Wardies and Homies: The Forgotten Australians

The older generation of 'wardies' and 'Homies' are the forgotten, and perhaps even the hidden generations. We number hundreds of thousands across Australia, more than the Aboriginal Stolen Generations, more than the adoptees who have services in every state, more than the child migrants who numbered at most ten thousand people. This is not to deny in any way the significance of those tragic histories or the right of those groups to recognition and to services.

But the story of white Australian children growing up in care has not been told, let alone acknowledged. Perhaps this is because governments do not want to recognise that the standard system for looking after kids in 'care' for so many decades was so abusive and has produced several generations of damaged Australian citizens who have struggled to lead meaningful and productive lives and who often, through no fault of their own, have passed that damage down the line. The inmates of Australia's gaols today are often the product of this abusive childhood; the rest of us have got on with our lives as best we could against heavy odds and many of us are dead before our time.

Throughout the 20th century, until the system changed significantly in the 1970s, most children whose families could not care for them were placed in institutions. This could happen in two ways. Relatives or a remaining parent could ‘voluntarily’ put their children into a Home or orphanage (but with no alternatives, there was not much that was ‘voluntary’ about doing this). Children who were placed in a Home by relatives were often placed there because of some disaster which had happened to the family: death, desertion, illness including mental illness.

Until the Whitlam government of the mid 1970s, income support and community services for families in need were almost nil. There were no social services as we know them today, no before and after school care, no long-day care, few kindergartens and pre-schools. Many jobs were still closed to women, by tradition if not law, and women were paid 2/3 the male wage for the same work. So when families broke down, they very often were broken up. The other way that children went into ‘care’ was when the state stepped in, decided that children were neglected, and removed them from parent(s), putting them in a Home or fostering them out.

Many families in crisis put their children in a Home out of fear that 'the Welfare' would step in and take their children and they might never see them again. Parents who had children removed by the state had great difficulty getting them back, and those children often lost their parents forever and often their brothers and sisters – just as the Stolen Generations did.

Although many state wards, especially in NSW, were fostered, often to grossly unsuitable carers, institutional care was the most common form of out-of-Home care for children whose own families could not look after them. Children’s Homes were run by churches and charities or by state governments or sometimes by individuals. Any individual could get a licence to run a Home if they could prove they were 'respectable' (references from the local doctor and minister, no visible signs of drink or disorder).

The people who looked after children in Homes were usually people with few employment qualifications; when they worked for the government child welfare departments they were public servants who had worked their way up the system. They were not required to have an interest in children or any training for dealing with them. Children who ended up 'unwanted' by their parents (as they were labelled, whatever the reason they had ended up in a Home) were treated as if they had little value to society, in fact they were seen as a threat – they would grow up to be juvenile delinquents unless they were harshly treated in order to keep them on the straight and narrow.

Growing up in a Home was a quite common experience for generations of children up to the 1970s. It was also a deeply traumatising experience which affected people’s lives forever.

Why was it traumatising?

Because Children’s Homes and institutions were run like prisons and with absolutely no acknowledgment that children had any feelings at all. Public inquiries such as the one which resulted in Queensland's 1999 Forde Report have shown that residential care all too often involved high levels of sexual, physical and emotional abuse.

What is less well known is that the policies and practices that were characteristic of the management of residential Homes in this earlier time resulted in children feeling completely abandoned and emotionally neglected, cut off from both family and community ties and stigmatised as ‘rejects of society’.

Children in Homes had one particular thing in common: they had suffered the most catastrophic loss possible, the loss of their own parents. In the Home they usually lost their brothers and sisters as well, separated from them by age and gender. The atmosphere of most Homes was punitive in both an emotional and physical sense. Physical punishment, a routinised existence, no emotional contact and no personal interaction at all were the norm.

Sexual abuse was common: institutionalised children were fair game for paedophiles because there was nobody to protect them and nobody to care what happened to them and nobody who would believe their word against the word of an adult. Visiting was infrequent and parents were made to feel that they no longer had any say in what happened to their children.

Staff in Homes were forbidden to become attached to the children they were employed to care for but it is obvious that few had any wish to. One of the most striking themes in the histories of institutional ‘care’ is the extent and degree of gratuitous adult cruelty to children. This is perhaps another reason why we do not want to know about this history. You can imagine how well such a childhood fits you for a functional adult existence.

Over time, state wards and Home children frequently lost all contact with their siblings and with their family and place of origin, and consequently developed a confused and unstable sense of self and identity. Many have only a hazy knowledge of their own childhood histories. They have no photographs, medical histories, school reports, or personal mementos.

Many have led their adult lives as ‘parentless people’, feeling that they belong nowhere. Predictably, they have often found parenting their own children difficult and extremely stressful, as well as a painful reminder of their own abandonment at this vulnerable stage of life.

Research into the outcomes of growing up in this sort of ‘care’ is minimal. However what little there is, along with anecdotal evidence (of which there is now a great deal) indicates a disproportionate representation by Care Leavers in the national statistics for relationship breakdown, unemployment, drug and alcohol addiction, Homelessness, mental and emotional problems, incarceration, and suicide.

Many people emerged from their 'care' (including state care) illiterate or poorly educated, resulting in poorly paid employment and few resources to cushion their lives as they age. Care Leavers from this earlier system continue to suffer both from their experiences in ‘care’ and from the ongoing consequences in their present lives of the policies applied to them in the past.

The majority have grown up with profound feelings of worthlessness and insecurity; many have lived all their lives with one or more of the symptoms of what is now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Too often this story seems to be reduced to the word 'abuse'. Some people, as children in Homes, were abused but these were random acts perpetrated by a few ‘bad apples’ or ‘perverts’. This is a complete mis-interpretation of this history, for although it is made up of tens of thousands of individual – and at times so appalling as to be almost incredible – histories, it is also a social and political history: it tells us a lot about our society.

The fact of sexual abuse is only one detail of this story. The questions which should be asked (and rarely are), about this abuse, and all the other abuses are:

How was such a system possible?

Where were 'the authorities'?

Where were the checks and balances?

How come nobody knew?

What sort of system of ‘care’ allowed this to happen so freely and with so little accountability?

In the case of state care, these were children taken from parents who were considered 'not good enough': they were removed so they could have a ‘better life’.

Why didn’t that happen?

Institutional care, by the post-war decades, had been discredited. It was known how much it damaged children. But in most states of Australia it was the norm.

Why was this so?

Children's Homes of the 20th century right up to the 1970s – were an instance of what is now called 'systems abuse'. Systems abuse occurs when a system actually harms the people it is set up to care for.

The policies which governed child welfare of this time are as horrifying and as inexplicable to current thinking as those which governed Aboriginal people.

We seem to be able although with a lot of resistance to accept that our policies towards the Aborigines were ‘wrong’. It seems to be very difficult for us as a society to understand how ‘wrong’ we were about these most vulnerable of children for so many decades of the 20th century.

The current Senate Inquiry is a welcome beginning to understanding just what happened, and why. This Inquiry into Children in Institutional Care, CLAN regards as the third of the trilogy – after the inquiry into the Stolen Generations and into the experiences of the Child Migrants.

Although the Aboriginal history has its own uniquely catastrophic dimensions, there is one major point of similarity between that history and ours.

Children, regardless of the colour of their skin, are deeply wounded psychologically by the loss of their parents; and they do not thrive, indeed they barely survive, in the sterile environment of an institution (in which so many Aboriginal children also suffered).

The adults who emerge from such a childhood experience are emotionally disabled, and all their life outcomes are shaped and distorted by this early trauma. Aboriginal people were further damaged by the stigmatisation of their colour. The status of state ward and Home child also shapes, in a similarly disabling way, the self-perceptions of the person who carries it.