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

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.

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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.

No Light Shines for the ‘Forgotten Australians’

Of all the things that happened to vulnerable children in institutional ‘care’, the  word ‘forgotten’ is so lame and tame.

New Comment

‘The forgotten Aussies crying out to be noticed,’ said the headline.

‘They have little influence on the national agenda, they struggle to stay connected and the things they care about are at the bottom of every list.’ Read more here.

Sadly,  they are not talking about the ‘Forgotten Australians’ of the Senate report of that name published in 2004 and used by many Care Leavers since that time as a nick name. This highlights one of the main problems of that title.

Too many Australians (rightfully) use the adjective to describe their plight. Using the same expression as a descriptor,  former Wards of State, Homies, people who grew up in orphanages and other institutions like foster ‘care’ all compete with a myriad of others who want public support for their causes.

The general public have no idea of the widespread emotional, physical and sexual abuse, criminal violence, humiliation and deprivation, and lack of love and affection experienced by children in these places.

Of all the things that happened to vulnerable children, the  word ‘forgotten’ is so lame and tame. 


Older Comment

This is a re-placement of a piece first posted on 7 August 2015. I wanted to make the same point again and give it its own page rather than be buried on a page with another post.

It was originally a letter to the editor of The Age (Melbourne) that did not get a run.  I have only slightly changed its contents. The central arguments are reinforced.

Simon Gardner (Royal commission can shine a light on ‘forgotten’ people – Age 5/8) writes: ‘Mention the stolen generations and child migrants and eyes light up in recognition…No such light shines for the forgotten Australians. Why?’ Simon’s answers are not the same as mine.

For starters, many former wards of state were not forgotten. My parents tried repeatedly to get me out of state ‘care’. And judging by the number of children who jumped the wall, ran away, absconded, they were not going to be passive

The term ‘forgotten’ is a limp synopsis of the childhoods of many of us who were not able to live with our parents. 

The very word ‘forgotten’ deflects attention away from the real experience. Many would say, ‘If we’d only been forgotten and left alone’. Instead, in the so-called  ‘care’ of government, churches and charities and foster parents,  too many suffered widespread emotional, physical and sexual abuse, criminal violence, humiliation and deprivation, and lack of love and affection. 

I do not expect the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse will use the word ‘forgotten’ in its final report. The word is trite and hackneyed. It’s been trotted out from Bob Menzies (Forgotten People 1942) to the Human Rights Commission (Forgotten Children 2014). 

If justice is going to come about it will not be through  slogans foisted on us by well-meaning politicians, social workers and policy wonks. It will be because of the relentless lobbying and awareness raising of former wards and residents of orphanages, children’s Homes and foster ‘care’,  We refuse to be ‘forgotten’. 

A Charter of Rights to Childhood Records

A Charter of Rights to Childhood Records: Updated version

Following some very helpful, constructive comments on an early draft, this revised draft (3 March 2016) is posted with a further invitation to comment. It is also posted on the CLAN website.

We particularly welcome and value comment by Care Leavers, ‘Forgotten Australians’, people formerly placed in foster families, members of the Stolen Generation, former child migrants and people who were, as infants, arbitrarily taken from their mothers.

We will keep this draft open for a period of three months and, at the end of that time, a final draft version will be discussed by the CLAN Committee which will, after due discussion, consider its adoption as CLAN’s position.



  • Many Australian children, through no fault of their own, were placed in orphanages, children’s Homes, foster ‘care’ and other forms of institutions that replaced their homes and families and displaced them from ordinary community life; and
  • Many children left institutional ‘care’ angry, ashamed, confused about their identity and disconnected, often not understanding the reasons for their separation from family because no one explained their situation, wanting to re-connect with their families and communities wherever that was still possible, and carrying many unresolved burdens resulting from the physical, emotional and sexual abuse and neglect that were inflicted on them; and
  • Any records that were made and archived in those circumstances may represent the only documented account of the person’s time in such institutions; and
  • The historic reasons for creating, maintaining and archiving these childhood records are now, by the passage of time, redundant.

And recognising that the Australian government is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) which among other things:

  • Affirms that in all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration; and
  • Requires governments to respect a child’s right to know their parents and the right of the child to preserve his or her identity and family ties; and
  • Requires governments to respect the right of the child who is separated from one or both parents to maintain personal relations and direct contact with both parents on a regular basis; and
  • Affirms the right of any child temporarily or permanently deprived of his or her family environment to special protection and assistance provided by the State; and
  • Affirms that no child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his or her honour and reputation.

Therefore, in response to the contemporary needs of former institutionalised children and by ethical extension of the rights of the child to the adult the child has become, it is declared that:

  1. The historic records should now be held in archives principally in order to help the ‘subject’ person make meaning of the circumstances of their childhood; and/or to connect, if still possible, with family and community; and/or to seek redress and other remedial action for abuse or neglect, where relevant.
  2.  In all cases, every effort must be made by archivist, record-holders and support workers to expedite requests for access to personal records. Special consideration for expedited access to records should be given to the frail and elderly and those involved in litigation or redress claims.
  3. Under no circumstances should a request for records be influenced by consideration of any real or perceived conflict of interest in providing records.
  4. In some cases, the records have been lost, others are incomplete, and many are found to be inadequate for the above purposes. Therefore, in addition to historic personal files and case notes, archivists and other support personnel have a duty to search for and identify other archived records that are relevant to the person’s childhood experience to assist in providing a more complete narrative.
  5. Archivists and record holders must understand that many childhood records are partial; many contain statements that are inaccurate or filtered; and many include personal judgments or opinions and use language that is likely to be offensive. Archivists and records holders have a duty to inform the person of the right to challenge the records, and should encourage them to provide alternative relevant material.
  6. Record holders accept that they have a duty to assist the ‘subject’ person interpret the record with issues like historical context and technical terminology.
  7. The childhood records in relevant archives are ultimately the property of the person who is the subject of the records.
  8. The subject of the records (or, if deceased, that person’s closest living blood relative or by agreement another blood relative) has the right to determine who should have access to those records and the terms of that access.
  9. All agencies and organisations taking children into their custody must produce an official record comprising key documents including the child’s birth certificate, the names and last-known addresses of all members of the child’s family, any court orders or documents related to the reasons for the child’s placement, all medical and educational histories, the names of all people who visit the child during their time in custody, all documents related to transfers to other institutions including foster families and any other official documents that relate to the child’s time in ‘care’.
  10. All agencies and organisations taking children into their custody should encourage and help them to create over time a memory box or similar collection that includes such items as relevant photographs of people, events and places that are central to their time in ‘care’, objects of significance to their time in that facility and any personal or descriptive accounts written by the child.


Although they cannot be held responsible for the form of words in the draft, we acknowledge the significant contributions of members of CLAN; Dr Jacqui Wilson of Federation University; and Dr Joanne Evans and Professor Sue McKemmish of Monash University.

For more on this topic see: Whose file is it? Whose story is it? Here

Sexual Abuse in Residential ‘Care’: Who’s Responsible?

‘Children the main perpetrators of sex abuse in out-of-home care, royal commission told’

That’s the headline in the Sydney Morning  Herald (10 March 2015, here); but what’s the substance of the story?

According to the story: ‘The vast majority of child sexual abuse occurring in Australian foster homes and residential care facilities is perpetrated by other children, not the adults looking after them, the royal commission has heard.’

And the evidence for this remarkable claim?  

Well, it’s not too clear. The very next sentence of the report says: ‘But the task of addressing this and other types of abuse in out-of-home care has been plagued by a lack of data about how much abuse is occurring and how institutions are responding.’

The Commission was also told that the analysis was  ‘seriously hindered by a lack of reliable, comparable data and statistics, with NSW and Victoria having failed to record abuse statistics almost completely’.

Ms Furness said the commission had obtained its own statistics from government departments in every state and territory and 13 non-government organisations. 

So Victoria and NSW, the two most populous States failed to record data but the Royal Commission gained its data from them?  Perplexing?  These are the very State departments who are responsible for running the system directly in their own Homes and indirectly through paid outsourcing of child placements through churches and charities.

Pardon my skepticism, but this sounds like a classic blaming the victim strategy.  If you’re running the show, what better way of deflecting responsibility for ‘the vast majority of child sexual abuse occurring in Australian foster homes and residential care facilities’? Well of course,  blame other children, not the adults looking after them.

But, hang on a minute. After all, who selected and appointed the adults? Who was responsible for the way they carried out their duties?

Even if the statistics – such as they are – are accurate, when children were allegedly abusing other children in the institutions, where were the adult ‘carers’ ? Having a cuppa?  A good lie down?

I don’t buy it – and I hope the Royal Commission doesn’t either.


Is the Child Welfare System Beyond Repair?


NEW:  31 January 2015

The child welfare system in many first-world nations is stuffed: that’s the verdict of many of its sternest critics. Forget about tinkering around the edges of the system, they say. It would be far better to start again from scratch.

In Australia, life in residential ‘care’ remains as degrading and brutish as it was 100 years ago. In 2010, the Ombudsman in Victoria documented many alarming instances of criminal mistreatment of children currently in ‘care’.

Not only are children being placed with adults who have then engaged them in prostitution and other sexual acts. They are also subjected to monstrous violence – some had limbs broken and others had been knocked unconscious by residential ‘carers’. Some residents reported their ‘carers’ selling drugs to other children.  Read more.

In England, the UK Care Leavers Association says it hears the same stories over and over again from Care Leavers of all ages – and it has been ever so, down the ages:

  • a lack of stability in placements;
  • a lack of love and personal care;
  • an underdeveloped identity; and
  • a lack of support networks.

National director of the Association, David Graham, told the public accounts committee as part of their children in care inquiry:

“These personal experiences are mirrored by continued deficits, measured by outcomes on educational attainment, employment and health.”

In other words, the system is fatally flawed.  Read more.

In the US, the scandalous abuse of wards in residential care has once again created moral panic. The Tribune-Medill investigation led to the publication in the Chicago Tribune over the past two months of a series of more than 20 articles, three graphic essays, a comprehensive photo gallery, six graphics and four videos.

What they reveal is a national disgrace. For example, the investigation found a total of 5,500 police reports of run-aways or missing children from 130 facilities in 11 US States. Some of the absconders lasted only hours before they were caught and returned to the hellholes they were running away from. But many absconders were absent for weeks, or never found.

And plenty ran headfirst into life-changing tragedy – some were raped; others were recruited into violent gangs; some got started on a life of crime: they stole cars, broke into homes, got into drugs and/or prostitution as they struggled to survive on the streets with no money and few skills.  Read more.

What are they running away from?

One commentator put it this way: most wards are in residential care because they are emotionally burned out from multiple placements. They suffer from

  • attachment disorders;
  • depression;
  • feelings of self-abasement
  • a lack of education (multiple foster placements means multiple schools); and
  • anger — “lots of anger”.

Many who were placed in protective custody because of abuse and neglect at home flee the violence and abusiveness of the facilities.

One resident summed it up in a telling sentence: “They take us out of a bad situation and put us into an even worse situation.” He could have been speaking in any of a number of countries.

Many incarcerated young people are desperately trying to reconnect with their families, even if they were abused by someone in that family. They want to return to their communities, even if those were unsafe.

 Many simply reject the regimented, institutionalized life thrust upon them. They can see nothing to keep them there and have no hope for the future.

 Anglicare Australia (2014) interviewed young people moving out of ‘care’ and into independent living. Now aged 17 to 21, they were asked to reflect on their transition to independence. They talked about what they were up against.

  • You are disconnected from your family.
  • People stigmatise you and treat you as different.
  • They don’t expect us to finish school or go to university.
  • You can’t just be normal in ‘care’…So you don’t bother.
  • You learn not to get your hopes up.  Read more.

It strikes me that the sentiments of these young people in 2014 could have been written 20, 30, 50 years ago. I could have written them 60 years ago when I was in their position.

We keep on making the same mistakes. A damaged child turns into a damaged adult. Not only does the shocking treatment of kids in care have enduring negative effects on them into people for the rest of their adult life, society pays the greater cost of these consequences for decades to come.

The sheer weight of the disturbing evidence raises the question of why authorities can keep on getting it so wrong for so long.

In Australia, a Royal Commission has been alerted to 83 previous inquiries – an inquiry in Australia every second year in the 160 years since the 1850s. And almost nothing has been done to implement the many recommendations that these expert inquiries have put forward.  Read more.

Now the Commission has commissioned research into why these recommendations have not been implemented. Will an inquiry in the future ask the very same question?

Why is it going so wrong?

According to one writer in the Chicago Tribune series, the disgraceful situation continues not because of the bad faith of welfare managers or because of the incompetence of social workers. It continues because the entire child-welfare system was set up a century ago on a premise that no longer exists.

And he should know: Cook County Circuit Judge Patrick Murphy served as Cook County public guardian from 1978 to 2004. Not only that, but both his parents went through the child welfare system.  Read more.

The simplest way to improve residential care, Judge Murphy argues, is to limit the number of children placed there. That means limiting the movement that causes so much emotional distress for out-of-home children.

I paraphrase his recommendations:

  • Carefully match each child with the best available foster home. Work with each child to explain what is going on and what will go on in the future.
  • Limit the number of foster care agencies and make sure they are top quality. Give all foster parents much more intensive training and supervision than they now get.
  • Any time a child is moved, require the case be taken back to court for a hearing on why the move is necessary. This would force everybody to take a look at the child and what is going on in his life.
  • Make much better use of relatives who, in many cases, are the best people to provide care. They should receive financial assistance and other services to help with the child.
  • Make an all-out effort to get fathers involved. Dads, particularly of poor children, get a bad rap that frequently is not warranted.

Yet, isn’t there an elephant in the room?  The impact of extreme poverty on the child welfare system

Judge Murphy rightly points out that the overwhelming majority of children who have been abused and neglected have parents who from birth have led bleak lives without education, without a future. It’s intergenerational: those parents’ parents have led equally bleak lives. 

“If we really want to do something about the child welfare system, we must do something about the extreme poverty strangling our inner cities.”

Yet everywhere we look in cities in Australia, the UK, and USA, poverty is an intractable problem – and getting worse. Politicians rationalise their inaction with shallow platitudes about “leaners and lifters” and the undeserving poor – while cutting so-called “flab” from welfare systems and services to poor families.

What’s to be done? Comments very welcome.

Breaking the Barrier of Silence around Child Sexual Abuse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The long silence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking the barrier of silence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It can be downloaded here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Family Group Homes – at least 160 adopted this model

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

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

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

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

Indigenous-specific Institutions

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

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

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

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

Other Out-of-home Care Provision

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

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


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

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

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

Where did this leave the children?

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