Piecing together life stories

Synod’s Victorian Archives is making it easier for those who were in the care of church-affiliated babies and children’s homes to find out more about their past.

Archives was awarded a federal government grant as part of the national Find & Connect project which has allowed the employment of casual staff to index the records kept from babies and children’s homes run by the Uniting Church and its predecessor denominations.

“We are creating finding aids for care leavers, people who have lived in institutional care, to access a whole variety of records, and other materials relevant to their time in care,” archivist Dr Jenny Bars said.

Archives does not give out the information directly.

“The access to records is done through the Uniting Heritage Service because they are in position to give supported access to information,” Dr Bars said.

Catriona Milne is the gateway for all these records. People go to her and request the information and she forwards the request and we a search through our materials and scan our materials back to her.”

Dr Bars said the casual staff first did a records survey of the roughly 130 boxes of material relating to the babies and children’s homes, which before 1977 were run mainly by the Methodist and Presbyterian churches.

“The indexers are going through all the records with a fine-toothed comb and indexing every time they’ve found a child’s name,” Dr Bars said.

“So in the future, for people who want to find out about their time in care it will be much easier for us to pinpoint where their records may be found.”

The indexing project is nearly finished ahead of a 30 June deadline with only a “handful of boxes” left to do and thousands of entries made on a spreadsheet.

Dr Bars said there had been a surge of interest in uncovering people’s past in out-of-home care following an ABC Life Matters radio show on the subject and the media coverage of the Royal Commission is into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse.

“This whole issue of care and children’s homes has been in the news quite a bit and maybe it’s prompted people to say ‘I’d really like to find out more about my background. Just in past week about 10 enquiries have come in,” she said.

The records kept by Archives were usually administrative records, such as minutes of board or committee meetings.

Dr Bars said for individuals these records could give “quite useful extra little scraps of information” such as what allowances were paid for the child, if they were mentioned in a personal care committee or if their name was mentioned in any correspondence.

“They’re all the sorts of things that can help care leavers put together a picture about their life story,” Dr Bars said.

“So it provides that historical, social and contextual information about their time in care.”

Dr Bars said that the records for some institutions date back to 1880s and could be quite complex with name changes or relocations.

“The first point of call for people should be the Find & Connect website, which is a really fabulous resource,” Dr Bars said, adding it was easy to search for the various institutions and get directions on how to find records.

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