This is a speech in response to being awarded Life Time Membership of CLAN (Care Leavers Australasia Network) on 4 July 2015.
Thank you for this very great honour.
I first met Leonie Sheedy BC (before CLAN). It was in Melbourne in 1996 or 1997. A group of us were trying to set up a Care leaver organisation in Victoria. One of our titles was LOSS – Lives of State Shame. The title was intended to show where the shame (that many Care Leavers felt) should be focussed. Such an organisation was absolutely necessary, but I couldn’t see myself having the time to get too involved. Well, little did I know that Leonie had nominated me as the founding Secretary.
So I had learned how hard it is to say ‘No’ to Leonie Sheedy. And although that early Care Leaver organisation did not thrive and survive – no funds, no political support, no broad base of members – the idea of a Care Leavers organisation was too important to give up on. So when Leonie rang me from Sydney in 2000 to tell me that she and Joanna Penglase were setting up a national body to be called CLAN – an organisation of Care Leavers, for Care Leavers to be run by Care Leavers – how could I not get on board?
If Care Leavers want better futures for themselves, it’s us Care Leavers who must make the running. We can’t be satisfied with being passive bystanders while others do things for us, or to us. We must roll our sleeves up and work with people to get change happening.
CLAN and its members and supporters have already clocked up lots of important milestones in the past 15 years. I’d like to highlight just one issue where we’ve made good progress – but where more still needs to be done
Joanna Penglase and I were both writing books around the time of the Senate’s Forgotten Australians report (2004). Hers was a history of growing up in ‘care’ in the 20th century in Australia. Filling a very large gap in the history of this country. The big picture. I was writing a detailed case study of one family – my own. The little picture. The two books fitted together perfectly as a set.
Then I discovered that we had chosen exactly the same title for our two different books: Orphans of the Living (available from CLAN). I had to find myself another title: An Orphan’s Escape: Memories of a lost childhood (available here).
As I turned the pages of Joanna’s book I found myself thinking only a Care Leaver could have written that book, full of deep insights into our experiences and an ability to pinpoint the critical issues – many of which we’re still attending to today. And I’m pleased to say there are heaps of Care Leavers who have written – or are writing – their memoirs. And with every one of these narratives we help to fill the gap that has existed in the history of this country.
I had the honour of taking over from Joanna as Editor of the wonderful CLAN newsletter, The Clanicle – which is now approaching its 100th edition. A marvellous achievement. One of its best features is that it publishes Care Leaver stories. I can’t tell you how important that is for creating an alternative history of child welfare. And one of the keys to writing our stories is getting access to our records held all these decades in dusty archives.
We have pushed the case that we have the right to know what the records say about why we were put into ‘care’, who did what to us and why; why we couldn’t be with our families. We need to keep insisting on full access to our records without censorship.
Many of our records are inaccurate, incomplete, and full of insulting personal remarks. Do you know that in some States, including NSW, Queensland and Victoria, there are procedures to enable us to exercise a right of reply, to set the record straight; make our own comments on the inaccuracies of these records?
I’d like to see Care Leavers march into the agencies that hold their records and demand to be allowed to make annotations for inclusion in their files.
We also have to guard against the destruction of records. The right of access to records must extend to our descendants who should be able to know what their parents or grandparents were put through as children. And when they do, they should read our side of the story too, not just the views of some ragbag of social workers.
Most Care Leavers I know want a guarantee that what happened to us won’t happen again to any Australian child. I’m not convinced that authorities have really learned from the mistakes of the past. We must insist that they do. And one of the best ways of doing that is to make them listen to, or read, our stories.
Finally, let me say say once again how proud I am to be the recipient of this award. Knowing the great people pitching in, I’m sure other equally deserving Clannies will be recognised on other occasions in the years to come.