The Forgotten Australians feel forgotten all over again
Those who lost their childhood to abuse and neglect still await justice.
IT IS now two years since then prime minister Kevin Rudd's national apology gave emotional acknowledgement to the lifetime of suffering faced by many of the so-called Forgotten Australians: those who survived unhappy childhoods in Australian orphanages.
But after a burst of publicity at the time, it seems there is still unfinished business facing them. In fact, it almost seems like they've been forgotten all over again.
The details are worth a reminder, and should break even the hardest of hearts: small children beaten to the point of broken bones for trifling transgressions; tied into bed then whipped for wetting it; and being force-fed insect-infested food and then, unbelievably, made to eat their own vomit when they were unable to stomach it. It is treatment that belongs more in a torture chamber than an orphanage, but it is just a small sample of what was meted out to more than half a million childhood care-leavers who were subject to neglect and abuse in orphanages, homes and other institutions during the 20th century.
There has been a national apology and every state in Australia has issued one of its own. So what do the people who have been quietly gathering in protest at Parliament every month want? In a word, it's justice. They want the governments, organisations and people who stole their childhoods to accept responsibility for doing so.
Compensation schemes have been created (sometimes reluctantly) in three states to make amends. That means if your childhood was spent in an orphanage in Western Australia, Tasmania or Queensland, you might get some redress. (Then again, you might not. A 91-year-old woman was denied access to compensation in one state because she missed the cut-off date for applications. Repeated requests made on her behalf for an exemption were denied.)
But for those incarcerated in a Victorian orphanage, there is no automatic right to compensation: determinations are made on a case-by-case basis. To make matters worse, some church groups and charities have found it so hard to say ''sorry'' that any eventual apology has seemed somewhat lacking in sincerity.
The Forgotten Australians want everyone who suffered to be eligible for compensation, including 91-year-olds whose social isolation is apparently no excuse for missing a bureaucrat's deadline. They want their experiences remembered alongside those of the Stolen Generations and child migrants. But, mostly, they want justice before there are none of them left.
These were kids who had done nothing wrong and yet were subjected to the most appalling treatment imaginable at the hands of church and state. Many of them are now elderly and carry a lifetime of shame and stigma.
The continued denial of justice is an issue so frustrating that some care-leavers have considered an approach to the United Nations to shame Australian governments into action. The sheer reluctance of some religious orders to act is just as frustrating.
In Ireland there is a national redress scheme for people who faced similar abuse as children. The Sisters of Mercy alone offered to contribute more than $200 million. No such act of charity has been forthcoming in Australia.
Some care-leavers think they have been forgotten because no one is interested in the suffering of poor white children, but perhaps that's not so. Maybe it's because the details of what those children went through are so disturbing that people now find it difficult to comprehend what happened in this country while other families were living happily behind white picket fences.
But happen it did. We as a society need to acknowledge that, own it and do what we must to help others move on.