'You'd be selfish to keep your baby': The women haunted by forced adoptions looking for answers

A special report from ITV News Social Affairs Correspondent Sarah Corker on the lasting trauma for the tens of thousands of women forced to give up their babies for adoption

Warning: Readers may find some of the issues discussed in this article to be distressing

In the decades after the war, nearly 200,000 unmarried women were forced and shamed into giving up their babies for adoption in England and Wales.

This is the harrowing story of mothers still traumatised by the cruelty they faced for getting pregnant out of wedlock, and their decades-long search for justice.

Between 1949 and the mid 1970s, thousands of women were sent away to mother and baby homes run by churches and the state - places of secrecy, cruelty and even abuse - where babies were put up for adoption or died through poor care.

ITV News has investigated one home in south Cumbria. Burial records obtained through a Freedom of Information request revealed that 45 babies are buried in unmarked graves close to the institution.

Dr Michael Lambert, an academic specialising in the welfare state at Lancaster University, has spent years investigating the disturbing conditions inside some of these homes for unmarried mothers; St Monica's, in Kendal, which was operated by the Church of England's Diocese of Carlisle from 1918 until its closure in 1970, was the "worst he's come across".

Dr Lambert showed me page after page of official council and government documents that warned of sub-standard medical treatment, a lack of trained midwives and harsh, even punitive conditions.

"Women there were effectively being denied access to modern medicine and I think that is why so many [babies] are dying at such a young age," he told ITV News.

"Even by the standards of that time, mortality rates were high at the home," he said.

Our investigation took us to Parkside Cemetery in Kendal. Official records show that 45 babies are buried in an unmarked plot - all lived and died at the home.

The youngest survived for just 45 minutes, the oldest, 11 weeks. There is now a local campaign for headstones to be erected to remember all 45 children.

'I think out there, there is a lot of shame and people feeling very stuck about the fact that happened to them during that period... they haven't had a chance to make that right for themselves,' PAC-UK Family Action's Mike Hancock told ITV News

After decades of silence and secrecy, adoption support charities say more women, many now in their 80s and 90s, are coming forward to access their files, trace their children and seek support. At one time there were 150 homes for unmarried mothers in England.

"For many of those birth mothers, they were told to go home and not talk to anybody about what had happened to them," said Mike Hancock from PAC-UK Family Action, the country's largest independent adoption support agency.

"They held on to these secrets very tightly and I think that is incredibly damaging. There is still a lot of shame, trauma and many women have never spoken about this," he said.

In 1967, Jill Killington, from Norwich, was 17, unmarried and pregnant. Despite being in a steady relationship, she was sworn to secrecy by her "distraught parents".

Jill Killington, who was forced into giving up her son for adoption, told ITV News she and thousands of others were treated in an 'unacceptable' and 'terribly cruel' way

What followed was a sequence of events that would have life-long consequences.

"I was told 'you'd be selfish to keep your baby. If you love your baby you will give them up', that's what they told all of us," she told ITV News.

"'They’ being the family GP, the midwives, and the moral welfare officers as they were known at the time.

"We were shown into a room and a lady asked if she could hold my son, then she said 'kiss him goodbye' and I knew that was the last time I would ever see him. It was a terribly cruel way to treat mothers and children."

Ms Killington, now 73, was even forced to sign a legal document promising to never look for her son.

27 years later she received a letter from the other side of the world that took her breath away. Her son, Ian Pritchard, had been searching for his mother.

Ian Pritchard, whose mother Jill was forced to give him up for adoption, told ITV News that 'a lot of different areas' of his life were impacted by the scandal

His adoptive family had moved to New Zealand when he was just six, and as an adult he'd battled addiction and mental health challenges.

"It [my adoption] caused me a lot of despair, pain and confusion," Mr Pritchard said.

"We didn't get a choice, Jill didn't get a choice because that choice was taken from her when I was removed from her and I certainly didn't get a choice in any of this."

In the years since their reunion, Jill and Ian have forged a strong bond.

In 2022, an inquiry by the Joint Committee on Human Rights concluded that the government bore ultimate responsibility for the "pain and suffering" caused by public institutions and state employees' involved in "cruel" forced adoptions.

The UK government has previously said it was sorry "on behalf of society" for what happened, but unlike the Welsh, Scottish and Irish governments has not formally apologised for its role in forced adoptions.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: "We have the deepest sympathy with all of those who are affected by historic forced adoption. The practice was abhorrent and should never have taken place.

"We will look to learn from the approach of the devolved nations, and will explore what more can be done to support those impacted."

In relation to allegations of neglect and abuse at St Monica's Mother and Baby Home in Cumbria, a spokesperson for The Diocese of Carlisle described the accounts as "shocking" and said "we are deeply sorry that people suffered in this way".

"We were made aware of the burial of babies who had died at St Monica's in an area of Parkside Cemetery in Kendal," a statement read.

"We immediately alerted Cumbria Constabulary and have continued to ensure they have had access to all available records."

Anyone affected by the issues raised in this report can contact the Diocesan Safeguarding Adviser at safeguarding.adviser@carlislediocese.org.uk or Safe Spaces at safespaces@firstlight.org.uk.

Cumbria Constabulary told ITV News that "to date, no crimes have been identified", in relation to the former St Monica's home and Parkside Road Cemetery in Kendal.

While Westmorland and Furness Council and Cumberland Council explained that burials in "unpurchased or public graves were fairly common" as "families often didn't have sufficient resources to pay for a funeral".

If you'd like to share your story you get in touch via yourstory@itn.co.uk

Support for child bereavement can be found via the following organisations:

  • The NHS suggests "talking about your feelings to a friend, family member, health professional or counsellor - you could also contact a support organisation," with the latter available via its search system here.

  • Cruse Bereavement Trust online and face-to-face support as well as group sessions with others who are bereaved. It also has numerous online guides on how to understand the wide range of feelings that come with grief.

  • The Good Grief Trust advertises itself as a charity which wants to help bereaved people from "day one" and "aim to encourage talking about grief in a more honest, straightforward way". It's website contains access to support groups and dedicated counselling services through a postcode and map-based search system.

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