Is Australian Child Abuse 'Different'?

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That sexual abuse was the least of our worries should tell you how bad things really were.
— Mark Greenhalgh, of his time in the state-run Westbrook Farm Home For Boys, in Toowoomba Queensland, 1950s.

The findings of extensive and systematic abuse in Irish care institutions over many years, contained in the recent "Ryan Report" is a wake-up call to all countries which allowed children’s institutions to exist under similarly cruel and abusive conditions. The findings of Ireland’s Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse come on top of numerous legal cases involving Catholic priests in America and other countries, including Australia. While the Vatican has yet to respond to the report, in Australia the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell, let it be known that "Ireland is not Australia".

The sad and challenging fact, however, is that the historical record of abuse in Australia is not all that different from that of Ireland. In Australia, a Royal Commission is long overdue, to reveal the true extent of the abuse and criminality which for decades characterised the so-called "care" of society’s most vulnerable children.

It is not only the Catholic Church which is implicated in the abuse and neglect of children in institutional care: all churches and charities and all state governments must stand accountable for their practices in the era of institutionalised "child welfare" which was phased out in the late 1970s.

Just as in Ireland, the system of institutional "care" in all states of Australia was comprehensively and systemically abusive, and allowed abusers to flourish, almost with impunity. In Australia, the number of children subjected to such "care" is a very large one. Alongside the members of the Stolen Generations and the 10,000 "child migrants" sent to Australian institutions by British charity organisations, there were over half a million predominantly non-indigenous children who found themselves in "care" institutions throughout the 20th century. In 2004, following an inquiry into Children in Institutional Care, the Senate Community Affairs Reference Committee produced a report entitled Forgotten Australians whose findings are similar to those contained in the Irish report.

In its Executive Summary, Forgotten Australians noted that:

"The Committee received hundreds of graphic and disturbing accounts about the treatment and care experienced by children in out-of-home care … Their stories outlined a litany of emotional, physical and sexual abuse, and often criminal physical and sexual assault. Their stories also told of neglect, humiliation and deprivation of food, education and healthcare."

The report concluded that "there has been wide-scale unsafe, improper and unlawful care of children, a failure of duty of care, and serious and repeated breaches of statutory obligations" and that such abuse and assault "was widespread across institutions, across States and across the government, religious and other care providers". In other words, the abuse and cruelty occurred nationally — as was the case in Ireland.

Submissions quoted in Forgotten Australians and the hundreds of histories collected by the national care leaver support organisation CLAN (Care Leavers Australia Network) describe the same ritualised beatings, rape, humiliation, psychological torment and often sadistic sexual abuse of young children as those detailed in the Irish report. A CLAN Survey in 2006–7 of 382 of its clients (former care residents) from all over Australia reported that 35 per cent of all respondents had been sexually molested in "care" by either Homes staff (many, though not all, religious personnel) or by religious personnel associated with the institution in some way.

Survivors also reported minimal or poor education, solitary confinement for extended periods, gross physical assault sometimes resulting in serious injury, and a range of emotional and psychological abuses. Unpaid labour, at times fitting the definition of slave labour, was also a feature of this childhood institutional experience, from domestic labour within the institution to long hours in laundries and farms to earn income for the organisation or religious order which conducted the Home.

The Senate inquiry regarded these issues as so serious that in Recommendation 11 of Forgotten Australians it called on the federal government (at the time, the Howard Coalition government) to "seek a means" to require all previous providers of institutional care to provide "full co-operation" to investigate "the nature and extent within these institutions of criminal physical assault", including "assault leading to death, and criminal sexual assault" and the possible concealment of such crimes. Should full cooperation not be forthcoming, the Senate committee called for the establishment of a Royal Commission to compel such an investigation.

No such process as described in Recommendation 11 has occurred, nor has a Royal Commission been established. The Committee in its Executive Summary had noted that "many comments in recent years by governments, churches and care providers reveal a complete lack of understanding of, or acceptance of responsibility for, the level of neglect, abuse and assault that occurred in their institutions", and this attitude prevails still.

Ken Carter, who had grown up as a state ward in Victoria’s Turana institution and then in the Salvation Army’s Box Hill Boys’ Home, said to the Senate inquiry, "I just look at my past and the treatment that I had in those terrible years at the Salvation Army Boys’ Home … You’ll never understand, unless you’ve been in this situation, how it has such a profound effect." Forgotten Australians presented harrowing accounts of the emotionally crippling legacy of such a childhood, and argued strongly in its recommendations for the provision of well-funded, dedicated services tailored to the needs of care survivors.

Government response to this report, across Australia and federally, has however been minimal and patchy. Care leaver services in all states, such as assistance for access to records, counselling, outreach, and family search and reunion, are limited. The establishment of a national reparations scheme (as in Ireland and Canada) called for in Recommendation 6 of Forgotten Australians has not been implemented, although three states — Tasmania, Queensland, and Western Australia — have set up a redress scheme which offers a small to moderate sum of money as "compensation".

The churches and charities vary in their assistance and support to those who have once been in their "care". The usefulness of these is seriously limited however by the fact that many former inmates would never go back for assistance to the institution that failed them so badly; and many report difficult and frustrating experiences dealing with the Catholic Church’s "Towards Healing" program which Cardinal Pell would like us to believe makes Australia different from Ireland.

All states and most churches and charities have issued some form of apology, in line with Recommendation 2 of the Forgotten Australians report, although care survivors are still waiting for the national apology urged in Recommendation 1. South Australia is considering a redress scheme, but two states, Victoria and New South Wales, have no plans for redress, even though these are the states which "cared" for the greatest number of children. Although Victoria is currently setting up a new $7.1 million care leaver service, in NSW services remain limited, inadequate, and poorly resourced, and the NSW government is silent on the issue of redress, saying only that anybody who claims to have been abused in care is free to sue the NSW Department of Community Services.

As a result, Forgotten Australians are left facing a situation in which some states recognise that their childhood "care" was so traumatic that it warrants a form of redress, while in other states it is simply swept under the carpet.

The fact that it has taken so long to begin to remove the veil of silence that has shrouded the Forgotten Australians amounts to a continuation of the abuses experienced by tens of thousands of former "care" residents. The fact also that some states and organisations continue to procrastinate on issues of apology and redress is a reflection of the abuse of power that continues to this day in respect of the Forgotten Australians. What happened in Australia to vulnerable children placed in institutional care is in fact directly comparable to what occurred in Ireland and is an integral part of an overarching system that reflected particular abusive and cruel attitudes towards children. The legacies of mental health problems, unemployment, homelessness, under-education, social isolation and relationship difficulties are further testament to the extent of the cruelties inflicted on a powerless population.

Until the recommendations in the Forgotten Australians report are taken seriously and implemented fully it is likely that abuses perpetrated by powerful organisations will continue.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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