge that the pain was real, that the people told the truth and that there is a genuine fear that this horror could happen again.
As we move towards the apology anniversary, I want to again thank the women of ALAS, including Trish Large, who has come to meet with me again many times in Brisbane. Without the women who demanded this apology, our parliament would not have had the strength and the knowledge to apologise. I want to acknowledge the hard work and the welcome they have given me-I am almost an honorary member of ALAS now! They will not let me forget, because this issue cannot be forgotten. They, with many other people in this community, were strong enough to give us the ability to acknowledge what was wrong-we as a community and governments at every level-to allow actions, to allow horrors to occur to women and their children that people just did not know were occurring.
We need women like the women of ALAS, because not only do they hold their parliament to account but they provide valuable support to so many people who are sharing in their pain. Every couple of months another woman comes forward, and ALAS is there for her.