Samaritans Chief Executive Cec Shevels encourages us to learn from the past and bring justice to our children.
CHILDREN growing up in 21st century Australia are mostly living in communities where people have never had it so good - their families are wealthier, healthier, and better educated than ever before. Living standards in Australia are high and unemployment rates in our region have not been as low in decades.
Family sizes are getting smaller and this means children can receive far more attention than ever before.
Whilst the majority of Australian children are faring well, a significant number struggle. The most disadvantaged children in our communities are usually those who have to be taken away from their families because of abuse and neglect, and Australia has a sorry history in this area.
Over the past decade there have been a number of Inquiries into the way we have cared for these children in the past. First we had the 1997 report entitled Bringing Them Home. This covered a shocking period in Australian history when mixed race children were taken from their Aboriginal mothers without consent and raised in children’s homes, totally disconnected from their families, language and culture. These children were taken from their mothers not because of neglect or abuse, but because of race and the results were devastating.
Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised to this stolen generation in 2009. The apology had been a long time coming.
The second Inquiry was into the running of former children’s homes and this resulted in a report published in 2004 called The Forgotten Australians. This report looked into the numbers of children who had been brought up in government institutions and church children’s homes during the 20th century. Most of them had closed by the mid-1970’s.
These homes were poorly funded and poorly supervised and the cases of abuse which occurred in some of them shocked the community. I am confident that many were staffed by very committed house parents who did their best in a difficult role. However their contribution has been forgotten because of the abuses which took place in several homes and institutions across the country.
All the major churches in Australia have issued apologies for their former children’s homes, where abuse occurred.
A third Inquiry took place in 1999. This was the inquiry into the child migration scheme into Australia. The UK and Australian governments had done a deal to bring out children from UK orphanages as part of our Bring out a Briton strategy to populate Australia. The difficulty was that most of the children who came here were not orphans and, most often, no one had obtained permission from their parents.
Many of these children have done well in Australia as adults but found their childhood experiences distressing. Again, the people who, at the time dreamt up this scheme, would have thought they were acting in the best interests of the child. The British Government has issued an apology.
The current investigation into former adoption processes in Australia will also result in an apology from the various government departments and agencies involved I first began to question adoption practice some 35 years ago when a social worker told me she had given up her child 30 years earlier and every year since she had quietly celebrated her child’s birthday even though she had never met her. It became apparent to me what an enormous decision this must have been, to give up a child for the benefit of the child.
The simple story of a woman from Tasmania, shared in the New South Wales State parliament recently, highlights the distress of the women coming forward.
She had left Tasmania hurriedly in 1970 - no time to say goodbye to her school and friends. She had stayed in a church home in Sydney for three months before giving birth at Hornsby hospital. She was not permitted to have any contact with her boyfriend - now her husband of 40 years - no contact with a social worker. Her child was surrendered for adoption - obviously a very sad situation for this family. She did what society, her family, and often health workers expected her to do.
During this era it was not unusual for families to send their pregnant, unwed daughters interstate to live there until their baby was born, surrender the child for adoption and then return home to a community unsure of what had happened.
Again, people organising adoptions would have thought they were acting in the best interests of the child and, in some cases, maybe they were. But adoption has always had a mixed agenda. The rhetoric was always about the best interest of the child but it was mainly about finding babies for infertile couples. In some cases, the best interests of the child would have been to remain with the biological mother.
It is apparent looking back on Australia’s family and children’s services that, in the past, we have greatly under-estimated the bond between mother and child and the child and their parent. I hope we have finally learnt this, but I am not totally convinced that we have.
Can we learn from the past? I certainly hope so.
To read more from Samaritans, visit www.samaritans.org.au.