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STANDING COMMITTEE ON COMMUNITY AFFAIRS
07/04/2009
Implementation of the recommendations of the Lost Innocents and Forgotten Australians reports

CHAIR —I welcome representatives of the Association of Children’s Welfare Agencies, the Benevolent Society, Barnardos Australia and the Fairbridge Foundation. I do like the concept of having roundtables. Even though it is glaringly obvious that it is not round, it is just a lot of you together. I know most of you have appeared at these hearings before, so you understand how they work. Do you have any comments to make on the capacity in which you appear?

Mr Hercus —I am from UPA but a member of the group that comes under the auspices of ACWA.

Mr Hoyles —I am also part of the ACWA forum.

CHAIR —Thank you all for your submissions. I am sure most of you, if not all of you, would like to put something on record individually before we go on to questions.

Mr McCallum —Our submission is representative of a number of past providers—not all past providers but those who chose to. It is a coalition of member organisations who get together on a quarterly basis—in conjunction with CLAN, usually—to talk about some of the issues. As you will see in our submission, we have discussed five areas that we think should be highlighted, but I suppose one of the statements I would like to make is around the notion that, whatever happens, I think it needs to happen nationally. There are very disparate ways that things are playing out across the states at the moment, and I think it is unfair on the forgotten Australians that what you may or may not get as a service depends on where you reside.

From my working with and talking to a lot of forgotten Australians, I think it is very clear that there is a need for counselling and support services, which are extremely important. I also make the overarching point that, while we look retrospectively at what has happened in the out-of-home care system across Australia, we should be mindful to keep an eye to the future. We have a national framework for child protection which may or may not be announced at the next COAG meeting, but I think it points to some of the things that we need to be very careful about. We may shroud in contemporary rhetoric what happens in out-of-home care at the moment, but when you actually pare it back some of it still revolves around people being removed because of their poor circumstances, poverty, social isolation or social dislocation—many of the same things that brought people into care in those early days. I think we may have intellectualised it very differently, but we have more kids in care now than we have had for many, many years—

CHAIR —And growing.

Mr McCallum —Yes, and growing—and is that laying the foundation for us or the next iteration of the Senate to have in 20 or 30 years time this discussion about why we did that. We have seen it with the Aboriginal situation, we have seen it with the forgotten Australians and then with the child migrants. I would be mindful of our eye to the future in this particular debate.

CHAIR —Thank you.

Mr Hercus —The submission we lodged, as Andrew has indicated, was from an ad hoc group. We do not claim to be totally representative of all past providers in New South Wales, though we are all New South Wales past providers. We have within our group representatives from 11 of those, plus we have representatives from ARC. I notice ARC came up earlier in your discussions. They take part in our meetings, as do members of CLAN, the Care Leavers of Australia Network, whom I think you are talking to later on this morning.

CHAIR —I read the list. Do you know who is not in your group? Who stands out for not being in?

Mr Hercus —No, I cannot identify clearly—

CHAIR —Can you and Mr McCallum have a think about that and let us know later?

Mr McCallum —Yes, we will.

Mr Hercus —I know Fairbridge are not—

CHAIR —That is one. That is not centring on you; it was just a clear interest as you prepared.

Mr Hercus —The group, as I said, is an ad hoc group that grew out of a need for a number of us, dealing with the issues of people who had been in care, to try to find out what each of us was doing and what a positive way to go ahead with all of this was. It was not approached scientifically; it was just a network and it happened.

Mr McCallum —ACWA put out a call for those who were interested as past providers to be involved, bearing in mind that in New South Wales a large hunk of past providers are run by DOCS. We probably have had contact with all of the non-government past providers. Some of them are more active than others. They financially contribute quite significantly to the operation of CLAN on a regular basis.

Mr Hercus —It is probably fair to say that a lot of the past providers have gone out of business. People who were operating back in the seventies and eighties, once their children’s work finished, ceased to operate. They have either been subsumed into a bigger organisation, as is the case with the Catholic or Anglican churches, or simply disappeared into the mist. We are a mixed lot, to say the least. In our discussions we came to the conclusion that, of all the recommendations from the Forgotten Australians report, there were five that we wanted to focus on. It was interesting that, before we heard that this inquiry was taking place, we came to the conclusion that those were things we wanted to approach the federal government with first. That was a rather nice segue that occurred there. We were already thinking about these issues.

The five that we focused on are in our submission. They are recommendation 6, which is to do with reparations; recommendations 21 and 22, which talk about the provision of support services; recommendation 23, which deals specifically with counselling services; and recommendation 25, which deals with health care, housing and aged-care programs. The biggie in this is reparations. That is the hard one for people to get their head around and talk sensibly about, we have found. I guess everyone wants to dodge the issue in one sense in that they do not want to be the one paying the bill, but they still recognise the need for something to happen. We have come to the conclusion that this needs to be a federal matter. The last government, in its response to the recommendations, quite rightly pointed out that, in the days when the homes were all operating, these were very definitely all state affairs. You had state departments of child welfare, and the only federal involvement in those days was with child endowment.

That hides something. The federal child endowment money was pretty much what enabled many of the homes to keep functioning. They depended very heavily on that federal funding to operate. Sure, they got some funding from the states—and that varied across the states—but primarily the one constant was the child endowment income. It is disingenuous for the federal government to say, ‘We had no part in this,’ because in fact it did. Having come to that conclusion, everything else follows from there in terms of our submission. If there is to be a reparation fund, then it needs to be federally managed. If not totally funded federally, at least it needs to be managed, because we are seeing at the moment a spread across the states that is confusing, to say the least, and definitely unfair.

Senator FIFIELD —While I appreciate the rationale for saying that this should be federally managed, does that not take all pressure off the states? If the states were responsible for the policies which were in place at the time and the states were responsible for many of the practices, does that not absolve them of their responsibility to say, ‘It’s the Commonwealth’s responsibility because the Commonwealth government provided child endowment; therefore, there is an indirect relationship and, therefore, let’s make it the Commonwealth’s problem’? Does it not take the heat off the state governments who historically had responsibility?

Mr Hercus —Yes. I agree that there is that danger, and I suspect that it is the sort of thing that finally would have to be washed up in COAG in some successful way. The states did have the carriage of this. I think the reality is that politics have changed very significantly in Australia in that in the 1970s and 1980s states’ rights was the big issue—states managed their own patch very tightly and were careful about that. Since then, we have seen a significant alteration in the whole balance of funding and of priorities across the nation, so we now have the federal government involved in the provision of health, education and a whole lot of other services that they previously were totally uninvolved in. The federal finally becomes the place where they very largely have control of the purse strings and they have the overview of the whole national situation in a way that individual states cannot provide.

Senator FIFIELD —I can appreciate the argument for having a national scheme managed by the Commonwealth. But in terms of the funding, I suspect it would be pretty difficult to convince a government of any persuasion that they should foot the bill for something which was a result of the practice of a particular state.

Mr McCallum —Universality is the issue for me in this process. I would argue, ‘Why are we dragging Tasmania into the net? We are already doing something about it. We have put money on the table.’ I just think we need the Commonwealth’s pressure to actually say that the states do have to step up to the plate. There has to be some sort of reparation scheme that recognises what has gone on, but it also has to recognise that it does not much matter if you are in Tasmania or New South Wales or Queensland: what happened to you was universally unacceptable and has to be treated the same way. That is why the federal government needs to have that overview about how that consistency plays out on the ground.

Mr Hercus —The other point, is that these people who were in care, say, in New South Wales, have moved across the country. You get the invidious situation now where a person who is living in Queensland cannot access any assistance in Queensland simply because the home they grew up in happened to be across the border. Mind you, they are in a better situation if they are in Queensland than if they are in some other states. The worst state to be in is New South Wales, frankly, because we have a New South Wales government that is taking a line that is, at the most generous, ostrich like: it is putting its head in the sand.

Senator FIFIELD —Why is it that you think New South Wales is a tougher nut to crack than some of the other states?

Mr Hercus —There are a number of historical reasons for that. New South Wales is the largest state. It had the most children in its care. It had a policy, from the outset, that children should be placed in foster care. The predecessor to DOCS in New South Wales had adopted an attitude that every child should go into foster care but was simply swamped by the numbers. So charitable organisations stepped in and filled the breach. But the biggest provider of homes in New South Wales was still the New South Wales government. To date the New South Wales government has proved very reluctant to come to the table. I have to say in their defence that they have had managers attending and being part of our group, and they have contributed and they have been positive. But they have had their hands—at least from this observer’s point of view—very severely tied behind their backs, so that we have really had very limited opportunity to pursue any of these issues at a government level with the New South Wales government.

Reparations was the big-ticket issue. The other one that flows from that are the provision of assistances and aid to people who find themselves in the situation of needing social services. At the moment they do not fit anybody’s categories. ‘Forgotten Australians’ is not a box that you can tick in a Centrelink form, in an unemployment situation, in a social services environment. There is no provision. There is no recognition of them as a particular category or group of people that need attention. Yet it is very clear that they do need a lot of services. So the balance of our submission essentially focuses around the need to provide for them at a federal level. That seems to be something that should flow from the federal government.

Ms Michaux —The Benevolent Society operated Scarba Home for Children in Sydney’s eastern suburbs between—

CHAIR —I really appreciated the history you sent.

Ms Michaux —Good. Essentially, it was a short-term centre accommodating up to 30,000 to 40,000 children between the ages of zero and eight in its 70 years of operation. As a past provider, the release of the Forgotten Australians report, with its tragic and graphic depiction of the life of children in Australian children’s homes, ensured that our organisation made a number of significant responses. We have been involved in four major activities. Firstly, we released an apology in October 2004. Secondly, we developed a comprehensive policy to guide our responses to the small number of people we knew about who had been abused in the home but also in preparation for the others who may well come forward as a result of the inquiry report. That policy set down how we could compassionately and respectfully deal with people who approached us. As I said, it is a very comprehensive policy. Thirdly, we offer support and counselling to former residents of Scarba Home through our post-adoption resource centre, and we also published the history that you referred to. I was just checking our web stats, and 700 copies were downloaded last month and it has averaged about 500 downloads a month since December 2006, which is a fairly significant number of downloads. So there is obviously an interest in these histories and having access to them.

CHAIR —A number of those were our committee!

Ms Michaux —Of course. We do not know exactly who is doing it, but at least there is some evidence that it is being opened up and looked at. There are obviously some key lessons for us in this process, and I highlight the following areas for your consideration: firstly, addressing past wrongs. We did not actually say this in our submission—we focused on our own apology—but we certainly believe that a national apology to the forgotten Australians is a really important symbolic gesture that would contribute greatly to the healing process. As a country, we have seen evidence of the power of that through the apology to the stolen generations of Indigenous Australians. Secondly, although individual organisations, including our organisation, have implemented processes to support victims and to go through processes of some kind reparation, we support a broader national reparations fund—done well and learning the lessons from other states and countries. We really feel that it is very important to have a national, consistent and equitable approach, and I guess that would address some of the issues raised earlier about how different states have different approaches. It is a concern that some people, because of where they live, do not necessarily get access to equitable reparation.

The third area that I wanted to highlight is that recurrently funding services is extremely important for the healing process—that is, professional support, search, information and counselling services being available to those wanting to heal from past trauma. CLAN, for example, has specialist knowledge of the forgotten Australians’ experience and, adequately funded, could offer care leavers really important information and support. The other area I wanted to highlight is learning lessons from the past and what that means for us today. Obviously in New South Wales we have gone through a recent child protection inquiry that has very significant recommendations, and there is a National Child Protection Framework, as Andrew referred to. In our submission we made a number of points about improving out-of-home care today so that we do not keep repeating these mistakes, and we are in the midst of an opportunity to not do that. I think some of the lessons are to do with openness, willingness to learn and to change and transparency. I think that organisations that look after children and young people, to ensure their safety and wellbeing, need to have very clear policies, procedures and practices that are based on the best available evidence of what works.

For example, the Benevolent Society was aware of the 1950s thinking about bonding and attachment but we did not actually change our practices until the late 1970s. That is a really appalling thing and we do not ever want to do that again, and we should not be doing that because we are learning a lot more about how to care for children. National support around that is really important through national benchmarks. I think that openness needs to extend to children and their families. Their families are a key thing—not just the children—in being part of decision making processes, and they have the right to have their views seriously considered, not just heard but seriously considered. Very vulnerable children and young people are often at the mercy of a lot of very complex systems. We also support some kind of national advocate—a commission or at least an office in the office of the Prime Minister—to play a role in overseeing nationally these approaches to child protection in out-of-home care. Finally, that openness should translate into national standards and data sharing processes that do track children who are moving through care systems and that give us the opportunity to measure and analyse how we are going and what might need to change.

I also want to mention the Commonwealth government’s social inclusion agenda. I think that should be applied to all Australians, both former residents of institutions and children currently at risk of coming into care. One of the most concerning aspects of the care system is that it is dominated by disadvantaged children, particularly Indigenous children. A social inclusion approach could tackle some of the root causes—poverty, low educational attainment, low skills, unemployment and locational disadvantage, which we find children in out-of-home care are constantly confronting. Obviously, universal secondary and tertiary child abuse prevention services for children living in disadvantaged communities should be seen as an absolute priority.

Finally, the Benevolent Society is entering into the process of becoming an out-of-home care provider again very soon. We are going to be one of the largest providers in New South Wales so we are very keen to learn these lessons and to ensure that this incredibly vulnerable group are supported to be the best that they can be.

CHAIR —Thank you, Ms Michaux. Ms Henegan, would you like to say anything?

Ms Henegan —No further comment, thank you.

CHAIR —Mr Hoyles, would you like to say something?

Mr Hoyles —I have not prepared a speech as such but there are a couple of things in our submission that I would like to highlight. Firstly, we disagree very much with the recommendation that the Senate made around access to files by relatives of a deceased person. We have taken advice from our own child migrants and many of them are unhappy about the idea of having their personal information released to their relatives after they die, particularly recently because a number of books have been published in which they have told their story and the story that they have told is not necessarily reflected in the files that we have. In many cases they have reinvented their past. They believe that many other people in the community do not have files kept on them. I do not have a file kept on me of my early childhood. I could be anybody that I wish. They want to have that same opportunity.

Secondly, one particular case which is within the federal government’s sphere is the use of section 501 of the Migration Act to deport a child migrant, who had been in the country for 52 years, on the grounds that they had committed an offence that was in excess of 12 months. We funded the appeal for that, which was unsuccessful. Having said that, we do not in any way condone the crimes that he committed but it was the fact that he was deported after 52 years in Australia, having served in the Australian Army and having a wife and two children here.

CHAIR —Mr Hoyles, you mention that in your submission. When did that happen?

Mr Hoyles —Two or three years ago.

CHAIR —You mentioned it but it was not dated. We will check on that.

Mr Hoyles —I can give you all the details of the case. There is the issue of funding for CLAN. We have been a strong supporter of CLAN over many years. We have sat through the issues and the working party. CLAN needs to be funded and it needs to be funded on a regular and ongoing basis.

CHAIR —Thank you. Mr Kennedy?

Mr Kennedy —Our submission, as you can see, is very brief. The report that we addressed was the Lost innocents. That in fact was the only Senate inquiry that we made a submission to. We did not know about the Forgotten Australians inquiry until after the report came out. So we did not make any submission to that. That is not surprising because the Fairbridge Foundation is the successor to the Fairbridge Farm Schools of New South Wales, which was a farm to which child migrants came, principally. It was very much towards the end of the farm school that there were some Australian children there, but in relatively small numbers so we did not really have a lot of involvement with the Forgotten Australians inquiry in that context.

So, as I say, our submission addresses the recommendations of the Lost innocents report, and just gives an outline of how we have responded. I would like to comment on the Barnardo’s representative said because we also developed guidelines for the release of files. The foundation is the archive of information which came down to us from the farm school at Molong. We have developed, in association with the Old Fairbridgians Association, which is the representative body of the Old Fairbridgians, guidelines on the release of information, and we have included those in our submission. That addresses this issue of the release of information to more distant relatives other than the immediate family and so forth of the Old Fairbridgian.

CHAIR —You do have a process for the release of files?

Mr Kennedy —Yes.

CHAIR —Do you have any comments on the position that Barnardos has so strongly put about the release of information on deceased people?

Mr Kennedy —The way in which we have dealt with the release of information is this: someone, usually the chairperson of the council, reads the file when the request comes in to try to see whether there is anything in it which might potentially create a need for a support person to be present when that information is released to the applicant. That has never actually happened that I am aware of. The late chairman did most of that work and he never told me that he came across a situation where he felt there was some support needed for that information to be released. We do not really get applications for release of information which has not already been released. Our guidelines basically are that if an Old Fairbridgian asks for the information we provide it. So we do not get applications from grandchildren whose grandparent or whatever has not previously had the information released.

CHAIR —Do your guidelines apply to Pinjarra as well?

Mr Kennedy —No. The Fairbridge Foundation is the successor to the Fairbridge Schools of New South Wales Inc., which a was a specific organisation which was responsible for the Molong School and which was different from Pinjarra in the sense that Pinjarra was, if you like, a branch of the British organisation. The history of this is quite interesting. New South Wales became sort of independent, as it were, of the British organisation except in so far as the British organisation was responsible for deciding which children came to Australia. The Fairbridge Schools of New South Wales became responsible for the children once they arrived. It was not responsible for the selection and so forth of the children in the UK. The organisation in New South Wales was the Fairbridge Schools of New South Wales Inc. It was a separate corporate body, quite different from Pinjarra—although there was obviously cooperation between Pinjarra and New South Wales. There was another one too, the Northcote School in Victoria.

Senator FIFIELD —I would be interested to hear any other perspectives on Mr Hoyles’s view in relation to the release of records.

CHAIR —I would like to follow on from that. You may or may not have heard evidence this morning from Mr John Murray, who has a particular view about records. He provided a submission to the committee. He believes that all records to do with children who have been in care, regardless of where they were in care, should be the responsibility of the state and that all interaction should be between the person or their family and the state rather than going to any care provider. He has raised the issue at length. He began to raise it in the last inquiry but has fleshed it out very much in his submission to this inquiry. As part of Senator Fifield’s question it would be useful if we could get some comment on that. If you need to read his submission and give us something back later, that is fine as well. But it is just that on the records issue he has a very strong view that no previous provider, regardless of who they are, should be keeping those records. It should always be a state responsibility and then issues would be going through the state. Comment on that would be useful.

Mr McCallum —My comment would be that it is a state responsibility. I think the state should set the guidelines. The organisations still need to hold the records, given that there are guidelines around how they do that. Some will do that better than others. There are some very good services that would probably go if all records were put with the state in some particular way. There are some very good after-care and long-term services provided by some non-government providers which would probably go if it was all centralised. Setting minimum standards is a state government responsibility.

Mr Hoyles —One of my problems is that most of the complaints that I have heard have been from people unable to get information from their state. We have 3,700 files in the Mitchell Library in a closed section and we do not have a problem finding our files. If they go to the state, I would be concerned as to whether they would be properly looked after, stored and retrievable.

Ms Henegan —The Benevolent Society has their own records, which are stored with us. When people access their files they have an opportunity to have a counselling session to understand what was happening historically. It is an option for them and there is support and further search information available to them. While I would like some things to be standardised I would be really concerned about records being held centrally and dispersed in that way.

Mr Hercus —Experience to date seems to show that if you were a state ward and you want to get access to your state ward records you have to go through a freedom of information process that is really quite complex, bureaucratic and slow, and people often give up in the chase.

Senator FIFIELD —Just to get information on yourself?

Mr Hercus —Yes. So at the moment it is not being well managed. Added to that, it seems that some genius a few years ago decided to destroy quite a large number of the records because they felt it was no longer necessary to retain those. They kept a 10 per cent sample for historical research purposes and destroyed the remainder. Again, a lot of records that the state held in New South Wales have just disappeared completely.

Senator FIFIELD —Why wouldn’t the state hand across to an individual, as of right, records that they held about that person?

Mr Hercus —Probably because they are concerned about the repercussions if it were to go to court. You would have to ask the state about that.

Senator FIFIELD —We will ask this afternoon.

Mr Hercus —The vibe that we get is that they are reluctant because they are protecting their back. The other complication with records is that, as I said before, some of the organisations no longer exist and their records have disappeared into the ether or, quite possibly, are in the back of someone’s garage or in a storage facility somewhere. Tracking those down after a gap of 30 or so years is proving to be quite a difficult matter. I am very fortunate that I work for an organisation that is actively trying to support and help these people, but I am still in the situation of trying to find records. I am unearthing records scattered around New South Wales that were just hidden away. With the benefit of hindsight we can see that records were important and they should have been kept more carefully, but it is probably fair to say that, back then, the forgotten Australians were a fairly devalued group of people and the records were not of great importance to a lot of organisations and people. So, sadly, many of them have been lost.

Senator FIFIELD —Where is the weirdest place that records have been unearthed?

Mr Hercus —I have just got three boxes full of stuff that literally came out of the back of a garage. They had just been lying there for years and years. I am going to Wagga in a couple of weeks time doing the same search down there, trying to find some more.

Mr Hoyles —Barnardos in the UK have had a number of their ledgers eaten by mice and others that were destroyed in a flood that hit the office. Some of the old records are not individual files, they are actually in leather ledgers, which apparently are very attractive to rodents.

CHAIR —Ms Michaux, your history proved that up to a certain date no records are available.

Ms Michaux —Yes, we could not find any evidence of any records pre 1967. We have good records from that time onwards. There was some analysis of the numbers of children in Scarba House each year, because that is reported in our annual report, but we have been unable to find any records of individual children prior to that date. Nothing at all—which is really amazing and very unfortunate.

Senator FIFIELD —Mr Hoyles, in relation to records, are you saying that an individual should have the right to tick a box and say, ‘I do not want my records released,’ and if someone failed to elect that option then those records would be available if the family sought them, or are you advocating that there be more of a general restriction on access to records?

Mr Hoyles —The child migrants that we talked to were of the view that it should be more of an opt-in, rather than an opt-out, so that if they want their records to be released to their children then they can ask for them. We have an open file policy: they can have their own record in its entirety, warts and all—no problem. But if they want to give a copy to their children then they could put something on the file that says, ‘I want my children to have a copy,’ or they can get a copy and give it to their children. Rather than tick a box if they do not want it released, they went the other way, which was tick a box if they want it released.

Senator FIFIELD —I am sure this will be an extremely difficult question to answer: to what extent do you think the people we are talking about change their life history? I guess all of us to some extent put a particular spin on our early years, but to what extent do you think there is a greater augmentation of one’s past?

Mr Hoyles —I have been personally faced with a situation of having to deliver a eulogy at a funeral and having to make a decision about whether I used the information from the published account of the person’s life—

Senator FIFIELD —The authorised version.

Mr Hoyles —The authorised version—or the version that was on their file. I chose on that occasion to lie and use the published version that they had given because I did not feel that a funeral was an appropriate place to be open and honest with the alternative.

Senator FIFIELD —Let me introduce you to the other—

Mr Hoyles —Some of the situations are very, very distressing. I have also had a situation where a client asked me to release their file, while he was still alive, to his son, and I had to ring up the client and say: ‘Look, I’m happy to release the file in its entirety. You do remember that you wrote to us after you had had a fight with your son and struck him out of your will and left everything to Barnardos; would you like me to release that information to the son whom you are now obviously reconciled with? He said: ‘Oh, my God! I didn’t know that that would be on the file. Can you please take it out and destroy it,’ which I did. We are faced with very unusual circumstances. I cannot put a quantity on it; I can tell you about the ones from my 20-odd years with Barnardos aftercare that stick in my mind. I have recorded details of some of those in the submission. I have to say that I have changed a few of the little details because, obviously, I do not want people who were mentioned in those to be able to identify themselves or the relatives that they were asking about.

Senator FIFIELD —It raises the interesting question of which is the higher virtue—truth or kindness.

Mr Hoyles —Absolutely. Yes.

Mr Hercus —Many of the files will reveal things that the people do not know, such as misspellings of names or birth dates that are wrongly recorded. A lot of people have been labouring under misapprehensions for years and years—all their lifetime—and only when they get their files do they discover some of those things. The more troubling ones are things like when they discover that the father they thought they had was not their father—that it was somebody else’s name that they had been walking under all this time. So the importance of the files and the records is really vital.

CHAIR —There is an ongoing debate in this committee, as in many others, about the issue of privacy, how you handle the privacy laws as they are legislated at state and federal levels and these issues. It is one where is no clear answer. We have had a significant number of submissions talking about the fact that, when people do access their documents, whole chunks are blacked out. If you are a sibling, there is the horror of only finding out that you have siblings very late—or never finding out because that is stuff that has been blacked out because it is not something that you have a right to know. I am interested in whether you have any comments on that from your points of view, because frankly it is something that we struggle with not just in this inquiry but in many that this committee does. I find myself arguing with myself about the right answers, but it is an issue that is absolutely paramount in many of the submissions we have from people who have been through the care process and also from their children: what happens then, the whole area of how you effectively balance privacy provisions with records and also whether there should be, and whether there can be, another way of handling it—whether you have a subset under the law. It is interesting. I am keen to know whether you have any solution to these things.

Mr Hoyles —In the files that we hand out to the people who the file is about, we would never delete anything now. In the past, Barnardos UK used to send us files with names et cetera of third parties blanked out. Those were the only ones that we never photocopied, because if you hold them up to the light you can read the name underneath.

CHAIR —Of course, yes.

Ms Michaux —This is a really difficult area. There is the idea of having some guiding principles, federal or state based, but it is important to have a kind of flexible, grounded approach to each individual who is approaching the service so that they can navigate through the reveal of the file sensitively with that person. That is very hard to put into policies and processes, but I think there are ways to use benchmarks and guides and then have a very flexible grounded approach.

I would be very concerned if those processes were handled by perhaps bureaucrats who were very far removed from knowing about the particular organisation that the person went through, which is a bit like what Janet was saying. I do not know that there is a blanket approach to this, but it is just that the core values around compassion and respect and the ability for organisations to be very flexible and understanding—

Ms Henegan —I think there has to be a single federal body that regulates this with flexibility underneath. So many past care leavers have felt less than. There should be the whole concept of the federal government getting behind standardising practice and then practising with compassion underneath.

CHAIR —I have not seen many laws that have that written in. I have not seen many bills that have ‘with compassion’. I wish there were.

Mr Hercus —There is nothing more hurtful than to get a file with big blanked out pages.

CHAIR —Yes, that has been mentioned so many times.

Mr Hercus —Inevitably, you are going to ask: ‘What are they hiding from me? What aren’t they telling me?’ It would almost be better not to get the file at all than to get the blanked out thing. This then raises the question of the delivery of the file to forgotten Australians. It is vitally important that someone in a position of authority within the organisation and with a counselling background preferably takes responsibility for walking the person through what they are looking at. Very often the documents are dated and not very clear. You can get a lot of misapprehension and misunderstanding arising simply out of misreading the thing unless someone can tell you the context and tell you what it is about.

Ms Michaux —They are very judgmental too. Often the judgments are quite stark.

CHAIR —Some of the adjectives used are bad.

Mr Hercus —Particularly the descriptions of why parents are giving up their child can be extremely harsh.

CHAIR —Or descriptions of behaviours that have occurred. This whole record stuff has been so important. I am interested in your view about whether that kind of support is provided as an option to individuals. Barnardos talks about the extraordinary efforts done to support people in getting their records which were, if not unwelcome, at least unnecessary. Yet another submission talks about the fact that they consider the process, as you have mentioned Mr McCallum working through it, as being a leaflet put in the mail with your request. There is a wide spectrum of how you do that. Each of you has been working in this area. Do you have views about how that kind of support should be provided? Given the fact that our Senate inquiry said that there should be this support and given it is on the record that it is a very sensitive and difficult time for most people to see these things, what is the responsibility of the people providing the records? What kind of support should be given and in what way?

Mr Hercus —I think in an ideal world you would have the past provider making sure that this was being delivered in a compassionate and caring manner. But, given that quite a large number of the past providers no longer exist and that a lot of the forgotten Australians will not have anything to do with the past provider—they do not want to darken their doorstep ever again—you have a number of intractable problems there. Probably the only way to manage this is through some external agency. Whether that is governmental or some sort of non-government agency that was appointed by government and financed by government is a matter to be resolved. But, as we were saying earlier, it needs to have compassion and all of these values written into its DNA before you get it off the ground—really, before forgotten Australians will trust it, will come and talk to it.

Mr Kennedy —In our situation, where we are a quite small group, we do not have the resources. What we have chosen to do—and it may have been taken up once or twice—was to draw on the resources of the Child Migrants Trust, who do have the professional assistance. If we felt that there were things in a file about which the applicant really needed some counselling, we would refer the applicant to the Child Migrants Trust to get that help if they felt they needed it.

CHAIR —Before they have access to their records?

Mr Kennedy —Yes, or along with the records. We would try and make some arrangement where, when they receive the records, there is assistance available to them immediately. But the only way we could see around it, because we did not have the human resources ourselves, was to draw on an organisation like the Child Migrants Trust.

Mr Hoyles —We have done a whole variety of things. I would probably refer to some of the cases I have mentioned. The gold prospector who lived in the remote area outside of Kalgoorlie, when I spoke to him on the phone, said, ‘I don’t want you to waste your money coming out here.’ When I said, ‘Well, maybe we could get somebody locally who would be able to talk you through it—a GP or somebody. We could send the file to them,’ he was absolutely adamant that he did not want anybody locally knowing his history because it would be all around town and around the pubs within a week. He had the choice and he made his choice. We had another person who was close to the Daintree Rainforest. We happened to have an ex-staff member who had done a tree change and was working up there and lived an hour away from the person whose file we were sending. We asked them if they would like to have somebody deliver it personally who was known to us and reliable. They said yes. The feedback was very positive. There is a tyranny of distance in Australia. There is a lot of travelling.

Probably the most difficult one for me was where I had to deliver a file—and I chose to take a female colleague with me—to a lady who I knew was going to be extremely distressed by the contents. Basically the file said that she had been responsible for the suicide of her mother. I had to turn up at her house and knock on the door. I had arranged for the female staff member to stay around in the area for the next two or three days if necessary. When we got there, the reaction we got was totally unexpected, which was that she knew it all, she had had a psychiatrist given to her at the time. Basically, she said she had not in fact been responsible. The story in the file was incorrect. It was her brother. She had reconciled herself to the fact that her mother had a mental illness. We literally handed her her file, we spent a couple of hours there talking about it, and then we left. Those are the circumstances.

CHAIR —The whole range.

Mr Hoyles —Yes. Yes, we do sometimes send the files through the post. Usually it is after conversation with the person and their agreement that if they want to read it through then talk to somebody then they can talk to somebody. Or we talk them through some of the aspects of the file in advance so that they know what to expect.

Ms Henegan —I have one last comment on that. I think that the option of counselling and support is really important. But there needs to be a real understanding of how accessible the file is to the client—not to assume literacy, not to assume that the processes will be understood. So there need to be options for support, but the support needs to be made as accessible as possible.

Senator FARRELL —I am interested in Mr Hercus’s comments about the role of the federal government in all of this. I wondered whether anybody else had any particular views about what the federal government should be doing vis-a-vis the states to try and get some coordinated approaches. Would anybody else like to express a point of view?

Mr McCallum —In general?

Senator FARRELL —Yes.

Mr McCallum —The issue you raised, the privacy issue, is a real one. There are three divisions to privacy, I think. The first is where people own their information retrospectively and have a right to it. The second is what information about people’s lifestyles is accessible to people in the here and now. That is the one that confronts the new national child protection agenda around the passing of information and surveillance across state boundaries and those sorts of things. Then you have the nuances of understanding the difference between the need to know and making people public property for no good reason. If you go down the UK way, where now you can go from birth to death, you will have a file on every kid born in Britain. Inadvertently, in some senses—a lot of the population do not know about it—schools can access things that we would not normally regard as being appropriate.

Because we are a federation, because there are state boundaries, the federal government has to have uniform oversight of those privacy issues and what is and is not allowed in that regard. But it is a vexed question because you know that people fall through cracks, when vital information is not passed on but when inadvertently passing it on is detrimental and a contravention of someone’s rights. It is very clear, more clear in retrospect, that people own their history. If someone is a repository of that history they own it. Our job is to make sure that it is conveyed to them as compassionately and with every support as is possible, and we need to be aware of that. It is more difficult when you are talking about the here and now and what needs to happen in future around necessary surveillance of aspects of people’s lives. But you cannot have eight different ways of doing it.

Mr Hoyles —For me, the issue is whether you want to have eight battles or one battle. I fear that every state will have its own agenda, every state will have its own plans as to how it would like to go, and if every state takes the amount of time that it has taken for the implementation of some of these recommendations the chances are that you will never get anywhere, whereas if you have one federal government that provides one comprehensive service and one comprehensive reparation fund perhaps we would actually get some action.

Mr Hercus —One of the issues that is inherent in a lot of this is about the records themselves. Sadly, most of them are getting old and are starting to deteriorate, and the storage and maintenance of those is becoming really urgent. I applied last year—I have applied twice now—to the National Library for a grant that they provide for the preservation of records but was unsuccessful because those records would not be publicly available. They were going to be restricted and yet they were obviously records that were vitally important to the individuals, who did need to access them. The National Library took the view that it was not their deal, but it is not really anybody else’s either. There is nobody out there who can say how these things should be kept and in what sort of order, what sort of copying processes are going to be used and so on. So, sadly, there is stuff that is literally being eaten by rats and silverfish and is becoming yellow and indecipherable as we talk.

CHAIR —We had a flood that wiped out every record in Queensland.

Senator FARRELL —Mr Kennedy, did you want to say something?

Mr Kennedy —We have the same problem. Again, as a council we have wrestled with what we are going to do about our records, because they are deteriorating. We have them in filing cabinets in our office. In the UK, the Fairbridge organisation has taken the step of handing the records over to a university. They are part of that university’s archival system, and people who want to access information from those records have to go to the university and go through the processes. There are guidelines for release and those sorts of things. We have thought about a similar sort of thing in our case. I do not know the answer, but I think it is an issue as to what we are going to do about these records, which in our case go back to the early 1930s. Some of the other organisations have records going much further back than that. It is an issue of preservation.

Senator FIFIELD —I think you said your records are held by the State Library.

Mr Hoyles —We have two sets of records. The first records are the Australian records, which are on paper and which are stored in a secure section of the Mitchell Library in proper archiving conditions in archive boxes. They are retrievable and photocopiable, apart from the problem that a lot of them are written on foolscap paper and you have to photocopy every one of those onto A3 paper, not A4; otherwise you lose half of the document. We have all of our files for Barnardos Australia in the Mitchell Library on paper. Barnardos UK have 300,000 files on microfilm that were microfilmed 1975. The microfilm is degrading and the quality is being lost and Barnardos UK are either unwilling or cannot afford to transcribe every one of those back onto paper, so the record there of child migrants prior to their migration to Australia is deteriorating very badly. One only has to go on the website and read accounts by child migrants in England, in particular, of their disappointment when they got files which were produced from the microfilm—we are not talking microfiche, which is much more stable—and the fact that they find it very difficult to read them. If you compare that to the files that we have, which in many cases are written in blue ink on green paper as the carbon copy, we can produce a good quality copy in most instances. As I said, all of them are stored in a secure area of the Mitchell Library. We have had problems. One of the issues at one stage was that the Mitchell Library had agreed to store them but had not agreed to be searching them for records and giving them back to us. They suggested it might be better if we took all of those files back and stored them ourselves, but we declined the offer.

Senator FIFIELD —What is the actual agreement with the Mitchell Library? Have they agreed to take them because of their historical significance, or do you have to make some small contribution to them?

Mr Hoyles —The former—that is, they have agreed to store them for their historical value. What we have now agreed is that any file that we retrieve from the Mitchell Library we will not return to the Mitchell Library. We now store them in our own archive in our head office, but obviously the number of files that we are retrieving is diminishing as people get older.

Senator FIFIELD —But what you take they will never take back again—is that the deal?

Mr Hoyles —That was the compromise that we managed.

CHAIR —My understanding is that many of your member organisations have made apologies. There has been an acknowledgement by Barnardos; has Fairbridge made an apology?

Mr Kennedy —We have.

CHAIR —Senator Gary Humphries, who is on this committee but somewhere else today, has been asking about whether people think a national apology, as per the original recommendation, is a good idea and also whether a national apology that is not linked to any form of reparation loses equality, getting to the question of whether it is enough to just have apologies. We have had a number of submitters make comment about the quality of the methodology of the New South Wales state government apology. I think the wording is very powerful, but there have been some concerns raised about the methodology and how the apology was presented. That has been in a number of submissions we have received in New South Wales. If you would care to make comment on that, it would be useful. If not, I am interested in your views about a national apology. A couple of your submissions say that you think it is a good idea, though not all because of the focus you took in your submissions. If you would like to make a comment on an apology, I would be happy to take it.

Mr Kennedy —When I say an apology, we made a recognition that the past practices could have been very harmful to some people. The issue we have grappled with is: how do we make that recognition more generally available? We do not have a website, but that is one of the things that we are actively considering at the moment. For a variety of reasons—not only for that—we should have a website. I think the Benevolent Society’s was the one that I particularly saw. It seemed to attract me in the way it was shown on their website. That is the sort of thing we are trying to work through at the moment.

CHAIR —Nothing on the New South Wales one, Mr Kennedy?

Mr Kennedy —Not really, no.

Mr Hoyles —When the stolen generation received their apology, all of our head office staff gathered in front of the television. We had staff who are not Indigenous who had tears in their eyes. I think that the nature of an apology, and the public nature of that apology, is what is important to everybody. Yes, it would be good if it were tied to reparations, but the fact is that nobody has apologised publicly in the same way, and a number of child migrants and former residents of children’s homes have likened their situation to that of the stolen generation and said, ‘It’s happened—that’s good—but what about us?’ I think it needs to be a very public apology in a gallery where there are representatives of organisations and individuals who have been through that experience, with a gathering outside of hundreds of others. That whole scenario that there was with the stolen generations needs to be repeated. I have no comment about the New South Wales one.

Ms Henegan —I agree. I think it is essential that the profound impact on children leaving care has to be apologised for nationally. You need to acknowledge what has happened. I think that the apology would be validated by a reparation scheme which really understands what people went through, but it is a good starting point.

Ms Michaux —Ditto. Obviously, as an organisation we are supporting a national apology and, as I said earlier, especially in relation to the profound impact I think the apology to the stolen generations had. So it is not just for the forgotten Australians, though they are central to it—it is their families—but it is all of us as a community recognising that there needs to be a healing process. I have talked about a national reparation scheme. Tying it to an apology might mean the apology does not happen, which would concern me, so I do not think they should be tied together. In the New South Wales apology I think we missed out on an opportunity to have a ceremony, a coming together and a sharing of the grief, an opportunity to start to heal. So I think it was disappointing—not the wording but the way it was done, without that opportunity for people to gather.

Mr Hercus —An apology is important symbolism, and the symbolism was completely lost in the New South Wales case. It was a hole in the wall, late at night, with nobody there. There was a minimum amount of attention and publicity. It came across as something that was being done so as to appear to have been doing the right thing and for no other reason. The symbolism, unless it is accompanied by real action and activity, remains that. It remains a puff of air. So a federal apology needs to be accompanied by significant action. Otherwise, it will lose its value. In the case of the stolen generations, the apology was accompanied by significant action and was seen by the public as being part of a bigger picture, and that is why it gained such wide acceptance. For these 500,000 people, an apology is desperately needed.

The federal government could take a line that said: ‘It was a state matter, so leave it to the states to deal with. We’re bailing out of this.’ But, frankly, we are a nation and it needs to be covered by the nation. It is a national issue that needs to be dealt with nationally. So a combination of the importance of the symbolism and the importance of doing something about it is the basis of everything that we have said so far today. The Forgotten Australians report, if it remains with its recommendations unactioned, remains just empty symbolism; but with meat on the bones, then suddenly it has real power and effect across the community. So, yes, I think the apology is important, but it must be accompanied by real action, by real activity.

Mr McCallum —I know that last week when the forgotten Australians met they had Reconciliation Australia there and I think they were talking along the lines that, yes, the apology is important. Personally, it is a vexed question for me because I think we sometimes grab onto these symbolisms and they becomes trite. I often say: what’s a new way we can do welcome to country that doesn’t actually mean, ‘Okay, find someone, get them up there to give the welcome the country, that bit’s done, move on’? We find now in child welfare conferences that we have to have young people’s participation somewhere. It was good to start with, now it is actually becoming: ‘Oh, God, it’s on the agenda! How do we get young people’s participation?’

We have to be very careful that we do not devalue what we are trying to achieve through the process, where it becomes a case of everything revolving around a national apology and we have speech writers in the Prime Minister’s office who are actually in a national apology department, writing all the national apologies. I think it has to really speak to the people who want it, and the nation has to know why we are apologising to this group of people. I do not think it is an issue that has a great deal of currency out there, so there has to be a backdrop that says: ‘This is important nationally to us.’ So they are the covenants, and I would not like to see it get in the way of reparation, which I mean in the sense of the support services especially that are needed across the board. I do not think we want to tie them together, because if one is contingent on the other neither of them will happen. They are my dilemmas about how you actually get the next apology to be as profound as the last one.

CHAIR —Absolutely. Thank you so much. If there is anything we have not touched on because of the limits of time or something that you think we need to know, be in contact with us about it by the end of May so that it contributes to our deliberations because this report is due to be handed down in the Senate at the end of June. Thank you again. We are now going to the CLAN museum before resuming the hearing to take further evidence.

Proceedings suspended from 12.38 pm to 1.53 pm