Category Archives: Orphanage, Child Welfare, Social History, Adoption, State Wards, Children’s Homes, Foster Care, Children’s Institutions, Golding, Sinnett, Neglected, Child Abuse, Family,

The Missing Dads of Spring Street

This is a piece I wrote for the Melbourne Herald-Sun nearly a decade ago. It was published on 4 September 2008 in time for Father’s Day. The editor cut it back a bit to fit the space he was allowing.

It’s a bit dated in the detail, as you will see, but the sentiment still holds true.


THE following witticism is contrived, but has merit, particularly as Father’s Day is coming up.

When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around.

But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.

Actually, Mark Twain’s father died when he was aged 11, at which point he left school and became the breadwinner “father” of his family.

What does a father really mean?

Love, protection, wisdom, role model, provider? Lots of good words spring to mind.

Hundreds of thousands of children… grew up in out-of-home “care”, mainly in orphanages, without a father.

A Catholic orphanage girl said she always thought a father was a priest because the only men she saw were called “father”.

Many orphanage children lost their fathers in wars, not necessarily by death.

A Care Leavers of Australia Network survey in 2006 (291 respondents) showed that more than four out of every 10 former inmates had a father in a war and there was a strong correlation between war service, post-traumatic stress and alcoholism.

Others lost their fathers in divorce courts. Many were simply abandoned by their fathers (and sometimes their mothers, too).

Many were taken from parents because of poverty, incapacity, violence – or worse. When children became wards, the state became father. But there was not much love and too much brutality and neglect.

In my day, I suppose premiers John Cain Sr and Albert Dunstan took it in turns to be my legal father, but Ian McFarlin, TT Hollaway and JRB McDonald had a go, too.

But whichever was my dad, none of them ever came to see me or their other children in the Ballarat Orphanage. I wonder if Premier John Brumby is a better father to the thousands of children who are his in “care” today?

Our CLAN Father’s Day card will remind him that those who were sexually abused while in the “care” of the state are still waiting for the sort of redress that Queensland, Tasmania, and Western Australia (and soon South Australia) are providing.

Some of us find Father’s Day difficult.

We try to think of a father we never knew. We never had a father who would teach us, by simple example, how to be a father when our turn came around.

We struggle to show our own children love because no one showed us love as a child. We are over-protective because of the nasty things that adults did to us as vulnerable children.

Some were harsh disciplinarians because canes and straps were the only way they knew.

On Father’s Day, we’re happy for happy fathers and those who have a happy father. But it’s not such a special day for us.

Frank Golding is author of An Orphan’s Escape: memories of a lost childhood (

Lost & Found: State Children in Victoria (6)


One last example, because it shows that changes in welfare policy were not uniform or consistent:

St Joseph’s Homes for Children in Flemington 1981-1997:   the Family Group Homes era.

It’s probably true to say that, broadly speaking, child-savers like Selina Sutherland and those involved in the boarding-out movement were Protestant. Catholics seemed to prefer large institutions and were slower to change to small-scale facilities.

When St Joseph’s Home in Surrey Hills finally closed in 1991 after 90 years of congregate care, the long-term resident children were placed in foster care or hostels, and the staff moved to a row of shop fronts in Pin Oak Crescent, Flemington.

The shop-front Pin Oak Crescent, Flemington )photo courtesy MacKillop Family Services)

They intended it to be a drop-in crisis centre—with short-term accommodation for local families doing it tough. They also purchased houses in Finsbury Street for use as family group residential care.

Family Group Homes, Flemington

Sister Mary Cavanagh commented that the children who came into these family group homes in Flemington came into care at a later age

so they were more damaged…And they weren’t really wanting to be part of a family and were often very destructive and difficult. It was very difficult to get them to settle into a family set-up where they were competing with the couple’s children.[1]

Clearly the Josephites, who were long accustomed to stricter institutions, were facing problems with the children in these more open settings.

Moreover, St Joseph’s—conceived as a localised service—found itself taking children from all over the inner suburbs of Melbourne. Some expressed concern that the government was pushing too hard for family reunification.[2]

The Christian Brothers took control of the homes in 1991. The Brothers were determined to set a new direction for their child welfare system. Ultimately, in July 1997, St Joseph’s Home for Children became part of MacKillop Family Services and, after providing a family support and counselling service, and disability service, MacKillop left the Pin Oak Crescent, Flemington address just a few months ago.


  1. Conclusion

I have looked at a handful of the more than 300 institutions in Victoria, large and small, that have looked after children at some time.[3] In the examples close to North Melbourne—and throughout the nation too—the trends in out-of-home care are clear.

In the modern era, residential care is the least common form of care for children in need of care and protection. The dominant form today is kinship care, followed by foster care.

Yet, questions remain: why remove children at all?  And if the state decides to do so, must it be more than a temporary change in the life of the family?

At the start I pointed to proposition of the Legal Aid review in 2016: 

that the removal of a child from the family is one of the most serious actions that the State can take, and should be a last resort.

I have discussed the purposes and motivations for separating children from their families in the examples close to North Melbourne. These motives have been mixed and so too has been the system—if we can call it that—a strange hybrid where intention and effect were not always close allies. To paraphrase Phillip Adams, the muddy footprints of welfare history are all over the carpet.

Whichever way you look at the OOHC system today, it is—as ever—in a state of crisis.[4] It is—and always has been—overstretched and in need of resources.

But more than anything it needs a more coherent purpose and rationale. It is self-evident that if the state removes children from their families, it must ensure that it provides a better environment for those children—not a worse one.

The Royal Commission and other inquiries have demonstrated that far too often the systems set up to protect children from abuse and neglect have themselves cause harm to children and their families.

My personal opinion is that the best interest of kids is to keep them with their families by supporting their families in tough times. If children must be taken out of their families for their immediate safety, the aim should be to work collaboratively with those families to get the children back as soon as it is reasonable to do so.



[1] Jill Barnard & Karen Twigg, Holding on to Hope: A history of the founding agencies of MacKillop Family Services 1854-1997, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2004, p. 284.

[2] Barnard & Twigg, 2004, p. 300, 307.

[3] Frank Golding for Melbourne Museum, with support of CLAN (Care Leavers of Australia Network: and Find & Connect (

[4] See Commission for Children and Young People, “…as a good parent would…”: Inquiry into the adequacy of the provision of residential care services to Victorian children and young people who have been subject to sexual abuse or sexual exploitation whilst residing in residential care, The Commission, Melbourne, 2015.


Lost & Found: State Children in Victoria (5)


Let’s return to the 1880s where we find a crusade for reforming dissolute urban working-class family life through Christian charity—middle-class morality and concern for social stability. The tropes of child as victim and child as threat intersected.

The Scots Church Children’s Aid Society explained: children must be rescued

from squalor and misery; from unloving parents; from sin and shame. Oh how cruel and heartless some of these fathers and mothers are![1]

If the young are allowed to grow up in the midst of vice they must necessarily be vicious...[2]

Another pattern in non-government child welfare emerged:

a committee of leisured upper-class women financing and overseeing the small salaried staff that had direct contact with the clientele.[3]

In 1881, the Scots’ Church District Association[4] appointed a Miss Selina Murray MacDonald Sutherland, a nurse residing at 220 King Street, West Melbourne as their Lady Missionary. Miss Sutherland was to visit ‘house to house, and also in the gaol and different hospitals’. Before long, she was devoting herself full-time to neglected and destitute children.[5]

Miss Sutherland was a powerful, love-her-or-hate-her figure in the welfare field. She was the first person authorised under the Neglected Children’s Act 1887 to arrest children she deemed to be neglected. She and other child rescuers had powers ‘which paralleled those of the police‘.[6] A biographer pictures Miss Sutherland

fearless in her search for children in back streets and alleyways, brothels and gambling houses.[7]

‘Slum’ children in North Melbourne – though much later (1930s photos by Oswald Barnett)

In 1890, the Association, now called the Presbyterian and Scots’ Church Neglected Children’s Aid Society, purchased a house at 149 Flemington Road, North Melbourne and called it Kildonan—sometimes referred to as the Kildonan Receiving House because it was envisaged that it would act as a reception centre for young children waiting to be boarded-out in private homes around the suburbs and especially in rural Victoria.

Kildonan 149 Flemington Road, North Melbourne

Meanwhile, back in La Trobe Street in 1894 an acrimonious rift occurred, which was both personal and ideological. There had been rumblings about taking children who were voluntarily surrendered to the Society by their parents as contrasted with those who were removed from ‘unfit’ parents under legal guardianship. [8]

The hard-line view was that parents had a duty to care for their children, no matter how hard-up they were, and neither the church nor the state should relieve them of that duty. Moreover, it was one thing for Miss Sutherland to upset the church elders by helping non-Presbyterian children, or boarding-out Presbyterian children with non-Presbyterian families.

But it didn’t do to accuse male office-bearers of the church of making money out of prostitution. Selina and her Ladies’ Committee resigned in a very public row in 1894.

Miss Sutherland was resilient and politically well connected. The Society included Victoria’s Chief Secretary, Alfred Deakin, the member for Essendon and Flemington, who was to become a three-time Prime Minister of Australia, and Alexander Peacock who was premier of Victoria at the time of Federation.

She soon formed a new Victorian Neglected Children’s Aid Society and was its official Agent. She and her children marched down to another building further down La Trobe Street.

The Society worked from La Trobe Street from 1895 until 1901 when it bought Ayr House, a mansion on the corner of Leonard Street and Royal Parade, Parkville—built by another North Melbourne identity, James Ferguson formerly of Little Curzon Street. International House now stands on the site.

Ayr House, Leonard St., Parkville (now part of International House at the University of Melbourne)

It has been known variously as the Parkville Home, Sutherland House (from 1905), and Swinburne House (from 1957 after Mrs Swinburne who had been President from 1913 to 1957).

The Parkville Home and Kildonan ran along the same lines. They found ‘good families’ (preferably in the country) that would take the children as their own. These boarded-out children remained under the legal control of the organisation and were visited by Agents like Selina Sutherland or members of local Ladies Committees, although supervision of the children was often problematic and some of the placements were known to result in ‘neglect, and unkind or injudicious treatment by foster-parents’.[9]

Both Kildonan and Parkville also accommodated older girls who had been returned from service—i.e. those who had been sent to service with a family but had been returned, either because they had not been deemed satisfactory, or because they had become of working age, too old for the families to receive the weekly payment from the government.

Over the years it became difficult to find enough good homes. The State government was reluctant to pay foster families adequate allowances for taking a child—nothing’s changed there! This became an especially acute problem in the years of the Great Depression from 1929.

In 1908, the Parkville Home in Leonard St accommodated around 70 children, but in that year staff and some of the girls made serious allegations against Miss Sutherland of drunkenness, cruelty and negligence. She was sacked (again).

She moved back to the La Trobe Street Receiving Home, which was rented in her name (but paid for by the police)[10] and within months, she and her supporters had formally constituted ‘The Sutherland Homes for Orphans, Neglected and Destitute Children’ with a committee of prominent citizens, including some of her old committee. In November a government inquiry into her dismissal, instigated by her critics, appeared to have vindicated her. It’s a bit grey!

The new society attracted generous support. In April 1909 she was gifted a 40 acre farm and house at Diamond Creek. She planned to take the girls from the city to Diamond Creek, but on the day scheduled to move in to the new property in Diamond Creek, 8 October 1909, Miss Sutherland died suddenly of pneumonia.

Notwithstanding her death, Diamond Creek went ahead. Her Committee decided that the La Trobe Street building was unsuitable as the Receiving Home for Sutherland Homes and, in 1911-1912, built a new Home on land at 28 Drummond Street, Carlton. From there, children were sent to the Home or Homes at Diamond Creek.

Sutherland Reception Home, Carlton

Rounding off what happened to the ventures Selina Sutherland pioneered is useful because it gives insights into the changing philosophies of child welfare. The old Kildonan house accommodated up to 30 children. Extensive renovations in 1912-14 took its capacity up to 48 children.

In 1937, Kildonan transferred operations from North Melbourne to Elgar Road, Burwood. Encouraged by the movement away from large warehouses for children in favour of a cottage system supervised by rostered staff, and then later still family group homes dotted around the suburbs. From September 2001, the agency ceased all residential care activity and in 2007 the organisation became Kildonan UnitingCare and, this year, simply as Uniting.

Meanwhile, the old Kildonan house at 149 Flemington Road, Flemington is now Mcauley Community Services for Women, offering medium term, supported accommodation program for women aged over 25 years who may have a mental illness – but unaccompanied by children.

The Victorian Neglected Children’s Aid Society changed its name again in 1920, to the Victorian Children’s Aid Society, but it continued with its program at Leonard St Parkville until it, too, was caught up in the deinstitutionalisation movement.

In 1966 the Society moved its home and headquarters from Parkville to a property at Black Rock (Somers House, a former CWA holiday home).[11] It sold the Parkville property to the University of Melbourne to pay for its developments in Black Rock and subsequently developed cottage homes, and group homes. In 1991 it became Family Focus and in 1992 merged with other children’s organisations to form Oz Child-Children Australia.

The Sutherland Homes Receiving Home in Carlton was sold in the 1950s. Diamond Creek continued operating until 1984 when they merged with Berry Street, now one of Victoria’s biggest and most diverse providers of children’s services.

By the 1980s most of the old institutions had closed. Many became multi-purpose welfare agencies again; some were converted to aged care facilities.


[1] Home for the Homeless, Journal of the Scots’ Church Children’s Aid Society, Vol. 1, No. 2, July 1892, p. 1.

[2] Qu. In Scott & Swain 1992, p. 5.

[3] From Dark to Dawn, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1 March 1898 qu. In Scott & Swain p. 30.

[4] The Presbyterian Society for Neglected and Destitute Children was formed in 1893 and was renamed the Neglected Children’s Aid Society

[5] In addition to newspapers of the day, I have drawn on the Find & Connect website, Marjorie Robinson, Kildonan: One Hundred Years of Caring, The Council of the Uniting Church, Melbourne, 1981; Della Hilton, Selina’s Legacy: From VCAS to Oz Child, OzChild, Melbourne 1993; Nancy Groll, Sutherland: A century of caring for children, Berry Street, Melbourne, 2000; Dorothy Scott & Shurlee Swain, Confronting Cruelty: Historical Perspectives on child protection in Australia, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2002; Sharon Lane (ed.) Kildonan: 135 Years, Closer, Bolder, Stronger, Kildonan, Melbourne, 2016.

[6] Shurlee Swain, ‘The state and the child’, Australian Journal of Legal History, vol. 4, 1998, pp. 57-77.

[7] Ruth Hoban, Sutherland, Selina Murray (1839-1909), Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1976, on line at:

[8] ‘Miss Sutherland and her Committee Resign’, The Argus, 17 November 1894, p. 8.

[9] Report of the Inspector Industrial & Reformatory Schools for the Year 1875, Melbourne, 1876, p. 3.

[10] Nancy Groll, Sutherland: A century of caring for children, Melbourne, Berry Street, 2000, p. 8.

[11] Somers House was soon renamed Swinburne House. Hilton, p. 149

Lost & Found: State Children in Victoria (4)


Against that back-story we come to Royal Park in Parkville. No site has had such a confusing history as Royal Park. You get a sense of this in its more than a dozen alternative names and functions over the years (matched by repeated changes of names of the Department and its agencies as an indicator of confused purposes.)

Children were housed at Royal Park before the formal establishment of the Royal Park Industrial School in 1875. As a response to overcrowding elsewhere, children were housed at the former Royal Park Lunatic Asylum in 1867.

The Royal Park Industrial School—a workhouse/warehouse for children—opened at 900 Park Street, Parkville in 1875. It was for girls only at first, until around 1880 when the girls were transferred to the Industrial School at Geelong, and boys from Sunbury’s Industrial School came to Royal Park to await boarding-out placements  (more on boarding-out shortly).

Meanwhile, following damning reports from official visitors[1] and under the influence of the child-savers (more later), the government was re-thinking its approach. As Shurlee Swain points out, ‘

Industrial schools did not make children industrious; they were plagued by disease, disorder and a sense that the children compared poorly with those growing up within families.[2]

In 1887 it split the old department into two:

  • Department for Neglected Children under the Neglected Children’s Act 1887 and
  • Department for Reformatory Schools for convicted juveniles under the Juvenile Offenders’ Act 1887.

The new Neglected Children’s Act 1887 ruled that there would be no new Industrial Schools built (though they lingered for decades).

Boarding-out (foster care) had become the much-preferred option from the mid 1870s. Boarding-out was much cheaper and, it was argued, more akin to real family life. In 1888 the Head of the Neglected Children’s Department gave the policy ringing endorsement. And the child savers were vocal supporters.

However, boarding-out was not universally popular. There were some who thought the child savers were persecuting children in order to ‘foist them on the State’.[3] For example the North Melbourne Magistrate, a certain Dr Lloyd, declared that while charitable sentiment was commendable,

…it sometimes became sickly sentiment, and augmented the tide of state socialism which was setting in.[4]

Nevertheless, boarding-out firmed as government policy. Almost surreptitiously during the 1890s, a period of deep depression, the government began to extend the boarding-out system to the children’s own mothers. They would pay impoverished but respectable mothers to keep their children off the welfare treadmill.

At first, they made the mothers go through a legal charade of having their children declared wards of the state, but realised in due course that this was not warranted. In 1919 they made these payments legal: an early form of deserted wives’ or widows’ pension child endowment or family payment. It wasn’t until 1942 that the Commonwealth Child Endowment scheme was introduced.

With industrial schools being replaced by the boarding-out system, the government imagined that the only government-run facility needed would be a small institution at Royal Park to hold children awaiting placement.

The Royal Park Depot became that sole reception centre for children committed to State care—whether they were entering the welfare or the juvenile justice system—from about 1880 right through to 1961.

During the Great Depression, boarding-out all but collapsed as a viable alternative to institutionalisation largely because the weekly rate of payments failed to keep up with the rising cost of living. So chronic overcrowding at Royal Park intensified. Dr Norval Morris, a criminologist from the University of Melbourne was quoted in 1952 as saying that instead of Royal Park being a clearing house, it had become ‘a blocked sink’.[5]

One of the many forbidding complexes at the multi-functional Royal Park

Royal Park has never out of the media for long. For example, there was a spate of complaints in 1914 that sprang from the deaths of children at the institution. The law required all sudden or abnormal deaths of children to be investigated—except for state wards. The Department of Neglected Children rejected public demands for an inquiry into these deaths. An editorial in The Age implied the Department had some ‘ugly facts’ to hide.[6]

As an aside, I remember harbouring the same suspicion when I learned that my mother’s sister, Joyce, had died, at age 12, while she was an inmate of the Ballarat Orphanage in 1933. There was no inquest. The father of the Orphanage Superintendent happened to be an undertaker, and Joyce was buried in an unmarked mass grave, without her family being informed. And to make matters worse, the death certificate record’s Joyce’s grandmother as her mother.

A common grave for 26 children including my mother’s sister. Her death certificate had her grandmother as her mother. No one cared.

Anyway, back to Royal Park: the whiff of scandal about the secret deaths and insanitary conditions at the site led the National Council of Women to call for the appointment of an honorary board for the management of Royal Park and State Wards generally. The Chief Secretary (the responsible Minister) did not relish this advice, and hit back hard accusing the Council of Women of making wild, misleading and reckless statements. He ‘would not trust women in any position of responsibility’, he declared.

They appear to be becoming a lot of mischievous busybodies. I think that these women would be better employed if they were engaged at home in looking after their domestic duties, and were leaving public business to those who are more capable of attending to it.[7]

Hardy gracious or politically prudent: one of the prominent members of the National Council of Women was Mrs Alfred Deakin, wife of the former Prime Minister.

Allegations of poor management and ill treatment of children at Royal Park continued to run in the press. In 1922 the Age newspaper declared the Department was as neglected as the children it was supposed to nourish.[8] In that year, a complaint signed by nineteen female employees got as far as Cabinet—which declined to interfere.[9] Some of the employees lodging the complaints were then sacked.[10]

One of the recurring problems was the lack of consistent policy about the purpose of the site. In his Annual Report for 1923 the Medical Officer and Superintendent of Royal Park, Dr Derham reported that there were five categories of children:

  • those admitted to state ‘care’ while awaiting placement in an orphanage or foster care
  • those waiting to go on service or those who had been returned therefrom because they were unsatisfactory
  • children detained on remand
  • children suffering from defects of various kinds who were being held temporarily; and
  • mentally and physically defective children who were unfit for ‘boarding out’ or ‘service’ and for whom Royal Park was a permanent or semi-permanent home.[11]

Dr Derham noted that the youngest resident on site was one day old, the oldest was seventeen. But what bothered him even more was the mix of children: ‘

It is very wrong for normal children to be associated with defective children, whose immoral tendencies are as marked as their mental backwardness.[12]

Not that there were many ‘normal’ children if you relied on the advice of Dr K.S. Cunningham, who would go on to become the first Director of the Australian Council for Educational Research. He conducted IQ tests on the children at Royal Park and reported in 1926 that up to 90 percent were below normal intelligence, and moreover,

Although it is only a matter of guesswork, it may be estimated that of all children under the care of the Department 40 per cent are cases for whom it would be advisable to provide care and training either permanently or for a number of years. The majority of these would be cases calling for permanent care.[13]

The eugenics movement had been strong in Melbourne in the 1920s and 1930s. A member of the visiting committee of the depot, Sir James Barrett, told an inquiry into the flogging of a 14 year-old boy at the North Melbourne court in 1927, that the use of corporal punishment was

absolutely necessary [for] maintaining of discipline at such an institution with its proportion of inherently diseased, morbid and degenerate boys.[14]

The following year, The Argus reported complaints that boys on remand from the Children’s Court awaiting trial were compelled to mix at the remand depot Royal Park with 

convicted boys of strong criminal tendencies, mental deficients, and, sometimes, moral perverts[15]

I’m reminded that in 1940 my brother and I were sent to the Royal Park Depot and, from there, were boarded out to a woman in Northcote. She returned us to Royal Park after nine days. She couldn’t keep us, she said, ‘because of their habits’. No details. I was aged 2 and Bob 3½. Perhaps we were ‘mental deficients’ or ‘moral perverts’.

Well, perhaps not! In 1933, the newly-formed Department of Mental Hygiene relieved Royal Park of some of its ‘burdensome’ children when it established Travancore in Flemington Street, Flemington in 1933. Travancore’s initial mandate was for

children who, although mentally defective, were capable of receiving benefit from special instruction.

Travencore did not cater for ‘low grade mental defectives’

It had a residential centre, a school and a clinic where children were medically examined and psychologically assessed, and were kept until the age of 14.

In 1940, Dr Guy Springthorpe described the operations at Travancore:

Admission is restricted to types as defined in the new Act [the Mental Deficiency Act 1939] and does not include lower grade defectives. The function of the school is not only to provide education and domestic care, but to promote all-round development…to the fullest extent possible; and by so doing, also to prevent psychological disorders and maladjustments. This is in accord with the abundant evidence that many such children are capable of leading happy lives and of becoming socially useful…[16]

A newspaper article in 1941 referred to changing attitudes towards ‘mentally retarded children and adults’. It even expressed a hope that, now that prejudice was decreasing, ‘they will be able to contribute to the national war effort’![17]

In 1968 Travancore ceased to function as a centre for intellectually disabled children and became the Travancore Psychiatric Developmental Centre, a residential centre for emotionally disturbed children. Since 2009, the Travancore School delivers a number of programs linking the mental health and education services.

Meanwhile, the Royal Park site remained notorious. For example, in 1936 an official told a Parliamentary hearing that the building for girls was ‘unfit for human habitation’ and (like the Benevolent Asylum in North Melbourne) it had been condemned by the Fire Brigade Board.[18]

In 1952 two girls escaped from the Delinquent Girls Home there, and, when they were arrested and returned, they were taken to Pentridge Prison—they were aged 15 and 13. The older girl had already had a stretch in Pentridge. And there had been other girls in Pentridge before these two.[19] The Chief Secretary said there was nothing he could do about getting the young girls out of gaol because the government could not interfere with a court’s ruling.[20] Where there’s no will, there’s no way!

However, here’s a mother finding both the will—and the way. Freda Harrison of Abbotsford Street, North Melbourne, had two children, Monica aged 11 and Vernon aged 13 in Royal Park. A friend said to Mrs Harrison, ‘If they were my children I would take them away.’ Well, Freda asked if she could take her children to the cinema one afternoon.

Taking matters into her own hands!

After four months with her children in Sydney, she returned to Melbourne, was arrested and sentenced to 14 days in prison for repossession of her own children. However, the sentence was suspended and, pending an inspection of her home, she was allowed to keep her children.[21]

In 1955 Royal Park became Turana (an Aboriginal word meaning rainbow). In the following years, Royal Park was progressively stripped of most of its diverse functions. It began pioneering the family group home model for children as an alternative to the established system of large institutions. Soon, most of the young children were housed in cottages on the site, and the original buildings were used exclusively for ‘delinquent girls’ and adolescent boys incarcerated at Turana Youth Training Centre (and its several alternative tags).

Turana remained the main government reception centre until 1961. You may be aware that in 2015, the Royal Commission exposed the infamous maltreatment of children and young people at Royal Park in the period between the 1960s and the early 1990s.[22]


[1] James H Graves, Chairman, Reports of the Visiting Committee to the Industrial and Reformatory Schools of Victoria, with the Correspondence Relating Thereto, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1880.

[2] Shurlee Swain, History of Australian inquiries reviewing institutions providing care for children, Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Sydney, 2014, p. 6.

[3] Qu. In Scott & Swain, p. 54.

[4] The Argus, 26 November 1897, qu. In Scott & Swain, p. 54.

[5] ‘State “stingy to children”’, The Argus, 1 October 1952, p. 5.

[6] ‘Official Secrecy: Neglected Children Department: No Notification of Deaths’, The Age, 4 May 1914, p. 6.

[7] ‘Wards of the State: Conditions of Royal Park Depot: Minister and Women’s National Council: “A Lot of Mischievous Busy-bodies”’ The Age, 29 May 1914, p. 14. A similar report was published on the same day in the competing morning paper, The Argus.

[8] ‘A state of official chaos: A department without a head,’ The Age, 19 January 1922, p. 6.

[9] ‘Neglected Children’s Home: Charges by employees: State government will not interfere’, The Age, 18 July 1922, p. 7; ‘Children’s Home: Deputation to Minister: cruelty alleged’, The Argus, 27 July 1922, p. 8.

[10] ‘Matron Denies Allegations’, The Argus, 28 July 1922, p. 11.

[11] Department for Neglected Children and Reformatories, Annual Report 1923, p. 3.

[12] Department for Neglected Children and Reformatories, Annual Report 1924, p. 6.

[13] Dr KS Cunningham, ‘Report on Intellectual Status of Children under Care of Children’s Welfare Department’, in Annual Report of Department of Children’s Welfare 1927)

[14] ‘Flogging at Royal Park: Schoolmasters Give Evidence: Views on Use of the Strap’, The Age, 18 November , 1927, p. 12. See also: Flogging a Boy: Board of inquiry Opened: Evidence of strapping and bruises; The Age, 9 November, 1927, p. 19. Selected children told the coroner that punishment was fair and reasonable, The Age, 11 November, 1927, p. 7.

[15] ‘Delinquent Boys: Conditions At Royal Park: Mr. Prendergast to Inspect’, The Argus, 20 August 1928, p.10. See also ‘Delinquent Boys: Problem of the Mentally Defective: Medical Superintendent’s Recommendations,’ The Age, 19 November 1924, p. 12.

[16] Guy Springthorpe, ‘The Treatment of Mental Deficiency in Victoria,’ Meeting of the Medico- Legal Society 28 September 1940:

[17] How Travancore helps, The Argus, 4 January 1941, p. 7. In early 1942, Travancore was evacuated, when the buildings at Flemington were required by the military. Travancore relocated to Hepburn Springs in rural Victoria and the girls who were in employment at the time of transfer were engaged at the Textile Mills at Daylesford. The annual report of the Department of Mental Hygiene in 1943, claimed they gave ‘complete satisfaction to their employer’. Travancore returned to Flemington in January 1944. At that time, the residents who had worked in the textile mill at Daylesford were placed in employment at the Yarra Falls Spinning Mills. The Department reported that the management of the Mills ‘has commented favourably both on their behaviour and industrial ability’.

[18] “’Unfit for Human Habitation”, Shelter for State Wards’, The Argus, 17 September 1936, p. 4.

[19] The Victorian Parliament heatedly debated the use of the adult prison for holding ‘delinquent girls’. The public uproar continued in the press throughout September 1952.

[20] ‘Pentridge isn’t the Only Place, Expert says: “Courage can help gaol girls”’ The Argus, 9 September 1952, p. 14; ‘Girl of 15 back in Pentridge—with another aged 13,’ The Argus, 23 September 1952, p.1. A group of residents of Melbourne’s more affluent suburbs sent a letter to The Argus: It is a disgrace to our present child welfare institutions that such girls should leave their care labelled incorrigible, and be forced…to be sent to Pentridge and forced to mix with hardened criminals.…[W]e demand that you give the people of Victoria…and especially the mothers, the opportunity of rectifying what is surely a blot upon our social system. ‘Has anyone got an old dungeon to let?’ The Argus, 12 September 1952, p. 2.

[21] Argus, 8 June 1956, p. 12.

[22] Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuses, 2015, Report of Case Study No. 30: The response of Turana, Winlaton and Baltra, and the Victorian Police and the Department of Helath and Human Services Victoria to allegations of child sexual abuse, The Commission, Sydney, 2016.

Lost & Found: State Children in Victoria (3)


When Governor Hotham laid the foundation stone for the Melbourne Orphan Asylum in Emerald Hill (South Melbourne) in 1854, he warned that it was not just a matter of supporting the ‘innocent victims of misfortune’, but the citizens of the colony had another political duty. ‘Remember,’ he said,

that these orphans, if not carefully looked after, will shortly go upon the town and become pickpockets. Of the prospects of the female portion, I need say nothing: I leave that to your own understandings.[1]

Hotham’s concern was the child as threat. A strident ‘law and order’ campaign arose in Melbourne and the provincial towns. Newspapers and magistrates led a crusade to rid the streets of ‘urchins, waifs and strays, street Arabs and youthful Bedouins’, rascals who were ‘hastening with a fatal facility into an appalling precocity in vice and crime.’[2]

The fear of street urchins mingled with the urge to rescue children from dysfunctional families who might raise the next generation of thieves and felons. The Ballarat Star castigated the street urchin’s

wicked parents [who] have dropped upon him the black poison-drop of their example of vice and crime...[3]

They could have been writing about my great-grandfather Edward Sinnett who was ‘rescued’ from ‘the dark shadows of youthful depravity or destitution’ to be trained to be ‘god-fearing and industrious’.[4] He was 11 years old when he was arrested and charged by his step-father as a neglected child under a new Act of the Victorian Parliament, the Neglected and Criminal Children’s Act of 1864, the first Victorian law governing child welfare in the colony.

After many beatings by his step-father Edward Sinnett ran away from home.

The Act set child welfare within a criminal justice framework.[5] And established what would be an enduring policy couplet: the deserving poor (neglected, children or widows or impoverished) and undeserving poor (criminal or children of criminal parents or those with intemperate habits, immorality, alcohol—now we would include drugs).

The law defined a ‘neglected’ child as any child already resident in the Immigrants’ Home, as well as any child found begging, homeless, living in a brothel or with a thief, prostitute, drunkard or convicted vagrant, an offender whom the justices think should be sent to an industrial school rather than gaol or reformatory,[6] and finally, any child declared by their parents as uncontrollable.[7]

My great grandfather was homeless because he ran away from a violent stepfather, but when his stepfather father offered a reward (less than the reward for horses) and caught up with him, he declared him uncontrollable.[8] \

Had the new Ballarat Orphan Asylum opened in time for my great-grandfather instead of a year late, he may not have been admitted. His parents would have been required to supply Edward’s birth certificate, their marriage certificate showing his father’s name, and a doctor’s certificate attesting that Edward was free of contagious diseases. Parents and guardians who ‘labored under the impression that all Orphans, without regard to legitimacy, morals or respectability’ would be admitted to the Orphan Asylum were badly mistaken because this was an institution ‘for the Orphans of honorable parents in contradistinction to those Institutions established for the reception of the criminal and abandoned.’[9]

The government, however, would have to take all sorts of children, deserving or not. With the Neglected and Criminal Children’s Act 1864, it established a new Department of Industrial and Reformatory Schools. A constable could take a child before a justice, and if he found the child to be neglected, could sentence the child to an Industrial School for between one and seven years. If the child was convicted of an offence he or she could be sent to a reformatory school. In passing, I should hasten to add that there was always—and would continue to be—some blurring of the categories neglected and criminal.

A child found guilty of a criminal offence could also be sent to goal and, when that term ended, then sent to a reformatory. My great-uncle Samuel Sinnett, one of Edward Sinnett’s sons, suffered just that double whammy at around the turn of the century.

You might have imagined a government passing such a law would have industrial and reformatory schools established in readiness, given that in the first year of its operation 1865, police rounded up 868 children (three-quarters of them under the age of ten). By 1866, the Industrial Schools had beds for 1,320 children, 68 percent of them boys.[10]

They were all given numbers—Edward Sinnett was number 707. I know my great grandfather was the 707th because the children were given a registration number in order of admission—and the sequence continued up to 1962. In 1940 I became ward of the State of Victoria number 66852 charged with the same offence of being a neglected child. And institutions were still requiring children to be checked for syphilis and epilepsy. Welfare history is as much about continuity as it is about change. 

But back to the Edward’s time, the 1860s: accommodation for children was one continuous crisis.[11] The already overcrowded Immigrants Home near Princes Bridge on the Yarra River was declared the Melbourne Industrial School[12]. There were hundreds more than the facility could accommodate, and, with the police roundups, the numbers grew by the day. When Edward was incarcerated in the Industrial School it was in crisis—a disease-ridden, lice-infested and dangerously over-crowded hellhole. An outbreak of ophthalmia left many children completely blind. Some 117 children died in that hell-hole that year.[13]

Edward was later shifted to the hastily built Industrial School at Sunbury, but he escaped and was recaptured and transferred to the floating Industrial School, the brig Sir Harry Smith moored off Sandridge. When he absconded a second time he was deemed a criminal child and sent to the Reformatory ship, the Nelson, another hulk moored in Hobson’s Bay. He was released after five years—the fifth year was added to his initial four-year sentence.

One of Edward Sinnett’s institutions, the hulk HMS Nelson.

Industrial Schools and Reformatories were not a government monopoly. There were church-based ones (like the notorious Bayswater Boys Reformatory run by the ‘Starvation Army’, or the Paradise Reformatory for Catholic boys—which closed when boys continually ran away, from Paradise!)

Other reformatories were run by charities, even a few run by individuals (like Mrs Rowe’s Brookside Reformatory for Girls near Ballarat). Some sites were multi-purpose like the Abbottsford Convent where the Sisters of the Good Shepherd ran both an Industrial School and a Reformatory for Girls as well as an orphanage—all three simultaneously on the one site.

The government has always been happy to contract out children’s welfare services to private enterprise and the non-government sector without too much concern for quality control or accountability[14]—a feature which would eventually become a matter of public shame through the Victorian Parliament’s Betrayal of Trust inquiry and the current Royal Commission on child sexual abuse. But that’s another story.


[1] Qu. in Nell Musgrove, The Scars Remain: A long history of Forgotten Australians and children’s institutions, Australian Scholarly, Melbourne, p. 13-14.

[2] Ballarat Star, 5 December 1859: 2.

[3] Joan Brogden, Neglected—or Criminal?: The Sunbury Industrial School, Self-published, Melbourne, 2000, Vol. 3: 29.

[4] Argus, 19/8/1872: 6.

[5] Dorothy Scott & Shurlee Swain, Confronting Cruelty: Historical perspectives on child protection in Australia, 1992, p. 4.

[6] That is a lesser offence or a very young child—although I have found children as young as six in reformatories.

[7] Other States of Australia used similar criteria—and those criteria endured largely unchanged for many decades: see Shurlee Swain, ‘History of Child Protection Legislation’, Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual, Sydney, 2014, Appendix 2.

[8] See Frank Golding, That’s Not My Child: A family at war, forthcoming.

[9] Committee of Management, 2nd Annual Report 1866: 12.

[10] Statistics of the Colony of Victoria for the year 1866, compiled from official records in the Registrar-General’s Office, Part VII, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1867, p. 21.

[11] The Annual Report of the Department of Industrial and Reformatory Schools for 1879, reported that the period before boarding-out was marked by: ‘continuous and wearying efforts to obtain accommodation for the children. Quarantine station, immigrants’ shelter sheds, military barracks, penal hulk, gaol, war ship, and powder magazine being made successively to do duty in sheltering the children; the one characteristic being common to the whole, viz., utter unsuitability.’ Annual Report of the Department of Industrial and Reformatory Schools for 1879, p.3.

[12] Report of the Inspector Industrial Schools, 1867: 3-5; and Argus 13/7/1867: 6

[13] Report of the Inspector Industrial Schools, 1867: 3.

[14] John Poynter in Mary Kehore, The Melbourne Benevolent Asylum, 1998, p. 5.

Lost and Found: State Children in Victoria (1)

Paper presented to the Hotham History Project, North Melbourne Town Hall, 25 July 2017

I am posting this very long paper in separate sections so as not to tax my readers too much. It should be noted that the paper was presented to an audience with a particular focus on the history of North Melbourne and neighbouring suburbs and that influenced my choice of institutions to illustrate policy and practice.


The difficult question of what to do with children who can’t or shouldn’t live with their families has troubled Australian society from the beginnings of European settlement. Despite innumerable formal inquiries, problems persist. This paper examines the mixed motivations of welfare authorities and the way they framed the problem over the years to explain the different kinds of institutional responses. To illustrate the issues, the author uses examples geographically close to North Melbourne and draws on research into his own multi-generational history of a family in state care. The lack of resources dogged the hybrid child welfare system, but the lack of a clear or consistent rationale for child removal was more intractable—and remains so.


From the earliest days of the European presence in Australia, child removal and protection has been a confronting challenge—and remains so. Many of the 50 children on the First Fleet were in need of government care and protection.[1] I don’t have time tonight to discuss the first Australian orphanage on Norfolk Island in 1793, or the early orphanages in Sydney and Parramatta. I’ll stick to Victoria—and in particular to inner Melbourne.

Over the course of Australia’s settlement history there have been more than 1,000 children’s Homes—more than 300 of them in Victoria alone, including a number within reasonable walking distance of North Melbourne, and I will talk about them to illustrate the broader trends in the history of child welfare in Australia.

In the period 1928 to 1989 alone, more than 500,000 children were in out-of-home care in Australia. As we speak, some 45,000 Australian children are not living with their own families—and, it’s appalling that around a third of these children are Indigenous Australian children. In 2004 there were just under 22,000 children in out-of-home care (OOHC) while in 2016 that number had jumped to 45,000.

A startling increase in the number of Australian children who can’t live with their parents. And a disturbing disproportionate number of Indigenous children.

In 2009 Prime Minister Rudd described the treatment experienced by Australian children in out-of-home ‘care’ in the 20th century as ‘an ugly chapter in our nation’s history’.[2] The current Royal Commission into child sexual abuse should not be assumed to mean we have only recently discovered that many of the very people charged with caring for children abused those children. There have been more than 80 inquiries before this Royal Commission.[3] Our nation has struggled with unresolved problems in providing compassionate care and protection for its most vulnerable children.

In 2016, Victoria Legal Aid undertook a review of Child Protection Legal Aid Services and found

strong agreement that the removal of a child from the family is one of the most serious actions that the State can take, and should be a last resort.[4]

So, when is it right and proper to remove a child from the family home? Some of the circumstances where, historically, children have been removed include:

  • When both parents die, or one parent dies and the surviving parent is unable or unwilling to care for their child (a clear minority of cases);
  • When the parent is unable or unwilling to care for a child—temporarily or permanently—because the parents are ill, disabled, deserted, divorced, damaged by war service or otherwise unable to care for them;
  • When the child commits an offence deemed to be sufficiently serious to warrant incarceration;
  • When the state judges the parents ‘unfit’, e.g. in gaol; mentally ill; abusive or neglectful; racially or mentally inferior; disabled, homeless, chronically impoverished, or unwed—usually mothers.

Each one of the above circumstances has been part of Australia’s history of child welfare. Indeed, some are part of my own family’s history. On my mother’s side of the family some 30 children were lost to the Welfare over five generations—and through the study of welfare history, I have been finding that lost family again. I’ll mention a few examples as we proceed.

Over the years, Victorian governments produced an odd hybrid system run by government and non-government agencies, churches and charities, community bodies and even private enterprise operating diverse institutions—general asylums, large orphanages, industrial schools and reformatories, small-scale charitable Homes, boarding-out or fostering, cottage and group homes, hostels, lead tenant arrangements, and adoption.


[1] Robert Holden, Orphans of History: The forgotten children of the first fleet, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2000.

[2] National Apology to the Forgotten Australians and former Child Migrants, 16 November 2009

[3] Shurlee Swain, History of Australian inquiries reviewing institutions providing care for children, Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Sydney, 2014.

[4] Victoria Legal Aid, Child Protection Legal Aid Services Review – Consultation and options paper 2016: p 23:

Ideas for Collaborative Research

This is the text of a short presentation I gave at a gathering at Monash University on 14 September 2016.

The occasion was the 10th Anniversary of COSI (the Centre for Organisational & Social Informatics – a flash name for a dynamic group of research academics who work in partnership with community groups on issues around records, archives, information systems, and the management of knowledge).

 Ideas for research 

The first place to look for ideas is the Royal Commission. While we regret that the Abbott/Turnbull governments have so far rejected the Commission’s recommendation for a national independent redress scheme, it would be an utter waste of time (5 years) and public funds (more than $500 million)  if we don’t build on their work in a number of other important areas.

To quote Linda Tilgner from Maria Tumarkin’s essay in The Conversation  last week: 

There is a window of opportunity around the Royal Commission. If that window closes, it’s gone…The danger is that the Royal Commission actually becomes a destructive process because it creates a false perception that we have done something when we haven’t.

The personal files emanating from these private sessions (around 7,000)  will be sealed—not available to researchers for decades—but we have a mountain of aggregated public data that we can and should make use of.

To date there have been

  • 44 Case Studies (with fully indexed transcripts and reports of findings),
  • 26 research reports (with more coming as we speak), and 
  • 13 consultation or issues papers (which have generated nearly 900 public submissions).

Lots of these reports have the capacity to be enriched and developed further, refined, applied—not to forget archived. As recently as Monday this week in his opening remarks at the 44th Case Study, the Chair of the Commission, Justice McLellan said:

Apart from providing a valuable resource for the Commission these reports will be an authoritative source for other research and policy work long after the Commission has completed its final report.[1]

That’s a gilt-edged invitation to researchers and policy wonks to get their sleeves rolled up.

In this gathering, I hardly need mention the Commission’s Consultation Paper on Records and Recordkeeping Practices.[2] The closing date is 3 October and I expect everyone here will be having a close look at the Paper and making a written submission. You have so much to offer. The Paper raises many timely issues. And these will be live in the years ahead.

One of the most striking aspects of the work of the Royal Commission is that the closed institutions—orphanages, children’s Homes, youth detentions centres, and even foster care—are still generating a disproportionate workload. Of the nearly 6,000 private hearings, some 44% of all reported sexual abuse occurred in these closed institutions. Many of them date back 20, 30, 40, 50 and more years ago. History has not done with these victim/survivors (not to mention other forms of child abuse which the Royal Commission hasn’t looked at because of its Terms of Reference being limited to sexual abuse).

And yet, although we have demolished the old warehouses for children, we seem to have solved very little—and learned even less about OHHC (Out-of-Home Care: a modern term for separating children from their families)  Consider this graph from the Productivity Commission:

A startling increase in the number of Australian children who can't live with their parents. And a disturbing disproportionate number of Indigenous children.
A startling increase in the number of Australian children who can’t live with their parents. And a disturbing disproportionate number of Indigenous children.

In the past decade we have seen an 80% increase in the number of Australian children who cannot live with their families. More than enough children to fill Etihad Stadium. And an outrageously high proportion of these castaway children are Indigenous. Imagine the questions the new Royal Commission will be asking in 2030.

There are many questions researchers could apply to the current situation. A couple of  examples:

  • How is the welfare system  handling the rights of these 43,000 children e.g. their right to maintain contact with their families and community?
  • What sort of records are being made? What will change in the archiving practices available to the next Royal Commission?

If you are looking for work projects, look no further than the new wave of OOHC.

One of the recurrent issues arising in the Royal Commission’s research projects is the lack of uniformity across Australia on definitions of key terms and on what is collected and reported.

Time and again, research reports start with a grizzle about the problems of fluctuating terminology. The AIFS compiled a guide to statutory definitions of child sexual abuse in 2013, and even within that limited area, there is no agreement on terminology. Each Australian state and territory has constitutional power to make laws relating to child protection. These laws, created in different jurisdictions at different times, vary in scope and nature and there has never been a unified approach across the nation.[3]

Why do definitions matter?

They matter because they affect how we conceptualise problems, how we prioritise issues, and create policy responses and change practice.

Take terms like ‘emotional abuse’ and ‘psychological abuse’ which appear frequently in reports. Professor Patrick Parkinson advised the Royal Commission against including emotional or psychological abuse within the compass of any national redress scheme because the terms lack objectivity.

Of course, it is equally open to Parkinson to suggest that emotional or psychological abuse be authoritatively defined so that it can be included in redress schemes.

On the other hand, there are terms that are insensitive and even offensive e.g. ‘child sexual abuse perpetrator’, ‘child prostitution’, and ‘child-on-child sexual abuse’ (the latter sadly used without proper care even by the Royal Commission).

So there’s a big job of work to do in analysing the language used in reports and striving for some consensus about what we mean. We could look at the work of ECPAT published just this year: Terminology Guidelines for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse, Adopted by the Interagency Working Group in Luxembourg, 28 January 2016[4]

The National Summit on Rights to Records

I’m hoping the national summit and related projects like Routes to the Past will generate ongoing research; e.g. archiving the counter-narratives.

We know there are hundreds of counter-narratives ‘out there’, and more are coming every week. To a large extent, Care Leavers are driven by their concern that officials have expropriated their stories. And Care Leavers are saying: nothing about us without us!   

I think archivists are getting the message that not all  ‘documents’ are words on  paper. Many Care Leavers were deprived of formal schooling and are not at their best in writing down their thoughts – although I hasten to add that it would be condescending to underestimate them intellectually – as was the case so often when they were children.

We must never overlook the other forms that are increasingly appearing. Over the past couple of years, I have seen members of CLAN create political and personal ‘documents’ in the following formats:

  • posters
  • oral interviews
  • videos (smart phones give us access  to new creative forms)
  • artworks (ranging from sculpture to  pavement chalk work)
  • songs
  • donations of childhood memorabilia to the Australian Orphanage Museum at CLAN headquarters in Sydney.

It would be great to have an accessible inventory or searchable archive of this rich source of Care Leaver history. CLAN is doing marvellous work but its resources are limited and so are its technical prowess when it comes to archiving.

So there’s an agenda to start with.


[1] Opening Remarks, Case Study 44, 12 September, Sydney

[2] Maria Tumarkin, The Conversation

[3] Ben Mathews, Mandatory reporting laws for child sexual abuse in Australia: A legislative history,


[4] ECPAT (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes) is a European-based non-governmental organisation and a global network of civil society organisations. ECPAT initiated an Interagency Working Group to draft a set of Terminology Guidelines for the protection of children from sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. The Guidelines were adopted in 2016 in a meeting in Luxembourg (hence dubbed the “Luxembourg Guidelines”). The Guidelines set out three categories of terms.

  1. A term appears to have a generally agreed meaning and/or can be used without stigmatising and/or otherwise harming the child; e.g. child sexual abuse
  2. Where there is some disagreement, special attention should be paid to how this term is used.
  3. The use of a term should be avoided.


Child Sexual Abuse in Out-of-Home Care

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has recently released 55 submissions in response to their ‘Consultation Paper: Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Out-of-Home Care’

You can download and read the submissions here.

This is my submission dated 11 March 2016.

I became aware of the above Consultation Paper only yesterday, and as I am leaving the country on Tuesday 15 March for a month I have time to make just a few comments on some selected aspects of the Paper. I wish I had more time because I think it is a very important area of discussion.

1. The Royal Commission’s attention to OOHC

My observation is that the Commission has not done nearly enough in this sector which is commonly described as crisis-driven. The Commission reports that OOHC is by far the largest category of institutions identified in the more than 4,700 private sessions. More than 40 per cent of all reports of child sexual abuse were located in the OOHC sector. (Footnote 1: Depending on how tight the definition of OOHC, this figure could be as high as 46%.)

Yet only 11 of the public hearings of 37 to date have examined OOHC. This is unjustifiably disproportionate. The Commission has allocated far more time to Case Studies involving churches and schools than to OOHC.

The OOHC Round Table conducted by the Commission in April 2014 was profoundly disappointing, and Case Study 24 held in Sydney in March and June 2015 more closely resembled a cheerful seminar than rigorous examination of experts and the hard facts.

It was dominated by agencies with a vested interest in putting their best foot forward while advocacy representatives were accorded inadequate opportunity to give their insights. The commissioned research on the evaluation of OOHC practices that prevent child sexual abuse was depressingly inadequate.

2. The poor state of knowledge throughout Australia in relation to the incidence of child sexual abuse in OOHC (pp. 27-31)

The lack of accurate, consistent and complete data is a major problem which the Royal Commission must address in its final report—or preferably by commissioning more research as a matter of urgency. It is difficult to know what changes might be effective, as the Paper says, without knowing ‘the true shape and size of the problem’ (p. 28)

Yet, we need not be totally paralysed by this lack of national data. Some data produced by and for the Royal Commission to date should be taken as symptomatic of issues where immediate action (or at least further investigation) is warranted. The high incidence of sexual abuse in residential ‘care’ compared with other forms of OOHC is a case in point.

It is remarkable—and great cause for concern—that while only 5 per cent of children in OOHC are in residential settings, 33 per cent of reports of child sexual abuse in the period 2012-2014 come from residential facilities (Charts 1.1 & 1.2).

This raises questions such as the quality of supervision of residents, the training and professional development of staff, and, indeed, the process of determining which children are placed in residential facilities and why, and the relationship which is allowed (or not) between inmates and their families.

3. Child-on-child sexual abuse

The Paper states: ‘We have been told that more needs to be done to better protect children from, and respond to, issues of child-to-child sexual abuse in OOHC’ (p. 6). I think this is a very complex issue and should not be rolled out so glibly. The Paper states: ‘We have heard evidence in public hearings that child-to-child sexual abuse is a serious and common problem in contemporary OOHC’ (p. 6).

It is disappointing that this statement is so vague. What evidence? Who provided it? Was it substantiated evidence? Some of this evidence may have been coloured by the first version of the commissioned research (now amended) which made a wholly unsubstantiated claim about child-on-child sexual abuse which was picked up and repeated by Counsel Assisting the Commission on 10 March 2015 who stated:

The major focus of preventing child sexual abuse in out of home care should be on efforts to prevent child to child sexual abuse rather than caregiver child sexual abuse, since this type of abuse likely represents the vast majority of observed child sexual abuse in out of home care. (Footnote 2: Gail Furness SC, Public Hearing, 10 March 2015, para. 96, p. 22)

This fallacious and damaging statement has not been publicly corrected and remains a permanent part of the Commission’s official record. Much better research is needed in this area—as a matter of some urgency. In the meantime, sweeping generalisations should be avoided.

Likewise, the use of terms like ‘perpetrator’ and ‘abuser’ should not be applied to children in OOHC without sensitive and nuanced discussion about what such labels imply in the context of closed institutions and the ethics of labelling victims/ survivors/ perpetrators.

Moreover, the phenomenon of child-on-child sexual abuse needs to be better defined, described and analysed. It is most unlikely that all incidents allotted to this category of events are conceptually the same.

Issues such as the age gap between the two children, their relative lengths of time in ‘care’, and any prior history of sexualised behaviour could be significant variables in differentiating types of incidents—and the ways they are best handled.

4. Historical sexual abuse

In reference to sexual abuse that occurred in OHHC many years ago, the Consultation Paper states that ‘We have heard numerous accounts of the significant sexual, physical and emotional abuse of children that occurred in these institutions and its detrimental impact on many people’s lives’ (p. 4).

It is disappointing that the Paper then dismisses what it calls ‘Historical context’ and then ‘Shifting attitudes’ in a single page (p. 20). This suggests to me the writer of the Paper is much too ready to dismiss historical experience as irrelevant to contemporary OOHS and, worse, to suggest that somehow times have changed.

This is a concern because we know that, while closed institutions like orphanages and other forms of residential life have changed in terms of architecture, size and human scale, many of the features of the old culture have not changed.

This is illustrated by the report of the Victorian Commission for Children and Young People which is cited in the Paper. (Footnote 3:  Inquiry into the adequacy of the provision of residential care services to Victorian children and young people who have been subject to sexual abuse or sexual exploitation whilst residing in residential care, 2015.) 

Social history is rarely marked by sudden shifts in policies and institutional practices and the then-but-now syndrome can be hazardous.

Moreover, survivors of sexual abuse, even when it occurred decades ago, hardly ever think of that experience as ‘historical’. Many of them attest to the fact that the past is always with them. Many of them have come forward to the Commission precisely because they think there is something to be learned from their ‘historical’ experience. They don’t want the lessons of the past to be ignored.

In addition, it is well known anecdotally among Care Leavers that many children in OHHC today are the children and grandchildren of former state wards and Homies. I know of no systematic research that assesses the incidence of inter-generational institutionalisation. None of the relevant authorities think this data could be useful to them, but I beg to differ because such a study would shed some light on how families get on, and stay on the welfare treadmill—and thus become potentially the next generation of abused residents.

5. Access to Care Leaver records and information

It is pleasing to note that the Commission is working in the important area of access to records. The summary on pages 118-19 is a very good listing. However, I think there are three very important elements that the Paper misses because it focuses only on the problems of access.

The first of these is related to the participation of the young person in OOHC in constructing the record. The young person’s voice is almost always silent in these records because agencies who make and keep the records rarely think to invite the subject person to make a contribution to the record. This is a significant omission because critical incidents are always recorded from an adult’s perspective whereas the child is likely to have some important insights worth recording.

One result of not engaging the young person is that when they do gain access to their records, they are often shocked by the prevailing negativity of the contents, especially when value judgments of the adult writer are so obviously unwarranted or unfair.

Many Care Leavers complain about omissions from their records especially when they recall events such as a complaint they made about their treatment. Involving the young person in contributing to the records would almost certainly make it a more balanced narrative of their life in OOHC.

Likewise, there are some legislated opportunities for Care Leavers to challenge usually by adding another version of events to the record. However, this opportunity is rarely exercised for a variety of reasons not the least being the government and non-government agencies rarely publicise the existence of this provision.

The second and related issue is that of ownership. Care Leavers often speak of making application for ‘my file’ in the mistaken expectation that as adults they own the record made about them as children and can go and pick it up. They are genuinely shocked to be told by record keepers that the Department, or the agency, owns the file and the best they can expect is a photocopy of it, or some of it. This mismatch of expectations with harsh and unreasonable legal reality is the cause of considerable angst.

In some cases, Care Leavers, especially those who may have been abused and are considering taking an action for redress, are suspicious of agencies’ motives in withholding material. It is my contention that there is little justification for government and non-government agencies being so precious about their control of these records. A change of legislation accompanied by a change in culture is required.

The third issue that the paper omits is reference to statutory obligations related to record making and keeping. It beggars belief that a government or non-government agency can hold custody of a child sometimes for years and not be required by law to construct and maintain an official record of the child’s time in their custody. But such has been the practice in many cases that records were never kept or were so superficial as to offer no insights into the circumstances at a later time. It should not be difficult to develop a list of essential items of information that should be kept in every child’s record.

These would be matters relevant to

  •  identity such as birth certificate, name and last known address of immediate family members, and evidence of family religious affiliations such as the child’s baptism certificate or similar;
  • reasons for the child’s initial admission to OOHC including any court orders;
  •  medical conditions and treatments;
  •  school progress;
  •  details of all changes of placements including reasons for transfer;
  •  names of any person who visits the child while in care;
  •  critical incidents that affected the child’s development positively or negatively; and
  •  arrangements made when the child or young person was to be discharged for OOHC.

It should not be difficult to mandate that these primary documents must be safeguarded by the relevant agency and their loss or destruction should result in a penalty for the offending agency.

I trust you will find what I have written in haste to be of relevance to the Royal Commission’s further work in this somewhat neglected area.

Yours sincerely

Frank Golding


Putting the Children and their Families Back into Orphanage History

This is the inaugural Frank Golding Lecture presented at the Official Opening of the Legacy & Research Centre at Ballarat Child & Family Services (CAFS), 7 May 2016

I solemnly swear to tell you the truth and nothing but the truth about the history of the Ballarat Orphan Asylum (born 1865) and its child, the Ballarat Orphanage (born 1909) and its grandchild, the Ballarat Children’s Home (born 1968). But I can’t swear to tell you the whole truth. History can never tell the complete story. On the one hand, there are too many events to choose from. On the other hand, only a highly selective slice of life is ever recorded.

To illustrate, let me take you back 50 years to 1965 when the Orphanage was 100 years old. The Board of Management commissioned Ethel Morris to compile an official history to mark the centenary. For many, Morris’s A Century of Child Care[1] is the definitive history of the first 100 years, but to a reader who was a child resident it is a perplexing publication. Her institution seems peopled almost exclusively with adults. They are mentioned by individual names 240 times: I’ve counted them. Board or committee members (100 times); staff including honorary medical and other professionals, teachers, volunteers and managers (82); eminent visitors (35), and financial benefactors (23)—although the three ‘Chinese’ donors and the ‘poor widow who set aside proceeds from the sale of eggs each Sunday’ remain anonymous.[2]

By contrast, Morris mentions fewer than ten children by name, several of them former residents who had done well and left generous bequests. We also learn that three boys gained scholarships and a girl graduated as a trained nurse—but they are nameless and we learn nothing more about them. We learn that the boys’ band was often successful but the praise goes to the bandmasters. We learn that the boys made lots of sturdy boots, were handy on the farm, and later made good soldiers for King and Country, and that the girls made excellent clothing and bedding. The eminent visitors who came to brighten the children’s lives (for an hour or two) are mentioned, but there is nothing about the daily life of children—the rowdiness, the fights, the collective laughter, the sirens that marked the routine of repetitive days and nights, the queues for porridge, rabbit stew, or laxatives. Nor is there anything about how the children coped with feelings of being abandoned and not wanted, and the harsh punishment meted out by untrained and overworked staff.

Throughout this history, which is based almost entirely on picking highlights from the Annual Reports (which were themselves a selection of events each year), not a page is turned that does not mention funding, buildings and facilities. It is reasonable to conclude that the publication was written primarily to impress benefactors and appeal to potential donors. Every historian has a particular life experience, a point of view and a purpose when selecting and interpreting the events they write about. In that sense, no history can ever be entirely neutral.

More recently, a pair of histories of the institution was written in 2011 for a completely different purpose, and it shows. Defending a preservation claim by former residents of the Orphanage at Heritage Victoria, Victoria Street Developments Pty Ltd commissioned a history as part of a Conservation Management Plan.[3] A few months later, Ballarat City Council commissioned its own history as part of a heritage assessment of the site[4]. Both versions were then used in a series of contested sessions at Council meetings and at the Victorian Civil & Administrative Tribunal in 2013-14. No prize for guessing that the history the developers paid for stressed how the building fabric that was then still on site had been changed beyond recognition and therefore should be demolished—with the exception of the 1929 Toddlers’ Block (which the developers intended to recycle as a medical centre). The Council’s version of the history was more nuanced because former residents and their allies including the Ballarat Trades Hall Council had lobbied them to retain the school. The Council’s historian found that the 1919 schoolhouse had significance, whereas the developer’s historian said it had no heritage value because its roofline had been altered.

The brick wall facing Stawell Street stands as a powerful testament. For one of the hired historians, the wall has this significance:

the pier-braced brick boundary wall to Stawell Street runs for approximately 100 metres, and most of this is in a weathered variant of Yorkshire bond with three stretchers separating each header. The wall was evidently punctuated by a gateway, as there is a clearly ‘filled-in’ part with much later brick and a dip in cornice height of about 30cm. This section is about 10m-wide in stretcher bond.[5]


I think of all those children who experienced the wall in other ways. I was one who sat on the wall facing the spot where the tram terminated at the Orphanage corner, hoping and yearning to see one of our parents alight. The weeks turned into years before, one day, our father did step off a tram—and after he had gone, Superintendent Morton told me he would not be allowed to visit us any more if he upset me again. The wall survives today—and I would never think of it as ‘a weathered variant of Yorkshire bond’.

Just as Ethel Morris was fixated on funding and facilities, these later histories share a fixation with the bricks and mortar. None of these writers seemed capable of seeing the history of the Orphanage as the story of the thousands of children who lived in that place.


Those of you who grew up in a ‘normal’ family will have a deep-seated sense of continuity, of belonging to a family story which reaches back into the past. Your story comes from direct experience and family anecdotes told around the dinner table, being spoiled rotten by proud grandparents at Christmas and birthdays. You have photograph albums and family memorabilia tucked away in shoeboxes under the bed or on top of wardrobes which you can retrieve any time you feel like it. It’s not like that for Orphanage children. Mothers’ Day will be observed quite differently tomorrow for those of us separated from our mother when we were children. Many of us who have looked for a family narrative in our official childhood records have discovered that files were written for a particular purpose and audience—and that certainly was never intended to be the child or the adult the child would become. In some cases what was recorded is painful to read not only because of what was recorded as fact when it was inaccurate, but also for the disparaging slander about parents that freely littered the files. In other cases the story is woefully inadequate with long gaps in time when nothing was recorded and an overall lack of crucial information such as medical episodes, or educational achievements, or any record of family visits.

An abiding memory:

In those cold dormitory mornings when I was 4 and 5 and 6 and 7, the siren shattered my recurring dream of my mother. Where was she? Was she sick or dying? Was my dad away at the war? When were they going to come and take us home? Why wouldn’t anyone tell me? No one answered.

For decades those unanswered questions itched like scabs that would not heal. I needed to understand why healthy, intelligent parents would separate from their children, or put them into an orphanage. I would have to re-construct my childhood, starting with what documents survived in the archives and CAFS and in the state ward records held by the Department in Melbourne. In those archives I found vital clues that gave the bloodhound in me a scent to follow. Yet those records were only fragments of the story and could only hint at the astonishing story that would emerge from my quest.

I was to discover that my family has a long and intimate relationship with the Ballarat Orphanage at 200 Victoria Street. My mother’s grandfather, Edward Sinnett, could have been its very first inmate when it opened its doors for children in October 1865. He was a Ballarat boy sleeping rough on the streets among the growing band of ‘waifs and strays, street Arabs and youthful Bedouins’.[6] But just a few months before the doors of the Ballarat Orphan Asylum opened for the first time, he had already been sent to the Melbourne Industrial School. In 1865, the year the Ballarat Orphan Asylum opened, Edward was the 707th child rounded up by the police and incarcerated in makeshift accommodation in Melbourne.[7] Edward was aged 11 whereas three-quarters of these children were under the age of ten. I know my great grandfather was the 707th of the 868 children because they were given a registration number in order of admission—and the sequence continued up to 1962. In 1940, I became ward of the State of Victoria number 66852.[8]

Why was young Edward in trouble? The short story is: his stepfather was a violent brute. When Edward was seven years old, his stepfather was charged at the Police Court at Geelong with battering Edward black and blue. Edward’s mother hesitantly confessed to the court that her new husband was knocking her about too. Despite the evidence, the magistrate issued a simple caution, and Stokes strolled home a free man with his wife and stepson two paces behind. Six months later, Stokes placed an advertisement in the local newspaper offering a £1 reward for the return of his stepson.[9]

Immediately above this notice was another advertisement offering a reward of £10 for missing horses plus £5 for information leading to the conviction of the thief.

One Pound for Edward

Stepfather Stokes used Edward as an unpaid labourer, and thrashed him regularly. When the family shifted to Ballarat, he ran away and lived off his wits on the streets. It was only a matter of time before he was caught committing an ‘instance of juvenile depravity’–namely stealing a watch. [10] The sympathetic owner shed a tear of sympathy and withdrew the charge. The police returned Edward to his mother and stepfather with a stern warning to mend his ways.

A year later he was in court again. The local paper, the Ballarat Star, gave this report [11]:

Vagrancy aged 11

Strictly speaking, Edward was not charged with the crime of vagrancy, but with its juvenile equivalent—being a neglected child. Under the new Criminal & Neglected Children’s Act 1864, if the parents declared they were unable to control their child, and agreed to pay maintenance (in this case 3/6d a month), the child could be put away. The magistrates sentenced Edward to four years in the Melbourne Industrial School then situated near Princes Bridge on the Yarra River. He eventually served five years—the extra year was for, you guessed it—absconding.

Had its doors opened a few months sooner, the local Orphan Asylum may have been a much better option for Edward, but he would have been disqualified anyway because the Orphanage governors would only accept ‘the Orphans of honorable parents in contradistinction to those Institutions established for the reception of the criminal and abandoned’. Our Orphanage would be very vigilant about ‘legitimacy, morals [and] respectability’. [12]

I don’t have time today to deal with Edward’s terrible life spent in the several reformatories including two unseaworthy hulks, the Sir Harry Smith and the old battleship, the Nelson, moored off Williamstown, but I’m sure those lost years affected his view of the world and how he raised his children. I wonder if his life—and those of his children and grandchildren—would have been different had he become an inmate of the Ballarat Orphan Asylum?

The former battleship Nelson used as a boys' reformatory by the Victorian government unprepared for the number of 'wayward' boys.
The former battleship Nelson used as a boys’ reformatory by the Victorian government unprepared for the number of ‘wayward’ boys.


I would love to have time to tell you about Samuel alias Henry, Edward’s oldest son who followed his father into juvenile detention, but I’d rather talk about his brother, William Francis Salvador Sinnett, my mother’s father, because of the close connection to the Ballarat Orphanage.

Bill Sinnett was 20, and married just a few weeks, when he sailed to join the Great War in 1915. Like many young men, he paid an awful price; and so did his family. David Stephens is right to remind us that, ‘Ultimately, what is important is not what our fathers and grandfathers did in war but what war did to them and to us.[13]

Bill Sinnett in France 1918. He sailed to the war weeks after being married in 1915.
Bill Sinnett in France 1918. He sailed to the war weeks after being married in 1915.

Bill Sinnett was wounded twice and buried in the trenches only to be pulled out, dusted down and sent back into the fray. He came home to Ballarat with one leg shorter than the other and severe emotional damage. While he was away—for nearly four years—my mother, Frances, was born. That was expected, as his wife, Permella, was three months pregnant when he sailed to the front. However, to come home and find his wife with another 6-month old baby was a shock. Baby Jean was what that generation called ‘the living issue of unlegitimized sexual union’.[14]

Bill never recovered from the horror of war or from the personal betrayal at home. And his family was mortally wounded. He and Permella tried to make a go of it, but as the documents archived by the Supreme Court show, their relationship was punctuated by violence and alcoholism. To keep the peace, as the County Court archives show, Permella was persuaded to give up baby Jean to a family named Walls.

The next year Permella had another baby, Minnie, but Bill refused to believe that he was the father—because she was a girl! In desperation, Permella was again convinced to relinquish baby Minnie to another family, the Greens. Then came baby Joyce but things did not improve. Finally, when Bill refused to pay for Permella’s hospital bills for the birth of his baby son Frank or to have anything to do with him, Permella took out a court order for maintenance. He promptly cleared out, and the police could never find him.

After the mandatory three-year delay, Permella petitioned for divorce. Just before the case was due in court, Permella took a late-night journey to the countryside with friends. In the pitch black, their car plunged into a creek near Cressy and young Frank was thrown into the water. They searched frantically in the dark, but his little body wasn’t found until the next morning. The coroner’s inquest extended over two days, and as if that was not enough to contend with, her divorce case was heard in court in the middle of that process. In the turmoil, Bill’s mother, Alice Sinnett, took control of Joyce, now aged five. Unilaterally, she decided, to place Joyce in the Ballarat Orphanage.

Permella’s ex-mother-in-law may have been convinced that Permella was in no fit state to care for Joyce—or not a fit person. The Orphanage must have discussed the matter with the grandmother and her sponsor Mr Sprott of the Ballarat Town and City Mission, but the entry in the Orphanage Admission Book gives no reason for admission to the institution. That was unusual. Alice registered herself and Edward as Joyce’s grandparents and said they were her nearest living relatives. Alongside the mother’s name, was entered just ‘Permella’—no surname and no address.

Joyce's hurried admission to the Ballarat Orphanage omitted some vital details.
Joyce’s hurried admission to the Ballarat Orphanage omitted some vital details.

Joyce was now the third generation of her family to be a ‘client’ of the Welfare system; but she was the first of the family to enter the Ballarat Orphanage—and she would not be the last.

Capturefile: D:glass neg rawsbox 111rg002438.tif CaptureSN: CC001681.025907 Software: Capture One PRO for Windows

The following year 1927, Bill Sinnett’s sister, Lilly (my Great Aunt), died of pneumonia. Her husband, Stephen Coombes found it impossible as a widower to raise their six surviving children. He relied on the oldest child, Alma, who was then aged 16, to look after William (13) Nellie (10) Sydney (8) Alfred (5) and Victor (3) but it was all too much for her. By February 1928, Stephen felt he had no other option but to put the five youngest children into the Ballarat Orphanage.

Stephen Coombes had never known his niece, Joyce Sinnett. He had lost connection with that side of the family during the years of turmoil. The Coombes children did not know their cousin either. It is astonishing to contemplate Joyce Sinnett and the Coombes children sharing life in the Orphanage together with the other 200 children, but not knowing they were biological family.

It was even more astonishing to me to discover records about a ten-year-old girl, Marie or May Green (both names were used in the files), who joined Joyce Sinnett and her Coombes cousins in the Orphanage, nearly two years later. Marie or May was none other than Minnie Sinnett, Joyce’s older sister. Joyce and Minnie knew nothing of each other—Joyce had not been born when Minnie was handed over to the Greens as an infant. And neither Minnie nor Joyce knew the Coombes children. So now we have the two sisters and five cousins rubbing shoulders day by day in the Orphanage without knowing their kinship relationship.

Why did her foster parents, the Greens, place Minnie/Marie/May in the Orphanage? They told the Orphanage that they could not look after her because they were in bad health, but other evidence suggests they were victims of the so-called Great Depression. In 1933, after leaving Minnie in the Orphanage for four years, the Greens returned to rescue Minnie. She was nearly 13. Did she nurse suspicions—as others like her did—that she had been rescued because she would be able to go to work and help pay the rent? I imagine the Greens found Minnie a difficult teenager. In her eyes they had deprived her of family life, abandoned her to barrack-style institutional life where she was starved of love and affection.

When Minnie started work at the Sunnyside Woollen Mill in Ballarat, her oldest sister Frances, who would become my mother, worked there too and recognised her long-lost sister. She tapped Minnie on the shoulder and said,

‘You don’t know me, but I’m your sister. If you want to find out who your real mother is, here’s the address.’[15]


I will leave Minnie and her mother for a moment and go back to Joyce Sinnett. In Ethel Morris’s centenary history, she frequently gives us the names of adults connected to the Orphanage who died. There are 45 such individuals named. By contrast, in the 100 years she covers, she mentions only six children who died—and never gives us their names. That means she doesn’t mention Joyce Sinnett, my mother’s sister. Sadly, Joyce’s 12th birthday was her last. She died in August 1933. The death certificate said osteomyelitis, a bone infection. There was no inquest, but her death was probably caused by a serious injury that was neglected by the Orphanage staff.

The brief note in Joyce's file records her death. Where was the compassion?
The brief note in Joyce’s file records her death. Where was the compassion?

Not bothering to notify the family or to place a notice in the newspapers, the Orphanage buried her hastily. The undertaker, George Ludbrook, was the father of the Orphanage superintendent. The Orphanage knew from their admission records that Joyce’s mother was Permella. But the death certificate names her grandmother, Alice Sinnett, as her mother. A word of warning to family historians: never trust even official records. Check everything.

Joyce is one of 26 children in the Orphanage’s mass grave at the Ballarat New Cemetery. They were all anonymous until 2008 when CAFS refurbished the gravesite and erected a respectful plaque listing all their names and ages.[16] Thank you CAFS.




Meanwhile, as mentioned earlier, Minnie Sinnett had found her way back to her mother. Permella had remarried (to John Marone, a former resident of the Orphanage as it happened) and had two new children. Permella had not anticipated how bitter the anger of an abandoned child could be. Her new husband was no help—his drunkenness and frequent arrests for disorderly conduct and vagrancy made matters worse. Making the most of new-found freedom, Minnie was slipping out to meet a boy from work and returning in the wee small hours through her bedroom window.

At her wit’s end, with her husband in gaol and no one else to turn to for advice, Permella asked the police to give Minnie a stern talking to. But once the police recognised the Sinnett family as ‘clients’, they took control and charged her at the Children’s Court in Ballarat with being a neglected child, as her grandfather had been in 1865—and as I would be, some years later.

Things did not go well for Minnie. The magistrate was told that her mother was ‘On Sustenance’ (the dole)—a failing in the genteel mind. By contrast, the police told the court that her stepfather was ‘of sober habits’. How could that be so? Remember, at that moment, Jack Marone was in gaol. The police alluded to Minnie’s record of having been an inmate of the Ballarat Orphanage for four years as if that should count against her. She was ‘said to be pregnant probably six weeks.’

Had a girl like Minnie come from a ‘better’ family, discreet arrangements might have been made for a quiet holiday out of town. In Minnie’s case, the magistrate declared her ‘a neglected child lapsing into immorality…’ and she was declared a ward of state—at nearly 17 years of age. She was sent to the Oakleigh Convent, or Girls’ Reformatory (now the site of the car park at the Chadstone shopping complex).

Soon after she was born, Minnie’s baby daughter was committed as a ward of state, too, charged with the now common family crime of ‘being without sufficient means of support’. She was then fostered out to an anonymous family. The original birth certificate was sealed and a new one issued. Minnie was never to know the identity of that family who raised her baby.

A few years ago, I thought I had found Minnie’s long-lost daughter when I made contact with a long-lost cousin, Lorraine. She told me she was the oldest of Minnie’s five children and they had looked after their wonderful mother until she died in 2007, just four days before her 87th birthday. Minnie had told her children almost nothing about her harsh early life, or her time in the Ballarat Orphanage, or her teenage pregnancy, and so on. They never suspected that their strict mother had been a ‘wayward’ adolescent.

Two years after Minnie died, Lorraine had a phone call that went along the following lines.

‘Hello. My name is M…I hope you don’t mind, but I got your name and address from your mother’s death certificate. Our mother’s death certificate, actually. I’m your mother’s oldest child.’

‘No, you can’t be; I’m the oldest child.’

‘No, our mother was forced to give me up when I was three weeks old. I’ve been searching for her for many years.’

There was no fairy-tale ending for Minnie and her baby girl, no meeting between mother and daughter who had lived separate lives for 70 years. I try to imagine what they would have said to each other if they had met.


It is only through the reconstruction of my family history over the years that I have come, too late, to appreciate the ordeals my own mother confronted as a child and how they influenced the way she constructed her view of the world. And how, in turn, that affected us her children.

  • She did not meet her soldier-father until she was three and a half. And he turned out to be post-war traumatised and irrational.
  • As a child she witnessed years of intense family turmoil.
  • She saw her mother forced to give up her three baby sisters, one after the other.
  • She saw her mother go off one night with her new baby brother only to return alone the next day.
  • She was bundled from school to school in Ballarat, one apprehensive step ahead of her angry, vengeful father.
  • Her mother married again, but the new stepfather was another alcoholic tragic.
  • Her sister Minnie was barely back in the fold when she became pregnant, and the welfare system raced her off along with the child she bore.

I wonder if I would have had a different relationship with my mother had I known that her childhood was one of unremitting, remorseless loss?

Then when it was my mother’s biological turn to be wife and mother, another war intervened, and she chose the men in her life as badly as her mother chose her men before her. Is it just weird coincidence that she married a former resident of the Ballarat Orphanage—as her mother had done before her? Is it just coincidence—like her mother before her—that she hitched up with an alcohol-fuelled man determined to use her children as pawns? Is it just coincidence—like her mother before her—that she was forced to relinquish her children to the welfare system?


Edward Sinnett could never have envisaged when he stole a watch in the 1860s and ran away from his stepfather that he would be the first in a long line of his family to become Welfare children. Today, I have presented a short version of a much longer narrative. By trawling a variety of archives and cross-examining living eye-witnesses I have found, over five generations, some thirty children in my family in what we now call ‘out-of-home-care’. Altogether, children of the Sinnett family have spent time in sixteen different facilities run by government, churches, or charities in Victoria.

We can learn a lot from stories like this. We can, if we choose, fixate on the personal failings of individuals or inadequate families. Members of the Sinnett family certainly had shortcomings. But that line of thought explains very little about the social conditions in which parents make heart-breaking decisions.

We need to know the story behind the story. Misery dogs the lives of those who, with little schooling, find themselves trapped in long-term unemployment, unstable accommodation, grinding poverty and enmeshed in warfare and domestic violence. These hardships place unbearable pressures on families. In the absence of support, many did not have the resilience in a crisis to survive and to nurture their families. And, sadly, agencies like CAFS are just as important today as places like the Ballarat Orphanage were for my family.

It’s great to learn that this new Legacy & Research Centre will put the histories of children and their families front-and-square in its work. In doing so, it will enable many more former residents to piece together the stories that help them make sense of their childhood and the circumstances that led to them growing up without their family and, as I have been able to do, to become re-connected to their wider family. I wish the Centre every success.



[1] Ethel Morris, (1965) A Century of Child Care: the Story of Ballarat Orphanage 1865-1965, Ballarat: Ballarat Orphanage Board of Management).

[2] Morris, 1965, p. 7.

[3] Lovell Chen, 2013

[4] David Rowe (2012) Heritage Assessment of the Former Ballarat Orphanage, Geelong, Authentic Heritage Services Pty Ltd (revised 2014).

[5] Lovell Chen, 2013: A30.

[6] Ballarat Star, 24/2/1864: 4.

[7] Report of the Inspector Industrial Schools, 1867: 3-5; and Argus 13/7/1867: 6.

[8] VPRS 4527.

[9] Geelong Advertiser, 3/3/1862.

[10] Star, 24/2/1864: 2.

[11] Star, 28/1/1865: 4; 31/1/1865: 4.

[12] Ballarat Orphan Asylum, Annual Report 1866: 12.

[13] David Stephens (2014).

[14] Kammerer, 1918.

[15] Personal Communication, Lorraine Read, May 2014.

[16] They were not the only ones; other children also died there (Argus, 1921, p. 8; Argus, 1941, p. 4).

Mismanaging Expectations: The dominance of sexual abuse at the royal commission

This is the final draft of my paper for the Biennial European Social Science History Conference of the International Institute of Social History to be held in Valencia, Spain 30 March to 2 April 2016. Read more about the Conference here

Given that there are several papers being presented on related issues, I will revise my paper after the Conference in the light of feedback and discussion. 

As well, I would value any feedback from readers on this site.


Mismanaging Expectations: Sexual abuse as the dominant form of child abuse (DRAFT – a work in progress) © Frank Golding, March 2016


In late 2012 the Australian Prime Minister announced a royal commission into the institutional handling of child abuse and Care Leaver advocacy groups thought they had finally won what they richly deserved after years of lobbying. They expected that the commission would lead to a national independent redress scheme for abuse and neglect in institutional ‘care’. They were soon disillusioned. This was not the Royal commission they had expected. The commission’s terms of reference were both too narrow with a focus on sexual abuse only, and too broad in encompassing a wide range of institutions which had never before been the subject of official inquiries. This paper explores why the terms of reference were framed with that agenda and why this commission was established at this time when Australian governments had rejected previous calls for a commission. The answers are complex. Even within the survivor advocacy sector there were competing voices with some stakeholders advocating for sexual abuse only. More importantly, Care Leavers advocacy groups were outweighed by the stronger forces lobbying privately and in public for an inquiry into sexual abuse—particularly clergy sexual abuse—rather than all forms of child abuse. Widespread concern that the church had done itself immense reputational harm by ineptitude, cover-ups and denials of clergy sexual abuse led some to interpret the commission as an anti-Catholic campaign. But sober voices both within the church and elsewhere have argued that child sexual abuse could no longer be regarded as a sin to be handled internally within institutions but a crime for which the state and civil society must carry superordinate responsibility. The emergence of well-publicised inquiries contributed to a momentum that finally left the government no alternative but to intervene. In the process, the interests of Care Leavers became subordinate and ultimately this royal commission has let them down.


Expectations raised

Despite the political impediment that child welfare is a matter for the states and territories and any legally sanctioned inquiry under the Australian constitution and would require all jurisdictions simultaneously to enact enabling legislation, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced on 12 November 2012 that her government would establish a national royal commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. This was an extraordinary political achievement. It was also probably the most popular decision of Gillard’s term in office: the Sydney Morning Herald splashed a front page with a Fairfax/Neilson poll showing a record 95 percent support.[1]

Six days after her announcement, Julia Gillard wrote to the peak body Care Leavers Australia (now Australasia) Network (CLAN):

The Royal Commission would not be a reality with[out] the advocacy and dedication of organisations like the Care Leavers Australia Network (CLAN) who have made sure that survivors’ stories have been heard...[2]

She and the Minister for Families, Jenny Macklin, also sent separate hand-written messages to CLAN. ‘The Royal Commission is a tribute to your efforts,’ wrote the PM.[3] Care Leavers saw it as their peak achievement after years of struggle during which CLAN had met Commonwealth and State Ministers, lobbied political parties, courted key advocates inside and out of politics, conducted monthly public protests and orchestrated a letter-writing campaign.[4] The initial reaction of Care Leavers to the announcement of the royal commission was rapturous. Messages of congratulations flooded in.[5]

In what has been variously described as the age of testimony, the age of regret and the age of apologies,[6] Care Leavers in Australia saw themselves as part of what Johanna Sköld and others have called the ‘global chain of inquiry’[7] across more than a dozen nations in the past fifteen to twenty years. Shurlee Swain’s analysis of 83 previous Australian inquiries into institutions providing out-of-home care for children held between 1852 and 2013, identified a distinct shift in emphasis from the 1990s—as in other nations—towards hearing evidence from victims or survivors. As Sköld correctly points out:

What is new about the inquiries from the 1990s onward is that the victims themselves have been given the opportunity to tell their stories; that the stories have gained the attention of the media; and that there have been expectations that these testimonies should influence the national historical narrative and national identity and that this, in continuation, would lead to a process of reconciliation and redress as well as actions to prevent future abuse.[8]

In Australia, a chain of national inquiries produced more than 1400 submissions, most of them survivor testimony. These included:

  • The separation of Indigenous children from their families (1999) which produced 535 submissions;[9]
  • Child Migrants (2001) 253 submissions;[10]
  • Australians who experienced institutional or out-of-home care as children (2004) 614 submissions.[11]

Fred Powell and Margaret Scanlon (2015) assert that the emergence of survivor groups has been perhaps ‘the most impressive development within Irish civil society in relation to children’s rights’.[12] Such a claim might equally be true of Australia. The voices of Australian Care Leaver survivors are now being heard with a compelling force not heard in previous eras.[13] Not only have survivors’ testimony created a new national narrative, or counter-history, but survivor advocates have been instrumental in bringing these inquiries into being. Senator Andrew Murray, a leading member of the two Senate inquiries—and now one of the current six royal commissioners—declared that the Senate Forgotten Australians (2004) inquiry ‘would never have seen the light of day’ had it not been for the persistent lobbying of concerned activists.[14]

On the basis of the powerful testimony provided to the 2004 inquiry—‘a litany of emotional, physical and sexual abuse, and often criminal physical and sexual assault…neglect, humiliation and deprivation of food, education and healthcare’[15]the Senate inquiry concluded that the evidence:

warrants a Royal Commission into the extent of physical and/or sexual assault within institutions and the degree to which criminal practices were concealed by the relevant State and/or Church authorities.[16]

However, the Australian Government under John Howard in 2005 rejected the proposal by quarantining moral leadership at state borders:

The offences…are offences under state/territory law. Any investigation of the nominated institutions is, therefore, a matter for state and territory governments.[17]

Care Leavers refused to give up. They lobbied the Senate Committee to review the progress on the Child Migrants and Forgotten Australians reports. Senator Murray raised a theme that would resonate into the future: it was not just a matter of bringing individual perpetrators to justice but investigating how institutions allowed rampant abuse to occur unchecked.

I remain a supporter of a royal commission…Amongst the tens of thousands of religious people who are in churches and agencies that deal with children in care, there is only a minority that are criminals, but the majority protected the minority.[18]

However, the Senate Committee decided not to re-endorse its earlier recommendation because it doubted a royal commission would succeed in exposing and prosecuting perpetrators. Moreover, the Committee sensed ‘that there may be unrealistic expectations held by many as to the outcome of a Royal commission’.[19]

‘Unrealistic expectations’. Prophetic perhaps. Five months after the release of that Senate report, the Australian Government (under Kevin Rudd) issued a national apology; and, three years on, Julia Gillard coupled the royal commission genealogically with the national apology. She told CLAN:

It is fitting that I announced this Royal commission in the same week as we remember the third anniversary of the National Apology to Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants on 16 November 2012.[20]

The language of that apology had been carefully crafted after consultation with Care Leaver advocacy groups. An audience of 800 Care Leavers and former Child Migrants in the Great Hall of Parliament House, with countless thousands watching live telecasts around the nation, heard Prime Minister Rudd say:

Sorry – for the physical suffering, the emotional starvation and the cold absence of love, of tenderness, of care…We look back with shame that many of these little ones who were entrusted to institutions and foster homes instead, were abused physically, humiliated cruelly, violated sexually.[21]

Malcolm Turnbull, then Leader of the Opposition (now Prime Minister) wholeheartedly supported the Prime Minister.[22] The apology agenda was the broad spectrum of abuse and neglect with no pre-eminence given to sexual abuse.

Three years later, when Care leavers heard a new Prime Minister say that the royal commission’s ‘main focus will be to investigate systemic failures within church and state-run institutions in preventing and dealing with child abuse’[23] they could be forgiven for thinking that this would be a more rigorous re-run of ‘their’ Senate inquiries. This Prime Minister was telling Care Leavers, ‘We want your voices to be heard.’

Even if you felt for all of your life that no one’s listened to you, that no one has taken you seriously, that no one has really cared, the Royal commission is an opportunity for your voice to be heard. [24]


Expectations dashed: sexual abuse only

When she confirmed the Terms of Reference, on 11 January 2013, Gillard announced: ‘[T]he Royal commission… will not deal with abuse of children which is not associated with child sexual abuse. [25] The Prime Minister went on:

Of course physical mistreatment, neglect, are very evil things. Anything that stops a child having a safe and happy childhood is an evil thing.

But we’ve needed to make some decisions about what makes this a process that can be manageable and can be worked through in a timeframe that gives the recommendations real meaning.[26]

Gillard knew that the only survivor voices this royal commission would hear were those of the survivors of sexual abuse. Other survivors would be silenced, again, and many would nurse, again, the feeling their own stories of horrific abuse are considered not worthy of public testimony, their abuse somehow inferior.

Care Leavers were most particularly distressed by the commission’s final recommendations in regard to monetary redress—‘the most controversial element of the inquiry process’—which were tabled mid-way through the commission’s time-table.[27] At the public hearings and in submissions, CLAN and others made repeated but futile attempts to have the commission consider the broad range of crimes against children and repeatedly urged it to extend its recommendations on redress.[28] The New South Wales Bar Association agreed: ‘It would be arbitrary and, in our view, irrational to exclude physical abuse’.[29] CLAN was blunt: ‘We want Redress for all Care Leavers who suffered abuse while in the child welfare system. For Care Leavers this is not just about sexual abuse.’[30] CLAN sought to influence matters by taking a case to the UN in Geneva in 2014.[31]

The royal commission rejected these pleas. It would consider other forms of abuse or maltreatment, such as physical assault, exploitation, deprivation or neglect only when they were also associated with incidents of sexual abuse.[32] The commission acknowledged that its final recommended model for redress was narrower than other forms of redress that have existed in Australia because ‘most previous and current redress schemes cover at least sexual and physical abuse. Some also cover emotional abuse or neglect’.[33]

In effect, the vast majority of Care leavers who experienced physical assault, exploitation, emotional abuse, deprivation, or neglect are now excluded under the royal commission’s proposal. The commission was well aware of the impact on Care Leavers of their advice.

We appreciate that this approach will disappoint a number of those who have participated in our consultation processes to date, some survivor advocacy and support groups and some of the broader groups of those who experienced institutional care.[34]

Jesuit academic lawyer Father Frank Brennan believes that the royal commission had been too focused on financial compensation and in doing so, ‘it has set up unreal expectations for victims and their supporters…’[35] In March 2015, the then Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, announced that he did not support a national redress scheme, but on the very day of the release of the commission’s report (25/9/2015), Abbott lost the Prime Ministership to Malcolm Turnbull, a Patron of CLAN. (Not that these events are in any way connected!) At the time of writing this paper, the Labor Party and the Greens had endorsed a national scheme in principle, as have the Catholic church and some other churches, but the Turnbull government’s long awaited decision, announced on 29/1/2016, is timid: a national scheme would be a good thing, it declared, but we won’t initiate one.[36]


Expectations dashed: ‘this is not our royal commission

There was a second shock in store for Care Leavers. The earlier Australian inquiries had focused on abuse and neglect in closed institutions – orphanages, children’s Homes, foster ‘care’ and residential ‘care’ where children were managed full-time without their families. However, the Letters Patent of this royal commission defined an institution in a completely different way:

…any public or private body, agency, association, club, institution, organisation or other entity or group of entities of any kind (whether incorporated or unincorporated)…that provides, or has at any time provided, activities, facilities, programs or services of any kind that provide the means through which adults have contact with children, including through their families; [but]…does not include the family.[37]

Day schools and boarding schools would be included; so too would sporting clubs, scouts, children’s services, churches, youth groups, as well as orphanages, foster care and residential care.[38] This made the case for a national redress scheme more complicated; and Care Leavers who were sexually abused in closed institutions would have to join the long queues of those who were sexually abused by the Scouts, the YMCA, sporting clubs, in private schools and by priests in the confessional or in the choir stalls.

I can find little significant lobbying for a royal commission from open institutions apart from the religion and education sectors. Taking a post-factor view, the royal commission’s first two case studies in public hearings focused on the Scouts and the YMCA and after 38 such case studies were completed or announced by March 2016 fewer than a third related to closed institutions. There is also a mismatch between the commission’s case studies and the proportions of survivors who have come forward to tell their personal stories in private sessions. Of nearly 5000 survivors in private sessions, 46 percent were abused in closed institutions. Schools (27%) and places of worship and church facilities (15%) made up the next two categories of abusive institutions. Survivors coming forward from other institutions such as recreation, sports and clubs are a minority group.[39]

After viewing the publicity attending the airing of scandals in wealthy private schools Care Leavers have expressed a sense of disillusionment. ‘This is not our royal commission,’ some said.[40]


‘The core transgression of childhood innocence’?

Shurlee Swain reports that before 1990 it was rare for sexual abuse to be directly addressed in inquiry reports but in more recent times the weight of survivor testimony about sexual abuse led to the issue being singled out in most of the final reports.[41] Yet, while sexual abuse was now being freely mentioned in these more recent reports, the majority of Care Leaver testimony was not about sexual abuse. For example, in their submissions to the Forgotten Australians (2004) inquiry, Care leavers itemised 889 incidents of abuse. Of these, only 21 percent were about sexual abuse. The other 703 were:

  • Physical abuse 36 percent,
  • Emotional abuse 33 percent,
  • Child labour exploitation 6.7 percent, and
  • Neglect 3.3 percent.[42] [43]

Scant attention has been given to testimony received by the Senate inquiry from some Care Leavers that ‘sexual abuse was the least of our worries’. One put it this way:

In a place so full of brutality, sexual abuse did not rank as highly as other forms of abuse—such as mental and emotional torture…and the strings of punishment that never seemed to end.[44]

Among these other forms of abuse were medical experimentation and neglect of health, neglect, child labour, and placing children in adult mental health facilities. Contemporary child protection statistics also shows that a focus on sexual abuse alone distorts the problem of child abuse. In Victoria in 2012-13, 10,048 children were the subject of substantiated investigations of whom

  • 5,537 (55 percent) were substantiated cases of emotional abuse
  • 2,709 (27 percent) of physical abuse,
  • 1,319 (13 percent) of sexual abuse, and
  • 483 (5 percent) of neglect.[45]

Powell and Scanlon remind us that the Ryan inquiry in Ireland examined 2,694 reports of abuse, of which only 381 (or 7 percent) were about sexual abuse. But, as in Australia, it was sexual abuse which dominated the media.[46] Why then did sexual abuse become to be perceived as the ‘core transgression of innocent childhood’?[47]

Survivor advocacy organisations in Australia do not speak to government with one voice. The Senate Committee of 2004 cited three survivor support and advocacy groups that pushed hard for a Royal commission: CLAN, Broken Rites and Bravehearts.[48] The current royal commission named these three groups and four others which had lobbied for a commission.[49] Of these seven groups, five[50] focus on all forms of abuse and neglect in closed institutions while two[51] focus primarily on sexual abuse in open institutions. Bravehearts, for example, asserts that the offences of child sexual assault are different in nature from offences of child abuse and neglect and bundling child sexual assault in the suite of matters referred to collectively as child abuse and neglect was harming efforts to prevent child sexual assault.[52]

I am not arguing that the royal commission’s terms of reference were determined by any superior case put by the sexual-abuse-only advocacy lobby, but it may have been one factor. As Julia Gillard told the media, ‘There’s been debate between some of the groups that represent survivors about how broad this Royal commission should go.’[53]

It could be asserted that media managers and consumers will always preference an interest in sexual abuse of children over other stories of child abuse.[54] It’s emotionally magnetic.[55] What other crime against children could generate such an extensive international sexual abuse literature including more than 50 feature films or documentaries in the past fifteen years (the latest being this year’s Oscar winner, Spotlight)?[56] You know it commands public attention when the royal commission deemed worth of screening live on a giant screen in Melbourne’s Federation Square that is usually devoted to live sports and music.

There can be no doubt that clergy sexual abuse and what the church does—or does not do—about it exercises the minds of people in high places more than any other form of child abuse. It is, to use Ronald Niezen’s term, ‘the worst-of-all-possible-scandals’[57]

It may be not so much a question of why stories become media fodder so much as the practical impact of media exposure—what sticks in the mind after the stories are told. Key people acknowledge that media stories and their ‘take-away’ messages influence their judgment as to what must be done—or not done. For example, Julia Gillard responded to a question about what tipped the scales in her seemingly sudden decision to establish the Royal commission.

The impact for me, clearly, over the past few weeks we’ve seen revelations in the newspapers and more broadly which really go to the question of cover-up, of other adults not doing what they should have done…[58]

Commentators make a similar point: it was not so much the media stories about sexual abuse itself but the scandals about cover-ups and protection of abusive clergy. Ray Cassin argues that the chief impetus for the Royal commission was the disclosure of the appalling record of concealment of abuse in Catholic institutions, and the protection of perpetrators by church leaders:

If that record did not exist, the royal commission would not exist. And Catholics — especially bishops and major superiors — cannot evade this fact by complaining, as they sometimes do, about malicious reporting by hostile secular media. If the abuses had not occurred, the reports could not have been written.[59]

When Cardinal Pell told the Victorian Parliamentary inquiry that his church had covered up abuse for fear of scandal and that his predecessor Archbishop Little had destroyed records and moved criminal priests from parish to parish to cover up their crimes, he should not have been surprised that the media had a bonanza. The stories the media missed earlier became the story.[60]

In 2013 Cardinal Pell told the Victorian inquiry that there was a major problem with paedophilia within the ranks of the church in the late 1980s, but ‘I do not think anybody then had a recognition of the full extent that would emerge, but it was in the press.’[61] Patrick Parkinson argues that the claim that Catholic church leaders were on a steep learning curve in the 1980s and 1990s is a ‘convenient fiction’.[62] Catholic church leaders were well aware of the problem because they dealt with 142 claims of child sexual abuse in the 1970s, all handled in-house.[63] The problem they sought to manage was not the crimes but the minimisation of scandal. Church leaders are aware of the power of mass media. Pell complained to the Victorian inquiry about ‘25 years of intermittent hostility from the press…’; although he had the wit to claim a positive side to media hostility. It had, he said, ‘a beneficial effect of encouraging us to deal with it’.[64]

It has to be said the church did not ‘deal with it’ very well. A spate of high-profile cases, all of them involving child sexual abuse, were so bungled by church leaders that media attention was prolonged with increasingly aggressive headlines like ‘Let’s hound evil clergy’.[65] Some of these notorious cases—John Ellis, the Fosters, David Ridsdale and St Alipius—have subsequently been examined in detail by the royal commission, with the media given another opportunity to excoriate the church again.[66]

George Pell’s own conduct in some of these matters—characterised as ‘hostile to victims and protective of the church’[67]—has become a matter for public controversy. However, the personalisation of the discussion can distract us from significant issues related to the relationship between church and state in Australia.


State intervention in ‘the ultimate collective shame’

A Catholic spokesman expects that by early 2017 the commission will have held 50 public hearings and that around a third of them will have focused on Catholic schools, dioceses, parishes, homes and other organisations.[68] By contrast, as I write, fewer than a third of the public hearings have focused on closed institutions to date.

The then Leader of the Opposition and close personal friend of Cardinal Pell, Tony Abbott, had made it clear that bi-partisan support for a royal commission would only be given if it did not focus on just the Catholic church.[69] ‘This is not a Royal commission targeted at any one church,’ Gillard asserted.[70] But not everyone believed her, or agreed with her. Some make much of Gillard speaking to Pell—and no other church leader—before she announced the Commission. ‘Given the nature of some of the material in the public domain,’ she explained, ‘I thought it was appropriate to speak to Cardinal Pell.’[71] To which Father Frank Brennan replied: ‘Given that Cardinal Pell was the only church leader to whom she spoke, there can be no doubt but that one particular church is in the sights of the Royal commission.’[72] Some made no bones about their target. Labor Senator Doug Cameron wanted the Catholic Church to be the only target of any inquiry because ‘that’s where the major problem seems to be’. Government Whip, Joel Fitzgibbon, said a royal commission would be in the interests of ‘the victims, their families and the Catholic Church’.[73]

There is a plausible case to argue that given widespread knowledge that child sexual abuse was far more common in the Catholic church than any other institution,[74] Gillard bent over backwards not to appear to be witch-hunting the Catholics, and that explains why the terms of reference of the commission defined institutions so broadly. Moreover, those who claim a plot against the Catholic church should be reminded of an earlier campaign to establish a royal commission which gained momentum from late 2001 through a prolonged scandal involving the Governor-General of Australia. Peter Hollingworth was a former Australian of the Year and an official Australian Living Legend. More to the point, he was the former Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane—and his appointment as Governor-General caused some old tensions to resurface around the relationship between church and state in Australia. The bitter public debate about his handling of clergy sexual abuse held the media in thrall.

At the time, the Queensland Premier, Peter Beattie, and other notables, called for a royal commission into child sexual assault: ‘It has to be done nationally – you can’t do it at a state level because pedophilia and abuse don’t stop at the border’.[75] Some church leaders and other State political leaders and parties at the national level chimed in, including the ALP and the Democrats.[76] Ultimately in May 2003, Hollingworth resigned as Governor-General and calls for a royal commission subsided, but the issues arising from the controversy continued to resonate. Andrew Bartlett, Leader of the Australian Democrats voiced this concern: ‘If the organisation responsible for caring for children does not get their act together in this most important of duties, they should not get public funding’.[77]

Jeff Kennett, the Victorian Premier in the mid-1990s has confirmed that he warned Cardinal Pell to resolve allegations of child sexual abuse or possibly face a royal commission.[78] Pell confirms: ‘I was…summoned by the Premier at the time who made it clear that if we did not clean the church up, then he would, and so we made a determined effort to do so’.[79] It is now clear that this church and others like the Salvation Army did not ‘clean themselves up’. [80]

David Marr argues that the Irish scandals ‘left church and state reeling’ in Australia.[81] The political protection offered to the churches began to falter. ‘A few cracks appear, a floor sags, and then one day the whole house collapses.’[82] The metaphor is seductive, but it is too simplistic: it overlooks similar scandals in other countries—‘the global chain’—not to mention politically discomfiting disclosures at home. The Protecting Victoria’s Vulnerable Children report (the Cummings Report, 2012), a somewhat neglected link in the local chain of inquiries, argued persuasively that the state should no longer tolerate the church handling sexual abuse of children in-house as if it were a mere sin.

A private system of investigation and compensation, no matter how faithfully conducted, by definition cannot fulfil the responsibility of the State to investigate and prosecute crime. Crime is a public, not a private, matter.[83]

A few months later, in April 2012, the Victorian Government asked a Parliamentary Committee to investigate the internal processes by which religious and other non-government organisations handle criminal abuse of children.[84] Although that inquiry examined all forms of abuse of children by clergy and other non-government ‘care’ agencies, much of the media again spotlighted sexual abuse in the Catholic church. In particular, there was damaging evidence offered by Victoria Police about the church’s processes which amounted to a substitute for criminal justice and was an impediment in prosecuting suspected sexual criminals.[85]

In the midst of these revelations from the Victorian inquiry, in November 2012, Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox of the NSW Police, went to the media with the claim that he had been stood down from his investigation of clergy child abuse in the Hunter region of NSW and that, with the connivance of police, ‘the church covers up, silences victims, hinders police investigations, alerts offenders, destroys evidence and moves priests to protect the good name of the church’.[86] The NSW Premier, Barry O’Farrell, immediately announced a Special Commission of Inquiry into these allegations.[87]

The two largest states of Australia were now running ahead of the national government and within two days of O’Farrell’s announcement the national government decided it was time to assert moral authority and reassert its public duty to treat the sexual abuse of children—and its cover-up—as a crime. We could interpret this state intervention in the churches’ handling of child sexual abuse as an attempt to assuage ‘the ultimate collective shame’.[88] Alternatively, we could argue that, by now, opinion leaders—including people within the churches—were beginning to see that the state could no longer absolve itself from responsibility because it can never be state policy to allow anyone, however exalted, to sexually abuse children and not be brought to justice. The shame, ultimately, was vulnerable children had been criminally abused and society had let it happen—or worse, had abetted criminals. Father Frank Brennan, who previously opposed the establishment of a royal commission, expressed a widespread view that the state and civil society had to intervene in his church. To fail to do so would be ‘a wrongful invocation of freedom of religion in a pluralist, democratic society.[89]

In that he added his voice to those of academics, journalists, lawyers, and politicians in spruiking the case for an inquiry into sexual abuse, clergy abuse in particular, and in many instances these lobbyists had little interest in other forms of child abuse.[90] The advent of the royal commission signalled ultimately the end of unquestioning state support for the churches.



Care Leaver advocacy groups struggled for years and thought they had finally won the royal commission they deserved. However, their expectations were not met. The commission’s terms of reference were both too narrow with the focus on sexual abuse only, and too broad in encompassing both open and closed institutions. The royal commission has left many Care Leavers feeling disillusioned. Many who had learned as children never to trust authority were re-traumatised by being sidelined and excluded by a government they thought would ‘do the right thing’ by them especially in regard to redress.

This paper raised some critical questions: Why the exclusive focus on sexual abuse when other forms of abuse are more often reported? Why, when previous inquiries examined child abuse in closed institutions, this royal commission was extended to cover open institutions as well? Why now, at this time, when Australian governments were not so long ago opposed to a royal commission into child abuse?

The answers are complex. Even within the survivor advocacy sector there were competing voices with influential stakeholders staunchly advocating for sexual abuse only. But ultimately, the voices of Care Leavers were overpowered by stronger voices both in the media and by other private and public lobbying for an inquiry into sexual abuse and particularly clergy sexual abuse. In places, this debate has been interpreted as an anti-Catholic campaign but commentators both within the church and elsewhere have argued the political and civic necessity of state intervention in the processes used for the handling of child sexual abuse by clergy. The confluence of events over more than a decade built up a momentum that finally left the government no alternative but to intervene.

If CLAN’s political patron, Senator Claire Moore, is right in concluding that ‘the creation of a royal commission into sexual abuse is not the full extent of the support that people who went through institutional care need to have,’[91] then the question remains: what kind of support will bring them justice?



[1] Sydney Morning Herald 19/11/2012: 1. ‘Almost every Australian voter backs Julia Gillard’s decision to establish a royal commission into the sexual abuse of children…:’ (retrieved 22/12/2012).

[2] Julia Gillard to James Luthy, President of CLAN, 18/11/2012 (Reference C12/4705).

[3] The messages are reproduced in the CLAN newsletter, The Clanicle, No 76, January 2013: 3.

[4] See and The Clanicle, CLAN’s bi-monthly newsletter.

[5] In the first flush of the news, The Clanicle, No. 75, December 2012, devoted nine pages to messages of congratulations.

[6] Shurlee Swain (2014), History of Australian Inquiries Reviewing Institutions Providing Care for Children, prepared for the Royal Commission, October 2014. See also Olickj, (2007) The Politics of Regret (New York: Routledge); and Johanna Sköld (2013) Historical Abuse—A Contemporary Issue: Compiling Inquiries into Abuse and Neglect of Children in Out-of-Home Care Worldwide, 2013, Journal of Scandinavian Studies in Criminology and Crime Prevention. Linköping University Post Print online at informaworldTM: (accessed 21/1/2014).

[7] Johanna Sköld & Shurlee Swain (eds.) Apologies and the Legacy of Abuse of Children in ‘Care’: International perspective, Palgrave Macmillan, London: 17.

[8] Johanna Sköld (2013) Historical Abuse.

[9] Human Rights Commission (1997) Bringing Them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families; Senate of Australia.

[10] Senate of Australia (2001) Lost Innocents: Righting the Record – Report on child migration.

[11] Senate of Australia (2004) Forgotten Australians: A report on Australians who experienced institutional or out-of-home care as children. See also Senate of Australia (2009) Lost Innocents and Forgotten Australians Revisited: Report on the progress with the implementation of the recommendations of the Lost Innocents and Forgotten Australians Reports.

[12] Fred Powell & Margaret Scanlon (2015) Dark Secrets of Childhood: Media, power, child abuse and public scandals, Policy Press, University of Bristol: 193.

[13] See Jacqueline Z Wilson & Frank Golding (2015) ‘Contested Memories: Caring about the past – or past caring?’, in Johanna Sköld & Shurlee Swain (eds.) Apologies and the Legacy of Abuse of Children in ‘Care’: International perspective, Palgrave Macmillan, London: 27-41.

[14] Senator Andrew Murray, Opening the CLAN Office in Bankstown, Sydney, 6/3/2004: a prominent member of the Senate Committee and currently a Commissioner for the Royal commission.

[15] Senate of Australia (2004) Forgotten Australians (2004): xv.

[16] Senate of Australia (2004) Forgotten Australians (2004): 243.

[17] Senate Community Affairs References Committee (2009): 65. The Government’s response had been issued on 10/11/2005.

[18] Senate Community Affairs References Committee (2009): 66.

[19] Senate Community Affairs References Committee (2009): 225.

[20] Julia Gillard to James Luthy, President of CLAN, 18/11/2012 (Reference C12/4705).

[21] The Hon. Kevin Rudd, MP (retrieved 22/1/2014).

[22] The Hon Malcolm Turnbull – as above.

[23] Simon Cullen, ‘Supreme Court judge to head abuse royal commission’, ABC News, 11/1/2013 at (retrieved 12/1/2013).

[24] The Hon. Julia Gillard, Transcript of press conference, Sydney, 11/1/2013.

[25] Prime Minister’s Media Release, ‘Government formally establishes Royal Commission’,;query=Id%3A%22media%2Fpressrel%2F2164343%22 (retrieved 11/1/2013).

[26] The Hon. Julia Gillard, Transcript of press conference, Sydney, 11/1/2013.

[27] Joanna Sköld (2015) ‘Apology politics: transnational features’ in Joanna Sköld & Shurlee Swain (2015) Apologies and the Legacy: 24.

[28] Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (2015) Redress and Civil Litigation Report, Canberra: 99.

[29] Royal Commission (2015) Redress and Civil Litigation Report: 102.

[30] CLAN Oral Submission to the Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses To Child Sexual Abuse 27/3/2015.

[31] (retrieved 1/2/2015).

[32] Royal Commission (2015) Redress and Civil Litigation Report: 5-6.

[33] Royal Commission (2015) Redress and Civil Litigation Report: 5.

[34] Royal Commission, Redress and Civil Litigation Report, Canberra, 2015: 102.

[35] Frank Brennan (2014) The contours of an extended child abuse royal commission Eureka Street, Vol. 24. No. 12 2/7/2014 (retrieved 5/7/2014).

[36] Senator The Hon George Brandis QC Attorney-General & The Hon Christian Porter, Minister For Social Services, Joint Press Release, ‘Developing a National Approach to Redress for Survivors of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse’ 29/1/2016.

[37] Royal Commission, Letters Patent.

[38] Compare the Ryan Commission in Ireland where an institution ‘includes a school, an industrial school, a reformatory school, an orphanage, a hospital, a children’s home and any other place where children are cared for other than as members of their families’.

[39] Royal Commission (2015) Redress & Civil Litigation, Table 11: 121-22. While the published data is up to March 2015, I am informed by royal commission officers that the trends in the data since that time have not changed (Personal communication, Sally Grimley-Ballard 22/2/2016).

[40] Personal communications at various CLAN meetings and social media.

[41] Swain (2014) History of Australian Inquiries: 4.

[42] Senate of Australia (2004) Forgotten Australians: 410).

[43] In the chapter dealing with child maltreatment in Forgotten Australians (2004) just 7 of 110 paragraphs were devoted to sexual assault; while in the Child Migrants Report (2001), of the relevant 136 paragraphs, only 21 dealt with sexual abuse.

[44] Senate of Australia, (2004) Forgotten Australians submission 141. See also submission 311.

[45] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Child protection Australia: 2012–13, Child Welfare series no.58. Cat. no.CWS 49. Canberra: AIHW, 2014, p. 73-4.

[46] Fred Powell & Margaret Scanlon (2015) Dark Secrets of Childhood: 191.

[47] Swain (2014), History of Australian Inquiries: 11.

[48] Senate of Australia, (2004) Forgotten Australians: 241.

[49] Royal commission (2014), Interim Report Vol. 1: 27.

[50] Adults Surviving Child Abuse, Care Leavers Australia Network (CLAN), Child Migrants Trust, Historic Abuse Network, and International Association of Former Child Migrants and their Families.

[51] Bravehearts and Broken Rites.

[52] Bravehearts (2012) submission on the Terms of Reference of the Royal Commission: 7-8.

[53] The Hon. Julia Gillard, Transcript of press conference, Sydney, 11/1/2013.

[54] Ronald Niezen (2013). Truth and Indignation: Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian Residential Schools. Toronto, University of Toronto Press. I am grateful to Stephen Winter for drawing attention to Niezen’s work.

[55] For example: A. Foster, Reframing public discourse on child abuse in Australia. Child Abuse Prevention Newsletter v. 13 no. 1 Summer 2005 14-16; Chris Goddard and Bernadette J. Saunders (2001) Child abuse and the media, NCPC Issues No. 14, June. ( accessed 21/1/2015); J. Kitzinger (2004) Framing abuse : media influence and public understanding of sexual violence against children, London : Pluto; Lonne B and Gillespie K (2014) How do Australian print media representations of child abuse and neglect inform the public and system reform? Child Abuse and Neglect Vol. 38 No. 5 May: 837-850; Lonne B and Parton N (2014) Portrayals of child abuse scandals in the media in Australia and England : impacts on practice, policy, and systems. Child Abuse and Neglect, Vol. 38 No. 5 May: 822-836.

[56] Roel Verschueren (2013) International sexual abuse literature list (Retrieved 7/12/2014).

[57] Ronald Niezen (2013). Truth and Indignation: 32.

[58] Transcript of media conference Julia Gillard, 12/11/2012.

[59] Ray Cassin, The unknown unknowns of the sexual abuse royal commission, Eureka Street, 13/1/ 2013.

[60] Parliament of Victoria, Family & Community Development Committee, Transcript 27/5/2013: 12ff.

[61] Parliament of Victoria, Family & Community Development Committee, Transcript 27/5/2013: 3-4.

[62] Patrick Parkinson (2014) Child Sexual Abuse and the Churches: A Story of Moral Failure? The Smith Lecture, Current Issues in Criminal Justice, Vol. 26 No. 1, July.

[63] Royal Commission (2015) Case Study 35 Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne, November 2015

Opening Address, 24/11/2015: 4.

[64] Parliament of Victoria, Family & Community Development Committee, Transcript 27/5/2013: 3-4.

[65] Alan Howe, ‘Let’s hound evil clergy’, Herald-Sun, Melbourne, 18/4/2012, (Retrieved 19/10/2012).

[66] ‪Case Study No. 8, Sydney, (Retrieved 2/3/2015).

Case Study No. 16, August 2014.,-august-2014,-melbourne (Retrieved 11/11/2014).

Case Study No. 28,,-may-and-november-2015 (retrieved 29/12/2015).

Chrissie Foster with Paul Kennedy, Hell on the Way to Heaven: An Australian Mother’s Love – The Power of the Catholic Church, and a Fight for Justice over Child Sexual Abuse, Sydney, Random House, 2010.

Conor Duffy and Paul Kennedy, ‘Bishop undermines Foster’s call for justice’, Lateline ABC TV 16/7/2008 (Retrieved 2/12/2015).

Alan Howe, Herald-Sun, Melbourne, 18/4/2012, ‘Let’s hound evil clergy’, (Retrieved 19/10/2012).

[67] Marr (2013: 68).

[68] Francis Sullivan, CEO Truth Justice and Healing Council, The Royal Commission and the unique challenges for the Catholic Church, Blackfriars Lecture Series, Australian Catholic University, 20/10/2015.

[69] The Australian 19/11/2012.

[70] Transcript of interview with Marius Benson, ABC News Radio, 3/4/2013

[71] Transcript of media conference Julia Gillard, 12/11/2012.

[72] Frank Brennan, Church-state issues and the Royal commission, Eureka Street, 24/10/2013. (accessed 25/10/2013).

[73] Frank Brennan, ‘Church-state issues and the Royal commission’, Eureka Street, 03 September 2013.

[74] See e.g. Parliament of Victoria, Family & Community Development Committee (2013) Betrayal of Trust: Inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious and other non-government organisations, Vol. 1: 155-156.

[75] Brisbane Courier Mail, 1/5/2003.

[76] ‘Labour believes it is now in the best interests of the welfare of Australia’s children that the Prime Minister hold a Royal Commission into child abuse’, joint statement by Federal Opposition Minister Simon Crean and Shadow Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, (13 May 2003).

[77] ‘Democrats Renew Call For Royal Commission On Child Abuse’, Australian 23 May 2003 at (accessed 21/11/2015).

[78] Josh Gordon & Catherine Armitage ‘Jeff Kennett warned Pell to deal with abuse’, Sydney Morning Herald, 28/3/2014. (accessed 28/3/2014).

[79] Parliament of Victoria, Family and Community Development Committee, Transcript, 27/5/2013.

[80] See for example, ABC Television Four Corners, The Homies, 18/8/2003 at (Retrieved 21/12/2014). Bad blood existed between the Army and Care Leavers who went public: a letter to the author from John Dalziel, Manager Public Relations Salvation Army 22/4/2004: ‘Obviously we are not welcome by CLAN, we do not respect them and their attitude to us is one of hatred.’ See also Royal Commission (2015) Report of Case Study No. 5: 66ff.

[81] Noel Howard, The Ryan Report (2009): A practitioner’s perspective on implications for residential child care, Irish Journal of Applied Social Studies, Vol. 12(1), 2012: 38. The Ryan Report Ryan, S. (2009). Commission to inquire into child abuse report (Volumes I – V). Dublin: Stationery Office.

[82] David Marr, The Prince: Faith, abuse and George Pell, Quarterly Essay, No. 51, 2013: 2.

[83] Philip Cummins (Chair), Dorothy Scott & Bill Scales, Report of the Protecting Victoria’s Vulnerable Children Inquiry, Department of Premier & Cabinet, Melbourne, January 2012, Cummings Vol. 2: 356.

[84] Parliament of Victoria, Family and Community Development Committee, Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Non Government Organisations, November 2013. The Terms of Reference were published in the Victorian Government Gazette, 17/4/2012. (accessed 31/12/2013).

[85] Letter of Chief Commissioner Lay to the Victorian Parliamentary Committee, 2/9/2012. (accessed 6/12/2013).

[86] Malcolm Farr & Tory Shepherd, ‘Tony Abbott supports royal commission into child sex abuse’, The Australian, 12/11/2012. (retrieved 13/11/2012).

[87] Special Commission of Inquiry concerning the investigation of certain child sexual abuse allegations in the Hunter region. On 30 May 2014, the Commissioner delivered a four-volume report. The fourth volume of the report remain confidential at this time.

[88] A term used by Niezen, R. (2013). Truth and Indignation: Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian Residential Schools. Toronto, University of Toronto Press: 32.

[89] Father Frank Brennan, ‘Church-state issues and the Royal Commission’, Eureka Street, 3/9/2013.

[90] Royal Commission Interim Report, Vol. 1: 27. The tone of the media in 2012 can be assessed through these examples: Barney Zwartz, ‘Victims of clergy push for inquiry’, The Age, 9/2/2012; Hamish Fitzsimmons, (2 March 2012), ‘Church abuse victims demand Royal commission’, Lateline, ABC News, 2/3/2012 (Retrieved 13/3/2012); Judy Courtin, ‘The Truth deserves a commission’, Sydney Morning Herald, 14/4/2012; Michael Short, ‘Hell on Earth’, Sydney Morning Herald, 25/6/2012; ‘Newcastle Catholic Bishop supports abuse inquiry’, ABC News. 26/7/2012. Retrieved 28 July 2012.

[91] Senator Claire Moore, ALP Queensland, Senate Adjournment Debate, 8/7/2014.