Tag Archives: childhood records

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.

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.

PREAMBLE

Whereas:

  • 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.

Acknowledgements

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

10 Blunders in Child Welfare

 UPDATE

The ten worst blunders in child welfare in  Australia  since 1788. COUNT DOWN TO NUMBER 1

It has been hard deciding which of all the many mistakes of the past – and those which continue to be made – warrants the title “the worst”. But here it is.

BLUNDER # 1: Having inflicted significant damage on children in their ‘care, authorities pushed them out with unseemly haste, and failed to see that they needed to put right the damage done and restore the connections to family and community.

After traumatising the children in their ‘care’, welfare authorities turfed them out as soon as they could and promptly washed their hands of all further responsibility.

The authorities have never felt the responsibility that a ‘normal’ parent would feel for their child moving towards independent adulthood. Most ‘normal’ families prepare their young for leaving home and provide a safety net to which young people can return over a considerable period of time after they leave.

Most young people from intact families still live at home till their early 20s, and their parents continue to give them practical, emotional and financial advice and support years after they leave home.

Although some young adults are anxious to leave home as soon as they can, the process usually involves a long transition period during which young adults leave and return home again as needs arise.

By contrast, many a ward of the State will tell you how, as soon as they reached school leaving age, they were sent on their way with a change of clothes, a paper bag or a flimsy brown suitcase, some small change and, if they were lucky, a temporary boarding address and a job. A good parent would never dream of dumping their child in that manner.

Some ‘care’ leavers vividly recall being told in harsh language not to come back…or the tongue lashing from a staff member about how they expected them to be soon in gaol…or working on the streets. There would be no safety net if things went wrong – as they often did.

The vast majority of ‘care’ leavers were poorly educated and unskilled. Many were psychologically traumatised, angry and confused, emotionally vulnerable and ill-prepared for independent living – with no idea about handling money, how to use public transport, how to relate to people of the opposite sex. Some had no experience whatsoever of how a regular family operates.

Many had been brutalised – physically, sexually and emotionally – while in ‘care’ and began life in an unwelcoming adult world as adolescents with a massive chip on their shoulder and a sense of shame about their background. Those who had been sexually abused often felt that they would have to carry their dirty secret with them for the rest of their lives. And many did keep it a secret for decades – and suffered even more for that.

Many did not know if they had family members who were still alive, or if they were, how they might meet up with them.

The Senate Inquiry (2004) reported on health issues:

Evidence was received of general physical, psychological and dental health problems through to severe mental health issues of depression and post traumatic stress disorder. The consequences of lifestyle for many since leaving care such as drug and alcohol addictions, homelessness, unemployment, unsafe sex practices and other destructive behaviours have also had a damaging impact on their health. For some, they carry the legacy of injuries suffered through the abuse they received as a child (6.20).

A recent study by Philip Mendes and others confirms what we know from an abundance of anecdotal evidence that young people in, or leaving, care are disproportionately involved in the youth justice system. And subsequently, having got off to a very bad start, are then caught in a web of unemployment, homelessness and adult prisons. Read more here and here.

What should be expected? A Leaving Care Guarantee

In a nutshell, before leaving ‘care’, all young people should be given every opportunity to acquire the knowledge, skills and resources needed to thrive and survive in the community.

All ‘care’ givers should be obliged to provide a Leaving Care Guarantee under which every young person leaving ‘care’ can expect:

  • Support comparable to that given to children who are raised in regular families including the families of child welfare authorities;
  • Support in essential matters such as employment, housing, health and education/training should be available up to at least the age of 25;
  • If things don’t go well in the years after leaving ‘care’ there will be a system in place to lend a helping hand for as long as it is needed;
  • A plan for connecting with kin including access to personal and family records; and, for those who are not able to return to their own family, supported access to community resources who will lend them a kindly hand while they become re-established in the community.

But many ‘care’ leavers need more compensation

Not only should the state provide the care that a good parent would provide for their own offspring leaving home, but it should also try to compensate abused and neglected children for the disadvantages produced by their traumatic ‘care’ experiences.

The state should also actively compensate abused and neglected children for the enduring effects and ongoing disadvantages produced by their traumatic care experiences.

The state and the agencies that held the children are morally bound to assist them to the greatest extent possible. This would include at least the following:

  • Free access to counselling and psychological care for survivors of childhood abuse on a life-long basis
  • Expedited access to the existing health and mental health care system
  • Helping them through access to personal and family records to understand their childhood in ‘care’ and to connect, wherever possible, to their family.

Redressing past wrongs: restorative justice

When introducing a redress scheme for ‘care’ leavers in Tasmania, the then Premier, Jim Bacon, commented:

We cannot change the events of the past but we can demonstrate that we are genuinely sorry and that we are willing to help these people move forwards.

No amount of money will compensate for their abuse as children, but lump sum payments – or ongoing monetary assistance – to survivors of abuse must be paid

  • to assist them to recover from the criminal abuse;
  • as a symbolic expression of recognition of the enormity of the crime;
  • as an expression of the community’s sympathy and condolence for the significant adverse effects experienced or suffered by survivors; and
  • to allow survivors to pass the remainder of their years with some degree of physical and mental comfort and to provide their dependants with material benefits as a form of compensation for the difficulties these dependants underwent as a result of the abuse suffered by their parents.

In the light of the failures of the ad hoc redress schemes provided by some States and some churches in the past, a national redress scheme funded by churches, charities and government but administered by an independent statutory authority is required.

Furthermore, those who were abused in ‘care’ should expect to have their allegations referred to police where the alleged perpetrator may still be alive. Prosecutions are still too rare.

In exercising their rights to take civil action against those responsible, legal impediments such as time limitations, impossible requirements to provide documentary accounts and corroborative evidence (in a one-on-one abuse situation) should be eliminated.

 

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BLUNDER # 2: Authorities failed to supervise and make carers accountable, failed to hear the voices of the children, and were blind to a massive betrayal of trust of vulnerable children Continue reading 10 Blunders in Child Welfare