No child should grow up like this

For much of the past two centuries, our eyes, ears and hearts were firmly shut to the abuses inflicted on an unknown number of children who lived in orphanages and other institutions in Australia. With rare exception, those who spoke up about their experiences were ignored, silenced or not believed by governments, churches or the community at large.

The past two decades have seen important, if belated, attempts to recognise how adults were impacted by the experience of being raised in children’s institutions and other out-of-home care settings. In 2007, the Australian Government issued a national apology to the Stolen Generation, that is, to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were forcibly removed from their families and placed in institutions or other types of out-of-home care.

In 2009, the Australian Government issued another national apology, this time to ‘Forgotten Australians’ and former Child Migrants, the estimated 500,000 people who, as children, were placed in orphanages and other institutions during the 20th century. The Australian Government also established programs to assist Forgotten Australians and former Child Migrants, including better access to information and to connect with support services.

Subsequently, many State and Territory Governments and organisations that ran institutions issued apologies and some initiated support programs. In 2012, the Australian Government established the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse to examine historical abuse in institutions.

For much of the past two centuries, our eyes, ears and hearts were firmly shut to the abuses inflicted on an unknown number of children

In this context, of better understanding the consequences for adults of childhood institutionalisation, it was wonderful to see this week’s launch of the Long-term Outcomes of Forgotten Australians Study, entitled No child should grow up like this: identifying long term outcomes for Forgotten Australians, Child Migrants and the Stolen Generation.

The study was undertaken by the University of New South Wales in association with a range of partners, including Families Australia, the Association of Children’s Welfare Agencies, and the Alliance for Forgotten Australians.

The Long-term Outcomes of Forgotten Australians Study is the first national research project of its type in Australia and makes a major contribution to understanding the experiences of Forgotten Australians, former Child Migrants and members of the Stolen Generation.

It offers important practical messages to policymakers, service delivery organisations and researchers about supports that these adult cohorts are likely to need, particularly in later life.

It shows clearly, for example, the wide range of adverse consequences that arose from a lack of suitable or appropriate screening, training and oversight in the period between 1930 and 1970. A number of case studies cited in the report show that many children and young people undertook inappropriate hard labour, the consequence of which has been early onset ageing, as well as significant levels of physical pain and injury throughout adulthood.

Despite these early adversities, some of the participants recounted their methods of coping with the harsh environments in which they grew up and their varied pathways towards resilience and making sense of their childhood and their place in the world.

If there is an overwhelming message from this study to policymakers, service deliverers and the community, perhaps it is this: listen with renewed care and compassion to those who lived in children’s institutions and then—in the sharpest possible contrast to the collectivising spirit that characterised the institutions in which they lived—let each determine what they need from us to have the best possible lives.

The philosopher George Santayana famously wrote ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’. Accepting Santayana’s statement, taking time to carefully and honestly learn from past mistakes is vitally important for human advancement.

By hearing directly from those who lived in institutions, this study reminds us to keep questioning our goals, motivations, methods, and the likely effects of our decisions, especially when they relate to children experiencing vulnerability.

Dr Brian Babington

14 December 2016