Tag Archives: Shurlee Swain

Breaking the Barrier of Silence around Child Sexual Abuse

Professor Shurlee Swain’s  third paper for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is a fascinating survey of previous royal commissions and other official inquiries in Australia.

“The History of Australian inquiries reviewing institutions providing care for children” (2014) identifies 83 Australian inquiries. Download the paper here.

The first, a NSW Select Committee on Destitute Children, began in 1852 and the last, the Victorian Parliamentary Committee on the Handling of Child Abuse in Religious and Other Non-government Organisations, reported in 2013.

Swain identifies three types of inquiries over the course of 160 years.

  1. Policies and systems: From 1852 through to the post-war period, inquiries were concerned with policy and establishing and refining the child welfare system.
  2. Damage control: a series of more specific inquiries from the 1860s to the 1990s in response to allegations of abuse.
  3. Listening to the Victims: From the 1990s to contemporary times a number of inquiries have focussed on hearing survivor testimony.

The 83 inquiries are all listed in a handy appendix – four times the length of the discussion that analyses the history. The table shows the focus of each inquiry, lists the main institutions examined and points to the recommendations that seem most relevant.

However, Swain is acutely aware that the current Royal Commission – given its explicit terms of reference around the handling of child sexual abuse – will have its work cut out to find any direct value in the majority of previous inquiries because of the silence surrounding sexual abuse.

The long silence

“Sexual abuse was rarely raised in the context of these investigations,” Swain writes, “although occasional references to problems with immorality in the institutions…would suggest that this absence was indicative of a silence around sexuality (p. 8).”

Where immorality was mentioned, it usually referred to sexual behaviour among the children and the risk of moral contagion when innocent children were placed amongst the already ‘depraved’.

The possibility that staff could be involved in sexual relationships with the children was rarely taken seriously, let alone seen as a systemic issue. Where allegations against staff were impossible to ignore, for example specific allegations of abuse in reformatories and disability institutions, the events were seen as problems with individuals – although very few child welfare officials were ever sent to trial as a result of these investigations.

This was the case, too, where children died in ‘care’ – as many did of course. Swain could find only three instances in which a coronial inquiry led to criminal charges being laid. It has to be said, furthermore, that not all deaths were the subject of inquests even when the circumstances warranted it. But that’s another matter.

Swain astutely argues that the final reports alone will not provide sufficient evidence to understand to what extent and why sexual abuse – or deaths in custody – are glossed over or ignored. A skilled historian with time to examine minutes of evidence and other archival material would be able “to read into the silences to establish what was not being discussed, as well as the issues that made it into the public record (p. 4).”

Nevertheless, some of the practices are already clearly documented – and Swain nails them here:

  • individualising accusations of sexual abuse (‘perverts’ and ‘sex fiends’)
  • discrediting witnesses
  • minimising reporting in the interests of public morality, and
  • perhaps most important of all, failing to listen to the child victims, or not taking their evidence seriously enough because of their lowly status.

Breaking the barrier of silence

The inquiries held in more recent years have actively sought testimony from survivors. Residents of children’s institutions had in the past been invited to give evidence before inquiries but, as we have seen, “their testimony was always corrupted by their status”. That is, they were mere children, and who would take the word of a child against a welfare officer or a man or woman of the cloth?

The recasting of the debate was encouraged by feminist discourse which challenged the belief that sexual abuse was merely the acts of individual ‘perverts’ or ‘sex fiends’ and could be seen as systemic, and the core transgression of childhood innocence” (p. 11).

The change can be seen as a political act, produced by, among others, organised Care Leaver advocates: “people who in their childhood were the objects of state and charitable intervention, are now asserting their rights to recognition as equal citizens whom the state has wronged (p. 10).”

Swain correctly asserts that the new model of testimonial-based inquiry came to Australia with the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody (read more). This was followed by an extensive series of inquiries, as different survivor groups claimed their right to speak. Although sexual abuse was not a specific term of reference of the Lost Innocents (Child Migrants – read more) or Forgotten Australians (Care Leavers – read more) inquiries, victim/survivor testimony was so strongly articulated that the reports singled it out for special treatment.

“Within this series of inquiries the willingness to speak about sexual abuse has seen the issue rise in prominence to the point where it has become the primary focus of the current Royal Commission (p. 10).”

A weak backlash has emerged from conservatives running unconvincing two lines of comment:

  • claims  that the ‘politics of regret’ now unfairly privilege ‘victim narratives’ over other stories – and therefore that people with different views are now being silenced and marginalised; and
  • accusations that ‘victim narratives’ are fabrications or ‘flaunting suffering’ to get attention and financial compensation.

Despite that backlash, I find it impossible to imagine a future where child sexual abuse is swept back under the carpet.

Child Protection – A History of Australian Laws

The History of Child Protection Legislation in Australia 

Shurlee Swain’s first paper for the Royal Commission  (I’m not sure the three papers are meant to be read in any set order) surveys the legislation relating to the out-of-home care of children. The paper can be downloaded here.

Reminding us that child welfare in Australia was a state rather than federal responsibility, Swain describes child welfare provision in Australia as a patchwork rather than a coordinated system. Yet, much of the legislation across the different jurisdictions is cannibalistic and imitative.

Swain describes four chronological but overlapping waves of legislation.

1. Each state passed laws to structure their child welfare ‘system’ beginning in the 1860s. At first, they were driven by concerns around child vagrancy. Later the child rescue movement shifted the focus to the child’s need for protection from parents or guardians who were failing in their core responsibilities.

2. Also from the 1860s, laws focused on regulating care providers, establishing systems of inspection and rules covering punishment and employment of children. In my view, there is not much evidence that these laws were at all effective.

3. Laws initially seeking to deter parents from ‘foisting their children on the state’. Poverty was understood as a moral rather than an economic or social problem and the child welfare system was designed to prevent this moral failing being passed on to the next generation. The earliest legislation had been framed to punish parents for their perceived failures, and deter others from following in their path. The early legislation encoded an expectation that parents or relatives would contribute to the maintenance of their children where circumstances allowed.

But, from the 1880s and extending into the second half of the 20th century, some measures were introduced to keep families together. Governments, belatedly, saw the merit of payment to poor parents to keep their children out of the system. Pensions for widows, and other benefits such as child endowment, helped single mothers and supporting fathers.

4. Laws designed to deal with children seen as requiring special provision: child migrants, Aboriginal children, infants, and children with disabilities. This area is covered in more detail in another paper.

Swain concludes, quite properly, that the system – let’s call it that for sake of argument – was poorly resourced and often slow to respond to new thinking overseas.

Child welfare was rarely a high priority for politicians – and that is true still. Public servants and charitable institutions – and I would add churches – exercised significant autonomy in deciding where and how policies should be implemented.

As a result, Swain argues – and the evidence is now clear – children were exposed to a regime which had more interest in keeping costs down and deterring entry to the system  than in children’s rights and best interests.

From the outset a policy of child removal was established which survived largely unchallenged until the beginnings of de-institutionalisation in the 1970s. Moreover, the dominant institutions “essentially positioned the children as being in need of control rather than care.” (p. 6)

Swain takes us through the take-up of industrial and reformatory schools from the 1860s that were essentially the adaptation of the British model. She gives an overview of changes that took place with the realization that Industrial Schools were not working – although the parallel (and often overlapping) system of reformatories for ‘criminal’ children would survive virtually unchanged, except that governments would regain control of the private reformatories that flourished in the nineteenth century.

Victoria was one of the states that decided to close all government industrial schools and rely on voluntary efforts to maintain its boarding-out or fostering system. This may have been sound in principle, but when times got tough and available foster family places declined dramatically from the 1930s, the government chose not to be fussy rather than demand minimum standards of ‘care’.

As they did in orphanages and other children’s Homes, many children in foster families “felt isolated, exploited and deprived in a system that functioned to cut them off from their families of origin far more completely than had the industrial schools.” (p. 11)

With very little supervision by government or sponsoring institutions, many children were vulnerable although it “…is clear from provisions in the legislation that governments were not unaware of these risks.” (p. 12)

Swain covers many other elements of the system including methods of “disposing of ex-nuptial children”, notably through adoption laws. Western Australia was the first Australian state to introduce legal adoption (1896). The other states came to it slowly in the 1920s, when it was being discussed and finally legalised in the UK.

In the 1960s, adoption laws increasingly concentrated the control of adoption in the hands of social workers, eliminating the private adoptions that had been permitted in some states in the past.

The demands of adoption stakeholders led to a reconsideration of the underlying basis of adoption, with legislation introducing open adoption, where all parties could know the identity of other parties, and some level of contact between a child and its original parents was considered to be the norm.

In summary, Swain’s paper is a clear guide to the legislative framework underpinning the ‘system’ which developed in Australia for looking after children who were forced to live away from their family.