'"Girls like you ... "
How the state of Victoria used to 'care' for its most vulnerable!
Several months before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse commenced a public hearing on Victorian state-run youth training centres, a woman emailed me.
Her message was a single stark line: 'The place still makes my heart race when I think of the time spent there.'
She was referring to Winlaton, the institution purpose-built in 1956 to hold teenage girls on remand or serving sentences.
By the end of that decade, however, and until its closure in 1993, the vast majority of Winlaton 'trainees' were girls on care and protection orders. Effectively, they were imprisoned for being neglected, abused, and homeless.
While at Winlaton, many became the victims of sexual and physical assaults — by staff and other girls. This was how the state of Victoria looked after its most vulnerable girls, who following their incarceration were simply expected to get on with their lives.
Except many didn't. One former resident interviewed for the 2001 documentary Winnie Girls, recalled that in the 1980s there were so many funerals for former Winlaton residents who had died from heroin overdoses that to protect her own sanity, she had to stop going to them.
As the list of witnesses for the Royal Commission hearing was being finalised, a woman who assists former state wards access their official records rang me. 'There's going to be a lot of very angry and re-traumatised mothers and grandmothers suffering in their homes over the next few weeks, and their families will have no idea why.' Many, she said, had never told their loved ones of their pasts, such is their shame of having been imprisoned as children.
A small group of Winlaton survivors was present every day of the hearing. They clapped vigorously for the women who stepped shakily from the witness box after giving evidence of their horrific abuse; shook their heads vehemently at the justifications, poor memory recall, and never-satisfactory apologies of former child welfare professionals, and outpoured their grief and fury to a cluster of Royal Commission-appointed counsellors who sat constantly amongst them with boxes of tissues and open, benevolent faces.
Over hot chocolate with marshmallows at a café near the County Court, one of these survivors told me of her experiences going in and out of Winlaton as a young teenager. After one admission she endured drug withdrawal without any assistance — bar that of her cellmate who screamed and hammered at the steel door for someone to come and remove the 'crazy girl' she was trapped with. No one came.
The under-resourcing of Winlaton (and other Victorian youth training centres) was a recurring point of discussion throughout the hearing. The two former superintendents who gave evidence, Lloyd Owens and Eileen Slack, recalled that they had to constantly beg the Department for more funding and more staff. But the staff-to-resident ratio remained dangerously low. And some of the staff members were predators. Or utter bitches.
Karen Hodkinson gave evidence that in 1974, immediately after being sexually assaulted by a male Winlaton social worker, she reported the incident to a senior youth officer. 'She slapped me across the face and said words to the effect of, "How dare you make up such dirty lies about one of my staff members. You are nothing but a dirty lying little bitch. Girls like you are why we have places like this, because you need to be taught to tell the truth".'
Karen then spent several days in isolation for her trouble. 'You can imagine,' Counsel Assisting, Peggy Dwyer, asked of former superintendent Lloyd Owen, 'in those circumstances then, why that child would never again report that she was sexually abused?' 'Yes,' agreed Owen.
Another survivor described being sexually assaulted within Winlaton, then following release in 1987 being forced to perform oral sex on her Dandenong social worker before he'd hand over her welfare cheque, then being coerced to provide sexual favours to Oakleigh plain clothes police to avoid arrest. All before she was 15. In the same year, a couple of kilometres away, I was a ten-year-old mooning over a picture of Jon Bon Jovi in my Caulfield bedroom, despairing that he would never answer my fan letters.
A strong focus of the public hearing was the poor handling by child welfare professionals of the case of BGD — a 15-year-old girl who had been repeatedly raped by her father. When questioned why she was unable to recall the details of such an extraordinary case, former deputy superintendent Marilyn Minister stated, 'I would have said there were hundreds, honestly, in all the years I was there. I would say hundreds, in estimation.' 'Hundreds of children who had been raped by members of their family?' Peggy Dwyer responded, startled.
Of the many, many devastating moments of the hearing, this to me was the worst. In the 13 years Minister worked at the institution, 'hundreds' of family rape victims were delivered through Winlaton's secure entrance. For many, their personal hell was about to get much worse.
Madeleine Hamilton has a PhD in Australian history. As well as researching and writing about Winlaton, she is currently undertaking a Masters in Social Work.
Winlaton image: ABC
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04 September 2015
This article made harrowing reading. And the words that resonated for me were "and outpoured their grief and fury to a cluster of Royal commission-appointed counsellors who sat constantly amongst them with boxes of tissues and open, benevolent faces." This is grief and fury that will never abate, but is managed. This is grief and fury that is misunderstood for disregard, distance and hard-heartedness. To all the "Girls like you..." my hope and prayer is for a measure of healing and for a society with an open, benevolent face.
04 September 2015
Incarcertaion of women, the inevitable brutality that comes with that, forced sexual acts, long term psychological damage, treating human beings as a mere numbers to be used in calculating funding issues - Winlaton and young gilrs back then or Nauru and our treatment of refugees NOW - both groups of people find themselves helpless at some time in their lives through no fault of their own and how do we care for them? One day we will learn the lesson that there but by the grace of god goes you and I.
04 September 2015
The revelations about Winlaton are another nail in the coffin of what people like you and I , growing up in safe middle class homes, would have assumed was a safety net to protect the most vulnerable young people in this country. Instead, places like Winlaton, Neerkol and similar were Houses of Horror where people's lives were destroyed. Death by drug overdose sounds to me like the sort of suicide many Vets achieve through alcohol. In both cases, Winlaton and the Armed Forces, whatever else those poor people suffered I think PTSD is a very real condition with them. What you write about is almost as bleak as what happened in Convict Times. There is no excuse. This particular Royal Commission has shown the horror behind the facade of many institutions. The administrators have been found sadly wanting. It is a salutary lesson. A friend of mine, a Catholic, is quite rightly horrified at what happened in the Church. But it existed everywhere: it pervaded our society. My sympathies are with the victims. They need every assistance and adequate restitution. We also need to attempt to prevent this sort of thing happening again. It is a daunting task.
05 September 2015
The final two paragraphs actually deprived me of breath for a moment. The horror..
07 September 2015
The breath-taking moment was not so much the claim that the Deputy Superintendent knew there were hundreds of girls raped by a family member. That was shocking to hear. What was worse was that neither she nor her senior or any of her staff thought they had a duty to report the rapes to the police. They seem to regard rape in house as a family matter not as a criminal offence. That's disgraceful!
08 September 2015
The life expectancy of State Wards and children sent to Juvenile Detention in Victoria is extremely low, approx 25 years of age for those in Orphanages and less than 30 for those other Institutions. Worse than remote areas, worse than a 3rd world country. Deliberate starvation, imprisonment, child slave labour, rape and racial degradation.... There has to be justice and proper redress and services. Children were systematically separated from their brothers and sisters on intake to make them more vulnerable and compliant. This system came about because of the government funds that could be ripped off... There has to be full financial and personal accountability of any child in Out of Home Care. Most children in need of Care have 40 living relatives. Pay them to look after the kids, and leave the Charities out of it. They aren't charitable at all.
John Cronin, Toowoomba
10 September 2015
I commend Madeline Hamilton's incisive article & her comments on the survivor lady from Winlaton who said " The place still makes my heart race when I think of the time spent there." Such horrible memories, imprinted for a lifetime, are unresolved PTSD & must resonate with all people of compassion. In all situations of CSA & of any sex abuse or physical & verbal abuse at any age. The often totally inadeguate response by all societies is little or no victim counselling & support. This is the take-home meessage for our RC Church & our RC institutions involved in the past. Victims, even ones from 50+ years ago, STILL need our help. Whether we are Christians or not, we can do no less.
15 September 2015
It was early in 1974, as a young social work graduate, that I stood outside Winlaton and gazed up at that barbed wire pictured above, and thought ‘Jesus we can do better than this’. And so for the first decade or more of my career I worked with like-minded people in the Department of Community Welfare Services Victoria establishing residential and community support alternatives to youth training and reception centres. Along the way I learnt just how very difficult it was to provide ‘out of home care’ in any form that could substitute for a good family. During that time I also developed a great respect for that generation of social workers, a few you have named, who were in the thick of things, developing and reforming institutions from within, with little in the way of resources save for their professional skill, dedication and tenacity in trying to give vulnerable young people a better chance in life. I recall many social workers and youth workers from Winlaton providing enormous assistance to my team in securing community placements for hundreds of young people leaving the facility during that era.
Years later, I worked in St Kilda at the Sacred Heart Mission, and got to understand a little of just how dreadful a life it is for young women and men on the streets and what likely motivated the earlier social administrators of the 1950s to establish reception centres as a means of providing care for young people who were exposed to abuse. True and tragically that safety wasn’t always there - which is evident from the testimonies provided to the Royal Commission. And reading the reports of the Victorian Child Care Commissioner- neither is it here now – which speaks to the highly complex endeavour of trying to look after children outside of their own families
Along with validating the traumatic experiences of those who were victims of abuse we also need to acknowledge the experiences of young men and women whose lives turned out for the better with the support and modelling they received during that era. Only this morning I received a call from a very talented youth worker, possibly the most engaging and experienced worker I know. After spending time in Winlaton as a State Ward during the mid- seventies, she returned to Nunawading as a volunteer some 9 years later, then went on to work for some 25 years supporting homeless young people and their families.
The Royal Commission rightly takes a specific focus in uncovering abuse where it has occurred, examining institutional responses and drawing out the lessons that can be learnt. Others have an opportunity to shed light on the whole story, fully identifying the wrongs of an era and also recognizing the good that was done and the changes that were wrought by inspired professionals and reformers – in places like Winlaton.