Forgotten Australians try to bury childhood horrors
The West Australian
Ronnie Barkey slumped into his chair, collapsed on his desk and did not move for an hour as he drifted in and out of consciousness.
Brother Murphy had asked each boy in the class, in turn, to answer a times table. But when he got the back of the room, where Ronnie was sitting with his mate Peter Bent, the nine-year-old did not know the answer.
“He belted him around the face, then he stated whacking his head against the back wall, the kid sort of collapsed and Brother Murphy was kicking him while he was on the ground, right next to me,” a now 68-year-old Mr Bent recalls.
“But the most terrifying thing for me was, I was next and I didn’t know the answer either.”
Punishment was meted out swiftly, severely and often at Castledare – one of the Christian Brother’s homes for orphaned and abandoned young boys in Perth last century.
More than 500,000 Australians grew up in institutions such as Castledare between 1930 and 1970 and the stories of neglect and physical, metal, emotional and sexual abuse among the survivors are as common as they are harrowing.
Today, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will make a formal apology to the out-of-home-care cohort known as the “Forgotten Australians” in Canberra.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced yesterday that he would follow suit in the new year and apologise to more than 150,000 child migrants aged between three and 14 who were sent to Commonwealth countries until the late 1960s.
Ronnie Barkey won’t hear Mr Rudd speak today. He was found dead beside a skip bin at the back of the old Fairlanes bowling alley on Adelaide Terrace more than a decade ago. He had been homeless for years.
His tragic tale is just one way the rampant abuse received or witnessed at such institutions has tormented the survivors and shaped the way they have lived their lives.
About 50,000 West Australians spent time in children’s homes, including Clontarf, Bindoon, Fairbridge Farm, Tardun Farm and St Joseph’s and more than 7000 child migrants who arrived in Australia under historical child migration schemes.
The Government’s apology was announced in late August – a recommendation of a Senate Inquiry completed in June which followed two reports about the Forgotten Australians released in 2001 and 2004. A formal remembrance ceremony will be held in the Member’s Hall in Parliament House before his apology on behalf of the nation will be tabled in Parliament.
For many, today is the first chance they have had to openly deal with their childhood suffering and some, including 57-year-old Mandurah woman Rhonda Griechen, will fly to Canberra to hear his words first-hand.
“For Kevin Rudd to do this takes a lot of courage. It is an important thing,” she said. “It’s like we’ve all been placed under a rock and he’s just reached up and lifted it up and we can have some clarity and move forward.”
Abandoned aged five by her divorcing parents, Ms Griechen lived at the Church of England Girls Home in Carlingford, NSW, until the age of 13, yet until now her years in care had remained her “horrible little secret”.
“I would never talk about it – not to my husband, my children, nobody,” she said. “No it is in the public arena it’s a lot easier to discuss because the blame is no longer mind and I think for a lot of ‘Homies’, it’s like someone else has taken that responsibility. It isn’t haunting me any more; it used to always haunt me but not any more.”
In care, Ms Griechen was beaten for misdemeanours as minor as getting coal on her skirt or leaving a smear of polish on a sink, but said she remained scarred by the brutal punishments she witnessed.
“I saw an Aboriginal girl getting scrubbed under a shower with a big broom scrubbing rush,” she said. “They scrubbed skin off her and she was bleeding in the shower and the matron was saying, I’ll get you clean you black bitch”. I was maybe nine of 10 then – you see a lot stuff and… you become a silent victim.”
Peter Bent, Ronnie’s friend, saw a lot too. Mr Bent was a child migrant. Given up in Britain by his unmarried mother and left at an orphanage in Southampton as an infant, he was set to Australia by ship in 1947.
Holding an old black and white photo of eight men in Christian Brothers’ uniforms – all teachers at the Castledare Boys Home in the mid-1950s – he recalls them by reputation. He can name six of them who regularly meted out beatings to the boys, two of whom did so severely.
Another by all accounts, was a “sadistic sexual deviant.”
“There were some nasty pieces of work in the Christian Brothers,” he said. “They had a custom-made strap and it seems to have been issued as part of their graduation. It was about 15 inches long, two inches wide and an inch-and-a-half thick. Sometimes they’d get a bit of lead put in the end of it. I’d like society to realise that this were horribly wrong – and we need to be vigilant to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”
Another friend of Mr Bent’s Barry Pinnell, was also abused in State care. He died penniless earlier this year.
With 30,000 young Australians living in care today, Families Minister Jenny Macklin, whose department has done the legwork on the apology, says that hand in hand with the apology is a commitment to make sure such abuse never happens again.
She said the Council of Australian Governments had this year agreed to the first national child protection framework, which includes nationwide standards for all out-of-home care.
“We know there are circumstances where children do have to be removed for their own safety for their parents. But in removing those children we have to know the places where they’re being cared for are meeting the standards we think are necessary to see those children grow up in happy and healthy environments, she said.
Agencies such as Centrelink and State child protection authorities would now share information keep track of families and their cases, Ms Macklin said.
Compensation for victims has been ruled out but the Federal Government, but the WA Government last year announced a redress scheme to compensate victims of abuse. Leonie Sheedy, President of CLAN, believes former Homies need their own Federal Government department, similar to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, to ensure they get help in the future.
“We’re like little soldiers, we gave our childhoods to this country,” she said.