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Wednesday, 8 December 2004
Page: 139


Senator MURRAY (7:09 PM) —On the last sitting day before parliament was prorogued for the 2004 election, the Senate Community Affairs References Committee tabled the powerful and damning report, Forgotten Australians: a report on Australians who experienced institutional or out-of-home care as children. Although I have already spoken to this report on its tabling, I rise again to comment on it and especially to state that, if ever there was a Senate report deserving of a rapid response to its recommendations, Forgotten Australians would have to be right up there. As the first of two reports of the inquiry into children raised in institutional and other forms of out-of-home care, Forgotten Australians focuses on the period from 1920 until the 1970s, when large institutions were replaced mainly by smaller residential homes and foster care. The second report of the committee is to be tabled in March 2005 and will focus on the more contemporary problems of child protection.

The tabling of Forgotten Australians on 30 August produced scenes in Parliament House never witnessed before, to my knowledge anyway. More than a hundred care leavers, along with their supporters, travelled to Canberra for this momentous and long-awaited occasion. As the tabling speeches were delivered, committee members fought back tears and were intermittently interrupted by applause, cheers and tears from the public gallery. At the media conference afterwards it was no different. Many a journalist remarked that they had never seen such an emotional response to a Senate report before. It received widespread coverage in the media the following day, with the Canberra Times stating:

The normally rarefied atmosphere of the Senate was broken yesterday as 100 victims of abuse in institutional care wept and cheered during the tabling of a report into their lives.

The public gallery was filled with survivors—alone or with family members—wiping their eyes, sniffling, and then applauding the work of senators who spent almost a year and a half chronicling their harrowing stories of abuse.

The editorial of the Age on 2 September 2004 stated:

It was an incongruous scene: as the nation's political leaders played in the theatre of electoral combat outside, inside the Parliament politicians from both sides wept with genuine compassion for a long-forgotten group.

The reason for this outpouring of emotion is not hard to find. Committee members learnt from more than 600 submissions of how children were placed in foreboding environments, often completely bereft of the love and nurturing so crucial to becoming functional adults. I should also mention here that submissions are still coming in, and the committee is to be congratulated on having a very compassionate view in extending the time for submissions to come in. As many care leavers did not know about the inquiry, the committee decided to continue to accept submissions. At times committee members have also become privy to stories of unbelievable acts of cruelty imposed on helpless kids given up to, or forcibly taken into, care.

For the survivors who contributed to this inquiry—and they do describe themselves as survivors—the time had at last arrived for them to be able to open up and tell their stories, usually for the very first time, and it is the telling of the stories that is often very important to those people. Knowing they at last could do so—and, most importantly, be believed—gave them the courage to be heard. They felt they had suffered in silence for long enough. They have courageously opened up their hearts to tell their stories and it must not be left there. This report must not gather dust; the survivors deserve justice much sooner rather than later. In that regard, we should recognise the fact that some state governments have been trying to do some work in this field.

Last week one of my committee colleagues, Senator Humphries from the ACT, addressed the chamber about Forgotten Australians and, in speaking about the widespread abuse and maltreatment, he stated:

This is the legacy we must now face; this is the private agony that public policy must now come to terms with.

He later continued by stating that addressing this legacy is a matter of urgency—a statement I support unequivocally, and a statement I am certain all the other committee members support unequivocally. It is vital that state governments and the federal government act quickly to implement the report's recommendations for the provision of services and the redress of grievances. Governments and agencies failed for well into last century to protect their most vulnerable children. To continue to fail them now as damaged adults would be completely unacceptable.

Additionally, and as a matter of some urgency, I urge the federal government to take appropriate steps to ensure that the new association called the Care Leavers of Australia Network, CLAN, receives assistance to carry out its support services. This is just one of a number of organisations in the country, such as the Child Migrant Trust, that are dedicated to assisting people in these circumstances. But in this address I want to draw attention to the particular plight of CLAN.

I first learnt of CLAN when it put in a submission to the 2001 child migrant inquiry which was conducted by the Senate Community Affairs References Committee. Part of that submission said:

Although we support wholeheartedly the aims of the Inquiry, we regret that its terms cannot be broader to cover the very similar experiences of some tens of thousands of Australian citizens.

I knew then that another inquiry was warranted—one that would not have seen the light of day but for CLAN's efforts. There had been the stolen generation inquiry; there was then the child migrant inquiry; and a third in the trilogy was obviously required to complete the picture of how children raised in institutional care had fared, both then and subsequently.

Established in 2000 by two former care leavers, Leonie Sheedy and Dr Joanna Penglase, CLAN is a national support and advocacy organisation for older people who grew up or spent time during their childhood in state care in orphanages, children's homes and other places away from their families. From a paid-up membership of up to 300 in 2002, the number of members is now approaching 800. That may seem a very low number when you consider that the number of children institutionalised last century is estimated by the committee to approximate at least 500,000. But, given that many of the people in those circumstances became loners and are very unattracted to joining organisations, it is a very high number achieved in a very short time.

CLAN is in the business of organising and assisting care leavers, an agenda that is proving far too successful in terms of their very limited resources. I stress that they are far too successful, because the drain on their resources, especially since Forgotten Australians became public, is quite dramatic. One has to remember that these kinds of services are often accessed by people after hours and during weekends, when they have finished their daily work or when their loneliness leads them to the telephone and to needing someone to talk to. Apart from the influx of telephone calls, nowhere is this better demonstrated than with CLAN's web site statistics. The quarterly reports for 2004 show that during the first quarter the number of requests made on the CLAN web site was 1,317. Those of you who know much about computer web sites would know that that number is quite low. However, just two quarters later, at the end of the third quarter—that is, after the report's tabling—this number had blown out to 261,608 inquiries. It is massive. The web manager also informs my office that CLAN is ranking high in all the search engines and that people are accessing the site every day of the week, not just from Australia but from all over the world.

In short, a couple of people running CLAN are now at breaking point. I know my colleagues on the committee are deeply concerned about that matter. CLAN has been literally swamped with calls from people wanting assistance and from others wishing to tell their stories because they had missed out with the Senate inquiry. Many want to know what the report means for them, when the recommendations will be addressed and when they will be able to access services. With only one person to take these calls, which I should add can at times take up to one hour, the workload has become unmanageable. In fact, this worker was on the verge of collapse just last week. What is urgently required to meet the increased workload is the assistance of professional and specialised staff.

Although CLAN has received some small funding grants from New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria, Western Australia and the ACT, these are nonrenewable and barely cover costs associated with running the organisation. These grants represent an acknowledgement that CLAN is working to fill a service gap in Australian welfare provision. I urge the state and federal governments to come to CLAN's aid in more meaningful and ongoing ways. Having abrogated their duty of care in the past to care leavers—and some governments have—it is now time for them to put the record right and to make redress. I also urge the Commonwealth government to consider intervening in this urgent matter. Federal as well as state assistance would go a long way to ensuring that organisations like CLAN can meet recommendation 20 of Forgotten Australians, which states that they should `maintain and extend their service to victims of institutional abuse'. The alternative is for CLAN to continue to flounder or to fold due to a workload that many politicians and their officers would find unbearable. (Time expired)