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The Forgotten Ones

Half a million lost childhoods

A young boy in Dalworth Children's Home at Seaforth, NSW, in the 1920s. Image courtesy of the State Library of NSW. Photograph: Sam Hood
A young boy in Dalworth Children's Home at Seaforth, NSW, in the 1920s. Image courtesy of the State Library of NSW. Photograph: Sam Hood  
August 2012August 2012Medium length read
 

In 1937, at the age of 14 months, Geoff Meyer appeared before a NSW magistrate, who made him a ward of the state and handed him over to carers at a state-run orphanage called Bidura.

Meyer stayed at Bidura until he was four, when he was sent to the Royleston Boys’ Depot in Glebe Point Road. Built in the 1880s, the Royleston mansion is a Victorian hybrid of grand and delicate, featuring a graceful verandah and soaring windows. When the heavy iron gate first opened for Meyer, he was terrified by its squeal. Royleston housed 30 to 50 boys at a time until they were fostered, though many were repeatedly fostered, returned, and fostered again. Meyer never learned any other boys’ names. “We weren’t allowed to talk to each other,” he said, “and the staff always said ‘Hey you’ or used terrible words.”

Every day began with a reckoning for children who wet their beds. Staff draped urine-soaked sheets around bedwetters’ heads and made them parade around the dormitory. The other boys laughed, Meyer said, until it happened to them. “I was too small to laugh at anyone,” he told me.

“I was scared of being bashed up.” The food was often rotten, and when Meyer threw up, after eating weevil-ridden porridge, he was forced to eat his own vomit. Punishments included floggings and being made to scrub the verandah tiles with a toothbrush, but the most feared was being locked in the small cupboard under the stairs. Boys were shut in with no food or water, and they soiled themselves until they were released. They never spoke, Meyer said. “We held hands.”

When prospective foster parents visited, the boys lined up along the verandah to be inspected. Meyer was fostered out eight times, and each time he was given two suitcases of new clothes to wear. When he arrived at the foster home, the family would take Meyer’s clothes for their own child, always coincidentally the same size as him. When he returned to Royleston, the gates would squeal and the matron would meet him at the front door. “It frightened the living Jesus out of me,” Meyer said, “because I knew what I was in for.”

On his final foster placement at nine, Meyer was sent to an old lady at Wentworthville. When she enrolled him at the local school, he found out his birthday for the first time. Everyone at the school knew Meyer was a ward because the assistant principal made him and another boy stand up as he said to the class, “They are under child welfare because their mothers never loved them.” During arithmetic one day, Meyer told me, the man “lost the plot completely”. He said, “Geoff Meyer, stand up. I want you to sing a song. I want you to sing ‘I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen’.” But Meyer rebelled – “I said ‘No!’” – so the teacher slammed the young boy’s head into the wall. For years, Meyer had migraines and his head twitched uncontrollably. When it jerked hard towards his shoulder, the other students laughed at him.

Most of Meyer’s foster mothers beat him. The last one whipped him with horse reins but when he showed the welts to government inspectors, they told him he was a liar. After school, he trained as a motor mechanic, then took off for the city, taking 24 pounds and 18 shillings, the clothes he was wearing, a tennis racquet and a cricket bat. He had no friends, acquaintances or family that he knew of. He had no idea how to find a job or a place to stay, but he did know when he was born. He ran away on 10 May 1954, his 18th birthday.

*

Known officially as ‘Forgotten Australians’ but among themselves as ‘care leavers’ or ‘homies’, children were incarcerated in large group homes until the 1980s in Australia. A 2004 Senate inquiry estimated that at least 500,000 children were placed in institutional care last century. While many have since died, often from drug- and alcohol-related causes, the homies who remain are a significant, living demographic. Most homies are now between 45 and 90 years old, and many built careers in institutions, like the navy, in nursing, or in the religious orders that ran their homes. Some homies are visibly successful, like the former Democrats Senator Andrew Murray, who was a British child migrant sent to Zimbabwe (he later immigrated to Australia). The last three people to be hanged in Australia were homies.

Using testimony from over 500 homies and care-leaver experts, the 2004 inquiry produced the dense but vivid ‘Forgotten Australians’ report. It was the first government document to fully lay out the experience and legacy of institutional home life and, along with Joanna Penglase’s book Orphans of the Living and a small set of other studies, it paints a disturbing and disorienting picture. One in three homies have attempted suicide, and many have experienced homelessness. There is a well-worn path from children’s homes to jail. One survey found that 65% of Victoria’s female prison population are care leavers. Homies have a high incidence of mental illness. They suffer ailments, like arthritis and ligament damage from hours on their knees scrubbing floors. Many have dental issues because their teeth were not looked after, and hearing loss from being ‘boxed on the ears’. Some female homies clean their houses obsessively. Most homies are noticeably short (usually attributed to malnutrition). They live in terror of old people’s homes, yet a number of them end up with their own children in care. One homie traced five generations of wards in his family, beginning with a young male ancestor who spent time in a former prison hulk turned orphanage in 1865.

For a long time, homies were ignored, but in the last ten years there has been a growing awareness of how they suffered. Most state governments have issued apologies, and after making the federal government’s first apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008, Kevin Rudd, along with then Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull, apologised to the Forgotten Australians on 16 November 2009. As Rudd spoke about the endemic humiliation and sexual violation of children in homes, he addressed a large audience of care leavers at Parliament House. Many of them were members of the Care Leavers Australia Network (CLAN), an organisation founded in 2000 by Leonie Sheedy and Joanna Penglase. Without CLAN and a few other small advocacy groups, as well as Andrew Murray who initiated the Senate inquiry, it’s unlikely that either the inquiry or the federal apology would have happened.

On the day it was delivered, the apology meant a lot to homies. Many told me the best part was Turnbull’s speech, all quoting the same line: “We believe you.” But for all its symbolism, the apology has meant little since. While Australians are now familiar with the Stolen Generations and British child migrants (Rudd apologised to former child migrants on the same day as Forgotten Australians), many still have no idea that these two groups are a fraction of the 500,000 children who were parted from their families and incarcerated in the same homes together. Certainly, Australians today know that terrible things sometimes happened to children in ‘homes’, but they don’t know that for decades most homes operated in totalitarian ways, complete with mental and physical torture, starvation and solitary confinement.

Many homies are trying to retrieve basic information about their identities and their childhoods before they were placed in homes. Most Australians live their lives firmly embedded in a web of information. They know where they were born. They know whether their parents liked each other. They know what it looks like when an adult brushes their teeth. They belong to interconnected groups, like a family, a neighbourhood, a religion, and they have experiences that constantly reinforce what they know. Together, these bits and the threads that bind them add up to an incalculably crucial body of information, providing not only a medical history but a sense of self. It’s almost impossible for most of us to imagine not knowing these facts about ourselves, and yet this information was systematically taken from children in twentieth-century Australia. Even now, in the wake of Rudd’s apology, much of it has not been given back.

When I spoke to Sheedy, she said CLAN is now pursuing unprecedented actions. This year, they submitted a complaint to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. Later this month, Sheedy will travel to New York and deliver an application to the UN Committee Against Torture. It will be the first made by Australian-born citizens against our state and federal governments. Going outside Australia may be CLAN’s best bet. Within their own country, the homies – long ago plucked from the world the rest of us live in – are somehow still invisible. “You talk to the middle classes,” Sheedy said to me. “Do they know about us?” I was pretty sure they didn’t.

*

Australia’s first institution for children was founded on Norfolk Island in 1795. Most states had them by the 1850s, and for the next 130 years they stretched out like dark peninsulas, unchanged in many ways by the democracy around them. By the 1950s, there were over 600 homes, most sealed off from the surrounding communities, many with high walls.

Children were placed in homes because calamities had befallen their families. They lost their fathers to war or their mothers to illness. They were given up because they were disabled, their parents were divorced or their mothers were single. Some parents believed they were ensuring a better life for their kids by placing them in an orphanage or a small privately run home. Some children were surrendered by parents who didn’t want them, or they were taken from parents who were addicts or paedophiles. Many care leavers tell stories about being taken by strangers in the middle of the night: some fled out the back door as men grabbed their siblings. The most common characteristics of care-leavers’ families were poverty and a lack of support.

There were few celebrations in institutions, no birthdays, and little news from the outside world. Some children attended the local school but wore special clothes that made it clear where they were from. Some were schooled inside the institution and never left the grounds. Many homies were not taught to read or write or do basic maths. Illness was often ignored if it wasn’t completely debilitating, and an unknown number of children died of treatable diseases. Care leavers from all over Australia tell vividly similar stories about floggings, punches to the face, forced labour and emotional torment. Children were forced to hit each other and put into solitary confinement for days at a time. In some homes, they were not allowed to look one another in the eye. Their names were arbitrarily changed. It was common for them to be addressed only by a number.

Until the 1970s, hundreds of children in homes were subject to medical experimentation, some with substances that had failed safety tests in animals. At the Broadmeadows Babies’ Home, babies were injected with a trial herpes vaccine, and then with herpes. The vaccine failed, all the babies contracted herpes, and another eight children in a control group caught the virus from the intentionally infected babies. The Catholic Sisters of St Joseph who ran the home did not record when or whether the babies recovered. On entering and leaving Parramatta Girls’ Training School, girls were ritualistically examined by a doctor who was known to generations as ‘Dr Finger’. I spoke to four men who spent time at the Salvation Army Bayswater Boys’ Home, in periods from the 1930s up to the 1960s. All were molested. “I just didn’t know what was happening,” one told me, recalling the time he woke up one night to find a man in his bed.

Home staff were expert at placing children in no-win situations, and then punishing them as if they had control over the outcome. At the Ballarat Orphanage in Victoria, boys lined up to have their shoes inspected. If a boy’s heels were worn away, he was beaten. Children were blamed for falling ill. In homes all over Australia, night after night, children who wet the bed were sent to bed the following night with no protective garments or access to a toilet. At the Goodwood Catholic Orphanage in Adelaide, one girl let her younger sister jump into bed with her so that when the little girl peed, only the older sister would be punished.

Many homies told me that while some carers had been kind, they usually didn’t last in the job. As awful as the abuse was, it was the absence of affection that was most devastating. When children entered institutions, they went from a place where they were at least claimed, and in many cases loved by adults. Frank Golding, an ex-resident of the Ballarat Orphanage, told me that children showed each other pictures of their ‘mothers’, which in reality were photos cut from magazines.

In many homes, staff controlled every connection children had with the outside world. When children were moved to another institution, as they often were, no one explained why. At Bidura, one girl entered with her three-year-old brother and woke one morning to find he was gone. No one told her where. Staff confiscated letters, and children were told their parents were dead when they weren’t, or that they never wanted to see them again when they did. At St Catherine’s Girls Orphanage in Geelong, Ann Kendall didn’t know she had any family until the day she and a younger girl were called into the head nun’s office and introduced to a man and a woman. “This is your new mum and dad,” Kendall was told. The nun told her that the visitors had adopted her and also, indicating the small girl, her sister. “My sister?” she said.

*

Meyer told me that, not long after he ran away to Sydney, “I started to get it into my brain to find out if I had any family.” He guessed that the best place to look was the Department of Child Welfare. “I’m a state ward,” he told a young man at the local office. “I’m looking to see if I’ve got a mother and father.” The young man went into another room, and after five minutes he returned and said, “I think you might have a sister.” He disappeared again. Then an older man came out and said to Meyer, “I think you had better leave.” Meyer thought he had misunderstood. “I think you had better leave,” the old man repeated. “No,” said Meyer. They argued back and forth, the old man dismissing Meyer with no explanation and Meyer refusing to budge. Then the older man told him, “Get out or I’ll call the fucking police.” Meyer left, asking himself why he was always in trouble.

He found work, and one day on the train, where young women cadged cigarettes off the working lads, he met a girl called Marion and gave her his whole pack. They were married and had four children and, as the years passed, 11 grandchildren. Meyer never told any of them that he had been a state ward. When his children asked him about his childhood, he changed the subject. But when he retired, he started to go to the state records offices to see what he could find. Even then, he didn’t tell his wife. “It felt very, very private,” he told me. He found his birth certificate and discovered that his mother was Maisie Aileen Meyer and his father was Leo Joseph Meyer, an American sailor. There was no information about why he was made a state ward and no record of contact from his parents after it happened.

As he looked for records about his life and family, Meyer was told different things by different departments. Some officials were good to him. Others clearly didn’t care. One said his information had been lost in a flood. Another said it was a fire. He went and looked at files in the records offices but had to insist that he was legally entitled to a copy. When he received copies, they took months to get to him and there were papers missing from the sets he had seen. The files also included information that he was not supposed to see, like the names and addresses of all his foster parents.

When Meyer’s wife was at work one day, he tracked down one of his foster mothers, a Mrs Little of Bexley. Meyer had stayed with her from 1941 to 1943. “She was the only one who ever showed me love,” he said. “Not a hug or anything like that, but she never hit me.” She told Meyer that the only reason she gave him back was because she was summoned to make submarine nets for the war effort. “She gave me a picture, God bless her,” Meyer said. “It was me with her son – the only photo I ever had of me as a child.”

When he was 68, Meyer saw a newspaper notice seeking state wards. He responded, and shortly after ended up at the CLAN head office in Sydney with Leonie Sheedy. “She started talking to me, and I talked, and then the more I talked the more she was getting out of me, and I had never talked like this before.” When Meyer left Sheedy that day, he felt extraordinary. “I felt like Superman walking in the air,” he told me. “I felt like Jesus Christ walking on the water.” Meyer’s conversation with Sheedy reframed his life. “I thought I was the reason all that stuff happened,” he told me. “All that time, I thought it was only happening to me, but it was happening all over the place.” When he got home that day, he told his wife about his experience at CLAN. She asked him, “What really went on in your life?” So he began to tell her, too.

*

When Meyer first spoke to Sheedy in 2004, she had heard hundreds of homies’ tales. By the time I caught up with her on a drizzly May morning on the steps of Victoria’s Parliament House, she had heard 11,000. Sheedy, who entered St Catherine’s Girls’ Orphanage in Geelong when she was three, runs at a very high wattage. She was bright and full of warmth before a small group of homies on the steps, who were staging their regular silent protest to raise awareness. (Later, I watched sparks fly as she spoke on the phone to a government worker). CLAN now has members all over Australia and in a handful of other countries. Their newsletter classifieds read like ads for former selves: “Michael would like to get in touch with anyone that remembers him in Renwick in the 1950s”; “If anyone can remember my nickname Debbie Wobble Head from the Ballarat Children’s Home, it would be nice to have some contact.”

The challenge for homies, said Sheedy, is not just dealing with the events of their childhood but the way they are treated today. They want, like any other Australian, to have information about themselves and their family – or its proxy – and all the power that such knowledge brings. Yet there are enormous obstacles to getting this. Homies’ records are scattered throughout each state, held by government records offices and by the separate religious institutions that housed children. Government departments may take years to respond to a single records request. Many records were destroyed, but there’s little clarity about what was lost and what was never kept in the first place. There’s no central organising body, and most homies need professional-grade archivist skills to find and understand the documents. They distrust bureaucracy, and while it is intimidating enough to enter a neutral institution like a public records office, many must return to the very organisations that mistreated them and ask nicely for information. Two homies told me that for years they would look for any excuse to abandon their journey to the records office.

Many files are undated, sloppy or incorrect. There is no consistency in how files are searched for or delivered, either. When Joan Finn called the Department of Human Services to make a Freedom of Information request for her personal records, they checked while she was on the phone, and told her, “Yes, we have hundreds of pages on you, Joan.” When she got there, no one could find anything. In the end she was sent five pages. The over-zealous application of privacy laws means that many care leavers receive files with their missing siblings’ names redacted, even though it was the government who made them disappear them in the first place. One homie received a photo of a children’s party with all the little faces at the table whited out, except for his own.

The challenge of finding records is compounded by the fact that the information they contain is traumatic. “People get rotten drunk in order to read their files,” Sheedy told me. In the ‘Forgotten Australians’ report, one woman described opening her files at home alone, and being committed to a psychiatric ward a week later. For some homies the experience is positive, but many feel so stigmatised they don’t tell anyone their story until late in life, let alone try to find the missing pieces. It’s hard to talk to anyone, especially an uninterested government official or a Catholic nun.

Many personal records bear witness to the disdain with which institutionalised children were regarded. Leonie Sheedy’s records said she was “mentally slow”. Vlad Selakovic’s file pegged him as an 11-year-old “no-hoper”. For these reasons, some homies do not want their records. “I respect their decision not to open that wound,” Sheedy said. Others put the files in a cupboard and never look at them.

Support for homies who are seeing their records for the first time has improved, said Sheedy, but there is a long way to go. She introduced me to Ivy Getchell, who spent years inside the Parramatta Girls’ Training School, an old convict prison, where leg irons and wristbands protruded from the walls. Getchell, who was called ‘55’ at Parramatta, went searching in 2004 at the age of 71 for information at the NSW Department of Community Services. She found a file of letters from her father that she didn’t know existed. He wrote:

 

Ivy, my little mate, for Christ’s sake answer my letters. Let me know where you are. I will come and bring you home. We miss you and love you. We have a nice house now up at old Kelly’s place near Mount Bathhurst. You will remember it. Ivy, I have a job. I can help you. Please let me know where you are.

 

Getchell was devastated. She asked the DoCS staff if she could continue reading the next day but they said they were too busy. She was told to come back in a week.

*

I first met Meyer at the Sydney CLAN office in April. He was courtly and jokey, and he called me “mate” a lot. When he opened the big front gate for me, he lifted it so it wouldn’t squeal. At 76, he is not tall, with a Fair Isle jumper and slicked-down hair. He looks like anyone’s granddad. His wife died three years ago, but he keeps active on the CLAN committee and mows the lawn to help out. Since he left Royleston, he hasn’t eaten any vegetables except spinach, which wasn’t served there. He watches people on the streets, wondering how many of them were once wards, and, for reasons he cannot explain, he really loves the song ‘I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen’.

We looked at his files, a reasonably thick wedge of paper. The first thing he showed me was his intermediate school certificate. He had to pay to get a copy, but at least he now has something to show his grandchildren. There is a state inspector’s report from when he was ten – a year after he was attacked by his teacher – that describes him as an overanxious worrier. There is only one record from before this time, with nothing about the assault or the ensuing years of medical treatment. For Meyer, the missing files would be proof of an otherwise invisible life, but he also wants them so he can sue the NSW government for compensation.

Still, the likelihood of finding them is remote. Victoria’s ombudsman, George Brouwer, revealed in March that the government has committed hundreds of breaches of records management legislation. He found that the Department of Human Services was in possession of 80 kilometres of care-leaver’s files, most of them uncatalogued. Some are stored in basements with dripping water and rat infestations, some are marked for destruction. The Freedom of Information Act gives care leavers the right to their records, but information that hasn’t been indexed can never truly be free. The situation is similar in New South Wales, where thousands of boxes are held in storage and no one is sure of their contents. While a small handful of dedicated archivists are working feverishly to understand the records so they can help homies to access them, they are on short-term contracts. The federal government recently contributed a small amount to help non-government organisations index their files, and different states have earmarked funds to solve the records problem, but it’s hardly enough.

Many archivists do not believe governments are serious about helping care leavers to find their personal records. If they were, one archivist told me, “an enormous amount could be done really fast”. As it is, no state government can say with any confidence that it has found all the records it holds for any one ward. Homies suspect the governments are suppressing files to avoid being sued. Maybe they are, but continuing to do what they are doing achieves the same ends.

Records are a problem in all states, but at least some offer compensation to care leavers. Angela Sdrinis, a Melbourne lawyer who has been consulted by more than a thousand former wards, describes this kind of redress as a non-adversarial process that accepts what happened to care leavers. New South Wales and Victoria offer support services but no redress. Victims must litigate, a traumatic process that is full of legal loopholes. How can you prove someone assaulted you behind closed doors 50 years ago? How can you beat the 25-year statute of limitations when you have post-traumatic stress disorder and were never taught to write? (Similarly, many Australian religious orders that ran homes have made general apologies to homies, but fight individual cases. Some of them have changed their legal status more than once so that litigation cannot be brought against them.)

Care leavers are calling for a Royal Commission, which is the only kind of inquiry that can force witnesses, on threat of jail, to hand over documentation and to testify. So far, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania have either held lesser inquiries or offered redress. The possibility of a Victorian inquiry was raised in the state parliament in 2011, but MP Andrea Coote – in a perfectly constructed catch-22 – said that one of the reasons the government should not have a formal inquiry was because the government records are too hard to find. She also said: “Will they be happy with another inquiry? Is it going to make their lives better now? I do not think so.” This year, in response to overwhelming evidence about the suicides of victims of paedophile priests, Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu finally announced an inquiry, which may cover cases of sexual abuse in institutions run by religious orders. Baillieu has appointed Coote to the inquiry.

The problems of records and redress are not unique to Australia. In the last 20 years, many Western nations have dealt with the aftermath of child institutionalisation. The governments of Ireland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany and others have offered redress, with the maximum payout in Ireland being $513,000. By contrast, the Australian federal government offers no redress, and the maximum state payout in Australia is $40,000. Queensland compensated children who were assaulted in state homes, but not those who were assaulted in foster care. Tasmania excluded children whose parents voluntarily gave them up.

*

Of the few bright spots in this picture, one is remarkably bright. Over the last two years, out of the chaos of lost, withheld and redacted files, a team in Melbourne have been building a map for the lost children of twentieth-century Australia to retrace their steps. Archivists, historians and social workers have worked with care leavers to create a website that is not quite encyclopaedia or wiki but, as Gavan McCarthy, director of the eScholarship Research Centre at the University of Melbourne, told me, “an entirely new genre”. The Find and Connect website is a curated site where care leavers can learn about the history of the institutions they were in, the legislation that shaped their lives, and where they can connect with other care leavers. There are links to homie podcasts at the National Library of Australia, archival photographs of homes, and connections to support services.

Find and Connect began in Victoria and since receiving $26.5 million in federal funding is being introduced all over the country. So far, the site has had 68,000 unique visitors, and the team continues to survey how homies use it. Often counsellors at support services have Find and Connect open on their desktops when they talk to care leavers. Crucially, the site has been built with the participation of homies, and it will continue to evolve as information is added. Over the last few months, for example, the entry for Royleston has included links to oral histories and publications by men who spent time there, and a link to all of the relevant submissions to the 2004 Senate inquiry. One submission describes the practice of locking boys under the stairs at Royleston in the mid ’60s, more than two decades after Meyer lived there. Before Find and Connect was built, there was very little information available about Royleston or any other institutions.

The last time I saw Meyer, he walked me through the CLAN National Orphanage Museum. It is a room filled with care-leaver artefacts, much of it valuable only because it bore witness to lives that no one else was watching (a rusty nail from a Tasmanian orphanage, a green jumper from a Geelong home, a child’s prayer book with the inscription, “In case of accident or severe illness, notify nearest Catholic Priest”). He told me that he had discovered through Ancestry.com that his father had returned to the United States. Later, his mother and another man also set sail for America. Their ship berthed in California, and there the trail went cold. Meyer wondered for a long time whether he had a sister, but he never found a trace. He now believes the young man at the records office got the spelling of his name wrong.

Meyer told me he’d had three heart attacks but he always woke up happy – “Another day!” He would keep looking for his files. What he wanted to know most of all was whether he’d been surrendered or taken. If he’d been surrendered, he reasoned, maybe the person who’d turned him in was a relative. Maybe it was a sister of his mother, maybe she had children, too, and maybe he had more family. Still, he said, “I’m 76. How long do I have to find out?”

About the author Christine Kenneally
Christine Kenneally is the author of The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language. She has written for the New Yorker, the New York Times, Slate and New Scientist.
@chriskenneally