Australia: the children’s gulag

I wanted to pick up on Michael Brull’s recent post at Overland on the proposed Royal Commission into child sexual abuse.  I think there are likely to be a number of structural and systemic issues likely to dog the Commission and its aftermath, and they are worth looking at.

Like the 1997 Inquiry into the experience of the Stolen Generations, and the 2004 Senate Report on the Forgotten Australians, the Royal Commission has the potential to cut to the heart of the Australian historical narrative.

This morning at my workplace I met with an Ambassador for the Forgotten Australians, Barbara Lane, who counts herself among the members of the Forgotten. The Forgotten Australians are of course likely to be overrepresented in any data gathered by the Royal Commission.

Royal Commissions into issues affecting Australian children have a problematic history, at least in terms of their outcomes, as Barbara pointed out. We had a long discussion about the Forgotten Australians, the imminent Royal Commission and  how the service I manage could support those of the Forgotten who live locally. Barbara has a wide knowledge of the history of the Forgotten Australians, and a lived experience of it, and I want to thank her for sharing it with me.

The Royal Commission will apparently examine institutional care of children. Nicola Roxon said that the focus of the commission will be “public and private institutions and organisations” and “claims of institutional and systemic failures.” We don’t know exactly who are what will be subject, because the specific terms of reference haven’t yet been decided.

For any Royal Commission its terms of reference are critical. However submissions for the new Royal Commission’s terms of reference close in a few days, on November 26. This is clearly absurd. Still, it’s not unusual when state or federal governments suddenly want to enact vast changes to administrative or funding structures or initiate comprehensive inquiries of one kind or another, to propose very short submission or consultation time-frames  Sometimes this can be put down to bureaucratic incompetence, and sometimes to the simple fact that the agenda has already been decided and the public consultation process is just for show.

Whether in this case it is incompetence or something else, it’s not a good look.  Those individuals who may be of most use to the inquiry are of course going to be those who have the least faith in the ability of government institutions to act with justice and consideration. A ridiculously short time-frame for submissions on the terms of reference for an inquiry initiated by a government on abuses carried out by government and government-sanctioned bodies seems remarkably stupid and blatantly insensitive to the point of cruelty.

Whatever the terms of reference are, I think it will be interesting to see who gets included in and who gets included out. Either way, I’ll be making a comment at the government’s website and you can too.   It doesn’t require specialist knowledge. You can ask for the submission deadline to be extended and for the commission’s terms of reference to be as wide as possible.

Let’s backtrack to the the Forgotten Australians for a moment. Their treatment after several government reports might be a marker as to what we can expect from the incoming Royal Commission.  The best guess for the the number of people – children who are now adults – who make up the Forgotten Australians is 500,000. It’s a group whose numbers are divided up in various ways depending on who is doing the counting.  Sometimes the Stolen Generations are included, sometimes not. But in terms of who these kidnapped, stolen and and terrorised children are, the numbers look like this: 50,000 children of the Stolen Generations, seven to ten thousand children who were forced child migrants. And 440,000 children who were institutionalised and imprisoned, because they were considered to be ‘morally at risk’, their parents had died, their mothers were single or young or they had run away from abusive families or were just plain troublesome.

Given that Australia’s population at the beginning of the twentieth century was only 3.7 million, and not even twenty million by the end of it, that’s a mind-boggling number. Maybe you should say it again, just to get your head round it; 500,000. It’s like understanding the conclusion of the BringingThem Home Report that the abduction of Aboriginal children was an act of genocide. It’s patently true, but so  mind blowingly difficult to understand.

It might well appear to any impartial observer that for most of the twentieth century Australia operated as a huge gulag for children, in which the most appalling atrocities and abuse were commonplace. Children were kidnapped, locked up, beaten, tortured, enslaved, forced to torture each other, drugged, sexually assaulted and criminalised in their thousands. This is not ancient history by the way. One of the most notorious Queensland institutions for the imprisonment of children, the Wilson Youth Hospital in Brisbane, was only closed in 2001 after the Forde Inquiry.

Here are some images from the Wilson hospital given to me by Barbara Lane.

They are photos of the exterior, the cells and the ‘Isolation Room’,  a completely empty room where children were left for days at a time as punishment for such crimes as ‘insolence’.

Note the barbed wire on the hospital’s exterior.

Perhaps we could use this image as a representation of twentieth century Australia.

The Senate Report on the Forgotten Australians was released in 2004, and made 36 recommendations, of which only a handful have been adopted.

Apologies have been forthcoming, but practical support, things that governments could very easily provide, have not. Most significantly the recommendation for a national scheme for financial compensation hasn’t happened.  Individual states have compensation schemes, but these are generally token amounts ranging up to $40,000. There are various barriers to claiming these amounts that vary from state to state. There are no special considerations for health care provision for Forgotten Australians, no dedicated government benefits, no targeted psychological services and so on.

What happened to the children of Australia in the twentieth century was a catastrophe of gigantic proportions, sanctioned by public institutions. Childhood sexual assault and torture as experienced by the children of the Forgotten Australians leaves marks in ways that those of us who had relatively normal neurotic childhoods will find it difficult to conceive of. It is something that we owe the Forgotten and Stolen children to familarise ourselves with: what vindictively-inflicted violent trauma does to children. Maybe I should just write a list sometime for you to print out and stick on your fridge.

The very fact that we as a nation have failed the Forgotten Australians so badly, even though we know exactly what has been done to them is just as appalling as the damage that was inflicted on them in the first place. To apparently acknowledge someone’s trauma in some detail, make promises of reparation and then forget them again, is to retraumatise them in a particularly pernicious and vindictive way.

The Royal Commission has the potential to go down that very route. The cynicism and ignorance and duplicity of our political parties should not be underestimated. On the experience of the Stolen Generations and the Forgotten Australians, we might expect a commission that can go certain places and not others, but that does whatever it is asked to do, and does it thoroughly. It will produce a massive document with many direct, practical and intelligent recommendations. And these will be almost completely ignored by political parties or watered down and slowly strangled by bickering between state and federal governments.

Still, one has to wonder if Julia Gillard is conscious of what she has done. Kevin Rudd gave an apology to the Stolen Generations without, I think, really understanding the import of what he was doing, and Gillard may have done the same thing. That is why the terms of reference of the commission are so important.

The Royal Commission has the potential to reveal, once again, the ordinary and sinister truth about the treatment of marginalised children in Australia: that it has been endemic and it has been sanctioned by elected governments. As various overseas inquiries  have found, and as the recent revelations about the entertainer Jimmy Saville have demonstrated, once we go actively looking for the mistreatment of children, we will find it everywhere and we will find staggering amounts of institutional complicity, and we will find it inextricably entwined within the nature of mandated power. As Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers shows us, the abusive traumatisation and imprisonment of children continues. It is still right under our noses and we are still complicit.  The abuse we want to look at it is always in the past never in the present. We still haven’t lost our gulag characteristics.

Sexual abuse will always garner more media space than forms of physical or psychological abuse. That is for many reasons I think, not all of them good. We are more tolerant of physical abuse (most Australians still think it’s OK to hit children) and also somewhat sceptical of psychological abuse. What that says about us a nation, I’m still not quite sure, but our history of violence has left its marks on all of us.

The brutalisation of the Stolen Generations and the Forgotten Australians looks to me like the central narrative of twentieth century Australia. The sexual abuse and torture of Australian children was not carried out by demented paedophile rings. It was enacted in broad daylight by respected community figures for decades in public institutions, sanctioned as part of a cosy narrative that punishes the weak the poor and the troublesome, and rewards the ruthless and the sociopathic. It was a gigantic co-ordinated exercise in misogyny, an enactment of a violent patriarchal nightmare which we are nowhere near freeing ourselves from. We have created public institutions that have been guilty of almost mediaeval cruelties, and very little in our political critiques has addressed the mass torture of children as an inevitable outcome of that misogyny.

Still, the Royal Commission gives us yet another chance to acknowledge the scale of the abuse of children in Australia’s history, and to make some serious redress. It’s only been the courage of the abused and the Stolen and the Forgotten that’s got us this far. Maybe this time we won’t let them down.

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. You make so many good points here Stephen. It is my hope that the extraordinary investigative powers of a Royal Commission will mean it can go far deeper than previous inquiries by HREOC and the Senate. In the longer term the value of the inquiry will be measured by, as you point out, the government response. Time (and it will take a long time) will tell.

  2. I think if you are going to make statements like most Australians still think it’s ok to hit children you need to justify it. Firstly what do you mean hit (smacking, bashing around the ears) who is this most?

    Other than that it raises some good issues and those photos of the institute are quite saddening.

    1. I’m referring to smacking and to any punitive physical action taken against children by adults. Surveys regularly confirm that most Australian adults think smacking children is Ok.

  3. Depressing, but necessary reading. Is there any hope if, as you say, the abusive traumatisation and imprisonment of children continues, and the focus of Inquiries and Royal Commissions is mostly always on the past?

    1. I think it’s very interesting that this issue is still alive, despite the best efforts of a whole lot of people to bury it. Just as Gillard can criticise misogyny while cutting benefits for sole parents, she can also launch a Royal Commission into the abuse of children, while ignoring the abuse of children in detention.
      The Stolen amd the Forgotten haven’t given up and neither should the rest of us. But we also shouldn’t underestimate the ways in which various concerns still try to make everyone forget. In families where sexual abuse has taken place, sometimes everyone prefers not to know, even when it is proven.

      1. Yes, I recognise the importance not to give up on these issues. What I find most depressing is that if children are the future as people are fond of saying, that future is forever being traumatised before it arrives.

        1. Except that children are not the future. That’s just the language of investment that politicians love so much.. If we acknowledged the traumatic reality now, in the present, then the traumatised have something to work through. The Forgotten and the Stolen are still traumatised because there has been a grossly inadequate response to their condition. Adequate financial redress, adequate memorials, adequate health care, adequate mental health services is all they are asking for. It’s very little. It’s pretty straightforward actually.

          1. I recognise too that we can live only in the continuous present where the pressures of the day are the pressures of the day

            I recognise too that we can live only in the continuous present where the pressures of the day are the pressures of the day – where the abusive traumatisation and imprisonment of children continues without adequate government recompense, as you say (along with abuses and traumas yet to be revealed) – which made me ask about hope, however illusory.

          2. And your pressure and my pressure doesn’t include being fenced in by razor wire – which I am informed Wilson House was surrounded by, not barbed-wire as I had naively supposed. Of course one would use the very best razor wire to imprison children. Makes perfect sense.

  4. You continue to startle me! I acknowledge your on-the-ground experience of child abuse and traumatisation, so I’ll shut-up for a bit, rather than continuing to make a fool of myself. Thanks.

  5. The whole thing seems so fucked up. And that’s a horrendous pun in this case. I do you cope with this?

    Stephen, I just wondered whether you could collect a lot of your blogs on the relations with children in Australia (by Australians and Australian institutions) and put it into some mega-essay. Could be really important reading. And see if a national publisher or mag might have the guts to publish it.

    1. I cope just fine, I think. It isn’t fair to the abused to be overwhelmed by their experiences.
      And no, I hadn’t thought of collating etc etc. First, not many are interested in the politics of childhood – the Left abandoned it as an issue long ago, and the Right have very definite agendas.

  6. Just because many people don’t seem to care doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing and putting out there – something you seem to have intimated many times in your blogs I think.

    1. Well, it’s as much to do with finding the venue or platform and the format too. I’m a fairly chaotic writer and not much of an essayist. But I’d have to trawl back through my posts and see what ones they would be as well.
      Though about 5 years ago I wrote an essay (of sorts) for an early childhood journal, that included a photo essay as well as a text essay. I liked it a lot and doubt if i could top it.

  7. Here we are part way through 2016 and the Royal Commission has been hearing submissions for two years now. The Royal Commission has focused mainly on sexual abuse within the church run institutions as have the media. For those of us who have suffered, as children, from the range of abuses perpetrated upon us whilst locked inside such hell holes as Wilson Youth Hospital, any hope of justice for our state sanctioned abuses has faded due to this manipulation and corruption of the Royal Commission by government and media. Sexual abuse/rape, severe physical assaults, denial of education, enforced drug taking, days spent in isolation cells, separation from and denial of access to family members, removal of all property (including family photos), depersonalisation & desensitisation (including subtle methods of brainwashing) were among the abuses we suffered from as children in Wilson Youth Hospital and which we have spent our lives attempting to come to terms with. For some it has been too long of a hard road and they are no longer with us. Others are, or have been, addicted to a range of substances, homeless and live in poverty, suffer from mental health problems and a range of medical issues. All can be traced back to having spent time in the ‘care’ of the state in Wilson Youth hospital and other state run institutions. Where is the justice for us?

    1. I think that’s a good question Sharron. And raises a whole lot of issues as to what counts as ‘justice’ in the response to institutional abuse. There’s a lot in your comment to respond to. I’ll do my best to address what I can.
      The Royal Commission is doing what it has been asked to do, as far as I can tell. And McClellan and his crew have done a stellar job in their investigations. In a time when Australian politicians actively collude to support the abuse of children in detention (a future Royal Commission into their behaviour already seems like an inevitable event) the Commission’s investigations show us that we can face up to Australia’s staggering history of child abuse if we want.
      The recommendations of the Commission will no doubt be comprehensive and thorough. Unfortunately, they will be dependent on the actions of politicians, who, as you well know don’t often show commitment to the traumas of abused children.
      You are right that the media don’t report on child abuse well and they seem to have tired of the Commission already. The Commission’s website has extremely comprehensive reports and documentation of its hearings, and anyone who has any interest in Australian history and how our political system works should be familiar with it. The stories they are revealing are staggering.

      Given that the justice mandated by politicians is likely to be erratic or non-existent and financial redress also erratic, what would count as justice?

      I have to say that I don’t know definitively.
      I think we should listen to the survivors and ask them what they think justice should look like. They have after all, shown astounding strength. How we keep the experiences of survivors in the front of public life is another question that is worth engaging with. Again, I think we should ask survivors what that might look like.

      And to those of us who are not survivors of Wilson or any of the other numerous ‘homes’ for children, I think we have the responsibility to be deeply informed as to their experiences, and when we meet survivors treat them with the greatest respect. And listen to what they have to say. They are after all, at the very heart of Australian life and Australian history, not out on its margins.

  8. The reality you all miss is there is no justice to be had for us “Wilson” kids. What was taken from us in that place is gone forever and no amount of recognition and/or money can make up for that. Something else most people don’t see is that Wilson was a life sentence. The beatings, the rapes, the broken bones the physical and psychological torture that constituted “care” in Wilson Youth Hospital when I was there in 1973 stole from me not only my childhood but also the stable and productive adult I could have and should have become.

  9. I agree with your comment Joy. I suppose ‘justice’ can be too loaded a word. For me, in the conversations I have had with those who were incarcerated in Wilson, or any of the other numerous abusive institutions, I struggle with finding a meaningful term that will encompass a meaningful public response. Justice? Recompense? Acknowledgment?
    I suppose my argument is that the survivors aren’t always necessarily consulted as to what that might be.

  10. Dear Sharron
    Is it ok if I include a link to your comment and others on my blog? I called it ForgottenAustralianFamily because it is for families of FAs like ours is.
    Best regards

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