Forced adoption: stolen babies, family secrets, unsolved mysteries

SURVIVOR: Carol Maney was twice a victim of forced adoption. Picture: Frances Vinall

On March 30, 1975, Carol Maney woke up on a hospital gurney.

She was hazy and confused, utterly disconnected from any bodily sensations, and bleeding. She couldn’t remember anything of the past hours: it was likely that she had been drugged. Her stomach, swollen with an unborn child the last time she had seen it, was only flesh and stretched skin.

The room was green-tiled and cold. Coming to, she tried to stand up, and blood spilled from between her legs onto the floor. A nurse came in, and reprimanded her for making a mess.

She was 17 years old, and she wouldn’t see her child again for 21 years.

Carol was a victim of forced adoption, a joint church and state practice of taking the children of unwed mothers and placing them with married couples. Across Australia, 250,000 children were believed to have been illegally removed, in a widespread pattern of behaviour that continued into the early 1980s.  

When it happened to her, Carol was living with her parents in Ridgley, outside Burnie.

At that time, she had received exactly the level of sex education one would expect of a teenage girl in a Catholic family in small-town Tasmania in the 1970s. She is able to laugh, now, at her naivete – at the fact that she didn’t even really know what sex was, let alone how babies were made.

But nevertheless, a baby was made.

When the 16-year-old began to show, Carol was sent to Elim House, run by the Salvation Army, in Hobart.

ELIM HOUSE: The Salvation Army archives show Elim House mid-century. Picture: Courtesy Shelley Freeman

In the first-person accounts collected in the National Archives of Australia’s Forced Adoptions History Project, there is one word that is repeatedly used to describe Elim House: horror.

From 1911 until about 1976, it was a place for girls to quietly disappear. They would return to their homes with stories of staying with an aunt on the mainland, and – whether they liked it or not – without a baby in tow that could bring shame to their families.

The Victorian-style terrace building has stood at Lansdowne Crescent since 1897, with an attached purpose-built maternity hospital added in 1963.

Shelley Freeman lived in Elim House until 2017, after it was converted into a heritage-listed private residence. The hospital where the babies were born, and then taken, is now the apartment block next door.

Shelley said in its second life, Elim House was a beautiful family home. But it had one peculiar quirk. While she lived there, disturbed-looking women were in the habit of showing up and staring at the house from the street across the road.

“Every now and then we’d see someone, just looking up at it, they’d be of a certain age group, and I’d think, ‘oh goodness, that’s another one’,” she said.

“When we put the house on the market, the real estate agent said people would come in, not looking to buy, and say, ‘I just really needed to be inside the house again’.

“There was this one particular lady who knocked on my door and told me she had just found out herself that she was adopted. Her mother died, and it was in her mother’s notes when they went through her belongings.

“I found her staring at the house. I said ‘are you OK?’ and she said ‘yeah, I just found out I was born here.’ She was just in total shock.”

FAMILY HOME: Today, Elim House suggests nothing of its dark past. Picture: Courtesy Shelley Freeman

In documents collected by the National Archives of Australia, women describe the routine practices of institutionalised humiliation inflicted on them by the Salvation Army officers who ran the house.

Their stories ring true with Carol’s memories.

“It was awful,” she said.

“They wanted to put you in your place, you know, intimidation. They wouldn’t even speak to you, they would just glare.”

She was first made to vacuum the foyer, clean the steps and polish the banisters. She was then moved to the laundry, where, despite the fact that either they or their families were paying board, the girls were put to work washing clothes and linen commercially, with the profits going to the Salvation Army. She was then put into the kitchen for a time, and finished her stay, heavily pregnant, cleaning the bathrooms.

“I had to do it with a toothbrush,” she said.

“They weren’t nice at all … it was all to do with making you feel like you weren’t worth very much.”

And then comes the memory gap.

Carol cannot prove she was drugged, that strong sedatives are the reason she has a vast swathe of memory missing. It was nine days in total – from her water breaking until after the birth –  with only a brief window of lucidity swimming in her mind from that cold, dark hospital.

But it was not an unusual practice across Australia. Sedating the mothers made the theft of the babies less dramatic for the nurses and social workers tasked with procuring them and passing them onto their adoptive families.

RELATED: The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation’s apology for forced adoption

Dr Naomi Parry is a historian who has taught at the University of New South Wales, Macquarie University, and the University of Western Sydney, and was involved in the Find and Connect web resource for victims of forced adoption.

Her response to the nature of Carol’s account is simple.

“It’s a completely credible story,” she said.

“Single mums were often treated really badly during labour, they were bullied and pushed about.

“There are stories of them being denied pain relief at all … they would put pillows over the mother’s faces so that they wouldn’t catch sight of their babies. They were given really, really high doses of sedatives and then asked to sign papers, and they didn’t realise what they’d signed.

“Often the job of the social worker was to coerce them into giving up their baby, and they would do that by fair means or foul.

“They would have a group of expectant parents basically waiting for a baby to be put in their arms. Adoption was a huge industry; it used to be fairly easy for married couples to get a baby, then.”

Sedatives would also explain why Carol cannot remember signing adoption consent papers – even though, during her efforts to uncover her past, she has sighted the documents with her signature on them.

PAST TRAUMA: There is strong reason to believe Carol Maney was drugged. Picture: Frances Vinall

Either way, whether she was drugged, or trauma-related memory loss is the cause, one day 17-year-old Carol Maney went to bed pregnant, and the next thing she knew, she was not. She woke with a torn birth canal, stitches between her legs, and no other evidence of the baby she had pushed out of her body.

It would be 21 years before she even learned the gender of her child.

She had given birth to a boy, whose adoptive parents named David.

Did she want to keep him, at the time?

“Yes,” she said.

Did she think about him, in the intervening years?

“Of course. All the time.”

And what was it like when she did meet him?

“Oh … amazing.

“It was like coming home – all that loss, falling away. Because you don’t ever forget.”

Carol is 60, now. She is an artist, photographer and school teacher living in Strahan, where she splits her time between a converted fishing vessel moored in Macquarie Harbour, and a home on shore. She has a partner, Trevor, two other children, Pax and Lucy, and an excitable poodle, named Peanut.

REBUILT LIFE: Carol’s partner, Trevor Dennis, and dog, Peanut. Picture: Frances Vinall

Her relationship with her son, David, was made possible when the law around adoption changed in 1988. Suddenly, thousands of Tasmanian women were – and still are – able to get in touch with their lost children through a letter exchange via the Department of Human Services.

David Coates was studying in Launceston when he met his biological mother for the first time.

It was late March, 1996. He was on crutches recovering from a knee reconstruction. It was actually his 21st birthday, the day he met Carol.

“That’s just the way it worked out, but it was a cool date to do it – that’s the only thing we really had in common, then, was my birthday,” he said.

To an outsider, the similarities between David and Carol are immediately striking.

Despite spending the majority of their lives with no proximity to each other – no opportunity to rub off on each other – both are steady and methodical. Almost clinical, drawing more on dates and documents than raw emotional memory. David describes Carol’s presence as “soothing,” and the same could be said of his own measured speaking style – neither of them rush to fill silences.

“We’re very comfortable in each other’s space,” he said.

“Our personalities are pretty relaxed. Maybe that’s a genetic thing, I don’t know.

“There’s some photos somewhere of the first time I’d met her on the West Coast. We went for a walk and there’s a photo of the both of us, and – you have things that happen inside your head, but when you look at a picture of us both – there’s some really strong similarities.”

REUNITED: Carol Maney and her biological son, David Coates. Picture: Courtesy Carol Maney

David’s birth occurred at the tail end of the forced adoption industry. The Whitlam government’s introduction of the single mother’s benefit in 1973 gradually wiped it out, by giving young mothers the ability to seize a degree of autonomy over their own lives.

David was born after 1973; after the introduction of the benefit. But knowledge of the legislation took years to trickle through to rural Tasmania, and no one at Elim House had a particular interest in informing Carol of her rights.

So, he was taken. But in some ways, Carol and David’s forced separation is a knot that has now been tied. He lives in Canada, but they speak on the phone sometimes, and they always spend time together when he is in Tasmania. Their children have met each other; he has spent time with some of the relatives of his deceased biological father.

Their meeting, and successful attempts to build a healthy relationship, have brought Carol a measure of closure.

Yet trauma has a way of rippling through time.

At the age of 42, after she had already found David and believed the mysteries of her life had been solved, Carol discovered that she was not the first woman in her family to have a child in wrenching circumstances; a child that was then adopted out.

Forty-two years ago, she had been that child.

For Carol, finding out she was adopted was a sickening penny drop; a “shock but not a surprise”.

It was a guillotine slice that levelled her permanent feeling of being an outsider into comprehension.

Carol was taller than everyone else in the family. She believed for most of her life that she was a mixture of German and Aboriginal stock; but she looks – and is, it turns out – Scandinavian. An exhibited photographer who lives on a boat; artistic leanings are as foreign to her adopted family as the idea of exploring the outdoors for pleasure.

She is clear that she doesn’t want her telling of events to be seen as an attack on her adopted parents, who are still alive and living in Tasmania.

But it is undeniable that the secret of her origins has left her with clotting wounds; deep lesions that she has still not truly recovered from, and from which she may never fully heal.

“They let me believe [they were my parents] until I was 42,” she said.

“And I was the one who was investigating the family history and identifying as Aboriginal, you know…” she trailed off, letting the hurt linger in the air.

“Apparently I cried a lot when I was a baby. And I’d spent two weeks wrapped up in a hospital, all lined up, without my mother. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a situation where you’re at an event or something and there’s a baby that’s just crying and crying, and all it wants is its mother … people don’t understand. It’s pretty hard, if it hasn’t happened to you.”

It was her cousin who told her the truth.

Eight years older than her, he, like the rest of the family, knew that Carol had been adopted. But he didn’t feel like he could tell her the truth until their shared grandmother had passed away.

RELATED: Premier delivers emotional adoption apology

IT’S TIME: The Whitlam government’s introduction of the single mother payment is credited with triggering the end of forced adoption practices in Australia. Picture: File

“It answered a lot of questions,” she said.

“They all thought I should have been told – apparently – but because my mother didn’t want them to, they couldn’t.

“When our grandmother died, he told me. He thought I had a right to know.”

In the late 1950s, Cynthia Passmore was an army nurse stationed at Brighton. Alex Payne was a medic. She would bring him cups of tea late at night, after the camp had quietened down, and they would talk.

They became friends.

Then, they became more than friends.

And in 1957, Carol was conceived on the night of a fundraising dance at the Brighton barracks.

After Cynthia fell pregnant Alex wanted to marry her, and all the arrangements were in place – the army had released him from his draft posting in Borneo, in place of a position at an army hospital in Queensland. They would move up north, settle down, and raise a family.

But Cynthia changed her mind.

“She’s a Catholic and I’m a Protestant, so I thought that might have been the problem,” Alex said, 60 years later, down the phone from his home in Western Australia.

“Not so much with her, but with the family. A little Catholic town like she lived in.

“And I – when you’re in the army you can’t just take off whenever you like. If she had have lived down the street then I would have made sure we sorted it out, but I was in Victoria and she was in Tassie. And they said the family was looking after the baby.

CAROL’S FATHER: Alex Payne. Picture: Courtesy Carol Maney

“I went to Tasmania on a job sometime later and I was catching the plane out.

“I changed my flight and hired a car and I drove up there, to Ross where she lived. But when I got there I chickened out. I just thought, if she’s married, they’ve got the kid – I didn’t know what had happened – and I just chickened out. And I never tried again after that.

“I mean, I did write to her, a number of letters – because I wanted to marry her, and to find out what had happened. I never got a reply.

“When I spoke to Cynthia, after we established contact years and years later, she said she never got any letters from me. I assume her mother had intercepted them. But I don’t know, Cynthia was very secretive.”

Cynthia’s voice is missing from this story.

She died on January 4, 2016.

But from secondhand accounts it seems that she was a deeply complicated person, whose life had been fractured again and again by a series of extraordinary events inflicted on an ordinary person.

It is not known whether or not she gave up Carol by choice. And when they did establish contact she treated her daughter with suspicion, telling her that she “wasn’t getting anything”.

“I don’t blame her,” Carol said.

“She was traumatised. She didn’t talk about any of it, but I imagine it was very traumatic. And I had all my documents and everything, but I don’t think she ever really believed that I was her daughter.”

“Cynthia seemed very fragile to me,” Alex Payne said. “And you don’t like upsetting people. I was hoping it would all gradually come out.”

LONG-LOST MOTHER: Carol Maney in her mother, Cynthia Passmore’s, old house, at Ross. Picture: Scott Gelston

Cynthia also told Carol that her father had died in Laos.

Carol was tracking down death records when she received a phone call that must have seemed like it was beyond the grave. It was her biological father, alive and well, who had never even been to Laos, and who had spent his retirement trying to find the daughter he had wanted to raise all those years ago.

Alex’s voice lights up when he talks about the time he has spent with Carol now. He first went to Tasmania for two weeks; the second trip, for three months. He relishes the bizarre similarities they have – like the fact that they are both photographers, or that they separately owned almost identical German Shepherd dogs.

“We would go off for days down the coast when I would visit Tasmania, photographing, staying in little two-bunk chalets, like we’d known each other all our lives,” he said.

“It’s amazing, because I’m a fairly shy person and so is Carol.

“Carol’s very like my father’s side of the family. I can see my aunties in her. Not my mother – maybe my sister a little. But she’s more like a Payne: fairly blunt, she doesn’t hold back – if she’s got something to say she’ll say it. Same kind of quiet sense of humour … sort of subtle.

“I love kids,” he said, before pausing.

“I could have been a good father to her.”

At age 60, Carol now has a thriving relationship with both her biological father and her biological son. And even though her interaction with her biological mother was rocky and marred by lies, their contact still brought her one step closer to understanding her own story.

But that story isn’t over yet.

Carol continues to piece together her personal narrative from scraps and whispers.

There’s a tale in her biological family that when Cynthia’s labour was over, in the fugue of pain and confusion, she saw the doctor holding up three fingers to the attending nurse.

There’s a photo of a page in a family prayer book bearing Carol’s own birthday, and the names of two boys, Ian and Stephen Chadwick, scrawled in her deceased aunt’s handwriting.

There was a conversation with an old friend of Carol’s containing this casual bombshell: “I didn’t know about you, I only knew about the boys.”

Carol now believes she was a triplet.

Is a triplet.

It is possible she was one of three children both to Cynthia that day in Latrobe Hospital in 1958. The evidence suggests there was also two boys, adopted out together, in secret, while she was kept within Tasmania, and her pathway noted in official records.

Now, her mission is to find her brothers.

“There’s always been something missing in my life,” she said.

“I don’t know if it’s because I was adopted, or that I’ve got two siblings and I’ve missed them all my life.

“If you share a womb together, you’re pretty close, aren’t you. All the stories that you hear about twins and triplets being very closely connected. And I don’t know if that separation is why I’ve felt that there’s been something missing in my life, or if it’s because I was adopted.”

SEARCHING FOR ANSWERS: Carol Maney in Ross, where she believes her brothers visited her mother about 1977. Picture: Scott Gelston

Here’s what she knows so far.

The boys are non-identical twins. They visited Passmore in Ross sometime between 1977-79, and there is a photograph of them wearing blue uniforms, potentially Air Force, that has since been lost. They were adopted out together, and have an older sister, also adopted. Up until the late ’70s, they were living in Western Australia. In the ’80s Cynthia travelled to one of their weddings in Brisbane, and by the 2000s, it is believed at least one of them was living in Sydney. Carol’s aunt owned a prayer book in which she had written the names Ian and Stephen Chadwick, later crossed out and changed to Shadwick, and Carol believes that is likely to be the twins’ names.

She is now sharing her story in the hope that one of those details may ring true with a reader.

“My brothers still don’t know I exist,” she said.

“There’s been a lot missing in my life. And I still think there’s something missing in my life.

“It’s being whole, really. Knowing who you are and where you belong. I want to understand; find my place.”

If you think you may know any details about Carol Maney’s history, or brothers, please contact

  • If this story has caused any issues for you, please call Relationships Tasmania Forced Adoption Support Service on 1300 364 277, or Lifeline any time on 13 11 14.

​This story was made available to subscribers first. 

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