Monday, 26 October 2009
Private Members’ Business
Debate resumed, on motion by Mrs Gash:
I seek leave to move amendments to my motion relating to the forgotten Australians.
I move that the motion be amended in terms circulated to the honourable members in the Main Committee as follows:
That the House:
- recognises the extent of abuse and neglect inflicted on Australian children who were placed in the care of the Government in institutions or out of home care during the last century;
- acknowledges the neglect of all governments that allowed this abuse, pain and suffering to continue for so many years;
- acknowledges organisations such as the Care Leavers Australia Network (CLAN), Alliance for Forgotten Australians (AFA) and the Child Migrants Trust who have supported the forgotten Australians whose lives have been adversely affected as a result of their childhood abuse; and
- calls on the Government to continue working with the Opposition on an unequivocal apology to all victims of such abuse.
Some months ago I received a letter from a constituent, and it took me some time to absorb the enormity of the words. As I read I became ashamed of the fact that the story being told could have ever occurred. I was also filled with a rising disgust that in a country such as ours, despite how widespread these cases were, they were effectively condoned by silence, and I was compelled to present the motion to the House.
This is what the letter said, in part:
Re; Formal apology for the abuse and neglect suffered by children who were placed in government institutions or out of home care in the last century.
Dear Joanna Gash MP,
I would like you to hear the story of another victim. I did it in your electorate and I am hoping you will be my voice. I hope the apology won’t be a brief statement that makes these seven o’clock news and then fades away. The pain that I and others who have been abused feel will not just fade away. I would like to be able to attend any ceremony that might happen. I also feel that the States should have to apologise as well and not continue to be in denial that people who were in their employ did anything wrong.
With that introductory statement came a victim statement from the writer, a New South Wales ward. I will not mention his name but he is in my electorate and he was born in 1953. Today he is 56 years of age. Constraints of speaking time allow me to quote only excerpts which are in themselves quite heart-rending. His entire statement stands as an indictment of the practices that prevailed and were endured by countless innocent children.
And we owe them. An official, sincere apology from both government and the opposition should be just a starting point. I commend the New South Wales parliament for doing so and I urge the federal government to follow suit in a bipartisan apology. I acknowledge those organisations mentioned in the motion, and I support them and thank them for their continued support of the forgotten Australians.
The following is a very small part of his statement. He said:
I was placed in Royelston in 1959 at the age of six and this is when my transition from an innocent child began. Limited memories of Royelston are both of physical, sexual and mental (humiliation) abuse. I was sexually assaulted and raped. I was sodomised anally and orally. I was held down, beaten and battered. I was physically assaulted, brutally punished, had my head banged against the wall, pushed to the ground and beaten for any infraction of the rules. Even answering slowly was a punishable offence. The sexual abuse was frequent. It was indeed a good night when after lights out, that a carer did not come and remove you from your cot and take you away to another room. Here was my induction into the world where sexual molestation and physical abuse was the norm and accepted behaviour. I tried to avoid being noticed. I was afraid of the rough punishment that was routinely handed out. I couldn’t bear the beatings or the humiliation I was subjected to because I had a problem with regard to soiling my underwear. I can clearly remember an instance of being paraded before the rest of the boys because I soiled my underwear due to sexual abuse. They used large dogs that used to growl and snarl to frighten me, as an example to others. Physical abuse was used to beat me into letting them do whatever they desired.
This is just the second paragraph. His statement goes on to describe continuing abuse whilst in the hands of a foster parent. He speaks of his changed behaviour, inability to adapt socially, a failed marriage, and a constant state of heightened alert. He also writes:
I live with daily pain. I was given 10 shillings when I left the institution—
and I will use his concluding paragraph to summarise his pain. He said:
I wonder how much a politically correct apology from the Federal Government will be expected to make me and others in my situation feel better. The state of NSW told me that they have to protect the privacy of people who took away my childhood and had an enormous impact on my entire life from the age of six to this very day.
Mr Deputy Speaker Adams, I call on this House to issue an unequivocal genuine apology to all the children who have had their innocence stolen from them while they were in the alleged care of the Australian government sanctioned institutions. It is long overdue and a moral obligation that we owe them as a nation, and I call on the government to continue to work with the opposition to make this apology to all victims of such abuse.
As my time has now been increased from five minutes to 10 minutes, I would like to add the following. Just over two years ago a book titled The Forgotten Children was published by Random House. The author is David Hill, previously the managing director of the ABC, chairman of the Australian Football Association, chief executive and director of the State Rail Authority of New South Wales, chairman of Sydney Water Corporation and chairman of CREATE, a national organisation responsible for representing the interests of young people and children in institutional care. This is the publisher’s synopsis about David Hill’s story:
In 1959 David Hill’s mother, a poor single parent living in England, reluctantly decided to send her sons to Fairbridge Farm School in New South Wales, where she was led to believe they would have a good education and a better life. David was lucky. His mother was able to follow him out to Australia. But for most children the reality was shockingly different. From 1938 to 1974 thousands of parents were persuaded to sign over legal guardianship of their children to Fairbridge to solve a problem of child poverty in Britain while populating the colony. Many of those children have decided to speak out. Physical and sexual abuse were not uncommon, loneliness was rife, food was often inedible and the standard of education was appalling. Here for the first time is the story of the lives of the Fairbridge children, from the bizarre luxury of the voyage out to Australia to the harsh reality of their very first days, from the crushing daily routine to stolen moments of freedom and the struggle that defined life after leaving the school.
Despite the litany of abuse and the stories that continue to emerge of what occurred in some of our most respected institutions, our national government has so far not seen fit to apologise for the travesty. But, as I mentioned earlier, this will soon be rectified. Former Transport Workers Union vice-president Laurie Humphreys has set up the Forgotten Australian Alliance, an organisation intent on getting justice for the hundreds, if not thousands, of adults abused as children whilst wards of the state. Mr Humphreys says that 19 recommendations from a 2004 federal inquiry into forgotten Australians remain largely unactioned. The big one is for them to apologise to the forgotten Australians for the trauma caused by coming here in the first place and the experiences that they have suffered: lack of education, being battered, alleged sexual abuse and being institutionalised. He has also written a book called A chip off what block? It too is compelling reading. In March this year the ABC’s Law Report ran a story on the forgotten generation, and the fact was reiterated that no apology had been forthcoming despite the extensive publicity of Sorry Day.
Just to bring into perspective the enormity of the story, over 500,000 Australians were raised in 500-plus orphanages, children’s homes and foster care, effectively the population of Tasmania. Governments of all persuasions over the years are equally guilty of neglecting these children. We as a parliament stand condemned for failing to include or even consider these children in the National Sorry Day when the opportunity was there. I thank the parliament for listening to the story of my constituent.
I rise today to recognise and acknowledge the pain and suffering inflicted upon more than 500,000 forgotten Australians in institutional care over the past century. I also rise to offer my support for a formal apology to the forgotten Australians, which the Minister for Families and Communities, Jennifer Macklin, has indicated will occur before the end of 2009. I know how welcome that apology would be to those women and girls who were incarcerated as girls in the Parramatta Girls Home in my electorate. For all those whose lives were diminished by government actions in these institutions an apology is long overdue.
The history of the forgotten Australians is particularly significant in the electorate of Parramatta, particularly for women. The historical precinct on the bank of the Parramatta River, which was home to the Parramatta Girls Home, is known as the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct and it has been a site of incarceration and institutionalisation of women from 1804 to the present day, which is over 200 years. It was the home of the Parramatta Girls Home last century but institutions of various types have been housed there, opened and closed, rebuilt, expanded or added to.
It is undoubtedly one of Australia’s most significant historical sites yet, like the stories of the children imprisoned there, it remains largely neglected and unknown. It was home to the first female convict factory in Australia, later an institution known as the Industrial School for Girls, then the Girls Training School, then the infamous Parramatta Girls Home and its current use is as a prison for women. The female factory at Parramatta was originally built in 1804 and acted as a workhouse, jail and a holding area for newly arrived female convicts and their children. It was the first of the 12 convict factories built around Australia.
In 1841 an orphanage was built adjoining the site and in 1844 with the arrival of children from a Catholic orphanage in Waverley it was renamed the Roman Catholic Orphans School. In 1886 the school was asked to vacate the building and the forerunner of the Parramatta Girls Home, the Industrial School for Females, was declared on 1 April 1887 with the transfer of girls from Biloela. Children were held there under one of two classifications. Firstly, there were those considered destitute, abandoned or orphaned, who were not deemed as corrupt; and, secondly, those who were deemed as having tendencies towards criminal behaviour. But for both it was very much an institution. In 1897 additional isolation cells were built and in the following year there was a number of riots because of a lack of food. By 1910 there was a growing awareness that not all the girls sentenced to the Parramatta Industrial School were corrupt and this saw the establishment of a training home on the adjacent acre. The school was intended for girls of uncontrollable character but not of immoral tendencies but a few years later again trends changed and the schools were merged and renamed the Parramatta Girls Home. Even more isolation cells were built in 1834.
In 1961 there was a repeat of the riots and a derelict jail at Hay in regional New South Wales was gazetted as a maximum security annex of the Parramatta Girls Home and was named the Hay Girls Institution. Remember that these girls were not necessarily in the home because of any criminal tendencies. Tales were told by the Parra girls and the Hay girls of deprivation, of harsh discipline, of life behind walls, of keeping their eyes down, of beatings and of rape. Most of these girls had not committed any offence but had merely been placed in institutions under child welfare legislation. Their crimes included being neglected, being exposed to moral danger, being homeless or being uncontrollable. Many had run away from home because of violence and many were there simply for being Indigenous children who later became known as the stolen generation.
In 1973 a series of protests called for the closure of welfare institutions and in October 1974 the Parramatta Girls Home was not closed but was renamed Kamballa and continued to operate under the management of the child welfare department. In 1980 the Department of Corrective Services took over part of the site and established the periodic detention centre for women. It was closed in 1986, some 99 years after it was opened under a different name. Given that the Parramatta Girls Training School was the principal institution and remand centre for all girls aged between 11 and 18 years in the state of New South Wales until 1966, it is likely that possibly more than 50,000 girls passed through this institution. Of this somewhere between seven and 10 per cent would have been girls of Aboriginal descent.
The rich but tragic history of the site and the appalling stories of abuse and intimidation and its connection to so many contemporary women is told by Bonney Djuric in a recently completed history of the Parramatta Girls Home, Abandon All Hope. Bonney is the driving force behind the Parra girls, an extraordinary group of women who are still putting their lives together after a childhood in one of the most notorious institutions, the infamous Parramatta Girls Home. They are extraordinary women, the Parra girls, raising the profile of women who have similar histories but also of the site itself, a site of 200 years of the incarceration of women and ironically built on the sacred women’s site of the Barramatugal clan of the Darug nation. Bonney’s history is based on extensive research and the first accounts of survivors contributes to a broader understanding of how a system of care for girls was shaped and defined by many factors that would challenge societal perceptions and have shamed and silenced the Parramatta girls for far too long. Bonney describes the experience of the Parramatta girls:
‘Parramatta Training and Industrial School for Girls like its earlier counterpart, the Female Factory, was known for its notoriety and the control it exerted over the lives of all females who did not conform to whatever moral standards society expected of them. Its history is that of routine brutality, generalized ill-treatment and the denial of basic human rights where the principle of legal duty of care was entirely unknown or unrecognised.’
‘Operating under the guise of a “School”, Parramatta’s regime was in stark contrast to that of philosophies of education. Its intent was uniformity, non-flexibility and the provision of the same “training” in the same way, at the same time and place, for groups of individuals of disparate age, capacity and physique to be moulded and compressed into mass produced performance units, exhibiting uniform requirements of compliance and subjugation of personality.’
‘… unlike mainstream schools which seek to maximise student achievement, “training” resulted in a suppression of achievement and a generation of near unemployability, and unsuitability for parenthood and family life.’
‘The sexual experience of some inmates was often enforced criminally by rape at the hands of employees paid to “care” for their wellbeing. This only served to reinforce girl’s sexual experience as one of violence, powerlessness and shame.’
So speaks Bonney Djuric of the Parramatta Girls Home.
I am lending my support to those trying to elevate the experiences of the forgotten Australians in the minds and hearts of Australians and to recognise the history of women, in this case, that was played out on this site, firstly as the Female Factory and then through the Parramatta Industrial School for Girls and finally the Parramatta Girls Home and Kamballa. It is an ugly story but it is a history that we should not back away from. It is a history that needs to be told. As many as one in five Australians today are descended from women who were once incarcerated in the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct, and members should consider that for a moment: 20 per cent of all Australians, over four million people, have a direct family link to women who were incarcerated on that site over its two-century history. Many others have a link to its use as a traditional sacred women’s site by the Burramattagal clan of the Dharug nation.
Children experienced these horrors—serious and often criminal physical, sexual and emotional abuse, neglect and assault—in the places that were supposed to care for them. As adult survivors they deserve acknowledgement of and an apology for that harm. The forgotten Australians already have an apology from all states and will soon have an apology from the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister will acknowledge and apologise for the failure of federal governments of all persuasions to protect these children and young women. Nothing is fixed by being forgotten, but the many stories of survival and overcoming deserve to have a great light shone upon them. They deserve prime location at the front of every Australian’s mind and they deserve to be valued as great Australian stories of tenacity and endurance. As Helen Keller said:
Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired and success achieved.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this moving issue of the forgotten Australians and I thank the member for Gilmore for bringing this matter to the attention of the House. The first part of this amended motion is:
That the House:… recognises the extent of abuse and neglect inflicted on Australian children who were placed in the care of the Government in institutions or out of home care during the last century …
It is one of the darkest chapters of our nation’s history that, between the 1920s and 1990s, upwards of possibly more than 500,000 young Australians experienced care in an orphanage, home or another form of home care. These innocent children experienced abandonment and loss of family, neglect, exploitation, brutality, sexual assault, poor health care, poor education and loss of identity. We can only imagine the daily experience of utter grief and desolation that they as children would have endured.
The legacy of their childhood experiences for far too many has been low self-esteem, lack of confidence, depression, fear, anger, shame, guilt, possessiveness, social anxieties, phobias and recurring nightmares. Unfortunately, many forgotten Australians have tried to block the pain of their past by resorting to substance abuse through lifelong alcohol and drug addictions. Some have also turned to illegal practices such as prostitution or more serious law-breaking offences that have resulted in a percentage of the prison population being care leavers.
An inquiry by the Senate Community Affairs References Committee began in 2004 and allowed many of these innocent children, who were now adults, to express their concerns and their experiences of being in the institutional care system. They were able to tell their personal stories and, in their telling, members of the committee were immensely moved and touched by their grieving, because the grief was very clear and present and unresolved. The committee received over 440 public submissions and 174 confidential submissions. The extensive nature of the inquiry is evident from the submissions received. Stories were received from care leavers who had been in government and nongovernment institutions or foster homes across all states in Australia spanning those 70 years.
Many hundreds of people opened their lives and the memories of traumatic childhood abuse and punishment to the committee in their public submissions and at the hearings. Some people were actually telling their story for the first time. Some of these stories remain so distressing that they asked for their name to be withheld or to be identified only by their first name. Many others, who for a range of reasons preferred that their identity remain undisclosed, provided confidential submissions. But all these people desperately wanted the committee to read and to hear what they had experienced in childhood and the impact that those events have had throughout their lives. They wanted their voice to be heard. The first recommendation from the report was:
That the Commonwealth Government issue a formal statement acknowledging, on behalf of the nation, the hurt and distress suffered by many children in institutional care, particularly the children who were victims of abuse and assault; and apologising for the harm caused to these children.
The government has announced that it will implement this recommendation and apologise to the forgotten Australians before the end of the year, and the opposition supports this important step forward.
Tomorrow is the inaugural meeting of Parliamentary Friends of the Forgotten Australians. I am advised that the minister will brief us on the details for the national apology and there will be representatives from the organisations that represent these forgotten Australians. I would like to take this opportunity to commend the work of the Alliance for Forgotten Australians, established in 2006 and formally launched by former Senator Andrew Murray on 16 October 2007. The Alliance for Forgotten Australians brought together existing funded and unfunded organisations that supported forgotten Australians to form a new national advocacy. The apology that will be given to these forgotten Australians will be like the apology to the Stolen Generation, but it is only a very small step in a very long journey for our forgotten Australians, the government and, most importantly, the ordinary people of Australia. It is a moral imperative that we must all share to carry the burden of sadness that has been the dominant aspect of the lives of so many of these deserving fellow human beings. They deserve our love, our compassion and our practical support. I commend this amendment to the House.
I thank the member for Gilmore for bringing this important matter to the attention of the House through this motion and for providing the opportunity to speak again on this significant national issue. The Australian community now acknowledges that the abuse and neglect suffered by many children in institutional or other out-of-home care during the last century was unacceptable. These matters have been the subject of three landmark Senate reports dating back as far as 2001. We know that many of the 500,000 children raised in more than 500 institutions in the period between 1920 and 1980 had been the victims of brutality, with many suffering from sexual and physical abuse.
The traumatic impact of such treatment was brought home to me at a very personal level by one of my constituents, Mr Geoff Meyers, who came to see me and talk about issues that he had not talked about very much at all. He is now 73 and, for a lot of that period, Geoff had been unable to discuss these matters of such a personal nature, even with members of his own family. In an adjournment speech several months ago I spoke about the experiences he had shared with me. Geoff was abandoned when 14 months old and made a ward of the state. The scars of being orphaned and institutionalised were difficult enough but were made manifestly more unbearable as he survived through periods of sexual and emotional abuse.
I noted in my earlier comments in the House that Geoff Meyers had said to me in that interview that an apology from the government was a very important issue for him. In his own words:
I would like Mr Rudd to come to my door and say, ‘Mate, I know it happened to you and, even though I’m not responsible, I’m very sorry for what happened.’
Well, Geoff, it will not be long before the Rudd government responds positively to your request.
The Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs has already indicated that before year’s end, and even as soon as a matter of weeks from now, our government will issue a formal statement of acknowledgement and apology on behalf of the nation to forgotten Australians and former child migrants. As I understand it, the government is planning a significant remembrance event for that occasion. To help in the healing process, the Rudd Labor government has also provided $300,000 each to the Alliance for Forgotten Australians and the Care Leavers Australia Network, more commonly referred to as CLAN. I pay tribute this evening to the wonderful work, support and counselling provided by both organisations.
The member for Gilmore may not have been aware of the commitments I have outlined, the commitments already made by our government, when she submitted her motion. If she was, I have to wonder why her original resolution condemned the current government but was silent on the lack of meaningful responses by the Howard government to earlier Senate recommendations. I note tonight that she has presented her motion in an amended form and in the proper spirit of bipartisanship which this matter deserves. In thanking the member for Gilmore for submitting this motion, I would also like to draw her attention to further commitments made by the Rudd Labor government. One of those is our commitment to work with the National Library of Australia and the National Museum of Australia in deciding how best to record for the historical record the experiences of the forgotten Australians, former child migrants and women and children affected by past adoption practices. I know that for Mr Meyers, along with many others who have been so scarred by their experiences, the day cannot come quickly enough when the government, on behalf of the nation, renders a formal apology.
I also thank the member for Gilmore for bringing this motion before the House and allowing me the opportunity to speak on behalf of my constituents who have suffered and been affected by abuse. I would also like to take the opportunity to acknowledge Steve Irons, the member for Swan, for his strong advocacy in this matter. His passion comes from a personal perspective that I know drives him in this place. I know that he stands up for the people of Western Australia who suffered whilst in care.
The worst of all crimes are those against children, because these are the crimes where power and the advantage of strength is used to take control over victims. Criminals take control in circumstances where their victims have the disadvantage of inexperience and believe that they can trust adults. This is why these crimes are the worst. It is the most terrible example of power being used against the defenceless. It is reprehensible in every degree and every crime and law enforcement agency should—and I am sure does—give these crimes the highest priority.
The substance of this motion refers to child abuse and neglect in the last century. It is in relation to children who were placed in the care of government institutions. It also acknowledges the neglect of governments in allowing abuse, pain and suffering to continue for many years. The motion calls upon the government to issue an unequivocal apology to all of the victims, and I note that we are now certain that that will occur in the days before the end of the year. I welcome that apology.
In 2004, it was revealed that more than 500,000 Australian children were placed in foster care in orphanages and other sorts of institutions. Of those 500,000 children, there is no doubt that a significant number were abused and faced neglect. Through most of last century the controls on who was working in these institutions and in such roles were virtually nonexistent. There were no working with children checks and there was no exchange of information between jurisdictions. It was a different time, and what looked good on paper as trusted agencies, caring organisations and individuals, many church based, were in some cases anything but reliable. That is not to say that every nun, priest or other caregiver was a paedophile or a violent abuser of children. This was not the case.
However, that having been said, one of the great problems regarding child abuse, not only in the last century but also in this century, is where those who have not been directly involved but have known or suspected have not reported that information. It is hard to tell how many of the carers effectively gave their tacit consent to abuse and neglect by not reporting those crimes. It is my view that they stand condemned for their silence and that their actions are not far short of their being perpetrators. In any case they betrayed the trust placed in them and their duty as adults to protect children. It is therefore surprising that it was only last year in Western Australia that the Children and Community Services Amendment (Reporting Sexual Abuse of Children) Bill was passed. The result of that legislation was that, from 1 January this year, doctors, nurses, midwives, teachers and police officers were now required to submit a written mandatory reporting form in cases where they suspected abuse had occurred. So I applaud the Barnett government of Western Australia for bringing this long-awaited legislation into law, an important element of the fight against sexual abuse and neglect of children. Although it imposes a legal obligation on several professions, I say that it remains a moral obligation of every adult to report evidence of or suspicion of child abuse or neglect.
It is a statistic that a great proportion of cases of abuse and neglect are inflicted by a person known to the victim as either a family member or a family friend. That having been acknowledged, we must also acknowledge that other family members and family friends would be best placed to observe concerns or form suspicions. I say that those who do not act are as guilty of betrayal as were those who worked in the old institutions last century: those who suspected but did not nothing.
It is hard to know whether the abuse and neglect of children is increasing or decreasing. In any case not a single case of abuse is tolerable and also a single suspicion that is not reported is not tolerable. Given the scale of abuse and neglect, it is appropriate that an apology be given and a strong expression of regret take place. However, I do look forward to the application of accountability to all perpetrators and to those who gave their tacit consent, as evidenced by the silence of betrayal of the weak and the defenceless. To those in Cowan who still carry the physical and emotional scars of their abuse and neglect, I say that I am sorry that the governments of this country did not ensure your safety and protect your childhood from abuse and neglect.
In this place it is our job to make sure that it can never happen again, and we should fight to do so as even one case is one case too many. Once again I thank the member for Gilmore for bringing this most important motion before the parliament. I look forward to the apology by this parliament to those who suffered being made as soon as possible. (Time expired)