Senator Andrew Murray
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A warm welcome to all on what is a very special day. It is a day that marks a momentous achievement for a remarkable woman, Dr Joanna Penglase. I am delighted and honoured to have the privilege of launching her book, Orphans of the Living: Growing up in 'care' in twentieth century Australia. The book is a great tribute too to the publishers, Fremantle Arts Centre Press and Curtin University Books.
My training and background permit me to make an academic appraisal of this work. I want to give it some high praise right at the outset. In my view this book is good enough, professional and scholarly enough to take its place as a seminal text in its field, for use by policy-makers, academics and students in studying the dynamics that affect and inform human personality and behaviour.
Joanna's book is also a good historical text, covering a terribly neglected yet major part of the social and political history of 20th century Australia. The book shrewdly connects the subjective experiences and observations of a large representative sample with objective analysis and extensive references with relevant authorities.
Most importantly, the book avoids the temptation to present these issues as black and white. Life then and now is much more complex than that. It gives credit where credit is due, is aware that there were highlights and better moments, tells of often difficult and contradictory social and moral dilemmas, and is keenly aware of common and natural human shortcomings. Importantly it does not step back from resting blame and responsibility squarely on the shoulders of parents, grandparents and relatives, where it was deserved.
This book has academic and professional credibility. It should become an academic text, able to be used and promoted to achieve understanding and policy change, both in Australia and overseas. That means it should make a real contribution to getting Governments to provide the money policies and programmes necessary to meet the enduring consequences of past and present policies and behaviour with respect to children in care.
Reading Joanna's book, terror came to mind.
In an age when Governments are rightly putting great energy and commitment into terror threats, we should remember that the terror inflicted on little children also caused much death and injury. Governments and the public are rightly intensely concerned about the mayhem of terror on public transport and in public places, resulting in hundreds of deaths and injuries. Governments are rightly trying every means possible to address the problem. The reign of terror in too many child-care institutions resulted in thousands of suicides, many tens of thousands of sexual assaults, hundreds of thousands of physical assaults, and consequent trauma for many of the adults those children became.
One universal truth established by the Senate inquiries and books like Orphans of the Living is that if you harm a child you end up with a harmed adult. And it does not end there, as the effects of the harm can often be transferred to the victims' children, thus creating generational social problems. Orphans is quite simply an exceptional piece of writing, on a matter that directly affected millions of Australians, the over 500 000 in-care and all those connected to them.
Having been raised in care herself, Joanna uses her personal experiences and insights to illuminate a serious analytical text. It is a clever and effective writing technique. Through fine scholarship, this subjectivity and personalisation is skilfully counter- balanced with objective analysis and reference.
Having initiated and been involved in two Senate inquiries into children raised in institutional care, I thought I was well versed in all aspects of this issue. However, Orphans has delivered new insights for me as, I suspect, it will for all readers. Be warned though, it can also deliver a deep sadness. It is nigh on impossible not to be affected by the human tragedy revealed in the narratives contained in her book.
The title itself - Orphans of the Living - is most suitable. It does two things. It dispels the myth of children in orphanages and children's homes being actual orphans - nearly all had families; and it reminds us that most were rejected, abandoned or captive. Most did have parents, did have families. However, their unfortunate fate was to be born into disadvantaged family situations often exacerbated by poverty. This reality, Joanna writes:
condemned [children] to a loveless existence, isolated from their families and communities; layer onto this a superstructure of physical and sexual abuse, and the emotional desolation of the children living in this environment is complete (p.65).
Early in Orphans Joanna states that in Australia last century, more than half a million children grew up or experienced some time in care. This, she states, is merely a 'footnote' to mainstream history. In other words, a hidden history.
It is a history though that has been slowly materialising over the past two decades through an emerging body of literature, often written by care-leavers themselves; through more formal processes such as parliamentary inquiries; through numerous media reports; through TV documentaries such as 'The Leaving of Liverpool', 'Unholy Orders' and 'Bad Girls do the Best Sheets'; and through movie screenings such as the 'Magdalene Sisters' and 'Song for a Raggy Boy.'Additionally, around the world, people have begun to speak out, to demand acknowledgement of and justice for the hidden and often horrific assault abuse and neglect endured by so many survivors of institutional and other forms of out-of-home care.
Importantly, it is a history that must come to light because of the far-reaching consequences for those directly and indirectly concerned. The figure of half a million Australians increases exponentially if we consider that for every child who went into care, there were other family members affected. When care leavers later had families of their own, they often produced another generation of victims. Sadly, with no role models or experience of being socialised into 'normal' family life, the cycle of inappropriate or socially damaging behaviour perpetuates itself in too many families. Not all of course, by any means. In dwelling on the downside we must always stress that many children in-care have done well in their lives.
Orphanages and Children's Homes were unnecessarily punitive institutions. Chapter 3 of Joanna's book, titled 'Complete and austere institutions', adds weight to her earlier claim that children's Homes in mid-twentieth century Australia were akin to Solzhenitsyn's 'gulag archipelagos' (p.64).
While Joanna acknowledges there were some 'better' homes and that some children emerged not so scarred, the evidence is overwhelming of an institutional culture typified by relentlessly strict regimes that thwarted any childhood spontaneity, of any sense of self developing. She draws on the concept of 'poison pedagogy' (p.93) to illustrate how such practices actually stifled vitality; the very essence of forming an authentic sense of self. This austere approach to children in care is explained by Joanna within a world view of that time whereby adults had themselves grown up through the social upheaval and material privations of World Word 1 and the Depression.
Later in the book, she expands this by a discussion of how staff were recruited for orphanages and Homes. Skilfully drawing on government reports and other publications, including one aptly titled The Devoted, the Dull, the Desperate and the Deviant, Joanna explains how, among other things, poor salaries working conditions and no relevant selection criteria often attracted the worse kind of staff. Clergy carers themselves often came from poor disadvantaged backgrounds and were brought up in a dreadful religious ideology that emphasised sin and punishment. If we consider the severe and regimented regimes they endured as novices, it is little wonder they produced depraved carers.
Locate all this within an ethos that perceived children of deprived, contaminated families as a possible source of 'social infection', the overall scenario, Joanna explains, was one that encouraged abuse and also provided cover for abusive carers. Any allegations of abuse, especially if raised by 'ungrateful' children were all too readily dismissed. The belief that institutions were staffed by selfless, benevolent and good Christian people meant there was little room for criticism. There was also therefore seen to be little need for regular inspections.
Orphanages and Homes essentially operated as closed entities, or, in Joanna's words, as 'institutional islands' (p.162) with little, if any, accountability or transparency. If you want dark deeds to proliferate, keep them hidden. Although welfare policy was predicated on an ideology of 'benevolent charity', there was a sharp contrast between stated policy and how children were actually treated. The myth and reality were very far apart. Many people raised money for charities never knowing their good works were helping perpetuate systems of terror, criminal assault and degradation.
Politicians are as prone to delusion and believing what they want to as anyone else. Take this baloney quoted by Joanna at the beginning of Chapter 4, taken from a 1956 speech delivered by the then New South Wales Minister for Child Welfare, Mr F H Hawkins.
Throughout this State, thousands of excellent citizens, in many varied organisations, are doing outstanding work without thought of payment, for the benefit of the community …. Those who assist in this noble honorary work have a wide scope for their efforts, and the knowledge that everything they do to make better citizens of the less fortunate of our children is a valuable contribution towards the improvement of our society and our democratic and Christian way of life.
What possible societal improvement, democratic or Christian values was advanced by criminal sexual and physical assault, food education clothing and nurturing deprivation, and mental and emotional abuse?
Tragically, the reality of an abusive and neglectful institutional care culture meant an absence of all that is vital for healthy child development. Happy they were mostly not. That is why care-leavers often call themselves 'survivors'.
The narratives in Orphans reveal that there is nothing quite as tragic as parentless children; of existing in an alien environment without the security and nurturing that life within a family implies. This is simply and touchingly shown when Joanna writes of her own care situation.
all the things she gave me were things I didn't need. What I needed was my mum and dad, my sister and my brother (p.17).
Widespread evidence now reveals that the consequences of a loveless and abusive childhood are profound. It is a strong argument that being condemned to institutional and other forms of out-of-home care can also mean being condemned to a lifetime of emotional torment. Care leavers, Joanna write:
… typically live permanently, with the following: low self-esteem lack of confidence, depression, fear distrust, anger shame guilt fear of authority, obsessiveness, social anxieties, phobias, recurring nightmares, tension migraines (p.311).
These are then manifested through a myriad of social problems that can include: substance abuse, homelessness, unemployment, mental health and relationship troubles, prostitution and more serious criminal offences. Research shows that a disproportionate percentage of the prison population are care leavers, or those who have suffered abuse and assaults as children. Anecdotal evidence also indicates a high rate of suicide and premature deaths amongst care leavers. If only, as Joanna rightly points out, there had been some government support to prevent so many children from being raised in care, or at least to properly supervise their care.
As far back as 1974, she notes, the director of the Catholic Family Welfare Bureau, John Davoren, observed that welfare policy was mostly concerned with crises and casualties and that addressing itself to their actual causes was still in its infancy (p.84). Sadly, this argument still has relevance today. Because the causes were not addressed, there are so many scarred adults without programs to assist them. Not only is this unjust, it is disgraceful.
To fill this void, in the year 2000, Joanna and another care leaver, Leonie Sheedy, formed the Care Leavers of Australia Network, or CLAN. Together they have built this organisation into an effective national support and advocacy group. It has been a haven for many. Certainly, I would never have been successful in establishing the 2004 Senate Inquiry into children in institutional care had it not been for the persistent lobbying efforts of Joanna and Leonie.
The first and unanimous report of this inquiry, Forgotten Australians, incorporated 39 recommendations, or, 39 steps required to deliver long-awaited justice for care leavers. Currently, we await the Coalition Government's response to these recommendations, all of which are covered in the final chapter of Orphans. Apart from this most recent inquiry, there have been others before that have time and again uncovered the disturbing issues associated with children in out-of-home care. Yet few of these problems have been adequately acted upon. Admittedly, programs are now in place for early intervention into families at risk, for better parenting and the like. But these are nowhere near sufficient to combat the continuing problem of childhoods deprived of love, security and stability. This widespread apathy must be addressed by politicians and policymakers.
A good first step would be a mandatory reading of Orphans as it adds scholarly weight to the need for child abuse and neglect to become a national policy priority.
The alternative is even more damaged children developing into dysfunctional adults with all the attendant anti-social behaviours that are a massive drain on budgetary expenditures. The long term social and economic costs consequent to harming children mean that it is far cheaper to do the right thing by kids, than to address later adult problems.
Congratulations Joanna on Orphans, it is an outstanding contribution to a national issue of great importance. It is worthy of a wide readership and has the potential to make a real difference.