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Forgotten Australians: Forgotten report?

The story of white Australian children growing up in care has not been told, and, until last year's Senate Inquiry, effectively unacknowledged. Until the 70s, tens of thousands of Australian children were legally and illegally placed in institutions, many Church run. Such places were bereft of the love and nurturing so crucial to becoming functional adults. An estimated 150,000 babies were forcibly adopted out under coersive welfare practices that were, even then, against the law.

by Tony Smith

It is one of those Orwellian ironies that we continue to use terms like 'care' to describe the harmful treatment of children institutionalised in former decades. In 2003, the Senate Committee on Community Affairs began an inquiry into the treatment of children who, like the 'Stolen Generations' of indigenous children, were removed from their homes and placed into institutions. Some of those institutions were run by state welfare agencies but many were run by churches, including the Catholic Church.

There were emotional scenes in 2004 as the Committee tabled its first report, Forgotten Australians. Senators from all parties were deeply affected by the testimonies they had heard of abuse and neglect, and of subsequent depression and despair. The Committee then heard more evidence to ascertain what actions could and should be taken by government and non-government agencies to ease the burdens resulting from the victims' trauma. The second report, Protecting Vulnerable Children: A National Challenge, was submitted in March 2005.

Over the last two decades, Australian Governments have not had majority numbers in the Senate. Consequently, a strong committee system was established to scrutinise policy and bills. Often the representation of Government, Opposition and Cross benchers meant that Committees proceeded rationally and worked in a less partisan atmosphere than prevailed in the House of Representatives. It will be interesting to see whether that difference survives in a few weeks when the new Senators-elect take their seats, giving the Government a majority.

Governments have tended to dismiss Senate inquiries as partisan, and so have not always implemented their recommendations. The Senate managed to pass a resolution that the Government, through the relevant Minister, should give a formal response to reports within reasonable time. Needless to say, the Government will not be rushed and seldom meets these deadlines.

Senate reports are useful sources of material for scholars researching any area of administration. The Committees hold hearings in capital cities and sometimes beyond to maximise accessibility. Because individual witnesses and organisations either volunteer testimony or are called to provide expert evidence in person or by written submission, the lists of attendees reads like a 'Who's Who' of specialised groups interested in the area. The submissions are generally available as a Hansard transcript and so are covered by parliamentary privilege. The Committee received some 537 submissions, including a handful from church agencies. A few were from Catholic organisations, including Catholic Welfare Australia (ACT) and Centacare Sydney (NSW).

Readers interested in gaining a direct, detailed and authoritative account of proceedings should look at the (Committee on Community Affairs Report into Children in Care). Its recommendations provide a focus for action. As the Committee has undertaken careful research, deliberated over its findings and managed to form some specific plans for the future, the recommendations have some authority, credibility and objectivity. For an advocacy group, being able to cite these findings is a great advantage. At the very least, they demand a response.

Key recommendations of the first report relate to education, support and administration, especially for children with disabilities. The second emphasises acknowledgment of abuse and an apology, removal of the statute of limitations, incorporation of agencies to facilitate actions against them and establishment of a reparation fund. Some recommendations target church agencies directly and make strong demands on the grievance processes they should establish.

The Committee has noted that the great era of child removal from families has long gone. This means that the statute of limitations prevents many individuals from seeking legal enforcement of compensation claims. Their only real hope then, is that some institutions might decide voluntarily that they have a moral obligation to help repair the damage. Clearly, this is a matter of admitting that the institutions have inherited the shame that accrued to those who caused the damage of the past. Note that we are talking here about shame, not guilt.

For those who find the distinction difficult to grasp, Raimond Gaita in his Quarterly essay Breach of Trust: Truth, Morality and Politics, makes the difference plain in relation to aspects of colonial history and treatment of Indigenous peoples: One can rationally feel guilty only for what one has done or neglected to do. One can rightly feel shame, however, for what one has been caught up in even though one did nothing for which one could rationally feel guilty. One can feel shame for the deeds of one's family, or one's church, one's people or one's nation.

To their credit, the Catholic Bishops Conference established a task force to monitor the proceedings of the Senate Committee and react to it. On 14 December 2004, the Bishops noted the courage of the victims who came forward to testify and said that [we are] deeply regretful for the hurt caused whenever the Church's response has denied or minimised the pain that victims have experienced. And we regret the hurt and distress caused the many good people who have worked in this area.

Following the second report, the Bishops Conference pledged (19 May 2005) to ensure that the Church 'continue and strengthen its pastoral response to the needs of care leavers' (See here). This latter response seems slightly weaker than its predecessor. Given the admissions about inadequate responses in the earlier statement, it is to be hoped that the emphasis will fall on the strengthening rather than simply continuing in similar vein. This is an area in which positive action needs to be taken before it is forced upon us by bitter legal processes.

All Catholics should expect and encourage our church leaders towards compassionate and principled actions that will help lift this residual shame from our collective shoulders and consciences. The process might not be easy, but the challenge is clear and our response to these legally powerless victims of institutional neglect should be generous. It should not be a case of us deciding when we have done enough to satisfy them. We need to continue offering until their needs are met.

Dr Tony Smith is a political scientist with a special interest in parliamentary matters. He is a Catholic layperson who lives in country New South Wales. His opinion pieces ad reviews have appeared in numerous publications including Australian Quarterly, Australian Book Review, the Australian Review of Public Affairs, the Journal of Australian Studies Review of Books and New Matilda.

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