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Monday, 16 November 2009
Page: 11805


Ms KING (6:19 PM) —I add my voice to those of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in giving my apology to the Forgotten Australians and former child migrants. Today’s apology extends to a large number of Australians—around 500,000 of them; 500,000 people who spent time in children’s homes, in orphanages and in out-of-home care, alongside some 7,000 former child migrants who came to Australia at part of child migration schemes to then be placed in children’s homes and orphanages. Today’s apology extends to these people; it also extends to their families and to future generations, to give us a better understanding of this disgraceful tragedy in our past century.

It is a particularly important apology for the people of Ballarat. It is important for the many Ballarat people who were residents in institutional care and their families. It is also very important for those of us who were not to formally apologise for what happened in these institutions in our community and to recognise what happened to the children, now adults who live among us. Ballarat had three major institutions: Ballarat Orphanage, St Joseph’s homes for boys and Nazareth House for girls. The Alexander babies home and a number of smaller institutions also existed. One estimate is that over 15 institutions operated in Ballarat at some point over the course of the past century.

A significant number of children grew up in Ballarat institutions. The Ballarat Orphanage alone saw some 4,000 children in care. Many of these children continue to live in Ballarat and have raised their families there. The stories heard in my region are similar to those heard from all corners of Australia in this debate so far—stories of children accommodated in large institutions without love, without the sort of nurturing care and warmth that is every child’s right; unfortunately, all too often, stories of abuse, of children beaten with a belt or a cane and of young boys and girls sexually abused—raped by their carers and abused by the people who were supposed to give them care. We have heard of staff bashing children senseless while other children watched in horror and despair. Those are stories of children who wanted just one thing: to be loved.

One of these stories is of Frank Golding. Frank, who was only three, and his two brothers found themselves in institutional care on Christmas Eve in 1940. While many children were thinking of the joys of Christmas, the beauty of family and the laughter of friends, Frank and his brothers found themselves alone. Frank’s once forgotten story has been realised in his book An Orphan’s Escape: Memories of a Lost Childhood. I highly recommend Frank’s book to anyone who truly wants to understand what happened in institutions in Ballarat. Frank tells many stories throughout his book, few which give a sense of his larrikin and kind-hearted nature and many of which give an explanation of his harrowing experiences suffered in institutional care. The book tells a story of a child forgotten. The book is one of thousands of stories that exist around Australia.

To do justice to Frank’s story, I want to quote fairly extensively from it. Like many others, the picture of arriving at the orphanage is a vivid one, one which has clearly stayed with him. He wrote:

I touched each shaft of the iron fence as the policeman pulled us towards the great double gate. The spikes towered above our heads as I ran my hand over the cold bluestone base. The gravel crunched under our feet as we drew near the dark-red building. Looking up at the balcony on the second floor, Billy read to us the words cast in iron ‘Orphan Asylum, 1865.’ This was a grim place, this Ballarat Orphanage. Solid like a fortress.

Like many children, Frank and his brothers questioned what they had done to have this happen to them.

Why were we in this place? … orphans haven’t got parents. We were not orphans. What did they mean by Asylum? Mum told us about the lunatic asylum up near the lake. That was the place where mad people got locked up. Why were we being punished? What had we done?

Frank was lucky in one way: at least his two brothers and he were in the same institution. But the sibling groups meant little as children were separated according to age.

With scores of children to play with, the idea of brothers and sisters soon lost its meaning. We shared surnames but not much else. Some children told us they had brothers and sisters in other orphanages. Years later I met people who never knew they had siblings until they discovered them while piecing together the jigsaw of their families decades after their stay in institutions. Some have tried to reunite as family but found that physical resemblance is not a sufficient basis to make up for the lost years. To stare across a train station at a 50-year-old stranger who looks like you can be both thrilling and disturbing. To become sisters again can be stressful.

Frank spoke of those who worked in these institutions. He wrote:

A hard core of staff stayed for ever but otherwise there was a high turnover and constant shortages. It has been said that staff in children’s institutions fell into three categories, the devoted, the dull and the deviant. To which I would add the disciplinarians. Many of those with compassion couldn’t bear to stay after they saw what the orphanage was like and what they were expected to do to keep the children under control.

Frank outlined story after story of his experiences that are chilling to read. Unfortunately, for Frank, they are not only a story; they are his reality. These are stories that are difficult to hear but they must be told and we, as members of the Ballarat community, have a responsibility to listen to every one of them.

I know there will be people in my own electorate who served, or whose parents served, on the boards of these institutions or who worked in them and who will say, ‘But these institutions did good things as well,’ and that the children were happy; that at the time people thought it was the right thing to do. Again, I refer to some powerful words from Frank:

I have been asked, sometimes with aggression: isn’t all that positive achievement the result of the stable upbringing provided by the Orphanage? It has been said I thrived, and I should remember what we were taught all those years ago: “For what we have received may the Lord make us truly grateful.” I thank the authorities for a roof over my head and three meals a day for more than ten years. I lived with two hundred children in the Orphanage and I made friends with many of them. They, and the extraordinary diversity of experiences we shared, taught me important skills for coping and surviving. We had some good times and managed together through some bad moments. Those chosen by the State did not sexually abuse me as they did other children. But I do not feel grateful for the salvation of avoidance. I should never have lived under the dark shadow of chance and I should not still be weeping for those little kids who were picked out to be buggered by paid predators.

It is incredibly important that we do not gloss over what these places were like for the people who experienced them. No matter how difficult or embarrassing it is, these forgotten children should expect no less from us.

Frank, along with others who grew up in my electorate, was here today in Parliament House, and I thank him for his permission to use his story. I encourage Ballarat residents to learn a little about Frank’s story and what happened, in our own community, to Frank and to the hundreds of children just like him in care in Ballarat institutions.

Today’s apology has been a very long time coming. The federal government, through the Senate Community Affairs References Committee, has reported in detail on this issue over the past decade. Three separate reports of inquiries under the committee include Lost innocents in 2001, Forgotten Australians in 2004 and Lost innocents and forgotten Australians revisited in 2009. These reports told us something that many Australians had known for years. They spoke of the abuse that children in institutional care suffered, the physical and emotional suffering, the neglect. These reports unanimously called for a national apology. The Senate committee recognised that a national apology was an important part of the healing process for those who had suffered at the hands, the poor policy decisions, of our governments.

The first report, Lost innocents: righting the record, gave a stark assessment of the treatment of children who were brought to Australia from the United Kingdom, Ireland and Malta via child migrant schemes. Australia made a commitment to protect these children. The report showed parents consented for their children to migrate because they were told of the wonderful care their children would receive in Australia. Some of these children were sexually assaulted and were abused by their carers. They were alone.

In 2004, the Senate committee delivered its second report, Forgotten Australians: a report on Australians who experienced institutional or out-of-home care as children. This report reflected on the half a million children who spent time in institutional care from the 1920s to the 1970s. It outlined many of the horrific things that occurred in this care, including many of those that I spoke of earlier.

In June this year the Senate committee released the Lost innocents and forgotten Australians revisited, a report on progress with the implementation of the recommendations of the two previous reports. With the Australian government’s formal apology today we have specifically addressed the report’s first two recommendations. They advised, as had been stated in the previous reports, that the Commonwealth formally apologise to our forgotten Australians and former child migrants.

The hard work of the Senate committee is to be congratulated. We have also seen hard work from many over recent years, and decades, to address this issue. I would like to recognise the hard work of the following: the Child Migrants Trust, Families Australia, the Alliance for Forgotten Australians, the International Association of Former Child Migrants and Their Families and the Care Leavers Australia Network.

Today we recognise the mistakes of the past. We as a nation placed our children in a position that was cruel and ugly. Children went to sleep in the coldness of the night, alone and afraid, and they awoke cold, alone and afraid. Because these children, these forgotten Australians and former child migrants, suffered enormous pain they did not have somebody to turn to when they needed care, when they were being neglected. They did not receive the love, the care, the security and the compassion that many of us take for granted today. When many of these children suffered both physical and sexual mistreatment they did not have anybody to turn to and, if they did, many of them were just not believed. The situation these children found themselves in was through no fault of their own. I apologise that we as a nation did not intervene to stop what was happening to them.

I support the motion moved by the Prime Minister today, because these experiences must be publicly recognised. With today’s apology we start that process. I hope that this apology brings some small relief to our forgotten Australians and our former child migrants. I hope that, by coming together as a parliament to reflect on this dreadful past, we can realise the true extent of what has happened. Today’s apology is long overdue. This apology should not be seen as the final step in a difficult journey but, instead, as the first page of a new book.

I recognise that scars never truly heal, that few memories will ever fade and that we cannot return lost childhoods and, in some cases, lost lives. But today I apologise. I would like to place my apology firmly on the record and say that what happened to these children was wrong and should never have occurred. I apologise to the over 500,000 forgotten Australians and former child migrants. I apologise to the thousands of children, now adults, who grew up in institutional care in my region. I apologise to those men and women who were placed in the Ballarat Orphanage, in St Josephs, in Nazareth House, in the Alexander Babies Home and in other institutions that operated in Ballarat. I apologise for the loss of your innocence and for the loss of your childhood. Most of all, I salute you as extraordinary survivors whose courage contributes to who we are as a city. Your stories should forever be recognised as a central part of Ballarat’s history.

Finally, I want to give the last words to Frank Golding. I quote:

I have won some control over my past and understand the story, but the scabs still itch. What if … we had not been infants in wartime when family life came under profound stress? What if … the struggle by our parents to get us out of the Orphanage had succeeded earlier? What if the welfare department had been in less haste to condemn our parents? What if … the state had supported and helped them through their hard times, instead of condemning them as not fit to be parents? What if … the child welfare system of the day had been instead a family welfare system?

What if?