A Process of Survival

In January 1974, Valerie, my fourteen-year-old half-sister, was taken to a Victorian police station, charged with being ‘exposed to moral danger’. She had been punched in the face at a party, and a doctor who had attended to her injuries reported concerns about her welfare to the police.

According to the sole surviving piece of documentation, Valerie was delivered to the remand section of Winlaton Youth Training Centre by a female police officer named Wilson. The document also lists Valerie’s height, weight, the name of her mother and stepfather (who were on holiday in New South Wales at the time), and notes that she was to appear before the Children’s Court the following week.

Valerie’s strongest memories of the three weeks she spent in remand are of her permed hair melting following a mandatory delousing, of one girl sticking another’s hand through a fan in the recreation room and of the silence of her thirteen-year-old cellmate who found herself incarcerated after disclosing that she had been repeatedly raped by her father.

At risk

Winlaton was established in Nunawading in 1956 by the Victorian state government as an all-purpose secure site to hold female adolescent criminal offenders, truants, ‘delinquents’ and girls deemed ‘at risk’ of neglect and abuse. Within a few years, the three sections – Karingal (low security), Warrina (medium security) and Goonyah (high security) – as well as the new remand centre were overcrowded and under-resourced. ‘Trainees’, as they were known, were offered neither adequate education nor recreation; violence – by under-trained staff members and by the girls against each other – was endemic. The use of sedatives to control ‘difficult’ girls was systemic, as were compulsory (and deeply humiliating) venereal-disease checks, solitary confinement and demeaning punishments, such as being forced to scrub floors with a toothbrush.

By the 1970s, only a small number of Winlaton residents were serving sentences for criminal acts. The vast majority – up to 90 per cent – were held for ‘status offences’, including having ‘no visible means of support or no settled place of abode’, being ‘in the care and custody of any person unfit by reason or his conduct or habits or incapable by reason of his health’, or at risk of being ‘exposed to moral danger’. This nebulous term was a catch-all justification for incarcerating children engaged in any actual or potential sexual activity, and was applied almost exclusively to adolescent girls. (Feminism and a broader relaxation of social mores influenced the repeal of this moral charge in 1978.)

Many girls charged with status offences were subsequently made wards of the state. While children determined to be ‘at risk’ were seized by the authorities, others were committed by parents compelled to ‘give up’ their ‘uncontrollable’ dependents, often because of a lack of access to help or support resources. Following hearings at the Children’s Court, thousands of Victorian girls found themselves housed for weeks, months and sometimes years at Winlaton.

Winlaton residents’ backgrounds were dominated by family conflict and breakdown. Between 1972 and 1975, Australia had experienced what was then its worst recession since the Great Depression. Unemployment nearly doubled, prices (including rental costs) accelerated and, following Malcolm Fraser’s election in 1975, certain welfare benefits were retracted.

A shortage of jobs in low-skilled manufacturing industries was linked to an increase in alcoholism among unemployed or overworked fathers, and resulted in a further reduction in funds available for food, clothing and household bills in already-poor families. In Victoria, the public housing program was curtailed. With private rental properties unaffordable to many, greater numbers of children lived in unsafe, unhygienic environments. Alcohol-related family violence – particularly that perpetrated by low-earning males – grew. In families where there was no father on the scene, conditions were even more dire. Immediately prior to the 1973 introduction of the supporting mothers’ benefit, ‘fatherless families’ made up a whopping 37.5 per cent of Australians living below the poverty line. By then, the reality of single-mother households was, in many cases, irrevocably etched by years of extreme financial stress.

Youth homelessness, and its attendant issues of drug abuse, robbery and prostitution, became a noticeable social phenomenon. Teenage ‘runaways’, girls in particular, frequently caught police attention (likely because of their visibility on the street as transgressors of appropriate behaviour) and, if arrested, were likely to experience stints in Winlaton.

Dark, dull, dirty, demoralising

In early 1974, Winlaton was experiencing one of its worst crises. Violence between the girls, low staff morale, destruction of property, absconding residents and overcrowding were reaching a peak. The young acting superintendent threw up her hands and walked off the job. The Social Welfare Department brought in Winlaton’s first male superintendent, 34-year-old Lloyd Owen.

When the Sun newspaper visited Winlaton in December 1975, it found an ‘unmistakably institutional environment, barbed wire on the fences, barefooted girls wearing ill-fitted multicoloured smocks. Many have skinhead hairstyles and … amateurish tattoos on their arms.’ But, the journalist observed, the girls enjoyed an obvious rapport with the superintendent.

Owen set about revitalising Winlaton, firstly by campaigning the state government to adequately fund essential repairs to the dilapidated and damaged buildings, most of which, he recalls with some understatement, were ‘a bit crowded and a bit tired’.

Despite Owen’s efforts, facilities remained in a poor state. A staff member who arrived at Winlaton in that same year later told historian Kate Gaffney that it was ‘absolutely ghastly. It looked like it hadn’t had a coat of paint for many years. … there were graffiti remains, dark, dull, dirty, demoralising, disgusting a good way to describe it.’

If such a physical environment was challenging for staff, it must have been almost unbearable for the girls locked inside day and night. As one resident told the Herald, Winlaton was ‘a hole’.

Following a shift in the department towards the professionalisation of child welfare, Owen was able to recruit young university-educated graduates. He aimed for a balance of male and female recruits, and has ‘no doubt at all the presence of the opposite sex had a huge effect on everybody’. He viewed a turnover of some of the more ‘rough and tough’ old-timer staff as a positive.

Owen’s third major project was to minimise the amount of ‘contamination’ in Winlaton, whereby children inexperienced in criminal activity quickly learnt from the more sophisticated residents the intricacies of car theft, house break-ins and prostitution. Having seen teenagers ‘deteriorate’ before his eyes, Owen attempted to stem ‘inappropriate mixing’ by abbreviating the time girls spent in Winlaton, shrinking the numbers of girls in the different sections at any one time and limiting interaction between ‘experienced’ and ‘unsophisticated’ girls.

With Owen in demand in other sections of the apparently overstretched Social Welfare Department, the government sought to recruit a similarly dynamic and innovative replacement to manage Winlaton. They found their woman in Chalkville, Alabama: Dr Eileen Slack, who became superintendent in 1979.

Slack’s first impressions of Winlaton was that it was dominated by ‘mistrust and intimidation’.

‘It was a process of survival,’ she recalls. ‘It was not unlike Alabama – the youth were intimidating each other and, in turn, were intimidating the youth officers and teachers.’ In her first days there she was told to ‘fuck off’ and to ‘go home, Yankee’, and a resident serving her lunch advised that she had just spat in the meal.

The superintendent role required equal amounts of patience, compassion and toughness, attributes Slack had acquired first as a cloistered nun in New Jersey (she left her order in 1969), then as a graduate student scrabbling to stay afloat financially at Columbia University and ultimately – after attaining a doctorate in education – running a juvenile training school in one the most impoverished and racially tense states in America.

Slack did not hesitate in implementing the changes she believed she had been specifically recruited to achieve. Her first move was to instigate compulsory daily triad therapy groups, in which girls would be encouraged to explore not only the reasons for their incarceration, but also any problems they were experiencing within the institution. Ex-residents – specifically those who were ‘several years released from Winlaton or from pro-criminal, pro-delinquent activities, with reasonable stability’ (as a draft memo put it in November 1979) – were recruited to assist in the therapy sessions.

Aside from inviting former residents into the daily operations, Slack sought to open Winlaton to community scrutiny. As she argued in an undated memo to staff, ‘concealing corrupts and constant concealing corrupts constantly.’ Thus, for the wellbeing of the internees, all parts of Winlaton should be observable by society, from ‘staff rooms and dining rooms’ to the ‘toilets and shower stalls, kitchen cupboards, infirmaries, surgeries’ and ‘secret nooks, compartments, and inner sanctums where the worst is done by the worst, when no-one is watching.’

To assist this opening up, Slack encouraged local community members to establish a Winlaton Community Support Group. Chaired for years by Raleigh Armstrong (father of filmmaker Gillian Armstrong, who, perhaps not coincidentally, made the 1976 documentary Smokes and Lollies, which follows three rebellious working-class Adelaide teenage girls), the group organised outings, dances and open days, and provided birthday and Christmas presents. They regularly brought in their own children to visit the girls. New residents who arrived with the barest of personal possessions could choose a selection of attractive, fashionable clothing from the new Winlaton ‘boutique’, which the Community Support Group helped stock. As Slack advised in a 1980 staff memorandum, juveniles had ‘the right of self-expression in speech and choice of personal appearance’.

Working with a shoestring budget, Winlaton’s management expanded the institution’s fledgling work and educational programs. A Winlaton radio station and newspaper, Rave, were also established. A tattoo removal program was started, whereby residents who regretted their amateur ‘mark-ups’ could have them expertly erased by a professional tattooist using a new technique involving invisible ink.

Sexual abuse was also properly recognised as a common factor in female juvenile delinquency. Social worker Ross McIntyre, who according to Slack was the first Winlaton staff member to start systematically collecting data on incest survivors at the institution, recalls a steady rate of approximately 40 per cent of girls having been sexually abused by family members. In his opinion, the number was probably higher, as obviously not all victims were prepared to ‘make their burden public’. This increased acknowledgement of the role of abuse further altered the outlook of the staff and the philosophy of the institution.

Slack remembers:

This would be happening in the young woman’s family and she would be picked up for running away again and again and again. She certainly was not going to turn in her father or her father’s drinking friend, or brother or uncle, or grandfather, and then she’d be brought to Winlaton for running away. The victim is punished by being locked up. So we didn’t want to continue punishing when they came in.

Despite Slack’s initiatives, the buildings continued to decay, and Winlaton remained a depressing physical environment in which to live and work. When the Age visited in February 1981, it found a remand section with overcrowded cells, flaking paint, layers of graffiti, no cooling or heating, and no window coverings. The kitchen was completely inadequate, and the cooks struggled to serve up food that wasn’t burnt, cold or otherwise completely unappetising. A building works program had apparently ceased suddenly, with half the institution repainted, tiled and carpeted, and the other remaining untouched.

But when the Age again visited in 1985, the reporters judged the buildings to be at last in an acceptable state. It quoted former County Court judge James Forrest, who recalled feeling depressed at the ‘frightening’ conditions during his regular inspections as chairman of the parole board in 1969. Since Slack’s appointment, he said, things had improved ‘dramatically’.

The shot

Yet Winlaton remained the subject of controversy, particularly at a time when the deinstitutionalisation movement was gaining traction. First, there was the ethically dire practice of giving girls Depo-Provera injections prior to weekend leave or release from Winlaton. The drug, which prevents ovulation for up to three months, was widely available in Australia but had not been approved for contraceptive purposes, let alone for underage girls. In the United States, it had been banned in response to concerns of its links to cancer of the breast, cervix and uterus.

The institution’s medical staff defended the use of the contraceptive. In 1980, the head nurse, Sister Margaret Donogan, told the National Times, ‘we only ever give it with signed parental permission if the girl is under sixteen; if she’s over sixteen she can give her own permission. It’s explained fully to her.’ Some former Winlaton residents of this period recall that they ‘never, never had a choice’ about ‘getting the needle’, particularly if they were wards of state.

Aside from differing accounts regarding consent, the drug’s side effects were often not understood completely by the girls, nor was their future fertility or risk of cancer fully addressed.

As superintendent of Winlaton, Slack had no control over what the medical staff – employed by the Health Commission, not the then-named Department of Community Welfare Services – did in the institution. When Slack spoke to me, she remembered expressing clearly in a meeting with the medical staff her opposition to the use of Depo-Provera.

There’s dead silence. So the male physician sitting next to me turns and says (he was probably worded up and was going to take me on), ‘I’d like to remind you, Dr Slack, that it is not for you to decide medically what to do with the young women who are incarcerated and wards of state.’ […] It was then handled through Winlaton’s weekly classification meeting regarding each young woman and the medical people. My final suggestion on the matter was that they get the youth’s written permission over her signature. Later, I found out that was done.

While Slack’s opposition to Depo-Provera remains clear, she was still the target of criticism concerning triad therapy, a practice she was solely responsible for introducing to Winlaton. Slack has always been a convincing proponent of the benefits of ‘positive peer culture’, whereby groups of adolescents support and educate each other in a professionally guided setting. Yet problematic aspects of the technique have been consistently highlighted – both by Winlaton residents and academics. During her observations of Winlaton triad counselling sessions in 1987, criminologist Cheryl Simpson argued that there was an underlying assumption ‘that young women must have a behavioural problem. This denied the reality for young women who had come into the system because they had resisted abuse at home.’

Renee, a former resident who was interviewed for the 2000 short documentary Winnie Girls, affirms Simpson’s argument: ‘The bottom line was that whatever happened was your fault.’ She also highlights the potential for girls to manipulate the process: ‘It was all about playing the game. You pick on someone … because you don’t want to be targeted. There’s all that scapegoating – you hone in on someone.’ Given that the use of tranquilisers had been officially forbidden since Owen’s tenure, triad therapy – according to Slack and many of her staff – was the most effective and humane method of maintaining control over adolescents in a potential pressure-cooker situation.

We had not reached them

Winnie Girls includes unbearably poignant archival footage of a Winlaton dance. A young resident with a Suzi Quatro haircut takes to a microphone and starts singing a pitch-perfect rendition of the 1981 Quarterflash hit ‘Harden My Heart’:

Cryin’ on the corner, waitin’ in the rain
I swear I’ll never ever wait again
You gave me your word but words for you are lies.

Darlin’, in my wildest dreams, I never thought I’d go
But it’s time to let you know, oh

I’m gonna harden my heart
I’m gonna swallow my tears
I’m gonna turn and leave you here

Curiously, in response to the performance, a line of girls interlock arms and start kicking their legs up high in an exuberant cancan. The juxtaposition between the lyrics and the celebratory moves of the dancers is testament both to the betrayal, neglect and abuse suffered by generations of Winlaton girls and to their capacity to survive against the odds.

But in the 1980s, a new dark nexus was devastating the lives of girls ‘at risk’: prostitution and heroin.

Thanks to Melbourne’s growing hard-drug culture, girls arrived at Winlaton in progressively more desperate and damaged circumstances. Slack highlighted this troubling shift in a 1985 conference paper: ‘Australian youth who, in the seventies, would have suffered neglect, in the eighties are viciously exploited, squeezed for every cent they can hustle on the street.’

Where alcohol, marijuana and barbiturate abuse were once the common drugs of choice among teenagers fleeing unhappy homes, now it was increasingly heroin. Many young girls supported their habits on the streets and in the massage parlours of St Kilda. Sociologist Linda Hancock’s 1989 study of Melbourne’s underage female prostitutes found that 20 per cent were known to be addicted to narcotics (an equally high amount exchanged sex for temporary accommodation).

At the same time, the state government was on the verge of implementing deinstitutionalisation as official policy. Owen recalls that A Clockwork Orange and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, as well as echoes of the 1960s and 70s protest movements, had a strong impact on many working in the fields of psychology and social work. Though sympathetic to deinstitutionalisation, Owen argues that Community Services Victoria appeared to be guided by potential cost-savings as much as the consequences of living in an institution: ‘Some of those costs were unrealistic … to deal with some of the people I encountered in institutions, you needed a lot more than the kind of costings they were talking about.’ He maintains that closing down certain places has inevitably meant that large numbers of mentally ill Victorians and ‘very young kids’ have been displaced in other directions – particularly prisons.

Those agitating for the closure of Winlaton often used feminist arguments. In 1986, for example, a lobby group named Whose Care and Protection? called on Community Services Victoria to provide a range of alternative accommodation options for abused or neglected girls (including shared housing, flats and foster care), to properly fund incest and rape centres, and to provide an adequate youth allowance. Moreover, the group called for an ideological shift:

[We demand] that all proposals that affect young women are premised upon feminist principles that recognise inequality as structurally imposed; aim to support young women towards independence and self-determination; and reject stereotypes of femininity and correct female behaviour.

Winlaton had only one more decade of existence after that. In 1993, it was sold by the state government to housing developers and is now the site of the upmarket Candlebark Estate.

Slack remains unequivocal about the continuing necessity for secure institutions for some young people: ‘Absolutely … you have to slow them down in the atmosphere of a strong, caring structure.’ She is particularly doubtful of the benefits of residential care, the system in which teenage state wards are housed together in small, semi-supervised units. A 2001 state government audit seemed to confirm her misgivings: it found that adolescents in residential care were at high risk of physical and sexual assault, and were mostly untreated for mental illness and drug or alcohol dependency. Furthermore, the ease of absconding from such units places young people in considerable physical danger.

In early 2009, while recuperating in a maternity hospital after the birth of my first daughter, I read an article in the Age that is permanently seared into my consciousness. The journalist interviewed a sixteen-year-old state ward, Sarah, who had been abusing drugs and working as a prostitute for three years. Sarah was enraged at the Department of Human Services ‘because they keep throwing me away’. She meant that each time she got clean in a secure welfare home, she was rapidly relocated to a less secure residential care home. From there she was able to easily abscond and recommence the process of ‘chasing sex for money and drugs’. She would then be picked up by DHS workers or the police and returned to the secure welfare home: ‘There is a fence out front and staff there 24/7, but you do get to walk around. You are locked up but there is a school there, you do get to cook … They give you detox meds. I just sleep for a lot of the time. After five or six days my cravings are really only mental.’

Would adolescent girls like Sarah perhaps benefit from longer stays in a progressive state-run secure unit, where therapy, schooling, medical care and the compassion of well-trained social workers is offered? To those I spoke with who worked at Winlaton in the 1970s and 80s, the answer is an indisputable yes. But, as Slack concedes, ‘whatever name you want to give to it – you know, a rose by any other name – you’re confining people against their will … whether you call it a campus, training school, reformatory and then, when they’re over eighteen, prison.’

The high number of drug deaths of ex-Winlaton residents would suggest that the institution didn’t work for many. Karen, who had three friends held in Winlaton in the late 1970s, believes they received no benefit from the experience: ‘Absolutely none. Being locked up with older troubled girls contaminated them. They came out hard and tattooed.’ Jaqueline Z Wilson, a senior lecturer at the University of Ballarat and a state ward in the 1970s, has ‘nothing good to say about places like Winlaton’:

Winlaton was a place that was very much feared by most of the state wards I knew and by myself … the state had nowhere to put me so Winlaton was their preferred option. I did everything I could to make sure I didn’t go in there.

I recall so clearly the smug self-assurance I felt reading Sarah’s story in the Age in the days after my daughter’s birth: ‘thank God my child will never have to experience such hell.’ But how can I forget my very own sister, Valerie, a middle-class child who expressed her trauma at her parents’ malicious marriage breakdown through rebellion? The years following her time at Winlaton were dominated by poverty, sexual and physical assaults, and relationships with destructive or abusive men. Can I honestly guarantee that my own daughters will be immune from family breakdown, mental illness or parental death, or the sometimes destructive lures of peers and drugs, and not end up on the streets? In which case, would I prefer that they were imprisoned?


Names of all former Winlaton residents have been changed.

Madeleine thanks all interview participants; the Care Leavers of Australia Network (CLAN) for providing some of the archival resources cited in this article; and Dr Cate O’Neill from Find & Connect for her extraordinary generosity in providing contacts and feedback.


Madeleine Hamilton

Madeleine Hamilton is the author of is the author of Our girls: Aussie pin-ups of the forties and fifties. Her writing has been published by Kill Your Darlings, Overland, Meanjin and Eureka Street.

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