One year on, remembering the Forgotten Australians
”…it is highly likely that every Australian either was, is related to, works with or knows someone who experienced childhood in an institution or out of home care environment.’ – Forgotten Australians, p. xv”
At 8.30pm tonight SBS will screen a documentary called The Forgotten Australians, timed to air on the first anniversary of the national Apology last year by then prime minister, Kevin Rudd, to the people who have become known by this term.
Who are the Forgotten Australians – and why was the Prime Minister saying sorry?
The term comes from the title of the 2004 report of the Senate Inquiry into Children in Institutional Care. This inquiry heard evidence from some of the more than 500,000 Australians who as children spent time, or grew up, in institutional care such as Children’s Homes, orphanages, ‘training’ schools and other such institutions, sometimes combined with foster care, in most of the decades of the last century.
Warehousing children in institutions was the standard form of out-of-home care in Australia in an era when there was little support and few services for families in crisis, and to ‘put the children in a Home’ was often the only solution for desperate parents.
Although children often – then, as now – came from dysfunctional families unable or unwilling to care for them, a great many entered ‘care’ simply because of poverty, unemployment, or family breakdown through the death, desertion or illness, including mental illness, of one parent: that is, because of the ordinary misfortunes of life. In the 1970s, changing attitudes to children’s needs, combined with social legislation which supported single parents and families in crisis, led eventually to the closing of large children’s institutions.
The Senate inquiry uncovered a situation characterised by what is now termed ‘systems abuse’: a system which harms the very people it is set up to care for. Children’s institutions, conducted by charities, churches and state governments, operated like prisons, embodying an austere and punitive attitude to their inmates.
Children were separated from their siblings, denied knowledge of their family, inadequately schooled, often did the work of the institution, and in addition, were physically assaulted, sexually molested and emotionally neglected by their carers. Although undoubtedly good and well-meaning people worked within this system, and did their best for children, they were powerless to affect the overall character of such a system of ‘care’.
The inquiry committee concluded that the institutional care system was characterised by ‘wide scale unsafe, improper and unlawful care of children, a failure of duty of care, and serious and repeated breaches of statutory obligations’.
Following the inquiry, few of the recommendations of its report were implemented but with the change of government in 2007 came some welcome action.
The first recommendation of the report was fulfilled with the national Apology last year. The states, who were directly responsible for child welfare measures, have also issued separate apologies as have most of the non-government past providers of institutional care, and in all states a memorial to care survivors has been established or is in progress.
Only three states however have offered a form of redress, that is, monetary reparation, as has happened in Ireland and Canada. Last year’s federal budget allocated $26 million to a ‘search and connect’ service.
The rationale for such a service is in its title, which reflects that records of children in care were irregularly kept, with the consequence that many Australians from this background have had little or no access to information about siblings, family history, or even their own care history. In every state support services for care survivors have been either set up or expanded though none to a standard adequate to the high level of need. It requires little imagination to realise that such a traumatic childhood carries lifelong consequences.
Much of the support needed is provided by CLAN (Care Leavers Australia Network), an independent national support and advocacy body whose lobbying, in conjunction with the efforts of WA Democrats Senator Andrew Murray, got up the Senate inquiry in 2003.
CLAN was set up in 2000 by two care survivors, to fill a service need and raise awareness – at that time almost non-existent – of this history. Much has happened in the subsequent ten years, yet these events are still not widely known. Yet this is not ‘merely’ a chapter in child welfare history.
The Senate committee quoted Nelson Mandela’s statement that ‘any nation that does not care for and protect all of its children does not deserve to be called a nation’. This history of ‘care’ goes, then, to the heart of our values as a society and as such it is perhaps, as yet, too challenging to fully acknowledge.
- Joanna Penglase is the co-founder of CLAN and author of Orphans of the Living Growing up in ‘care’ in 20th century Australia (Curtin/ Fremantle, 2007)
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