The Scottish Government had decided not to apologise to victims of historic forced adoption before meeting with a leading campaigner, it has emerged.
Between the 1940s and 1970s, young unmarried women were sent to institutions known as mother and baby homes to give birth.
It is estimated there were 36 mother and baby homes in Scotland run by the state, church and charities. Around 60,000 women and children are thought to have passed through the institutions.
Women from Scotland to Australia have told of similar experiences of forced labour, being drugged, shackled to beds, and left to give birth alone in locked rooms without pain relief. Ultimately they had their babies taken from them without consent and adopted.
Now documents, released to The Ferret under freedom of information legislation, show that Scottish Government officials warned ministers not to apologise to mothers forced to give their babies up, and to “avoid” the issue when meeting with campaigners in 2015.
Officials also contacted the UK Government to ask for “a steer” on the issue – to which the Department for Education confirmed: “our lines also resist calls for a public apology”.
The disclosures come as the current minister, Claire Haughey, indicated she would meet with women affected.
Politicians from all parties have backed a motion from Labour’s Monica Lennon renewing pressure on the Scottish Government to issue an apology.
An internal briefing prepared for the minister ahead of a June 2015 meeting with Marion McMillan – who was forced to hand her son over at a mother and baby home in 1967 – stated: “This meeting is an opportunity for [redacted] to discuss her experiences and thoughts on those separated by adoption. A commitment to replicate the public apology made by Australia on forced adoptions should be resisted.”
A letter from the minister to McMillan after her meeting stated that the government would hold “learning events” and committed to invite her involvement, but she heard nothing further.
After the meeting officials argued in writing that a “bespoke” service to help mothers of historical forced adoptions was not needed.
McMillan said she was shocked by the briefing and emails. She felt at the time the meeting had gone well but wondered if she had “said something wrong” when no apology came as a result.
Branding the 2015 decision to reject the idea of a bespoke service to support women a “travesty”, she added that women who experienced forced adoption in mother and baby homes urgently need specialised counselling services separate from institutions involved in their abuse.
“When I spoke to a social worker I was told just to move on,” McMillan said. “So many mothers of loss who have been forced to live their trauma all over again by people like that. We need specialist psychologists.”
In October 2015, an Edinburgh University report to Scottish Ministers warned that as many as one in three mothers with experience of forced adoption may suffer from severe mental health issues.
The researchers concluded “tens of thousands of birth mothers in Scotland would benefit from acknowledgement of their experiences and an offer of help in dealing with the life-long consequences of adoption.”
Naomi McAuliffe, director of Amnesty Scotland, said: “We know that shame and stigma continue to play a role in concealing the extent of ill-treatment of women who had their babies removed from them. That shame should only belong to the institutions who inflicted human rights abuses on these women and children.
“An official apology from Holyrood may help them and their families begin the long overdue process towards recovery.”
In 2013, Australia became the first country to hold a full inquiry. Then Prime Minister Jullia Gilliard publicly apologised recognising the ‘lifelong legacy of pain and suffering.. And shameful practices that denied [mothers’] fundamental rights‘.”
Women and families throughout the UK and Scotland have pressed both governments to apologise for their treatment.
McMillan said: “Nicola Sturgeon couldn’t have been more proud when she publicly apologised to gay men criminalised just for their sexuality. They were hurt, but we were hurt too. I don’t know why she can’t do the same for us.”
Scottish Labour’s Monica Lennon – who will lead a debate in the Scottish Parliament this evening [Wed, 16 June] – said: “The revelation that in 2015 the Scottish Government closed the door on publicly apologising to the victims of historic forced adoption before even meeting with campaigners, is hard to process.
“No one in government today is responsible for the cruel treatment endured by unmarried mothers during those dark decades, however, they can choose to continue the suffering or to end it.
Lennon added: “After all these years, there will finally be a debate in the Scottish Parliament. I hope this will lead to the Scottish Government apologising to the victims of historical forced adoption.
“To deny them the opportunity to heal and forgive themselves would be beyond cruel. The First Minister must find it in her heart to do the right thing, before more women go to their graves believing that they are unfit mothers in the eyes of the state.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We are deeply saddened that in the past women felt forced to give their children up for adoption. We have come a long way in recent years in improving the outcomes for our looked after children and young people, but we are aware that there is still more to do.”
“In 2016, the Scottish Government committed to a root and branch review into children and young people’s care,” they added. “The Independent Care Review commenced its work in early 2017 and published its findings, The Promise, in February 2020. We are committed to implementing the findings of The Promise.
“That work will include how we best support families to stay together in the first instance, where that is safe to do so, and how we best support those who can’t stay together.
The governement spokesperson added that Clare Haughey, minister for children and young people, was “committed to meeting with those who have been affected by historic adoption practices” and hopes to “work in partnership with the women, children and others affected to explore our next steps”.
Cover image thanks to iStock/x-reflexnaja.