Category Archives: Participation

Lost and found: counter-narratives of dis/located families

Lost and found: counter-narratives of dis/located families

This is the Abstract for a paper presented at a symposium of the Dis/located Children’s Network in Adelaide on 16 December by Frank Golding in collaboration with Associate Professor Jacqueline Z Wilson of Federation University Australia


Conventional histories of children in institutional care are dominated by the voices of officials, administrators and agencies, in many cases justifying the existence of a coercive welfare system and its regime of institutions which separated impoverished children from their families and community, rendered them invisible to the public and silenced their voices.

However, energised by the rights movement and a chain of formal inquiries, survivors of institutionalised childhoods produced an outpouring of testimony about atrocious child abuse and neglect, ushering in a national sentiment of regret and apologies.

In this context and with the advent of rights-to-information legislation, many survivors of institutional “care” became determined to better understand the story of why they were in “care” and to reconnect with lost or fragmented families.

Many imagined the child welfare archives as storehouses of hope, but it was soon revealed that many personal records had been lost or destroyed, and those that were located were woefully inadequate, often inaccurate, and lacking basic information.

Worse, many files were painful to read because of the recurring negativity about children and the disparaging slander of their parents.

Confident in the conviction that everyone has the right to define their experiences in their own words and terms, care-leavers are now asserting a developing counter-narrative in which their voices challenge the dominant narrative of previous eras.

This paper summarises a case study in which the authors go beyond traditional welfare archives and uncover a hitherto unknown story of multi-generational custody in welfare facilities.

In doing so, they illustrate the historic ideology underpinning child welfare in Victoria.

For more on the Dis/located Children’s Network click here.

Lost and Found: Reconstructing a family at war

Lost and Found: Reconstructing a family at war

This was the title of a paper I presented at the Australian Catholic University, Melbourne on 13 December 2016 at a conference entitled (Re)Examining Historical Childhoods: Literary, Cultural, Social

The conference was organised by the Australasian Society for the History of Children and Youth.

I am working this paper up as a result of feedback and ideas raised in the discussion, and will publish it in full in early 2017, so I will only give the merest idea of what I covered on the day.

First I showed how the appalling language used by welfare and media over decades reflected  (and in some cases still reflects) the values that underpin the prevailing views of working-class children and their families. Essentially, it is the language of contempt and disdain.

At the same time, the language signalled the power relations which oppressed and silenced those on the bottom rungs of Australian society. In particular, the voices of children are missing from what passes as the history of child welfare. Nobody thought that children might have something worth listening to – a theme that emerged time and again during the Senate Inquiry (Forgotten Australians 2004).

In addition, the personal records that Care Leavers find in the archives are totally inadequate – many are short on real facts, and are inaccurate, unbalanced, and misleading. (Not to mention the knee-jerk reaction to censorship when ‘third-party’ people are found in our records.)

A great deal has changed in the ‘Age of Testimony‘ in which thousands of former residents of instituions have told their stories to commissions of inquiry – have gone on record, and have been believed. I likened these stories to a kind of counter-narrative or crowd-sourced alternative history.

This alternative history is challenging and changing the way many historians look at the past. I also briefly alluded to ways in which Care Leavers are (re) examining their childhood narratives and reconstructing more complex and nuanced counter-narratives of their lives and that of their families.

I gave a brief sampling from my recently-completed work on my mother’s side of the family. From an inauspicious starting point with an 11-year-old boy incarcerated at the wish of his brutish stepfather in 1865, I have discovered more than 30 members of the family who have been sent to a total of 16 different Victorian institutions over five generations. And the welfare system had no means of joining the dots that made up the story of this family.

Given the paucity of official records kept on these children, I have had to reconstruct my family’s story from a wide range of sources found outside the welfare industry. My manuscript is almost finished and I will be looking to publish the book in 2017 with the tentative title:

That’s Not My Child: The Welfare and a Family at War

The Past is Not a Closed Chapter

The Past is Not a Closed Chapter – It Shapes the Whole Book of Our Lives

This was the title of a talk I presented in Adelaide on 30 November 2016 at a workshop as part of the Routes to the Past Project, co-sponsored by the University of Melbourne, CLAN and the Dulwich Centre located in Adelaide.

If you do not know of the excellent work done on narrative therapy at the Dulwich Centre I strongly recommended you have a look at its website here .

The Routes to the Past Project is exploring the potential of  collaborative approaches to counter-narratives using a range of approaches including

  • history
  • genealogy
  • social work practices
  • therapeutic life story work.

My paper highlighted the absence of the voice of Care Leavers in their historical personal records – and how one-sided that makes the narrative. And, in many cases how inaccurate and misleading the story is that is told in the official record.

I talked about ways in which Care Leavers can be helped to become the experts and interpreters of their own histories and life stories. In the words of David Denborough of the Dulwich Centre:

“Every one has the right to define their experiences and problems in their own words and terms.”


Our childhood lives – in our own words

UPDATE: Reaching back into a strange past

There was a gratifying amount of interest in my presentation at Parramatta on 20 October as part of a panel on Righting the Record: Towards a National Summit.

The Archivists Society of Australia  has placed a live video of the presentation on U-Tube at:

Furthermore, it will appear in the next issue of Archives and Manuscripts, the journal of the Australian Society of Archivists (published by Taylor & Francis).


Reaching back into a strange past

This is a lightly edited version of a presentation I gave as a panel member at the Archivists Society of Australia (ASA) in  Parramatta NSW, on 20 October 2016.

Other members of the Panel, which was chaired by Joanne Evans of Monash University, were:

  • Bonney Djuric – artist, author, activist and founder of Parragirls and the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct Memory Project, which supports Parragirls to document their stories and preserve the Girls Home and adjacent Female Factory as Australia’s first Site of Conscience. 
  • Barbara Reed – a consultant in the field of records, archives and information management. She has been involved in a number of project, including the recently published Best Practice Access Principles and Guidelines for Care Leavers Records. Barbara has also been a consultant on records for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
  • Sue McKemmish – Associate Dean of Graduate Research and Director of the Centre for Organisational and Social Informatics at Monash University. Since 1990, Sue has developed and taught Australia’s leading professionally accredited graduate program in archives and recordkeeping. Her research focusses on archives and human rights, and the participatory or inclusive archive.

In the hour before our panel, Justice Jennifer Coate, of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, gave a most interesting address on the Royal Commission’s perspectives on records and archives. I will post a link to her speech when it is posted on the Commission’s website.


The Royal Commission provides a fresh and insightful assessment of the state of play in historic recordkeeping practices. The Commission frames the discussion through the twin concepts of

  • records as core business and
  • records as in the best interests of the child.

These are both critically important. The real challenge is making those concepts work in reality.

However, the Royal Commission’s Terms of Reference have created problems. As Justice Coate explained, the vast array of institutions it encompasses vary enormously in scope, what they do for children, and the way they operate. It is difficult to offer advice about records that is pertinent to all.[1]

The records that should be kept about 24/7 ‘locked-in’ children must necessarily be very different from those kept about a child who voluntarily attends a sporting club or a community organisation on a sessional basis.

By contrast to that broad remit, the Commission is limited to a narrow focus on matters relating to sexual abuse. We at CLAN say that accurate records must be kept about all critical events affecting the nurturing and protection of the child in care, not just sexual abuse.

We envy the records of childhood that others take for granted—birth certificates, photographs, artworks, school reports and medical histories, and other childhood mementos.

Reaching back to a strange past

We survivors of 24/7 ‘locked-in’ institutions reach back into a strange past where birthdays, anniversaries, christenings and other family occasions were never celebrated. We reach back to a past where there were no family stories handed down by parents and other relatives. A past which disconnected us from family and community.

In reaching back to this past, we apply for our ‘file’ expecting to find detailed, accurate records about our time in ‘care’ and the answers to questions about our childhood, e.g.

  • Who put me into ‘care’? Why? Many think we must have done something wrong.
  • Where were my parents? Many of us were told, sometimes maliciously, that our parents did not love us, were dead, or were bad people.
  • What became of my brothers and sisters? Many of us were split up.
  • What medical treatments and vaccinations did I receive? I feel a goose when the doctor asks and I can’t tell her.
  • Did I have school reports and certificates?
  • Why was I transferred to other placements?
  • Who were the staff who looked after me? Did they record the fights I had?

In short, the archived records represent a repository of hope where we will find answers to questions that have nagged away at us, all the years of our adulthood.

Hopes dashed

Many Care Leavers are profoundly disappointed, even shocked and sometimes re-traumatised because, if their records haven’t been lost or destroyed:

  • Many have large gaps in information, meaning it is not possible to create a coherent story
  • Many contain inaccurate or misleading statements
  • Official records are almost entirely negative. Far from finding milestones and achievements as we grew older, we discover the content is almost always about us as problems and we find insulting and demeaning, or downright hostile comments about us or our parents[2]

Parents and children were rarely encouraged to keep in contact. Letters were rare; and even when they were written, sometimes they were not given to the child to whom they were addressed.  Nobody thought it important to keep alive the prospect of reunion or reconnection with our family in the future. The records were never envisaged as an important resource to that end.

Records are one-dimensional

We Care Leavers were never given the opportunity to contribute to our personal record—so what passes as an account of our childhood is one-dimensional. It’s clear that the writers of those records never imagined that the subject of their writings might one day read what was written about them and their families. The makers of records could write opinions masquerading as facts without being made accountable for their value judgements. In effect, they compiled secret dossiers—and were never called to account.

Rights to records

The Royal Commission’s Consultation Paper on Records and Recordmaking does not give sufficient weight to fundamental issues relating to rights about personal records.

The United Nation’s Convention of the Rights of the Child (1989) declares

  • the right of the child to an identity,
  • the right to maintain contact with parents,
  • the right to have a say in decisions that affect them.[3]

The Convention should influence how records are made and gaining access to them.

Some of you may know the National Standards for out-of-home care, which were agreed across the national child protection community in 2011. Standard 10 states:

Children and young people in care are supported tohave their life history recorded as they grow upto help them recall the people and events that have shaped their lives.

CLAN has written its own Charter of Rights to Childhood Records.[4]  High on the agenda is the retrospective application to Care Leavers of the right of the child to contribute to the making of the record and the right of the child to share ownership of the record once it is made.

We agree with David Denborough who says:

Everyone has the right to define their experiences and problems in their own words and terms.[5]

Counter-narratives: hearing the silenced voices

It is not too late to learn the importance of involving children in contributing to their own story. Children in Out-of-Home Care (OOHC) today can and should have the right to make a contribution to their record as it develops. This can be done in a range of creative ways other than by written documents.

Is there a way of doing this retrospectively for Care Leavers? In the vast majority of cases, the official records do not supply a coherent narrative that meets the need to know the truth about the past, and to tell the truth to others such as our children.

Therefore, CLAN is encouraging a process of creating a counter-narrative that is richer and more psychologically satisfying for Care Leavers, and to offer a more balanced history to other Australians.

In part, this can be in the form of using existing rights to add our own version of events to official records where they are inaccurate or misleading—or incomplete.

Preferably, it means writing our own versions of our stories gleaned from sources outside official records, and publishing them in a variety of modes and spaces. This is happening more and more, and we urge more Care Leavers to get to work on their stories.

Interpreting the metaphors of our lives

Let me finish with an anecdote to make the point that paper documents sent to the archives are not the only truth. It concerns the former Ballarat Orphanage, my home for eleven years. This struggle will interest Bonney Djuric and others who fought to preserve the historic Parramatta site.

In 2011, former residents of the Orphanage began a long campaign to constrain the demolition plans of the new owner of the privatised heritage site. Facing the Victorian Heritage Council, and later the City Council and the Victorian Civil & Administrative Tribunal, the developer commissioned a history. This old brick wall circa 1880s was under scrutiny. 


The hired historian ducked into the paper archives and reconstructed this description of the wall:

the pier-braced brick boundary wall…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.[6]

I think of all those children whose lives were governed by that wall—and those who used it as their means of escape. I was one who regularly sat on that 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, the Superintendent told me Dad would not be allowed to visit us any more if he upset me again.

My brothers and I were reunited at the wall 40 years later. In our minds—our personal archives—we would never think of it as ‘a weathered variant of Yorkshire bond’.

BO Three Brothers at Wall

The past can’t remain the exclusive property of the powerful. Ultimately, we are all historians capable of making meanings of the metaphors of our experience.



[1] Institution is an entity 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’ Royal Commission Terms of Reference at:

[2] For ways in which records re-traumatise Care Leavers see: Jacqueline Z Wilson & Frank Golding, Latent scrutiny: personal archives as perpetual mementos of the official gaze, Archival Science, Vol. No. 1: pp 93-109.

[3] Articles 8, 9, 12 and 13 respectively.

[4] See

[5] David Denborough, ‘Narrative Justice Charter of Story-telling Rights’, a working paper, Dulwich Centre, Adelaide, n.d.

[6] Lovell Chen, 2013: A30.

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.


Nothing About Us Without Us

The axiom “Nihil de nobis, sine nobis”—“Nothing About Us Without Us”—has its origins in the politics of 16th century Poland. And the idea lives on in Poland. Recently, university students used the slogan again when strenuously protesting against high-handed changes that the University of Warsaw imposed without consulting the students who would be seriously disadvantaged as a consequence of the changes. (Read more)

The idea that no policy should be decided without the full and direct participation of the people affected by that policy is as old as Magna Carta—at least. It was the driving idea behind the American War of Independence—no taxation without representation.

In the modern era, you don’t need to look far to find the motto “Nothing About Us Without Us” adopted by a variety of civil rights groups.

Women’s organisations and feminist organisations

Under the title “Nothing about us, without us. Everything about us, with us,” more than 200 women from around the world gathered in Lima, Peru in October 2013 for the World Conference of Indigenous Women.

They demanded greater prominence of Indigenous women at every level of decision-making and called upon governments to dedicate funding to the specific needs of Indigenous women. The delegates also used the platform as a preparatory meeting for the World Conference of Indigenous Peoples, which convened at the United Nations in New York in 2014.

Subsequently, more than 300 women’s organisations from around the globe endorsed a statement which read in part:

“We count on UN Women and member states to stand with us in ensuring our seat at the decision-making table so that we can make sure that nothing is discussed about us without us.” (Read more) 

Disability rights activists

Activists in this field, internationally, have adopted the motto enthusiastically. It encapsulates a fundamental shift towards the principle of participation as a necessary step towards the integration of persons with disabilities in every aspect of political, social, economic and cultural life.

“Nothing About Us Without Us” was the theme for the International Day of Disabled Persons in 2004. The focus was on the active involvement and participation of persons with disabilities in the planning of strategies and policies that affect their lives.

Christine Bryden’s forthcoming book promotes self-advocacy and self-reflection for people with dementia. Her message is that people with dementia should be included in discussions about the condition and how to manage and think about it. The book is to be entitled, Nothing about us, without us! 20 years of dementia advocacy (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London, September, 2015).

People who use illegal drugs

 People who use illegal drugs suggested the title for the report, “Nothing About Us Without Us”—Greater, Meaningful Involvement of People Who Use Illegal Drugs: A Public Health, Ethical, and Human Rights Imperative, because they wanted to demonstrate that they remain largely unrepresented when decisions are made about how to respond to health and other concerns.

The Australian Injecting & Illicit Drug Users League make the point strongly:

“Most of the responses to drug related overdose, drug related crime, family breakdown, drug treatment, unemployment, etc, have been developed in isolation to people who use illicit drugs. We have been largely left out of responses to these issues because of a mistaken belief that we would be at best, disinterested, and at worst, incapable of participating in a meaningful dialogue on the issues that affect us…

“While we cannot single-handedly address the issues associated with illicit drug use in the community, our involvement in the response is critical. We are the people who use illicit drugs, access drug treatment services and educate and support our peers – we have direct knowledge and experience to offer” (International edition p. ii).

Youth advocacy groups

In 2009, the Youth Express Network, supported by the European Commission and the European Youth Foundation of the Council of Europe, ran a seminar in Scotland using the title “Nothing about us without us”. The seminar theme was participation of young people in health and risks prevention policies. The press release by Advocates for Youth was entitled: “Nothing about us without us!” (here


A relatively new Australian refugee and asylum seeker welfare and advocacy organisation called RISE (Refugees, Survivors and Ex-Detainees). It is entirely governed by refugees, asylum seekers, and ex-detainees. They view those who seek assistance from RISE as ‘members’, not ‘clients’. Their motto? “Nothing about us without us” (More here)

Indigenous media

Luke Pearson’s recent article in The Guardian (3 August 2015) applies the principle to the media, ‘Nothing about us, without us. That’s why we need Indigenous-owned media’  (here)

What drives the principle of “Nothing about us without us”?

To a large extent it is an expression of the politics of identity—those feeling dispossessed, oppressed, rejected, abandoned or otherwise wronged want to articulate their experience through a process of conscious-raising within the group. They do not want that experience mediated by outsiders, however well-intentioned.

The politics of identity are informed by a consciousness that the only people who can be trusted to speak up for the rights of a group are members of that group. In her 1989 book, Diane Driedger invoked the civil rights movement when writing about people with disability.

“If we have learned one thing from the civil rights movement in the US, it’s that when others speak for us, you lose.” (The Last Civil Rights Movement: Disabled Peoples’ International. New York: St. Martin’s Press 1989, p. 28)

This statement neatly captures the importance of trust. And, crucially, the assertion of agency—that is, generating and exercising to the greatest extent possible the capacity to take charge of the decisions that affect your life. As former Prime Minister Paul Keating was fond of saying: “If self-interest is running, you can back it in to win every time”.

Care Leavers or ‘Forgotten Australians’

Activists and advocates focus upon the interest of the group they represent and are wary of those who have no obvious compelling reason to advance the cause. Many people who grew up in the ‘care’ of orphanages, children’s homes and foster families—dubbed the Forgotten Australians by the Australian Senate report (2004) and the subject of inquiries such as the Victorian Parliament’s Betrayal of Trust (2013) and the Australian Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse (2013-17)—developed, and maintain, an enduring mistrust of all authority.

Some academics and professionals have made the ‘Forgotten Australians’—a.k.a. Care leavers, Wardies, Homies, etc.—their new business. The bandwagon is rolling with research grants; it carries ‘specialists’ to conferences in and out of the halls of the academy; and leads them to new topics for the publication of erudite papers. For some, this new business is literally an emerging opportunity for employment and promotion.

In the meantime, Care leavers travel third-class. Some professionals and academics treat Care leavers as clients to be serviced or passive subjects to be surveyed, interviewed, focus-grouped and power-pointed. Their childhood files can be plundered as a treasure trove of victims’ tragedies. The atmosphere in the air is full of condescension. As children ‘these people’ (as they are sometimes referred to) were objects of charity. As adults they are now expected to answer a new generation of questions, but without the courtesy of reciprocity—Care leavers who ask questions or demand participation are regarded as inconvenient.

I hasten to say there are honorable exceptions among professionals and academics who do show respect for, and a willingness to work with, Care leavers or Forgotten Australians on a more equal basis. Here and there, historians, social workers, archivists and Care leavers have started to collaborate to produce more balanced and sensitive discourses in child and family welfare. These narratives combine research skills, analytical powers and lived experience from diverse perspectives. Some of this work is beginning to make its way into the mainstream literature (examples below) or is reflected in inter-disciplinary symposia, where Care leavers participate on an equal footing.

Examples of collaborative works

Ashton, Paul and Wilson, Jacqueline Z. (eds.) (2014). Silent System: Forgotten Australians and the Institutionalisation of Women and Children, North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing).

Golding, F., O’Neill, C. & Story, N. (2013) ‘Improving Access to Victoria’s Historical Child Welfare Records’, Provenance, on-line Journal of the Public Records Office of Victoria, no. 12.

Horrocks, C. & Goddard, J. (2004) ‘Adults who Grew Up in Care’, Child & Family Social Work 11, no. 3, 264-72.

O’Neill, C., Selakovic, V. & Tropea, R. (2012) ‘Access to Records for People who were in Out-of-Home Care’, Archives and Manuscripts 40, no. 1, 29-41.

Sköld, Johanna & Swain, Shurlee (eds.) (2015) Apologies and the Legacy of Abuse of Children in ‘Care’: International Perspectives, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Swain, S., Sheedy, L. & O’Neill, C. (2012) ‘Responding to “Forgotten Australians”‘, Journal of Australian Studies 36, no. 1, 17-28.