Breaking the Barrier of Silence around Child Sexual Abuse

Professor Shurlee Swain’s  third paper for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is a fascinating survey of previous royal commissions and other official inquiries in Australia.

“The History of Australian inquiries reviewing institutions providing care for children” (2014) identifies 83 Australian inquiries. Download the paper here.

The first, a NSW Select Committee on Destitute Children, began in 1852 and the last, the Victorian Parliamentary Committee on the Handling of Child Abuse in Religious and Other Non-government Organisations, reported in 2013.

Swain identifies three types of inquiries over the course of 160 years.

  1. Policies and systems: From 1852 through to the post-war period, inquiries were concerned with policy and establishing and refining the child welfare system.
  2. Damage control: a series of more specific inquiries from the 1860s to the 1990s in response to allegations of abuse.
  3. Listening to the Victims: From the 1990s to contemporary times a number of inquiries have focussed on hearing survivor testimony.

The 83 inquiries are all listed in a handy appendix – four times the length of the discussion that analyses the history. The table shows the focus of each inquiry, lists the main institutions examined and points to the recommendations that seem most relevant.

However, Swain is acutely aware that the current Royal Commission – given its explicit terms of reference around the handling of child sexual abuse – will have its work cut out to find any direct value in the majority of previous inquiries because of the silence surrounding sexual abuse.

The long silence

“Sexual abuse was rarely raised in the context of these investigations,” Swain writes, “although occasional references to problems with immorality in the institutions…would suggest that this absence was indicative of a silence around sexuality (p. 8).”

Where immorality was mentioned, it usually referred to sexual behaviour among the children and the risk of moral contagion when innocent children were placed amongst the already ‘depraved’.

The possibility that staff could be involved in sexual relationships with the children was rarely taken seriously, let alone seen as a systemic issue. Where allegations against staff were impossible to ignore, for example specific allegations of abuse in reformatories and disability institutions, the events were seen as problems with individuals – although very few child welfare officials were ever sent to trial as a result of these investigations.

This was the case, too, where children died in ‘care’ – as many did of course. Swain could find only three instances in which a coronial inquiry led to criminal charges being laid. It has to be said, furthermore, that not all deaths were the subject of inquests even when the circumstances warranted it. But that’s another matter.

Swain astutely argues that the final reports alone will not provide sufficient evidence to understand to what extent and why sexual abuse – or deaths in custody – are glossed over or ignored. A skilled historian with time to examine minutes of evidence and other archival material would be able “to read into the silences to establish what was not being discussed, as well as the issues that made it into the public record (p. 4).”

Nevertheless, some of the practices are already clearly documented – and Swain nails them here:

  • individualising accusations of sexual abuse (‘perverts’ and ‘sex fiends’)
  • discrediting witnesses
  • minimising reporting in the interests of public morality, and
  • perhaps most important of all, failing to listen to the child victims, or not taking their evidence seriously enough because of their lowly status.

Breaking the barrier of silence

The inquiries held in more recent years have actively sought testimony from survivors. Residents of children’s institutions had in the past been invited to give evidence before inquiries but, as we have seen, “their testimony was always corrupted by their status”. That is, they were mere children, and who would take the word of a child against a welfare officer or a man or woman of the cloth?

The recasting of the debate was encouraged by feminist discourse which challenged the belief that sexual abuse was merely the acts of individual ‘perverts’ or ‘sex fiends’ and could be seen as systemic, and the core transgression of childhood innocence” (p. 11).

The change can be seen as a political act, produced by, among others, organised Care Leaver advocates: “people who in their childhood were the objects of state and charitable intervention, are now asserting their rights to recognition as equal citizens whom the state has wronged (p. 10).”

Swain correctly asserts that the new model of testimonial-based inquiry came to Australia with the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody (read more). This was followed by an extensive series of inquiries, as different survivor groups claimed their right to speak. Although sexual abuse was not a specific term of reference of the Lost Innocents (Child Migrants – read more) or Forgotten Australians (Care Leavers – read more) inquiries, victim/survivor testimony was so strongly articulated that the reports singled it out for special treatment.

“Within this series of inquiries the willingness to speak about sexual abuse has seen the issue rise in prominence to the point where it has become the primary focus of the current Royal Commission (p. 10).”

A weak backlash has emerged from conservatives running unconvincing two lines of comment:

  • claims  that the ‘politics of regret’ now unfairly privilege ‘victim narratives’ over other stories – and therefore that people with different views are now being silenced and marginalised; and
  • accusations that ‘victim narratives’ are fabrications or ‘flaunting suffering’ to get attention and financial compensation.

Despite that backlash, I find it impossible to imagine a future where child sexual abuse is swept back under the carpet.

History of institutions providing out-of-home residential care for children

This is the 2nd of Prof Shurlee Swain’s three research papers for the Royal Commission

It can be downloaded here

This will prove to be the most fascinating of the Swain papers for those who are new to this area. It explains the many different types of institutions offering out-of-home ‘care’ for children in Australia from 1788 until the de-institutionalisation movement of the 1980s.

The paper shows that from the outset the colonies were determined not to replicate the British Poor Laws – the wealthy would resent the costs. Instead, the most populous colonies of New South Wales and Victoria adopted the British model of voluntary organisations run by a committee elected by subscribers, who were entitled to a set number of ‘tickets’ which allowed them to recommend children as ‘fit objects for relief’.

The Australian welfare system developed as a “mixed economy”. Governments dealt with churches, charities and community organisations to provide services considered necessary for children whose parents were unable to provide for them.

Swain then weaves her way deftly through the complex labyrinth of institutional types that formed part of this ‘system’. I have changed the order of Swain’s presentation to reflect my own interests. The numbers are taken from the Find & Connect Website (which you can visit here).

Orphanages: 43 institutions – 6 Government, 24 Catholic, 6 Anglican and 7 non-denominational

Orphanages or orphan asylums were prominent in Australian cities and towns from the early 19th through to the mid-20th centuries. Their often impressive buildings were a symbol of civic pride, that a community honoured its obligations to children in need.

However, these institutions were selective in defining children in need: “…the children of the deserving poor, removing them from the stigma attached to lesser institutions, while training them to provide for themselves in the future.” (p. 7)

“Once they reached school leaving age, children who had no family to return to were ‘apprenticed out’ – most commonly, boys as farm labourers and girls as domestic servants” (p. 7)

Industrial Schools and Reformatories: for ‘neglected’ and ‘criminal’ children

These were among the “lesser institutions” referred to above.

Industrial schools: 32 institutions run by Government, Catholic, Salvation Army, Anglican and non-denominational agencies

These were for ‘neglected children’. If left untrained, such children were seen as a future risk to society. They would fall into the indolence, moral degradation or even criminality. To avoid this risk the children would be trained to be industrious, to see the value of work and prepared to support themselves in the future.

In Victoria, industrial schools were central to providing for state children (or wards of state as they later were labelled). The government dominated the field, although industrial schools were also developed within some existing Catholic orphanages.

Parents were required to to contribute to the maintenance of their children in industrial schools even though many of the children were deprived of contact with their parents.

“Overcrowded, poorly organised and riddled with disease, this system stumbled from crisis to crisis before being replaced by a boarding- out scheme from the 1870s.” (p. 8)

Although Swain does not address the issue of boarding-out (or foster care) in this paper, she reminds us that those forms of ‘care’ dominated most of the statutory and some of the voluntary provision from the 1870s before waning in the hard economic times of the 1930s. Foster care then made a comeback to pre-eminent status from the 1970s on.

Reformatories: 43 institutions began as reformatories, 28 for boys and 15 for girls. Run by mostly by Government, Catholics and Salvation Army

The earliest specialist institutions for ‘criminal children’, reformatories were designed “to remove offenders from the morally polluted environment of the prison.” (p. 20) Boys were perceived as being in danger of embarking on a criminal life, while girls were predominately admitted for ‘moral offences’ or the fear that they would ‘lapse into immorality’.

The name said it all: the belief was that, intercepted early enough and confronted by strong discipline and hard work (and in some places lashings of the Bible and prayers), young criminals could be reformed and transformed into honest workers.

Reformatories were often overcrowded and poorly staffed institutions, and consequently were sites of great violence. To maintain order, staff adopted prison routines, often more brutal and rigid than adult prisons.

Training Homes and Farm Training Schools – 7 Training Homes and 24 Farm Schools

Domestic training homes for older girls and farm training schools for older boys had some of the characteristics of the old industrial schools. They used the residents’ labour to maintain the institution and the type of training related to a narrow range of jobs in the labour market which they joined on their discharge.

Children’s Homes – latter-day orphanages – 224 organisations, 116 of which took children of both genders, 73 only boys and 35 exclusively girls

As time went by, many of the specialist institutions described above became more general children’s home. The term ‘home’ was an attempt to create distance from the ‘barracks-style’ institutions of the past and to imply a more familial environment. Former residents commonly capitalise ‘Home’ to make the point that they were not at all like a family home.

These institutions proliferated in the 20th century. Because the arrangements under which they could take custody of children were loosely controlled and supervision was inadequate, children were vulnerable to abuse. Swain concludes, “Even nominally denominational homes were often only loosely connected to church hierarchies, which contributed little to their ongoing costs. Non-denominational organisations often became the fiefdom of committed individuals accountable to nobody.” (p. 12)

Family Group Homes – at least 160 adopted this model

This model of ‘care’ emanated from post-war Britain. Family group homes, scattered throughout the suburbs and staffed by married couples, many of whom brought their own children, appeared closer to the family ideal. The family group home more closely equated to idea of family than the structure of most children’s homes because siblings could stay together, and the children could attend local schools and other community facilities.

In reality, the turnover of staff and children over time and issues of finances meant, in many cases, the facade of ‘family’ proved hard to maintain. It was evident that it was easier to make larger, more uniform groups of children than those in the surrounding neighbourhood. Moreover, as Swain points out, siblings were still required to leave individually as each came to the end of their schooling, creating vacancies which were quickly filled by other unrelated children.

While the best family group homes came close to recreating a domestic family home, the worst left children vulnerable with no-one to whom they could report abuse.

The Victorian Child Welfare Department was an early adopter of this type of ‘care’ but, “struggling with all but collapse of its foster care system, and a shortage of beds in the non-government homes on which it had come to rely, [it] returned to direct provision of care in 1956.” (p.13)

Indigenous-specific Institutions

Swain points out that, “Indigenous children have always been represented within government and non-government institutions but states with substantial surviving Indigenous populations also developed parallel Indigenous-specific systems which replicated many of the institutions in the mainstream system. Intrinsic to the development of such institutions was the separation of the children from home and community, usually with the aim of assimilation.” (p. 25)

The longevity of Indigenous-specific institutions suggest “a continued reliance on older models of care than in the non-Indigenous sector.” (p. 25)

Mission Homes, established in the early 19th century, are a case in point. Missions were designed to accommodate supposed orphans, but increasingly children were brought in from other communities and other children and their parents came to live on the mission. While children could still have contact with their parents and other members of their community, in practice, separation was increasingly enforced as adults were seen as an obstacle to their children’s ‘progress’.

In the second half of the 20th century the move towards Indigenous self-determination saw the return of Missions to local community control.

Other Out-of-home Care Provision

Swain gives a brief account of a variety of other arrangements which can only be listed here. Some are specialist services; others are little more than ad hoc warehouses

  • Emergency Accommodation
  • Reception Centres
  • Female Rescue Homes
  • Maternity Homes
  • Babies’ Homes
  • Mother and Baby Homes
  • Hostels
  • Youth Accommodation
  • Disability Institutions
  • Convalescent & Holiday Homes


Swain’s research reveals an extraordinarily complex and diverse mix of out-of-home ‘care’ of children in Australia.

Where government was not the direct provider, regulation, inspection and lines of responsibility were lax and confused even where governments funded church or charitable efforts.

Swain comments tellingly, “There was little to rein in the activities of individuals and organisations who believed that they had a calling to ‘care’ for children they perceived to be unwanted or otherwise in need. Relationships with church-led or other supervising authorities were similarly lax, with few prepared to question self-funding and well-meaning individuals or committees undertaking this work.” (p. 27)

Where did this leave the children?

In short: powerless, vulnerable and isolated. Cut off from family for whom the authorities had no respect and to whom they had no accountability, children were separated, placed and moved to suit the administration. Once inside the walls, they were at the mercy of the merciful and the merciless alike – with no-one to whom they could turn for support “as they navigated their way into adulthood.” (p. 27)


Child Protection – A History of Australian Laws

The History of Child Protection Legislation in Australia 

Shurlee Swain’s first paper for the Royal Commission  (I’m not sure the three papers are meant to be read in any set order) surveys the legislation relating to the out-of-home care of children. The paper can be downloaded here.

Reminding us that child welfare in Australia was a state rather than federal responsibility, Swain describes child welfare provision in Australia as a patchwork rather than a coordinated system. Yet, much of the legislation across the different jurisdictions is cannibalistic and imitative.

Swain describes four chronological but overlapping waves of legislation.

1. Each state passed laws to structure their child welfare ‘system’ beginning in the 1860s. At first, they were driven by concerns around child vagrancy. Later the child rescue movement shifted the focus to the child’s need for protection from parents or guardians who were failing in their core responsibilities.

2. Also from the 1860s, laws focused on regulating care providers, establishing systems of inspection and rules covering punishment and employment of children. In my view, there is not much evidence that these laws were at all effective.

3. Laws initially seeking to deter parents from ‘foisting their children on the state’. Poverty was understood as a moral rather than an economic or social problem and the child welfare system was designed to prevent this moral failing being passed on to the next generation. The earliest legislation had been framed to punish parents for their perceived failures, and deter others from following in their path. The early legislation encoded an expectation that parents or relatives would contribute to the maintenance of their children where circumstances allowed.

But, from the 1880s and extending into the second half of the 20th century, some measures were introduced to keep families together. Governments, belatedly, saw the merit of payment to poor parents to keep their children out of the system. Pensions for widows, and other benefits such as child endowment, helped single mothers and supporting fathers.

4. Laws designed to deal with children seen as requiring special provision: child migrants, Aboriginal children, infants, and children with disabilities. This area is covered in more detail in another paper.

Swain concludes, quite properly, that the system – let’s call it that for sake of argument – was poorly resourced and often slow to respond to new thinking overseas.

Child welfare was rarely a high priority for politicians – and that is true still. Public servants and charitable institutions – and I would add churches – exercised significant autonomy in deciding where and how policies should be implemented.

As a result, Swain argues – and the evidence is now clear – children were exposed to a regime which had more interest in keeping costs down and deterring entry to the system  than in children’s rights and best interests.

From the outset a policy of child removal was established which survived largely unchallenged until the beginnings of de-institutionalisation in the 1970s. Moreover, the dominant institutions “essentially positioned the children as being in need of control rather than care.” (p. 6)

Swain takes us through the take-up of industrial and reformatory schools from the 1860s that were essentially the adaptation of the British model. She gives an overview of changes that took place with the realization that Industrial Schools were not working – although the parallel (and often overlapping) system of reformatories for ‘criminal’ children would survive virtually unchanged, except that governments would regain control of the private reformatories that flourished in the nineteenth century.

Victoria was one of the states that decided to close all government industrial schools and rely on voluntary efforts to maintain its boarding-out or fostering system. This may have been sound in principle, but when times got tough and available foster family places declined dramatically from the 1930s, the government chose not to be fussy rather than demand minimum standards of ‘care’.

As they did in orphanages and other children’s Homes, many children in foster families “felt isolated, exploited and deprived in a system that functioned to cut them off from their families of origin far more completely than had the industrial schools.” (p. 11)

With very little supervision by government or sponsoring institutions, many children were vulnerable although it “…is clear from provisions in the legislation that governments were not unaware of these risks.” (p. 12)

Swain covers many other elements of the system including methods of “disposing of ex-nuptial children”, notably through adoption laws. Western Australia was the first Australian state to introduce legal adoption (1896). The other states came to it slowly in the 1920s, when it was being discussed and finally legalised in the UK.

In the 1960s, adoption laws increasingly concentrated the control of adoption in the hands of social workers, eliminating the private adoptions that had been permitted in some states in the past.

The demands of adoption stakeholders led to a reconsideration of the underlying basis of adoption, with legislation introducing open adoption, where all parties could know the identity of other parties, and some level of contact between a child and its original parents was considered to be the norm.

In summary, Swain’s paper is a clear guide to the legislative framework underpinning the ‘system’ which developed in Australia for looking after children who were forced to live away from their family.

Foster Care in Crisis

I wish we didn’t need so many kids to be placed in the care of foster families. But, with more than 40,000 Australian kids unable to be looked after by their parents because of poverty, family breakdown, drug and alcohol issues and violence – and lack of support in a crisis – things are in a very bad way.

Authorities are finding it really hard to find enough volunteers for fostering children in need. Currently, more foster volunteers are giving up than are putting their hands up.

Among other things, this is causing more vulnerable children to be placed in residential ‘care’ where we know bad things happen. (Yes, I know they happen in foster families too, but to nowhere near the same extent as in ‘resi care’.)

The problem is essentially this: governments refuse to reimburse their volunteer foster families to cover the costs of schooling, medical expense, and other basic costs of caring for a child. Governments rely on goodwill to bridge the gap between what they provide and what it really costs to raise a child. Eventually, the good will is eroded to the extent that people become disillusioned, drop out and refuse to take more children.

Here is a response from my local MP to my letter calling for better support for foster families and more resources.

Dear Frank

Thank you for your recent correspondence in which you raise concerns regarding the difficulties faced by Victorian foster carers. 

Labor recognises that foster carers are an invaluable part of our out of home care system. They play a vital role in providing a positive, safe and nurturing environment for some of our most vulnerable and disadvantaged children and young people.  

This is why the former Labor Government provided funding for the implementation of a long term Foster Care Communication and Recruitment Strategy. In its early years, the Strategy showed positive early outcomes including increased enquiries about foster care. In an extremely short-sighted move, the Strategy was abandoned by the Napthine Government in 2012. It is therefore not surprising that in 2012-13, there were 616 foster carers who left the system and only 442 new carers that were recruited. 

Labor recognises that there are many financial expenses associated with this role. Foster carers need to be supported and respected in their contribution to achieving positive outcomes for children. 

It is disappointing that the Napthine Government has not developed a clear and consistent approach to the reimbursement of common out of pocket educational and medical expenses across different Departmental regions. 

The Napthine Government’s Five Year Out of Home Care Plan, released earlier this year, does not address the issues facing foster carers in Victoria nor the issues of recruitment and retention of foster carers. 

There are many challenges facing Victoria’s out of home care system with a record number of child protection reports having occurred in the last year. The latest Department of Human Services Annual Report shows that the number of child protection reports has grown by 12 per cent, the rate of unallocated cases has grown to 15 per cent state-wide, the number of children in out of home care has grown by 6 per cent and there are more children under 12 years of age being placed in residential care. These figures show that under the Napthine Government, our child protection system is only getting worse.

Labor will announce its child protection policies closer to the November State election. We are committed to improving Victoria’s child protection system.

I can assure you that the vital work provided by foster carers is valued by Labor and the community.

Thank you for taking the time to write to me.

Kind regards

Jennifer Kanis MP
State Member for Melbourne

Hands up if you think this is a meaningful response!  Hands up if you think we can be content to let things slide with the current government!  More pressure, friends, on both major parties.  This is election mode in Victoria. If we can’t get something better on the table now, things will stagnate again after the election.