Vivienne Timmermans knows the danger of keeping secrets.
“It can kill you. It’s such a burden,” she says.
At 16 years old, she kept her pregnancy a secret from her mother until the day she thought she was going to give birth.
After that, it would take another 18 years before she would tell another soul about it.
“I don’t remember much [from the day I had my daughter] because I was fairly well drugged a lot,” she says.
“I was held down. I actually had a pillow over my face so I couldn’t see the child and they had a curtain in front of me too.”
While she wasn’t allowed to see her baby, she was allowed to name her.
“I remember flicking through a magazine and looking for a name because I didn’t think I was going to be able to name her,” she says.
“I found one that I liked: Sheree. And that’s what I named her.”
Vivienne says she never considered keeping her baby, because it was never a choice.
“I was always told that a child would need a mother and a father and how was I going to raise a child,” she says.
“It wasn’t a choice. I wasn’t given that choice.
“If I had a choice, I may have made that decision but at that time I thought I had no choice.”
‘It’s a secret, don’t tell’
Stories like Vivienne’s are all too common.
A 2012 report into forced adoption practices in Australia estimates that between 1951 and 1975 there were as many as 150,000 total adoptions.
However, it’s not known exactly how many of them were forced adoptions.
But Vivienne says through the years, and by complete chance, she’s met countless women affected by forced adoption – and those are just the ones willing to share their story.
“I know that there’s still women who are out there living in silence, thinking that there’s no-one to talk to and nowhere to get help,” she says.
That’s why she started a support group in Esk, in the Somerset Region in South-East Queensland, to help women like her and others affected by forced adoption to break their silence.
“That’s why I called my group You Gave Me A Voice. Because most of our mothers were told to live in silence, ‘it’s a secret, don’t tell’. So, we never had a voice,” she says.
‘Go home, forget this’
Joyce Westerman is one of 14 group members, including adoptees, mothers and family members.
“I was 17 when I fell pregnant to my boyfriend. We’d been going out for maybe two years at the time,” she says.
“I came from a very churchy sort of family. They would have been OK for me to get married, but I felt I was too young at 17.
“So, I found a place for unmarried mothers in the phone book, and it was in Rockhampton.”
That’s where Joyce gave birth to her daughter – however, unlike Vivienne, she wasn’t allowed to name her.
“They kind of treated us like we were something shameful. We were alone, you didn’t really have support,” Joyce says.
After she left the facility, she was told by nurses to “go home, forget this and live a normal life”.
In counseling, concern or care.
“I sort of put it away for a lot of years. It was just that it was that nobody talked about these things. It was a big secret,” she says.
She met her daughter, Kylie Cameron, two decades later and they now attend the group meetings together – allowing them to share both sides of their story.
“I feel that when we were kept apart, there was a certain amount of angst. Like whose trauma was greater than the other person’s,” Kylie says.
“This is a great opportunity to bring us into the same room. So that birth mothers are aware of how adoptees feel, and adoptees can also be aware of how birth mothers feel.”
While Kylie and Joyce have been able to find each other and reconnect, others haven’t been so lucky.
Gayle Gaffney recently introduced herself to her father.
“He didn’t know that I was born so I haven’t heard from him since we met,” she says.
Her husband, David, has been attending meetings with her.
“I’ve noticed that Gayle is a bit better in herself since she’s come to these meetings and groups,” he says.
Gayle adds: “It has helped me to heal. Coming to this group and meeting like-minded people, so I definitely recommend it.”
The ripple effect of forced adoptions
While Vivienne and her daughter, Sheree, were able to reconnect 18 years after she was forced to give her away, their relationship hasn’t always been easy.
But Vivienne’s second daughter Ayrlie Sims, who was born 14 years after Sheree, is very close with her half sister.
She also attends the group sessions, and says it’s been an eye-opening experience.
She says the effects of forced adoptions isn’t just felt by its victims, but also their friends, partners and children.
“Attending the group sessions has really [opened my eyes] about how many people this impacts,” she says.
“It’s really helped me to understand where Mum comes from and where my sister comes from and helped to build that relationship with my sister.
“I feel that sibling relationships are just as important as parent relationships [with adoptees].
“I really loved finding out that there was someone else in my life.”
It’s been nearly 10 years since former prime minister Julia Gillard delivered a national apology to victims of forced adoption.
The federal government said following a Senate inquiry in 2012, it continues to provide assistance for victims, including $1.7 million per year for support services.
But Vivienne says there’s still a long way to go before she can forgive what happened to her.
With so many women still living in secrecy, she is calling for more to be done to help them come forward, including more money for support services and groups.
‘Remove that shame’
Vivienne says her message to mothers and adoptees in Australia, who are yet to break their silence, is “we gave the greatest gift; the gift of life”
“There’s no shame in that. So number one, remove that shame,” she says.
“If you can find the strength to talk to someone, please do it. Because there is support for you. You can still get support anonymously.
“To adoptees, please don’t think that your mother doesn’t love you because I know in her heart, she loves you.
“I know that if she doesn’t want to meet you, it’s not because she doesn’t want to, it’s because of her own trauma. And for her, meeting you is going to trigger the pain of losing you.”
More details about the group can be found on the You Gave Me A Voice Facebook group or through Post Adoption Services Queensland on 1800 236 762.