Piecing together life stories

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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 funded 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.

The easier access to information will be welcomed by many, but it also offers a harrowing insight into the attitudes of

the time.

Archives does not give out the information directly and directs people to access records through the Wesley Heritage Service, which offers support.

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

The records for some institutions date back to the 1880s and can 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.

The initial stage of the project was 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 records kept by Archives are 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.

“It provides social and contextual information about their time in care.”

Although the church-run institutions are often thought of as orphanages, Dr Bars said that is largely a misnomer because many children were in care for a variety of reasons often related to a lack of contemporary social support.

“It was a fairly common thing for children to be in homes in the past,” Dr Bars said.

“Children weren’t necessarily orphans or not necessarily in care for the long-term. Often it was because their mother was in hospital or the father was out of work or for some reason. Children were in a home for two or three months and then their parents would retrieve them again. There was a lot of out-of-home care.”

Dr Bars said going through the records could be distressing.

“The indexers have found some of the stuff they have had to read quite confronting,” she said.

“Especially from the 1920s and 1930s where there wasn’t much of an understanding of child psychology and the things that were said were quite appalling really.”

She said the records revealed some callous offical attitudes.

“No one thought children had feelings or would be adversely affected by things, so you know if the parents were killed in some accident a couple of weeks later they thought the children would be all over it. They should be much better by now and ready to be fostered,” Dr Bars said.

“There was little understanding of what children might be suffering or enduring in that sense. Obviously some of the things that happened to children were just tragic and heartbreaking really. They were very cruelly treated.”

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 into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual 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 the past week about 10 enquiries have come in,” she said.

The Synod’s Victorian Archives is keen to hear from people interested in regularly volunteering at its base in Malvern East.

Volunteers can assist on various projects, including helping research the extensive collection of archival photos. Archives is in process of digitising the collection to make the images more accessible.

For more informationcontact Dr Jenny Bars on 03 9571 5476.      

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