As a youngster I entered a boys’ home. It freaked me out. And I was only a day visitor, accompanied by my parents.
As a criminology student, I spent a day at an institution for “troubled, at risk and criminal” girls. That made a big impression too. It was one thing locking up convicted young offenders. It was another incarcerating kids who were having problems at home in order to “protect them”.
As a journalist, I covered parts of the national inquiry into the indigenous Stolen Generations. Many of these traumatic stories involved children placed into similar orphanages and institutions. The grief involved in witnessing and reporting these stories was intense. When our nation finally apologised to the Stolen Generations I cried.
Today Australia’s Federal Parliament apologised to the ‘Forgotten Australians’ – other so-called “care-leavers” or survivors of foster homes, orphanages and other state care institutions. Some of these are adults completely disconnected from their families and communities of origin due to their forced removal from the UK as children.
The common theme of many of the Forgotten Australians’ stories, in the words of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, is a childhood characterised by “a lack of love”.
He cited the story of Gary, a survivor who, when asked to write down his personal experiences of growing up in boys’ homes, replied: “What am I going to write down? You can’t put tears on paper.”
I have a personal connection to a “care-leaver”. She is a tiny lady in stature but a giant, tough and inspiring in so many ways. She sees this apology as a positive step, albeit one that will have little or no impact on her life today. If compensation for the things she experienced follows, I reckon she’d use it to improve the lives of her grandchildren and other young people she works with.
She told me stories of getting in trouble from the nuns who ran the orphanage she grew up in. One of the punishments was to kneel beside a nun’s bed for hours at a time. If she dozed off and her forehead touched the bed, the penalty was increased.
She also told of doing the nuns’ washing and being ordered to place their wet socks flat under her bedsheets to dry them with her body heat during the night.
Children in the home were played off against each other, with older girls taking on the role of disciplinarians, in order to save themselves from harsh punishments from the nuns. She remembers these treacherous older girls with even greater passion than the nuns.
When a nation makes an apology such as we have today, there are always people who say, “I didn’t do it. I’m not saying sorry.” This type of ignorance holds us back. You might not personally have abused a child in your care but culturally, as a nation, we treated ‘welfare kids’ as lesser beings. Our nation endorsed Dickensian policies that, intentionally or otherwise, had the effect of starving these kids of love.
Excising love from a childhood is the worst theft of all. That’s why I’m glad we’ve made the effort to say sorry. It’s a small step but a vital one. By admitting an error, we’re less likely to repeat it.
The apology is also a reminder that storytelling can change the world.