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Wednesday, 1 December 2004
Page: 142


Senator HUMPHRIES (7:10 PM) —I rise to comment on the Senate Community Affairs References Committee report Forgotten Australians: a report on Australians who experienced institutional or out-of-home care as children. The report was tabled on 30 August 2004, the last sitting day before the federal election. As it was not possible for all the members of the committee to speak on that occasion, I would now like to put some remarks on the record. Honourable senators are aware that, as a rule, we put aside our political differences when working on references like this one and we focus very much on public interest in the work that goes on in these inquiries. We attempt to discern what is in the broader community interest in reaching conclusions and making recommendations.

Occasionally one is aware that both public and private needs are addressed by committee processes such as this. This is very much the case in this inquiry into the circumstances of children lodged in institutions and out-of-home settings in Australia, particularly over the last 50 years. This much was evident from many deeply personal submissions and deeply personal live testimony before the committee over many months. Members of the committee were acutely aware of the pain underlying the submissions and hence of the enormous courage that underpinned so many of the care leavers. We were conscious that the mere penning of a submission by a care leaver, and even more so an actual appearance before the committee, was frequently a seminal moment for that person. Despite the obvious pain for many, we were also aware that the experience was sometimes cathartic, a major watershed in the lives of so many engaging in the process.

I personally felt a deep sense of privilege in being able to hear stories from people who had never before given those accounts, even to members of their own families, much less to a parliamentary inquiry. The committee heard evidence of the grossest assaults on the dignity and wellbeing of inmates—I think that is the best word to use—of a variety of institutions, made all the more horrifying because those inmates were children, even very young children, who deserved love and protection, not the kind of treatment they received.

The cruelty devised for these children is difficult to understand in contemporary Australia. Residents of these institutions were routinely depersonalised, separated from toys and objects of comfort, kept in isolation, beaten, forced to work long hours and often undernourished—to say nothing of the activities of sadists and sexual predators who lived among them. Many snippets of evidence lodge in the memory and are tellingly poignant—the story of a girl struggling desperately to be the strength and comfort for her younger siblings, yet deliberately separated from them in the same institution as a means of breaking her will. Indifference and neglect would have been bad enough, had it not so frequently been interspersed with callous manipulation and calculated torment.

There are many accounts from the evidence which are worth quoting. The conditions that these young people lived in were quite horrifying. One springs to mind:

The home resembled a work house; we were made to work everyday and all day in dreadful conditions. The house laundered sheets for the local hospital. From early morning to late evening we laundered or ironed dirty soiled hospital sheets. Some of the home girls were intellectually disabled. They were forced to wash soiled sheets in large machines like coppers ... The only time we were allowed to break was for meal times ... I remember the hunger, the work and the attitude of contempt for the staff. They made us feel worthless ... I was 15 years old when I went to the Salvation Army home. We had not committed any crime. But we were locked away like criminals.

Punishment was severe. Again, the report says:

As a bedwetter, I used to be beaten daily. They used to throw me under a cold shower and belt me really hard with a large strap where I was wet. This was extremely painful—especially in winter—and left big red marks on my body. They also used to rub my face in the wet sheets and then my brother had to wash them.

It goes on to say:

They taught me bitterness, hatred, an abiding repugnance for their brand of religion, distrust and suspicion of most adults, contempt for authority in all its forms and intolerance of others. I gained an inheritance of moral confusion, abiding anger, psychological scars and a determination to never again allow anyone to treat me as they had; no matter what. Hence I carried a “chip on my shoulder” of incredible proportions. It almost bore me down.

Some questions arose at points at this inquiry about how many children suffered in such circumstances; what proportion were criminally mistreated and how many were not. The evidence on this score is ambiguous; it is also arguably irrelevant. What matters is that abuse and maltreatment occurred on a large scale and little or nothing was ever done about it in many cases. This is the legacy we must now face; this is the private agony that public policy must now come to terms with.

Above all, we must understand that the issues that arose in these settings resonate still with countless thousands of our citizens. Each of them has one thing in common: when these acts of callousness and depravity occurred each was under the nominal protection of government, a duty which so often was spectacularly dishonoured. That is why this report must spur action, put in place services and support for the survivors of these institutions, open archives and records that have been locked away, and demand from the institutions and their successors that they fully and candidly acknowledge their role in this suffering and make proper amends for it.

In the time since this report was tabled, a great deal of private agony has been opened up in Australian society by people who have been through those institutions, have read accounts of what occurred and had painful memories resurface about what happened to them. There is only one organisation in Australia at the present time at the national level providing support and advocacy for care leavers—that is, the Care Leavers of Australia Network, CLAN. It is run by care leavers, not by professional counsellors. It has been inundated with Australians who have had memories revived and who have a desire to tell their harrowing stories and get support and care. This has simply become overwhelming for the two care leavers who constitute the telephone service offered by CLAN. They have their own histories to deal with as well as listening to the life stories of others. What is clear is that organisations like CLAN, and particularly CLAN, need to have access to assistance and to professional and specialised counsellors.

The committee recommends that those services be provided by state governments and funded by institutions who have had some responsibility in the delivery of a poor quality of care to these people. The federal government may have a role to play in that. I believe, as a matter of urgency, consideration needs to be given to what help can be provided federally to assist in resolving the problems of organisations like CLAN. The report also recommends that there be a conference at the national level of service providers and advocacy and support groups with the aim of establishing a national professional support and advocacy body for care leavers and that this be funded by Commonwealth and state governments. I recommend that those issues be examined quickly and with some urgency.

Despite a wide variety of experiences unified only by the completely unconscionable nature of the treatment each of these care leavers received, they exhibited throughout one powerful human quality: courage. I saw time and again fellow Australians, their faces contorted in the effort of what they were struggling to do, putting on the public record a shameful episode in our national story at great personal cost to themselves. These were no ordinary witnesses pushing their politicians for some self-serving purpose; these were people bringing to light a dark chapter in the life of our community and serving a vital community interest in the process. They deserve our support in facing the future.