First published November 2009
At 11.00am yesterday, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, on behalf of the Commonwealth of Australia, formally apologised to generations of Australians who were subjected to harm in children’s homes through the twentieth century.
Some could no longer be cared for in their families, yet were labeled ‘orphans’. Others were child migrants, sent out from Britain to have a chance of a better life in Australia. Many lived in a series of residential institutions, from infancy to adolescence, with every move damaging their development.
There are some 500,000 of these ‘Forgotten Australians’ and ‘Lost Innocents’. They all suffered hurt and distress. Many were victims of abuse and assault. Many never experienced a hug. Many were kept separate from siblings. Many never knew until years later that they actually had a mother and a family. All were at risk of attachment disorder and most lived with a fractured identity. Many struggled later in life to develop relationships. Most finished their very inadequate schooling at the age of fourteen and were used as cheap labour.
Many live heroic, resilient lives, holding on to hope. Some, as the Prime Minister acknowledged, ‘could not cope and took their own lives in despair’.
They were all innocent.
The survivors have been struggling for recognition, respect, healing and compensation for over a decade. After three Senate Inquiries and unanimous calls to start a healing process – Lost Innocents (2001), Forgotten Australians (2004) and the recent Lost Innocents and Forgotten Australians Revisited (2009) – an apology has at last been delivered.
Rudd offered his apology via a carefully crafted speech in the presence of hundreds of former residents of these institutions, some euphoric and some distressed, in the Great Hall of Parliament House. He accepted that this was ‘an ugly story’ and that ‘its ugliness must be told without fear or favour’.
Some of us who worked in or were associated with these children’s homes may not like this judgement. The rationalists will heartlessly say we should stop scratching at old scabs, get over it, and move on. The apologists will defensively say that we did the best we could with limited resources, and that it wasn’t all bad, that the children were very unruly, and that at least they got three meals a day, and that more child abuse occurs in families than in institutions. The lawyers will probably and allegedly say, ‘say nothing’.
It takes heart to be able to listen to a story of grief and abuse, to pass over into another person’s life, to feel something of the hurt, and to be there in solidarity until reconciliation slowly builds. It takes truthfulness, too.
Kevin Rudd said ‘great evil has been done, therefore hard things must be said’. He drew prolonged (and unselfish) applause when he declared that such systematic abuse should never happen again. He hoped that the apology would become a turning point, and he promised several steps to assist a healing process:
a process for recording people’s stories and experiences, so that the past will be acknowledged and not repeated;
• special status for care leavers in accessing aged care and appropriate aged care support and resources;
a national service and a national database to track files and help people find and reunite with their families;
ongoing funding for advocacy groups like CLAN (Care Leavers Australia Network), the Alliance for Forgotten Australians, the Child Migrants Trust;
a commitment to improve current child protection services, to do everything possible to prevent harm to the 30,000 children and young people in the care of the state in Australia today (see Child Protection Australia 2006-07 at www.aihw.gov.au).
The Great Hall acknowledged the tenacious advocacy of people like Leonie Sheedy and Joanna Penglase from CLAN, and Margaret Humphries from the Child Migrant Trust, but the most moving tribute of all was given to former senator Andrew Murray, a child migrant himself, who contributed so much to the effectiveness of the Senate Inquiries into these matters.
It was a good day for Parliamentary unity. Malcolm Turnbull’s response as Leader of the Opposition was pitched much as the Prime Minister’s speech, though a little more emotional and a little less measured. Thankfully, neither leader pulled out stories of their own fractured childhood. That would have been a category mistake of monumental proportion: they had a family and an education.
Fittingly and finally, Rudd highlighted the importance of an apology to an even more forgotten group of people: the mothers who lost their children to a system that failed them.
At last, he said, perhaps we can talk not of Forgotten Australians, but of Remembered Australians. Perhaps now, he seemed to be saying, remembering the pain and acknowledging the truth and admitting the failure of the Commonwealth, we can move on.
Perhaps. We may still have a long way to go to protect the ever-expanding generation of children and young people in the care of the state today, particularly in helping them find a sense of identity and belonging. Christian communities are in a particularly critical position. Past failures in church-run homes have had far-reaching consequences. On the one hand, the government has now become a fastidious regulator of care, and principles of social work set the parameters for the provision of care. On the other hand, the self-sacrificing love that once inspired members of religious communities to welcome ‘the orphan and the widow’ appears now either to have burnt itself out or to be seeking new directions.
The voices of the Forgotten/Remembered Australians, however, are creating opportunities for new engagement with religious communities and for healing and reconciliation. In some cases this is bearing fruit, as in some collaborative efforts to establish a national data-base and family connection service.
As one former child migrant put it at the apology, ‘All we want is a sense of belonging, and that we are loved by somebody.’ Secular governments cannot create these relational qualities. Who will?
John Honner has worked in community services for the past ten years. He was an instigator of a research project exploring the life experiences of a sample of care leavers: see Suellen Murray et al, After the Orphanage: Life beyond the Children’s Home (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2009). His submission to the Senate Inquiry that led to the Forgotten Australians report can be read here.