Tag Archives: Care Leavers

Our Side of the Story

As a guest blogger, I posted this on the Find & Connect website today.  

Other Care Leavers share with me their shock at some of what we find in our records. The language hits us between the eyes. Our counterparts in the nineteenth century were tagged by a battalion of adjectives: criminal or neglected, destitute, abandoned, deserted, unkempt, illegitimate, wayward, slovenly, deserving or undeserving.

When the makers of records ran out of adjectives, they paraded a platoon of nouns: vagabonds, vagrants, urchins, waifs and strays, delinquents, slum kids, wards.

And a squadron of slogans: street Arabs and youthful Bedouins, orphans of the living, out of control, lapsing into immorality, being without sufficient means. It shocks us to learn that we, the children, were charged with being in need of care and protection.

The language reflects an unholy union between the welfare and penal systems: when we were little children we were charged and committed, released on probation (if we were lucky), and eventually discharged. Some of us were sentenced to solitary confinement and even to floggings. If we ran away, we were listed as absconders in the Police Gazettes until we were captured.

Many of our substitute parents didn’t think much of us. They expected the worst. In one of the orphanages I grew up in, the management made it clear that “parents and guardians who labored under the impression that all Orphans, without regard to legitimacy, morals or respectability” would be taken in had better think again. No child would be admitted to that place without a marriage certificate showing the father’s name, the child’s birth certificate, and a doctor’s certificate declaring that the child was free of contagious diseases. The ‘undeserving’ would have to go elsewhere.

Like one-time British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, many in the Australian welfare system believed that family crisis resulted from individuals’ personality defects. Poverty was their own fault, they claimed. The records explain very little about the social conditions in which our parents made heart-breaking decisions to put their children in the ‘care’ of the welfare people.

We find nothing in the archives that explains the story behind the story – the misery of grinding poverty that dogged the lives of working-class parents who, with little schooling, found themselves trapped in long-term unemployment and unstable accommodation, or enmeshed in military service or domestic violence or chronic illness.

These hardships – often hitting families more than one at a time – placed unbearable pressures on families. In the absence of support, many did not have the resilience in a crisis to survive. Our parents were sometimes the subject of the most vile slander by those who had never known hardship themselves. Some parents were accused of being keen to be rid of their children – and only sought to have them returned when they were old enough to earn a living. Chronic poverty is not about a lack of moral character. It’s about not having money, resources and support in your time of greatest need.

Many of us find our personal records are almost entirely negative. Sometimes they incorporate police reports that, by definition, were aimed at winning a conviction. From that poor start, welfare workers recorded only problems. Care Leavers often search their records in vain for positive achievements, but the archives are brimming with examples of our minders’ low expectations. Some of us who are perfectly intelligent have found in our records that we were described as ‘slow-witted’, even ‘low-grade mental defective’. Almost all of us were expected to leave school as soon as the law allowed – to go into menial jobs for the rest of our lives.

The Head Teacher of my on-site Ballarat Orphanage primary school told the Education Department in 1948 that none of the 18 children in Grade Six would progress to secondary school because of the ‘extra responsibility’ involved, and because of ‘the prior history of the children’. In my own file I found this note in answer to the question: should the boy be allowed to finish Year 10?

Undoubtedly, all the boys will return to the mother and Golding in due course and it is just a question of whether he should be retained and given an education at the expense of the State when his future earnings will probably be collected by the mother.

That makes me angry because I know my mother never thought that at all. Welfare workers could record any opinion that reflected their own prejudices in preference to the relevant facts. And no one called them to account. Clearly, these files were never meant to be read by us, or our parents.

We all remember events that loom large in our memory that were never recorded, or have been glossed over. We have a very different view of our childhood reality from the one that is our records. My official record declares that my fathers’ visits upset me; but I know the opposite was the case. I was never asked. My voice was silenced.

We don’t have to accept these misleading bureaucratic accounts of our childhood. Our stories ought to be heard. Under FOI laws in each state and territory (e.g. s39-49 of the Victorian Act) there is usually a right for Care Leavers to challenge questionable information and to ask for our own version of incidents to be placed in the files. We should be queuing up to tell our side of the story.

Care Leavers Absent from Higher Education

This a revised item first posted in June 2015. It draws attention to an important article found in the Australian Journal of Education, May 14, 2015: 
A forgotten cohort? Including people from out-of-home care in Australian higher education policy, by Andrew Harvey, Lisa Andrewartha and Patricia McNamara.

The Abstract reads:

People from out-of-home care backgrounds are largely absent from Australian higher education equity policy. Compared with the UK, Australia has moved slowly to consider legislative and programme incentives for young people who leave state, foster or kinship care and who wish to access higher education. One major reason for the relative inaction of the Australian higher education sector towards this cohort is the rigidity of the national equity framework established in 1990. This article argues that policy reform is required to improve the participation of people from out-of-home care backgrounds in Australian higher education. Effort could be directed into revising the national equity framework, in particular by including out-of-home care as a specific group to be monitored. In addition to revising the national policy architecture, further devolution of equity policy to institutional level may enable greater engagement with the out-of-home care cohort.

Read the full article here.

This article draws on similar material found in: 

Out of care, into university: Raising higher education access and achievement of care leavers, a report by Andrew Harvey, Patricia McNamara, Lisa Andrewartha & Michael Luckman, published in March 2015 by the Access & Achievement Research Unit at LaTrobe University available here.

My comments follow:

This article is excellent – as far as it goes. It alerts Higher Education policy makers to the need to revise the Australian equity framework (which was introduced 15 years ago) by including Care Leavers as one of a number of cohorts of disadvantaged students given special attention in university entry and support programs.

However, the authors largely  ignore the source of the problem: the huge barriers to success for Care Leavers in primary and secondary schools as the necessary pre-requisites to tertiary study. 

Care Leavers Australasia Network (CLAN) surveys (2008, 2011) show that nearly a quarter of Care Leavers had no schooling beyond primary level. More than 50%  left school without having even the first level of certificate (Year 10). 

Many were abused, emotionally, physically and sexually to the point where survival was a more pressing issue than getting an education. But equally important, many report that their ‘carers’ routinely told them they were worthless and would never make anything of themselves. It’s easy to be demoralised when the adults looking after you tell you that you will be one of life’s failures.

To reinforce that culture of low expectations, ‘carers’ pushed young people out of ‘care’ as soon as they were old enough to get a job – any job. Many, of course, soon joined the long queues of the unemployed, the homeless and the marginalised. Many would love to get a university education – and some have somehow achieved that. But for many, many more, getting a university education is the last thing they have time to dream of.

Associate Professor Jacqueline Wilson and I have written an article for a book due in 2016 in which we expand on some of these matters (details will be made available as soon as we know them).

What’s needed is far more fundamental than a change of culture and  the odd scholarship at university. Success will not come unless Care Leavers are given  systemic support and structured resources including substantial financial support, realistic options for accommodation that is conducive to study and personal mentoring and emotional support.

This support is needed on a consistent basis from the time a child goes into ‘care’ and must continue well after they leave the system. 


Learning from Abbott’s Downfall

Tony Abbott never got it.

The day he was toppled as Prime Minister, Tony Abbott looked confused and crushed. And in shock. His leadership had been suddenly snatched from him—and he did not understand why.

He could not see that creating a macho government of socially-conservative white men and governing in the interests of a small clique of conservative, rich, white men would ultimately be seen for what it was.

He could see nothing wrong with generating fear and bigotry, and exploiting the divisions he helped create. He could not see that while he vilified, bullied and threatened those who disagreed with him—his way, or no way—he alienated those who were hoping for his promised ‘adult government’.

He could not see that in breaking ‘rock-solid’ promises not to cut spending on health, education, housing for the poor, pensions, and public broadcasters, he lost the trust of middle Australia.

No matter how often he appeared with his loving daughters, no matter how many crack-of-dawn lycra-clad bicycle rides, he could never win back that trust. People long ago stopped listening to his simplistic slogans. He stopped the boats but, at the same time, the people stopped the votes.

Malcolm Turnbull waited patiently while his Party colleagues came, finally, to see that 30 opinion poll defeats in succession were showing them that the people had withdrawn their consent and wanted a different way—perhaps a way back to what Turnbull claimed was his territory: the ‘sensible centre, socially progressive but economically conservative’. It remains to be seen if Turnbull means what he says. And who will benefit from this new direction.

The idea that power cannot be sustained without the consent of the people is as old as Magna Carta—and remains powerful today. In the twentieth century, the axiom ‘Nihil de nobis, sine nobis’ (‘Nothing About Us Without Us’) has been adapted and adopted by a variety of human rights advocacy groups.

The expression was first used in political life in 16th century Poland—and lives on in Poland today. Recently, students at the University of Warsaw used that slogan again when protesting against high-handed changes imposed without consultation—and without proper regard for the impact on students.

‘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. 

Women from around the world gathered in Lima, Peru in October 2013 for the World Conference of Indigenous Women under the title ‘Nothing about us, without us. Everything about us, with us’. 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. 

And so it continues with refugees and asylum seeker, youth groups, indigenous organisations, the aged, and others.

What drives this movement?

To a large extent it is an expression of the politics of identity—those feeling dispossessed, oppressed, rejected, abandoned 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. There is 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 about people with disability, Diane Driedger invoked the civil rights movement:

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 goes to the importance of both self-conviction and agency—confidence in your capacity to take charge of the decisions that affect your life.

Many people who grew up in the ‘care’ of orphanages, children’s homes and foster families developed, and maintain, an enduring mistrust of all authority.

They have a growing disenchantment with academics and professionals who see the ‘Forgotten Australians’ (not a name chosen by the group) as clients to be serviced or passive subjects to be surveyed, interviewed, focus-grouped and power-pointed. Care leaver childhood lives are plundered as a treasure trove of victims’ tragedies. Consent is sought from academic ethics committees, but not from the objects of the research.

As children authorities claimed what they did for us and to us was for our own good. But they never asked us. We had no say in what was done to us. Now we can have a say. If academics and other professionals are to win our trust and approval, they must listen when we say: nothing about us without us.


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.