In Forgotten Australians: A report on Australians who experienced institutional or out-of-home care as children, the Australian Senate attempts to create an overview of the history of children who have been removed from their homes in Australia. They were prompted by the fact that more than half a million children in Australia had been displaced from their homes. In addition, they had heard horrific stories of all types of abuse in these out-of-home placements, including emotional, physical, and sexual abuse in addition to neglect (Australian Senate, 2004). Even children who were not subject to abuse or to a physical level of neglect described a consistent lack of love and affection while in institutional settings, which seems to have contributed to lifelong issues related to trust and security (Australian Senate, 2004). In other words, this institutionalization has left a lifelong impact on many of them, which, given that they have often started families of their own, continues to negatively impact society. The goal of this research was to examine the history of displacement from homes, including the traditional reasons for displacement, and investigate the impact of that displacement on the impacted children.
Politics behind the Review
The review does not seem to be motivated by a single, identifiable political position. It was suggested by Senator Andrew Murray on March 4, 2003. Murray proposed a complete investigation into children who were displaced from their homes and placed in some type of governmental care. The investigation was to include whether the children faced any unsafe conditions, whether there were breaches of statutory duties to these children, an estimate of the prevalence of any unsafe practice, and the lingering impact of those violations (Australian Senate, 2004). Although not necessarily a partisan review, the overall political tone describing the need for the review would be characterized as a liberal tone because it urges changes from the status quo. The people on the Committee took a very harsh view of prior governmental attitudes towards children that had been displaced for their homes. It found that the comments and made by many officials “reveal a complete lack of understanding of or acceptance of responsibility for the level of neglect, abuse and assault that occurred in their institutions” (Australian Senate, 2004). Not only did the committee members want those in power to acknowledge what had occurred, but to take some ownership of those negative things. “The Committee believes that governments, the Churches and agencies should issue formal statements acknowledging their role in past institutional care policies and practices and the impact this had on the lives of many care leavers. These statements should express sorrow and apologise for the physical, psychological and social harm caused as a result of the care leavers’ experiences as children in institutional care. The Committee also considers that these acknowledgments must be accompanied by other positive measures as recommended in the report to ensure that they are not regarded as merely ’empty gestures’ by the care leavers and the community generally” (Australian Senate, 2004). Moreover, there was a desire to compensate those who had been victimized because they had been removed from their homes, which led to the creation of a reparations format.
Methods of Inquiry
The Senate began its inquiry by advertising in the Australian, Daily Telegraph and Herald Sun, and other print and electronic media (Australian Senate, 2004). The advertisements were aimed at those who had left governmental care (care leavers). Although there were deadlines for submissions, because the Committee wanted to get a comprehensive view of the scenario, it took submissions after its deadlines. “The Committee received 440 public submissions and 174 confidential submissions” (Australian Senate, 2004). These submissions covered a period from the 1920s to the 1990s. Moreover, it covered people who had been in governmental and non-governmental institutions or foster homes (Australian Senate, 2004). These submissions were personal in nature.
The methodology for the study was qualitative, as if focused on individual reports of individual experiences for those who had been displaced from their homes. The sheer volume of information led to the decision to produce two reports. The report being reviewed was the first of the two reports, and it focused on “children who were in institutional and out-of home care, mainly from the 1920s until the 1970s when deinstitutionalisation began to see large institutions replaced by smaller residential homes, foster care or other options such as placements with families for accommodating children in need of out-of-home care” (Australian Senate, 2004). In addition to describing specific children, the report focused on specific details, including: “background information on institutions and the governments’ and churches’ roles in placing children in care, the treatment of children in care and the long-term effects of experiences while in care. The issues of responsibility, acknowledgement and reparation are also canvassed, as are issues relating to accessing records and information and the provision of wide ranging services for care leavers which are critical in ensuring that they can improve their quality of life” (Australian Senate, 2004). The report itself is highly subjective. In many instances it uses the language of the submissions given by various care leavers. The subjective nature of the report is intentional; the Committee wanted those who read the report to have exposure to first-person accounts of what it meant to be a child in those scenarios. However, the subjective nature makes it important to realize that quantification from the report is almost impossible. The report attempts to describe what occurred to a number of children in care and how there were no efforts made to help transition them from this abuse to a normal life. It does not attempt to define how many children were abused in which way in each types of care.
The Committee made a number of findings about children in care. They found that abuse was pervasive in all types of care settings. They found that indigenous children were oftentimes targeted for abuse, and that this abuse in many ways was either genocidal or racially discriminatory in nature. For example, indigenous children were removed from homes without consideration to family kinship placement possibilities, were renamed, were punished for practicing their native religions, and were punished for speaking their own languages.
The Committee found a wide range of abusive behavior in care scenarios. This abuse included physical, sexual, mental, and emotional abuse as well as neglect. “Evidence included stories of children being inadequately clothed and so desperately hungry as to eat scraps from bins; only being permitted to have a bath once a week (in shared water); being locked in small dark places and enduring severe punishments and beltings that would draw blood” (Australian Senate, 2004). In large institutions, children were often depersonalized and record keeping was insufficient, so that children might not have access to critical personal information, such as their own birthdates (Australian Senate, 2004). In addition, the Committee found widespread sexual abuse. In fact, the Committee received complaints of sexual abuse “perpetrated by clergy, officers and staff, other residents, or visitors to the institution, emerged about almost all of the institutions” (Australian Senate, 2004).
Perhaps more important than findings of specific abuse, was the fact that the Committee recognized what a care leaver had described about life in an institution. “Apart from specific acts of emotional, mental, physical, psychological and sexual abuse, institutional life itself is inherently abusive: It was abusive to be kept in an institution separate from your family. It was abusive to be denied rights as a human being, such as affection and relationships” (Australian Senate, 2004).
The Committee found that the impact of this abuse had a lifelong duration that continued to plague many care leavers well into their adulthood. Some examples of lingering impact included problems with interpersonal relationships, insecurity, depression, and even suicidal behavior (Australian Senate, 2004).
Conclusions / Recommendations
The Committee’s recommendations are too extensive to be described in a short policy analysis. Therefore, this analysis will highlight the seemingly most important of those recommendations. First, the Committee suggests that the Commonwealth, state governments, local governments, churches, and any other local agencies that were involved in the displacement of kids into the care system issue apologies for the negative impact of that care (Australian Senate, 2004). Next, the Committee suggests that governments consider changing their statutes of limitations to permit victims to seek compensation for damages (Australian Senate, 2004). Next, the Committee suggests a series of legal changes that would make it easier for victims to sue in the event of continued abuses in the care system (Australian Senate, 2004). Another suggestion is that the government establish a national reparations fund (Australian Senate, 2004). In addition, the Committee wants the government to establish a review board to process complaints about the care system (Australian Senate, 2004). Furthermore, they want an open policy with churches and other organizations having to publish any allegations of abuse from this point forward and require them to open their records about any prior allegations of abuse, with states and territories developing and maintaining databases for this information (Australian Senate, 2004). One of the important elements of those recommendations is that care leavers be given open and free access to their own records (Australian Senate, 2004). They also suggest that the government establish counseling for care leavers and their families to deal with the impact of life in care, including specialized education for mental health professionals so that they are in a position for dealing with this problem (Australian Senate, 2004). Furthermore, they emphasize the need for continuing educational opportunities, from literacy to higher education, for these people (Australian Senate, 2004).
It is incredibly difficult to attempt to assess the impact of this report on current policies and practices. At are governmental level, even prior to this report, there had been a number of changes to the foster and institutional care system, aimed at curing some of the institutional-level problems of the system. For example, the practice of routinely removing indigenous children from their homes and placing them in the care of white people had been discontinued for decades prior to this report. Therefore, policies of intentional dehumanization are not necessarily actively encouraged; however indigenous children are still much more vulnerable to removal from their homes than non-indigenous children. This suggests that policy-level changes have not necessarily resulted in changes in practice and procedure. However, one of the most difficult things to realize is that child abuse is difficult to unearth; this is particularly true for children who have been displaced and are not with adults who will be looking out for their best interests. Whether or not this report has led to a reduction in abuse in foster and institutional homes is something that will not really be known until these children age out of the system and become care leavers.
Australian Senate. (2004). Forgotten Australians: A report on Australians who experienced institutitional or out-of-home care as children. Canberra: Parliament House.
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