Tag Archives: archives

Archives: The Care Leaver’s perspective

This article based on my presentation at the ASA Annual Conference in Parramatta in October 2016 has just be published in Archives and Manuscripts – links below.

The Care Leaver’s perspective Frank Golding

Cite this article as:

Frank Golding (2016) The Care Leaver’s perspective, Archives and Manuscripts, 44:3, 160-164, DOI: 10.1080/01576895.2016.1266954

To link to this article here

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: https://www.childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au/about-us/terms-of-reference

[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 www.clan.org.au

[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.


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