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STANDING COMMITTEE ON COMMUNITY AFFAIRS
30/03/2009
Implementation of the recommendations of the Lost Innocents and Forgotten Australians reports

CHAIR —I welcome representatives of the Alfred Felton Research Program. Does anyone have any additional comment to make on the capacity in which they appear?

Prof. Humphreys —I am in the School of Nursing and Social Work at the University of Melbourne.

Prof. Swain —And I am from Australian Catholic University.

CHAIR —I do apologise for keeping you waiting. One of the issues with these inquiries is that you do get caught up. I believe you have a presentation that you are wishing to give us. Is that correct?

Prof. Humphreys —That is correct.

CHAIR —Do you wish to start with that, Professor?

Prof. Humphreys —No. We thought we would introduce the project. I have given the committee some handouts and the secretary has the handouts for Hansard as well. I thought it would be easiest for us to speak to these little handouts as a way of outlining the project. It will put what we want to show you in the context of the overall project.

CHAIR —Certainly.

Prof. Humphreys —The name of the project is ‘Who am I? Making records meaningful’. It is a complex project that was developed over a period of about a year of working with government, community sector organisations and the peak body for all the community sector organisations, the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare, as well as developing and bringing together an appropriate interdisciplinary team of researchers who could work together as a way of responding to the overall aim of the project, which is to investigate archiving and record-keeping practices to support current care leavers and forgotten Australians, or past care leavers, in the construction of their identity.

What we did was, over a period of a year, pull together people who we thought would be able to join together to recognise and implement aspects of the inquiry reports that we thought were particularly relevant to past care leavers, or forgotten Australians and stolen generation, as well as current care leavers. This gives you an outline of the project, which has got four different strands of work. It is a project which is funded jointly by the Australian Research Council, 12 community sector organisations, the centre for excellence, VACCA and the government. They have all put in funding to support this project. We have $800,000 worth of funding over a three-year period.

CHAIR —Professor Humphries, that is the state government.

Prof. Humphreys —The state government.

CHAIR —It is important with this inquiry.

Prof. Humphreys —Each year the state government, the community sector organisations, VACCA and the centre for excellence each put in money to support the further money from the Australian Research Council. In terms of the four strands of the project, represented by Gavan and Rachel are the particular technologies around archives, records and digital technologies from the eScholarship Research Centre at the University of Melbourne. They will be demonstrating to you, with the historical strand, the digital archive—the name of which is still undecided—which will be useful to the historical documentation for forgotten Australians and stolen generation. Partly we have got the digital technology support.

We have got the historical development from Professor Shurlee Swain and we have got a current practice area as well. One of the things that is very clear is that we do not want to repeat the problems of the past, so we have both an historical aspect and a current aspect. As a social worker involved in a project, and as the lead, we are part of this development and thinking about the record-keeping continuum, which is about working with community sector organisations now and with government now to look at, ‘How are you making the record with sensitivity?’ so that when workers are making records, they are actually making records that people can look back on, and it helps with the construction of their identity, rather than demolishes their sense of self.

Part of it is thinking about how we make the record in a way which is supportive of people who are in out-of-home care now. How do we store that record? What is happening about the storage of records? Particularly, what is the relationship between the digital record, or the electronic record, and printed records? And accessing the record: when forgotten Australians or current care leavers are going back to access their records, are they going to be able to find them and how? That is the overall picture of the project. I will hand over to Shurlee to talk a little bit more about the historical aspect.

Prof. Swain —Mr Golding has already set this up very well for you by pointing out that the Victorian child welfare system had its own particular complexities not replicated in other states and colonies. One of the issues is that, even when people do manage to get their own records, they will be partial, they will often be very slender and they will raise more questions than they answer. What you then need to be able to do is to provide answers to a whole lot of contextual questions: what was that place? Why was it set up? Who is that person who started the file? Were they just someone who wandered through on that day or were they involved across a whole multiplicity of agencies? What was the legislation that was in the process at the time that actually legitimated or didn’t legitimate what was going on? What were the other factors that were being used to bring children into care and to govern the treatment of them? Who were the staff? How were they trained? What were the policies about staff training? There is all of that contextual material. This is why we struggle with a name for it and we kind of clumsily called it a contextual archive.

We are bringing together three different knowledge bases to build this. From talking with people at the Department of Human Services and members of the Forgotten Australians task force, one of the problems they face is tapping the various knowledge sources to answer the questions that are being asked. What we are able to do is bring together three different knowledge sources: first, consumers, a lot of whom have done a lot of work and can actually help us with our project; second, community service organisations and the Department of Human Services that auspiced all of these organisations and, through their knowledge—going back to the archives—the archives are scattered all over the place, and we will be able to identify where they are and what is in them, and a lot of them will be capable of being digitised to make them available.

The third thing we are bringing, which is critical and has not been involved terribly much until this stage, is the knowledge base of historians, who have been working either on individual organisations or across the whole sector, as I have, to provide the answers that those other two groups have raised. One of the issues about the way history has been used to this point is that people find that there is perhaps a history of the home that they were in, they go and read it, and it is a very celebratory one because it has been commissioned. It does not reflect at all what their experience was of that home. We are going to be able to bring together that kind of information, but also the other information from people who have written their own stories, of which there are many now, and the information discerned by historians who have been in there and looked at the whole record rather than what the organisation hands up to them in a commissioned history.

That is the historical element that comes in and it is really that that Gavan is going to be able to demonstrate to you in looking at the archive. It is in its very preliminary stage of development. We have only really been working on this since the beginning of the year.

Prof. Humphreys —We have been working on the development of this historical archive for about two months, so when you think about it as a three-year process you can see that it has enormous potential to develop a rich historical record. What we need to be really clear about is that we are talking not about the individual files. Because we do not have access to the individual files, we cannot work on those. What we have got access to is the historical context around the institutions, and that is the work that we are trying to develop.

If you turn to the final page of your handout, we have tapped the different aspects of the Forgotten Australians report particularly, which we drew on as part of developing the application for the project. It was very much based on trying to address, particularly from chapter 9, some issues about location, preservation, recording and access to records, so we were particularly engaged with thinking about those recommendations when we developed—with the different community sector organisations, with the consumer groups and with the Department of Human Services—the particular focus for the project. If you turn to the back, we have listed—and particularly in bold, highlighted—the particular recommendations which we think the research that we will be doing over the three years will be informed by and which we are drawing on as part of this project.

The final thing I would like to say is that it is very much a participatory action research project. If you turn to the second page of your handout, you can see we have a governance and a project advisory group, which is consumer groups like CLAN—Frank Golding, whom you have just heard from, has been incredibly informative in supporting the work—as have people from stolen generations, as have VANISH, with Caroline; and the people from VANISH have been really helpful in helping to already get the project in the application phases up and running but also in terms of the ongoing development over the next three years. Shall we just do the demonstration?

Mr McCarthy —Yes. I will give a little bit of an introduction. The reason that I was invited to become part of this project, which I did with a lot of enthusiasm, was that for more than two decades we have been developing software tools to manage and document historical spaces, particularly with the view to putting them out into the public domain. What we use is a tool called the Online Heritage Resource Manager. Essentially, what it does is enable you to create a digital encyclopedia, something which is a lot more robust and sophisticated than a Wikipedia sort of technology, but it has the same sorts of foundations to it, in a way.

Basically, what we do is record information about organisations—people in the other entities—and we can define the relationships that have existed between them. Every entity that is created within the system is defined in terms of time and place so that, once you have got a good dataset in there, you can go back and say, ‘Okay, what did the world look like in 1942?’ or, ‘What did the world look like in 1955?’ and you can set up the context of the time: the legal area; the activities that people have undertaken; or just the organisations that existed at that time. It establishes the links between those entities through time as well, so in this particular case you can trace how orphanages, say, amalgamated and then split up. You can trace all those things.

To that we add information about archival sources that exist and also publications, particularly historical publications. We can add in digital records, whether they be digitised photographs or any other sort of information source. It could be a whole history. It could be any sort of thing. The purpose of this public knowledge database is to create multiple pathways that people can discover via the web to find information that might be relevant to them and how it is all interconnected. That is what it is in a nutshell. As was mentioned, we have only been going two months, but we have got 191 entities already in the database. That has been possible because so much work has already been done, in people collecting the knowledge. What we are doing is just providing the vehicle that will get that out into the public domain.

Senator HUMPHRIES —When you say ‘entities’, you mean homes?

Mr McCarthy —Yes, homes. An entity can be anything you can define in historical—

CHAIR —These archivists speak a different language!

Mr McCarthy —Yes, organisations, being homes and orphanages. An entity could be a piece of legislation. It is anything that you need to define to understand the context in which things exist, and then you can map the relationships between them.

Prof. Swain —What we would call in an encyclopaedia an ‘entry’.

Mr McCarthy —Yes.

CHAIR —But they are not people?

Mr McCarthy —They could be people.

Prof. Swain —They can be people but not individual records.

Mr McCarthy —If there was a person, it would be them as a public person.

CHAIR —Mr Golding has given his own information. We are not breaking his privacy, because he has already spoken about his involvement. Would Mr Golding be an entity for your purposes?

Mr McCarthy —He could be if he wanted to be, yes.

Prof. Humphreys —This is why we thought it might be better to demonstrate, because it is easier to show you than to talk about it.

CHAIR —Absolutely. Is there any value in having Hansard record this?

Mr McCarthy —Probably not.

Prof. Humphreys —I do not think so. It is just to show you, and then we can speak to it.

CHAIR —If we are not recording it, we will just stop; otherwise we are going to be setting up other microphones and things. For the Hansard record, we are looking at a demonstration.

Proceedings suspended from 11.12 am to 11.17 am

CHAIR —That is now an internal process that you have shown us on the machine. Will it become public?

Mr McCarthy —Yes. Part of the role of the advisory group and the governance group is to get that to a point where we can put it in the public domain as quickly as we can.

Prof. Humphreys —We will not be waiting for three years. We will have staged developments. Because it already looks as though we can get a lot up fairly quickly, probably within the first six months we would be looking at launching the first stage. It is about having an online library, really, for forgotten Australians.

CHAIR —It is also a working document.

Prof. Humphreys —It is a working document.

CHAIR —You will learn from what is done.

Prof. Humphreys —Its limitation will be that it is a lot to get 12 community sector organisations and the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare, who are about to speak to you, and VACCA all involved, but once this is up and running, once all the infrastructure is there, it will be a very rich source. It is about who is going to look after it in three years time. We are making plans for that, but we do think that there is potential for the Australian government to think about how they can continue to resource the ongoing development so that the Salvation Army in Queensland and Barnados in New South Wales and other big community sector organisations can continue to make contributions and development the archive over time.

Senator SIEWERT —How much money does it cost now?

Prof. Humphreys —Rachel is the half-time researcher, with digital archiving experience, and Cate Elkner, who is not here, is the historical researcher. She works with Shurlee. So one full-time researcher has in two months put in 190 entries, as well as getting the infrastructure established.

CHAIR —I am just checking the printout about the web that you gave us. How much money has been dedicated—

Prof. Humphreys —The project is costing $800,000 over a three-year period.

CHAIR —You have given us a printout of the people who are contributing. Those groups are giving to the amount of $800,000 over three years to do the work that you have set out?

Prof. Humphreys —That is right.

CHAIR —During those three years you will prepare a budget for how much it would cost to maintain?

Prof. Humphreys —From the first day of the governance group meeting we have been saying, ‘Okay, how are we going to make this sustainable into the future?’ It will have persistence as it is, but we would certainly like to see it develop over time because we think it will be a major resource for forgotten Australians.

Senator SIEWERT —This is for Victoria, isn’t it?

Prof. Humphreys —Yes.

Senator SIEWERT —So we need one nationally, don’t we?

Mr McCarthy —Yes.

Senator SIEWERT —I really like how you have pulled out the recommendation that it applies to. It would be better to have some sort of national coordination, wouldn’t it, rather than each state picking up what you are already doing? You have basically now set the benchmark. Are there any discussions nationally for this to be picked up?

Prof. Swain —Not as yet. We have not reached out to the other states. In terms of the long-term planning, this is the kind of structure—and Gavan could do this better than me—that can continue to be added to if other states were interested in becoming involved in this process, but the research would cost money. They would have to set up their own teams in that way, but the OHRM itself could cater for that very well.

Senator SIEWERT —You would not need to put the same amount of resources in, because you have already done a whole lot of—

Prof. Swain —We have done the thinking work.

Senator SIEWERT —Yes.

Prof. Humphreys —And you would not have it, either. You see, this is one strand being talked about, whereas we are talking about a four-strand project. We are doing the current strand—and that costs—to say, ‘What is happening with your current community sector organisation? How can we do record-keeping into the future for current people in out-of-home care the right way?’ We are not talking about that. What we are talking about is the historic strand. That is not going to cost the same as a four-strand project, because we are also funding a PhD student to work with community sector organisations about how people are accessing their records and what their experience is of doing that.

Senator SIEWERT —I appreciate your comments about the historical strand, but I would have thought that the other strands are important to the other states as well.

Prof. Humphreys —Yes, true.

Mr McCarthy —Yes.

Senator SIEWERT —Are you aware of any discussions with the other states about the other strands?

Prof. Humphreys —No, not at this point. We should say there is the Australian alliance. Coleen will be speaking to this. Coleen and others, who are on the governance group for this project, are also on the national body, as is Caroline from VANISH. It will be taken up at a national level, I guess, and raised as an issue.

Senator SIEWERT —I will remember to ask them.

Prof. Humphreys —Coleen and Caroline will speak to that—and Frank, as CLAN is national too.

Senator SIEWERT —We will follow that up then.

Senator HUMPHRIES —I am married to a Cathy Humphries. If I call you ‘darling’ by accident, please, do not take it personally! Obviously, with a site like this, people are going to look at the site and they are going to be very interested in what is there. I can imagine there is going to be a need for real follow-up in terms of people wanting to talk to somebody about what information is there. What do you envisage being the links on your site to organisations or people who can follow up those issues? For example, will any of you, or the organisations that you are providing this concept to, be available to talk to if people have questions about this process or the issues that it gives rise to?

Prof. Swain —There are probably two levels to that. The site itself will include contact details for whatever is the successor organisation that is being referred to and most of those now have some kind of follow-up process. So that will be on the site. Again, there is the need for continuity, because that is all going to change when we are finished, so that is something that is at the top of our mind. In terms of finding us on the site, I guess they will be able to find us. People find me all the time. I would do about a query a week from people who have been in care who find me, and I have always done that, right through the time I have been writing child welfare history. It is something we could consider more formally.

Mr McCarthy —One of the things that we have just implemented in the last week is a contact form, which is sensitive to the page that the user is looking at. If they are on a particular page and say, ‘I want to say something. I want to contribute something. I don’t know what to do next,’ then they will just click the ‘contact us’ or whatever we decide to call it. That email will probably come to a central point, but then it can be passed on to whoever would be appropriate. It tells us directly where they have come from, so we have a context of, ‘Okay, they were on this page.’ Therefore, even though they might not have framed their question particularly well, we have at least got some idea of where they are coming from and what their query is.

We have done that on other sites and found that to be particularly useful. When you have lots and lots of webpages that people can contact you from, they know where they are when they send the email, but we do not. This is a way of capturing that. Because the system is extremely open and extensible, we can be very responsive to the needs of the community in the sorts of structures that we build for setting up contact pathways.

Prof. Humphreys —It is very important to be working with the current consumer organisations, CREATE, CLAN and VANISH, and whatever the new state organisation for Victoria will be. They would certainly have those details. Because this is a three-year project, it is important to consider, ‘What will be the resource that will sit behind this over time?’

Senator HUMPHRIES —Do you rely on the cooperation of organisations that provided care in the past to feed you information of the kind that you put on this database or are you accessing only things that are already available on the public record?

Prof. Swain —We are working with our partner organisations, all of which are organisations that provided care in the past. One of the processes that the two researchers are going through is that they go out and visit them and look at their archive. It is a way of facilitating the care of their archives, as well as deciding what they are prepared to share on this site. There are other organisations that are not associated with this project. In those cases we will be dealing with what is already in the public domain, but that public domain includes the archives that are held by the Department of Human Services that oversaw all of these. It includes newspapers that the historians can access, in which there is a wealth of information going right back to the first institution in 1849. It is a broader public domain than just their authorised histories.

Prof. Humphreys —You can see in the bullet points at the back that, even on the first site visit to Anglicare, they identified a collection of photographs in their archives which are currently poorly preserved and described, with a view to a digitised project and making them available online through the National Library of Australia’s Picture Australia website. They are putting their attention to the archive and thinking, ‘This particular project would be really important.’ We would be looking at getting these pictures onto this site that we are developing, but also they will attend to them and make them available.

Prof. Swain —Dr Elkner, who is our research assistant on the history strand, is also a qualified archivist. She is very well positioned to offer that support to people on that first visit and continuing through the project.

Senator HUMPHRIES —We are aware of a lot of ignorance about even the existence of the earlier inquiry into forgotten Australians. The more times you repeat the availability of a resource like this, the more you are going to capture people who otherwise would not know about it. Are you going to have a launch at some point when it goes online and subsequent publicity about it?

Prof. Humphreys —We have already had a launch for the project that we held at the centre for excellence as a start point and we are still getting inquiries on the basis of that launch, which was actually six months ago because we got the money but we then took quite a long time to get the legal agreements signed off, and I imagine that when we make our first public showing of the archive, yes, we would have a public launch.

Prof. Swain —The other thing that is possible with the OHRM, which Gavan has done with other projects in which we have worked jointly, is that you can have little exhibitions that are constructed from the material you have already got and you can launch those, which again attracts interest. You could do an exhibition on babies homes and what happened, or something like that, which becomes a permanent part of the OHRM as well. It is just another way of using the material but it gives you something concrete.

Mr McCarthy —Yes, that is right.

Prof. Swain —It is never concrete, is it, really? But it gives you something that will attract the media interest that you want to get the knowledge out there.

Senator HUMPHRIES —We know from politics you can never launch anything too many times! Have you encountered in the work that you have done so far on this any need to change the legal framework whereby this information might be accessed? Are there any things you would say to us that we should be recommending to deal with the future flow of information of this kind? As an example, are there any provisions of the privacy legislation which constitute a barrier to people getting access to information?

Mr McCarthy —It is way too early for me to answer that question. That is a really important part of the research that we are conducting. From the archives and records perspective we are looking at a whole lot of issues but at the moment, as we said, we have just started on getting the historical framework underpinned. As we continue to move towards the present, towards how things are working now, these are exactly the issues that we are going to be unpacking, but at this stage I do not have enough knowledge to make any sensible comment.

Prof. Humphreys —I think that, because we have a governance group, which will be an active group, these sorts of issues will be addressed over time. If these legal issues come up, then the governance group would look at how we would take that up. The governance group is made up of: DHS; centre for excellence, which is umbrella-ing the 12 community sector organisations; VACCA; and the university.

Prof. Swain —The other thing, as a historian, is that at this stage in Victoria we are somewhat the envy of our colleagues in other states who are finding the privacy legislation far more restrictive in doing child welfare research. It is not as restrictive here at least in the way that it is being applied, although you can see it closing in as organisations become more fearful, I think. I have had students doing postgraduate work who have been able to do projects in Victoria which get to a far more detailed level of investigation than is possible, for instance, in New South Wales at the moment, where this kind of detailed research is almost closed off now.

Prof. Humphreys —It took us a long time to get the legal agreements signed off to do the project and a lot of that was the care taken with trying to get through the different legal eagles in government, in community sector organisations and at the university. It is quite complicated for people to develop the trust and to get the legal agreement right so that you have a good balance between openness and defence against risk.

Senator HUMPHRIES —That is very exciting. Congratulations on how far you have got so far.

CHAIR —Thank you so much and thank you for your work. Just seeing the interest from the people who have come indicates that there is a willingness to make this work and actually have something on record. We will be watching with interest. If, in the next couple of weeks or months, you think that there is something you have done that we need to know, please let us know, because we keep an involvement with this process.

Prof. Humphreys —Thank you very much for inviting us to present.

[11.35 am]