AUSTRALIA: Care leavers’ fight for redress for historical abuse

Background

An estimated 500,000 children in Australia were placed in orphanages, children’s homes, training schools, farm schools and other settings between 1920 and 1980. These institutions were run by churches, charities, state governments, philanthropic organisations or private individuals, and some housed up to 200 children. 

These children often lived in appalling conditions, were made to do physical labour and received only basic schooling. The country’s indigenous children were disproportionately placed in institutional care, with many experiencing psychological, physical and sexual abuse, resulting in long-term negative effects.

Most children left the care system without any preparation or assistance for adulthood or for parenthood and many suffer from long-term issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, imprisonment, alcohol and drug abuse, unemployment, under-employment, welfare dependency, broken relationships, homelessness, depression, anger, fear of authority, and low-self-esteem.

However, a movement of care leavers began to grow in the 1990s. United, they brought the issue of historical abuse and neglect to the wider community, demanding that the government acknowledge the injustices they suffered as children. Thanks to their tireless advocacy, Australia became one of the first countries in the world to undertake national inquiries into care and historical care-related abuse and to formally apologise to survivors.1 Today, care leavers are still fighting for a national redress scheme.

Bringing institutionalisation into the public eye

In the 90s abuse in out-of-home care was typically seen as an indigenous issue.2 Australia has a long history of separating aboriginal children from their families with the aim of increasing their ‘assimilation’ into the wider community. As many as 25,000 aboriginal children were placed in institutions, fostered or adopted between 1910 and 1970.

In 1995, Australia’s Human Rights Commission started investigating the forced removal of aboriginal children from their families after pressure from aboriginal communities and advocacy groups. Two years later the Commission presented its 500-page report, Bringing them Home which recommended an apology and reparations to individuals affected, as well as access to information about their birth and biological family, mental health services, parenting and family well-being programmes, and oral history projects.

Also seeking acknowledgement and redress were former child migrants who were sent from the UK to Australia after World War II to populate the empire with “good, white British stock”.3 Many of the children, most aged between five and ten when they arrived, were placed in institutions where they too faced poor education, forced labour and other abuse. Once adults, they campaigned for a public inquiry from 1987 until an investigation was finished in 2001, with the government offering reparations, family tracing and reunion services, and counselling to survivors.

Around the same time in Queensland, the third-most populous state in the country, allegations of sexual offences against children in care institutions by teachers, state-employed caregivers and members of churches were widely covered in the media. Failed police investigations and cover-ups also fuelled public frustration, leading a group of care leavers to begin a class action lawsuit and call for a public inquiry.

As a result, in 1997, the Children’s Commission of Queensland was created to address concern over allegations and in 1998, then Minister for Families, Youth and Community Care, Anna Bligh, appointed a Commission of Inquiry into Abuse of Children in Queensland Institutions. The Commission, although limited to one Australian state, was one of the first public inquiries to present an overall account of how abuse over a long period (1911-1998) had affected children in 159 state-funded care institutions.4

Because of the breadth of its analysis the report has been referred to in many subsequent investigations.5 The Commission made 42 recommendations relating to contemporary child protection practices, youth justice, and redress for past abuse.

It also brought reconciliation initiatives including apologies, memorials and events, the establishment of a redress scheme and the provision of community-based support services.

Care Leavers Australasia Network (CLAN)

Slowly but surely the focus of public inquiries in the country shifted from crimes against indigenous peoples’ human rights to the abuse and neglect of children in out-of-home care.6 Adult care leavers protested that their experiences had been overlooked, amounting to a forgotten chapter in Australian history.7

In 1992 an Australian care leaver named Joanna Penglase, who was conducting research for her doctoral thesis, posted an advert in 150 newspapers simply asking: “Did you grow up in a children’s home?” and provided her phone number. After a huge response, Penglase and another care leaver, Leonie Sheedy, co-founded Care Leavers Australasia Network (CLAN) in 2000. The redress processes around indigenous children and child migrants had greatly inspired the adult care leavers movement. The pair felt that care leavers, a much larger group of citizens, experienced similar, and in many cases identical abuses to other groups in Australian institutions, but lacked access to the same support, recognition and assistance given to fellow survivors.

Today, CLAN has about 1,000 members and represents, supports and advocates for people who were raised in Australia and New Zealand’s orphanages, children’s homes and foster care. CLAN’s vice-president Frank Golding explained that the success of the organisation lies in the founders being “the right people at the right time”.

“Leonie and Joanna are two very determined women who thought strategically and managed to bring together a large number of care leavers when the greater public awareness about the issue was starting to build up. They simply infected everyone with their determination”,  he said.

Over the past 18 years, CLAN has worked towards the establishment of dedicated support services in each Australian state and territory to help people find and contact lost family members and also provides therapy and counselling services for adult care leavers. In addition, they have successfully lobbied for the establishment of three public inquiries and the issuing of national and state apologies.8

Public inquiries and an apology

To this date, four of the six Australian states have conducted inquiries into abuse of children in care: the earliest of these reported in 1999 in Queensland, and the most recent federal inquiry finished in 2017. All were concerned with abuse, neglect or sexual violence - some were limited to children in institutional care; others included non-institutional forms of care and other providers of care.

A public inquiry is an official, independent investigation ordered by a government or parliament. Such inquiries are different from those conducted by government officers and, in order to enhance credibility and impartiality, judges may be appointed as commissioners. Public inquiries rely on written or oral evidence from those affected and typically produce a report which provides recommendations on actions to be taken to remedy past harms.

CLAN targeted people who conducted the early national public inquiries into indigenous children and child migrants from the UK, stressing that adult care leavers were a much bigger group which should not be overlooked. And it worked.

In 2004, a nationwide Senate Inquiry into Children in Institutional Care finally acknowledged that these children had experienced physical and sexual abuse and neglect, and that systems of care and social attitudes had utterly failed to protect them.

The inquiry covered an estimated 500,000 children, dwarfing inquiries into indigenous children and child migrants, which covered 10,000 and 25,000 children respectively.

It examined 334 institutions, including orphanages, homes, industrial or training schools, youth detention centres, and homes for children with disabilities between 1895 and 2000.

The Forgotten Australians Report, produced by the inquiry, included recommendations on the provision of various services, oral history and museum projects. Speaking about the public inquiry Golding recalled: “Care leavers were virtually invisible until 2003 to 2004. The Senate inquiry was godsent in a way, as it raised the profile of the issue, it raised our profile as an organisation, and it led to some funding”.

CLAN also fought for a national apology to survivors of institutional abuse and neglect, to show that the government recognised that an injustice has been done and to accept responsibility for the harm caused. This kind of official recognition of large-scale injustices serves as a promise that similar violations will not recur and allows survivors to continue their lives with dignity. 

In 2008 the newly elected Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, apologised to Australia’s aboriginal population for removing children from their communities, and the following year delivered a combined apology to former child migrants and others included in the Forgotten Australians Report.9 The 2009 apology included a commitment to provide A$26 million for a range of initiatives, including support services, and history and memory projects.10

Following the Queensland Inquiry and a number of other regional investigations, the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was held between 2013 and 2017 to examine the response to individuals using their work in orphanages, juvenile system centres, sport clubs, youth organisations or other institutions to sexually abuse children. In its first year, more than 1,000 victims gave evidence, with more than 40 percent having experienced abuse in children’s homes or foster care.11

While the Royal Commission was still in progress it was clear that there were likely to be major shifts in social policy as a result of the investigations. In September 2015, two years before finishing its work, the Commission released a report outlining its recommendations to deal with extent of child sexual abuse in multiple settings in Australia. At its heart was the proposal for a A$4 billion national redress scheme, which would offer compensation, counselling and psychological care.

The Royal Commission was influenced by a similar redress process in Ireland.

The Commission adopted the model of therapeutic recounting of survivors experiences - providing a sympathetic and intimate environment in which victims could tell their story, rather than simply undertaking a fact-gathering mission.

It allowed private sessions and public hearings as well as telephone and written submissions, and provided counselling support to those taking on the emotionally difficult task of participating in the public inquiry. The Commission website also suggested a list of contacts which had received additional funding to help those affected by coming forward.

CLAN’s lobbying strategies

To achieve its objectives, CLAN focused on gaining media coverage, broad public understanding and support from key figures in Parliament and government. Their primary goal was to get the issues related to care leavers, such as abuse in care, redress, access to services and records, into the minds of the wider public and onto the political agenda. CLAN’s vice-president Frank Golding said:

“The public awareness that has been generated by care leavers over the years to a large extent is one of the biggest of CLAN’s achievements. Many care leavers are like a dog with a bone, they just won’t let it go until they’re satisfied and their requirements are fulfilled.”

CLAN has also had success working with politicians, an impressive number of whom are now patrons of the organisation. These include current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, the leader of the opposition and other leading politicians from Australia’s main political parties. “Opening political doors has been really important. We actually make a list of key politicians and invite them to become our patrons. Their job is to speak to other politicians and help get them to support our initiatives”, said Golding. CLAN would also write petitions to the Parliament, hold meetings with parliamentarians and government officials to discuss policy issues, and actively pursue membership of advisory committees.

Targeting politicians who were former care leavers themselves was another strategy used by CLAN to secure support. Senator Andrew Murray is a former child migrant, who has been a champion of care leavers in Australia and has worked closely with CLAN. He was instrumental in establishing three of the four public inquiries and became a member of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.12

Through CLAN’s most active decade, a conservative government was predominantly in power, implementing spending cuts and budget restraints, so the organisation had to rethink its approach. During this time CLAN lobbied the churches, which had a powerful influence on conservative members of the government who were prominent church-goers. 

Since 2007 an increasingly important part of CLAN’s political lobbying took the form of dozens of silent protests. Golding explained: “We held very regular silent protests outside politicians’ offices, the Department of Social Services and outside Parliament. We always use big banners with clear messages. We would give our distinctive leaflets to anyone passing by and thousands of people have taken those leaflets over the years. We also use colourful clothes, so there’s a high visibility factor. A number of people have told us that it’s our blue and yellow T-shirts that have caught their attention”. These protests had a huge impact. Members protested for the establishment of state-based and federal inquiries, eventually resulting in the Victorian Parliamentary inquiry and the Royal Commission on child sexual abuse.

In addition CLAN would sometimes print up to ten thousand postcards, put stamps on them and give to passers-by to write a message to a politician, flooding officials’ offices with their message.

Another campaign to attract politicians’ attention involved sending hundreds of politicians a birthday card, wishing them a happy birthday and saying that children in orphanages had never had their birthday celebrated. “I think that’s one of the most successful methods we used,” concluded Golding.

Supporting care leavers

It is not an easy process for care leavers to come forward to tell a story of abuse and neglect, whether publicly or privately, and CLAN has helped numerous care leavers with their submissions to public inquiries over the years. One such submission was made by CLAN’s co-founder Leonie Sheedy on behalf of her older brother Anthony.

Sheedy was placed in the orphanage along with two of her sisters when she was just three years old, while her older siblings were put into orphanages before she was born. Leonie and Anthony grew up in different orphanages and did not see each other for 40 years. When she finally tracked him down, letters she sent him went unanswered.

What Sheedy did not know was that Anthony had difficulty reading and writing, and was unable to respond. Her brother was also struggling with alcoholism and mental health issues, had lost most of his teeth, was a heavy smoker, and did not even have a fridge in his derelict apartment. Shortly after they were reunited he told Leonie about the abuse and rape he suffered while in care, something he did not tell anyone for 37 years. Sheedy typed his story and submitted it to the Forgotten Australians inquiry.

CLAN also offers guidance on accessing personal records to people who grew up in care.

The organisation told the Forgotten Australians inquiry that many of their members’ files contained the term “high grade mental defective” to describe children who appeared unresponsive to their carers.13

These records were used against them later in life, including to justify further institutionalisation. CLAN lobbied for access to historical records which lead to the establishment of Find and Connect service, which aims to assist people to locate what records there are for the institutions where they lived.

“A lot of people grew up in orphanages without knowing who they are connected to, siblings were often separated, some didn't even know their date of birth,” said Golding. “A lot of people benefited from accessing their childhood records and it also led to a massive improvement in how records are kept and retrieved,” he added.

The name Forgotten Australians, does not suit all care leavers. Many want their lives and experiences to be known, understood and remembered. To this end, CLAN provided a plethora of information and photographs to the National Museum of Australia between 2011 and 2014, which organised a travelling exhibition on life in children’s homes and institutions as part of the government’s national apology. The organisation also encouraged care leavers to contribute to Forgotten Australians and the Former Child Migrants Oral History collection held at the National Library of Australia. Today, CLAN operates a permanent exhibition in their Sydney office, known as the National Orphanage Museum.

Unfinished business: lack of justice

In the same way that CLAN has been a key part of shifting Australians’ understanding of what it meant for children to grow up in institutional care, the organisation is also hoping to change perceptions about the need for reparations for harm suffered, in an effort to gain justice for care leavers.

While public inquiries identify harms experienced in care, and an apology is the acknowledgement of this harm, redress is the final stage of the process and usually includes a remedy or a reparation.

Redress can take different forms and normally includes financial compensation, but is not limited to it.

One way to get redress for harms suffered while in care is by going to court, but strict time limits on when a court case must be submitted by can present a serious barrier to accessing remedies. Until recently, child victims of sexual abuse in Australia had just three years from the time they turned 18 years old to file a civil claim with a court.

This is despite the fact that it takes survivors of childhood sexual abuse an average of 20 years to process what has happened to them and to speak up about the abuse that occurred. These statutory time limits have meant that abuse survivors have had to bring a lawsuit within the time limit, or apply to the court for an extension of the allowable time period, or else be forced to abandon their lawsuit altogether.

Recognising these barriers, a number of states in Australia have started to implement the Royal Commission’s recommendations to abolish time limitations for survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Victoria was the first state to abolish these time limits in 2015. A year later, New South Wales and Queensland followed, and other states are now in the process of changing their legislation. 

However, in many countries, large-scale compensation programmes are now replacing traditional avenues of civil litigation for survivors of abuse. Australia is not an exception - it has already implemented state-level redress schemes in Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and Western Australia with a total payout to survivors of approximately A$250 million - all of which came as a result of public inquiries. Redress schemes facilitate the settlement process by employing lower standards of evidence and avoiding technical barriers to litigation. Civil litigation payouts are usually much higher than that of redress schemes, however the costs and emotional damage of litigation can be very high.

“In a redress process, if it’s a very clear cut case, you’re guaranteed a result, but in civil litigation you might go through two-three years of hell and get nothing. Many care leavers want safer and less traumatising means to get justice,” added Golding.

One significant issue that CLAN is still fighting for is a national redress scheme. Redress is currently not available for those who suffered harms while growing up in care in New South Wales or Victoria, the most populous Australian states. Children’s welfare in Australia is a state matter, not a federal matter, so the proposal for a national redress scheme has to be agreed at state-level first. So far, five out of six states and two territories have agreed that they will pass legislation to enable a national redress scheme.

“We have a situation where there is a bill before the national parliament and most states are beginning to introduce laws that will enable the national redress scheme of sorts to operate. There are flaws in the proposed scheme and we will need to agitate to improve it. However, it’s more promising than I would have thought a year ago”, said Golding.

An example to others

So what does it take to become a care leavers advocacy champion? According to Golding, clear strategies and a good base of knowledge are crucial.

“You know, we’ve been going for 18 years. It’s a big learning experience. Building up confidence and growing competence, and learning from your mistakes. If you talked to us in 2003, we wouldn’t have been as articulate as we are today”, said Golding.

Funding is another important factor in establishing an organisation and keeping it going. According to Golding: “We started out on the absolute minimum, [...] we were using money from our own pockets. There were times when we were thinking we’ll have to shut down, we couldn’t pay our staff and we couldn’t pay the office rent. What we learnt is you really can’t survive as an organisation without proper resourcing and that takes time”.

Learning from other care leavers organisations, including those in countries where redress has already happened can make the whole process significantly easier for those who are only just starting their advocacy journey.

Golding explained: “Latching on to an existing organisation to get started is a strategy that New Zealand is using. CLAN has a branch of about 20 people there, and we are meeting up with their representative once a month. Eventually they will say, we are big enough now, thank you very much for your help, we will now run the project on our own”.

Finally, determination is what makes CLAN different, and what has kept the organisation fighting for acknowledgment and redress all this time. CLAN has a persistent message for politicians and the public: “We are not going away. We will never give up”. And we believe them.

 
Endnotes:
 
1 -  Skold J., Swain S., Apologies and the Legacy of Abuse of Children in 'Care', Palgrave Studies in the History of Childhood, 2015, 147.
2 - Skold, 147.
3 - Murray S., Supporting Adult Care-Leavers: International Good Practice, Bristol Policy Press, 2015, 22.
4 - Skold, 18
5 - Skold, 18
6 - Skold, 19.
7 - Skold, 28.
8 - Murray, 175.
9 - Skold, 147.
10 - Skold, 151.
11 - Murray, 46.
12 - Murray, 169.
13 - Skold, 34.
 
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