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STANDING COMMITTEE ON COMMUNITY AFFAIRS
06/04/2009
Implementation of the recommendations of the Lost Innocents and Forgotten Australians reports

CHAIR —Welcome. You have information on protection of witnesses and evidence. If you need any more information on that, the secretariat can provide it to you. I invite you to make an opening statement, and then we will go to questions.

Ms Ketton —In 1999, in accordance with recommendation 40 of the Commission of Inquiry into Abuse of Children in Queensland Institutions, the Queensland government provided funding to Relationships Australia Queensland to provide counselling and support to adults who had been institutionalised as children in state-run homes and religious orphanages in Queensland. The program known as the Aftercare Resource Centre has been operational for almost 10 years and to date has 860 clients registered. During the last financial year, this figure increased by 200 per cent.

The forgotten Australians inquiry provided life-changing validation to many Australians. The inquiry gave recognition to the phenomena of childhood institutionalisation and, for many people, it assisted in replacing years of internalisation with the collective experience. Relationships Australia Queensland welcomes the opportunity to comment on the implementation of the recommendations processed in the forgotten Australians report and their impact on the client community. Our submission focuses only on those recommendations relevant to the program and its services.

Recommendation 1 relates to the acknowledgment, through a formal apology by the Commonwealth government, of the hurt and distress caused to children in institutional care. We note in relation to this recommendation that the Australian states and territories were responsible for putting in place their various child protection systems. The Commonwealth government funded them to do so and, therefore, holds accountability. An apology acknowledges that something wrong has happened and that something needs to change. In addition to acknowledgement, it also offers victims assurance that the same will not occur again. Many former residents in Queensland have expressed their gratitude for the apology made by Peter Beattie, the Premier at the time, and the acknowledgment that it brought them. Such an apology should form part of Australia’s history and should be reflected as a contribution to our Australian culture.

Recommendation 12 relates to the responsibility of non-government and government agencies to secure and preserve records pertaining to care leavers. As adults, care leavers can struggle with a sense of identity but can find healing in being able to locate themselves in childhood photos and institutional records. Many care leavers do not have photos of themselves from their childhood, so it is important that the various institutions involved maintain and preserve all their records. We have experienced our clients’ distress at being told that there are no existing records of them. We have funded searches for school records from the Queensland State Archives and have witnessed our clients’ joy upon seeing evidence of their existence. In addition to this service, ARC funds birth and death record searches, including searches for family members. We also facilitate family reunions.

Recommendation 16 and 18 continue to relate to the concept of identity and care leavers’ rights to access records pertaining to their institutionalisation. Recommendation 18 also refers to the important need for the states and territories to have a consistent approach to the access of records. We note that accessing childhood care records in Queensland has mostly become a streamlined process for care leavers and that this service is provided in a most respectful and sensitive manner.

The one outstanding and ongoing complaint about this process by care leavers is that often significant amounts of information is blacked out or crossed out with thick black pen. This can be quite upsetting for some; they can feel that they are surrounded by secrets again—secrets about themselves and their lives. Present freedom of information legislation justifies this process by the notion of the need or the right to know. It often places more weight on the privacy of others than on the care leavers’ need to know. Lack of information about the childhood of care leavers, particularly their family of origin, has had lasting detrimental effects on their sense of self and emotional wellbeing. Withholding such information also denies the following generations of care leavers access to information concerning their families and their own history.

Furthermore, we wish to make a comment regarding recommendation 17, which relates to the provision of counselling and support to care leavers during the process of accessing their childhood records. It has been our experience at ARC that it is not uncommon for clients to become retraumatised—their distress being triggered by the manner in which information is recorded or deleted in these documents. Frequently, clients are upset by the language used and the inconsistencies in these records. Often a lot of information is not recorded, and this is also upsetting to the care leavers.

Care leavers enter this process with expectations that they will receive answers to questions that they have had for many years about themselves and their lives. When these expectations are not met, clients can become emotionally vulnerable. ARC offers counselling and support to clients engaging in this process. We are aware that there may be some care leavers who seek their records but who are not clients of ARC. We believe that all care leavers seeking childhood records should be able to access counselling specific and sensitive to this process and to the experiences of childhood institutionalisation. If care leavers do not wish to seek the services of ARC in assisting them with this process or if they are regionally situated, we are able to broker counselling services with external and independent services throughout Australia.

With regard to recommendation 19, which relates to the establishment of a national professional advocacy body, we believe that the establishment of the Alliance for Forgotten Australians has been a positive development towards promoting the interests of care leavers on a national level. This has also allowed for the exchange of important information between states and territories regarding responses and services for care leavers.

In relation to recommendation 22, which pertains to the provision of services within states, irrespective of where the care leaver was institutionalised, we would also like to comment. We have had a number of clients who have been institutionalised in other states who have sought counselling and support from our service. The existing pathways can cause confusion and delays for clients. The process requires clients to first and foremost become clients of other services in their respective states. This service will then contract us to provide the counselling. This process can be prolonged and is not possible when funding is not available in particular states. Clear pathways and access to federal funding could ensure improved access to services in a more timely and appropriate manner.

Recommendation 23 refers to the provision of counselling and support services to care leavers. As previously stated, ARC has 860 clients. We provide services on a long term and an as a required basis, and we do not close cases like other counselling services. Relationships Australia Queensland has over 40 venues situated throughout Queensland that are able to provide counselling and support to care leavers who are regionally situated. We also provide brokerage funding to clients living interstate who wish to seek counselling. These counsellors may be counsellors within Relationships Australia or they may be external counsellors who have undergone an appropriate check. Relationships Australia Queensland recognises the particular therapeutic needs of care leavers and Aftercare Resource Centre staff regularly provide training programs to other venues in Queensland and interstate and present at conferences about that work.

CHAIR —Thank you. Ms Kelly and Mr Walton, do you wish to add anything at this stage?

Mr Walton —No.

Ms Kelly —No.

CHAIR —Senator Humphries.

Senator HUMPHRIES —I just wanted to ask you about the record-keeping issues that you raised. Other witnesses in Melbourne put to us that there should be some change to the freedom of information laws to allow for the right of people to know about their past and for that to override privacy concerns of individuals about whom they might find information. A case was cited of a person who accessed their own records from an orphanage but because of that privacy concern could not get records of their brother and sister who might be in the same facility. That was a point that was well made. I am still not clear though about whether there is a need for any action by way of legislation, for example, to deal with the records of non-government organisations or churches. We heard evidence that there was fairly good levels of cooperation, although quite serious backlogs in the case of some people who were requesting information from institutions. There were other people who almost suggested that records were being destroyed in order to undermine potential legal action. Others said that in Tasmania, for example, people were just being denied access to any records at all. People were saying, ‘No, you cannot have them.’ Is there a need, from your experience of what is happening in Queensland, for there to be some ramping up of the legal framework in which non-government organisations deal with their own records—to protect them for the purposes of access by people who have been care leavers?

Mr Walton —I am not sure just how specifically that could happen, but I think that anything that could be done to ensure that former residents and care leavers have adequate access to any records that might pertain to them during that time of care would have to be a good thing. But I do not know just what that would look like.

Senator HUMPHRIES —Put it another way: have you encountered any cases where you have had people who you are assisting who cannot get access to their records and who are distressed about that fact? Have people like that crossed your path, and what has your response been to those problems when they have occurred?

Ms Ketton —Certainly we have had clients who have been unable to access those records and we do what we can to support them through the process of finding other avenues to access their records. To echo what Barry was saying, anything that means that former residents can access more freely—

Senator HUMPHRIES —What sort of problems have you encountered; is it only that they cannot get access to records because of FOI or is it also because there are some non-government organisations that are not providing them or are taking too long to provide them?

Ms Kelly —I would say that it is both of those. It is also really distressing for people when they finally do access piles of information about their childhood experience to find out that there are gaps in the information or to find out that names have been crossed out or that some pages have half a page just deleted.

Senator HUMPHRIES —Is that occurring in the case of church based records?

Ms Kelly —Church based, no; mostly government. I do not know of many people who have actually accessed significant amounts of information from churches.

Senator HUMPHRIES —Okay. What do you think is the thing that government can do which would most bring a sense of relief or closure to the people that you are assisting? Is it access to a rigorous scheme, is it an apology, is it assistance with ongoing medical costs or lifestyle issues or is it freeing up access to records? What is the one thing that is most important to them, if you could generalise about all of those people?

Ms Ketton —I think picking one thing is extremely difficult. I guess access to ongoing counselling and the ability to receive support throughout everything. Retraumatisation can occur at any time so it is crucial for care leavers to be able to access counselling at any stage and for that to be a free service as well.

Ms Kelly —Healing is a very individual process; we have here a community of people who would find an apology worthwhile in part of that healing process. On an individual basis though, healing is very sporadic and it depends upon a number of factors.

Senator HUMPHRIES —Thank you for that.

Senator FURNER —Returning to the issue of research and documentation, you indicated in your verbal submissions that there was some issue with people having problems with language. Can you go into some more depth on that subject please? You indicated that sometimes people come across reports on their past

Ms Kelly —That is in regard to freedom of information. The language used in some of the documents can be distressing for the care leavers. For instance, back then information was recorded in judgemental ways. That is what I was referring to with language.

Senator FURNER —Is there sometimes an issue with dealing with research documentation from people who may have migrated from Australia and finding that information from other shores? Have you experienced that at all?

Ms Kelly —No. The parameters of our work is with people tracing their families. We do a lot of family tracing and we can go back to the 1800s to help them locate family members. That helps with their sense of identity. But we get stuck when we have to go yonder.

Senator FURNER —So you have not experienced any problems with families who have migrated to Australia?

Ms Kelly —No.

Senator FURNER —Okay. Thanks.

CHAIR —Before you start, Senator Boyce, we have had a request from SBS to film. Does anyone have a problem with being filmed? It looks like SBS is free to go. Senator Boyce.

Senator BOYCE —You mentioned having 860 clients registered and said you had had a 200 per cent increase in the past year. Is that correct?

Ms Ketton —Yes.

Senator BOYCE —So that is in fact a quadrupling of your clients—is that what you mean by that?

Ms Ketton —Yes, with the announcement of the Redress Scheme—

Senator BOYCE —Yes, that was my next question. So this was all prompted by the Redress Scheme. Where are your clients; how many of them would be in South-East Queensland and how many in the regions, for instance?

Ms Ketton —The majority are in South-East Queensland. We cannot count everyone that moves. We have a minority in the Townsville and Cairns area.

Ms Kelly —There are a number in Rockhampton.

Ms Ketton —Rockhampton, and also the Sunshine Coast. There does seem to be a large community in the Sunshine Coast that accesses our services.

Senator BOYCE —In your view, are the clients that you have in the regions adequately provided for in terms of services?

Ms Ketton —We provide counselling throughout Relationships Australia, across any of the venues. Unfortunately, people in the regions do not have access to groups like those that we run at the ARC in South Brisbane and the other services there, in terms of having that sense of community that the former residents have, where they can all meet and things like that. They do not have access to that centre specifically.

Senator BOYCE —So these would be characterised as self-help groups, would they, or support groups?

Ms Ketton —Whether they be psychoeducational support groups or therapeutic workshops—

Ms Kelly —We are running a number of workshops is this year on issues such as self-esteem, relationships, boundaries and all of that. Last year we ran therapeutic groups, but we thought we might try the workshops this year, simply so that we can tape them and send the tapes off to people who are in regional areas.

Senator BOYCE —Sorry; I am having trouble understanding what you said at the end there.

Ms Kelly —This year we are running workshops so that we can tape them and forward the tapes to people who are in regional areas and cannot attend the workshops.

Senator BOYCE —Who cannot get to a group situation?

Ms Kelly —Yes, and we hope that towards the end of the year we will go up north to Townsville and Cairns.

Mr Walton —If I could just add something here. Clearly, the former-resident community within the south-east sector of Queensland have had the advantage of being able to access the service system much more easily than those regional former residents. It would be interesting to know just how many former residents are in those regional areas. We have had relatively little contact over the years with them. I do not think that means there are no former residents who are regionally based. One of the things that we have noticed in the past is that, when we have tried to facilitate groups of former residents to come together to meet socially and have some sort of focus and connect with us as an organisation, we have struggled, and I think the reason for that is that it is a one-hit attempt to engage with a community of people. What we have seen over the years in Brisbane with the ARC service is that it takes a lot of time to gain a trusting relationship—

Senator BOYCE —Quite a lot of ‘toe in the water’ before they—

Mr Walton —Yes, that is right. So trying to facilitate or arrange a get-together often has not met with success. Probably, if some of the other regional centres were to have a larger funded service or at least something similar to what we have in Brisbane, I think that would engage the former residents in the regional community much more easily.

Senator BOYCE —Yes. This is probably my last question. Your 860 clients—is that the number you are funded to have or is that simply the number of people who have come to you? Do you have a waiting list et cetera?

Ms Ketton —We currently do not have waiting list. However, there can be some waiting between contacting us and doing an intake. That information is then sent to the Department of Communities for verification. We receive back the verification of the institutions and then we provide a counselling service. So that process can take some time. Sorry, I have forgotten the other part of the question.

Senator BOYCE —All I was asking was whether the number of clients, 860, was constrained by funding or it is the number of people who have come to you so far.

Ms Ketton —We have 860 clients but we have two full-time counselling staff. The 860 clients, although they do not all engage at the same time—

Senator BOYCE —I am pleased to hear that!

Ms Kelly —Yes. It has been particularly challenging with the Redress Scheme. We have limited resources, as Karyn mentioned before.

Senator BOYCE —How do your clients find you? What promotions do you do? How do people know to come to you for this service?

Ms Ketton —Through our website, which is being updated but the original website is there, and through our brochures. We have brochures throughout the state across all our venues. For any activities that our organisation engages in, in terms of going out and meeting the community, it is a requirement of all community educators to take brochures of every service Relationship Australia runs, so they take Aftercare Resource Centre brochures there. We also attend some of the reunions—for example, the Enoggera reunion—and any former residents who turn up at the reunions are also welcome to take brochures and find out about our services, if they have not made contact before.

Mr Walton —We also receive significant referrals from the existing service system, through various government departments, the Esther Centre, the Forde Foundation, the Forde contact officer.

CHAIR —We are running out of time but I want to pursue the issue of people who are living interstate or were in care interstate. You mentioned the sensitivities about that in your opening comment. We have heard significant complaint about the fact that there is no common system and people cannot access help. For a while, Queensland was one of the few states that had anything specifically in place because of the fallout of the Forde inquiry. Are you aware of people who have tried but not been able to any help elsewhere?

Ms Ketton —I have been with the service since May last year. In that time I think there have been a couple of clients where we have not been able to link in with another state. I know Victoria has definitely been one. Generally what we do is say to people that they need to register with that service so they can then broker us to provide the counselling. I know that definitely has occurred with a client from Victoria.

Ms Kelly —In the past, when people who were institutionalised as children in other states have not been able to access funding for counselling, we have been able to put them through our victims of crime program in Relationships Australia, Queensland. We have worked with them that way. We have a victims of crime counsellor situated at the Aftercare Resource Centre at Lotus Place.

CHAIR —The other issue is about limited hours. The claim is that they can get a small number of visits, two or three, to a psychologist or your counsellor to get help and then nothing after that, that they have run out. Is it a reality that there is a limited number of hours of support they can receive?

Ms Ketton —Unfortunately, yes, because we receive a certain amount of brokerage funding per year and I think the same occurs for some of the other states to spread that money evenly. That occurs for the brokered funding as well. There is no time limit for accessing our service at South Brisbane. However, unfortunately, from when the money runs out until we get it renewed the following year, sometimes we have to put a cap on how many counselling sessions a client receives. That is unfortunate because research suggests that, particularly for people who have experienced trauma as children, it does need to be ongoing.

CHAIR —Is this state funding?

Ms Ketton —Yes.

CHAIR —Is it annual or over a three-year period?

Ms Ketton —The service agreement is over a three-year period but we receive the brokered funds annually.

CHAIR —The three-year funding runs out this year?

Ms Ketton —Yes.

CHAIR —So you are in the same situation, waiting to see what the new round will bring?

Ms Ketton —Yes.

CHAIR —What about access to your services by families of people who have been in care—is it available for siblings who were not in care or for sons and daughters?

Ms Ketton —Yes.

CHAIR —It is available?

Ms Kelly —We presently provide counselling support to siblings and to children of people who were institutionalised.

CHAIR —I ask that because I am interested but also because I have seen in the background people who are strenuously denying that that availability is present. Is that because of a confusion or the availability of funding?

Ms Kelly —I can say I have at least one client presently who is the son of a Westbrook man.

CHAIR —And the reason he has been able to access your services is the family relationship?

Ms Kelly —It is because he is the son, yes.

CHAIR —There may need to be some clarification of that—

Ms Kelly —We feel very strongly about that because of the generational effect that institutionalisation has.

CHAIR —Absolutely. Thank you very much; we deeply appreciate your evidence. If there is anything you think we have not covered or that we need to know could you please be in contact with us, because this inquiry is due to report in June so there is some time.

Ms Kelly —Thank you.

Ms Ketton —Thank you.

Proceedings suspended from 12.20 pm to 1.30 pm