Torn from their arms

Jenny Dawson (left) worked with members of ARMS to make the mosaics that will raise awareness about their poor treatment. Photos by Peter Zuvela.

Art project helps deal with loss

A GROUP of women whose children were forcibly taken by authorities are finding solace through a collaborative artwork with Fremantle ceramic artist Jenny Dawson.

The women belong to an 80-strong national organisation known as the Association Representing Mothers Separated from their Children by Adoption (ARMS) which lobbies for awareness about the history and impacts of forced adoption. 

Forced adoption was conducted by various religious and government bodies who took babies from mothers they deemed unfit; the practice was the focus of an apology adopted by former prime minister Julia Gillard.

The local artwork consists of three mosaics depicting sunflowers and lined with personal tiles made by ARMS members in a series of workshops lead by Ms Dawson at her J-Shed studio in Fremantle.

The artwork is meant to raise awareness and offer some catharsis for the women by allowing them to physically manifest their emotions and experiences. 

“It’s hard in a way, because you have to go back again, but it’s healing,” ARMS member Kath Smith said. 

ARMS coordinator Lynne Devine said the group hoped to educate people about the long-term health effects on both mother and child when they are forcibly separated at birth.

Effects include feelings of loss and grief, problems with identity development, reduced self-esteem and self-confidence, increased risk of substance abuse, and higher rates of mental health disorders. 

“We want people to understand that adoption is not necessarily a perfect solution,” Mrs Devine said.

“For every child obtained for adoption it means that someone, somewhere, has sustained a grievous loss.

“The maternal instinct is powerful and an unplanned pregnancy does not mean the baby is unwanted.”

After seeing Ms Dawson’s 2018 War Memorial in West Leederville, Ms Devine contacted her to discuss doing a project together.

The Town of Victoria Park offered them a site in Read Park and stage one of the project, a plaque and several sculptures, was unveiled in 2019.

The plaque is inscribed with the sobering sentence: “Approximately 200,000 mothers and babies were torn apart at birth through forced adoption.”

Completion of the memorial was delayed by Covid-19 restrictions but is now back on track and at a second workshop on October 19 ARMS members finished inscribing most of the tiles with their personal messages. 

They hope to unveil the mosaics by March 21 next year, the anniversary of Ms Gillard’s 2013 apology. 

The apology was a significant moment for ARMS, with Ms Devine flying to Canberra with a small group to witness Ms Gillard’s speech at Parliament House.

She said group finally felt their experiences had been recognised on a national level.

“Too often they did not see their baby’s face. They could not sooth their baby’s first cries, never felt their baby’s warmth or smelt their baby’s skin,” Ms Gillard said in her apology speech, to which Mrs Devine and the other ARMS members were first to applaud. 

Apology

The apology was influenced by the Commonwealth Commission into Former Forced Adoption Policies and Practices which ran from 2010 to 2013, with the committee interviewing 418 women who were victims of the practice. 

Ms Devine said that without the prime minister’s efforts, ARMS would not exist to the degree it does today as her government helped set up the Forced Adoption Support Service (FASS) with a $6 million dollar budget which was redistributed to smaller organisations. ARMS has used its portion to fund the memorial project. 

Creating and installing community art can be a difficult process, but Mrs Dawson believes it is a great way to raise awareness.

“Community art of this type is a wonderful medium to encourage telling of stories, expression and healing through participation and empowerment in a non-threatening environment,” she said.  

Forced adoption and its impacts is a grave issue although the women always strive to uphold a high-spirited atmosphere at their workshops.”

The Read Park memorial is open to the public 24/7 and is located on Salford Street in East Victoria Park.

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