Canberra has finally apologised for the terrible abuses suffered by British children in Australian institutions. NICK BYRANT and NAOMI PARRY report.
BEFORE being shipped out to Britain’s distant dominion, many of the children were told their parents were dead, and that a more abundant life awaited them in Australia.
Most were deported without the consent of their parents, and commonly, mothers and fathers were led to believe that their children had been adopted somewhere in Britain.
On arrival in Australia, the policy was to separate brothers and sisters.
And many of the young children ended up in what felt like labour camps, where they were physically, psychologically and often sexually abused.
In testimony before a British parliamentary committee in the late 1990s, one boy spoke of the criminal abuse he was subjected at the hands of Catholic priests at Tardun in Western Australia.
A number of Christian brothers competed between themselves to see who could rape him 100 times first, the boy said.
They liked his blue eyes, so he repeatedly beat himself in the hope they would change colour.
As parliamentarians reflected at the time, the term “sexual abuse” seemed wholly inadequate given the awfulness of his experience.
On Nov 16, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered a national apology to a group known as the “Forgotten Australians”.
In so doing, he recognised, on behalf of the Australian Government, the ongoing suffering of some 500,000 people held in orphanages or children’s homes between 1930 and 1970.
At the same time, Rudd also apologised to some 7,000 child migrants from Britain who live still in Australia – castaways of the empire.
The Australian Government viewed them as ideal young immigrants – a popular slogan at the time was “the child, the best immigrant”.
The British Government saw them as a burden on the state, and was happy to see them go.
Sandra Anker was sent to Australia in 1950 aged just six years old – or “exiled”, as she prefers to think of it.
She thought she was being sent to Africa, part of a wild adventure, but she ended up in Melbourne.
“I spent years waiting for someone to realise they had made a mistake and to come and collect me,” she said. “I was at a loose end for a very long time.”
Crying as she spoke, she says she was deprived of a childhood and a homeland.
“It took years and years of misery of not knowing where we’d come from, who were, being denied our birthright of being British.
“It’s really been horrendous. And I wouldn’t wish it on anyone … We need to be welcomed back to our homeland.”
For 10 years, national attention was focussed on the Howard government’s failure to apologise to the Stolen Generations, whose treatment was condemned by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission’s Bringing Them Home report in 1997.
But in that time there were three Senate inquiries into the harshness of life in government and religious institutions for children and child migration schemes:
* Lost Innocents – Righting the Record (2001);
* Forgotten Australians: A Report on Australians who experienced institutional or out-of-home care as children (2004); and
* Lost Innocents and Forgotten Australians Revisited (2009).
The Howard government’s lack of recognition of these reports was, at least, consistent with its broad approach to righting past wrongs.
However, as we know, Rudd wasted little time in apologising to the Stolen Generations early last year.
That moving, wonderful day was justly celebrated.
But, as Frank Golding, vice-president of Care Leavers Australia Network, told the 2009 Senate Inquiry, for many care leavers the apology “brought tears that there had been an acknowledgement for those people, but it also brought tears of the other sort: ‘Why not us’?”
Indeed, why not – and why has it taken so long?
As late as Nov 12, the Sydney Morning Herald was reporting that Rudd had not told care leavers what he was going to say.
They were resigned to the knowledge that the words said to them would not stop the nation, as did the national apology to the Stolen Generations, and that the speeches would be delivered in Federal Parliament’s Great Hall, not the House of Representatives itself.
But why should anyone who has lived through these systems be made to feel they are second best?
Governments and churches presented their systems of fostering and their institutions as beacons of hope and engines of social reform, which would rescue children from the neglect, criminality and profligacy of their families and make them worthy citizens.
Yet darker stories bubble up from the records.
Inquiries into state institutions in NSW found stories of routine abuse that reflect a profoundly sick system.
Girls had their heads shaved so roughly they lost chunks of scalp, and were thrashed with birch sticks for losing clothes pegs.
Girls in the Parramatta Industrial School spoke of being slapped daily and made to “stand out”, upright with their arms extended behind their backs, for hours, until they could barely breathe.
At Mt Penang and Yanco, boys were made to stand on the rims of giant coppers to stir boiling laundry, and were punished by being locked in a room with older boys who were wearing boxing gloves.
Girls became pregnant within the walls of institutions that were supposed to protect them from moral danger and superintendents complained they were unable to protect boys from the sexual predation of other inmates due to overcrowding and poor facilities.
There is more than enough evidence of similar abuses in the religious and charitable institutions that cared for up to half of all children who were raised in out-of-home care.
And, in much of Australia, these were the same institutions the Stolen Generations were sent to.
Some parents were neglectful and removal did save some children’s lives, but, on the whole, families were rarely to blame for the circumstances that led to the loss of their children.