Please Don’t Call Me a Forgotten Australian

I lost my childhood to orphanages and foster mothers. As a former ward of the State of Victoria, I knock around with many who grew up like me separated from our families. I have been a long-term advocate for greater awareness of the damaging long-term effects of abusive institutionalisation, and the need for redress and support. But I don’t want to be called a ‘Forgotten Australian’ – and many of my peers think the same way.

When the Senate Community Affairs References Committee (SCARC) issued its 2004 report with the subtitle: Australians who experienced institutional or out-of-home care as children, it chose the more lively lead title: Forgotten Australians. The reason was partly to acknowledge that, when previous inquiries had focussed on the numerically smaller but significant groups of Indigenous children and former Child Migrants, others who were institutionalised as children lamented that their stories had been overlooked.

Apart from the title, however, the 400-page SCARC report uses the term ‘forgotten Australians’ [with lower case adjective] just twice. None of the more than 600 submissions to SCARC used the expression. By contrast, the text of the report is littered with hundreds of references to the term ‘care leavers’ which is used to describe people who grew up in what was called ‘care’, outside of our families, but who now have left that ‘care’. In discussing experiences of childhood, it is common nowadays to use the discrete word ‘care’ in ironical quotation marks because there was not much care given to us as children.

The title, Forgotten Australians, pushed the right buttons for many including those whose stories were documented for the first time in an official publication. Many were happy at that time to adopt the title as a new label. I don’t mind if that’s what they want to be called, but I’m happy to call myself a Care Leaver and I know others prefer another term. I rub shoulders with people who like more descriptive colloquialisms – ‘Homies’, ‘Wardies’, ‘Orphos’.

After the national apology to ‘Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants’ in November 2009, lots of people picked up a cue from the politicians’ speeches and adopted the label ‘Remembered Australians’. It must be said, however, that there are plenty in the public who still think that apology was the same as the apology to the Stolen Generation.

There is some implicit pressure to accept terminology once it enters the public domain. Emotional attachments develop and become entrenched over time. Among advocacy bodies, the collective that formed in 2006-07 after the Senate report, styled itself the Alliance for Forgotten Australians, while the national support group established in 2000 continued to use the title Care Leavers Australia Network (now expanded to Australasia). Both organisations are recognised as peak bodies and receive Australian government funding.

One Australian government department (Social Services) uses ‘Forgotten Australian’ in its funded projects, another (Health & Ageing) adopts ‘Care Leaver’. Other agencies adopt one or the other, and sometimes both. The CEO of the Royal Commission reports that the Commission uses the terms interchangeably depending on context (Philip Reed, personal communication, 4 March 2015).

The term ‘forgotten’ can be understood in many ways. For example, the Forgotten Australians report gives examples of parents abandoning their children for a variety of reasons and making no effort to contact them again (pp. 80, 105). By contrast, there are numerous documented instances of parents making concerted efforts to stay in contact with their children, and others who tried to retrieve them over the years (pp. 95-96, 105-107). These children were never forgotten despite authorities doing their utmost, in many cases, to cut family ties. They thwarted access visits, failed to deliver letters from parents, separated brothers and sisters and told lies about family members.

While it is fair and reasonable to claim that in some respects our time in ‘care’ was characterised by being forgotten, there were more significant features of our treatment as children. These features include emotional, physical and sexual abuse, criminal violence, humiliation and deprivation, and the lack of love and affection. These – and their consequences – are the central features of the report. The adjective ‘forgotten’ is a limp synopsis of this cruel era.

The tag ‘Forgotten Australians’ does not strengthen our political voice or our case for redress and much-needed ongoing support. The whole purpose of advocacy is to be remembered and supported, so I feel uneasy with the connotations of perpetual passive victimhood implicit in the word ‘forgotten’. The label does not carry a sense of agency or active struggle to assert our identity and affirm our self-respect. We want to exercise the power to name ourselves and not be labeled by professional commentators and ‘experts’. We want to be free of those who have us pinned down and tagged with a term of convenience. We want to repudiate the sort of tenured academic researcher who does interviews with subject people she patronisingly calls ‘my FAs’ – not even dignifying them with the full term.

The term ‘Stolen Generations’ has clearly entered the national lexicon as a short marker of a shameful history of Indigenous children arbitrarily removed from their families. Former Child Migrants have no need to call themselves Lost Innocents (the title of the relevant SCARC report) because the term ‘Child Migrants’ is so plainly descriptive that everyone knows at once what it means. By contrast the term ‘Forgotten Australians’ has not achieved currency in public discourse: it has not caught on in the broader Australian community.

More than a decade on, ‘Forgotten Australians’ find they have constantly to explain – to doctors, Centrelink, the general public – who they are. As a brand, its political value is minimal. It fails the ‘pub test’. In large part, this is because the general public largely don’t know about the Senate report of 2004 or the national apology in 2009 which exposed the term to a wider audience for a very short time.

Nor do we have proprietary control over the term ‘Forgotten Australian’. The word ‘forgotten’ carries other baggage, both current and historical, locally and elsewhere. As recently as May 2015, a ‘Forgotten Australian’ was headlined in the eNews of the Jewish Museum of Australia. This turned out to be a story about a biography and exhibition of ‘a Forgotten Australian Impressionist artist Miles Evergood’.

Former Prime Minister Robert Menzies popularised the expression ‘Forgotten People’ in the 1940s and political parties rediscover forgotten voters every election. The Forgotten Children is a popular recurring title: think David Hill’s 2008 book about the Fairbridge Farm School for Child Migrants, or the Human Rights Commission’s controversial 2014 report of the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention.

The title is a workhorse in other parts of the world, too. In the USA you can donate to charities like the Forgotten Children Worldwide which helps needy children in places like Russia, India and the Ukraine; or to The Forgotten Children Inc. an agency devoted to children in poverty or who are seriously ill or have a disability; or to The Forgotten Children’s Fund which assists women and children caught up in human trafficking around the world. When a word can be used so variously, people who want to apply it to particular circumstances run the risk that it will have meaning only to those ‘in the know’.

 In Ireland, if anyone talks about the Forgotten Irish, they mean those who migrated to the U.S. and the U.K. driven by economic necessity and lack of opportunity in Ireland. Read more here 

The Forgotten Welsh and the Forgotten Scots are the aging working class men and women whose manufacturing and mining jobs no longer exist in the brave new Eurozone.

By contrast, the term ‘Care Leaver’ has an enduring history in the UK. Public discourse centres around advocacy and support bodies such as the Care Leavers Association UK, Care Leavers Reunited, and the Care Leavers Foundation. The UK government has formally legislated a Care Leavers Charter and Care Leaver Strategy.

In our chapter in Apologies and the Legacy of Abuse of Children in ‘Care’ (Johanna Skold & Shurlee Swain eds., London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), Dr Jacqueline Wilson and I agreed to resolve the problem – at least for the moment – by using the terms ‘Care Leavers’ and ‘Forgotten Australians’ more or less interchangeably, in the same fashion as the Royal Commission. We italicise the term Forgotten Australians in reference to its usage in official documents such as the Senate report.

We know this will not suit everyone, but it will cause less offence than choosing one term to the exclusion of the other. Moreover, it may encourage readers to give the matter serious thought as they interpret and interact with the text.

4 thoughts on “Please Don’t Call Me a Forgotten Australian”

  1. Wonderful article, thanks.
    This explains to me why I have never liked the term: it feels like it hides what happened, and ‘forgotten’ never made sense to me. ‘Ignored’ perhaps, even ‘hated’ are words that seem more accurate to me.

    The term I like the best is ‘survivor of institutional child abuse’ because it is active- it says I survived, rather than was forgotten. And it’s truth telling- it has ‘child abuse’ in it.
    Care leaver is okay too.

    1. Thanks for that response Nell. I agree that an active label is needed – and ‘survivor’ is just that. Let me assure you, Nell, you won’t be forgotten by those who saw your wonderful documentary about Winlaton at the Royal Commission. It’s special.

  2. Thank you so much Frank for your very thought provoking article. I have used the term Forgotten Australian without considering many of these points. I think I have tended to use it over Care Leaver because of the extreme lack of care which was so common. I will now make sure to use and acknowledge both terms. It is often hard for people like myself who work in the field but are not Forgotten Australians/Care Leavers to know what is right. So thank you for your great work.

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