In 2009, the Prime Minister of Australia Kevin Rudd and the Federal Opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull joined together to offer an apology to a group of people now known as ‘The Forgotten Australians and Child Migrants’.
The apology was broadcast live throughout Australia. For many of us, it was the first time we had heard of this group of approximately 500,000 people who spent their childhood in welfare institutions throughout the last century.
The apology was in response to a report produced by a 2004 Senate Inquiry into the experiences of children in institutional or out-of-home-care. The Forgotten Australians report detailed horrific accounts of the treatment of children and described a: “litany of emotional, physical and sexual abuse, and often criminal physical and sexual assault…”
As stories of heartbreak, beatings, rapes and emotional torture were televised to the nation, we watched as middle aged men and women wept openly in parliament. Years of hidden torment were on display for all to see – finally, people were listening.
Inside: Life in Children’s Homes and Institutions is a travelling exhibition developed by the National Museum of Australia. It features a collection of artwork, photographs and mementos of life inside some of the 800 or so institutions where so many children spent their entire childhood.
The term ‘the good old days’ is often invoked when harking back to a time when life seemed more innocent. Walking through the Inside exhibition is like unlocking the door to a parallel universe hidden for years from mainstream society.
Images of dormitories filled with row upon row of metal beds, handmade straps reinforced with lead for extra punishment and photographs of little girls as young as six on their hands and knees scrubbing floors are accompanied by heart-breaking memoirs.
Quotes scattered throughout the exhibition span the decades and offer a glimpse inside the walls of just some of the institutions, both church-run and secular:
“In institutions the person is lost, the child is lost…” “It was child labour…” “Work, flogging, floggings…” “They made me eat my own vomit.”
The pervasive feelings of shame and helplessness echo throughout the exhibition. Children who sought help from those charged to protect them were routinely beaten, locked in cupboards and accused as liars. Many were told they had no family or were unwanted and unloved; some were labelled “the spawn of the devil”.
Childhoods filled with such horror would follow most of these children for the rest of their lives. Many never spoke of their trauma, knowing through experience they would not be believed. For most, the emotional scars could not heal as they were never acknowledged.
A booklet produced by the Alliance for Forgotten Australians details the long term effects of institutionalised care faced by many as they entered adulthood. Lack of education, feelings of abandonment and loss, poor physical and mental health and lack of social skills are among those identified.
Perhaps the strongest message to come from the exhibition is that, at last, the survivors of such abuse are finding a voice. The importance of this cannot be over-estimated. Although confronting, the exhibition presents those of us with little knowledge of this chapter in our nation’s history a chance to listen and acknowledge this shame that has been hidden for so long.
The other issue facing many who grew up in state care is the loss of identity. At 71 years old, Lorraine told Crosslight that she is still trying to piece together where she ‘fits’ in her extended family.
“I grew up believing I didn’t have a mother and father and I couldn’t understand why,” Lorraine said. “I didn’t know anything about my family. I thought ‘well, they don’t love us’.”
Lorraine’s story is typical of many who grew up in institutions. The importance of record keeping was not understood and, often, vital details about a person’s family were lost. There wasn’t an understanding that people may want to come back to these records to put the pieces of their life back together.
Some children were moved from one institution to another, with siblings parted according to age and gender. In Lorraine’s case, she was initially placed in a home in Tasmania, where her parents lived, before being moved to the Methodist home in Cheltenham, Victoria, at the age of five.
“When we came to Cheltenham it was such a big building, I was very frightened. We slept in this big huge room on this little bed. You are just a number and there were so many people … you are just a number.”
Lorraine finally left the home just before her 16th birthday when she was sent to work in a hospital in rural Victoria. She remembers the feeling of isolation and loneliness – again she was a frightened little girl all on her own.
“Oh that was dreadful, it was very cruel. I couldn’t boil water, I didn’t know how to bank, I didn’t know how to do anything,” Lorraine explains.
“It was a shock going to a town where I didn’t know anyone and had no support. I used to just shut my door and cry, it was just awful. I had to make my own life with no family and no support.”
For years Lorraine attempted to trace her records, hoping for some clue that would enable her to make contact with family members.
“I didn’t find out until many years later when I met my half-sister that there are four other siblings on my mother’s side that I didn’t even know existed. I’ve only met one and I didn’t meet her until I was 60.”
Lorraine said that through the years, attempts to make contact with her family were met with frustration and indifference. Finally, through the help of a friend Lorraine managed to track down an uncle who could fill in some of the gaps in her life.
“My uncle was married to my mother’s sister. I found out my mother had four other children, two boys and two girls. Through him I found out that my parents were stopped by the Methodist home from having anything to do with us, they were not allowed to contact us or write to us, nothing. They were stopped in every way and I don’t know why because it was terrible.”
It turned out that Lorraine’s mother had contracted tuberculosis and the welfare authorities didn’t think her father could manage three children, so they were put into a home. Throughout the years the parents tried in vain to reclaim their children. Lorraine said her uncle told her that her mother
“died of a broken heart because her children were taken”.
Frank Golding is a member of CLAN (Care Leavers Australia Network), a group that has been instrumental in advocating for the rights of care-leavers throughout Australia. Along with two brothers, he spent most of his childhood in the Ballarat Boys Home and said stories such as Lorraine’s highlight the importance of access to accurate information and records.
“People really want to know what caused the childhood they had. Most people spent time in care without understanding fully the circumstances,” Mr Golding said.
“For people of my age who were in care in the ’40s, it’s sometimes 40 years on before they realise that there are records that might explain their situation to them.
“So a large number of people really want that explanation Why was I in care? Where was my family? What were they doing? Why were we separated? For many people it’s also a question of family reunion.
“So they are the two things, an understanding of the story of why they were in care and secondly that family reunion element.”
Mr Golding said that many of the records of the time were kept purely for administrative purposes, so contained very little social or emotional information about the child.
“In my file there were two or three reports from inspectors, usually with one line: ‘A nice type of lad, takes good care of his teeth.’ That was the extent of the inspector’s report.”
For many children placed into homes in the ’40s and ’50s, moral judgements and attitudes were often cited as the need for care.
“We would occasionally have visits from our mother and father,” Mr Golding said.
“They would say things like ‘we’re getting you out of here’. In the end you didn’t know whether to believe them or not because nothing ever happened.
“It was only when I got the records that I discovered the machinations that were going on between the welfare department, the orphanage and our parents. They were desperately keen to get us out but they weren’t allowed to have us because our father had a record as an alcoholic and had been in and out of jail for various things and our mother and father weren’t married, which was another consideration that loomed large in the minds of the welfare people.
“How could you have children in a home where the parents were not married?”
Mr Golding said as more people began to access their records in the 1980s through Freedom of Information, the extent of the abuse and cover-ups in institutions became apparent. As support networks such as CLAN were established, people at last felt they could tell their stories and be believed.
“When the prime minister and leader of the opposition made that public apology, that theme ‘We believe you’ really resonated very strongly,” Mr Golding said.
“The Victorian inquiry is a big milestone, but more important is the Royal Commission which is happening now. That’s produced a whole new batch of people who have not yet told their story.”
Mr Golding hopes that a national plan can be developed to allow people access to compensation in an attempt to address the wrongs of the past. He said this needn’t necessarily be financial. In many cases people have suffered physical and mental conditions that have remained untreated, others need dental care. But perhaps the most important thing he would like people to get from the various inquiries is a feeling of self-worth.
Mr Golding has had a successful career in education. He said a sense of achievement can help a person overcome the emotional scars of the past.
“Unfortunately many of the older people had poor education so long-term unemployment becomes part of their life story.
“One proposal we are putting forward is for education packages, even for older people, to go to TAFE to get any sort of certificate. Some didn’t even finish year 10. Even if they don’t use it, it’s that sense of ‘I can do it’.”
Mr Golding has worked closely with agencies such as Lentara UnitingCare to develop programs for care leavers. He said people would appreciate the “one stop shop” access to records and memorabilia. Plans are also underway to develop a heritage centre at Lentara.
Julie Roach is the general manager of research, strategy and advocacy at Lentara UnitingCare, the successor agency to Orana UnitingCare that was part of the Methodist Church.
Ms Roach said the agency has recognised the importance of access to personal records, photos and other information and has digitised, catalogued and described not only all of the client records of people in care but many other documents such as admission registers, visitors books, photos and slides.
“We’ve been very active at an individual agency level, but also within the UnitingCare network to try and make it as easy as possible for people who grew up in care to get their information,” Ms Roach said.
“As an organisation we work from a philosophical base that we are holding information about somebody’s life. We have a lot of contextual documents as well that can assist them to create some meaning and context about their life. We always work towards providing access to as much information as possible that can assist the person in using their information.”
Digitising, cataloguing, describing and conserving records was an enormous task that has taken from 2006 till now to complete. Ms Roach said that is only part of the service needed when people are going through the process of discovering who they are and who else is in their family.
“We see that service delivery for care leavers needs to have two streams,” Ms Roach said.
“One is the social work component, a person who responds to inquiries, talks to people about getting their records, supports them through the process of reading and helps to interpret the information. A lot of it doesn’t have a whole lot of meaning; it’s about whether they cleaned their teeth and so on.
“And a lot of it is negative because the records have been seen as belonging to the organisation, not the record of someone’s life – what their interests were, who their friends were. Record keeping was approached from a risk lens and is written for or by the department.
“We see the ideal service as one that has the social work component as well as approaching it from an information management perspective; understanding the importance of archiving for later access, having someone that can enable the release of the maximum amount of information, how to sort through all the information that may be useful to the care leaver to understand their history.
“That way you are providing the maximum amount that you possibly can to assist that person.”
Supporting people as they uncover information is a vital part of the work Lentara is doing, as is piecing together information the organisation has collected since its early days in 1886.
The agency has invited groups of care leavers to attend sessions to try and identify people depicted in the 20,000 slides and photographs so they can be catalogued and made available.
Many care leavers have no photos of themselves as children. Making the photos available is important to care leavers, as well as their children and grandchildren.
Ms Roach said that at times the work can be confronting, particularly when dealing with such raw emotions. She told the story of a woman who travelled from interstate hoping to find information about her family.
“She was 73 and the thing that really struck me was that she was still hoping that her parents were alive so she could have a conversation with them as to why they placed her in care.
“She was confronted by the reality that they had in fact died.”
While the Forgotten Australians continue to fight to be heard, perhaps it is the rest of us who need to take the time to listen and acknowledge this dreadful chapter of our collective history.
The term ‘shame’ is often used by care-leavers – shame for their past, their families and their lives since. These children grew up in homes in our towns and suburbs throughout Australia, the institutions were run by our charities, churches and governments.
Following the release of the ‘Forgotten Children’ report, finally the ‘shame’ was acknowledged by others.
In 2004, the Uniting Church in Australia became one of the first to publically apologise.
“On behalf of the Uniting Church and our agencies, I apologise unreservedly for any physical, psychological or social harm that might have occurred,” national president, Rev Dr Dean Drayton said.
“I deeply regret that some children were let down while in the care of the Uniting Church and former Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational Churches.”
Mr Drayton went on to say that the Church was committed to improving welfare services to those in its care.
“The Uniting Church welcomes the Inquiry and its recommendations that provide a basis on which Governments at all levels and care providers may move forward together by acknowledging past wrongs and addressing them appropriately. We are committed to working with government to respond to the issues raised during the Inquiry,” Mr Drayton said.
Inside: Life in Children’s Homes and Institutions will be at the Melbourne Museum until 27 January 2014. For support or advice contact CLAN: www.clan.org.au or Lentara UnitingCare: www.lentarauc.org.au