Our Side of the Story

As a guest blogger, I posted this on the Find & Connect website today.  

Other Care Leavers share with me their shock at some of what we find in our records. The language hits us between the eyes. Our counterparts in the nineteenth century were tagged by a battalion of adjectives: criminal or neglected, destitute, abandoned, deserted, unkempt, illegitimate, wayward, slovenly, deserving or undeserving.

When the makers of records ran out of adjectives, they paraded a platoon of nouns: vagabonds, vagrants, urchins, waifs and strays, delinquents, slum kids, wards.

And a squadron of slogans: street Arabs and youthful Bedouins, orphans of the living, out of control, lapsing into immorality, being without sufficient means. It shocks us to learn that we, the children, were charged with being in need of care and protection.

The language reflects an unholy union between the welfare and penal systems: when we were little children we were charged and committed, released on probation (if we were lucky), and eventually discharged. Some of us were sentenced to solitary confinement and even to floggings. If we ran away, we were listed as absconders in the Police Gazettes until we were captured.

Many of our substitute parents didn’t think much of us. They expected the worst. In one of the orphanages I grew up in, the management made it clear that “parents and guardians who labored under the impression that all Orphans, without regard to legitimacy, morals or respectability” would be taken in had better think again. No child would be admitted to that place without a marriage certificate showing the father’s name, the child’s birth certificate, and a doctor’s certificate declaring that the child was free of contagious diseases. The ‘undeserving’ would have to go elsewhere.

Like one-time British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, many in the Australian welfare system believed that family crisis resulted from individuals’ personality defects. Poverty was their own fault, they claimed. The records explain very little about the social conditions in which our parents made heart-breaking decisions to put their children in the ‘care’ of the welfare people.

We find nothing in the archives that explains the story behind the story – the misery of grinding poverty that dogged the lives of working-class parents who, with little schooling, found themselves trapped in long-term unemployment and unstable accommodation, or enmeshed in military service or domestic violence or chronic illness.

These hardships – often hitting families more than one at a time – placed unbearable pressures on families. In the absence of support, many did not have the resilience in a crisis to survive. Our parents were sometimes the subject of the most vile slander by those who had never known hardship themselves. Some parents were accused of being keen to be rid of their children – and only sought to have them returned when they were old enough to earn a living. Chronic poverty is not about a lack of moral character. It’s about not having money, resources and support in your time of greatest need.

Many of us find our personal records are almost entirely negative. Sometimes they incorporate police reports that, by definition, were aimed at winning a conviction. From that poor start, welfare workers recorded only problems. Care Leavers often search their records in vain for positive achievements, but the archives are brimming with examples of our minders’ low expectations. Some of us who are perfectly intelligent have found in our records that we were described as ‘slow-witted’, even ‘low-grade mental defective’. Almost all of us were expected to leave school as soon as the law allowed – to go into menial jobs for the rest of our lives.

The Head Teacher of my on-site Ballarat Orphanage primary school told the Education Department in 1948 that none of the 18 children in Grade Six would progress to secondary school because of the ‘extra responsibility’ involved, and because of ‘the prior history of the children’. In my own file I found this note in answer to the question: should the boy be allowed to finish Year 10?

Undoubtedly, all the boys will return to the mother and Golding in due course and it is just a question of whether he should be retained and given an education at the expense of the State when his future earnings will probably be collected by the mother.

That makes me angry because I know my mother never thought that at all. Welfare workers could record any opinion that reflected their own prejudices in preference to the relevant facts. And no one called them to account. Clearly, these files were never meant to be read by us, or our parents.

We all remember events that loom large in our memory that were never recorded, or have been glossed over. We have a very different view of our childhood reality from the one that is our records. My official record declares that my fathers’ visits upset me; but I know the opposite was the case. I was never asked. My voice was silenced.

We don’t have to accept these misleading bureaucratic accounts of our childhood. Our stories ought to be heard. Under FOI laws in each state and territory (e.g. s39-49 of the Victorian Act) there is usually a right for Care Leavers to challenge questionable information and to ask for our own version of incidents to be placed in the files. We should be queuing up to tell our side of the story.