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

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