While families across the country prepare to gather for Christmas, Michael Hickey is facing another festive season forbidden from meeting his mother.
He is one of thousands of adopted Australians barred from contacting biological family members under so-called “contact vetoes”.
Adoption lobby groups are fighting for an end to the vetoes, arguing they were “cruel” and “outdated”.
Mr Hickey was adopted out as a newborn in Perth in 1960 when unmarried mothers were shunned and often pressured into giving up their babies.
He knew from a young age he was adopted and tried to find his biological mother when he was in his 30s.
But instead of an emotional reunion, he was informed by authorities she had taken out a veto that prohibits him from contacting her.
“It was a pre-emptive move,” he said.
“But I’ve committed no crime. I’m the result of an act of love, not an act of hate.
“That’s the injustice of it all.”
Mr Hickey believed state governments should do more to reunite families affected by past adoption practices, by cancelling vetoes and offering counselling.
He would like to meet his half-siblings and believed he had a right to know his medical history.
“The state has the resource … and the obligation to write to people to say ‘we understand that attitudes in the 1950s and 60s were different to today,” he said.
More than 8,000 vetoes still in place
Mr Hickey supported a push by adoptee groups to overhaul state adoption legislation and scrap all remaining “contact vetoes” across the country.
There were more than 8,000 in place according to the latest available figures.
Mr Hickey was able to track down his biological father and had pieced together much of the story behind his adoption.
He said his mother was whisked away on “holiday” by her family to give birth in Perth in secret when she fell pregnant in the late 1950s.
Mr Hickey was concerned the continuing contact veto was linked to the shame of becoming pregnant out of wedlock that existed in that era.
He wants the WA government to lift what he called the “artificial construct that is propping up [his mother’s] reluctance” to meet him.
“Contact would be enough. A cordial relationship. I’m not looking for a mother at 63,” Mr Hickey said.
In Western Australia, breaching a contact veto was decriminalised in 2012, but in some states a breach could still have serious implications.
‘It’s incredibly distressing’
Barbara Scott was adopted out as a baby in New South Wales where the penalty for breaching a veto was a fine or 12 months in jail, or both.
Remarkably, the 68-year-old only found out she was adopted two years ago when a relative dropped the bombshell.
After the initial disbelief and shock, Mrs Scott started on a traumatic journey to trace her roots and contacted adoption authorities in NSW.
But she was told a contact veto had been taken out by her biological mother.
“It felt like a second rejection,” she said.
“Even just to get my birth certificate or any information, I had to sign this legal document, saying that I would not try to contact her.
“It feels unfair, it feels cruel. I’ve had lots and lots of tears over this.”
Through social media, Mrs Scott found out she had siblings but could not contact them under the terms of the veto.
“It’s incredibly distressing,” she said.
“My mother may not be interested, but my siblings may.
“I have no malice against her, I don’t want anything from the family, I don’t want money.
“It’s more just to have that link … just to come face-to-face with somebody that I belong to, I suppose.”
Mrs Scott was also concerned she had been unable to get any information on her family medical history that could be vital for her health.
She compared her experience to her adopted brother, who learned about his adoption at the same time.
But, he had different biological parents who were already deceased and was able to access his records relatively quickly.
Since then, he had been able to reconnect with his siblings.
Vetoes ‘deep and damaging’
A patchwork of laws exist across the country in relation to adoption.
Victoria repealed its contact veto system in 2015, replacing it with an information register where people could record their wishes about contact with family.
Groups representing survivors want any states that still have contact vetoes, including WA and NSW, to abolish them.
Lynne Devine from the group, ARMS WA, which represented mothers separated from children by adoption believes vetoes were wrong on many levels.
“The infliction of a veto upon anyone is a deep and damaging body blow,” she said.
“No one should be told they do not deserve to know who they are.
“Mothers who veto are operating from a denial of reality and in placing a veto they seem stuck in the old idea that they are somehow sinners.”
Adoptions plummet in recent decades
Tens of thousands of unwed mothers were coerced into adoption under forced adoption practices from the 1940s to the 1980s.
Since then, adoption in Australia had changed dramatically.
Far fewer children were adopted with rates dropping by 63 per cent over the past 25 years down to about 250 adoptions a year, according to a report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
There had also been a shift towards “open adoption” which recognised a child’s right to know their birth family.
Despite this, there were still 8,052 people across Australia with a contact veto lodged in their names as of June 2021.
Of these, 54 per cent were lodged by adoptees, 39 per cent by biological mothers, with the remainder taken out by adoptive parents and other relatives.
In some states vetoes were now only valid for adoptions that happened before a particular date.
For example, in NSW, contact vetoes could now only be lodged if the adoption happened before October 1990.
In a statement, the NSW Department of Communities and Justice said a veto stayed in place until the applicant decided to remove it or died.
Although breaching a veto was a criminal offence in that state, the department said there had been no known breaches in the past five years.
It said there were currently no plans to abolish vetoes.
“Contact vetoes protect the rights of people who have been given an undertaking that information about an adoption would remain a secret,” the statement said.
Breakthrough in WA
In Western Australia, abolishing vetoes was high on the agenda for survivors of forced adoption who had been lobbying for a parliamentary inquiry.
This week, they had a potential breakthrough.
In one of her last acts as WA’s Child Protection Minister, Simone McGurk asked a parliamentary committee to consider conducting an inquiry.
Previously, the Minister said the existing 793 vetoes in WA could be revisited at any time.
“Contact vetoes can be cancelled at any time, including following contact from Communities Adoption Services staff, who may make contact following a request from the person affected by the veto.,” she said in a statement.
‘A vestige of the past’
Despite the changes, Sharyn White, secretary of the group, Adoptee Rights Australia, said it was time vetoes were abolished altogether.
She said people were already protected by the availability of restraining orders if they were in danger and vetoes breached the human rights of adoptees.
“It’s a vestige of the past and it’s a really quite a draconian way of thinking,” Ms White said.
“It treats adoptees as a threat.
“You’ve got two groups of really quite traumatised people and there has been an acknowledgement of that and an apology but nothing really has been done about it.
“And leaving contact vetoes in place is another way of othering these groups from each other because it cements the divide rather than work towards healing it.”
If you have been affected by forced adoption, the Forced Adoption Support Service can be contacted on 1300 364 277 or via their website here.