“This wasn’t a Magdalene Laundry, this was an NHS hospital with nurses in uniform,” reflects a former nurse and MP who is fighting for answers five decades after her baby was forcibly adopted.
Ann Keen, who was also a Labour health minister, was just 17 when she was coerced into giving up her only son, simply because she was not married.
“This was an NHS hospital with nurses slapping my legs telling me to be quiet”
The shocking ordeal subsequently led Ms Keen into a career in nursing and later politics to stand up for the vulnerable, disadvantaged and side-lined in a way she was refused when she needed it most.
Having later been reunited with her son, she now wants to know how the practice of so-called forced adoption was allowed to take place, and why NHS nurses and midwives were seemingly complicit in it.
Around half a million British mothers are thought to have been treated in this way in the 1950s, 60s, 70s and early 80s because of social disapproval towards unmarried mothers.
The Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church and the Salvation Army – which handled most adoptions in the UK around this time – have all apologised for their involvement in past poor practice.
But Ms Keen has joined a chorus of voices, including fellow former nurse, Veronica Smith, calling on the government to make an official apology to those whose lives have been damaged by forced adoption. The pair are members of the campaign group, Movement for an Adoption Apology (MAA).
“One of my ward sisters said: ‘I always knew you had something really sad in your eyes”
Ms Smith is hopeful that prime minister Theresa May will listen to the MAA and issue an apology on behalf of the state, in the same way leaders in Australia and Ireland have already done. She said: “It’s the culmination of everything we have been working for and it is just recognition that what happened to us was so bad, it was just evil.”
Ms Smith added: “Adopted adults also need an apology because they feel as they had no control of who they were adopted by or how they were parented, they feel rejected and out of place in their adopted family, often blaming their birth mother without any knowledge of why she had to ‘give them away’. This makes some of them reluctant to trace in case they are rejected again.
“Some birth fathers also suffer a loss, especially if they were in a loving relationship with the mother and were not privy to any decision making at the time,” she said. “Some went on to marry the mother and they both had to feel the loss.”
Ms Smith, who helped to found the MAA in 2010, was 23 and working as a nurse at a holiday camp in West Sussex when she became pregnant in 1964. Terrified of how her fiercely Catholic family would react, she sought advice from a doctor who told her to drink gin and use a douche to try and abort her baby.
Ms Smith, now 77, ended up writing to her mother and sister who got in touch with a Catholic adoption agency. To maintain secrecy, she was hidden away at a South London hostel during her pregnancy where she was made to do arduous housework.
“They were slapping my legs because I was moving in hysterics when she was stitching me”
She was admitted to a hospital run by nuns for the birth. The baby, who she named Angela, was then taken for adoption. Ms Smith was made to write letters to her father during this time pretending she was working abroad. He died not knowing about his grandchild.
“With our generation, you respected your elders and if they said jump you jumped, especially with a Catholic upbringing,” noted Ms Smith, who said she was made to feel adoption was “inevitable”.
She said she suppressed the memories of that time after the adoption and continued her career as a nurse until the past caught up with her and she had a mental breakdown. “I was just in pieces,” she said.
Ms Smith had three months off work and that was when she decided to start looking for her daughter. The pair were eventually reunited and now meet regularly but have experienced challenges in their relationship. Ms Smith told Nursing Times that the ordeal had “ruined” her life.
She added: “It’s a big burden to carry when you can’t talk about it, until I did start talking about it. One of my ward sisters who had been there all the time, when I told her she said, ‘I always knew you had something really sad in your eyes’, so she could tell.”
Meanwhile, Ms Keen, now 69, unexpectedly fell pregnant in 1966 to the outrage of her working-class family in South Wales. She said she was put into the hands of a “moral welfare officer” – equivalent to a modern day social worker – and was made to believe adoption was the only option available.
Like many women who went through this process, she was not made aware of welfare benefits that she would have been entitled to as a single mother.
“With our generation, you respected your elders and if they said jump you jumped”
Speaking to Nursing Times, she said: “At no time were you asked, ‘do you want to have this baby, do you want to keep the baby? This is what sort of help you can get, financial and other support’.
“You were actually told, ‘you can’t have anything, you can’t have any help whatsoever so adoption is the only option to you, and if you love the baby and if you love your family this is definitely what you would do, you will give the baby a better chance in life than if the baby stayed with you’,” she said.
In the later stages of pregnancy, Ms Keen was sent to a strict mother and baby unit believed to have been run by a local authority, where she was made to scrub the steps from day to night.
When the time for the birth came, she was taken to an NHS hospital and recalls a disturbing account of her treatment there, including being given no pain relief. “It was: ‘you will remember this, you will remember this pain and you won’t do this again’ – so you were as quiet as you could be,” she said.
“I can’t remember whether I tore or whether I had an episiotomy, but I had stitches,” she said. “It was a woman doctor and they were slapping my legs because I was moving in hysterics when she was stitching me and it was all about ‘behave’, ‘keep still’.”
Ms Keen was told she would have 10 days with her son in the hospital but he was taken away after the eighth day, because staff thought she was getting too attached.
A nurse put her into a bath and expressed her breast milk, telling her “you won’t need this”, and she was sent home with no advice or follow-up postnatal care. “It’s never left me and is with me now,” said Ms Keen. “Who told these people to treat me differently?”
“It’s never left me and is with me now. Who told these people to treat me differently?”
Referring to institutions in Ireland, she said: “This wasn’t a Magdalene Laundry, this was an NHS hospital with nurses in uniform who were slapping my legs telling me to be quiet because I would remember the pain.”
Magdalene Laundries in Ireland were institutions of confinement, usually run by Roman Catholic orders, which operated from the 18th to the late 20th centuries ostensibly to house “fallen women”.
Following media revelations during the 1990s about the operations of such institutions, a formal state apology was issued in 2013 by the Irish government and a £50m compensation scheme set up.
On her own situation, Ms Keen added: “I’m mortified. I wish to goodness they weren’t nurses. I wish I had been kept somewhere else. Other people have stories of being in the Catholic faith and being in convents, I would prefer that to have happened to me than for it be in the NHS.”
She said she was sent a picture of her son six weeks after the birth with a note from her moral welfare officer reading: “I hope this eases the pain and you know that your son will not be brought up as illegitimate”.
“It’s a big burden to carry when you can’t talk about it, until I did start talking about it”
After the legal adoption documents were signed, she said she was told to never speak about the baby again. Ms Keen went on to join the NHS herself as a receptionist at an accident and emergency department.
The trauma of her past equipped Ms Keen with a gift for comforting the relatives of patients, she said, and as a result she was encouraged by sisters on the ward to consider a career in nursing. She qualified as a registered nurse in 1979 and while she kept her adoption horror secret, the experience shaped her into a model and award-winning nurse.
She said: “I constantly strove to be so understanding, compassionate, knowledgeable yes, but to treat people with so much dignity and respect rather than what I went through.”
Ms Keen, who later spent 10 years as a district nurse and is a fellow of the Queen’s Nursing Institute, was reunited with her then 28-year-old son in 1994 and she said they now have a “positive” relationship.
After nursing she went into politics. She served as a Labour MP for Brentford and Isleworth from 1997 to 2010, was parliamentary private secretary to Gordon Brown when he was chancellor and became a health minister while he was prime minister. However, like Ms Smith, Ms Keen also subsequently chose not to have any more children in the wake of her earlier experience.
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Ms Keen joined the MAA in 2016 and using her connections secured a parliamentary debate on forced adoption in July this year. Labour MP Alison McGovern spoke on the group’s behalf and called on the government to issue an apology and to find and publish all official records and documentation that related to this practice.
As a result, education minister Nadhim Zahawi has agreed to meet with MAA members to discuss the campaign and its demands.
Ms Keen and Ms Smith are asking the nursing and midwifery community to show their support for the MAA campaign by signing its petition for a cross-party parliamentary apology ahead of the landmark meeting with Mr Zahawi, the date for which is yet to be finalised.
- For more information about the campaign or to sign the petition, visit the Movement for an Adoption Apology website.
Ann Keen and Veronica Smith
Source: Peter Searle