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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 our next witness, Mr Frank Quinlan of Catholic Social Services Australia. You are very experienced with committees, so you know about parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses. I invite you to make an opening statement, and then we will get into questions.

Mr Quinlan —Thank you and, on behalf of Catholic Social Services Australia, thanks for the opportunity to appear today. As some of you will be aware, Catholic Social Services Australia has three main functions: (1) it provides advice to the Australian Catholic bishops on matters pertaining to the social services sector; (2) it is the church’s peak body for the delivery of social services, with 66 member organisations across the country; and (3) it provides a voice for the poor, the marginalised and the disadvantaged on all matters to do with social services in Australia. I should note that, although we are in contact with care leavers across a wide range of our services, in my evidence today I intended to focus on some specific initiatives that we have taken in response to the Senate inquiry as it relates to records and access to records.

In response to the recommendations made in the previous Senate committee inquiry report, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference established the Senate Inquiry Action Group. This group was comprised of experts from a range of areas, including experts in providing services to care leavers, those in records management and those in church organisations. The group commissioned Catholic Social Services Australia to undertake a national project to identify the extent, location and access arrangements for care-leaver records held by the church, its agencies and ministries, and the best models for the future support of care leavers by the Catholic Church.

The project aims to consult with past providers, care-leaver organisations, care leavers themselves and others to determine where records relating to children who were in care with Catholic organisations are held; which church agencies are currently involved in providing services to care leavers; what might be considered best practice in the delivery of such services, both inside and outside church organisations; how access to support services might be improved in each state; and what national response could be undertaken to promote this best practice.

I will come to the scale of this project shortly, but I do want to emphasise the difficulty of this task for our project officer, Ms Jenny Glare from MacKillop Family Services, given the very diverse nature of church organisations and the length of time since many organisations were involved in care.

To date, around 45 consultations have been held, either face to face or via telephone, with organisations and religious orders that currently hold records relating to the care of children in some of the Catholic run institutions from the 1840s right through to the 1980s. Consultations have also been held, though in a limited way, with some care-leaver organisations and individual care leavers. The project has identified some 140 Catholic run homes and orphanages. Most of these institutions no longer exist today, though some have evolved into new organisations. Although the final report is not complete, I am pleased to be able to provide you with that list as part of my evidence today.

Across the Catholic Church in Australia, the issue of records relating to children who were in institutional care was first addressed in a systematic way with the 1999 publication A piece of the story. This directory was the culmination of a two-year project, initially as a response to the recommendations contained in the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s Bringing them home report into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families. In the early stages of the project, a decision was made to broaden the scope of the directory to include all organisations that had been involved in caring for children rather than the initial brief of a directory of organisations that had provided care for Aboriginal children.

A piece of the story is a directory of the location of records across Australia, a description of the holdings and a description of how to access the records. The directory is acknowledged as an excellent resource for people who were in care and who are now searching for records. It is, however, in need of revision and updating. Since the publication of A piece of the story, there has been a growing awareness of the importance of accessing records as a means for people who grew up in care to understand and validate their childhood history, to reconnect to their family of origin and to answer important questions relating to their sense of identity and wellbeing.

While there has been a growing awareness of the importance of identifying and preserving records, this has not, as yet, been matched by a systematic policy and practice of records management development across the Catholic Church and its various agencies and religious congregations to ensure that people who grew up in care have access to appropriate services and supports later in life—and this is what the current project hopes to achieve. What we are finding in this current consultative phase is that a range of policies and procedures exist in relation to the location of records, the storage of records, access to and release of records, support around the release of records—I might just note there for both care leaders and providers of care. Release of records is part of a range of support services and the provision of support services separate to the release of records, and I will come back to that in a moment.

What we are also gathering are examples of best practice across all areas, such as the comprehensive name index for children from Britain and Malta who were sent to Catholic homes in Australia under the child migrants scheme—the personal history index, or PHIND. This index was originally established across Catholic children’s homes in Western Australia as an initiative of the Christian Brothers, the Sisters of Mercy and the Sisters of Nazareth. PHIND has now been extended to provide a comprehensive listing of the names of all children who came to Catholic homes in all states of Australia under various child migrant schemes. The production of PHIND was sponsored by the religious orders and diocese and agencies that received the children from Britain and Malta. I will spare you the long list, but it is the Christian Brothers, the Sisters of Mercy and a range of other religious organisations.

There is also the work of the heritage and information service of MacKillop Family Services, which has developed a computerised database containing more than 150,000 entries of the names of children who came to its eight homes. I have also listed those; I will spare you the reading of the list. The project to enter the names into the database took more than two years to complete and was funded by the Christian Brothers, the Sisters of Mercy and the Sisters of St Joseph. This database has greatly improved the service provided to people searching for records. Regarding the provision of support services separate to the release of records, there are several examples of best practice, including the Christian Brothers’ Ex-Residents and Student Services, known as CBERSS, in Western Australia. This was originally established through the Christian Brothers to provide counselling and support for former child migrants. It does not hold records relating to the homes and orphanages, but does apply on behalf of people who were in care to access these record holdings from agencies in Western Australia. The CBERSS model of service provision relates to four main areas: reunification with separated families, individual and family counselling, financial assistance and adult literacy programs.

In Brisbane the services operating from the Lotus Place grew out of the Micah projects at St Mary’s church in South Brisbane. Lotus Place is effectively a one-stop shop with the Forde Foundation, the Historical Abuse Network, the Aftercare Resource Centre, Relationships Australia and the advocate for ex-gratia payments based at the centre. The Sisters of Mercy, Rockhampton congregation, have developed a model of practice around a response worker who is in fact an external contractor. This experienced worker was employed following disclosures of abuse at the Neerkol orphanages. This worker provides support to people at the time of their contact with the congregation.

While this national project is yet to be finalised, the following principles upon which the church’s response should be built are starting to emerge. The exact design of services needs to be developed in conjunction with care leavers and advocacy groups. Care leavers have clearly expressed a preference for services that are not laden with cumbersome application procedures to access records. Services to people who are in care need to be staffed by people who are highly skilled and experienced and professionally trained, with some kind of social work or similar qualification. There is a role for archivists and people with records management training, but not necessarily in the role of face-to-face engagement with care leavers. Great care must also be taken in the preparation of records. When copies of records are being made, it is important to reproduce the records in a way that is as close to original as possible. Organisations providing services to people who are in care need to be well resourced and workers need to be supported through supervision and training.

It is important to acknowledge this is an important piece of work in its own right; it is due to report before May of this year and is in its final stages. But it is also important as a means of educating records, guardians and managers within church organisations of the importance of their work and the importance of unified approaches. It is also a concrete contribution to those seeking information, both now and in the future. I would be pleased to provide further information about it, as it comes. I would just point out that the list of the organisations—it is three pages—has been quite an historical unpicking. As some of you would be aware, the church, despite the appearance of a perfect hierarchy from outside, is largely a federation of fairly independent organisations, so the business of tracking it down to one place has been important and I hope it is a valuable contribution to those seeking access to records in the future.

Senator FIFIELD —Mr Quinlan, I appreciate that the church is much more decentralised than some may think, that its command and control structures are not of a military nature, necessarily. I am wondering whether, apart from those logistical difficulties, there was any resistance from organisations to providing records and accounting for the location of records?

Mr Quinlan —No, not at all really. Not to call it resistance, the problems are really around the practical barriers that are encountered in relation to that, the fact that records are stored in a variety of manners and a variety of security, from boxes right through to computer databases. I think our project worker encountered a great willingness to improve the state of the records held by the church. I think there is also an increasing recognition, as many of the guardians of those records are themselves growing older, and their orders and organisations clearly have less and less capacity to maintain appropriate guardianship over those records into the future, that it is the responsibility of the church to ensure that those records are preserved for future generations. Many care leavers come to those records at various stages in their lives. Sometimes it is late in their life and sometimes it is never, and their children and their children’s children may well be the ones who come to those records. It is fair to say that there is an increasing awareness of the importance of ensuring that those records are preserved and maintained in a manner that will give people access in the future.

Senator FIFIELD —So Catholic Social Services, on behalf of the church, has prepared the register or the directory of where records are held, but the records are still held by the particular orders and institutions.

Mr Quinlan —For the most part, yes. There has been some trend towards offering custodianship for some of those organisations, so some organisations are beginning to centralise the record. But the project is also developing, as I indicated, a national plan for how those sorts of records could perhaps be consolidated or even managed via a distributed network.

Senator FIFIELD —Is there a common church-wide access policy, or does the policy for access vary between each institution?

Mr Quinlan —No, there is not, and frankly that is one of the issues that we have attempted to identify and the work has really only confirmed the diversity of the access arrangement. It is fair to say that there is general goodwill in relation to ensuring that people have access to records, but also a growing awareness that goodwill really needs to have applied to it some very clear standards and processes and arrangements to ensure that people are getting not just access to the records but perhaps access to the appropriate support services and so on that might be needed at the time at which they are gaining access to those records.

Senator FIFIELD —So, a care leaver’s experience would vary from institution to institution; some would have a more satisfactory experience than others.

Mr Quinlan —Certainly.

Senator FIFIELD —Overlaying all that, the Catholic Church does have a process for people who know that they were abused in a particular institution. Are you able to take us through that? I appreciate that it is probably not something that Catholic Social Services Australia administers.

Mr Quinlan —No. I can undertake to provide you with the detailed arrangements for that. It is through the Towards Healing Process—that is what it is known as. That process is currently being reviewed but it does lay out the processes and procedures not just for care leavers but for any people who have suffered abuse at the hands of church institutions or representatives of the church.

Senator FIFIELD —What part of the church administers that process?

Mr Quinlan —The professional standards group, I think it is called.

Senator FIFIELD —Would, on occasion, your organisation be the first point of contact for a care leaver who says, ‘Look, this happened to me’? Do you have a referral role?

Mr Quinlan —We generally do not. Remember, we are a peak organisation. Many of our member organisations are providing direct social services of a pretty diverse nature and care leavers, given their past experience, are often uses of those services. Many, for range of reasons, choose not to avail themselves of the services that are on offer from the church. They will often come to that through another vehicle. But those who approach our services would certainly be assisted to access that process.

Senator FIFIELD —I guess there would be a church-wide protocol for referral.

Mr Quinlan —Yes, that is right. I can provide you with the full details of that. It is quite a clear process that is accessible to people even before they access the church. It is quite widely available.

Senator FARRELL —Thank you, Mr Quinlan, for coming in and talking about the good work that you are doing in this area. From your report it seems that a lot of progress has been made in Western Australia. Is that fair to say? They seem to be the most advanced?

Mr Quinlan —Yes, that seems to be so. Some of that did come out of the work that had been done in and around child migrants in particular. That provided a model for some of the sorts of access that work well. The work of the Heritage Centre at MacKillop Family Services also has important examples of good practice.

Senator FARRELL —How far advanced are you in getting all of this information? Is it halfway through or what?

Mr Quinlan —It is quite well down the track. It has been quite a long and difficult process to track down that many organisations and to track down their various records holdings. As I said, that has involved something like 45 interviews with archivists and others holding those records. It is really quite a long way down the track and I would expect that group to be reporting before May this year.

Senator FARRELL —Is there going to be a central database?

Mr Quinlan —What this report is doing as it is approaching and identifying those records is actually planning the approach to the database. The sense is that it is likely that some kind of distributed network is going to have to be developed with a single point of entry. So rather than saying all of the records have to be consolidated in one place, the general view seems to be to provide a single access point or a standardised access point to a database that can then point people towards those various records holdings and a set of processes that ensures that when people are accessing those various records holdings the appropriate standards for access, support and so on are maintained.

Senator FARRELL —There might be reasons other than those we have been dealing with in this committee that somebody would like access to that information.

Mr Quinlan —Sure.

Senator FARRELL —What sort of criteria would you expect to be using to get access to this information?

Mr Quinlan —There would be a raft of access points. The principal driver for the access, though, would be the consideration that this is a resource for care leavers and so it would respect the dignity and privacy and so on of care leavers. As I said, it is also true that as time passes it will be more and more the families of care leavers and others who wish to get access to records. Also, as part of the project Miss Glare has encountered people who were actually care providers who are seeking access to information about the work that they have done. Part of what a national standard would do would be to lay out appropriate standards and policies for access to those records, which, frankly, vary currently from institution to institution.

Senator FARRELL —I come from South Australia. How many institutions are you looking at in South Australia?

Mr Quinlan —I cannot give you that number. I am happy to take it on notice and get back to you.

Senator FARRELL —One of the previous speakers today pointed out that in my maiden speech I referred to my former employer who had been educated in an orphanage in South Australia. It suddenly dawned on me that I do not know which one it was. Perhaps this information might be able to provide that to me.

Mr Quinlan —Sure.

CHAIR —Mr Quinlan, you did mention staff. One of the things that has been of issue over the years with Catholic institutions is the staffing and records of who was at an institution at a certain time. That has come up as a records issue. Is that one of the areas of records that you are looking at—the staffing?

Mr Quinlan —Not so much directly but things have come up for staff. In a sense I am cautious about talking about the needs of staff. I want to be clear that the focus of the work is and ought to be on the provision of services to care leavers. Nonetheless, there are staff who have been, I think it is fair to say, concerned about the abuse that some people suffered at the hands of some of their colleagues—for want of a better description. Part of this project has uncovered a certain sense of disappointment and shame that many of them feel at the way the spirit of their care, if you like, has been poisoned by the abuse that was conducted by others. This is just to note that one of the issues that have come out of this is ensuring that those people who were providers at the time of many of these events are rightfully acknowledged and respected. I think it is true to say the vast majority of them were providing a due standard of care for their time and their day.

CHAIR —It is also to ensure that there is no confusion about who were working there as part of an order or employed as cooks, gardeners or whatever. Certainly one of the issues we have come across is when people are trying to justify their own experiences they are referring to someone and there is no record that, for example, ‘Claire Moore’ was working at Nudgee orphanage between 1955 and 1958. It is seeing whether, in the records that are kept, there is that kind of detail which people are seeking.

Mr Quinlan —That is right. One of the difficulties is that the standard of records that we have today was not matched and has developed over time. So what we would expect as reasonable and sensible records today simply may not exist. That is a very unsatisfactory answer for the people that you are talking about. Nonetheless, we need to ensure that we have at least the best records of the information that is available so we can at least satisfy people as to what is available and what is not.

CHAIR —Would that also pick up—I doubt it would but this is just to fill out the whole thing—who were the spiritual advisers at an orphanage or a home? We have had evidence that the people who visited the home as spiritual advisers were often linked to the parish, which was not exactly the home. Would records show that between 1958 and 1959—

Mr Quinlan —I think they would be separate records. You would have separate records available for parishes and for the movement of people through.

CHAIR —We would have to put those together.

Mr Quinlan —Yes, I think you would have to put those together.

CHAIR —Are you aware of a project that is happening in Melbourne with the centre of excellence which is also using the Catholic University in Melbourne? We had evidence from them in Melbourne last week which looked at the data recordkeeping project that they are involved in. It is for Victoria only at this stage. It is trying to have an entity, be it an organisation, place or a person, linked into a database so that you would be able to have referral processes through there. Is that something you are aware of?

Mr Quinlan —I am not aware of the particular details of that but I think it is one of the challenges of this kind of project. People will need multiple channels to get access to various pieces of information. For obvious reasons, not everybody will want to approach the church for access to those church records. Appropriate liaison, protocols and so on with other databases and entry points for that data are an important part of the work.

CHAIR —There was evidence given this morning by Mr Murray. He has a particular view that any organisation that in previous time had been a provider of care should not be the keeper of the records. He argues that it should be the state that is the keeper of all records regardless of whether it was a state based institution or a church based or a privately based organisation. Your organisation would not have a view on that because it is not the kind of thing you do but it is a very interesting proposal that he put forward. He believes that because of the nature and the background people would not feel comfortable in going near a record that was maintained by the organisation that they felt had done them damage.

Mr Quinlan —I am not aware of the particular proposal so I do not want to speak against it or for it, except to say that, partly on experience with databases in a different world when I worked for the Australian Medical Association, my sense would be that the notion of a single central repository is seldom if ever achieved and seldom if ever the best or most efficient path. It will always be the case that states will hold particular records, churches will hold particular records and other organisations will hold particular records. Ensuring that the data standards and the protocols are appropriate for the movement of information between those various sources is more likely to be a realistic pathway to ensuring that people get appropriate access to records. That is not to say that institutions from time to time will not choose to hand over their records to a different custodian. Some religious orders are looking at substantially diminished numbers—many are, frankly, looking at wind-up arrangements and so on. So I imagine these are the sorts of decisions that some of those organisations will take over time.

CHAIR —Mr Murray’s evidence was given this morning. I know the person working on this project is particularly interested in this area. Perhaps she might like to have a look at the Hansard when it comes out.

Mr Quinlan —Sure.

CHAIR —My last question is to do with numbers. There is great interest now in trying to find out how many children were in care in Australia. The figures are very difficult to quantify. In your evidence you said you had found about 115,000.

Mr Quinlan —I believe the work in Victoria entered something like 115,000 into a database so the implication would be that the number is a lot higher than that. I would not like to make a guess at this stage. But some estimates will be possible from the work.

CHAIR —So when this is completed in May it might give us some idea. In our previous inquiry we put the figure at around 500,000 and that was very general. It is an enormous number but we are beginning to think that that could be conservative in terms of the kinds of numbers we have. So we will be really interested to get a handle on some idea of how many were in Catholic based institutions, which were a major provider. That would be a step towards getting an idea.

Mr Quinlan —Sure, and we are clearly happy to make it available. The further implication of that, though, is that for those 500,000 there are now an ever increasing number of family members and relatives and others. So the future needs and future demands on all of our systems around records management are likely to be quite demanding.

CHAIR —Are there any residential care services still being provided by the Catholic Church?

Mr Quinlan —Not on an institutional basis.

CHAIR —I would not have thought so, no.

Mr Quinlan —But there are various group homes and so on.

CHAIR —But there is no ongoing any larger care base anywhere in the country?

Mr Quinlan —Large orphanages? No, not that I am aware of.

CHAIR —Thank you very much. I am so pleased that we could get you to come.

Mr Quinlan —I am pleased to have had the opportunity to respond.

CHAIR —Are you putting that document you read out today in as a submission or are you happy to have it Hansard?

Mr Quinlan —I am happy to make an electronic copy available.

CHAIR —Thank you very much.

Proceedings suspended from 3.40 pm to 4.04 pm