Federal Government Apologises For Child Abuse


At 11am this morning, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd led a bipartisan apology to the Forgotten Australians and child migrants. It wasn’t before time.

For 10 years national attention was focused on the Howard government’s failure to apologise to the Stolen Generations whose treatment was condemned by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission’s Bringing Them Home report in 1997. But in that time there were three Senate inquiries into the harshness of life in government and religious institutions for children and child migration schemes: Lost Innocents – Righting the Record (2001), Forgotten Australians: A Report on Australians who experienced institutional or out-of-home care as children (2004) and this year’s Lost Innocents and Forgotten Australians Revisited (2009).

The Howard government’s lack of recognition of these reports was, at least, consistent with its broad approach to righting past wrongs. However, as we know, Kevin Rudd wasted little time in apologising to the Stolen Generations early last year. That moving, wonderful day was justly celebrated. But, as Frank Golding, vice-president of Care Leavers Australia Network, told the 2009 Senate Inquiry, for many care leavers the apology "brought tears that there had been an acknowledgement for those people, but it also brought tears of the other sort: ‘Why not us?’"

Indeed, why not — and why has it taken so long? As late as Thursday, the Sydney Morning Herald was reporting that the Prime Minister had not told care leavers what he was going to say. They were resigned to the knowledge that the words said to them would not stop the nation, as did the national apology to the Stolen Generations, and that the speeches would be delivered in Federal Parliament’s Great Hall, not the House of Representatives itself. But why should anyone who has lived through these systems be made to feel they are second best?

In asking these questions, I am not seeking to lessen the significance of the apology to the Stolen Generations. I spent almost eight years of my life looking at child welfare for my PhD, "Such a longing": black and white children in welfare in NSW and Tasmania, 1880–1920. As I pointed out in newmatilda.com in February 2008, Aboriginal children experienced some unique forms of welfare and racism added another dimension entirely to the awfulness of welfare systems. But, while writing my PhD, I met Leonie Sheedy and Joanna Penglase, who formed Care Leavers Australia Network to campaign for recognition and support, and realised their story has to be told and recognised.

Because, no matter how you look at it, you can’t say the welfare experiences of white children were any good, either. Governments and churches presented their systems of fostering and their institutions as beacons of hope and engines of social reform, which would rescue children from the neglect, criminality and profligacy of their families and make them worthy citizens. Yet darker stories bubble up from the records. Inquiries into state institutions in NSW found stories of routine abuse that reflect a profoundly sick system.

Girls had their heads shaved so roughly they lost chunks of scalp and were thrashed with birch sticks for losing clothes pegs. Girls in the Parramatta Industrial School spoke of being slapped daily and made to "stand out", upright with their arms extended behind their backs, for hours, until they could barely breathe. At Mt Penang and Yanco boys were made to stand on the rims of giant coppers to stir boiling laundry and were punished by being locked in a room with older boys who were wearing boxing gloves. Girls became pregnant within the walls of institutions that were supposed to protect them from moral danger and superintendents complained they were unable to protect boys from the sexual predation of other inmates due to overcrowding and poor facilities.

There is more than enough evidence of similar abuses in the religious and charitable institutions that cared for up to half of all children who were raised in out-of-home care. And, in much of Australia, these were the same institutions the Stolen Generations were sent to.

The apologies are necessary because governments failed to superintend institutions or to provide the supports that kept children out of care. Some parents were neglectful and removal did save some children’s lives, but, on the whole, families were rarely to blame for the circumstances that led to the loss of their children. In times of unemployment, illness and hardship, parents were pressured to surrender their children by priests, relatives, the police and welfare workers. Single mothers had to meet moral tests to receive support, and woe betide any working man careless enough to lose a wife when he had children to raise, because no government or agency would support him to stay home.

Children only stopped being institutionalised in large numbers when single parents of both genders and all races were able to access pensions and endowments, when there was enough public housing to go around, and when society began to see that it was worthwhile to work with troubled families instead of plucking a child out to "make a fresh start".

One of the saddest things for those who grew up in care is that it can be hard to see this. The records that might tell individual stories are, for the most part, lost, due to the ravages of time and the actions of individuals and organisations that wanted to protect their own reputations. In the few records that do survive, there is a heartbreaking glibness, because nobody thought it was important to record full details of children. They were supposed to forget their roots and look forward to the future. Governments can help loosen restrictions around records, but ultimately it is the responsibility of historians, who can reach further into the past than governments can and write the stories that explain all the forces that led to them growing up in out-of-home care.

Former Democrats Senator Andrew Murray, who was a child migrant and has been a loyal champion of care leavers, has said they are not motivated by demands for compensation, but recognition. He told the most recent Senate Inquiry that the purpose of an apology is intrinsically emotional: "What an apology does is say, ‘We did wrong by you. We didn’t exercise a duty of care and we’re sorry for that.’"

But the apology should not be the end of it. Governments need to support the people who lived through these systems, not just now, but into the future. Former wards were lucky to get through childhood with any education, and although many have had successful lives, they experience high rates of unemployment, mental illness, incarceration, substance abuse, family breakdown and violence, as do the Stolen Generations. What happened to them was not their fault, nor, in the vast majority of cases, the fault of their families. All care leavers, black and white, need help with family reunion, and additional social services so they can have an old age with more dignity than they were afforded in their childhoods. If this means compensation, so be it.

And we, as a society, need to ensure the apologies live on in policy. Every time a community services department is criticised by a tabloid for trying to keep a struggling family together, or a government decides the solution to child poverty is an intervention, we need to remember the terrible price paid by children when families are broken.

So, today, take some time to pause and remember the children our society thought were not worthy of tenderness, and promise them you will make sure our governments do not repeat the mistakes of the past.

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