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STANDING COMMITTEE ON COMMUNITY AFFAIRS
08/04/2009
Implementation of the recommendations of the Lost Innocents and Forgotten Australians reports

CHAIR —We now welcome Ms Margaret Humphreys and Mr Ian Thwaites from the Child Migrants Trust. I am sure you have the information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and if you require more information the secretariat can provide it for you. We have your submission. We invite either or both of you to make an opening statement and then we will go to questions. The senators are coming in and out because of other commitments, but as I said before the full Hansard will be followed by all senators, so that does not reflect the interest in the inquiry.

Ms Humphreys —We understand. Neither of us has prepared an opening statement, because in a sense we have written quite a thorough response to your questionnaire. We would just like to say that the trust has offices in Melbourne, Perth and in the United Kingdom, and both Mr Thwaites and I work right across those three offices. I spent quite a lot of time working in Australia and Mr Thwaites also spends quite a lot of time working in the UK. What I am trying to say is that we are one organisation. Even though we operate in two different countries and under different jurisdiction we try to have a seamless service.

Senator HUMPHRIES —Thank you for appearing today. I was not involved in the previous Senate inquiry. I came to the Senate afterwards, so as I am not as familiar with these issues as the senators that were originally involved or are presently involved. I am trying to get a picture of what happened with child migration. Today, how many people have you identified as former child migrants to Australia? I realise the term ‘child migrant’ is something of a misnomer. How many of them are in Australia today and how many do you have contact with?

Ms Humphreys —Mr Thwaites is the service manager and knows the current situation in terms of numbers.

Mr Thwaites —During the last inquiry there was information sought from each of the state governments to clarify exactly how many child migrants were sent to Australia, because it was one of the issues where there was no reliable information. The figure that most state governments are satisfied with now is about 7,000. The majority came in the post-war period, but it does actually start from 1914. It is very difficult to say how many of those people are still living today. Certainly, the trust is in contact presently with around 1,000 former child migrants and we have had contact with at least that number again and probably more over the past 20 years.

Senator HUMPHRIES —I am sorry, I did not catch that. Did you say that there are 1,000 child migrants you are touch with?

Mr Thwaites —Yes, currently.

Senator HUMPHRIES —Where does the other 1,000 come from?

Mr Thwaites —We are currently in contact with around 1,000 former child migrants, but over the past 20 years we have had contact with many others and probably at least that many.

Senator HUMPHRIES —It is a bit of a moving feast, as it were. I appreciate this is a very hard question to answer, but do you feel that the needs of this group that you have identified are growing, stable or diminishing with the number of people who have been able to make use of the family visit scheme?

Mr Thwaites —That is a complicated question and I can answer it in a number of ways. There has been a range of initiatives over the past few years that have brought people forward who perhaps would not have come forward otherwise. Many people have felt stigmatised by their past experience and by the whole label of ‘child migrant’ and so they have not come forward, but there have been other issues such as the redress schemes in the three states that have brought people forward. The travel fund, some years ago, brought people forward. Once they have come and asked for assistance to deal with that specific issue we have then been able to work with them around the full package of our core services, which is continuing.

The Western Australian state government redress scheme has brought many more people forward, as well as people that we have not seen for years who have now come in. In asking for assistance to prepare their statements for redress, it has also become very clear that there are still missing family members. Some people did not ask at the time for their families to be found and so we are now engaging with them in core service issues that will go far beyond the end of the redress scheme.

Senator HUMPHRIES —I am trying to get at what you see the nature of the workload of the Child Migrant Trust being over the next five or 10 years. Do you see it tailing off, sadly, as some of these child migrants die, or do you see it growing because of the issues that have been run through the media and so on that are bringing more people into a system that they previously had not been part of?

Ms Humphreys —As to what are the long-term needs, it is always complex. Meeting your family after 50 or 60 years is a very complex encounter and not just for the child migrants but for the families as well. Imagine being 50 years of age and you are suddenly told that you have a brother. Not only have you a brother whom you have been separated from, but the circumstances of that separation is horrendous. It is not just providing complex services for child migrants here; it is for their families as well. There can often be perhaps three members of a family or up to 10 members of a family. You are working at both ends. It is not just the demand for the service here, but at the other end with families as well, wherever those families are. They are not always in Britain. They are sometimes in Ireland or America. They can be anywhere in the world, so there are complexities there.

I should return to your core question, what are the long-term needs and numbers? I am afraid it is long-term, because the damage is so profound to the child migrants and their children, the next generation. It pains me to say that and it pains me to say that when child migrants are sitting behind me, but there are issues for their children, who are Australians in midlife. They are beginning to learn what happened to their mother and father, and for some it is the first time. To think that your dad, in particular, was subjected to horrendous abuse. I am not talking about abuse that we, in society, today have accepted goes on. We do not like it, but we know it goes on. We are talking about exceptional abuse and exceptional depravity. This is all coming about now for some people as they are moving into the end stage of their life, in their seventies and beyond. That is very complex and it is complex for their children. I raised that because the question was, in a sense, what are the longer term needs. There are long-term needs and they are quite complex. We should expect that after a scheme like this that really destroyed families, family life and community as we know it and would like it.

Senator HUMPHRIES —I will put this another way. Do you expect there is no rational basis to diminish the funding available to the Child Migrant Trust?

Ms Humphreys —Absolutely not. In fact, there is a strong argument for the funding to be increased and secured. I think not. We would tell you if it was any different. It would not give us pleasure to sit here and say, ‘These people require services for a very long time.’ We have provided services for 20 years. I would like to be here today saying, ‘We’ve done our work. Families have been reunited and that’s the end.’ Sadly, I cannot.

Senator HUMPHRIES —You are facilitating people to access the travel fund to make their visits. Do you think that the general experience is that such travel and such visits have been cathartic and positive? Are there many people for whom this has been a backward step in any sense?

Ms Humphreys —To answer the first part of your question, there is no travel fund in existence and there has not been for quite a long time. I just wanted to make that clear. There has not been a travel fund by the British or the Australian government since 2005. I will answer it that way. It does not exist.

Senator HUMPHRIES —I appreciate that. There is a suggestion, in some quarters, that it should be revived. The previous witnesses suggested that we should be ensuring access to it, so that is why it is a live question.

Ms Humphreys —Should there be a travel fund? There should, of course, be facilities for people under these circumstances to go home and meet their families. They are not here by choice. As far as our research goes, the majority of families did not give permission for their children to be sent to Australia or anywhere else. Under those circumstances I think people should be assisted to go home and meet their families.

What you were asking is whether reunions are successful for everybody or are there situations where it does not work. It is very hard to answer a question, ‘Are they successful?’, because in a sense it is what it means to each person and each family. I think I would like to answer it in this way. To know who you are, to move from darkness to light, is something quite special for this group of people. Things that we all take for granted, by and large, they do not. Is it beneficial? Of course, it is. To know who you are and to know where you have come from, to close your eyes for the first time in 50 years and be able to picture your mother or your father for the first time is quite something. On that level of course it is successful, but in terms of relationships, can we go back 50 or 60 years? Of course not, and that is why they are complex.

Senator HUMPHRIES —You do not recommend an extension of the travel fund. You recommend that we should address these issues through reparation.

Ms Humphreys —I think so. It would be another travel fund, and travel funds have restrictions. They impose limits. Of course they do. It is government money so they have to impose something. They impose deadlines and dates, which is quite hard. I would refer to 13 February 2008, which was quite a dramatic moral change in how we see historical abuse. I think that perhaps could lead forward to a reparation package that involves quite a few things. I suggest that could involve people making their own choices and their own decisions about whether they go back to family or not. It is quite hard for the government to impose those sorts of restrictions and deadlines. They have to do that, but unfortunately life is not like that for child migrants. We are dealing with a situation at the moment where somebody is going home on Sunday for the first time in 70 years. He missed the travel fund, because we could not find his family. We could not find his family because the agency that sent him out kept those details for 70 years. He could have met his mother during the travel fund.

CHAIR —Was it an internal agency decision to hold on to that for 70 years?

Ms Humphreys —We have had two inquiries, as you know. There was the British inquiry. We focussed years ago on records.

CHAIR —That is right. That was the bulk of your inquiry.

Ms Humphreys —The first inquiry was records, and then that drifted into the second inquiry because it was still not resolved. In this particular case it is someone that we have been working with for probably 18 years. In terms of the people that held his family records, we had case conferences, we involved the Irish, British and Australian governments, and we ourselves visited this institution on two occasions. The Irish lawyer subpoenaed information and it still was not given. Last December, for reasons unknown, a piece of paper like that was handed to one of my colleagues who went back for the last time to this institution and on the back was the name of the mother and the address, and that family still lived there and have never moved. His mother died during the period of these travel funds. He is going home on Sunday. I saw him just before I came here and he asked me to give you his name, but I think I probably will not. He asked me to tell you. He was refused use of the Australian travel fund, and he would have been refused with the British one as well, because as he said, ‘I couldn’t find a bloody grave.’ He did not want a grave. He wanted his mother. He was that mother’s only child.

CHAIR —The details of the original travel fund had a time limitation on it, did it not?

Ms Humphreys —Yes, they both did.

CHAIR —Did he actually apply to go home during that period?

Ms Humphreys —Yes. He could not use it the first time because his family was not found.

CHAIR —So, you had to have the linkage at home to use the travel fund?

Ms Humphreys —Yes.

CHAIR —He could not find that, through no fault of his own or the organisation. He has now found it, but because the terms of the original travel fund are over he cannot get support.

Ms Humphreys —No. That links in to feeling discriminated against and feeling unhappy. It really adds to the pain.

Senator HUMPHRIES —You have talked about the funding of the trust. I am aware that there is an offer on the table for some more money from the federal government at this stage or at least there is a negotiation going on where some money is likely to be available.

Mr Thwaites —We now have our funding for this current financial year until the end of June. It has now been negotiated after nine months without funding.

CHAIR —Nine months without it?

Mr Thwaites —We had no funding from July until March.

CHAIR —Do you now have funding until the end of June?

Mr Thwaites —Yes. It has been back paid to July, so we had a lump of cash that arrived, but after 1 July we are left with the correspondence that you have in front of you.

CHAIR —To start again?

Ms Humphreys —Yes, all the time.

Senator HUMPHRIES —I am aware that the correspondence from the Department of Immigration makes the suggestion that you might approach governments in a number of states, and they name some states, to seek funding. The South Australian government, in its submission to us, says that they provided $30,000 in 2001 for a three-year period but there was no subsequent funding requested after the end of that period of funding. Are you in discussion with state governments about funding the activities of the trust?

Ms Humphreys —I will hand that to Mr Thwaites, because he tended to deal with state governments.

Mr Thwaites —We have current funding arrangements with both the Western Australian state government and the Victorian state government. We have been unsuccessful in negotiating funding in New South Wales or in Queensland, despite concerted efforts over a long period.

During the 2001 Senate inquiry we were invited to put forward a business plan, which we did. It looked at a sustainable realistic model for providing national services for child migrants, given the concerns about time running out for this ageing group. Not only are their families ageing; the child migrants themselves are ageing. Of course, we have always been concerned about being available to provide our specialist independent services to people across Australia. We have only one office in Melbourne with one social worker and one office in Perth with one social worker, dealing with something like 1,000 plus people. That clearly leaves some gaps and forces us to prioritise every day.

We put forward a plan that involved a federal funding package supported by state governments. It seems clear, not surprisingly, that this issue is caught up between federal and state governments. The issue of children being in institutional care is seen as a state government responsibility. Children being deported to Australia is seen as a federal government issue. I do not know that it is for this agency to sort that out.

Senator HUMPHRIES —You say ‘sort that out’. Making an approach to a state government is not a matter of sorting it out. It is simply asking whether they will provide funding of the kind they have already provided. You know that they are capable of making a provision. The South Australian government said that you have not asked them for any money since 2004.

Mr Thwaites —I do not think that would be true. Perhaps I could provide some correspondence to you after this meeting. We certainly have made representations to state governments, South Australia included.

Senator HUMPHRIES —You have approached them for money?

Mr Thwaites —Yes, we have.

Senator HUMPHRIES —They are appearing before us later this morning so I intend to ask them about this.

Mr Thwaites —I can provide the details of our contact when we approached for funding.

Ms Humphreys —In terms of state governments historically it has been very difficult for the trust. Many years ago I had meetings with state directors and forums for discussion, and they have always felt very strongly that this was a federal government issue. Of course, that has changed a little in Western Australia, which has been quite supportive. Many states truly believe that this is an issue that the federal government should pick up. It is quite difficult when we try to negotiate funding in various states. Victoria and New South Wales have been notoriously difficult.

Senator BOYCE —The states are quite good at thinking lots of things are federal government issues when it involves money. I guess coordination has never been one of their strong points. I wanted to check up on one particular point that you mentioned.

Mr Thwaites —I would like to add one point to the last issue in terms of state governments and that relates to Victoria, from which we receive $30,000 annually. We have attempted to have that increased to a more realistic level to at least cover the salary and on-costs for one social worker. The argument that has come back all the time is that there were only about 400 child migrants sent to Victoria so it is not a big issue. I would have thought that 400 people would be more than one social worker’s caseload.

Senator BOYCE —As you know, we are also inquiring into Australian children who were put into institutions. We have had evidence that if you move interstate you strike serious issues in trying to get any sort of assistance, because it comes down to which state should be doing something about it and who has got the funding and so on. Have you struck problems like that or is there an argument that having a national focus is helpful to you?

Mr Thwaites —Yes. In terms of state governments, we have found that when we provide statistics of the number of people that we are providing services to, there is only interest in the people that were sent to institutions in that state.

Senator BOYCE —Would you be able to give us a list state-by-state of the number of people that you are providing services to?

Mr Thwaites —Yes, I can.

Senator BOYCE —That would be useful information for us to have. In your submission you talked about some former child migrants who returned to the UK as adults who are now unable to reside in Australia. Is that situation still going on, how many people are involved, and what needs to be done to rectify that?

Ms Humphreys —It does not involve many people. It is only about five.

Senator BOYCE —Are these people who have perhaps returned to the UK in their thirties or forties before the whole deal was sorted out?

Mr Thwaites —In the 1970s.

Senator BOYCE —Yes. It was before the citizenship issue was addressed. They went back to the UK and now have great difficulty getting back into Australia.

Senator BOYCE —If they had remained here they would have been able to become citizens.

Ms Humphreys —Yes, Australian citizens, of course.

Senator BOYCE —Are they actively asking you to assist them with this?

Ms Humphreys —What they are doing is asking for that to be dealt with. They see it as very unfair, which in a sense it is. They came here as very young children. They spent all their formative years here. They believe that they should be able to come back here as Australian citizens, given the circumstances of their arrival in this country.

Senator BOYCE —Presumably not everyone who went back would seek to become an Australian citizen.

Ms Humphreys —We would not necessarily know that. We would only know that if they came to us and they were specifically asking that question. I think it is a very small number.

Senator BOYCE —Do you have a sense of how many?

Ms Humphreys —I think it is less than five. In each case, at the moment, we would have to assist in a special individual kind of submission and pleading, presenting the circumstances. I do not think that we are doing that for anyone at the moment, are we?

Mr Thwaites —Not at the moment. We certainly have in the past two years. We have explored it for three people.

Senator BOYCE —What was the response?

Mr Thwaites —We got nowhere.

Ms Humphreys —We had a situation where a child migrant met his mother in London after 50 years. She had no other children, was living alone, and he wanted to bring her back to Australia to live with him on his farm. She came over for a short holiday to see if it would work out and went back to London and decided that she wanted to spent the rest of her life with her son and daughter-in-law. The process of getting her over to Australia as a permanent citizen has gone on for four or five years.

Senator BOYCE —She was not the child migrant?

Ms Humphreys —No. It was the mother. The mother came out to live with her son.

Senator BOYCE —This is perhaps where the concern comes in, that you have elderly and possibly unwell relatives who would want family reunions.

Ms Humphreys —Yes, of course, and they are not going to fit any criteria. They are all outside government criteria.

Senator BOYCE —Thank you for the story about the 70-year-old man going home. I wanted to explore some of the issues around what you have referred to here as faith based agencies that did not record details of any sort about people. I am assuming that there is possibly quite a lot of expense in trying to locate these. Could we get a quick picture of what is involved in trying to track down the details of someone who has no details?

Ms Humphreys —It is quite complex. It is certainly much improved on what it used to be. That is for sure. Both inquiries have made quite a substantial difference to the attitude about records. I think it is important for us to say that, because it has made a difference. There are procedures and protocols in place for the trust to work with all agencies that were involved in child migration.

Senator BOYCE —Is that within Australia?

Ms Humphreys —It is within Australia and within the UK, because most of the information that we require to find families is often, of course, in the UK. Some is here, but often it is in the UK. The first thing with anybody is to get the birth certificate. That is your first document. That is your starting point, to get the correct birth certificate for a child, who is now an adult, and to ensure that is correct. And to try to get some background information from the migrating agencies, of which there are many across all faiths and charitable institutions. As I said, there are protocols in place now to access that information, but I have already given you a situation where it has not been handed over, and those situations will of course still exist.

The information they usually have varies enormously from agency to agency. Some agencies will only have the scantiest of information, which is really more confusing than clarifying. Others will have quite detailed information, which is extremely helpful. The other side of that, of course, is that they have kept that detailed information for 50-odd years. There are issues even when you get a complete piece of information. In terms of the research process, our job is to find someone in the family, whether it is a mother, father, brother or sister. If there is some background information it can be very helpful for all sorts of reasons, but by and large we will start an independent search. Mr Thwaites, would you agree with that?

Mr Thwaites —Yes.

Ms Humphreys —We will start an independent search for the family.

Senator BOYCE —Do you use the internet or telephone?

Ms Humphreys —We would start off using more conventional search methods than the internet. The internet would probably be the last resort for us. We would use public records—births, marriages and deaths. We would use that route, because how you find a family is important in your first meeting with that family. One of the first questions might be, ‘How did you find us?’ It is not because they did not want to be found, but because that is about our ethics and our professionalism. We want to say, ‘We found you in an appropriate way.’ Of course, when searches get very difficult then you have to try to use all proper methods available to you and sometimes they are the internet, but we would prefer not to use that.

Senator BOYCE —What I was getting to was that I imagine the longer a search takes the more likely it is that you will need to do face-to-face visits.

Mr Thwaites —Yes, to exclude people.

Ms Humphreys —Absolutely. We could talk about DNA testing as well.

Mr Thwaites —The most complicated situations typically would be where we have only the child’s birth certificate, the mother’s name and no other details. Bear in mind that often children were born a long way away from where the family actually resided. If there is no information at all, it might be—and it often has been—that we have to identify every woman of that name between the ages of 16 and 45 who could have potentially been that child’s mother in a very large part of the UK and very often the Republic of Ireland as well, if it is during the war years. Those searches could take a very long time, but the essence of the search is to investigate and to exclude each of the families that we have identified, so that does mean making contact with them in the most ethical way that we can. There will be times when we simply cannot exclude that family, and if there are other factors that make it appear a good possibility we can, and have, moved into modern technology, such as DNA testing, which brings additional expense.

Senator BOYCE —In how many situations have you used DNA testing?

Mr Thwaites —Many.

Ms Humphreys —I would like to clarify the point you made. We always do face-to-face with families. We would never necessarily ring up anybody.

Senator BOYCE —I am not suggesting with families, but I am suggesting actually knocking on the door of an institution might be something you would do.

Ms Humphreys —We do that regularly.

Senator BOYCE —Your story demonstrated that. In fact, there may not simply be one visit. There might be several.

Ms Humphreys —There could be 10 or 12 visits. That is not exceptional.

Senator BOYCE —I am trying to tease out the complexity and the cost, and why finding one family could take five years.

Ms Humphreys —It could take five years and take a lot of money. The issue with the money, in terms of the search, is that once you make a commitment to a child migrant to find their family you have made that commitment. Whether it takes five weeks, five years or 10 years, we have made that commitment and we never close a case. It may not be given the priority all the time because it cannot be, but we learn things from other situations all the time so we will go back and review a long-term case in the light of something we may have learned from another case. We are always reviewing, and we never close a case. We have recently found families for people who have been looking for 15 years.

Senator BOYCE —For 15 years.

Ms Humphreys —For 15 years. There has been expenditure on these cases, of course. In terms of DNA testing, we have used it quite a lot recently, particularly where potential mothers have died and may have other children. We have to go and approach them, which is a terrible thing. We are suggesting that their mother or father had a child and that they have not told them about it, so it raises questions for them about their closeness to their parent that is no longer there, so that is very difficult, and then we are asking them for a DNA test to help us to help someone else. Most people cooperate.

In relation to the gentleman that is going home on Sunday, I think we have DNA tested three families and we have now had to go back to all three and say, ‘Thank you for helping us. It was not your mother.’ The consequences of child migration are wide and broad in the community as well. It does not stay with child migrants. It is with all of us. We are the community. It can be anybody’s door that we are going to knock on.

Mr Thwaites —The costs associated with research in tracing families is primarily borne by UK operations.

Senator BOYCE —Your UK operations?

Mr Thwaites —Yes. The funding provided in Australia is for direct service delivery, so it is direct work with child migrants and our travel within Australia.

Senator BOYCE —Thank you.

CHAIR —Thank you. Is there anything that we have not covered? This is your opportunity. We have seen your submission and the key points that you have raised there. One of the points that came up yesterday was from Barnardos, who talked about the concern about records in the UK. The full records of Barnardos in the UK are now on microfilm, which is disintegrating and no-one has the ability or the funding to transcribe them. They are sitting over there and they know that they are actually being lost. Is that an issue? I know your submission to the first inquiry in England was focussed almost exclusively on records, the difficulties and so on.

Ms Humphreys —It was complete desperation.

CHAIR —Do you want to add something about the current state of the record situation in not just England but the UK, because we are talking about the wider area? It continues to be a major issue in Australia, and something on record about the situation in the UK would be useful.

Ms Humphreys —I would like to make a general statement about all records relating to children who are separated from their families, whether they be yesterday’s children or today’s children. One of the things that we learn about child migration from child migrants is that it is with you forever. The state cannot look after children. It cannot be a parent for the rest of the life of a child. As much as we may want to be and think we can be, we could do our best with policy and practice to be good state parents to children, but they grow up and they want their mum and dad as we all do. Those records for yesterday’s children and today’s children are vital. There should be no excuse for any agency that is dealing with the past, the present or the future. They are important records and my view is that they do not belong to them. It is only partly, in the sense of what they do and why.

CHAIR —Do you have a view about the next generation’s ownership of the records? That is also an issue. Certainly, if the child migrant themselves is seeking the information I do not think there is any doubt that the records belong to them. There does seem to be some variation of opinion across-the-board about whether it is the child migrant’s child, or brother or sister. It is that wider sense of family ownership. Does your organisation have any view about that?

Ms Humphreys —They are very complex ethical issues and we are battling with them, because we are facing the children of child migrants whose parents have died who are coming to us and saying, ‘Tell me all about my mother and father.’ We have to very quickly get some policy in place on that. We know professionally what it would be good to do. All of policy is about how it is managed and how it is delivered. They are the important issues.

We have started talking, but we are going to start talking more formally to child migrants about what they want to happen individually. We are doing that now with people who are terminally ill. There are a lot of child migrants who are terminally ill where we are saying, ‘We must talk about what’s going to happen when your son or daughter comes in here and says, “Tell me what happened to my mum”.’ We are dealing with it now on an individual basis, but we have to have a policy. That is clear as anything.

CHAIR —We had evidence yesterday in Sydney from a number of groups, including Barnardos, and one of the recommendations of the Forgotten Australians inquiry was having wider access to records. You can read Barnardos’ exact words in Hansard. They have had extensive discussion with their members or the people who have been caught up in this process. They strongly believe that records should not be available to families without the absolute approval of the person themselves. That was the only issue in the recommendations with which they disagreed. It came from discussion with people who had managed to make a new life, which may not have been fully verified by the actual data that was in their records. There was quite confronting evidence from one gentleman about that issue. In developing your policy—and I am sure people are talking to each other—I encourage you to have a chat to them.

Ms Humphreys —They are complex issues.

CHAIR —Thank you so much for your time and your ongoing effort. If there is anything that you think we do need to know, we have a few weeks with this inquiry and, if there is something we have missed that you think we should be aware of, please be in contact with us.

Ms Humphreys —Thank you.

Mr Thwaites —Thank you.

CHAIR —The committee will now take a break until 10.50 am, when we will have a telephone conference with Judge Mullighan.

Proceedings suspended from 10.36 am to 10.57 am