Policy that forced families apart

Refused to be separated ... Kevin Orr with his son Iain, 41, who has Down syndrome and now helps to look after his father.
Refused to be separated ... Kevin Orr with his son Iain, 41, who has Down syndrome and now helps to look after his father.

When Shirley Orr went into labour in 1970 her husband, Kevin, a surgeon, was seeing patients at his regular surgery.

He received a call from the obstetrician telling him everything was all right. Half an hour later the phone rang again and he was informed that the baby had Down syndrome.

Mr Orr, now 85, from Blakehurst said: ''Iain, our fifth child, was at birth taken from his mother. We wanted to see him but we didn't for three weeks. They would not let Shirley feed him as she had our other four children. It was quite peculiar.''

The apology by the Premier, Barry O'Farrell, last month for the trauma and pain caused by the policy of forced adoptions has prompted parents of Down syndrome children to again question the advice they were given to persuade them to give up their babies.

Mr Orr added: ''There is another cohort of children who may have been taken from their families: those with congenital abnormalities.

''They said, 'You will have to put him in a home.' We said, 'No way.' I was quite stunned.''

Iain, now 41, became a blessing to the family. He writes, travels independently, does some work with a packaging business and helps look after his ageing dad.

His story is far from unique, says Down Syndrome NSW.

Cherry Rainsford from Balgowlah gave birth to Andrew - induced at eight months due to complications - on January 21, 1965.

She said: ''They didn't bring him in to be fed, they said he had had such a long and heavy labour they were giving him a rest.

''I wasn't at all happy, I felt there was something wrong. Next day a paediatrician specialist came in and sat at the end of the bed. He confirmed there was something wrong and the best thing was to put him straight from hospital into an institution. The gynaecologist said as soon as my stitches were removed to go home - I had a seven-year-old - to look after him, to forget about the birth and to have another baby straightaway.''

Her husband, Philip, made a visit to Allowah Babies Hospital in Artarmon, where doctors planned to send the infant. On the Saturday they went to pick him up from the hospital where he'd been born.

''I said I would like to feed him - I had been given tablets to dry up my milk,'' Mrs Rainsford said. ''He took the bottle. The tears were running down my cheeks onto him. When the nurse came back she asked if I had emptied the milk down the basin but I said he had drunk it. They said they had never been able to get more than one ounce into him.''

That was the turning point. Andrew went home to his family. Mrs Rainsford said of the coercion to relinquish her child: ''I feel it was the advice given to every mother of a handicapped child.''

Betty Hook, 85, worked in the 1970s at the Allowah Babies Hospital, on the front line for those infants whose parents had been convinced it was best for baby. She was involved with the educational program into Down syndrome at Macquarie University and was one of the pioneers who took the early-intervention program out to the public.

She said: ''You can do so much with these children but some don't do very well at all. That's just the nature of the beast.''

She said she was not aware of a policy saying that babies with Down syndrome should be taken into care.

''Allowah was where children went as tiny babies and they never went home from there. That was considered a fair enough thing to do.

''I suggested it to parents because I knew they couldn't cope.''


This story Policy that forced families apart first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.