Real Life

EXCLUSIVE: Lynda Holden had her 15-day-old baby taken from her

Forty years later, Lynda sued the Catholic Church for both mother and son’s heartbreak.

Lynda Holden grew up running from the Welfare. She knew how to keep perfectly still in the bush, holding her breath, pressed into hollow logs and wet leaves, as the white men parted bushes looking for Aboriginal children. And she knew that at midnight her family would be on the move. Daytime was too dangerous. 

Both her parents had been removed from their families – stolen – and they would spend the rest of their lives avoiding the authorities to keep their own children safe. Her father, she tells The Weekly, “wouldn’t accept any welfare payments because then they’d know where you were and they’d come looking for your children. So he had to work very hard to make sure that his eight children were fed, clothed, housed and got an education.” 

In every new town, Lynda remembers sitting outside the school rooms, waiting for a white child to be sick so she could take their place. 

“I was not required to go to school. I was Aboriginal. We could not be formally enrolled,” she writes in her memoir, This is Where You Have To Go

Lynda was nine when she was finally formally enrolled. In spite of the years she had lost, by 13 the Dunghutti girl was top of her class. “My siblings and I never missed a day at school,” she says. “My parents drilled into us the importance of education.” 

Her father, who was illiterate, eventually constructed their family home after watching builders and labourers at work and drawing diagrams of how they did it. 

He and Lynda’s mother stood up against the many injustices towards Indigenous people. “They had a motto that if you don’t like something, change it,” Lynda says. 

When Lynda ventured out into the world, she knew how to stand up for herself. At 18 – living in Sydney with a job – she learnt she was pregnant. The father, Wally, was an “on-off” boyfriend she shared her flat with and who she would later marry. 

Lynda didn’t know anything about pregnancy or childbirth. “I was young and naive,” she says. The doctor gave her a note and said, “This is where you have to go.” It was Waitara Home for mothers and babies, an institution that housed young, pregnant, unmarried girls, run by the Catholic Church. In her innocence, Lynda thought she would be supported there until she could take her baby home. 

Instead, she found herself in an unending nightmare. It was there that “everything my father taught me about being strong and proud as an Aboriginal woman” came undone. 

Here she was shamed as a sinner, a fallen woman. And she was Aboriginal. “Yeah, double whammy,” she says. 

The girls in the home were drugged, she says. And she was “asleep” when the baby she would name Eugene Daniel was born. Yet the moment she woke and set eyes on him, Lynda was overcome with love. “I couldn’t stop looking at him – he was so perfect,” she says. 

As soon as he was born, the pressure began. Adoption papers were shoved in her face. “He’s mine,” she would say, again and again, clutching her baby. “You can’t have him.” 

Lynda was vigilant. She would not let the baby out of her sight. She took him to the bathroom. At night, she tied a bathrobe cord around her wrist and to his cot, so she would wake if someone tried to take him. She fought with fierce determination. 

“For the next 15 days,” she writes, “my baby son was the centre of my world.” 

The pressure from nuns and social workers was unrelenting. Lynda was threatened with the dreaded Welfare if she took him home – told they would put him in an orphanage. 

Exhausted, worn down, under duress, with no one to help her, she finally agreed to leave Eugene Daniel there for the Christmas holidays with the promise that she could revoke a consent form within 30 days. 

Lynda spent the break buying a cot, bouncer, baby clothes; getting the flat ready to bring him home. “He was my son, I loved him. I was determined to be a good mother,” she writes. 

She ran up the stairs when she returned to Waitara, “high on happiness”, and was greeted by one of the nuns. It was nine days before the 30-day consent period was up, but she was told she was too late – that Eugene Daniel had been sent overseas. 

Lynda had been lied to – her baby taken away against her strident wishes. She beat on the door, screaming and sobbing, in shock. She couldn’t breathe. Her knuckles were raw from hitting the door. In that moment, her heart was broken and two lives were damaged beyond repair. The trauma of that day still echoes down the decades. 

Over the following weeks and months, Lynda experienced utter emotional devastation, made worse by the hormones that bind a mother and child still working in her system. “My whole body,” she says, “screamed out for my baby son.” As she went through the motions of living, “my baby was in my head every minute”. 

Lynda Holden and her second husband Neil

Lynda began drinking to numb the pain. She set off to drive around Australia with Wally. “I drank all around Australia too,” she says. “There was a huge void inside me. My baby’s face was the last thing I thought about before I fell asleep at night and the first thing upon waking.” She was trying to drive away from the pain, leave it behind, but it came with her. 

By the time she arrived in Perth, Lynda had a gastric ulcer. 

“I didn’t eat at all,” she remembers. “I just drank. I didn’t have the courage to go and kill myself.” Yet the pain “only got bigger as time passed. When a child is taken from you, it is like a death.” 

During those five lost years, Lynda’s close Seventh Day Adventist family worried endlessly and reported her missing. She still hadn’t told them about Eugene Daniel, nor that she’d hit the road. 

Yet somehow, she pulled herself through. Lynda went on to study nursing, work in the outback as a rural nurse, become a midwife and lecture in midwifery. She would amicably divorce Eugene Daniel’s father and marry Neil Holden in 1982. He was kind, he was gentle. “He’s a lovely man,” she says with a warm smile, “and he puts up with a lot from me.” 

The couple went on to have four sons. Because of what had happened she was hypervigilant with them. 

“Nobody minded them except me,” she recalls. “I wouldn’t have a babysitter until they were all in primary school, and then it was only a very trusted friend. When I went back to work parttime, my husband couldn’t do any housework, couldn’t even pack a dishwasher, nothing – his sole responsibility was those boys.” 

Lynda Holden

And Eugene Daniel’s absence was always an ache. Every day she mourned the loss of her baby. “Continually searching; this continual looking at children, ageing him as you go.” 

In 1976, the first register had been set up in NSW allowing birth parents and their adopted children to make contact. Twenty-six years after her firstborn was ripped away, Lynda made a phone call to the adoption branch of the Department of Community Services, hoping to trace him. 

She waited for what seemed like an eternity for the wheels of bureaucracy to turn. When a letter finally arrived, she learnt that her son was a man named Michael, and that neither he nor his parents had vetoed contact. That day, Lynda stood in the rain, “my heart pounding with happiness”. 

Many phone calls and much amateur sleuthing later, Lynda found a cousin who passed on a phone number for Michael’s family, who lived in south-east NSW. Lynda left her number with his adoptive mother, and a few weeks later he rang. 

But this was not to be the joyous reunion Lynda had imagined. She arrived full of hope and heightened emotions. She wanted, she writes, “to bring back those feelings of nurture, of love, of protection – those feelings of completeness that a mother has when she gives birth”. And when they met, he looked so much like her and her father, but Michael was a stranger, and full of resentment. 

He had not had an easy childhood. His adoptive mother had been mentally ill, and her second husband, Michael’s adoptive stepfather, had been abusive. After running away, Michael had lived on the streets. He hadn’t had the same opportunities as her other sons, and he hadn’t known that he was Aboriginal. In fact he made disparaging remarks about Aboriginal people. Michael was damaged, his anger “smouldering”. 

Lynda Holden's baby Eugene Daniel with his adoptive father

Lynda did everything she could to bring him into her family, and she helped him through legal difficulties and looked after his children. But his anger with Lynda reached a point where she had to send her husband and sons away when Michael was coming to visit. 

There have been times when she’s been frightened of him. “I remember, one time, I had to go and pick him up after a DUI [drink driving incident]. Driving back, all of a sudden, he put his hand on the handbrake and was just looking at me. I thought he was going to pull that handbrake and put me into a spin. I still don’t really trust to be by myself with him.” 

Meanwhile, her own anger was growing. Not with Michael. Her child, who she had loved and wanted, had been taken away for a supposedly better life, and she was angry with those who were responsible. She was devastated when she found out her son had been “sold” for a $50 “administration fee”. 

Lynda went to work for the Department of Community Services and in child protection. “I’m pretty fiery when I see children being hurt,” she says, and this polite, gently spoken grandmother becomes a firebrand. “I come out at conferences and [insist that] these children shouldn’t be removed, they have committed no crime.” 

She also went back to university to study law. After six years of study, she graduated alongside her son, Greg, and worked at the Office of Public Defenders. 

Lynda Holden at her university graduation

Now very aware of her rights, she obtained her adoption file from the Catholic Church. It was 25 pages of lies that were signed with a signature that was not hers. 

“Shock washed through me in waves,” she writes. Her background had been fabricated for the file, and even the father of her baby was a fiction – a South African engineer. 

“The most distressing thing,” she adds, “was that the baby was still in Australia when they told me he had been sent overseas.” 

She had been lied to at every turn. “I felt robbed and violated,” she writes. 

After reading her file, Lynda sat, immobilised, in a lounge room chair. By the time she got out of the chair, in deep shock, her fight with the Catholic Church had begun. All the trauma and grief she had held down for so long became a fight for justice. 

Knowing she was not calm enough to take on the institution herself, she engaged Porters Lawyers, a law firm experienced in dealing with the Catholic Church. She would sue the Trustees of the Sisters of Mercy, the Trustees of the Society of St Vincent de Paul, and the Principal Officer of the Catholic Adoption Agency. “I would take this all the way to the High Court if necessary,” she decided. 

Lynda rejected the amount of compensation offered at the first mediation in 2013. It was “insulting”, she writes. The battle ramped up. This was high stakes. It was a long, harrowing and upsetting process. “I felt like I was going to war.” If she lost her case, she could lose her home to the legal fees. 

Lynda Holden with her second husband Neil

Her statement of claim was filed in the Supreme Court of NSW in October 2014. Lynda claimed that her son was adopted under duress, and that she was discriminated against because she was Aboriginal. 

The St Vincent de Paul Society fought back. They sent an impossible request containing 726 questions. When her lawyers refused to answer the questions, they filed a motion asking the court to strike out her case. The judge called it an abuse of process. 

In March 2015, in final mediation, Lynda read out her statement of claim. She was heard, loud and clear. 

“I explained the indescribable and enduring grief I have felt since 1970. I spoke about the fact that I wasn’t then and am not now just a foolish black woman who wouldn’t know how to raise a family,” she writes. 

“Decades of grief, despair, anger, loss and violation poured out of me. They heard about the cover-ups, the lies, the drugs and the brainwashing.” 

Without admitting any wrongdoing, the Church agreed to settle her case. When it was done, Lynda asked to pray with the nuns from Sisters of Mercy. 

Lynda says she wasn’t interested in the money. “I wanted them to understand exactly what they did. They destroyed my faith in humanity. I had to go and find that again – find that there are good people in the world.” 

That same year, she became a lecturer with the University of Western Sydney’s School of Law, writing papers and lecturing on Indigenous Australians and the Law. 

Lynda knows what it is like to be powerless regarding decisions about her own body. Today she is an advocate for social justice. HerPhD research investigates state interference in relation to Indigenous children. 

“I believe,” she insists, “there should be a First People’s Children’s Guardian so the voices of Aboriginal children can be heard, and they can participate in the decision making process where they can.” 

In spite of her achievements, to this day Lynda struggles with issues of trust. She cannot cope with being lied to. She will never recover, she says, from being lied to by the nuns. 

“My sons know that one thing that will make me lose control is somebody lying to me. Just tell me that you broke it and then we’ll clean it up. But if you lie to me, I don’t know what I’ll do.” 

She works with a psychologist to try to make sense of the past. What happened to her and thousands of traumatised Australian women was kidnapping, she says. 

Michael has approved Lynda’s book but a “simmering tension” remains. He still believes she abandoned him. His own children were removed. The trauma is generational. 

“It will keep on going,” Lynda says, “until we stop it.” 

Lynda would like her book to contribute to that. Between 1950 and 1975, 150,000 adoptions took place in Australia and it is estimated that one in 15 were forced, so she knows she’s not alone. 

“I’d like every woman who has gone through what I’ve gone through to be able to find their child,” she says finally. “Women need not be frightened. These organisations do have the records. You’re always still looking for that child you had 20 minutes with, or some of them didn’t even have that.” 

And Lynda believes there’s cause for hope. 

“We have an apology for the forced adoptions,” she says. “Society has awoken to what happened. We are a more compassionate society now.”

This is Where You Have to Go by Lynda Holden with Jo Tuscano, Pantera Press, is out now.

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