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Monday, 30 August 2004
Page: 26613

Senator McLUCAS (12:31 PM) —by leave—I present the report of the Senate Community Affairs References Committee entitled Forgotten Australians: a report on Australians who experienced institutional or out-of-home care as children.

Ordered that the report be printed.

Senator McLUCAS —I seek leave to move a notice of motion in relation to the report.

Leave granted.

Senator McLUCAS —I give notice that, on the next day of sitting, I shall move:

That the second report of the Senate Community Affairs References Committee on its inquiry into children in institutional care be presented by the last sitting day in December 2004.

I now seek leave to move a motion in relation to the report.

Leave granted.

Senator McLUCAS —I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

At the outset I thank the Senate for allowing the committee to table this significant report at this time in today's program. The request of the committee was in response to the many care leavers who travelled here today who would not be able to witness the tabling if it were at the regular time later, as they wish to return to their homes this evening. I am very pleased that we have been able to welcome these care leavers and their families into Parliament House to be part of this milestone in the history of the provision of care in Australia.

When we began this inquiry I was, to say the least, very concerned about what we were embarking upon. My concerns were that we were not going to be able to do any good for the people whose lives we were looking into, that we would open wounds that we would not be able to heal and that we were not counsellors, we were policy makers, and we would leave people more damaged than they were at the outset. I was very wrong. For many care leavers this inquiry has brought a sense of healing that has not been evident in their dealings with government, the churches and institutions to date. It has provided the opportunity to share their experience, to be given recognition of the pain that they have experienced and to put some of the past behind. But for many, though, this inquiry has not brought closure. It is hard to see how for some any process would, as the hurt is so great.

I am proud to have presented this report on behalf of the committee. I want to place on record my thanks to all members of the committee for their compassion and diligence throughout the hearings and through the compilation of the report and recommendations. I also wish to thank Senator Hutchins for his work as the chair of the committee prior to March. This report is an example of how the Senate works at its best. We came to the inquiry as individuals and left our party affiliations at the door. Our recommendations are the result of our personal thinking and it is our hope that they will make real changes to the lives of care leavers into the future. The report has deviated from the usual Senate style of writing a report. We have tried to give voice to those who gave us the evidence rather than interpret their words. The report, therefore, uses many quotes from the Hansard and from the submissions.

The committee received 614 submissions, of which 174 are confidential given the nature of their content. Overwhelmingly, they make tragic and distressing reading. They tell of neglect, of shocking abuse, of predatory behaviour from so-called carers and of criminal activity. The evidence is also there that authorities in the church and in governments either knew or should have known that much of this horrific activity was occurring. The committee thank those who made submissions and gave evidence for allowing us into their lives. We hope we have done justice to their stories. A recurring message in the submissions is that the person making the submission was doing it not for himself or herself but for those who could not—for those who could not because the pain in reliving their experience was too great, because the hurt they have lived has manifested into mental illness that renders them incapable of participation or because they have passed on through illness, age or, even more tragically, suicide. This report is a tribute to all who have made submissions and to those who could not.

It is also important to note that all experiences reported were not negative. A few submissions told of pleasant times, of outings and of thoughtful and caring adults. It also should be noted that institutions varied in their treatment of people over time. The personnel who provided the care directly influenced the experience of the children there. But, even for those whose experiences did not include neglect or abuse, the lack of love is a constant. How that can be overcome is a challenge but one that must be dealt with in planning future care arrangements for children.

Today should be seen as a significant milestone in the history of the approximately 500,000 people who have been placed in care in institutions, including orphanages, group cottage homes, homes for children with disabilities and juvenile detention centres, and in foster care in Australia since colonisation. It is an opportunity to place on record a summary of the experiences of care leavers, which goes some way to telling the true history of what has occurred. More needs to be done to continue to tell these stories, and there are recommendations in the report that are directed to that end.

But looking to the future, the report is hopefully a blueprint for governments and non-government institutions to deal with the legacy of poorly provided care. There are 39 recommendations in the report, most of which are unanimous recommendations of the committee members. We have recommended that the federal government issue an apology acknowledging the hurt and distress suffered by many children in institutional care, and that those states and territories, churches and other authorities that have not done so should do the same.

We have recommended that the federal government establish a fund with contributions from the states and territories, churches and other organisations involved in the provision of care. This fund should provide an alternative method for accessing redress which will not require applicants to meet legal proof requirements, and a claim that can be supported by a reasonable likelihood that the abuse occurred should be dealt with. We have recommended that a process for reviewing complaints about care experiences should be established, and that it should be independent of governments or churches.

We have called on the churches and other care providing organisations to open their books and allow care leavers all the information which has been collected about them so that any legal proceedings that should be progressed are progressed. We have said that if this does not occur then the only course of action is for the federal government to implement a royal commission so that justice can be done. Committee members were mindful of the costs and the varying benefits associated with the establishment of a royal commission, and there are different views in the committee about the appropriateness of this course of action. But it is my view that it might be the only way that justice can be done. There are other recommendations in the report that I commend to governments, churches, other care providing organisations and the broader community.

Finally, I need to offer some thanks. I want to thank an organisation called CLAN. CLAN is a nationally established organisation that provides support to care leavers. They are represented by a fabulous woman, Leonie Sheedy, whom all care leavers will join with me in thanking for the leadership, compassion and enormous understanding that she provides to care leavers and their families. There is a range of other support services and I also commend them on the work they do. They are funded varyingly across the nation, and our recommendation suggests that more needs to be done by state, territory and federal governments to support that work. As a result of today's tabling of this report, we expect there will be many care leavers in the community who did not know about the process that we embarked upon and who will wish to receive support. I encourage any journalist writing about the tabling of the report today to publish, wherever possible, the phone numbers of support organisations so that people can access services immediately.

I also want to thank the counsellors we employed during the process of the inquiry who came to all of our hearings and assisted not only care leavers but also all of us in talking through the experiences that we heard about. Thank you to all of you. Thank you for the work that you continue to do and the special talents that you have in working with care leavers in our society. I want to thank Hansard and the people from sound and vision who shared the harrowing stories with us during the hearings. Finally and most importantly, I need to thank the secretariat of the Community Affairs References Committee. They are a fantastic group of people who have gone well beyond their roles as staff of the Senate. They have worked late nights and they have worked weekends for months, and their careful consideration of all the issues has provided—with the support of the senators who gave their time to this committee—what I think is an excellent report.