The Paradox of Memorials for the Forgotten

A very interesting article on the Find & Connect blog about memorials around Australia to remember children who grew up in orphanages, children’s Home, and other institutions and in foster ‘care’. (Read it here

This blog post  raises again the issue I’ve written about before: is the label ‘Forgotten Australians’ any longer appropriate? Isn’t there an inherent contradiction being played out with memorials for forgotten people?

Consider these quotes from the various plaques:

  • “For there is nothing hidden, except that it should be made known, neither was anything made secret out that it should come to light.” (Queensland).
  • “We remember the lonely, the frightened, the lost, the abused…” (NSW)
  • “To those who succumbed to harsh punishments meted out by a severe system we remember you.” (Tasmania)
  • “Here we remember those thousands of children who were separated from their families…” (Victoria)
  • “This memorial brings the “Forgotten Australians” out of the shadows and into the light. Their most enduring legacy will be that the people now and in the future will know their stories and build upon them a platform for better care.”
  • “We are no longer forgotten.” (SA)

Does the last quote cap it off? How long can we go on calling ourselves ‘Forgotten’?

If you want better descriptions for these former residents of institutions, you need look no further than the plaques themselves.

On the inscriptions I find words like ‘lonely’, ”neglected’, ‘frightened’ or ‘abused’. Looking for more positive or self-assertive attributes, on the inscriptions  I find words like ‘determination’, ‘courage’, ‘strength’, and ‘resilience’.

Is it time for a re-think by those who still call us ‘Forgotten Australians’?

Detail of the South Australian memorial.
Detail of the South Australian memorial.
The plaque at the Tasmanian Rose Garden
The plaque at the Tasmanian Rose Garden
Mosaic artist, Helen Bodycomb, putting the finishing touches to the Victorian memorial at Castlemaine
Mosaic artist, Helen Bodycomb, putting the finishing touches to the Victorian memorial at Castlemaine

(Photos Frank Golding)

Please Don’t Call Me a Forgotten Australian

I lost my childhood to orphanages and foster mothers. As a former ward of the State of Victoria, I knock around with many who grew up like me separated from our families. I have been a long-term advocate for greater awareness of the damaging long-term effects of abusive institutionalisation, and the need for redress and support. But I don’t want to be called a ‘Forgotten Australian’ – and many of my peers think the same way.

When the Senate Community Affairs References Committee (SCARC) issued its 2004 report with the subtitle: Australians who experienced institutional or out-of-home care as children, it chose the more lively lead title: Forgotten Australians. The reason was partly to acknowledge that, when previous inquiries had focussed on the numerically smaller but significant groups of Indigenous children and former Child Migrants, others who were institutionalised as children lamented that their stories had been overlooked.

Apart from the title, however, the 400-page SCARC report uses the term ‘forgotten Australians’ [with lower case adjective] just twice. None of the more than 600 submissions to SCARC used the expression. By contrast, the text of the report is littered with hundreds of references to the term ‘care leavers’ which is used to describe people who grew up in what was called ‘care’, outside of our families, but who now have left that ‘care’. In discussing experiences of childhood, it is common nowadays to use the discrete word ‘care’ in ironical quotation marks because there was not much care given to us as children.

The title, Forgotten Australians, pushed the right buttons for many including those whose stories were documented for the first time in an official publication. Many were happy at that time to adopt the title as a new label. I don’t mind if that’s what they want to be called, but I’m happy to call myself a Care Leaver and I know others prefer another term. I rub shoulders with people who like more descriptive colloquialisms – ‘Homies’, ‘Wardies’, ‘Orphos’.

After the national apology to ‘Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants’ in November 2009, lots of people picked up a cue from the politicians’ speeches and adopted the label ‘Remembered Australians’. It must be said, however, that there are plenty in the public who still think that apology was the same as the apology to the Stolen Generation.

There is some implicit pressure to accept terminology once it enters the public domain. Emotional attachments develop and become entrenched over time. Among advocacy bodies, the collective that formed in 2006-07 after the Senate report, styled itself the Alliance for Forgotten Australians, while the national support group established in 2000 continued to use the title Care Leavers Australia Network (now expanded to Australasia). Both organisations are recognised as peak bodies and receive Australian government funding.

One Australian government department (Social Services) uses ‘Forgotten Australian’ in its funded projects, another (Health & Ageing) adopts ‘Care Leaver’. Other agencies adopt one or the other, and sometimes both. The CEO of the Royal Commission reports that the Commission uses the terms interchangeably depending on context (Philip Reed, personal communication, 4 March 2015).

The term ‘forgotten’ can be understood in many ways. For example, the Forgotten Australians report gives examples of parents abandoning their children for a variety of reasons and making no effort to contact them again (pp. 80, 105). By contrast, there are numerous documented instances of parents making concerted efforts to stay in contact with their children, and others who tried to retrieve them over the years (pp. 95-96, 105-107). These children were never forgotten despite authorities doing their utmost, in many cases, to cut family ties. They thwarted access visits, failed to deliver letters from parents, separated brothers and sisters and told lies about family members.

While it is fair and reasonable to claim that in some respects our time in ‘care’ was characterised by being forgotten, there were more significant features of our treatment as children. These features include emotional, physical and sexual abuse, criminal violence, humiliation and deprivation, and the lack of love and affection. These – and their consequences – are the central features of the report. The adjective ‘forgotten’ is a limp synopsis of this cruel era.

The tag ‘Forgotten Australians’ does not strengthen our political voice or our case for redress and much-needed ongoing support. The whole purpose of advocacy is to be remembered and supported, so I feel uneasy with the connotations of perpetual passive victimhood implicit in the word ‘forgotten’. The label does not carry a sense of agency or active struggle to assert our identity and affirm our self-respect. We want to exercise the power to name ourselves and not be labeled by professional commentators and ‘experts’. We want to be free of those who have us pinned down and tagged with a term of convenience. We want to repudiate the sort of tenured academic researcher who does interviews with subject people she patronisingly calls ‘my FAs’ – not even dignifying them with the full term.

The term ‘Stolen Generations’ has clearly entered the national lexicon as a short marker of a shameful history of Indigenous children arbitrarily removed from their families. Former Child Migrants have no need to call themselves Lost Innocents (the title of the relevant SCARC report) because the term ‘Child Migrants’ is so plainly descriptive that everyone knows at once what it means. By contrast the term ‘Forgotten Australians’ has not achieved currency in public discourse: it has not caught on in the broader Australian community.

More than a decade on, ‘Forgotten Australians’ find they have constantly to explain – to doctors, Centrelink, the general public – who they are. As a brand, its political value is minimal. It fails the ‘pub test’. In large part, this is because the general public largely don’t know about the Senate report of 2004 or the national apology in 2009 which exposed the term to a wider audience for a very short time.

Nor do we have proprietary control over the term ‘Forgotten Australian’. The word ‘forgotten’ carries other baggage, both current and historical, locally and elsewhere. As recently as May 2015, a ‘Forgotten Australian’ was headlined in the eNews of the Jewish Museum of Australia. This turned out to be a story about a biography and exhibition of ‘a Forgotten Australian Impressionist artist Miles Evergood’.

Former Prime Minister Robert Menzies popularised the expression ‘Forgotten People’ in the 1940s and political parties rediscover forgotten voters every election. The Forgotten Children is a popular recurring title: think David Hill’s 2008 book about the Fairbridge Farm School for Child Migrants, or the Human Rights Commission’s controversial 2014 report of the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention.

The title is a workhorse in other parts of the world, too. In the USA you can donate to charities like the Forgotten Children Worldwide which helps needy children in places like Russia, India and the Ukraine; or to The Forgotten Children Inc. an agency devoted to children in poverty or who are seriously ill or have a disability; or to The Forgotten Children’s Fund which assists women and children caught up in human trafficking around the world. When a word can be used so variously, people who want to apply it to particular circumstances run the risk that it will have meaning only to those ‘in the know’.

 In Ireland, if anyone talks about the Forgotten Irish, they mean those who migrated to the U.S. and the U.K. driven by economic necessity and lack of opportunity in Ireland. Read more here 

The Forgotten Welsh and the Forgotten Scots are the aging working class men and women whose manufacturing and mining jobs no longer exist in the brave new Eurozone.

By contrast, the term ‘Care Leaver’ has an enduring history in the UK. Public discourse centres around advocacy and support bodies such as the Care Leavers Association UK, Care Leavers Reunited, and the Care Leavers Foundation. The UK government has formally legislated a Care Leavers Charter and Care Leaver Strategy.

In our chapter in Apologies and the Legacy of Abuse of Children in ‘Care’ (Johanna Skold & Shurlee Swain eds., London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), Dr Jacqueline Wilson and I agreed to resolve the problem – at least for the moment – by using the terms ‘Care Leavers’ and ‘Forgotten Australians’ more or less interchangeably, in the same fashion as the Royal Commission. We italicise the term Forgotten Australians in reference to its usage in official documents such as the Senate report.

We know this will not suit everyone, but it will cause less offence than choosing one term to the exclusion of the other. Moreover, it may encourage readers to give the matter serious thought as they interpret and interact with the text.

Blame the Kids in ‘Care’

The absurd claim that the “vast majority” of sexual abuse in out-of-home ‘care’ is perpetrated by other children is being recycled as an accepted truth by people who should know better – and by some who do know better.

The media picked up the “vast majority” reference made by Senior Counsel of the Royal Commission who had been baldy and badly advised by the Commission’s researchers.  No retraction has yet been forthcoming from the Royal Commission but at least it has “temporarily removed” the  offending research report “to address an error”.

By contrast, the media show little interest in backtracking over “yesterday’s news”

Here’s my Letter to the Editor of The Age (July 2). You see it here first, since the Letters Editor couldn’t find space for my 120 words in  defence of the kids whose voices are never heard.

Dear Editor

Paul Austin reports (The Age July 1) that the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has heard that “in the majority of cases of abuse it is perpetrated not by adults, but by adolescents who are also in care”. This absurd proposition was indeed put to the Royal Commission, but there is absolutely no evidence to back it up. The facts clearly run the other way. You have to wonder at the motivation of those putting forward this slanderous allegation against children in ‘care’  – who of course have no right of reply. It diverts attention away from the adults, both those who are the perpetrators of abuse and those who are responsible for supervising what goes on in out-of-home ‘care’. 

Frank Golding, Vice-President Care Leavers Australasia Network (CLAN)

Righting the Record

This is a speech in response to being awarded Life Time Membership of CLAN (Care Leavers Australasia Network) on 4 July 2015.

Thank you for this very great honour.

I first met Leonie Sheedy BC (before CLAN). It was in Melbourne in 1996 or 1997. A group of us were trying to set up a Care leaver organisation in Victoria. One of our titles was LOSS – Lives of State Shame. The title was intended to show where the shame (that many Care Leavers felt) should be focussed. Such an organisation was absolutely necessary, but I couldn’t see myself having the time to get too involved. Well, little did I know that Leonie had nominated me as the founding Secretary.

So I had learned how hard it is to say ‘No’ to Leonie Sheedy. And although that early Care Leaver organisation did not thrive and survive – no funds, no political support, no broad base of members – the idea of a Care Leavers organisation was too important to give up on. So when Leonie rang me from Sydney in 2000 to tell me that she and Joanna Penglase were setting up a national body to be called CLAN – an organisation of Care Leavers, for Care Leavers to be run by Care Leavers how could I not get on board?

If Care Leavers want better futures for themselves, it’s us Care Leavers who must make the running. We can’t be satisfied with being passive bystanders while others do things for us, or to us. We must roll our sleeves up and work with people to get change happening.

CLAN and its members and supporters have already clocked up lots of important milestones in the past 15 years. I’d like to highlight just one issue where we’ve made good progress – but where more still needs to be done

Joanna Penglase and I were both writing books around the time of the Senate’s Forgotten Australians report (2004). Hers was a history of growing up in ‘care’ in the 20th century in Australia. Filling a very large gap in the history of this country. The big picture. I was writing a detailed case study of one family – my own. The little picture. The two books fitted together perfectly as a set.

Then I discovered that we had chosen exactly the same title for our two different books: Orphans of the Living (available from CLAN). I had to find myself another title: An Orphan’s Escape: Memories of a lost childhood (available here).

As I turned the pages of Joanna’s book I found myself thinking only a Care Leaver could have written that book, full of deep insights into our experiences and an ability to pinpoint the critical issues – many of which we’re still attending to today. And I’m pleased to say there are heaps of Care Leavers who have written – or are writing – their memoirs. And with every one of these narratives we help to fill the gap that has existed in the history of this country.

I had the honour of taking over from Joanna as Editor of the wonderful CLAN newsletter, The Clanicle – which is now approaching its 100th edition. A marvellous achievement. One of its best features is that it publishes Care Leaver stories. I can’t tell you how important that is for creating an alternative history of child welfare. And one of the keys to writing our stories is getting access to our records held all these decades in dusty archives.

We have pushed the case that we have the right to know what the records say about why we were put into ‘care’, who did what to us and why; why we couldn’t be with our families. We need to keep insisting on full access to our records without censorship.

Many of our records are inaccurate, incomplete, and full of insulting personal remarks. Do you know that in some States, including NSW, Queensland and Victoria, there are procedures to enable us to exercise a right of reply, to set the record straight; make our own comments on the inaccuracies of these records?

I’d like to see Care Leavers march into the agencies that hold their records and demand to be allowed to make annotations for inclusion in their files.

We also have to guard against the destruction of records. The right of access to records must extend to our descendants who should be able to know what their parents or grandparents were put through as children. And when they do, they should read our side of the story too, not just the views of some ragbag of social workers.

Most Care Leavers I know want a guarantee that what happened to us won’t happen again to any Australian child. I’m not convinced that authorities have really learned from the mistakes of the past. We must insist that they do. And one of the best ways of doing that is to make them listen to, or read, our stories.

Finally, let me say say once again how proud I am to be the recipient of this award. Knowing the great people pitching in, I’m sure other equally deserving Clannies will be recognised on other occasions in the years to come.