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Monday, 30 August 2004
Page: 26615

Senator KNOWLES (12:41 PM) —As Senator McLucas has said, today is a very special day because of the tabling of the report entitled Forgotten Australians: a report on Australians who experienced institutional or out-of-home care as children. I would also like to start by thanking all those who gave of their lives—those very people in the gallery today. Good luck to you all. This has been a very tough inquiry for each and every one of us. Their heart-rending stories, their cruel stories and sometimes their funny stories are something that we can all cherish.

I would also like to thank the secretariat in Elton Humphrey and his team. As Senator McLucas said, they are probably the most outstanding secretariat you could wish for. I have had the pleasure of working with them for many years and they just give and give—but this is a different sort of giving. This, as Senator Murray and I know, is the second time they have given. The report on child migrants was a very tough report; this one has been no easier. It has been no easier on any of us, but it certainly has not been easy on the secretariat for the way in which they have tackled it. To Senator McLucas and all the members of the committee, I would like to say thank you. Senator Murray, good on you for bringing it to the chamber again, because that too is important.

There are some privileges one gets in this job that outsiders would never contemplate as a privilege. This is one of them. These are reports about people, childhoods, teenage lives, relationships, marriages, successes, failures, adulthood, sickness and health—the list goes on. For the people who have shared all those experiences with us in the hope that we may be able to very belatedly help right some of the wrongs, it is a weight we were prepared to try and lift. I hope that we can meet some of those expectations.

When one looks at why children were placed in institutions one sees that the list of reasons is almost endless. Family poverty, being orphaned, being born to a single mother, family dislocation, domestic violence, divorce, mental illness, a parent's inability to cope with children, or child sex abuse by a parent or step-parent are only part of the story. Any one of those reasons would be difficult enough for a child. But for a child to be placed into care, separated from their parent or parents and often from siblings, and then have to face all types of abuse, child slavery, cruelty, hunger, a lack of education, a lack of warm clothing and, probably worst of all, the total absence of love and nurturing is just profoundly sad.

Those of us who have never experienced that do not know what these people have gone through. As someone who has experienced love from their parents and from their entire family, it is incredibly difficult to look these people in the eye. They are brave, they are tough, they fight and they do not ever stop. Those of us who have had that love and care can only say, `We love you; we cherish you.' There are so many sad stories to focus on but to me one of the saddest realities is that some care leavers have discovered more recently that while they were suffering there had in fact been offers from extended family members to provide a home for them to prevent them from going into or being in care, yet these offers were usually ignored or denied by the department or agency. One can only wonder how different the outcome would have been for those so lucky.

There are so many who suffered such sadness, believing that no-one cared about them, only to find decades later that parents, siblings and extended family members had written letters or had sought to visit. None of this information was ever made known at the time nor was it made known that the letters they had written to family members had never been sent. What cruelty is that? That children were placed in institutions for care yet did not even receive the basics of what any reasonable person would consider care is beyond belief. To have taken from them on arrival everything that was in any way special—a teddy, a doll, clothes, jewellery, shoes or other treasures—was further demeaning and demoralising. All this, I might add, was often done after being strip searched. For many, not receiving an education meant being permanently consigned to life skill difficulties. One quote says it all:

I now know why my education was lost, because of a night time I was bashed, raped and molested, then stay awake all night wondering if they were going to come back. Then be bashed by the nuns at school for falling asleep in class, so I guess that's why I can't spell today.

The use of experimental medications, examinations and drugs appeared rife. Who in their right mind would force children to take mind-altering drugs, subject them to brain scans and various other neurological tests under the guise of intelligence tests, or subject young girls to enforced, painful gynaecological examinations? One may well ask why such cruel practices were never detected by the authorities, why operators of institutions were not deregistered or why the perpetrators of the violence and sex abuse were never prosecuted. It all comes down to the fact that there was a total lack of state government regulation. Either the inspections by welfare officers were carefully stage-managed or the officers studiously ignored what they saw—both of which, in my language, are reprehensible behaviour.

What is almost worse in this situation is that, when perpetrators of abuse and assault were identified, they were allowed to resign before formal action was taken against them. Apart from the appalling treatment of children, the parents of some of the children who sought to maintain contact were deceived and threatened and were too frightened to lay any complaint about the signs of abuse they saw for fear that the children would suffer further. What a position for those parents to be placed in. I wish to quote a section of the report about the often heard statement that standards were different then. The report states:

The response that times were different and that standards and people's thinking and understanding of children's needs have changed, fails to explain or recognise the severity of the documented behaviours. Corporal punishment may no longer be in vogue. But when do a few whacks with a ruler become assault? When do the oft documented beltings and floggings become criminal assault? When did the `standards of the time' change that condoned the perpetration of neglect, cruelty, psychological abuse, sadism, rape and sodomy?

I submit that what is criminal today was criminal yesterday in this regard. To listen to the legacies of such treatment—legacies such as low self-esteem, lack of confidence, depression, fear, distrust, anger, shame, guilt, obsessiveness, social anxieties, phobias, recurring nightmares, tension, migraines and speech difficulties—is beyond comprehension. Many cannot read or write, many have had lifelong alcohol and drug problems or have ended up in the mental health or prison systems, many cannot form or maintain trust in relationships and many have contemplated or taken the ultimate step of suicide. One witness said:

I don't know how to show my family, especially my own children how I feel about them. I can't put my arms around them and tell them I love them ... and most of my married life I can't stand being touched.

Many lack parenting skills due to the total absence of role models. Some have been successful; others have not. One witness stated:

Then at the age of 36, I met my wife. We married in 1982 and had two baby girls within two years. As I was unemployed for 5 years after we married, and although it was tough, I was able to spend a lot of time with my daughters. I was determined they weren't going to miss out like I did. I spoilt them rotten. Dorothy and the girls have been the making of me. For the first time I experienced happiness. Without them I think I would be dead now, either through alcoholism or a successful suicide.

I do not have much time left but I have to say that I hope that state, territory and Commonwealth governments, the churches and the agencies look very closely at the recommendations that we have made. It is about time the wrongs were righted. It is about time everyone decided that what was illegal then is illegal today, and vice versa. It disturbs me that some of the state governments do not believe that things are going on today when in fact they still are. I conclude my comments by commending the report to the Senate. May I extend to the care leavers and their loved ones a wish that from hereon their lives will take a fresh turn for the best.