CANBERRA OBSERVED: by national correspondentNews Weekly
National sorrow over plight of forgotten Australians
, November 28, 2009
Unlike the national apology to the "stolen generation", there was no controversy when the Prime Minister and Opposition leader expressed sorrow at the treatment and plight of the hundreds of thousands of Australians who were institutionalised in homes from the 1930s to the 1970s.
As former Australian Democrats senator Andrew Murray put it, the number of children of Aboriginal descent who were separated from their birth parents represented fewer than 10 per cent of the total number of children in Australia who were also separated and raised by state, charitable and church institutions during that time.
Murray, who has played a huge role in bringing about public recognition of the issue, believed it was fitting that the apology to the "stolen generation" was first, but that the apology to the "forgotten Australians" was also long overdue.
Some claim the number of Australians who spent time in these orphanages and homes is as high as 500,000, while others say this figure involves a good deal of double-counting.
A further 7,000 mainly British children were shipped to Australia, and told that they were orphans.
Even if broadly correct, these numbers represent a vast cohort of Australian society who have experienced deeply traumatised, sad and complex childhoods as a result of institutionalised care.
It is certainly true that the homes during that time were cold and unforgiving places where cruelty and brutality were not uncommon, where indifference and loneliness were rife, and where parental love, tenderness and affection were largely absent.
In recent times, it has also become clear that such institutions were a magnet for people of sadistic temperaments and warped sexual tendencies. The number of people who were physically and sexually abused in these homes is appalling.
During an emotion-charged ceremony in Parliament's Great Hall in Canberra, Kevin Rudd described the period as an "ugly chapter in our nation's history".
"We come together today to offer our nation's apology. To say to you, the Forgotten Australians, and those who were sent to our shores as children without your consent, that we are sorry.
"We look back with shame that so many of you were left cold, hungry and alone and with nowhere to hide and with nobody, absolutely nobody, to whom to turn."
Malcolm Turnbull, who experienced the painful separation of his mother when he was eight years old, broke down during his speech.
"For those who have suffered decades of grief, haunted by your childhood - emotionally paralysed and unable to move forward, today I hope you can take the first step forward because you are not to blame," he said. "It was governments, churches and charities that failed you…"
Despite the genuine emotional outpourings and the important cathartic effect this event will have on the people who live forever with the childhood scars from the times spent in these homes, it is all too easy to condemn past practices in comparison to our "enlightened" times and to judge past policies through the prism of the modern welfare state and from human rights now taken for granted.
Many homes were also run by extraordinary people who gave their lives to the care and protection of children.
Even more important, it is dangerous to pretend that we are not letting down children in similar circumstances today, or confronting head-on the appalling mistakes being made in the foster care system.
At any point, there are 35,000 children in state care today. This can be for their protection, to rescue them from neglect because their parents have some form of addiction, or because the children themselves have some form of behavioural, physical or psychological problems.
Rather than institutional care the preferred method is placement in a "family" home, in which carers are paid by the state.
This can be lucrative - up to $800 a week per child in the case of children with extreme behavioural problems or disabilities.
But, as The Australian
newspaper's award-winning investigative reporter Caroline Overington has uncovered in New South Wales, many of these children have ended up in similar or worse circumstances. Some have been removed from drug-addict parents only to be placed with other drug addicts who take the extra government cash to feed their habits.
Abuse and neglect are common as government social workers juggle with decisions about whether to remove children from dangerous situations and judge who are fit or unfit to qualify as foster carers.
Overington, who was also responsible for breaking the AWB scandal, recently argued that there were no national standards for care and the level of care can vary from one home to the next.
However, the departmental response to these reports has been disgraceful, with extraordinary efforts made to block and hinder the reporting of scandalous incidents under the name of "privacy".
The apology to the "forgotten Australians" will inevitably be accompanied by calls for compensation for the pain and anguish caused by mistreatment in institutional care.
Whether money can compensate for these past wrongdoings is difficult to gauge.
But the more important and practical issue is protecting and nurturing children in state care today.