Social Dialogue Magazine
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Crown Street Women's Hospital, c. 1930 - c. 1950,
Courtesy of S.A.R.A. New South Wales (link)
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Women's hospital. Albion Street c. 2011
Adam.J.W.C., CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons
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Carolyn Noble Professor and Head of Social Work, ACAP, Sydney Australia and Professor Emerita, Victoria University, Melbourne, Australia

The age of apology – the challenge for social work continues

In 1971, I was a social work student in my last year of study. For my final social work field placement, I was placed at Crown St. Maternity hospital. This placement went for the entire year at 3 days a week. I was assigned to the senior social worker who was attached to the maternity ward for unwed mothers. In fact, these young mothers and the adoption of their baby comprised the vast majority of the department’s case load. These ‘clients’ were housed in the basement of the hospital in large rooms with beds separated by curtains to give some privacy. I think there were common rooms, but I don’t think they were encouraged to go outside and partake in normal life while hospitalised. I also think that visitors were limited and contact with family, friends and the child’s father were curtailed until after the birth. Many of the women were there for several months waiting for their child to be born.

On reflection I don’t remember being too concerned by these young women and their circumstances, as I was assured all help and advice was being given to them to help them make a wise and thoughtful decision regarding their welfare and that of their child. It was the social worker’s role to stipulate their right to free and unpressured consent and that any bullying or coercion was illegal. These young mothers were also told that they could rescind their consent up to 30 days of signing and that their child would be held in the hospital till such time passed. It was only later that I learned that the legislation protecting these women had a clause that included the phrase ‘or until adoption order was made’. Little did I know then that in many cases adoption orders were expedited overriding the birth mothers’ right to rescind their consent before the 30 days passed. Link:

I am aware that remembering is an emotionally charged event and that events being recalled undoubtedly will be influenced by history and other information that can colour this experience. However, it is true that between 1950s and 1980s over 150,00 Australian unwed mums “consented” to their baby being adopted. I have put consent in italics because we now know that for many their consent was coerced. This practice, known recently as forced adoptions, has been the subject of a key Senate Inquiry (2012) but there were many apologies from key welfare and religious institutions to these women and their children from the late 1990s. As a result of these events, health and welfare authorities and institutions have been shamefully exposed with authorities accused and found wanting by failing to gain free and informed consent from these young women before their newborns were removed. Many of the young mothers did not get to see, touch or farewell their child as the practice of ‘clean break; or ‘blank slate’ was enacted. This was to establish early attachment between the adoptive mother and the child and save the birth mother from the social stigma attached to the ‘illegitimate mother’ tag they were labelled with and provide an opportunity for both mum and baby to get on with lives and forget each other more easily. Link:

We now know that these forced adoptions were carried out by doctors, social workers, nurses and religious figures. We don’t really know if these workers were unknowingly complicit like myself or ideologically convinced that their actions were in the mothers best interest. Family members, primarily the mother’s parents were also active in pushing their pregnant daughters into adopting. Forced adoptions took place though hospitals, maternity homes, and adoption agencies, both secular and religious, government funded and private, leaving a trail of hurt and trauma rippling through the generations. The Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW), in a response to these events, suggested that as social work is not a registered name, many of those people involved in these practices who called themselves social workers may not have been professionally trained, distancing themselves from the actual impropriety (Healy, 2012). This was not the situation at Crown St. Maternity Hospital. They were all trained social workers!

However forced adoptions were not the only problematic practices undertaken by health and welfare services and their staff in Australia this last half century. For example, inquiries into child migration practices which occurred from 1920s to 1970s which saw between 7- 10,000 British children forcibly migrated to Australia highlighted the terrible abuse perpetuated against many of these child refugees. Dr Coldrey notes that child migration was a policy of social engineering: It was a social policy which involved the transfer of abandoned youth from the orphanages, homes, workhouses and reformatories of the United Kingdom to overseas British colonies – later to the self- governing Dominions. Once overseas, the children were placed with colonial employers – usually in rural areas- for preparation and training prior to employment. The care and removal of the children was undertaken by religious and philanthropic organisations but with government approval and under the law as it was then (Coldey, 1995, pp1-2). Children placed in these large, often isolated welfare institutions and children homes (rather than being adopted) were often subjected to harsh and cruel treatment. Many were intentionally bullied, sexually assaulted and treated like slaves on properties requiring casual labour, most experienced no nurturance, support or kindness. Known as ‘lost innocents’ these adults have experience lifelong trauma and mental ill-health. Link:

Similarity, Australian children raised in institutional care received the same bullying, abuse and regimented work and discipline routines. Most were placed in the care of Barnardos, the Fairbridge Society, The Church of England and the Christian Brothers. The inquiry found that these institutions were inadequately supervised, monitories and inspected. Following a Commission Inquiry into Child Abuse, these children became known as the ‘forgotten Australians’ and along with the ‘lost innocence’ children receive an apology from the Australian Government in 2013 Link:

The findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse in Contemporary Out-of-home Care Institutions (2017) Link: further exposed the level of abuse and neglect that was suffered by children in foster homes, by family members, visitors, caseworkers, and other children in care and identified the almost insurmountable barriers that prevent these children from seeking and receiving help. This time, schools and children’s sporting associations and religious institutions (including the Catholic Church) were also implicated. The inquiry showed the broad range of institutions in Australia in which child sexual abuse was carried out over many decades. The now adult’s testimony showed how harrowing this experience was and continues to be for them. This six-year inquiry into sexual abuse went to some dark places such as exposing paedophile rings operating in and out of these institutions with impunity for many decades.

Further, a National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention (2014) highlighted the emotional and psychological impact of prolonged detention had on children’s wellbeing and development. No other country mandates the closed and indefinite detention of asylum-seeking children when they arrived on our shores or when they are born in detention after their parents arrive. To date there has been no satisfactory explanation for this policy. We have yet to highlight the continuing abuse suffered by the adult asylum seekers and refugees permanently located in detentions centres in Australia and the role social workers and health care professionals have played in supporting this cruel and inhumane regime (Briskman, 2017).

Added to this list of atrocities was the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families and raised in white welfare and religious institutions. This practice was endemic during the same period of these events mentioned above. Between 1910 and 1970 the Australian Government removed Aboriginal children from their families as part of their Assimilation policy. Raised in white institutions or in white families, they were actively taught to reject their indigenous heritage, language and customs and forced to accept white culture to assimilate them into white society, where once again abuse and neglect were common. Known as the ‘Stolen Generation’ many of these children never reconnected with their families and many of their parents never recovered from this practice. In response to the Bringing Them Home Report the Australian government delivered an apology to indigenous peoples in 2008. Link: australians together

This list of institutional abuse and welfare practice has not ended. Currently, there is a Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability(2019). Link: disability high commission and another Royal Inquiry into Aged Care Services (2018) Link: is still to deliver its report. From all indications, we can see that abuse, sexual and emotional, and physical neglect has occurred in these health and welfare institutions for the elderly and people with disabilities too. In time, apologies will be forthcoming to these victims as well.

I mention all this because these organisations and institutions are the primary employers for social workers, past, present and future. It is to our shame that these failings in human rights protections continue! While the cloak of shame has been lifted from the survivors as they recount their experiences of these welfare practices and institutional behaviour and that their stories have been given some overdue recognition for the abuse and neglect they have endured it is to our shame that they had to experience this abuse at all.

Social action and policy advocacy to promote social change and ensure human rights are not violated, especially for vulnerable people and communities, is central to social work’s philosophy but maybe not its practice. In practice, argues Mendes (2015), social work activism has been relegated to the margins or left to the Australian Service Union (earlier Australian Social Welfare Union (ASWU)) to protect its workers and the service users in the human services sector. That is not to say that the AASW has ignored its responsibility to help expose past practices by writing submissions, letters to relevant Ministers, networking and developing partnerships with other welfare bodies, and developing position papers on specific issues, (Mendes, 2017) but this is where much of this activity stops.

Despite the distressing findings of these Royal commissions and the painful and traumatic testimonies of many of the survivors of past and present institutional abuses, the AASW has focussed primarily on securing professional recognition and developing competencies in specific practice areas such as Mental Health, Child Protection, Cross- Cultural Practice and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Peoples as means of securing the rights and protection of vulnerable peoples, placing less emphasis on public debate and a public show of activism.

Pressured by the current neo-liberal landscape and new public managerialism which demands agencies, Institutions and practitioners demonstrate measurable competencies and capabilities makes lobbying and activism almost impossible. It also highlights the inherent tension between activism and professionalism. While an apology for past actions has been delivered by the AASW, there is little sign that social activism is a priority, even as these abuses continued to be aired. Surely, by exposing current and past abuses, the profession must become less concerned with its move to professionalise and engage in social activism and social policy advocacy now the full range of abuse and neglect has been exposed in welfare and health services where most practitioners work. It must take responsibility for some of these past and present injustices and identify if and where these might still be occurring. In the face of overwhelming evidence of wrongdoings (past and present) there seem little question that governments and social welfare institutions and practitioners take seriously their role to advocate for human rights when these rights are being abused. If not now after all these exposures of failings, then when?


Briskman, L. (2017). The Wisdom of Hindsight: Cumulative Lessons in Activism. In C. Noble, B. Pease & J. Ife. (eds). Radicals in Australian Social Work: Stories of Lifelong Activism. Connor Court: QLD. Australia.
Healy, K. (2012). Remembering, Apologies, and Truth: Challenges for Social Work Today. Australian Social Work. 65,3. pp.288-294.
Mendes, P. (2017). The Social Policy Context of the Norma Parker Addresses. Australian Social Work, 70, sup1, 24-45.