About Adoption 7

When I joined the city office of the Methodist Babies’ Home in 1947 I was a very naive 16-year-old, attending to petty cash, basic typing and duplicating. As receptionist, it was my job to open a sliding window to greet unmarried girls arriving to hand over their babies, and point them to a hard chair in a narrow passageway to await their interview with our Confidential Officer.

I also got the job of making a cuppa for those whose tears overwhelmed them as our dear Mrs. Woods took the baby from its mother’s arms.

I opened the front door into the Temple Court corridor one day to find a young couple gazing at the lettering on the door and giggling. ‘METHODIST BABIES HOME’, it proclaimed. And under that, ‘Methodist Young Men’s Movement.’ They turned suddenly and scooted off down the corridor, the woman turning to giggle, ‘We were just wondering what the connection was!’

The connection, of course, was enthusiastic fund-raising by a group of passionately caring young men, who remained on the scene, now n middle age. Within the Methodist tradition of lay preachers, they travelled all over the state preaching their cause. Originally the emphasis was on rescuing ‘slum babies’ from the deprivation, neglect or abuse that arose from their hopeless backgrounds. Everywhere they went as deputationists they enlisted other young people to collect threepence a week from members of their congregations. Auditing the ‘Blue Books’ in which these donations were entered, with money and books brought to the office at intervals, was another of my jobs.

A slight carelessness in my telephone duties led to one of these deputationists failing to arrive for his scheduled country service, leaving the congregation without a leader. I was directed to ring up and apologise to him. Overwhelmed with guilt and shame, and my phobia about being berated, I refused.

Mrs. Woods refused to allow me to leave. For a whole hour our Confidential Officer stood over me, quiet, but gently insisting, regardless of her family at home waiting for tea. It was a long overdue lesson in life for which I bless her memory. When I gave in I was astonished at Clarrie Armstrong’s kind, reassuring acceptance of my apology and never again allowed my guilt and fear to override a clear duty. Such a small thing, yet life-changing. I was delighted to meet that gentle man half a century later – but never reminded him of my misdemeanour.

Others of the ‘Young Men’ occasionally called, including the prime mover in the foundation of the home, F. Oswald Barnett, whose accountancy firm was based some floors above us in Temple Court. It was his M.Comm thesis, ‘The Economics of the Slums’, that galvanised him to action on slum children and the promotion of adoption. He later instituted the Slum Abolition Board, pressuring the government into establishing the Housing Commission in 1937.

It was not until 1948 however that I saw some of the back lanes of North Richmond (where some school friends lived) demolished, and replaced by high-rise blocks of flats. I remember the cramped, decrepit terraces, houses where a tub in the back yard served as bathroom and laundry, and smelly dunnies down the back.

The scene changed after the South Yarra Home was opened in December 1929, thanks to the agitation and fundraising of the Methodist Young Men’s Movement. The new 1928 adoption laws enabled them to find stable, loving, permanent homes where babies would be given the love and nurture so essential for their growth into happy, productive, law-abiding citizens.

The new Home was modern and geared to caring for infants, and the new laws soon changed the adoption scene. However they did not totally end the admission of infants to the Cheltenham homes, where the onset of the Depression placed them under different and greater pressure.

Unable to pay rent, or even to feed them adequately during the Great Depression, the unemployed increasingly gave up the impossible struggle to support their children. At Cheltenham, the Committee turned from child rescue to providing temporary accommodation for children who had nowhere else to go, especially those who had lost one or the other parent through death. In 1932 this caused so much crowding that only three new admissions were possible. Sometimes attempts were made to obtain consent to adoption, but such decent parents had usually done nothing to merit having their children removed.

By 1935 four per cent of Victoria’s children were accommodated in seventy similar homes. By 1938 the receiving depot for the Children’s Welfare Department was sadly overcrowded. In these hard times boarding-out was going out of date. The Department was forced to go begging to those seventy institutions for placements for their 3800 state wards, but little more than half found places. In the Methodist homes nearly 15% of inmates were wards.

The War brought further dislocation. I worked in 1950 with a war widow whose son (now fifteen had and able to start work) had just returned to her care after years of being fostered out away in the country. Her anguished memory still disturbed her when she recalled that boss, who had refused to allow her time off to visit her boy when he was very ill. Another widow I knew had been driven to give up her baby for adoption when her mother could offer no support, owing to her full time care for a husband invalided home from World War 1. They were loving, caring mothers.

Without support, child-rearing just wasn’t possible. It had nothing to do with shame or moral turpitude.