Pamela Duckworth waited for darkness before searching for her son.

She was 19 when her parents sent her to St Vincent's Home of Compassion in Auckland, where only first names were used and newborns were whisked from their mothers in preparation for adoption.

"I snuck out in the middle of the night to the nursery and used to get into terrible trouble," Duckworth, now 73, recalled.

"If they saw you coming and they were wheeling a baby, even if it wasn't yours, they would quickly rustle into a room and wait for you to go by."

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Duckworth was studying at the University of Canterbury when she fell pregnant to her future husband, an international student from Fiji. She lost a scholarship and the terms of her partner's scholarship prevented him from marrying.

"My parents didn't want me at home. My father was very involved with the National Party and I was a real embarrassment."

From arrival at St Vincent's there was pressure from the nuns to agree to adoption, Duckworth said. Her son, Simon, was born on Christmas Day with a large hematoma because of the protracted labour.

Pamela Duckworth's son Simon Kacimaiwai. He is holding his graddaughter Alara. Photo supplied.
Pamela Duckworth's son Simon Kacimaiwai. He is holding his graddaughter Alara. Photo supplied.

Duckworth refused to adopt but with no support and in great pain had to return to her parents' home in Blenheim without him.

She had an operation about five weeks later. After recovering, she found work as a live-in housekeeper in Auckland and picked up her boy. It was about two years before paperwork could be sorted to allow her to move to Fiji, where she married Simon's father.

After independence in 1970 he joined the diplomatic corp and the young family moved to New York.

Duckworth worked as an alternate representative on an economic and social council, and became involved in women's rights issues as well as completing a Master's degree. Back in Fiji she worked at the University of the South Pacific, and moved to Australia after her husband died young.

She was chief of staff for a minister in the ACT Government, and later joined the education department as a senior executive. Now retired in Forster, New South Wales, she believes her time at St Vincent's shaped her.

"I certainly did learn to stick up for myself and not just accept people's judgment.

"As women we were very powerless. It changed quite rapidly but I keep saying to my granddaughters – you couldn't have a bank account in your own name, if you wanted the contraceptive pill your husband had to sign that he agreed to you taking it."

Duckworth, who has four children as well as grandchildren and great-grandchildren, contacted the Herald after reading about calls for an inquiry into forced adoption.

She knows friends who lost children, something she only learned after years of knowing them. One friend hasn't told her children they have a sibling.

"[An inquiry] may free up some people to say, 'Yes, that was me. And it was terrible.' Whoever is talking now is just the tip of the iceberg."

A similar process in Australia saw then Prime Minister Julia Gillard apologise in 2013 for forced adoptions, thought to number 250,000 during the so-called "baby scoop" era, from the 1950s to 70s.

The previous National Government declined to order an inquiry after a petition by Maggie Wilkinson, who lost her daughter after giving birth in Auckland's St Mary's home for unwed mothers.

The petition was presented by Jacinda Ardern, who as Prime Minister has now looked at options including a select committee inquiry.

Jacinda Ardern strongly supported an inquiry when in Opposition. New Zealand Herald photo by Mark Mitchell.
Jacinda Ardern strongly supported an inquiry when in Opposition. New Zealand Herald photo by Mark Mitchell.

Gerard McGreevy, manager of the Sisters of Compassion, which holds archival materials from St Vincent's, said young women needed help to cope with unwanted pregnancies when the home operated.

Either the young mothers or, if they were minors, their parents determined whether a child would be adopted, and the rules and processes of adoption – harsh when viewed in retrospect - were determined by the state.

A woman whose child was taken from her at birth and adopted out speaks up about that dark period in New Zealand history. Made with funding from NZ On Air.

"The medical treatment of the women was determined by the medical profession. The sisters had no direct role in the process of adoption," McGreevy said.

"It is likely the sisters encouraged some women to allow adoption of their children because that was the practice of the time and there was little in the way of social or monetary support for most single women with children during much of that era. The domestic purposes benefit, which did provide some assistance, was considerably later."

Duckworth's son is now 53 and a grandfather. Her own relationship with her parents was never the same after St Vincent's, and she believed the episode played a part in their later divorce.

"I always felt my mother was really dominated by my father. I think she gave in. But I think as the years went by she grew increasingly bitter and sad about it. A couple of times she did say, 'I'm very sorry'."